For the seventh year in a row, Greg Nicotero is celebrating an Emmy nom. Nicotero brings his unique brand of special effects makeup to AMC’s The Walking Dead, producing some of the most elaborate zombie gore ever seen on screen. He’s also an exec producer and director on the show. His previous credits include Breaking Bad and The Pacific, but it is his work on The Walking Dead that allows his creative talents to really shine, as Nicotero says, the show gives him, “The kind of freedom to continue to artistically create these beautiful masterpieces of the macabre, just all these decomposed characters and creatures.” 

Nicotero tells AwardsLine how he got past the TSA with Hershel’s head in a box, that Season 6 killer cliffhanger and shooting Season 7.

You wear a lot of hats in this show–is makeup still your true love? How does directing influence your make-up work, if at all?

Well, you know, what The Walking Dead has given me is the freedom to be an artist in a completely different way. I’m still first and foremost a makeup effects artist, because that’s been my dream and my passion since I was ten years old. I still own my company, KNB EFX, and I’m happy to say that we’re still one of the most prominent makeup effects studios in the world. It’s a very proud thing for me to be able to have the kind of control I have on The Walking Dead, and it pushes me, and it makes me a better artist all around. I think stepping into the director’s chair has made me a better makeup person, because I have a much more astute understanding of camera angles and design. So, in the last six years, I feel like I’ve become a much better makeup effects designer, because I’m able to look at things from a director’s viewpoint as well as from a makeup effects standpoint.

What makes a great face for zombie makeup?

Makeup is an additive process, so we are always looking for people who have great bone structure or facial features that would allow the prosthetics to augment their look. The Walking Dead has really redefined what people think of as zombies. It started with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Those movies really cemented into people’s minds what zombies were supposed to look like, and now with The Walking Dead, I feel like we’ve been able to put a very distinct signature on these zombies, especially this season. We’ve been able to introduce different types of walkers, some that were buried and some that were in a big body of water, so we’re continuing to define what zombies look like.

I can only imagine the experimentation that happens in your house to come up with these things.

Well, you know, I was pre-med before I got into the film industry, so there is some level of realism that I feel has always permeated the work that I’ve done, way back, even including some of our first movies, like Dances With Wolves. We’ve been in business for 28 years, and it’s still a challenge, and it’s still fun and it’s still exciting. We shoot for seven months, and we have eight days to prep each episode, and I really feel like sometimes that gets lost in the breakdown of the categories, you know?

It’s a seven-month commitment for these makeup guys to get into the trailer at four o’clock in the morning and do a half-a-dozen makeups each, and then be the last guys to leave, and this is every single day for seven months.

Greg Nicotero The Walking Dead
“After directing the premiere episode, I was fucked up for two weeks,” Nicotero says of Season 7, pictured on set

How do you come up with stuff like teeth with blood inside them and edible gelatin flesh?

If you worked in the industry as long as I have, you start thinking of new ways to deliver blood to a zombie bite. I get an idea like, “We’ll just have the blood come out of the teeth and rush down the head,” as opposed to having to send a little boy into the makeup chair for an hour and-a-half and put prosthetics and bladders on him. Sometimes when these ideas come to me, I’m sort of annoyed that I didn’t think about it ten years ago. And in many of those instances, I was the director. So I knew what the shot was going to be, and I said, “Look, when you just bite it, we’ll make soft teeth with blood juice in there, and you just bite down, start pumping the blood,” and I’ll hold on the shot. The blood ran down his forehead, and people were horrified by that.

You once had to travel with Hershel’s head in a box. What does a TSA officer have to say about something like that?

You know, I’m surprised I haven’t been stopped more. Because it’s just silicone and foam, they’re not looking for that kind of stuff. When we were shooting Inglorious Basterds, I remember flying from Berlin to Los Angeles after a night of shooting, and I had fake blood all over my shoes, and I was standing in line to go through the checker, and it’s like, all somebody had to do was look at my shoes to see droplets of blood, dried blood on them, and I’m screwed. It never happens. I will say though, the TSA people that I’ve met, they’re probably the biggest group of Walking Dead fans. So, if I had a severed head in my bag, they’d go, “That’s great. I love it. That’s incredible.” Very passionate fans, those TSA people.

A lot of fans were upset about that Season 6 cliffhanger where Negen killed someone but we didn’t see who it was.

Let me just say, a very small percentage of our fans were upset. You look at the 20 million viewers, and the people that were upset, they were upset because they cared, because they want to know. I still believe that the story that we’re telling warranted that cliffhanger, and I think if we would have showed who Negan killed in the end of that episode, it wouldn’t have had the same impact, because people were expecting it. Everybody knew that Negan was going to kill someone. It’s one of the best episodes I feel like I’ve ever directed, because I was able to capture that sense of dread and fear that Rick Grimes felt. Rick has never felt fear, and you never see him scared in the entire series until that episode.

The Season 7 trailer screened at Comic Con but can you hint at anything else that’s coming up?

I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better for our group, and it’s pretty intense. I mean, the show, we’re sort of opening a new chapter. I mean, it’s really, Rick is now, if you really think about his journey in the comic books, he shares the spotlight with Negan in the comic book. Negan now has some ownership over what the show is about. It’s the anticipation and the excitement of new worlds that we’re going to, like the Hilltop, like the Kingdom, like the Sanctuary where Negan lives. Everybody’s putting so much of their heart and soul into it. You know, after directing the premiere episode, I was fucked up for two weeks, you know? I really felt like I dragged a lot of my dearest friends into these really deep, dark places shooting that episode, and it’s been definitely an experience unlike anything that I’ve ever handled before.

Originally published August 17.