Don Coscarelli is the writer-director behind a handful of the most beloved American cult classics of the last 40 years, including 1979’s surreal horror breakout Phantasm, 1982’s initially disastrous but eventually beloved fantasy adventure The Beastmaster, 2002’s Elvis vs. ancient Egyptian mummy showdown Bubba Ho Tep and 2012’s mega headtrip John Dies at the End.
Inventive, fast-paced and often surprisingly moving, Coscarelli has taken his signature filmmaking style and put it down on paper with his new memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking (Deckle Edge, 2018). In the book, Coscarelli recounts his life-long journey as an independent filmmaker (he started shooting movies in his backyard while in middle school), along with all the ups, downs, disasters, successes, close-calls and miraculous turns of fate. Personal and personable, the book is as much a how-to guide for aspiring filmmakers as it is a fun, fast and honest biography of the easy-going auteur.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Coscarelli, who is currently touring in promotion of his book.
What was the impetus for writing the book?
Over the years, I’ve met a lot of young and aspiring filmmakers, and a lot of the time they ask me the same questions over and over again. I thought, at some point, I ought to put my experiences down, they might serve as a nice instructional guide.
I had a couple different opportunities to write some fiction over the years from various publishers, so I’d been thinking about trying my hand at writing a book. It seemed like a challenge, like something I could do easily, in my spare time. But then an editor at St. Martin’s Press came up to me — his name was Peter Wolverton — and in addition to publishing David Wong’s John Dies at the End series, he had been very successful with Bruce Campbell’s memoir series. He was the one who proposed I should do a memoir.
So I started writing a few chapters about periods from my life, and experiences I had from making my films, and it went pretty easily. I thought, “yeah, this is something I could do.”
At the same time, I kept second-guessing. “Should I be taking this much time [to do this]?” Because when you’re telling your story, you want to get it right. But then I started thinking about some of the horror movie directors I know, and I felt a sense of mortality, with the passing of George Romero and Tobe Hooper. I thought, “I’d have loved to have seen a memoir from those guys, so maybe it’s never too early to get started one.”
Were there any films books that you read, either in preparation, or that you were important to you throughout your career?
I have this coffee table edition by Passion (the big book publisher), their Stanley Kubrick book. It’s like my Bible, I go to it all the time. Every one of his films, every aspect of them, is covered in that. I refer to that frequently.
But if there was anybody I used as I template… I have an interest in wrestling, and I’d read a really fun biography from one of the wrestling superstars, Chris Jericho. He had this real easy style of writing, and his chapters would be really short. A chapter might just be two paragraphs long. I thought that was an interesting way to look at it, so I went with a modified version of his style.
Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, you mention in your book how watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theaters as a child made you want to make your own movies. This year saw a new 70mm print of Kubrick’s film, produced at the behest of Christopher Nolan, tour the country. It reminded me of the remastered print of Phantasm, which was produced by Bad Robot, at the behest of J.J. Abrams, that kicked off the inaugural Art House Theater Day two years ago. What was that experience like?
It’s wonderful that that happened, and that print is amazing. What people forget is that these film materials from the previous century degrade over time. There are digital techniques that can clean them up and make them better, but what it really comes down to is how you store the film negative. It needs to be kept in cold environment, with low humidity, otherwise it gets destroyed.
It’s wonderful that Phantasm is now preserved — and of course 2001, that’s fantastic — but there are so many orphaned films, where there’s nobody looking out for them, or they don’t have anybody with the interest or funding to preserve them, and they may just be lost. What would be nice is if, some day in the future — and I’m getting kind of out there, but a lot of these techniques are just based in computer software — A.I. can just come in and restore these movies. You wouldn’t even need any humans involved.
You mentioned how you’ve been in the film industry throughout all these major transitions. Do you consider yourself part of any broader community — the horror community, the indie community, even the Hollywood scene?
The blessing and the curse of having a successful horror movie is that you’re going to have more opportunities in the horror world. That’s what happened to me — Phantasm was successful, so money was always there to make other Phantasm movies, or try other genre-horror-related stuff.
One of the nice things about the horror world is that it has a very passionate fanbase. It’s got some great institutions — these horror conventions where fans gather to meet people who work in horror. I find that some of that passion rubs off on those filmmakers. I got involved with this group of horror directors that get together for these dinners [The Masters of Horror], all of them long-time fans of horror movies. So yeah, that part of it is really cool, it’s like fraternity, or sorority, of horror filmmakers. I have friends who do comedies and dramas, and they don’t have conventions where people want to talk about their movies, or show similar movies. So that part of it is really wonderful.
I do live in Los Angeles. So, for better or worse, I do suppose I’m part of the Hollywood film community, which is also interesting because in America we’re so focused on our American films. A lot of the international work is dismissed, even though there’s so many great filmmakers worldwide.
In terms of independent filmmaking, you were making indie movies in the 1970s. Then in the 90s there was the big indie boom, especially with crossover successes like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, etc. Nowadays, it seems like there’s more opportunities to produce independent movies, but not necessarily to get them seen. What do you think of the current state of independent film?
It seems to me like we’re entering a period of great change. There’s no real profit opportunity in the independent film business. In the past 15 years, almost all of the independent distributors — especially the ones that were affiliated with major studios — closed down. The market for the theatrical experience seems to be declining. And I don’t want to talk about this just economically, but that impacts everything.
I think the movie theater is not really as important as it used to be — and for good reason, there’s so much more competition for attention. So, I have a pretty negative view of where independent film is going to go. Not only is it harder for independent movies with lower budgets to get out and get seen, but with the more established independent directors, their options are to go to Netflix or Hulu and make series for them.
Have you had any opportunities to produce content for those streaming services?
I have to roll with the punches, and I have to go in the direction where there’s the possibility for funding. So, yes, I’m trying to set up various projects in the streaming environment.
Is there any personal bittersweetness about the move from movie theaters to these other avenues?
There’s advantages and disadvantages. The old days weren’t exactly perfect. The quality of those VHS tapes were pretty darn lousy, so I’m glad to see those gone.
But horror movies are still successful. The Blumhouse model has had a lot of success making and distributing modest-budget horror movies, so the opportunity is still there.
Your film The Beastmaster, which you have a fraught relationship to, was a fantasy action-adventure about a superhero. What’s your take on the current slate of those types of films, now that they’re the focus of studios and audiences, and what effect do you see them having on indie films?
I’d hate to use too broad a brush, but I will tell you that I’m starting to lose patience with the same story about an intergalactic threat coming to kill humanity and the superheroes rising up to stop it. I’ve seen a few of those over and over again.
But it’s an interesting change, because the thing is that they spend so much money on those films, and the effects are excellent, are of such high quality, that you now have a generation of moviegoers that are spoiled. Every time they go out to the theater, they’re watching these perfectly composited movies, which makes it harder for indies making movies with rubber prosthetics and few desktop computer effects to compete.
What about teen movies? Your first three films, including Phantasm, at center, were teen coming of age stories. That genre blew up a few years later in the 80s, and again briefly in the 90s, and now, with films like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, they seem to be having having their moment again. Would you want to tackle that genre again?
Oh, hell yeah! The thing is, those are good movies, especially the ones you mentioned. They tell stories about compelling characters from an interesting perspective. I always want to see those movies, and I’d always like to try and make them. As I get a little older, I wonder if I’d have anything relevant to say to a teenager now, so it would probably be more of a reminiscence.
But I still covet and love the style of movies that I grew up on — the slice of life character studies — and that’s what I was doing on my first few films. I hope to try and do something like that again, for sure.
How did the process of writing your book compare to writing and producing a movie?
Some of it was really easy and natural, because I’ve had some amazing adventures. I’ve told the stories over the years, so I know how they’re supposed to go.
The similarities [to making films] were often very close. My original draft came in very long, just like a film. I had to go in and judiciously edit. You always have to think about your audience, you never want to overstay your welcome. That’s what I’m always thinking about when making movies. I’m always trying to ruthlessly trim them down to a length that someone can appreciate for not making their ass hurt in the movie theater seat.
With the book, I had the same challenges that I had on a movie, thinking to myself “Did I cut the right stuff? Did I leave the right stuff?” But I’ll tell you this: it’s a hell of a lot easier then making a movie. It’s just you at the laptop, whereas with a movie, there’s so many impossible challenges. Frequently making a movie is a rolling catastrophe.