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Don Coscarelli

Horror legend Don Coscarelli, director of genre classics Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, talks to David Sutton about microbudget film-making, interdimensional grave robbers and a teenage nightmare about killer balls.

Don Coscarelli may not be the world's most prolific writer/director – nine films in nearly 30 years – but he can claim to have made three bona fide cult classics in his varied career. Born in Libya and raised in Southern California, at the age of 19 Don became the youngest director to have a film distributed by a major studio when Universal Pictures picked up his first independent film. He moved into genre film-making with Phantasm in 1979, turning in one of the most off-beat horror movies of the decade, one that eventually built a cult following and spawned three (so far) sequels. Its bizarre mixture of gothic iconography, sci-fi nuttiness and sheer high strangeness has ensured its ongoing status as a fortean favourite.

The 1982 sword and sorcery epic The Beastmaster was another cult success, and in 2002 Don's adaptation of Texas author Joe Lansdale's short story Bubba Ho-Tep, starring Bruce Campbell (see FT189:62, 195:62), was a hit with both audiences and critics, as well as picking up a string of festival awards.

Don has just finished an episode of a new US television series Masters of Horror, which will air alongside contributions from Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Takashi Miike and George Romero, while here in the UK the complete Phantasm saga is about to be released on DVD.

How did you originally get into filmmaking?

As a boy I loved photography – I got a camera early on. My parents had a little movie camera, and I started making backyard epics with neighbourhood friends. We made Westerns, thrillers and even documentaries. It was just something that was quite a lot of fun, and that's where it came from. It changed from a child's hobby when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and that cemented my desire to be a filmmaker.

Your first film, Jim the World's Greatest, was a completely independent production. How did that come about?

It grew out of the student process. With some friends I embarked on this challenge to make a feature film with very limited resources, and it turned out to be quite a Cinderella story. My father put the money up to fund it – he put up about ,000 – and he was a little nervous about his investment and kept calling the local Los Angeles Times film critic and asking him what was he going to do with this movie his son was making! The man offered to look at the film when we had it cut together. So we screened it for him and he seemed to like it. He wasn't exactly effusive in his praise, but then, about a week later, he called up and said he'd had lunch with the president of Universal Studios and told him about this movie that these young guys had made. And the president wanted to see it, so we sent it over to the studio and he watched it on the weekend – and Universal ended up buying the movie and finishing it.

So how did Fox come to pick up your next film?

The movie wasn't particularly successful at the box office, so I didn't feel like I had many options. But my father had made quite a lot of money from the deal with Universal and offered to get together some other investors to finance my next film, which became Kenny and Company. Once again, it was a micro-budget movie, but Fox saw it and thought there were some exploitable elements in it – like skateboards!

Basically, the film is about a few days in the life of a boy, but they decided to buy it.

It's interesting that your first two films are both – in different ways, and with their very different approaches – about childhood and the pains and problems of growing up, themes that very much carry over into Phantasm. But now we're in the very different territory of a horror movie – how did that transition, or leap, happen?

That's an interesting observation. I'm not sure that I was that aware of it – I think it happened on a subconscious level. Later I came across that piece of advice for writers – "Write what you know" – and I guess that what I was doing with these movies was writing stories that were set in an environment I was familiar with; after all, I wasn't that far removed from childhood myself.

The transition to horror, if I'm honest, was on two levels. For starters, I was a massive horror fan as a boy. I would watch these films over and over on television – the Universal films, Frankenstein, Dracula and all the sequels – and also a lot of the 1950s sci-fi horror, like the Quatermass films and alien invasion movies.

But, at the same time, my first two films had not done well at the box office, and I'd read somewhere that horror films were always successful at the box office! So, in a weird way, I was able to combine business with pleasure by making a film I wanted to make that might also have the possibility of making some money. There was one other element: I'd always had the idea of setting a movie in a funeral home, because at that time I'd never seen anything like that that I could recall and I thought it would make for an interesting comment on the way Americans handle death – all that embalming and strange medical procedures taking place behind closed doors.

At the same time, I'd worked with a bunch of actors on those earlier films, and I was working on the story of Phantasm; I started writing the parts for these actors – I worked with Michael Baldwin [Mike in Phantasm] on Kenny and Company, and I thought he was one of the greatest child actors that ever was. So, I thought of taking a boy and putting him in the context of this funeral home. And then it was a question of finding who would play the villain.

And how did you settle on the wonderful Angus Scrimm to play the Tall Man?

Well, he co-starred in Jim, The World's Greatest, and I always thought he'd be great as a villain. And he had a way with children; there was this little boy on the set who was always running around and causing havoc and Angus would look at him every once in a while and give him that raised eyebrow stare and the kid would just shut up – so that's where that came from.

The late 70s was something of a boom time for horror, with the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Friday the 13th, but Phantasm seems to me to have little in common with that brand of screen terror and to come out of the blue as it were – although its incredible mixture of gothic and sci-fi elements, grave-robbers and aliens, is present in a film like Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Yes, it was my weird way of melding science fiction and horror. But you're right; when we started making Phantasm in 1977 it had little in common with those films, or with big, successful movies like The Exorcist. There was one movie, though, that was a source of inspiration – the great Dario Argento film Suspiria, which had an energy and a way of not explaining things that really appealed to me.

So did you set out to make something that deliberately moved away from the genre norms of the period, or is that just the way it developed?

I think it was just the way it developed. I had this strange brew of ideas that I was trying to get into coherent shape as a movie. Looking back, I guess I was younger and I could take more risks back then. The Hollywood system exerts a real pressure – I certainly found this out with Phantasm II – that the audience should understand everything that's happening the whole time. But there was a certain freedom back then which – as well as the way the movie was financed – meant that we could do whatever we wanted, and I wasn't so concerned with making sure the audience knew what was going on.

Phantasm must be one of the most left-field concepts of all time for a film – a mortician from another dimension is digging up corpses, shrinking them into dwarves and shipping them back to somewhere that looks like a 1970s Roger Dean album cover!

And that's just why it needs to remain unspoken, because when you say that it just sounds ridiculous! But if you let it evolve through the eyes of the characters it has a lot more credibility and integrity.

Was Phantasm in any sense a fully formed idea when you started work on it?

Well, again it comes back to how the film was made. I did have a screenplay written that was... barely linear. It established the idea of the brothers, of the mortuary and of the evil villain; but towards the end it got much more diffuse and unfocused. And when we started shooting, we didn't exactly know what the ending was going to be – so we ended up shooting several different endings for the movie...

Some of those scenes show up in later Phantasms of course...

Yes. We tried to shoot it like a normal movie, all in one batch, but we were so disorganised we had to stop production after about nine days and regroup. Then we started shooting just a couple of days at a time, mostly on weekends. Which meant I could edit and rewrite the movie as we did the latter part of the filming. I don't think we decided on the movie's ending until very late in that process, a year down the line.

So, in a sense, shooting in that way gave you a certain freedom and flexibility that you wouldn't have enjoyed had a studio been involved...

Absolutely! Talk about horror! This was not the kind of thing you could do under a traditional financial arrangement. It did give us a certain level of freedom, and that's probably why the movie is so strange.

Speaking of strangeness, where did the silver spheres come from?

Well, it's the only thing I've ever used in any of my movies that came to me in a dream. I had a dream in my teens where I was being pursued down corridors by this flying chrome ball –it never caught me in the dream, so I don't know what it would have done. The drilling and bloodletting only came to me when I was writing the screenplay.

The film developed a real fan-base over the years – more than many other horror movies of the period – why do you think that happened?

Number one – I think the movie holds up to repeated viewings because there are no clear-cut answers, so every time you watch it you'll probably interpret it a little differently. And then there are the sequels; truthfully, for five or eight years after Phantasm was released it was just considered one of those horror movies from a time when a whole batch of them came out. It wasn't until the reviews started coming out on Phantasm II that everyone said: "Oh well, this movie's OK, but the original – now that was a classic! Perceptions of the second film's flaws somehow made the critics elevate the first film to classic status; and then when we did Phantasm III, a lot of people trashed it, saying: "But the first two movies were great!"

Phantasm II does, in retrospect, seem like something of a retread of the original but pumped up with a bigger budget and with more emphasis on action...

Well, that's what studios want. I love watching it, though. The make-up effects were exponentially better than in the first film, for instance. Although, looking back, I wonder whether when I was making it I really appreciated Phantasm I. A lot of people had complained that it didn't make much sense, but with the second film I fell in with the studio and tried to keep everything more organised and edit it more traditionally.

It's the most straight-ahead of the series; it's pacy and tight and lacks some of the oddities of the other movies – which isn't to detract from what is a very enjoyable film. And it seems to me that the Phantasm series is one of the very few horror franchises that has actually worked, and in which each film seems like a worthwhile addition to its forerunners, often developing the concept in some unexpected ways.

Thank you for saying that – I'd like to think that. I was trying to expand the stories and develop the franchise. But although some of that may be down to my constant involvement, much of it is down to the actors. We stuck with our core company of actors throughout – and while nobody really credited the quality of the acting in the first film, there's a certain reality about all of them that's very endearing, and which meant that people liked the characters.

That's very true – they start to feel like a weird kind of family. And its fun to see a character like Reggie develop from a bald ice cream salesman to a chainsaw-wielding warrior against evil, or to see the growth of his relationship with Mike.

And of course Universal wouldn't allow us to cast Michael Baldwin [the original Mike] in Phantasm II; they wanted a working actor, which made it a difficult decision, but it was what the studio wanted, and they got it. When I had the control back on Phantasm III we brought Michael back, of course.

The continuity of the films is interesting, with each one picking up the story seconds after the end of the previous instalment, even if nearly a decade has gone by in 'real' time. And your use of leftover footage from the original Phantasm shoot also gives a really strange sense of cohesion to the series – particularly in Phantasm IV, where it's absolutely integral to the way the film develops. It's artistically justified, but also sound recycling: was that a financial decision, a way of saving money, or did the old footage spark new ideas for making a rather non-linear film?

It started off with us saying "Wow! We've already got 15 minutes of footage. We can now make the film on a realistic budget". No question about that. But at the same time, it really was inspiring. We had all these wild intellectual ideas. Angus Scrimm was a big fan of Indian cinema, and we had actually gone and seen Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy several years before, and I was saying: "Angus! This is going to be like the Apu Trilogy, where we start with a boy in the first film and he's a man by the third one!" You know, we have Mike Baldwin at the ages of 11 and 40 in the same film here!

So what about the future? We've heard talk of a sequel to the fabulous Bubba Ho-Tep (see FT189:62, 195:62).

Well, we are working on it. Bruce [Campbell] definitely wants to reprise the role of Elvis. The trick is whether or not we can raise the money to make something a little larger. It's not that we need 25 million dollars, but it would be nice to... well, to move from Evil Dead to Evil Dead II in terms of resources! But as Bruce says, there's no rush on it, because the longer it takes the closer he comes to looking like the character!

What about your segment in the new Masters of Horror series?

Well, my episode is complete and I'm really proud of it. Once again, it's based on a beautiful story by Joe Lansdale [author of Bubba Ho-Tep] that on the surface seems to be a traditional 'woman in the woods at night versus a serial killer' thing, but it has some really wicked twists and different layers to it. And get this! When I went in for pre-production, the episode that was shooting was by the great Dario Argento; so I got to watch him at work, and he was just a really sweet guy. I'd heard these stories that he was very dark and strange, but he was a very nice guy and I liked him quite a bit.

Finally, what about the fifth Phantasm movie that we sometimes hear about? Was Phantasm IV really the last? Will the legendary Phantasm 1999 script by Pulp Fiction writer Roger Avary ever see the light of day?

Well, that's always the question: "When's the next one?" I'm in an interesting quandary here: should I take the time to make one, or should I go off and make other movies? I don't know. We could easily do a straight-to-DVD release. It's something I'm considering. The actors are still in pretty good shape. The other option is... well, there's been a lot of interest from studios in buying the franchise outright. That's a possibility. I've resisted that so far, but who knows? As soon as any decisions are made, we'll post them on www.phantasm.com.

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Don Coscarelli and Phantasm
Don Coscarelli and Phantasm
  Don Coscarelli and Phantasm
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