For Phil Nichols, his fascination with the horror genre began at a very young age. The writer/director/producer/actor/special effects guru (how’s that for being multi-hyphenate?) spoke about how being born into a family with an appreciation for the spookier things in life sparked his many interests in working within the genre.
“My love for horror started when I was three years old in 1967 when I started watching ‘Dark Shadows’ every day because my mom was addicted to it,” Nichols explained. “My whole family was really different, almost like we were The Addams Family or something. We’d carve pumpkins whenever we wanted, and we’d go trick-or-treating in July if we felt like it. So I’ve always been around people who like to be scared and have an appreciation for scaring others.”
“Dark Shadows” was a gateway drug of sorts for Nichols. As he became increasingly fascinated with creatures and monsters, he discovered the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine that inspired the young horror-phile to start experimenting with his own make-up effects.
Nichols said, “My mom worked for Avon when I was small so she’d give me make-up samples all the time so I could try to copy pictures I’d see of Lon Chaney or other guys in different issues of Famous Monsters. My face was always stained up because I was always trying creature make-ups all the time on myself. Eventually I found Dick Smith’s ‘Do It Yourself’ Handbook on make-up effects, and that’s when I discovered greasepaint. I was like a kid in a candy store when it came to shopping for paints – I had to have every color I saw.”
However, as Nichols was readying himself for college, he realized his opportunities to follow his passion for creating make-up effects were few and far between. “As I got older and knew I wanted to pursue special make-up effects, I suddenly realized there really weren’t any avenues at the time like there are now. There were no programs in colleges, no Tom Savini schools, so the closest I could get was to get a degree in theatre, and I continued to work in the theatre world until the mid-to-late 80s while I finished up my degree program.”
While Nichols was in college, he reached out to legendary make-up artist Dick Smith for advice on his approach and techniques in his artistry. Nichols found Smith was happy to oblige in offering invaluable advice.
“I began to correspond with Dick in the mid 1980’s while I was in theatre school, and even though he was a really tough critic, I learned so much from him,” explained Nichols. “I would do make-ups and photograph them and send him the pictures; then I’d get a long response back from him that was full of notes on how to do it better. Sometimes he would send me photos of his work to study and on occasion some of his prosthetics. When he wrote his famous advanced make-up course, I had to take it.”
Right around that time, Nichols was opening his first special effects production studio, Facades Makeup Lab, which slowly built until Texas became a hotspot to film in, and Nichols found himself working on some of the biggest projects to shoot in the state during the 90s.
Nichols said, “It was around 1985-88 that I discovered the film industry was booming in the Houston area. In 1990 I got my first break doing a low-budget horror movie called Look Who’s Toxic, and that’s how my f/x studio really got started. From there things picked up really fast for us, and we started working on bigger budget films like Ace Ventura 2, Rough Riders, Powder, and Arlington Road. But then the election happened, and all the incentives people were getting for filming in Texas went away, and Hollywood left to film in other states that offered real incentives.”
When Hollywood stopped heading to Texas for filming, it left Nichols and his shop in quite a bind. Being ever resourceful, Nichols took the downturn as an opportunity to pursue another career avenue – selling prosthetic noses to local shops. Little did Nichols know that what started as a last-ditch effort to keep working in the field he loved so much would turn out to be a life-changing experience.
“When all the work dried up in Texas, my sister and I had no idea what to do to support myself,” explained Nichols, “so we began making fake rubber noses to sell at local shops. We’re talking really basic here, too. They came in baggies even. But they were a hit – most times they’d be gone before I’d even leave the store. People were always asking us to make more, and that’s when I realized doing this kind of work could be a real business.”
“So that’s how REEL F/X got started. I just wanted to put my own spin on classic creature and monster make-ups so we started putting together kits, selling things like scars, and we soon realized we couldn’t keep up with the demand. So we took our kits to a Halloween trade show in Chicago and were immediately bought by Rubies Costume Company. They now distribute Reel F/X to all the global markets worldwide, and it’s been a very profitable venture for me and for Rubies as well. I still even make time to design some of the new kits that they put out because I like to stay involved in the product line when I can,” Nichols explained.
In 2001 Nichols decided to pursue a new business venture in the entertainment industry and formed Poison Apple Films, which focuses on making independent horror films out of the Houston area. One of Poison Apple’s latest projects, Renfield: The Un-Dead , is currently circulating in the festival circuit and was recently announced as an official selection of the 44th Annual WorldFest’s Midnight Madness program. WorldFest (official site here) takes place April 8-17, 2011, in Houston; and Renfield will screen on April 15.
Nichols discussed where his inspiration for the idea of Renfield: The Un-Dead came from. “I actually worked on Renfield: The Un-Dead for years before it ever got made. I always knew I wanted to make a Dracula movie but just never got around to it. It’s a sequel and reimagining of sorts of Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula told in graphic novel style from the perspective of the character Renfield. And if you don’t remember, Renfield was Dracula’s mad, bug-eating slave. It kind of feels like 30 Days of Night meets W.F. Murnau’s Nosferatu.”
“Everything really picked up in 2004 when I was contracted to provide the make-up effects for a local production of Dracula. When I showed up the first day, I was encouraged to audition for and was cast as Renfield so later when I was looking for a vampire theme to write a screenplay about, I remembered Renfield and began to write the script. I think the new spin is really effective but still pays homage to the source material,” Nichols added.
And even though Nichols is busy these days promoting Renfield: The Un-Dead, that doesn’t mean he’s resting on his laurels. He’s currently gearing up for production on his feature-film directorial debut, Project Pangea: Dinosaurs Unleashed, which he promises will be practical effects heavy and light on CG.
“We’re working right now on Project Pangea: Dinosaurs Unleashed, which is my first time directing a feature,” said Nichols. “The one rule that we refused to bend on for this movie was that we were not going to rely on CG dinosaurs. I had always wanted to make a dinosaur movie since I took some geology classes in college. I just found looking at fossils and bones fascinating so that’s where my inspiration came from this time around.”
“Project Pangea was written for a maximum impact with the limited resources we have so we have to make the movie work through some old-school methods. It’s a lot of work building dinosaurs, and I know doing them on the computer might be easier, but there’s just something about really seeing them on the screen that I think you can never get out of seeing something made in a computer,” Nichols added.
Since Nichols is a guy that has seen and been through a lot in the industry on many different levels, we asked him what advice he would offer other independent filmmakers out there struggling to make their way in the industry.
“My best advice to anyone who is looking to become a filmmaker is to just get out there and do it. Then make sure once you finish your film, you get it out there any way you can. The Internet is such a valuable tool these days to filmmakers so make it work to your advantage. Then, as soon as you finish your first project, get another one ready and get started on it as soon as you can. Momentum is everything in filmmaking because nobody is going to want to financially back someone who hasn’t proven themselves so it really takes a solid track record as a filmmaker to get you noticed,” Nichols said.
That’s definitely sound advice from someone who’s been through it all.
For more photos, including a full gallery of lobby cards from Renfield: The Un-Dead, be sure to click “NEXT” below.
Our thanks to Phil Nichols for taking time to speak with Dread Central for our Indie Horror Month celebration. For more visit the official Renfield: The Un-Dead website, and also befriend the film on Facebook.
MIDNIGHT ABYSS – Vampyre puppet
SPOILED ROTTEN – Zombie
RENFIELD: THE UN-DEAD