Man Behind Phantasm
An Interview with Don Coscarelli
a doubt, one of independent film's most interesting and pioneering
filmmakers, is Don Coscarelli. Even if I had only seen his original
Phantasm film, I would still
be a huge fan of his. Don has taken that film and created his own
universe, and a legion of fans have followed him into it. Don's no
one-hit wonder though. He's been making films since God only knows
(professionally since he was 18, with Jim
the World's Greatest), and is also responsible for that
barbaric Dr. Doolittle, The Beastmaster.
The first thing you get from hearing Don talk, is that he really
knows his stuff - technically and historically. I recently had the
pleasure of e-mailing him back and forth, and what came out was an
interview of sorts. It's a good companion piece to the MGM DVD
special edition of Phantasm
that came out last month, and gives great insight into the mind of a
filmmaker (note that the following text does contain some spoilers).
Read on, and you'll discover Don's thoughts on film school,
independent film, and what could possibly happen if you eat a
pastrami sandwich with him...
Todd Doogan - The Digital Bits:
I understand that you didn't go to film school - I read that you
were denied entry into UCLA. Do you think film school is a necessary
thing in hindsight, or would you advise would-be filmmakers that if
you love film, just make a movie?
Don Coscarelli: Film schools
are good for some things. If you're a political animal, the high-end
ones like USC can be good for making industry contacts. Most are
good for providing access to equipment and students for crew. A few
have critical studies departments, which can be really important in
exposing one to challenging films and intelligent criticism. By and
large, I have found most film programs to be very expensive trade
schools. The old saying goes, "self taught is best taught".
I would tend to agree with those who counsel that the tens of
thousands of dollars spent on a film school education could be
applied to making a film. I can guarantee that your first feature
film will be one hell of an education that you will never forget.
Doogan: Your first two films
were comedy/dramas, but you're known mostly as a horror/fantasy
filmmaker. That begs me to ask -- do you find labels offensive?
Would you simply like to be known as a filmmaker, and not have a
genre tacked onto that?
Don Coscarelli: I guess I'm
luckier than most to even have a label attached to me. There is no
question though that this particular label makes it very difficult
to gain respect from the people who finance movies. However, since
my first exposure to the power of cinema was from genre films, I am
proud to wear the label.
Doogan: How does it make you
feel to be responsible for a modern-day myth like Phantasm?
I mean that as an introspective question, because I think we've all
fantasized about creating a modern-day myth, and you've actually
Don Coscarelli: I'm humbled by
your comments. I have to be honest; I had no plans, when I made this
film, to create a myth. I was only trying to make an effective
low-budget movie, which might propel an audience member or two out
of their seats on occasion. If anything, it was the fans who
elevated our little tale into myth.
Doogan: With that being said,
did you ever have a master plan for Phantasm,
or did you just revisit it every once in a while to make the films?
Don Coscarelli: At the
beginning there was no master plan. The original Phantasm
was intended to be a stand-alone film. However, after seeing how
Phantasm II worked (starting
the sequel the moment after the original ended), and the power of
the fan response to the sequel and their speculations, the pattern
of the storyline evolved easily. I now understand that the Tall Man
is even more enterprising than I could ever have imagined, as I have
come to believe he wants nothing less than world domination and the
annihilation of our species.
Doogan: I know that you said
you made Phantasm because you
enjoyed the audience reaction when you had a thrill in Kenny
& Company, but Phantasm
is SCARY. And it's not just that "Boo!" kind of scary
either -- it's psychologically frightening. The first time I ever
saw the film, when I was a kid, I was struck at how emotionally sad
the whole thing was. Michael's brother is dead, and the whole film
(up until the twist ending) was just a dream by a boy who lost his
best friend. Was that intentional? Did you inject a psychological
knowledge into it, or am I just being a fanboy and reading too much
Don Coscarelli: The component
of orphaned brothers, with the younger terrified that the older
would leave him, was very important from the beginning. Many of the
other themes were added as we were shooting and editing the film.
Keep in mind that Phantasm was
photographed and edited over a year and a half period, and some of
the decisions, especially as to the ending, weren't made until we
were very well along.
Doogan: Do you think that the
idea of sequels "hurts" the power of the horror film genre
-- or is it a genre built to have a distinct mythology to it?
Don Coscarelli: Sequels have
been with us from the beginning in horror, from Frankenstein,
Mummy and The Wolfman.
Some of those sequels were better than the original films. I think
that, at its best, the concept of horror sequels allows us the
luxury of immersing ourselves in the nightmarish world of horror,
and experiencing these strange characters and bizarre situations
over a substantial time period.
Doogan: If the Phantasm
DVD special edition does one thing, it shows that Angus Scrimm is a
ham and a half (with the intro, the 1979 interviews and his World
Of Horror presentation). Scrimm comes off quite well in
the films, so I was wondering if Scrimm had a tendency to ham it up
during the production. Was it hard to reel him in on set, or did you
do most of your directing in the editing bay?
Don Coscarelli: I wouldn't go
so far as to call Angus a "ham", but I do tend to shackle
him a bit when we are filming. When he gets the opportunity to
portray the Tall Man when I'm not around, like in the Fangoria
TV commercial, he likes to have some fun with it. Most talented
actors relish the opportunity to stretch their characters.
Doogan: You've said that Phantasm
came to you from a dream. What sort of details to you remember from
that dream, and what did you pull from that dream that formed the
basis for what ended up on screen?
Don Coscarelli: I was in my
teens, and what I can remember had mainly to do with my fleeing down
endlessly long marble corridors, pursued by a chrome sphere intent
on penetrating my skull with a wicked needle. There was a quite
futuristic "sphere dispenser" out of which the orbs would
emerge and begin chase. As far as I can remember, the spheres never
caught up with me. They still haven't.
Doogan: Yours is one of the
only horror villains (The Tall Man) that doesn't have even a remote
comic edge to his personality. He's all business, and it really
works in making him an even more hardcore villain. Do you not mix
your horror and your comedy on a character level (because Reggie
adds that comic element story-wise that helps alleviate the tension
in the series)? And how did Scrimm help influence that character?
Don Coscarelli: From the
beginning, there was one certain thing about which Angus and I were
in full agreement -- the Tall Man would be deadly serious. However,
there was a moment at the first sneak preview (Angus came in
disguise), where we were both quite shaken. When the Tall Man
clamped his hand on Jody in the mausoleum corridor ("The
funeral is about to begin, sir") the audience jumped, shrieked,
and then burst into laughter. At the time, we didn't know what to
think. Had we failed or succeeded with his character? As time
passed, and we watched more screenings, we came to understand that
the audience was terrified of the Tall Man, and was just laughing in
relief at their surprise. Audiences have a fascination with his
character, and seem to actually enjoy watching him doing his nasty
deeds. I think this stems in large part from the subtle talents
Angus uses in portraying this wicked and complex character.
Doogan: How did you hook up
with your everyman hero Reggie Bannister?
Don Coscarelli: I was casting
my first film, Jim The World's Greatest.
I was told about this actor from the local City College, and I went
down to this nearby beer bar where he was playing guitar. I sat
through his first set and was entranced by what a cool presence he
had. The crowd loved him. Afterwards, I went over and was
introduced. He was the warmest, friendliest guy I'd ever met. Plus
he bought me a couple beers (I was just 18 at the time), and by the
time the bar closed the role was his.
Doogan: How hard is it to be
an independent filmmaker in today's current Hollywood? Do you get
regular offers to do mainstream films for studios and turn them
down? If so, why? If you pull a healthy check for a mainstream film,
doesn't that give you extra edge over putting out the movies you
want without studio influence?
Don Coscarelli: Getting movies
made is difficult for everybody, independent or mainstream. I'm not
sure the Phantasm films have
had much impact on the mainstream potentates who run the business.
There was one studio head that was a fan, and he financed Phantasm
II. That's about it. So consequently, the offers I get
are pretty low-end horror sequels. I've always had an aversion to
doing sequels to other people's films, and have turned down some
interesting offers over the years, including Conan
the Destroyer (bad script), and Nightmare
on Elm Street II (seemed like bad karma at the time to do
it). More recently, I've passed on another Warlock
sequel and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2000.
Of course, I'm still hoping they'll throw me an Alien
Doogan: Is it hard to work
outside of the system, and make the movies you want for as long as
Don Coscarelli: Harder than
what? Reggie Bannister was out of work after one of the early Phantasms,
and had to work as a mason's assistant, lugging concrete blocks,
getting ridiculed by the construction crew, etc. Now that was hard
work! When I heard about his predicament, I got the funding for the
next sequel going as soon as I could. Truthfully, working outside
the system has been very difficult for me. Perhaps if I had focussed
my energies more on breaking into the system in a conventional way,
and not spent as much time on the Phantasm
series, I could have made more, varied, and certainly bigger
budgeted films. But I have to admit -- making movies with balls,
dwarves, hearses and four-barrel shotguns is a hoot!
Doogan: Okay, you mention it
in the commentary, but you don't answer -- WHY do the grandmother
and granddaughter fortune-tellers laugh when Michael leaves the
house? And why did you kill the granddaughter off right after? What
was the significance of that?
Don Coscarelli: Who said the
granddaughter is dead? When we last saw her, she was investigating
the "white room", and she let out a shriek. You'll
remember that later in the original Phantasm,
Reggie tells Jody and Mike that he helped several girls escape. Some
fans believe that the grandmother is the evil power behind the Tall
Man. Other fans think she's of no consequence. I'm keeping my
opinions on this to myself...
Doogan: What do you think is
the importance of "boogey men" in our culture?
Don Coscarelli: There is a
certain comfort in being afraid of something you are not sure is
real. Death is real, catastrophic illness is real, getting shot dead
in the street by a stranger is real. Frankenstein, Dracula, Michael
Myers and the Tall Man are not real. However, spending a few hours
in the dark with these characters takes your mind off the real "boogey
men" in our lives, and gives one a chance to experience real
fear and terror. But when the lights come up, things are okay.
Doogan: Do you regret anything
about these films? In other words, do you wish you did some things
differently, and what are those things (if any)?
Don Coscarelli: I guess if I
had any regret regarding the Phantasm
series, it would be that A. Michael Baldwin did not star in Phantasm
II. I sometimes think I should have called Universal's
bluff, and given them a take it-or leave it ultimatum. However, they
very well might have chosen not to make the film, and there might
not have been any Phantasm
Doogan: What was Universal's
bluff? Why did James LeGros end up replacing A. Michael Baldwin in
Don Coscarelli: When Universal
Pictures decided to finance Phantasm II,
they placed certain conditions, and one was that a young, working
actor was needed to play Mike. As A. Michael Baldwin had been out of
the movie business for several years, the executives insisted on
another choice. James LeGros is a very talented actor and, in my
opinion, did a remarkable job with the role. However, Baldwin had
been one of the major reasons the original Phantasm
was so successful, he should have been the star of Phantasm
II. When funding became available for Phantasm
III, there were no restrictions on cast, and I eagerly
approached Mike about returning to the role.
Doogan: Every filmmaker has a
hero, so who are your heroes and why?
Don Coscarelli: There are
three great filmmakers I admire, who were/are very independent and,
to me, very inspirational. D.W. Griffith, for inventing the modern
language of film. Stanley Kubrick, for directing my favorite film
(see below). And George Lucas for not only writing and directing
many of my favorite films, but also for almost single-handedly
dragging the film industry, kicking and screaming, into the modern
age with his visionary influence on film sound, film editing and
Doogan: Is there anyone out
there coming up that makes you smile, because you can see the
potential in their work? What advice would you give them so that
they can continue to rise up?
Don Coscarelli: I always enjoy
chatting with aspiring filmmakers. I probably spend too much time
doing it, at the expense of my work time. But their energy is
infectious, and I find it's mostly time well spent. A few years ago,
I used to talk for hours with an aspiring young writer who I knew
had talent, and he ended up winning an Academy Award (Roger Avary -
Pulp Fiction). His partner
Quentin came over to my office, and I'd take him out for pastrami
sandwiches. There's a young horror director, Leif Jonker, out in
Kansas who finances his films by selling his own blood at the local
blood bank. He made a feature Super-8 vampire epic that I loved.
This past year, I've been working as a mentor with the Independent
Feature Project/West's Project involve. The young Philippino
filmmaker I've been working with, Patricio Ginelsa, Jr., has great
talent. I really can't give aspiring filmmakers much advice... they
each must find their own voice. But I can tell them about the
mistakes I've made, and steer them clear of some of the sharks
lurking in this business.
Doogan: What do you think
about film critics?
Don Coscarelli: I don't think
about them much. I think they are pretty irrelevant. I personally
don't read reviews until after I see the film in question. Why would
one read a dissection of a movie prior to seeing it? I wouldn't want
to know the final score of a World Series game prior to watching it!
And if I chose to read the review after seeing the film, it's a
struggle to dig through the recycling bin looking for that dirty,
week-old movie section. I think it's common industry knowledge that
film critic's opinions don't have much effect on box-office. It's
also pretty well known that the quickest way to succeed as a critic,
is to rip films in a clever way. Editors like critics who can trash
their way through a review, making snappy work of some poor
filmmaker. Critics also generally have a herd mentality, they seem
to like or hate all the same films. It's a little known fact, but
most critics start out as sports writers, then get "promoted"
to film criticism. It's not like in Europe, where they study
criticism at the university. What really bugs me is the disdain with
which critics treat the genre. When they deign to even soil their
hands with a horror film review, they don't dare treat the film
seriously, and only admit guiltily that they might have liked a "film
like that". There's nothing like struggling for a couple years
to make a film, collaborating with talented actors and dedicated
crew on a project you all believe has some kind of small merit, and
then two loud clowns on national TV use your material to sell
advertising, and then quickly dismiss you with "two thumbs down".
Doogan: What's so fascinating
about death? Why are we all so drawn to it?
Don Coscarelli: What's
fascinating, is that we are the only species that knows we are going
to die, yet we spend our lives disbelieving and ignoring this truth.
We are drawn to it, because death is the great unknown... it's a
blank slate our world human culture has been desperately trying to
fill since recorded time.
Doogan: Being that you and
your film are icons of the horror film genre, what are your personal
feelings about violence in entertainment? Are filmmakers today too
free to show violence?
Don Coscarelli: I think on the
contrary. This past year, the climate in Hollywood has changed
drastically in regard to on-screen violence due to the school
shootings. This year would have been a very difficult one to get a
Phantasm film past the MPAA
Ratings Board. I believe violence is an important component of
entertainment. Historically, most great drama hinges on violence.
Delete the violence from Shakespeare, and you'll eviscerate his
work. I also believe that violence is frequently used by filmmakers
in an inappropriate manner. I think that we are all capable of
deciding what films we want to see. I think that children should
view age appropriate films. I believe it's the parent's
responsibility to be aware of what their children are watching.
Doogan: Any plans for an uncut
Phantasm II special edition?
Don Coscarelli: Well, Phantasm
II is controlled by Universal Studios. I have not heard
of any plans on their part to release a special edition. However, I
know there is a lot of cool stuff in my film vaults which might be
worth digging out...
Doogan: What do you love most
about the Phantasm "Phans"?
Don Coscarelli: Their
intelligent and interesting analysis of the films. Some of the
speculation can be very deep, and sometimes fans find amazing
connections, which neither I nor the actors have made. Other
comments can be whimsical, like the fan who wrote to phantasm.com
yesterday wanting to know if the letters on Reggie's license plate,
RAH, were intended to stand for Reggie's Awesome Hemi.
aside, you're also responsible for The
Beastmaster, which is something like the most watched
program on cable TV ever (well, that and Road
House). You've talked about how that film was taken away
from you at times. What would have been different about your
fully-controlled version of The
Don Coscarelli: That's very
hard to say, as the creative interference on that film by the
Executive Producer was so pervasive. However, on the surface, The
Beastmaster would have been very obviously different. I
wrote the villainous role for the late Klaus Kinski, who was not
cast over a $5,000 dispute. I had several readings with an
eighteen-year-old Demi Moore, who had never been in a film. The
executive producer decided she couldn't act, and selected Tanya
Roberts instead. The animal trainer was fired, and another "friend"
of the Executive Producer hired. This Executive Producer had me
forcibly removed from the editing room, and recut my version
entirely. Suffice to say, it would be impossible to gauge what my "fully
controlled version" would have been. However, there are some
things in the film I am very proud of, and I'm pleased that, despite
the creative problems, many people worldwide have enjoyed the film.
Doogan: What are the plans for
that on DVD?
Don Coscarelli: I don't know
who currently controls the DVD rights, and what their plans are.
However, I know someone who has stored away a copy of Tanya Robert's
other, deleted, nude scene. I know a lot of fans would like to see
that in the DVD.
Doogan: What's the project you
have going with Joe Landsdale? By the way, I love his Steel
Valentine short, and the thing he did in The
Book of the Dead.
Don Coscarelli: Joe's an
immensely gifted writer. I've been a fan of his work for a decade
now, and have optioned several of his stories. I'm currently
adapting one called Bubba Ho-tep.
It's set in East Texas, and among other things, it contains a
soul-sucking mummy, and tells the true story of what happened to
Doogan: Will there ever come a
time that you'll shoot the Roger Avary script sequel? How much would
it cost (in time and money) to bring it to the screen?
Don Coscarelli: The current
title of the project is Phantasm 2012
A.D.. It wouldn't cost much to fund in Hollywood terms,
just $10 million. There is a cool fan website dedicated to the
here). Roger's script is amazing. We did our best to get the
script funded, but the "suits" and the "big-shots"
just don't get it. Perhaps in time they will.
Doogan: Okay, well - let me
close by asking my trademark question. The end result of your films
occurs, and the world is a graveyard. You are given the job of
saving one single film for all-time. What is that film, and why
would you save it?
Don Coscarelli: This is an
impossible choice. But, I would "dance wit' the girl that brung
me". Which is, I would select 2001:
A Space Odyssey, because this is the film that introduced
me to the power of the medium. I could write about this great film
for pages, but suffice it to say that it incorporates, technology,
anthropology, spiritualism, and damn fine editing, music and
photographic composition, into one unified artistic work. It also
holds up on a second viewing...
Editor's Note: We'd like to
thank Don for taking the time to answer these questions. Jump on
over the the official
website of Phantasm, and
check out everything going on over there. We hope enjoyed this
interview, and we urge you to take a look at the special edition DVD
version of Don's incredibly spooky film Phantasm
(and be sure to read our
review). Thanks again!