Cult film director Don Coscarelli has been directing films for over 35 years. He’s not what one would call a prolific director; he’s only made 11 films during that time. But the films he has directed have certainly made their mark on the horror genre. Like it or not, Coscarelli will forever be known as the man who created and directed the Phantasm franchise, which includes the original film (1979) and three sequels. But that’s not all; he has directed another cult film, The Beastmaster (1982) starring Marc Singer and Tanya Roberts. Wait, there’s more, for most filmmakers, being known for one cult film or franchise is a once in a career experience. 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep starring the equally cult actor, Bruce Campbell is also a huge cult film from Coscarelli’s arsenal. If fans have anything to say about it, his latest film, John Dies at the End is destined to garner the same cult fame as his other projects.
What is it about Don Coscarelli’s films that have made him such a beloved icon in the horror film community? I think for the time, Phantasm was so unique and like nothing that had ever been seen before that fans just loved those films and characters, not to mention that the film was truly terrifying and nightmare inducing for so many people that it struck a chord that still resonates to this very day. What I love about his films is that he’s not afraid to take chances. Take Bubba Ho-Tep for example, who in their right mind would take on a film adaptation of a novel in which an elderly Elvis Presley and a black JFK would do battle with ancient Egyptian mummies in order to save the souls of fellow nursing home residents? In Coscarelli’s latest film John Dies at the End, we have a street drug called “Soy sauce” that makes users travel to other dimensions. Its two heroes have to save the world from an otherworldly horror with often hilarious and frightening results.
I recently caught up with Mr. Coscarelli during the Chicago premiere of John Dies at the End and we talked about that film, and whether or not we’ll see another Phantasm film, so read on for the full interview.
Michael Juvinall: What was it about David Wong’s original novel of John Dies at the End that made you want to turn it into a movie in the first place?
Don Coscarelli: I think it was the sheer, raw creativity of it. This was a first-time writer and he was unafraid, like many first-timers are at anything. He didn’t know enough to be afraid of trying things, and so it was a very ambitious and very amazingly creative work. There are so many levels, not only stylistically, but also in terms of structure and in terms of the number of wonderful concepts.
MJ: For you, what was the biggest challenge of adapting the novel?
DC: It’s a 350 page novel but it’s a 100 page screenplay, so two-thirds of the book is going to go by the wayside, there was some major surgery involved and That was always weighing on me. Another problem was that it became apparent early on that we were going to have a limited budget, so we had to figure out a way to achieve some of these visual effects in a way that was possible. I relied on friends who had experience with visual effects. In terms of prosthetic effects, I was able to bring on Bob Kurtzman and he created our rubber prosthetics. In terms of the more difficult stuff, there’s a director Bill Malone who did Fear.com and the remake of House on Haunted Hill and another director friend of mine, Kerry Pryor who actually did the spheres on the later Phantasm movies, he’s a director in his own right, he did this movie called The Revenant. Both of those directors did all their own visual effects themselves, and so I went to both of them and talked through each of these scenes and asked how they would do this stuff. They gave me a lot of great ideas in terms of how our post production work flow would go.
MJ: I enjoyed John Dies at the End. To me, it was kind of Naked Lunch, Hunter S. Thompson, and Lovecraft thrown into the spin cycle and John Dies at the End is what came out. Would you consider it a Lovecraft inspired movie?
DC: The source material, certainly. It had more Lovecraft than we were able to afford. If we had been able to afford the book, it would have Cthulhu and more Lovecraft in terms of that. Look, the movie shares a lot of influences, which is cool now that I think about it. Some people have said it has some Evil Dead 2 in it, I can see that. Some folks say it has some Cronenberg in it, I can see that too. What was it Isaac Newton used to say…”I stand on the shoulders of giants”? I like a lot of different films and filmmakers, their influences probably find their way into my films.
MJ: Has David Wong seen the film, and if so, what did he think about it?
DC: Yes he did. He came to the first time we ever screened it at the Sundance Film Festival. He was there and I actually invited him to come up on stage. One of the most daring things I did, I invited David Wong up on the stage with me, without knowing whether he liked the movie or not. Someone in the audience’s first question was “David Wong, did you like this movie?” He grabbed the microphone and started to talk and told this story, it was about five minutes long and I had no idea where he was going with it. About half way through I was thinking, “Oh my God, here we are at the greatest film festival of all where everything will decide whether we get distribution or not.” If things go wrong, he might just now say that he hated the movie, but he didn’t, he said he loved the movie and was very happy with it. The one thing that’s cool about him is he respects the fact that film and novel formats are completely different entities. They can exist in their own planes, the novel’s there if you want the details. If you actually want to see it acted out, there’s the film.
MJ: If you had a dream project what would it be?
DC: Most of my dream projects have to do with movies outside of the horror genre. Once you make a successful horror movie, it’s very hard to get out of it.
MJ: Do you think you’re pigeonholed?
DC: I know I am. As are all the other horror characters I ever worked with. They are all stuck in this horror ghetto, but it’s not so bad because there are a lot of nice horror fans, they’re very enthusiastic and it’s fun to make horror movies. I’ve had a lot of interest to make comedies; I’d love to make a World War II movie. I don’t have a particular one, just something out of this genre for sure.
MJ: Are we ever going to see another Phantasm film with the original cast?
DC: They’re in good shape, they all look great. We don’t have anything going just yet.
MJ: Maybe before Angus (Scrimm) gets to be too old for the role?
DC: Well, he’s in John Dies at the End. He did well. With all this interest from the fans and during the publicity, I’m finding so much interest in this property. I didn’t realize that folks really wanted to see another one.
DC: Yeah, I thought Part 4 was enough for them. I thought that maybe they wanted to see a remake, but seems like they really want to see another part 5, so I guess I’d better get busy.
MJ: Will we see Phantasm on Blu-ray?
DC: I think without question. The real question is how long? It’s not going to happen in 2013, but it very well may happen in 2014. I would expect it absolutely would’ve happened by 2015, laughing.
MJ: Before physical media disappears forever. Mr. Coscarelli, I wanted to thank you so much for talking with me. I have enjoyed your films from the beginning. I loved John Dies at the End. I wish you the best of luck in the future.