Ever wanted to know how make-up effects shop KNB EFX Group got its start? If so, don’t miss Nightmare Factory, the feature-length documentary that the Epix network is running as part of its Halloween programming. Debuting Oct. 30, Nightmare Factory recounts how fledgling make-up effects artists Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger formed KNB more than 25 years ago, turning it into one of Hollywood’s longest-running shops. Make-Up Artist recently spoke with Berger and Nicotero about those early days.
Make-Up Artist: What do you remember about the very first time you met?
Howard Berger: The first time I met Greg was on Day of the Dead. John Vulich had just recommended me to replace somebody who had been let go on the show, so Everett Burrell and I flew to Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, 1984 … when we arrived, we went into the mine and the first person I saw run past me was Tom Savini. The next person was Greg Nicotero, and we became friends at that point.
Greg Nicotero: There’s a huge other part to that story. Savini was a notorious practical joker, so you would be working at your station and there would be, unbeknownst to you, a pile of gunpowder with an igniter underneath your feet. You would be working away when there would suddenly be a flash. When Howard and Everett landed in Pittsburgh, Tom and I were right in the middle of battling during one of these practical-joke situations, so … I think the first words I may have ever spoken to Howard were, “I’m going to kill Tom Savini!” because I was in the middle of rigging up a practical joke to get him.
MA: Greg, you had taken a semester off med school to work on Day of the Dead, so it’s interesting to see how differently your career path turned out.
Nicotero: What the documentary captures so well is how you have to follow your passion. Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I always figured I would follow my father’s career path as a doctor, but I had this love of horror movies. The beauty of it was that I was able to take a hobby and a passion I had and transform my life with that. It’s the same thing that Rick Baker and Frank Darabont and Robert Rodriguez did, so I always think we’re cut from the same cloth. It doesn’t take very much to push a make-up effects guy into becoming a director or a writer or vice versa. The other thing I love about the documentary is it shows the beginnings of our collective enthusiasm and excitement to just be working in the business.
MA: Howard, you eventually persuaded Greg to move out to L.A., didn’t you?
Berger: Greg and I became great friends, and after Day of the Dead, I said, “Greg, you should move to L.A.; you have to meet my friend Bob Kurtzman. Up to that point, it was the first movie Greg had worked on, but I saw a lot of value in him working in the industry, so he moved to L.A. and we eventually found this old gray house in Reseda. It was three bedrooms, one bathroom and a crappy kitchen, with an unconnected garage that we turned into a shop.
Nicotero: Within a couple of weeks, I was working at Stan Winston’s and then Mark Shostrom’s. When I moved to L.A., the first guys I met were people like Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Steve Wang, Matt Rose, Gino Crognale.
MA: You christened the house The House for Wayward Make-up Artists. What was that like during those early days?
Berger: We called it The House for Wayward Make-up Artists because we would throw big parties almost every weekend, where people would get so snockered that they would pass out at the house. We would wake up the next morning and there would be all these make-up effects guys passed out on the floor. But if somebody didn’t have a place to stay or whatever the situation was, they could always stay at The House for Wayward Make-up Artists. People like Norman Cabrera stayed at our house, and so did Cleve Hall from Monster Man. I was 19, Greg was 20, Kurtzman was 19 and Dave [Kindlon] was probably 20 or 21.
Nicotero: It was like a hotel for anybody who came to town and needed a place to crash. We had no ties holding us back, so we could go anywhere and do anything. I had a good relationship with Savini: any time he got a job; I could jump on a plane and go anywhere he was shooting. I had the choice of working on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in Austin with Savini or Evil Dead 2, and I chose Evil Dead 2 … In another universe, I would’ve worked on Chainsaw 2 and KNB may never have existed.
MA: One of the interesting ideas in the documentary is the contrast between all these young, long-haired make-up artists, who would hang out with rock stars and look really cool, and yet you were still a bunch of horror-movie geeks who loved to read monster magazines.
Berger: Absolutely. We loved making monsters and doing what we did. It wasn’t about fame or money or anything like that. We just wanted to make monsters.
Nicotero: Look at society now, and the fact that geeks rule the world. Twenty-five years ago, nerdy kids would get beat up, but those same nerdy kids are now writing comic books that are turned into award-winning TV shows. We just loved what we were doing, and had a lot of fun doing it. We would work for Rick Baker, or consult with Dick Smith on Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. I remember Dick looking at our footage of the gargoyle transformation for that film, and he said, “They wanted me to consult, but you guys kind of got this; I don’t have any notes!” so it was like, “The guy who did The Exorcist doesn’t have any notes? I’m all about that!”
MA: What made you finally decide to start your own company?
Berger: Bob, Greg and I all did Evil Dead 2; after that, Greg and I got a call to go to Arizona to work on Creepshow 2. When we got home, we were all working at other shops, and I remember calling the guys up and saying, “Let’s meet for dinner!” so we met for dinner and I said, “I have an idea. Let’s quit working for people and let’s start our own company and see if we can make it work.”
Nicotero: After Evil Dead 2, we started getting offers to do our own shows, but that’s the big Catch-22: They will never give you your first job, because you’ve never keyed a movie, but you will never key a movie until somebody gives you the opportunity to do it. It was Scott Spiegel who gave us our first job from Evil Dead 2. I’ll never forget Scotty calling me and saying, “Listen, I got this low-budget movie that I am doing and Lawrence Bender is producing it for Charlie Band and I need some kid to do the make-up effects; do you know anybody?” I think they had something like $1,500, but we agreed to do it, because we wanted that first credit. We would work in the shops during the day, and at night we would go to set. (continued below)
MA: What did each of you bring to the table in terms of your respective strengths?
Berger: Greg is our money mastermind. Greg is the king of business. He can balance his checkbook without looking at it, so he handled the business aspect of it. All three of us were involved with the design and execution and figuring out how it all went down at the end of the day and doing the set work. I ran the shop and did a lot of the art, and Bob strictly dealt with all art and design. One of the things we decided when we started putting together our KNB portfolio, we did not put anything in it we had done for other studios. We wanted original KNB content.
MA: Once the company was up and running, how long did it take for work to start coming in on a regular basis?
Nicotero: Because there were three of us, it gave us a very broad reach, so by 1990, we were doing Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Halloween 5 and Dances with Wolves. Our company became known for quality work, and being able to handle multiple projects at once.
MA: Looking back, what is it about KNB that has made it so successful as a company?
Berger: When you hire KNB, you get the KNB guys. I don’t have a meeting about a big film and then never go to set. Again, I saw my competitors doing that, but my dad taught me early on that no one cares more about your business then you do. I completely believe that and live by that. Greg and I are always accessible. Every project is the most important project and that’s what we’ve always done for the past 25 years.
Nightmare Factory debuts on Epix on Oct. 30. Check local listings for showtimes.