Since introducing horror fans to the fearsome flying spheres and terrifying Tall Man in Phantasm back in 1979, writer/director/producer Don Coscarelli has remained one of our most imaginative independent filmmakers.
With three Phantasm sequels under his belt as well as helming several other unique flicks including The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep and his latest trippy affair- John Dies at the End, Coscarelli remains fiercely loyal to bringing strange and haunting stories to life even after more than 35 years in the business.
Dread Central recently had the opportunity to sit down for an in-depth interview with Coscarelli while in Austin, Texas for the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, and after we had the opportunity to hear from the filmmaker regarding John Dies at the End, we also jumped at the opportunity to hear more from him regarding his ties to the independent horror world as well as a myriad of other topics in honor of Dread Central’s Indie Horror Month celebration.
Check out some of the highlights of our chat with Coscarelli below and make sure to check back every day this March for more coverage for Indie Horror Month!
Dread Central: So why do you think you’ve always remained an independent horror filmmaker throughout your career; is it easier to tell these stories without a studio breathing down your neck?
Don Coscarelli: Why am I always doing independent movies? I think it’s because I’m firmly in the niche of bizarre stories; it’s not really a career that I chose necessarily because I don’t think you can really ‘choose’ your career. But looking back now, I can see this path that I’ve taken while making all of these movies and I think that’s why I’ve always enjoyed being independent.
I have a feeling that had certain things changed or different opportunities would have presented themselves that I would have done things a little differently than I have. I mean, there are the few independent movies that make it through and win occasionally but these days, it all comes down to the marketing and I don’t necessarily make movies that can be easily marketed, that’s for sure (laughs).
DC: Like Bubba Ho-Tep, I’m sure!
Don Coscarelli: Exactly like Bubba Ho-Tep! (Laughs) But who would have ever thought that Bubba Ho-Tep would have this kind of cult following? Everyone thought I was crazy when I would show them the script for it. And for some reason, it’s had a lot of resonance since we made it. I think maybe that has a bit to do with the fact that the movie- while it’s out there- also has some pretty serious elements going on as well. I think it has something to do with aging with dignity and how for all of us, our ultimate fate is a rest home at the end of your life. I mean, it’s a pretty sad thought which we all kind of ignore. But not to be a complete downer, Bubba Ho-Tep has some great laughs and some great ridiculous stuff too so maybe that’s the real reason (laughs).
DC: Well, let’s talk about one project that I know horror fans will most likely never get to see now- Bubba Nosferatu which I know you were planning on making with Paul Giamatti. It was awesome to see him be a part of John Dies but can you talk about what happened there exactly? Is there any hope for the project at this point now?
Don Coscarelli: Paul and I were going to work on Bubba Nosferatu, yes; he’s so great and that’s why he’s in John Dies. In some ways, Paul has become the patron saint of genre arts- he really loves doing these oddball horror movies and he’s a huge champion for what we do. There was a Variety interview one year sometime around Awards Season and they asked Paul ‘what director would you like to work with?’ and he answered ‘Don Coscarelli because I loved Bubba Ho-Tep’ which was just stunning to me.
I met him and immediately felt such a kinship with him- my plan in fact was that upon meeting him, I decided I wanted to somehow fold him in to this planned Bubba Ho-Tep sequel. I really wanted to explore some different areas or sides of Elvis. I’ve become quite the Elvisphile now actually.
I really had this interest in how Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, had this Svengali-like hold over Elvis; I mean- where did that come from? Why would he let Parker control his choice of movies so he could only do all this crap? Why was he paying this guy fifty percent of his earnings? Why was he not allowed to travel outside of the US? I’ll tell you why- because Colonel Parker was not legal; he immigrated illegally from Holland and he wouldn’t dare let Elvis go anywhere he couldn’t.
I mean, Elvis never played Japan. Elvis never toured Europe; the biggest star in the world never visited that world. So obviously there is only one answer- vampirism. My co-writer, Steven Romano, and I concocted this wonderful story about really telling the path of Colonel Parker and the path of Elvis and how these guys met and formed this bond. I really thought this screenplay was one of my greatest accomplishments. Paul loved it but Bruce Campbell has declined to take part in it so it just got shot down and has kind of evaporated into thin air at this point. I know I’d still love to do it but I think we’ve all moved on now.
There was a moment we were considering shooting the project with Ron but at the time, it sort of felt like that script had kind of lost its mojo- so to speak. So I think that’s probably a dead and gone project now.
DC: But I think there are still good and inventive stories out there that you’ll find- you’ve always managed to do something unique in all your films. As someone who’s also a movie fan, are those the kinds of stories you respond to as a viewer too?
Don Coscarelli: You know, the stories that I love generally tend to be something unexpected. For example, the story in the Masters of Horror episode that I did (“Incident On and Off a Mountain Road”) which was based on Joe Lansdale’s story had a lot of great twists to it. But when I first read it, it starts off kind of like a Chain Saw Massacre type of story and then you start to pull back the layers of it, the story starts to become one about survivalism and abuse and female empowerment even. That’s the kind of story that jumps out at me.
Audiences tend to respond when you can give them something they aren’t expecting, if you can toss in those elements that they’ll never see coming. So I’m always looking to do something that has a little surprise to it.
DC: You’ve managed to stay independent all of these years; do you feel like that will always be the case with your career in the future too?
Don Coscarelli: I always like to think there are other outlets out there besides staying as truly independent as I have throughout my career. There really is some great stuff going on in the world of cable television now even that wasn’t the case just a few years ago. I mean, if “The Walking Dead” can become this huge global phenomenon, then there’s just a glimmer of hope that they may enjoy making the kind of stories that I like too. So there are opportunities out there.
But of course, I still want to continue to do the things that I like to do- in a financially responsible way, make movies and tell interesting stories. There’s something to be said about making movies with a limited budget; it really requires you to focus and put all your focus on the story and how you’re going to be creative about getting the movie made with not a lot of money.
DC: One thing I wanted to ask about in regards to Phantasm is that we haven’t really heard about a remake or anything for a while and you’d think with Hollywood remaking everything these days that we’d see news about a new version of The Tall Man coming sooner than later. Is this because you’ve kept a close eye on making sure a remake doesn’t happen?
Don Coscarelli: There is a lot of interest in a remake of Phantasm actually; there has been for the last eight or nine years. I had one offer that was looking pretty good that didn’t work out at the last minute and probably ended up being a good thing really. On its simplest level, it would be great especially if you could find a director that had a fresh take on it and could bring something new to the franchise. It could be something wonderful if someone could come in and make a movie that respected the iconography of the original films and do a modern spin on that.
I am a Phantasm fan myself because after all these years, I now see these movies through the eyes of the fans so it would be wonderful if we lived in a perfect world that a Phantasm remake would happen like that. But we just don’t so the powers that be would just get whatever flavor of the month director they could to direct a Phantasm remake and then cast it with a bunch of kids from The CW network, and that’s just not the right approach. It’s a real slippery slope, which is why a remake hasn’t happened yet but I think if the right opportunity arose, I’d be absolutely up for it; until then, I’m just going to stay on this career path for now.
DC: Well, if a remake of Phantasm doesn’t come to fruition, is it a franchise you’d maybe like to revisit sometime soon then?
Don Coscarelli: Listen, I love Reggie Bannister and I love Angus Scrimm and they’re all friends still; they all still look good too so you never know. We’re always trying to cook up something so never say never. Check back with me in about six months; I may have something more to talk about then (laughs).
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