[Exclusive Interview] Don Coscarelli on How Studio Bigshots Just Don't Get It
Don Coscarelli has not been the most prolific filmmaker in horror, but when he takes on a project there is certainly an impact. After a couple of highly rated but seldom viewed films in 1976 Coscarelli hit the horror scene with Phantasm in 1979 and made his mark as a “Master of Horror”. Phantasm is considered a classic of the genre to this day, and “The Tall Man” and that deadly silver ball still haunt the nightmares of older and newer horror fans alike. A few years after Phantasm Coscarelli dove into his other passion, fantasy films, and wrote and directed The Beastmaster which didn’t gain the following of Phantasm but still retains many of the fans who enjoy 80s swordfights, sorcery, flying creatures who can dissolve their prey, and Tanya Roberts at her most attractive. (Roberts was just of her single season on “Charlie’s Angels”, and was quite a hot property in the day).
After the lukewarm reception of The Beastmaster, Coscarelli took the helm as writer and director of three Phantasm sequels; Phantasm II, Lord of the Dead and Oblivion. The budgets were much higher for these follow-up efforts, but none made the lasting impression of the original, which is usually the case. With little other than memories of the “glory days” and several sequels threatening to crush the Phantasm franchise into the land of over-saturation, Coscarelli suddenly shot back into the spotlight with the clever and risky Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002. How a man creates a film about Elvis Presley (who didn’t die, just dropped out of sight to ditch the drama of fame) and JFK (who also didn’t die, but was instead dyed black… yes, JFK is played by African American Ossie Davis) in a nursing home battling an ancient mummy is hard to imagine, but somehow Coscarelli pulls it off and gains a slew of awards for the film and the lead actor Bruce Campbell in the process. Then, a few more years go by without a word from this filmmaker.
In 2005 Coscarelli looked to the catalogue of John Lansdale, writer of the short story on which Bubba Ho-Tep is based, and adapted another of his tales for an installment of Showtimes’s “Masters of Horror”. ‘Incident on and Off a Mountain Road’ took the premier spot as the first episode of the first season for MoH and set the bar incredibly high for the features to follow, really hitting a home run with one of the best of the two-year run. Amazingly, after this episode, Coscarelli again went silent on the horror scene.
Seven years after his last offering to the horror-watching public Don Coscarelli is finally back in the spotlight with John Dies at the End, an adaptation of the novel by David Wong. While talking with Don Sumner of Best-Horror-Movies.com Coscarelli had much to say about the story, and why he chose to commit it to film.
“I first came across the story in 2007, such a great story. The writer David Wong, he really created a new path for authors in how he created this book. This was his first book, and really he didn’t even have a book. He started posting chapters on this comedy website that he has, and pretty soon he developed a fan following. I got one of the first print versions when it came out in limited edition. I read the book, and I’ll just tell you; This is just one of the most original things that I’d ever read, and it has everything that I love: horror, humor, some amazing monsters and a very cool attitude. I read it and I instantly thought that there could be a movie made out of it.”
It sounds like the decision to make this into a movie was pretty immediate.
“Yeah because it had so many wonderful things, and at the same time I had an idea on how to take the book, which is quite large and epic, and take the front section and the end section and make that into a film, and in doing so have a very attainable film production-wise, because it just wasn’t that large in scope, what I was attempting to do. Well, at least that’s what I thought but once I got into it there are so many concepts and monsters and worlds there were definitely some challenges.”
Taking a long and extremely complex and involved tale and committing it to film in a way that will be consumable by an audience is part of the magic that Coscarelli has built his reputation on. There are reasons why most directors fail at adaptations of Lovecraft on film, or even Stephen King – there is a lot of context in a long written work, and an ability for the reader to stop and think, or re-read, or simply picture in their own minds what is happening in a way that makes sense to them. With film the imagination is taken out of the realm of the viewer and presented fully intact. That involves a mind that can conceive of how to make that work for a larger and mixed audience. Coscarelli explained the process he went through in adapting and creating John Dies at the End.
“The movie making process is broken up into parts, but truthfully you are always writing until the end. During the script writing phase you take 350 pages and condense it down into about 100 pages, and fashion it into something that makes at least some coherent sense so people don’t run out of the audience screaming. Then we started filming it and created a lot of material. Then I spent almost a year editing it, trying to figure out what was going to work and what wasn’t – how we were going to achieve the effects and what have you. It really felt like I was writing the movie right up until the last day of editing.”
This story has a lot of fantasy and surreal elements, which seems to be a common theme with you and your work.
“That’s what I’m drawn to. Perception of reality, certainly the Phantasm movies are all over that, I imagine there’s some Beastmaster there and Bubba Ho-Tep is certainly a strange way to look at things.”
One stand-out in Coscarelli’s career is how few films are created, making it appear that he is extremely selective regarding projects he will work on, making sure that he finds those individual endeavors that really hit all of his “buttons”. It turns out there are always projects in the works... It seems that taking on big projects that he can “see” but others can’t is a primary reason why Coscarelli is not much more prolific a filmmaker than he is. According to him there are always projects he’s pitching and working on, but finding a studio to share his vision and actually put up some capital has proven challenging. Before he can even get to that stage, though, Coscarelli must create something that he can even imagine pitching to others for support.
Looking at your career, there are long gaps between the films you put out, but when you do release a film it seems to be very well regarded. It seems like you are very particular which films interest you.
I get what you mean. Look, one can’t design a career, just kind of watch it unfold. There are things I’m passionate about, but even though I know audiences will respond, but that doesn’t mean that… well, Bubba Ho-Tep is case in point. I knew from the minutes I started adapting the script that it was something that would work, and I’d show it around and people were like ‘Don, what are you smoking? People are not going to accept that!’ and I was like ‘think about it! It would be cool, with the right actor…’ but nobody, certainly not the Hollywood bigshot types…
“The problem that I have is that I’ve got about a million projects that I’m constantly thinking about, trying to move forward, but I’m just not sure if the projects that I generate are ever going to be embraced by the studio types. It’s kind of a conundrum. For example, let me tell you how John Dies at the End went down. So, I’m reading it and I’m like ‘Wow, this guy is a great young novelist, a real example to up and coming writers out there. Some studio is going to want to capture this guy’s voice and do a new take on horror and bizarre moviemaking!’ And yet, they just… I took the script out with Paul Giovanni’s help, he told me that he would be in the film because he liked the script a lot and came on as a producer. He and I went into a meeting for another project with this guy and it didn’t work out, but I could tell that this guy really wanted to be in business with Paul, so I said ‘Paul, could you give this guy this script? I really think they might go for it.’”
“He put together a really nice email and he sent the script over, and in two days this email came back from this executive and Paul shared it with me – it was like two solid single-line pages, he had a total analysis of the story and I was like ‘wow, he really gets it’. Then you get to the last paragraph and he says ‘That’s exactly why we could never do this film in our studio, because I would have to develop it and prepare it for a mainstream audience, and we would have to remove all of the edgy stuff that you love.’”
“So I had to do this one the way I’ve done my other ones – get the money and the people together and do it as sufficiently as I could.”
Don Coscarelli is a true independent filmmaker who has a lot of crazy ideas and a sincere belief that he can translate what he finds cool to film in a way that audiences will be able to “see it” too. At the end of it all, Coscarelli does this very well. The result, though, is that it takes quite some time for the right project to gain the right kind of support to gather any kind of momentum.
It’s always possible that the reason Don Coscarelli’s films tend to be such standouts is the very thing that prevents him from being more prolific – how would things be different if he didn’t sit and stew with a concept for years on end? What would result from a huge budget provided by a studio that not only would make some of the creative use of funds less necessary for Coscarelli, but also have significant strings attached? It is impossible to know for sure because that’s not what’s happened, but as things stand the efforts that do come forth from the mind of Don Coscarelli do indeed resonate with audiences, and John Dies at the End is no exception.
John Dies at the End is available VOD on December 27, 2012 and will have a limited theatrical release January 25, 2012.
In JOHN DIES AT THE END, it’s all about the Soy Sauce, a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. Users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly a silent otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John (Rob Mayes) and David (Chase Williamson), a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can't.
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