The make-up guru from 'Drag Me to Hell' on blood, guts and that prosthetic penis

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A film industry legend, make-up maestro Greg Nicotero has worked on more than 150 movies, from horror classics like ‘Evil Dead 2’ and ‘Scream’ to Oscar-winning dramas like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Milk’. Sam Raimi’s slapstick splatfest, ‘Drag Me to Hell’, is his latest assignment. Here, he takes us through his favourite moviemaking experiences

‘Day of the Dead’ (1985)

‘That was my first movie. The challenge was coming up with new and inventive ways to make zombies look different. You make up 40 or 50 people a night, then you have 50 or 100 background masks to get big crowd scenes. Then on top of that you have to prep all the gags that happen, the people that get eaten, the people that get torn in half – so it’s really non-stop. For the scene where the guy is split in half, we built a fake floor and put the actor Joe Pilato’s feet through it, then attached an entire fake body, with a cavity filled with real pig entrails.’

‘Evil Dead II’ (1987)

‘I had seen the original “Evil Dead” and thought it was a genuinely scary, innovative movie, and when I read the script for the sequel, I thought it was pretty frightening. There’s a scene where Linda’s headless corpse kicks in the door to the workshed and lunges at Ash with a chainsaw. I remember reading that and thinking: God, what a great visual. And then, when we got to shooting the sequence in the movie, it was done with much more tongue in cheek than I had originally read. I thought we were going for a balls-out horror movie. I didn’t realise that Sam had such a unique sense of humour, that he was balancing the horrific aspect of it with his over-the-top style.’

‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

‘In “Pulp Fiction”, the major gag was shooting Marvin. We made a fake head of the actor Phil LaMarr and we placed an air tank in it. We filled the entire head with oatmeal and fake blood and bits of latex to simulate the blood and the brain matter. We would pull a trigger and it would blow the back of the head off and spray blood into the rear windshield of the car. In the original script, when Travolta shoots Marvin, he shoots him in the chest, he doesn’t shoot him in the head. It’s an accident when he pulls the trigger the first time, then he and Sam Jackson literally get into an argument while he’s in the back bleeding, then Travolta shoots him again to put him out of his misery. But on the day we shot the scene, Quentin said, “I can’t have him shoot twice. As despicable as these characters are, you still have to identify with them.”’

‘Boogie Nights’ (1997)

‘I have friends who will introduce me to people as: “This is Greg Nicotero – he did the dick in ‘Boogie Nights’.” It still amazes me what an iconic prop that was. When they celebrated the tenth anniversary, we pulled the mould down and made a silicone penis and put it in a little glass case. At the screening they carried it out on to the stage and everybody clapped… it’s become a character in the movie. The irony was, from a prosthetic standpoint, that was a pretty straightforward job. We had done two different sculptures, but the first was a little too aroused. We put the prosthetic on Mark Wahlberg and the studio said, “We don’t want him to look like he’s in the process of being aroused, he needs to look, you know, relaxed.” So we did a re-sculpt, and we changed the gravity of the entire sculpture, literally and figuratively.’

‘Hostel’ (2005)

‘I think Eli showed so much growth from “Cabin Fever” to “Hostel”. Is it a hard movie to watch? Yeah. Is it difficult for people to watch that level of gore? For some people, yes; for some people, no. It’s really just a matter of taste. For us, it’s always clinical. We’ve got to do the gag where this girl gets her head chopped off, or this guy’s Achilles tendons are sliced. For us, it’s silicone and rubber and fake blood. When you see a fake head sitting in the shop on a table with somebody punching hair or painting it, it looks like a fake head. It’s up to the movie to lend it power and decide how it’s used. Eli has a real affection for prosthetics and make-up effects, and he likes to show stuff happening. I think that he’s certainly pushed the envelope in a way that opened a whole new door, very much like Romero did in the 1960s. They redefined the genre. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the reality is, there’s a market for it.

‘Public Enemies’ (2009)

‘I’ve worked with Michael Mann on several projects. I find him a passionate and visionary director. Michael’s a tremendously specific guy, and with him it’s all about realism. So we spent a lot of time talking about “Well, a bullet would go in here, go out a guy’s chest and it would fragment, so the chest would blow into several pieces.” It was very analytical. I was doing research in terms of what gangster Pretty Boy Floyd looked like when he was killed, what these guys looked like on the slab. We also did some character prosthetic stuff, making Billy Crudup look like J Edgar Hoover.’ 

‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009)

‘When we did “Inglorious Basterds”, we designed all the character make-up the same way. We did Hitler, Goebbels and Winston Churchill all in a similar way. I sat in my office in Berlin with photos of the actor Sylvester Groth and photos of Goebbels, and analysed what the characteristic traits were, where his hairline was, noticing that he has a really weak chin, which made him look sort of rat-like. Working with Quentin is an exercise in film history. When you’re shooting, it’s as much about getting into his brain and determining exactly what he wants to see. He trusts me a lot and he relies on me tremendously. I was on set for 80 per cent of the shoot, every single day, jumping in, dumping blood on people and scalping guys. I even have a cameo: I play a Gestapo major who gets killed.’ 

‘Drag Me to Hell’ (2009)

‘I sat with Sam and designed all the prosthetics, all the gags, the animatronics, the execution of every single make-up effect in the film. Sam always had an affection for B-movies. This is a really well made comic book, very much like “Evil Dead 2” and of course the “Spider-Man” movies. But Sam wanted to do a lot of the stuff practically, so the real challenge for me was to keep it looking realistic and effective in the universe that Sam was creating. We used a variation of KY jelly, Methocel and Ultraslime to get the slime and drool that comes out of Mrs Ganush’s mouth for all those outrageous gags. When I showed Sam the first test of the effect, where Mrs Ganush vomits worms into Christine’s mouth, he said “You should be arrested for that, it’s just so ridiculous.” But he has a genuine love for those kinds of movies. It’s sheer entertainment, it’s not offensive, it’s not grotesque, there’s no nudity, it’s really just harmless entertainment.’

‘Drag Me to Hell’ is in cinemas now.
You can see more of Greg Nicotero’s work at www.knbefxgroup.com

Author: Tom Huddleston



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