There’s no one in the world of horror like Don Coscarelli. Beginning his professional film career at just 19, Don was one of the youngest working directors Hollywood would ever see. He went on to create the seminal horror piece Phantasm and it’s four sequels, and he continued his career with wonderfully weird films like Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End.
Coscarelli has written a fascinating memoir of his experience in film, aptly named True Indie. It’s a book full of so many thrills, you’d be forgiven for forgetting it wasn’t an action novel. Nightmare on Film Street sat down with Don to talk about his book and his fascinating life in the genre, here’s what he had to say.
Grant DeArmitt for Nightmare on Film Street: When was the first time you heard the words “Dude, your face is on fire”?
Don Coscarelli: We were filming Phantasm, and there was a scene where we had to get a shot of one of the characters shooting a shotgun in a moving car. I was a lot younger back then and we had to take some risks. We took risks even when we didn’t know we would take him. For example, I thought that blanks in a gun were always safe. I mean, I did know that there was some fiery stuff that would come out of them, but still.
So we had to shoot this sequence and the only way to do it was to get in the front and look forward as they were shooting the gun backwards. So I put a pad on my face, and taped it up, and put some aluminum foil on and thought that would protect me. But anyone smart would know that if the pad caught on fire, you wouldn’t want it taped to your face. So there was a mad dash to rip it off. Thank God I wasn’t permanently scarred.
NOFS: This book is full of times you took risks in your filming. Was there a particular risk that stands out as especially memorable to you?
Coscarelli: There’s a chapter in the book in which we had to self-insure an airplane. The pilot wanted $50,000 in case he crashed and had to fix up his plane. The insurance company would pay that, but you had to pay them $29,000 for that privilege.
It was up high in the mountains, and when the plane came down to land, there was this nervous moment. You thought, “What did I just get….this is crazy.” An indie filmmakers reach needs to exceed his grasp. You’re trying to put out something wonderful, and you don’t necessarily have the means to do it. So I see this book as something of a how to. I think people can learn from my mistakes, the errors I made. And maybe some of the things I did right. You know, you need to be bold when making a movie. Not foolish, but you may need to take some calculated risks.
“An indie filmmakers reach needs to exceed his grasp […] you need to be bold when making a movie. Not foolish, but you may need to take some calculated risks”
NOFS: Is that why you wrote True Indie? As a how-to?
Coscarelli: I feel like the movies that I make and the genres that I make them in seems to draw more of an indie filmmaking fanbase. When I go to appearances and screenings, I always meet lots of indie filmmakers. They always tell me “I’m working on a project now.” So I thought there was an opportunity to provide information that people are looking for.
At the same time, I wanted to satisfy some of the other desires which was to tell some of the backstory of the movies. Some of the films are beloved by different fan sets, and they’d want to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. So I wanted to satisfy that, and I wanted to provide some guidance for filmmakers.
I also realized I was making movies during a really interesting time. Starting in the 70s, I saw transitions that are just incredible. When I was making my first films, I was using almost the exact same technology that Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain used. The tripods, the cameras, all of that. There really had been that much change for 70 years. Then, we started to hit the late 90s with digital and it was rapid fire until film basically evaporated, you know, there eventually were no film cameras. And also there was the distribution changes with the adaptations I had to make. There was just a lot of interesting stuff to tell.
And there’s also the challenge of writing a book. Now, I’ve written a lot. A number of screenplays and a LOT of business letters, so I’ve gotten pretty proficient at writing in general. But I’d never written essays. Or tried to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, ‘literarily’. So there was that challenge and that was fun, to reminisce about something and then put it on paper. And make it readable and hopefully entertaining.
NOFS: Oh it’s very entertaining. It’s like if Indiana Jones made movies.
Coscarelli: [Laughs] That’s very nice to hear. There are some crazy things that happen in filmmaking. I mean, back when we made Beastmaster, the only way to get some of those shots was to rent a $6,000 helicopter and a $3,000 mount. Now, you can go get a kids toy, a drone, and get high quality shots. It’s crazy.
One last thing on the technology. This didn’t get in the book, but in the making of Beastmaster, we weren’t able to afford a real camera crane. So we found these massive old studio cranes, maybe the same ones used in the 40s. And the first time we ever got on the crane, there was a camera operator, focus puller, and me. They told me to put a seatbelt on, so I did. But I asked, “You guys don’t wear seatbelts, why?” And they go, “We want to make sure you don’t jump off.” See, some directors will try to jump off, but the thing is, these old cranes are weighted to accommodate them. So if one person gets off, the other people go flying. But the crew didn’t wear the seatbelts, because they wanted to jump off. It was like a suicide chair.
NOFS: Let’s say someone reads this book and comes to you and says, “I’m going to make movies just like you did.” What would you tell them?
Coscarelli: Look, I’m so grateful to have the success I’ve had, like Phantasm. Even though it took a long road to make, here I am thirty five years later, when people still want to come out and pay to see it. That’s amazing. But I wanted to convey in the book that a lot of people just capriciously jump in and try to make films, and they’re not cognizant of what they’re buying into.
Any independent film that you really put effort into, you’re going to spend at least a year writing the script and getting it organized and getting the funding and shooting it. And then you’re probably going to spend another year in post-production, getting it edited and getting your music and stuff. And then you’re going to spend another year trying to find a distributor and all that. So it’s really a three-year commitment. Even if you forget the money. So that’s what I was trying to say. You need to be so passionate about the story that you want to tell that it’s going to be worth the sacrifice you’re going to have to make. I think people get a year and a half in and they’re like “Oh my god. It’s another year and a half, I never had any idea.” I thought I’d alert them to that.
“When I was making Phantasm, I came to the understanding that for a horror movie to work, you have to create the unexpected.”
NOFS: One of my favorite sections was the background of the infamous silver sphere from Phantasm. Without spoiling anything from the book, can you give us a little window into that?
Coscarelli: It’s the only image I’ve ever used from one of my own dreams. When I was making Phantasm, I came to the understanding that for a horror movie to work, you have to create the unexpected. That lead me to start the movie very traditionally, with mystery and a graveyard. And you say, “Yeah I’ve seen those things before.” But then it takes this left turn into sci-fi and surrealism. I was really making an effort to surprise people and make something different. And the sphere comes out of nowhere, it adds to the dreamlike quality.
You can approach most difficult physical aspects you’re trying to film by slicing them into different segments. You can achieve each segment. For instance, it was easy to get the ball to come around the corner, because you can just put it on a piece of fishing wire and push it. We can do that right now, in ten minutes. Then you go through the steps of each segment. The breakthrough came in the flying of the ball. Nowadays you can go into AfterEffects and make a sphere, it’s a pretty basic geometric shape. But back then it took a lot of experimentation. Then there was this lightbulb moment when someone said “Why don’t you just try throwing it?”
So when we saw the film after it came back from the lab, there was this really interesting aspect of its path. See, we put it in reverse, so it’s actually slow in the beginning of its flight and then speeds up as it goes. That’s the opposite of what actually happens. It looked like it had this animated quality.
NOFS: Like it has an intelligence.
Coscarelli: Yes, exactly. I wish I could take the credit for that, but that was kind of one of those happy accidents.
NOFS: There’s a value now to practical effects, especially in the age of CGI. Is that something you still try to do in your films?
Coscarelli: They’re all tools. The digital effects, I’ve found, really work well if you can enhance what’s already going on. If you can add a little flourish. I’ve never had the desire to ever try to do a digital creature. Digital creatures, I don’t know if they can hold up. If I can put somebody in a costume, like in Bubba Ho-Tep, the actors can play off of them. You can do anything if you’re making a Marvel movie. They have an unlimited visual effects budget. But if you’re slightly modest budget, you can’t.
NOFS: What else can you tell us about True Indie?
Coscarelli: I wrote this book at a midpoint in my career. I had a couple friends who passed away recently who really should’ve written memoirs and never did, like George Romero and Toby Hooper. Both of those guys would’ve had great memoirs. So when I had this opportunity I thought, I might as well do this while I’m a little younger.
The other thing I wanted to do is make the book a tribute to some of the people that helped me along the way.
NOFS: It absolutely is, you give so much credit.
Coscarelli: The collaborators that I’ve had from the composers to even the studio executives on my first film. You know, I look back on that as kind of a difficult time. And yet the support that I received from the head of Universal at the time was really pretty unique. I’ve never had that kind of experience again. So I wanted to tell that story. Not many 19-year-old filmmakers will have an office at a studio lot with access to a studio president. And of course I wanted to talk about the great actors. Angus Scrimm, for example, was a great friend of mine. My advice to filmmakers and actors who want to do memoirs is, do one ten or twenty years before your shelf life is up.
NOFS: Who do you hope reads True Indie?
Coscarelli: A generation of filmmakers who haven’t made their movies. It might help them have better movies. If they follow my guidance, they might have more production time to make their movies even better.
For more of Don Coscarelli’s life stories, you can go to Amazon and purchase True Indie right now. I won’t get into a review here, but I don’t kid when I say that this was my favorite read of 2018. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, a horror fan, or if you just like fascinating adventure stories, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not checking it out.
Are you planning on reading True Indie? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit. For more discussion on Phantasm and all of Don’s work, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.