Indie Horror Month - Phil Nichols Talks Renfield: The Un-Dead, Project Pangea, Creating a Special Make-up FX Empire, and More
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."