Since starting out as a special makeup effects artist on George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead in 1985, Greg Nicotero has not only been a leading pioneer in his field but, during the past decade, has also taken on the roles of executive producer and director on one of the most successful horror TV series of all time, The Walking Dead, along with its spin-offs.
Last year, Nicotero became a showrunner as well, executive producing Creepshow, a six-episode horror anthology series for the Shudder streaming service inspired by the classic 1982 movie written by Stephen King and directed by Romero. In the spirit of the movie, Creepshow’s tone and format echoed that of the iconic EC horror comics that King and Romero honored with their film, with each episode of the show featuring two self-contained short tales.
In addition to writing and directing several episodes himself, Nicotero recruited well-known genre directors like David Bruckner (The Ritual), Roxanne Benjamin (Body at Brighton Rock) and the legendary Tom Savini. The stories were either written by or adapted from works from many notable genre authors, including King, Joe Hill, Josh Malerman, David J. Schow, Paul Dini and Joe Lansdale, while the cast featured Tobin Bell (Saw), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Bruce Davison (X-Men), David Arquette (Scream), Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica) and original Creepshow star Adrienne Barbeau.
With Creepshow: Season 1 arriving on Blu-ray and DVD this week (it’s already on Digital HD), Den of Geek recently got on the phone with Nicotero, who revealed among other things that Season 2 was just about to start shooting when the COVID-19 shutdown began. In addition to that, we discussed the Stephen King story that almost got filmed before King’s “Gray Matter” was tapped as the show’s premiere offering, his overall thoughts on how Season 1 went and the future of The Walking Dead, which had yet to complete its Season 10 finale before the quarantine began.
(Note: this interview was conducted earlier in the pandemic and before the current unrest.)
Den of Geek: How are you holding up during all this? Are you hanging in there?
Greg Nicotero: Yeah. I mean, we were one day away from shooting Creepshow season 2 when the big pause button got pushed. So, we were ready to go. We’re just waiting for the word to get back out in the world again.
Would you think it’s better to pause before shooting starts, or in the middle of shooting? What do you think is more drastic?
Well, we had such good momentum going into it that it was probably better to pause it right before, only because then it would be like you’d have half the show shot. But I was really, really, really pleased with the scripts for season two and the directors. And I’m having a lot more fun, because I’m taking away what I learned from season one, all the good stuff, and I entered into it with the right head space, and we were ready to go. So it was a little bit of a bummer to just hit the brakes, but you’ve got to be safe.
Have you been able to do any work from home?
Yeah, I actually wrote a script as soon as we shut down and then did rewrites on two other scripts. So I’m still working for sure. I said, “Guys, let’s take advantage of this time to get all the scripts perfect.” Which is kind of funny if you really think about it, like when production begins again, the material that comes out is going to be fucking great, because all these people had all this time to sit around and write. Hopefully, there’s going to be a lot of really good stuff coming up.
Any news you can share in terms of stories you’re adapting, directors, or anything like that?
We haven’t released anything yet. And honestly, I’m sort of hoping that we keep with the director lineup that we have, now that everything’s kind of been thrown into turmoil. But we have all of our slots set and all of our writers and all of our stories ready to go, but we haven’t announced anything yet.
Looking back at this first season, how close to it was the vision you had of what you wanted to do?
We got pretty close to the bullseye as far as I was concerned. I mean, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I had been working on The Walking Dead for 10 years and was accustomed to like, “Oh, well, there’s the Hilltop set, and there’s the prison set, and here’s all our series regulars.” I didn’t really think too much about the idea of, “Oh, shit. Well, every three and a half days we’re going to have a new task and new sets, and new this and that.”
Doing an anthology is super-challenging, because of the fact that you’re building a new world every few days. So I hadn’t really thought that all the way through when we started, because I had very, very lofty expectations for what I wanted for the show. I wanted it to feel a little bit like (early 1970s Rod Serling anthology series) Night Gallery, where some stories can be 12 minutes, some stories can be 22 minutes — like they can go all over the place. I liked the idea with Creepshow of not having to adhere to any standard sort of structure. You can have a shorter one. It can be part animation and part live-action. I felt the experience and our storytelling ability very freeing, and I really enjoyed that.
You toyed with the idea of trying to do three episodes per show, which was maybe a little too ambitious in the end.
Yeah. I must’ve been out of my mind just a little while there. I mean, I think at one point, the network wanted to just do an hour long anthology show. They were like, “Oh, shouldn’t we just do hour-long ones?” And I said, “No, because we need to preserve the experience of reading a comic book. We need to have the page turns, and we need to have the fake ads in between that.” That was right out of my childhood reading Famous Monsters, buying monster magazines and models and all kinds of stuff.
I remember thinking the original Star Trek was so cool, because they actually used real science fiction writers. Was it important to you to not just have some great genre directors, but also use stories from names that are extremely well-known in horror, like Joe Hill or Joe Lansdale?
Absolutely. I feel like it’s an opportunity to do both, to get some great short story writers, and option their material, and then have new people, like Josh Malerman. So I really felt fortunate. When I was growing up, I loved reading short horror stories. I read all the time. I was a huge Dean Koontz fan, a huge Stephen King fan, and then I started getting these sort of anthologies that had Robert McCammon, Ramsey Campbell, Dave Schow, and all these guys. I loved all their stories, and I felt that Creepshow was an opportunity to really embrace short story content.
What made “Gray Matter” a stand-out Stephen King story for you? Has King seen the show?
I know Steve saw it. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it. I know he loved it. He commented about the episode and Adrienne. When we got the green light to do Creepshow, he was the first person that I reached out to, and I said, “Listen, man, I’d love to have a story from you in here. It wouldn’t be Creepshow without Stephen King, and I’d love to include you.” He wrote me back within like an hour and was like, “Sure. okay, I got a great story for you.” And he actually pitched “Survivor Type.”
I read it and I’m like, “Oh, that’s fucking crazy.” I mean, I’d read it a long time ago, but I reread it, and I was like, “Jesus, how the fuck are we going to do this?” I wrote the script for it, and that was going to be sort of like one of our big staple episodes. But as soon as we got into production, I realized how challenging it would be. We couldn’t go to the beach to shoot, because we didn’t have the cash to do it. So after a little bit of struggling back and forth, I went to my production team and just said, “Guys, we’re not going to be able to make this script right. I don’t want to shoot it on a lake and then digitally erase all of the trees, or shoot it in a parking lot with a blue screen behind it.”
You still have the script for “Survivor Type” around, just in case?
I do, indeed. I gave “Survivor Type” to Jon Bernthal and he loved the script. So I was really like in my head going, “Man, how great would it be to have Bernthal star in this episode?” But we would need a different model to be able to shoot that.
So I reached out to Steve and said, “Listen, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do ‘Survivor Type.’ It’s just going to be too challenging from a production standpoint. But what about ‘Gray Matter’?” Because I had read that story and loved it, and he was like, “Sure.” I had read that short story a bunch of times and have reread it recently in the last couple of years. It really is a perfect Creepshow episode.
If someone comes into this show blind, like a younger viewer who’s not quite aware of the history or the movie, what makes Creepshow, in your mind, stand out for people who are discovering it for the first time? And the second part of that question is, can you imagine even a few years ago, having a place like Shudder where you could do this?
First of all, Shudder has done a great job of educating audiences to what’s out there in horror. And so much of what Sam Zimmerman does, as the curator, is bring a lot of horror from other countries, which is what I love. There’s so much great stuff on Shudder that comes from Europe, Asia, South America.
In terms of what makes Creepshow different, the original movie was born out of Stephen King and George Romero as a tribute to EC Comics. So my Creepshow is really a tribute to horror, all horror in general, the genre (as a whole), being able to celebrate directors, celebrate writers, and celebrate the movies that we grew up loving.
So anybody that’s interested in horror that hasn’t seen Creepshow, is going to get a different experience of each story. Some of them are fun, some of them are dark, some of them are lighthearted. I really like the idea that horror can happen in any sort of scenario, and Creepshow gives you that opportunity. I always felt that George’s vision of Creepshow was way ahead of its time. So to be able to embrace horror using different mediums, using animation, using comic book artwork, using live-action — I really enjoyed that from an artistic side.
Anything on the Blu-ray or digital release in terms of Easter eggs or bonus features that you want to maybe direct people to?
I think there’s actually a segment on the Easter egg, because we’ve put so many tributes in there and so many little nods to other horror films, to the original Creepshow, to George’s movies in general. I really wanted the writers to be represented on the DVD and celebrate a lot of what the writers did, in terms of the stories that we had either optioned or adapted or were original pitches. So there’s a lot of super-fun commentaries on there. I had all the directors and all the writers come in and talk, and then there’s behind the scenes stuff, which is just a blast.
Before we go, let’s get a quick word on The Walking Dead. You were one episode out from finishing the current season — where does that stand today?
The trick with post-production that a lot of people don’t realize is there’s so many little refinements and last embellishment. You have to do post-production sound, and you have to do music, and then you have to go in and do color timing to make sure that every shot in a scene is color timed the same way, so that they look all like it’s coming from the same scene…There are quality checks that you have to do, to make sure there’s not like a Starbucks cup in the shot, or whatever. So there’s a lot of those little fine-tuning elements that all happen within two to three weeks of delivering the episode to the network.
So we were right on the cusp of finishing the episode when everybody had to stop work, and it’s not like you can do a lot of that stuff remotely. I looked at all the visual effects stuff that was coming in when we were shooting, because there was a lot of VFX for the finale, and everything looked magnificent. It’s just a matter of waiting until we can basically mix all the ingredients. I don’t know when that’s going to be. I think once people get a chance to go back to work, it’s probably a week and a half or two weeks of fine-tuning.
But I don’t know when the network wants to air it. I’m sure they’ll make an announcement when they want to do it. But it’s a great episode. I’m super-proud of it, so I can’t wait for people to see it.
And no word yet on when you can begin work on season 11?
No. The good news is the writers are cranking away. So fingers crossed that we’ll have all of our scripts or a lot of the scripts ready to go by the time we start production. Television’s tricky because you got to give the writers’ room time to break the story. Once you get into production and that boat leaves the dock, then you’re sort of holding on for dear life. I think the plan is to try to get as far as we can on the scripts, so that once we hit the ground running in production, a lot of the challenges and a lot of the hiccups will have already been refined and ready to go.
Creepshow: Season 1 is out now on Blu-ray and digital.