Fest Traveler: Frightfest 2012

Makeup and special effects veteran Gregory Nicotero, tapped for the Variety Award at FrightFest, is a man who knows fear. He knows how to craft it, how to shoot it and what needs to happen to make viewers’ stomachs jump to their throats.

So perhaps there’s something ironic about how he desribes his first time directing an episode on “The Walking Dead”: “When I first read the script, I was scared shitless!,” Nicotero says with a cackle.

As a teenager, Nicotero pondered a career as a doctor. That might’ve come to fruition if not for his timely run-in with makeup and f/x legend Tom Savini — who lived “literally 30 minutes away” from Nicotero — and George Romero, the mind behind such iconic films as “Night of the Living Dead.”

“In Pittsburgh in the ’70s and ’80s, if you were into film, there were a lot of people you could bump into who were in the industry,” Nicotero says. “I got to know Tom and George and the next thing I knew, they asked me if I wanted to work on a film.”

That film turned out to be “Day of the Dead,” and working as Savini’s assistant helped lay the path for a transformation from a “typical nerdy monster kid” who built models at home into the effects expert he is today, and who spent time on some of Hollywood’s biggest films, including “Scream,” the “Kill Bill” series, “Hostel,” the list goes on.

With “The Walking Dead,” Nicotero has begun to explore the world of directing with skills he picked up along the way while crafting effects sequences.

He helmed one episode in season two — “Judge, Jury Executioner” — with three more coming in the new season. Nicotero quickly says it wouldn’t have happened without encouragement from showrunner Frank Darabont and the rest of the cast and crew.

“I knew everything about the characters by then, and everyone on set trusted me in that role,” he says. “You strive to have a career where you can go to work and play with your friends and have a good time.”

Somewhere, the nerdy monster kid inside him is smiling.

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