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Past Article

Elvis, JFK and the Tall Man: a talk with Don Coscarelli
By Jonathan Marlow
May 25, 2004 - 11:45 AM PDT

The only idea that I've ever taken from a dream.

Marlow: Where did the silver ball come from?

Coscarelli: That's the only idea that I've ever taken from a dream. I had this dream where I was in some kind of corridor being pursued by a calm sphere. It never really caught me and it didn't have any devices or drills or anything like that. A lot of times you can come up with an image like that and you throw it out to the people that are actually going to construct the items and sometimes they come up with interesting additions and embellishments. The guy who actually constructed the sphere props for us actually chopped up pieces of foam rubber so that there would be bits of brain in the blood. It didn't really show in the film, unfortunately.

Marlow: How did the notion of the tuning fork originate?

Coscarelli: That was something that came up... Phantasm was written and edited and shot concurrently. I had a script that had a lot of weaknesses and flaws in it. We started shooting, we stopped shooting. We went into this plan where we'd shoot on weekends and take the five days off in-between and prep and rewrite. I probably shot three or four different endings for the movie. The tuning forks were never in the original screenplay. They really came out of working with those poles. One day, the connection was made that they hummed and they looked like tuning forks. I thought, "How can we tie that in? Oh, we're going to shoot that scene with Reggie and the guitar and we'll have him tune the thing with the tuning fork." The free-form style of it came out of the way the movie was made.

Marlow: You were the DP on your first three films?

Coscarelli: When I started Jim, I was nineteen. I got my father to put up a small amount of money. A neighborhood friend and I co-directed it. We hired this guy to shoot the thing and after a week we were over schedule. We had these arguments and he left the project. We didn't have any money so we had to shoot the film ourselves. On student films you do all your own photography so it's not that big of leap. As I learned later, the great cinematographers obviously have learned a lot of tricks over the years, but to get some sort of exposure of an image isn't all that difficult if you know how to use a light meter. When I did Kenny & Company, I didn't have any money to be able to afford a cinematographer, so I just took that on. The same thing happened with Phantasm. It really complicates life for a director. It's hard to stay focused when you have to worry about that stuff. I didn't do it after that. That's part of making movies; maybe the most fun part is the photography. That's what attracted me to it.

Marlow: The photography in Phantasm is quite striking. You say that this is a necessity of the low budget. Your mother did costume design and make-up. It's part of the same necessity, I presume.

Coscarelli: If you've ever seen the Mickey Rooney Andy Hardy movies - "Let's put on a show!" That's what it was. Looking back on Phantasm, we're really lucky that certain elements on it came together in terms of the effects and some of the production design. There's nothing like having someone who has a sense of style and design to paint and build the sets for you.

Bruce Campbell and Company in Bubba Ho-tep

Marlow: It seems like in the Phantasm films, and in your most recent, Bubba Ho-Tep, you seem to be attracted to the reluctant hero. Is that inaccurate to say?

Coscarelli: No, in my mind the core essence of a hero is someone forced into action by circumstances and loyalty. That, to me, is the nature of heroism. I tend to be more impressed by people that can rise exponentially to the occasion when things get tough. It's hard to take that philosophy and apply it to Elvis [laughs].

Marlow: I think of the music in Phantasm as one spectacular component of the film. Was it Fred Myrow or Malcolm Seagrave that came up with the main theme?

Coscarelli: Hard to know. Fred's no longer with us, so I don't know if I'll ever really know that. I do remember that the two of them were very excited when they had the theme. They had me over to Fred's house and Fred sat down and played it. Immediately, Malcolm jumped in next to him and they did the B-side part of the theme. I don't know where it came from, honestly. It was wonderful. One of the great turning points of any movie, if it's going to achieve any level of greatness, is the score. It's terrifying, because I know the impact and the value of having a theme that unites everything. You need the glue that holds it together. Usually, you've already paid the composer and you go into the session and he or she plays that theme and, if it's not right, "What happened?" It's kind of a terrifying moment for a filmmaker.

Marlow: The fourth film opens almost in a "last week on Phantasm" vein. I've read somewhere about a fifth installment, presumably the last?

Coscarelli: The fifth film that's in the IMDb isn't correct. After Roger Avary received the Oscar? for co-writing Pulp Fiction with Quentin, he had this crazy idea in his mind that he would write the epic be-all-end-all Phantasm sequel. It's a really wonderful script, but it's epic and ultra-violent and expensive. For years, we've been trying to get it funded and it just never came together. But, with the renewed interest in these remakes of movies, there's a lot of interest around Phantasm. I've been taking some meetings. Angus and Reggie are still in great shape a raring to go. I hope that we can pull one more movie out of the hat.

Marlow: I noticed Roger is thanked in the end credits of Phantasm IV. Coincidentally enough, we both appear in the end credits of another movie - Porn Star.

Coscarelli: How do you know Scott [Gill, the director of Porn Star]?

Marlow: In my earlier life, I licensed some footage from a cartoon featuring Ron Jeremy to Scott. How was he to work with as editor on Oblivion and Bubba Ho-Tep?

Coscarelli: He's a great, great guy.

Marlow: He had plenty of swell things to say about you, too.

Coscarelli: He was also an associate editor of Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead. He's a really talented filmmaker. I personally thought that Porn Star was one of the funniest movies that I saw that year.

Marlow: Indeed, it's great.

Coscarelli: When I did Bubba Ho-Tep, Scott wasn't available all of the time and the other editor [Donald Milne] wasn't available all of the time. I did some of the editing myself, although those guys get credit and certainly deserve it. A lot of directors these days like to edit their own films. I really like bringing it around to Scott. I think that it's really wonderful to have somebody like that that you can sit down with and sort of reassess everything. It gives you a sounding board and a collaborator at a time when you really need it. I would love to make more movies with Scott but he's pursuing the directing thing now so he's not available anymore.

Marlow: Tell me a little bit about The Beastmaster. How did you come to make that film?

Coscarelli: I wanted to do something different after Phantasm. I'd always been a big fan of the muscle movies, "Sword & Sandal" epics with Steve Reeves, when I was a kid. I liked that stuff a lot. I also liked Disney movies that involved animals. I had read this book called The Beastmaster, written by Andre Norton, and I always thought about adapting it. I started working with a friend [Paul Pepperman] on it and we decided to abandon the plot of the book, taking the concept of a guy that works with animals and giving it sort of a Bronze Age feel.

As for the finished film, the movie was sort of my Waterloo. It was the first film I ever made in a professional surrounding. There was a lot of money at stake. Although, in retrospect, it was a $5 million budget, which was huge for me, but even at the time was still considered a low-ish budget film when you want to do warring armies and cities with pyramids and all of that. The budget was always tight and tough. The problem, basically - to raise the funding for it, we had to go to outside sources. With the outside sources came baggage. There was a lot of creative interference in the making of the movie, in terms rewriting our script and changing things, making decisions on casting, really corrupting the spirit of what we wanted to make. The bottom line is, I've got this movie with my name on it. Some parts of it are what I wanted and I'm really proud of and enjoy those parts. Other parts of it are really messed up.

The other weird thing about it is that the movie just won't go away. When we made the film, it didn't perform that well theatrically. I just thought, "Well, I'll just chalk it up as a mistake. I'll just go out and try and do something different." But then it started to take off on television. It was always playing on television and people were always talking about it. Then, those financiers made those sequels and the TV series. I kind of wish that it would just go away.

Marlow: How was it to work with your lead actor? Was he someone that the producers suggested?

Coscarelli: No, I actually selected Marc Singer. At our budget level, we couldn't find anybody that had name value. I'd seen him in a PBS version of The Taming of the Shrew. Marc had his own ideas about how things would go. It wasn't the easiest working relationship. Like I said, parts of it are great and other parts... I don't know. In my vision of the film, I wanted Klaus Kinski to play the bad guy.

Marlow: That would have been something!

Coscarelli: He was available and doing low budget movies at the time, too. It was the kind of thing where he wanted $5K more and the producers wouldn't put up the money, but they would just piss away $5K on other things. Rip Torn is a great guy and a wonderful actor, and it was a hell of a time working with him, but it would have been a different film [with Kinski]. Same thing with Tanya Roberts. The producers were from Lebanon and they didn't know what Charlie's Angels was and I just thought this would be a really bad thing. Tanya's a wonderful person, I really like her a lot and everything. I had been interviewing this "unknown actress" named Demi Moore! They said that she couldn't act, so they insisted on Tanya Roberts.

Marlow: She was a soap opera star at the time.

Coscarelli: Yeah, exactly. I think she would have been great in the movie. At any rate, that was the evolution of the making of the thing. It was very frustrating and it was also unfortunate because my long-time partner at the time, Paul Pepperman - we had made Jim, Kenny and Phantasm together - and he came on and co-wrote Beastmaster, and yet, it was such a horrendous experience that he just left the movie business. He's been very successful as a financial consultant. I'm really happy for him, in that regard.

Marlow: One film of yours that I haven't seen, a film you wrote and directed a few years later, was Survival Quest.

Coscarelli: It was another film where the financing caused me to... I don't know. Look, I made some errors on it. It's got some really good parts and a wonderful cast. I don't think Lance Henriksen has ever been better. He plays a good guy in the film. Usually, he's typecast, playing so many bad guys. Something that I've always been interested in was the Outward Bound program, the wilderness survival school kind of thing. It was about these city folks that come to the thing and there is this other, more militaristic survival school out in the same area and the two of them come to blows. It becomes kind of a chase movie at the end. It originally started off as a much tougher film and it sort of got softened up to get financed. At any rate, it's got some great actors in it. It's got this actress, Catherine Keener - it's her first film. She was just wonderful in it. She met her future husband on the set. His name is Dermot Mulroney, another great actor. It was a cool little ensemble piece and it was really fun to shoot because it was all shot out in the wilderness over about forty days.

Marlow: With your earliest films, your protagonists are rather young. With your latest, Bubba Ho-Tep, you've gone the other direction. Your characters are in an old folks home. Did someone give you the story or did you discover it on your own?

Coscarelli: No, I tracked it down. In Los Angeles, there was this really cool little sci-fi/horror genre bookshop (which is now defunct), and I used to go down there every few months and talk with the guys and ask them what was new. They turned me on to Joe Lansdale and said that he was really something worth reading. I took one of his books home and it just jumped out at me. I thought that his stories would make great films. I actually called him in Texas and he invited me down there. I went and spent a weekend with him. I read some of his other books. I tried to get one or two of his books funded - I think this was around 1991 - and never really had much luck. I lost touch with Joe for a year or two and then I went back in the bookshop, over to the Joe Lansdale section and I found a new collection of his short stories. On the dust jacket it said, "Elvis Battles Mummy." I knew Joe's style and, when I saw that, I thought, "This one looks interesting." I grabbed the book and read it. It's a beautiful short story and I thought that it would make a great movie.

Marlow: Correct me if I'm wrong - and I'm pretty sure that I'm wrong about this - but the film was intended to be part of a series? Like the Elvis character would come back at some point to solve other mysteries? Not to give anything away, but the ending of the film leaves it somewhat open-ended.

Coscarelli: It's up to interpretation. I just always felt that, much like a lot of horror franchises, you could have a lot of fun with Elvis fighting other monsters. That's why I put in that little credit: "Elvis returns in Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires." I really didn't have any intention other than to put in something funny, leave 'em laughing, at the end of the movie. The thing that's funny, working with Bruce Campbell, is that he's a very creative guy. He was going, "Yeah, I'd like to do that in the 1970s, before Elvis died. He's down in New Orleans shooting King Creole [ed. in the 1950s?] and him and the boys go off the set and get into adventures down in Louisiana with vampires." I'm thinking, "That sounds pretty good. Elvis fighting chicks with fangs. That could be pretty cool." We went to a couple of different film festivals and we started to joke about the thing and realized that you could put any monster name after "Bubba" and you'd have a sequel. Then we were thinking about Bubba Sasquatch, where Elvis would wind-up in a retirement home in the woods of the Northwest and have a tribe of killer Bigfoots [ed. Bigfeet?] coming in there and eating the old folks one by one. Elvis would have to burn some Bigfoot ass. So there are a lot of possibilities. We had a wonderful response on our theatrical release for an independent film, but to justify a sequel, as Bruce says, everybody will have to go out and buy seventeen copies of the DVD. If they do that, maybe we'll be able to do the sequel.

Ossie Davis in Bubba Ho-tep

Marlow: Never can tell. How did you come to cast Ossie Davis as JFK?

Coscarelli: The first time I read the story, he was just it for me. He popped into my mind as the only actor working in Hollywood who could make someone believe that he was John F. Kennedy. He was on a book tour with his wife. They had written a joint autobiography and they made an appearance nearby. I went out and watched them. I probably should have gone up and talked to them but I was too nervous. I didn't have the funding for the film. Seeing him in person - he was so impressive. Then it was a challenge to get him to sign on because it's not the kind of film that he's really done before and it's not the kind of thing that his agents were into him doing. It was a real challenge.

Marlow: Did you ever see a short-lived cartoon series called The Elvis and Jack Nicklaus Mysteries ["Elvis Presley and Jack Nicklaus: before they were legends, they were crime-fighting friends"]?

Coscarelli: You know, I never have. I've never even heard of it. What's the premise?

Marlow: It's the same sort of idea, if you could call it that. The golfer Jack Nicklaus and the young Elvis Presley team up in the 1950s, a la the Hardy Boys, to solve crimes, but without as much humor as Bubba Ho-Tep. How did you get Bruce Campbell to get involved in your project?

Coscarelli: Bruce was total serendipity. I had seen him appear once at a Fangoria horror convention way back in the early-1990s before the real "Bruce-mania" thing had started up. He was so exciting. The way that fans loved him, I knew that there was something going on there but I didn't really think much about it. Back when I was struggling to get the funding put together on Bubba Ho-Tep, in the mid to late 1990s, I got this phone call to my office one day from Sam Raimi's office inviting me to what was billed as a "retrospective screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind." I knew Sam and I hadn't talked to him for a little while. I didn't know that he was a Spielberg geek. It seemed a little weird but I called up to RSVP. His assistant didn't know what I was talking about, said that there wasn't a screening and that he hadn't called me. I said, "Oh, alright." The guy goes off the line and then Sam comes on the phone and he's laughing, we're laughing. It was a crank phone call. To this day, I don't know who did it. So, I'm talking with Sam and he asks, "What are you working on?" I said that I've got this movie about Elvis fighting a mummy and he goes, "Elvis!? You should get Bruce Campbell! He's a great actor. I'll have him call you!"

Ten minutes later the phone rings and it's Bruce. He says, "Hey, I hear you're making this movie." I said that we should meet. We got together for breakfast and talked about it. When I met him, he sort of has a passing resemblance to Elvis. The chin's bigger, but he's got the dark hair and good looks. I thought, "Maybe this could work." I gave him the script and he read it. I didn't have the financing at that time, so it was about a year-and-a-half later that I called him back and he was very excited to go. Honestly, I didn't know if Bruce would be able to pull the role off. In a lot of his other movies, he tends to be very broad. I was really thrilled that when we sat down, even before he got the make-up on, he started riffing on what he was going to do for the character. It was funny and touching and humorous. He really had it from the get-go.

Marlow: One of the things that I wondered while watching your movie was if Lisa Marie had seen the film...

Coscarelli: Me, too.

Marlow: It's really touching, the things that he says about his daughter.

Coscarelli: I'm glad you appreciated that. I've got a teenage daughter now. That was something that wasn't in Joe's story, although there are a lot of other regrets in there. I started thinking about Elvis and all of the stuff that he missed. That was something that kind of stuck with me and I thought it would be interesting to try to work in. I would be curious to find out if she ever did see it, if she liked it or not. I think Elvis, at his core, was a good guy. You look at him when he was a young man before he was corrupted by overwhelming fame and fortune. He was very respectful, he loved his mother. The way he went out was just tragic. One thing that a lot of people don't give him credit for - he was one of the first superstars who dealt publicly with substance abuse and it killed him. There was no Betty Ford Clinic at the time. He didn't really have any luck in that respect.

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I think that I always wanted to have a brother.
The only idea that I've ever taken from a dream.

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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