By MICHAEL GINGOLD
With CREEPSHOW: Season 1 coming to Blu-ray and DVD next Tuesday, June 2 from RLJE Films, RUE MORGUE got a chance to chat with showrunner/producer/director Greg Nicotero. The veteran of THE WALKING DEAD–and, of course, a legendary legacy of makeup and creature effects work–shares his thoughts on his first round of the Shudder series based on George A. Romero’s classic 1982 anthology feature, and hints at what’s on tap for the next.
The CREEPSHOW series is a mix of originals and tales based on published works, the latter including the two Nicotero helmed: the Stephen King-derived “Gray Matter,” and “The Finger,” from a story by David J. Schow. Other filmmakers involved include longtime Romero collaborators John Harrison and Tom Savini, and modern anthology veterans David Bruckner (THE SIGNAL, V/H/S, SOUTHBOUND) and Roxanne Benjamin (SOUTHBOUND, XX). The disc releases of CREEPSHOW will come packed with extras including cast and crew audio commentaries and interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, galleries of the comic art that appears throughout the episodes (in the tradition of its big-screen inspiration) and more. With the start of the second season awaiting the abating of the coronavirus pandemic, Nicotero starts by recalling the lessons of the first…
What did you learn about making an anthology series from CREEPSHOW’s first season?
I think I learned that I must have been crazy! I was so accustomed to working on a serialized show that had pre-existing sets and recurring characters, and when I got into CREEPSHOW, I realized that we had to create a new world every three and a half days. I hadn’t thought about how challenging it would be to not only build sets but create new creatures for every episode, and cast entirely new actors for every three and a half days. So going into season two, I was very aware of making sure the worlds we were creating weren’t so convoluted that we would put ourselves into a coma trying to get everything made in a short amount of time, because we have limited money and limited time to shoot. I learned a lot, actually, on season one–it was a crash course.
Not all the first-season episodes took stylistic cues from the movie, with its colorful lighting and backgrounds. How was that question approached?
I think the scripts ended up being so dense in certain instances that it wasn’t possible. Like “Gray Matter” (pictured); the biggest stylistic thing I did in that particular episode was I started Dutching [tilting] the camera as the story started getting more and more skewed. I played with that a lot, and by the end of the episode, you have all these titled perspectives on things. I didn’t get a chance to play as much with the lighting changes and backgrounds as I had wanted to, but in that particular episode, there was a lot going on, because I was intercutting between the diner and flashbacks of Richie’s story with his son, and the present day of the guys discovering Richie’s sort of Jordy Verrill-style house. Shooting all of that in three and a half days really precluded me from doing a tremendous amount of stylistic work, because we had a big story to tell, a lot of sweeping arcs. But on other stories, like “The Companion” and “Bad Wolf Down,” we were able to do a lot more, so we were able to mix it up enough.
Did you find that using the animated comic panels was an advantage in allowing you to present scenes that might have been too expensive to film?
Yes, and that was one of the first things I had pitched to the network: In stories like “Night of the Paw” and “Times Is Tough in Musky Holler,” we could use the comic-book panels to show stuff that we didn’t have the means to shoot. With the car crash and even Whitey’s trip to the cemetery in “Night of the Paw,” we were able to dissolve in and out of the panels. We did some of it in “Gray Matter” as well, and it reminds the audience that they’re in a comic book, and plays into the world of CREEPSHOW.
What were your overall criteria in picking the stories, and how will that continue into the next season?
I wanted the stories to be fun. We went with some previously published material; I remember reading Josh Malerman’s “House of the Head” and Dave Schow’s “The Finger” and feeling they were perfectly suited to CREEPSHOW. Ironically, the ending of “House of the Head,” where the girl throws the little head under her bed and realizes that’s sort of the barrier between the house’s haunted world and her real world, was something that came out of a brainstorming session between Josh and I. He was like, “Fuck, I should have thought to end the story that way! That would have been crazy!” There were a lot of great discoveries that came out of adapting existing material, but I also wanted to embrace a lot of other writers—Joe Hill and Chris Buehlman and Matt Venne and Philip [de Blasi] and Byron [Willinger] and Paul Dini and Stephen Langford. I felt like I got a crash course in modern horror writing, and just writing in general, because a lot of those guys pitched me great stories—some that didn’t make it into season one, but we saved them and brought them in for season two.
When it came to putting together the disc releases, were you tempted to expand any of the episodes?
You know, I would have loved to do that, but to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of material that didn’t end up in the stories. Because of our three-and-a-half-day shooting schedules, it wasn’t like we had loads and loads of scenes that got cut out, and we didn’t use. It would have just been revisions of scenes, cut a little bit differently. We didn’t have a lot of deleted scenes, I don’t think any; maybe longer versions of a couple in “Night of the Paw,” but pretty much every second of footage we shot ended up on screen.
What can you tell us about what’s coming up in the second season?
I took everything I learned from season one and applied it to season two, in terms of developing the stories and hiring the directors. I love the scripts; I kind of use the gauge of, if I want to direct this story, then we’ve got it to the point where it’s singing to me on all levels. There were a lot of stories last year I would have loved to direct, but couldn’t because I was too busy getting the show up on its feet. This season, I’m directing more episodes because I found stories that really appeal to me. Number one is, some take me back to how I was as a kid, loving monster models and magazines and toys and scary movies. Then there are others that are so outrageous and funny that I thought, “God, I want to tell this story.” One of them is kind of like “The Finger,” but times 100. We’re still in a bit of a pause right now, but I wrote a couple of scripts this season, and there are a couple of stories I co-wrote with other people, so I had a lot more to do with the writing this season than I did last year.
One interesting contrast from the CREEPSHOW film is that that was one director’s vision, whereas the series showcases many different filmmakers.
Well, you know, TV’s a different world. If this CREEPSHOW was a movie, it would be a different story, but when you’re dealing with television, that’s very much a writer’s medium. They craft the stories, and then the directors come in and shoot an episode, kind of a director-for-hire scenario. You don’t see a lot of shows where someone comes in and directs all of the episodes, or even many of them. It’s just not the way it works. Because we have this new age of streaming, where there’s so much content out there, you have a lot of directors moving from show to show and not many stay in one place. I mean, on THE WALKING DEAD, I’m a producing director, I direct four or five episodes a season, but that was much more based on my understanding of the zombie genre and the genre in general when we started the series. Not everybody in the world understood what zombie shows were or what zombie material was until THE WALKING DEAD.
Other than telling self-contained stories, did CREEPSHOW offer other opportunities to show a different side of yourself as a director than THE WALKING DEAD has?
Yes, without a doubt, because I was able to tell different kinds of stories. I chose “The Finger” to direct because I thought it was funny, and I loved that Clark [D.J. Qualls] talks to the camera. Aside from two other speaking parts, he’s the only character in that episode; he’s 99 percent of its voice, so I embraced that challenge. And then with “Gray Matter,” I loved that it was really about alcoholism, and the codependence between an alcoholic father and his son. And it’s told in a pure, perfect Stephen King world, because everything in his stories is so relatable—something that happened to the guy next door or across the street or whatever.
So CREEPSHOW gave me an opportunity to stretch my wings and direct things in a different fashion, and something that was all my own, too. I was very grateful for that challenge, and I loved it, and that’s why on season two, I’m going to shoot more, and the episodes I’ll be directing are all very different. One of them is virtually a comedy, and one of them, like I was saying, plays to that spirit of a ’70s kid building monster models, and then there’s another one that’s a pure, dark revenge story.
If the series continues to do well, what are the chances we’ll see another CREEPSHOW feature?
I would love to do a CREEPSHOW movie! We did start that conversation last year, in terms of making sure that all the rights are lined up and/or available. I think a CREEPSHOW movie would be great, and I’m certainly up for it.