In this interview you can find out all there is to know about the special effects legend that is, Greg Nicotero who has worked with Robert Rodriguez on all his movies + Steven Spielberg & Quentin Tarantino to name but a few. I contemplated editing this video down into a 5 minute vid but the man is so interesting that I thought you might as well have the whole thing. If you’d rather read what he said rather than watching it, the transcription is below or you can read my full report from the studio visit here.
Read on to find out how all this was done and come back every day this week for another feature on the movie. You’ll be able to keep track of all our features from the movie here.
Predators is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 1st November 2010. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Q&A: Greg Nicotero, Predators
You’ve got to create a whole new breed of Predator. After you’ve stopped jumping up and down and celebrating, what’s the first step?
Ironically, I found out that we were doing this project via an interview Robert did on Ain’t It Cool News. When we were doing From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, Robert had said, ‘Oh, man! I wrote this treatment for this Predator movie…’ And that was 1995, so Robert and I have been partners for 15 years and literally he just called and said, ‘Hey, remember when I was telling you about Predators, that treatment?’ I told him I remembered, but vaguely because it was a long time ago. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re gonna do it.’ I said, ‘Oh, great. Keep me posted.’ Then someone literally called and said, ‘Robert said you’re building all the Predators for the new movie.’ And it was on Ain’t It Cool. So I haven’t even read the script, we hadn’t even signed a deal and Robert was, like, ‘Oh yeah, Nicotero’s building all my creatures.’ And I went, ‘I am? Woohoo! Yay!’ It was great. When you see a movie where a character comes back after 20 years, all of a sudden the guy looks 20 years older, and it’s the Sean Connery in Dr No versus the Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again and you kind of go, “Aww…” But he’s still James Bond. So with our film, we were able to recreate the classic Predator from the original movie, which had never been done before. The designs had changed a little bit through each subsequent project so we were able to actually go back to the original Predator. We matched the armour, the laser cannon… We really literally matched everything. He’s not supposed to be the same guy, but he kind of looks identical to the original Predator.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, I had worked on a couple of movies – Evil Dead II and stuff like that, and then I got a job for two weeks working on reshoots for Predator and so when I was on set, I was taking pictures. That was back when nobody really cared if you took photos of anything, so I had pictures of Kevin Peter Hall and pictures with Arnold, I was shooting every single aspect of what the heads looked like, so when Predators came up, the first thing I did was pulled all those photos out and said, ‘Listen, we get to recreate this character.’ So my first meeting with Robert and Nimrod we were talking a little bit about it and Robert said, ‘Okay, well the new Predators… If this (motions to the classic head) was the cassette tape, the new Predators (points to the new head) are the iPod version. And for some reason his description called into my head the idea of elongating the face and sweeping the dreads back and making the head a little thinner. The way the classic Predator works, and the way the dreadlocks are flaring outward and the armour’s real big and bulky, so he looks really massive and he looks powerful, so what we wanted to do with the new Predator was make him more like a black widow. He’s sleek and he’s elegant and you get the idea that he’s much more efficient and more advanced, so we had not a lot of time to build everything, not a lot of time to design everything. This was probably the 12th concept that we had had and the idea that, you know, with the classic Predator, Derek Mears wore this, it had contact lenses in and we had to blend off the eye because we used his real eyes. With this one we went a little bit different because we’re actually using radio controlled eyes and blinks, that are being operated by my two colleagues, Beth Hathaway and Jeff Edwards over there. So it was a dream project. Next project, I’ll get to build the shark from Jaws and then I can die, I will be happy. So it was fun. It’s interesting because I’ve worked do closely with Robert and over the last 15 years, watched… We’ve sort of grown together as filmmakers. He saw an article that was written about KNB and it listed a bunch of our titles and he sent me a really touching email that said, ‘Hey, when we were doing From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, if some guy had come back from the future and handed you this article and we would have been able to look into the future to see where our careers had taken us, how would you have reacted? It was just a really touching thought of, ‘wow, look what we’ve done!’
Walking through this studio and having worked here for 12 years, my first film here was The Faculty and then we did all the Spy Kids movies and this stage was where we shot 90% of Sin City, so I walk in here and I keep thinking I’m going to see Mickey Rourke walking around or Benecio or Bruce Willis. It’s exciting. Being able to work hand in hand with Robert and watch his empire grow and with KNB, Howard and I have been fortunate enough to have our fingers in most of the modern genre movies. I got to conventions every once in a while, a little 12-year-old kid will come up and want me to sign his copy of Evil Dead 2 and I’ll tell him I was that little kid when I first met Tom Savini and George Romero, I was the little geeky kid who had my Famous Monsters magazine and love Ray Harryhausen and watched Dawn of the Dead 500 times, so the reason that movies like this continue to get made and continue to be exciting is because you have guys like Robert and Nimrod that just have such a love for the genre and such an affection for it.
We were shooting the scene where the two Predators were fighting and at one point, their blades lock in the middle and they’re struggling and the gag in the script is that the blade snaps and it gives one Predator the advantage over the other. And Nimrod yelled cut and we went to replace the blade for take 2 and I saw him walk over, kick the dirt around a little bit and he picked up the broken blade and stuck it in his pocket. And that was such a great moment for me, because then he went back over and he sat down and he kind of had this really great child-like grin on his face and I walked over and said, ‘I saw what you did!’ And he went, ‘Dude, I have a Predator blade! How great is that?!’ He was so excited. I kind of wanted to take it and put it in a little shadow box for him, just to frame it, but he was, like, ‘No, no, man… This is my little piece of movie history.’ It was a dream project. We had 62 of the most talented special effects makeup technicians, sculptors, fabricators, and mechanical designers. My company has been around for more than 22 years and I couldn’t be more proud of the people. I could never say that if it wasn’t for the people that make me look good, two of which are sitting over there right now. So to get a chance to recreate this character, and do it with Robert and do it with Nimrod and guys that are my friends. You spend your whole career wanting to get a chance to work with your buddies and between Quentin and Frank Darabont I get to go and hang out with my friends and say, ‘Let’s make a Predator today…’ ‘Okay!’ ‘Let’s make zombies for The Walking Dead…’ ‘Really? Okay! Great!’ I’m really lucky and it’s exciting.
Thanks everybody, I’ll see you guys later… (Mock gets up to walk out.) I don’t know what else to say.
From the time you were that kid to the time you were a pro, was there anyone you looked up to?
I was always inspired when I was younger by movies. And even still today, when we wrapped Predators I got on the plane and flew home and wrote a short film that I directed and I was so inspired. I’ve had a 25-year film school that nobody could… You couldn’t pay. I got to work next to Steven Spielberg and Tarantino and to be able to say I was there when they blew Marvin’s head off in the back seat of the car for Pulp Fiction? I mean, to me those are… to be able to be part of those moments and then have the kid come over to me and say, ‘I loved the scene in Pulp Fiction when they shot the guy in the head…’ or whatever and just to think that maybe the work we’re doing is inspiring a whole future generation of filmmakers. And there was one kid in particular who had a little portfolio and he had a zombie makeup and it was funny, when you have people who are just learning, they take pictures of everything and he obviously took his sister and poured blood all over her and then took a bunch of pictures of her and I’m looking at his book and there was a zombie makeup and I said, ‘is that your sister?’ He asked me how I knew and I said, ‘Cos that’s what I would’ve done!’ That’s what you do. You do a gorilla, you do a zombie, you do Dracula with the one little bit of blood and the widows’ peak and you go through these stages of what floats your boat and what inspires you and for me it’s exciting to know there are young filmmakers out there watching the work that we’ve done and then they will become the next Robert Rodriguez or they’ll be the next Greg Nicotero. It’s exciting to do that.
What are the bigger teeth of the Predator for? How does it eat? They look like additional fingers, not like teeth.
The idea is that they’re for ripping flesh and wrenching and then it grabs it, tears the meat and puts it into the mouth. If I put my finger in here, it’ll eat my finger right off. (He does). But what’s interesting is that in the new film, this is sort of an iconic, classic look for the Predator, so for the new one, we kept that look, but wanted it to be a little bit more crab-like, so you can see we added an extra digit and we made the fingers or I mean, the teeth, a lot more threatening and more menacing looking. But you look at the designs and, like, the dogs, the Predator hounds, you look at them and you think, ‘well how would they ever eat anything?’ Because they have these big giant horns, so they could never actually eat any food. And then we were talking about it with the Troublemaker VFX guys who worked really closely with us in terms of coming up with some of the concepts, we had designed the head and they did the Predator dog and then we threw everything on the table and said, ‘listen guys… We have no time to design all this stuff, we’re really up against a wall, so…’ Everyone threw their ideas in. It was a really big great melting pot of collaboration and Chris Olivia, who designed the dogs, we were talking about it one day and I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s why they’re so fucking pissed! They’re so pissed because they can’t eat anything.’ I had this idea at one point that maybe the Predators actually bred them that way so that they could be used only for hunting, they could never eat anything that they catch. So for this project we were able to come up with a lot of different creatures and characters, so everything we designed or built ended up in the movie. There was one other creature that’s chasing Topher through the woods and in the script it’s referred to as a Ram runner and we used Carey Jones, who was one of the Predator performers, we built this really elegant suit that he wore that had these weird kind of bony shoulders and stuff on it, so that was one of the few creatures that was digitally augmented because one of the things that I really liked about the design in the concept was that it had this really thin waist and it was very alien-looking and very strange. So what we did was, we shot Carey in the suit so we had the practical element of it, and then the VFX guys kind of made his body a little thinner and more insect looking. Predators was a fantastic example of prosthetic practical effects and visual effects working in conjunction to come up with the best look. If the director is the painter, our job is to give him the different colours he needs. So VFX is a colour and makeup effects is a colour, costume design and stunts and everything. So I always felt like every tool has its use. If you use a prosthetic or an animatronic and you hold on it just a little bit too long then all of a sudden maybe it doesn’t quite look so real, or with a CG character, you hold on it a little bit too long… It’s a really delicate balance and I think because of the relationship I have with Robert and Nimrod and the studio and their visual effects department that we had a great balance. Aside from the fact that I think Robert just wanted Predators walking around the parking lot here at the studio! One day, he was, like, ‘Dude, there’s Predators in the parking lot!’ I was, like, ‘yeah, I know, he doesn’t have his shoes on…’ I was always looking at that stuff.
Can the Anamatronic faces move quickly if required?
They can, it’s just a matter of, for us, it takes three people to operate this head and then we have the suit performer. The thing that a lot of people don’t realise is, it’s a really delicate art form to wear these suits. You’re basically put in a neoprene wet suit with a 30 pound head put on your head with servos, you can’t see, you’re sweating, you can’t go to the bathroom… And then you’re expected to perform. ‘Okay, now you have to run 200 feet at another guy in the exact same suit and smash into each other.’ So I give a lot of credit to the performers that wear these suits. Derek Mears and Jeremy Fitzgerald played the classic Predator and Carey Jones and Brian Steele traded off performances in the different Predator suits, because there were three – the one we called the Dog Handler, The Falconer and then Mr Black. So the other ones you never really saw their faces, this was the one that was revealed.
What was the biggest challenge?
There was a lot of pressure because of the fact that I’d never really doubted the designs or the concepts that we’ done but it was a challenge because we had a lot of work to be done in a very short time period, so just the idea of casting the actors to play in the suits was the first thing out of the gate. And they relied on me to pick the performers, so I chose the guys to wear the suits so we could get body casts on ’em and start manufacturing. And we started building at the end of July and by October 4th we were filming, so there was not a lot of time to make mistakes. So I felt like on that movie I never stopped moving. In the studio, we have our mold-making department, our sculpting department and our suit builders and everything, and what I ended up doing… What I felt like I did for 10 weeks was circle the shop. I felt like I was a shark and that I was just going round and round and just watching everything that was happening on each table and making sure that everything got done to my specifications. I had a guy named Shannon Shea who was sort of running the shop with me at the time and we kind of circled each other. We never stopped. Robert always throws the gauntlet. All the projects that we’ve done with him, all his movies since 1995 and he knows that I’ll never let him down. That’s a lot of pressure on me! You spend your career wanting to get a chance to work with your buddies and you also want to do the best job that you can. So I think Robert knows that I put 150% effort into everything. This is the first time I’d ever worked with Nimrod and Nimrod just said, ‘I know you’ve got my back on this show…’ You want to keep the director’s field of vision clear to direct the movie, you don’t want to have to have him worry about little details about hiding a zipper or whatever. I spent a lot of the time standing right next to the guys in the suits, and then Nimrod would give his directions and I’d transfer that to the guys, because it’s challenging to direct a guy wearing a suit, because he can’t really hear and his vision is impaired and stuff like that. I feel like my job is really to do what I can to give the director everything he wants and with Robert, he and I have developed a very similar language. When we met on from Dusk ‘Till Dawn, we talked about Jaws and we talked about Escape From New York and we talked about The Thing and Blade Runner and we kind of realised that we shared this similar love for everything. We were kin of separated at birth, even though he’s a little younger than me. We both play guitar and we both love Stevie Ray Vaughn and so we share the same language. And it makes it a delight to work with someone like that – it’s your little brother who’s taller than you.
Do you think about how much material is going to be on the Blu-Ray?
The interesting thing is that my first job was Day of the Dead in 1984, so it was George Romero and Tom Savini and I was handed the video camera quite often during that shoot to document the making of the movie, so I always sort of thought that that’s what you just did. So most of the movies that are out on DVD, such as Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, that’s all footage that I shot on set, I never shot it for the DVD, because I didn’t know then that DVDs… Even with VHS tapes, it was just I documented it for myself, because I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of an exciting time…’ And I have hundreds and hundreds of tapes of every movie we’ve ever done and even when you’re on set… Because Robert and Quentin and those guys, they let me shoot video on set because they know it’s just for me and it’s never going to end up on YouTube, it’s something I do. So at the end of Inglourious Basterds, when they machine gun Hitler, I’m standing right next to Quentin and I tilt up to him and he’s, like, ‘Gnarly! It’s so great!’ I love that little clip.
It’s such a great way to preserve those moments. The fact that there have been a lot of moments in my career that I had no idea at the time were going to be so iconic or memorable, like stabbing Uma Thurman in the chest with the syringe in Pulp Fiction and I have video of us shooting all that stuff. It’s strange, because film fans are so rabid for knowledge and information about how their favourite movie was done. You can go to the Monroeville Mall in Pittsburgh where they shot Dawn of the Dead and still people walk around there’s this weird reverence about it. You can go to Martha’s Vineyard where Jaws was shot and people actually go to the location. The prison where Shawshank was shot has tours now. Somebody was saying to me why that was and I said, ‘It’s a way for the audience to identify with a film that they love so much, that they can put themselves in that spot and say, “I stood right here and that’s where Andy Dufresne was in his jail cell…”‘ And it just binds people to the film. Horror movies for some reason have that. Anybody that’s here that’s been to Washington DC and hasn’t been to the Exorcist steps is a big liar, because everybody goes to the bottom of the steps and goes, ‘That’s where he was thrown down the steps and he rolls down…’ There’s just a weird fascination with it. So for me, being able to document being on those movie sets. I have footage of me and Wes Craven and John Carpenter, guys that not only inspired me when I was younger, but then I can say I was standing right next to them. So nowadays, having people be able to share that experience, you watch the behind-the-scenes thing on a Blu-Ray DVD it’s almost like you were there. You wish you were on a certain set, or think one looks cold, or would have hated to be on another because everyone looks miserable. It’s a shared experience, and by watching the DVD, you can put yourself in that position.
You’ve been involved in this industry for a while now and you’ve got 3D printer tech now. What are some of the tech leaps that have helped you in your craft?
Actually, 3D printing is an amazing technological leap, because you can actually design things in the computer and then print them out. It’s certainly a new step in the design process of creature design. I personally like having sculptors working with clay, because that to me is more about sculpting than it is about computer programming to me, and with creature design it’s a very organic thing. But the idea that we can do a body scan of an actor and recreate his… Even when we did Sin City with Mickey Rourke, we scanned his head and then cleaned up the scan. A lot of times you’ll have an actor that maybe is a little claustrophobic or they’ll have three minutes off before they have to run – you scan them and then you have three dimensional information on them and then you can output it and make a head, do design busts on it and all of that. So to me, I think one of the greatest advances in technology is just the fact that we have the ability, with VFX to accent things that we’ve done, and vice versa. The first time we took the classic Predator on set… There’s always a policy now where you’re not supposed to take pictures because they don’t want them on the Internet, you have to be really cautious about that because some idiot with a phone will do it and it’s not shot in the right light and maybe the head’s not on. You want your work to be displayed in the best possible light… But when we walked on set with the first Predator, every single person was, like, ‘I really want to get a picture with that… I want to pose.’ One guy was a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which I am of course, and said, ‘Do you mind?’ So one day we took a photo of him with his Terrible Towel, which is a Steelers thing. I said, ‘If that ends up on the Internet, I will get fired, and so will you. So don’t!’
But it’s interesting because you walk on set and sometimes when you’re shooting a CGI character you just shoot an empty plate. The crew’s there and they’re kind of like, ‘Whatever….’ But when you go in with a creature, it’s suddenly, ‘Okay, I know what the creature looks like, I know that the creature’s going to go from there to there, going to grab that guy and rip his spine out, eat his brain…’ So it makes the shoot move very smoothly because the entire crew is involved in the process. And I think that’s the advantage of practical effects. If you go in and accent it and work your thing with the guys here at Troublemaker, we’ve all worked together for years, so again with the guys, we all jump into it together. It’s a very deep swimming pool, but it’s also one where we’ll go through the storyboards and decide what will be VFX and what will be us. You divvy up the work, we’ll concentrate on our strengths and it benefits the movie. The benefit is having a good mix of both. The audience knows when it’s really there or not.
Nimrod took a blade home. What did you take home?
I have these! (Points to heads). At my studio in LA. I have a really neat collection, I’m a collector too, I love props. I have one of the ears from Reservoir Dogs in a case in my house and I have the Mr Jingles from the Green Mile. So of course every once in a while I run through and terrorise my kids. I have one of the Michael Myers masks from one of the Halloween movies and my eight-year-old son almost had a heart attack one day because I came out of the garage with it. My kids – I have a five-year-old and an eight-year-old and they come to my studio and they run around and none of this phases them. It’s interesting that none of this phases them. They’re so used to it. So when they see something scary, my five-year-old daughter has the best zombie walk on the planet. I’ve asked her to be in The Walking Dead and she’s, like, ‘Ah… I dunno.’ She’s five… My son wants to be in Spy Kids 4. To them, it’s Halloween every day at my work. My daughter told me she wants me to be a vampire for Halloween, but she couldn’t pronounce the word. She had a kids’ Halloween book and pointed at it. I had my guys make fangs for me and I went home and put them in. She went, ‘Can I have some?’ “You’re five. I don’t think they’d fit.’
How many of the suits do you make?
We had three suits for each character, one for Carey Jones and one for Brian Steele and a backup. Because the last thing in the world you would ever want to do is put on somebody else’s sweaty monster suit and I feel for them, trust me. I’ve been in zombie makeup before, I did a couple of things in Walking Dead. But lunchtime comes for these guys and you take the suit off and then right after lunch, they put them right back in and you’ve got that cold, clammy, wet thing you’ve got to put your arm in. Hats off to those guys because it takes a lot of dedication to be able to do that and these suit performers… It’s challenging. They do it, they know how to do it well and that’s why they do it over and over again. I directed a little short film in March and Carey played the Creature from the Black Lagoon and he was so excited about it. ‘Put me in, coach!’ It’s that mentality.