No one can accuse Don Coscarelli of coming to success the easy way. The director, producer and writer has always looked for the unusual: making films far outside the mainstream that march to a beat that is uniquely their own. That started with the original Phantasm in 1979: a seemingly throwaway horror movie that morphed into a cult classic. Four more Phantasm movies followed – all but one of them directed by Coscarelli – but he didn’t let them box him in. In the interim, he directed (and in many cases wrote) the likes of The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End: strange and wondrous movies that defy obvious categorization. The fifth (and presumably last) Phantasm movie – Phantasm: Ravager – opens this week, and while Coscarelli eschewed director’s duties this time, he remained an integral part of the team, with producing and co-writing credits. In an exclusive interview, he talked with us about his long, strange road to cinematic notoriety.
Question: Did you think you’d be talking about Phantasm as a franchise almost 40 years after diving into the first film?
Don Coscarelli: 100% no. honestly, it’s a mystery and a blessing to me. The dream was to just get the film completed. It was a very ambitious film for the budget involved. We just wanted to get the effects finished, get it out, and get it into a few theaters. We made that movie before any kind of taped media, VHS, cable or anything like that. The idea that people would be able to watch it over and over just wasn’t on the radar. It’s amazing that it’s turned into what it is. A real out-of-body experience to tell you the truth.
Q: What’s changed from then until now as far as putting small movies like these together? The filmmaking landscape is so different not.
DC: It’s sure a lot easier to make movies these days, with the digital tools that everybody has. You can make feature-grade movie effects on your home computer. At the same time, we’re transitioning as far as formats go. DVDs gave this incredible infusion of money into the business, and it helped little filmmakers a lot. But now that format is dying. It’s all streaming now, and while that makes it easier to find distribution, it also means there isn’t nearly as much money coming in. You need to make movies on a much smaller budget. But that’s the price you pay for widening the playing field. Everything is just wide open, and anyone can make a movie and find distribution if they want. So long as you can stay within a small budget, the possibilities are limitless.
Q: What is it about this franchise that has helped it endure? This is something different than, say, Halloween or Friday the 13th.
DC: Certainly there’s a level of consistency with the Phantasm movies as far as participants go. We rarely bring in a new director, and we haven’t brought in any new writers, and we haven’t changed the actors up much. We posed so many questions in the first movie that people have been thinking about and chewing on for years. So when we got around to Phantasm II, we had lots of answers to give them. But we couldn’t answer all of them. So every time we came onto a new movie, we had more questions to deal with.
You don’t see that in other horror franchises. I never knock the other guy’s product, and this isn’t a criticism, just an observation of difference. But their roadmap tends to be “bring in a new creative team to do something interesting and different with the core idea.” New actors, new directors, everything changes except maybe the bad guy. We’ve made a series where the same people come back to these questions over the course of decades. That gives Phantasm the kind of vibe you’re talking about, I think.
Q: This is the first Phantasm movie you haven’t directed. Tell us about the decision to hand the reins over to David Hartman.
DC: It came about very naturally and organically. Dave is an animation director by day: he’s done terrific work lately with the Transformers: Prime TV show. He’d also worked on one of my favorite shows of recent years, called Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles. And he has a lot of range; those two shows are very adult and dark, but he’s worked on My Friends Tigger and Pooh for Disney too. So he can wear a lot of hats. Then on the weekends – almost every weekend it seemed – he and his friends would go out and shoot live-action shorts. Some of them were very clever, and I loved them.
He’d done some visual effects work for me on Bubba Ho-Tep and some stuff on John Dies at the End as well. One day he came to me and said, “how about we go out this weekend and shoot a Phantasm short?” It just sounded like a really cool idea. I got ahold of Reggie Bannister, and he was up for it. We had this great idea about Reggie’s character meeting a girl on the road that wouldn’t end up well with her. We went out and shot a couple of scenes, and I had so much fun. I enjoyed just adding a few ideas here and there, doing some of the lighting and camera work. It was just fun stuff.
We decided there that we could make a feature film out of it. So we did. It was very similar to how we made the original Phantasm. Bunch of friends, small crew, and these wonderful actors letting them do their thing.
One of the nice things about this entry is that we give the cast just a lot more dialogue. Angus Scrimm has never had so much to say! He was really excited to do something a little different like this, and I think we feed off of his energy and excitement. It worked out really nicely in the end.
Q: You tend to shy away from neat answers. You revel in the mystery of things. John Dies at the End is a great example.
DC: You can get slapped down a bit for that. [Laughs] We tend to want everything explained for us in the movies, and again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there’s a part of the audience that likes chewing over interesting questions, and as long as you ask them in an interesting way, that audience is going to respond. I studied at the feet of the master as far as that goes. Stanley Kubrick. 2001. It’s my favorite movie from 8th grade on, and let me tell you: they don’t explain a lot in that movie. I’m still pondering those questions and loving it. I try to achieve that same feeling with my films. I try to leave a little mystery for the audience to ponder. I hope I’ve been successful at it.