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Tall Tales:
The Man Behind Phantasm
An Interview with Don Coscarelli



Without 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 done it.

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 into it?

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, Dracula, The 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 sequel someday...

Doogan: Is it hard to work outside of the system, and make the movies you want for as long as you have?

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 sequels.

Doogan: What was Universal's bluff? Why did James LeGros end up replacing A. Michael Baldwin in Phantasm II?

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 digital effects.

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.

Doogan: Phantasm 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 Beastmaster?

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 Elvis.

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 project (click 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...

---end---

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 full-length review). Thanks again!


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