Don Coscarelli:

From Bubba Ho-Tepp back to Phantasm

[Don Coscarelli

Best known to many as the director of cult classic Phantasm and its (so far) three sequels, American Don Coscarelli recently hit cinemas again with the hilarious horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep. It stars Bruce (Evil Dead) Campbell as a 70-year-old Elvis Presley battling an undead Egyptian Mummy to save the inhabitants of an East Texas care home! Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep - what other excuse did we need to talk to Don Coscarelli? None whatsoever.

What was it about Joe Lansdale's short story that attracted you?

It was as simple as finding a collection of short stories and reading on the dust jacket and it said "Elvis battles mummy". It was right there. And I thought 'Now that is interesting!'. Even before I read it I had a vibe that it had something to do with Elvis's desire to be a hero. Because I knew that before I read the story, Elvis had always aspired to be a hero. He had that famous meeting with President Nixon when he was made an honorary member of the F.B.I.

But then I read the story. It was so much stranger and there was so much more depth than the simple log line. So I really liked this story and I thought it would make a great movie. I'll be honest with you I showed it to some friends, people that I trust, and they couldn't necessarily see it. They thought it was really odd like why would you want to do this? It doesn't make any sense.

I submitted it to a couple of financiers and studios and typically I got the very traditional answer, even though that's the answer I knew I would always get, I was always surprised that people would say they couldn't imagine that we would make anything out of 98 minutes of two old geezers in a rest home could have anything to do with their target youthful demographic audience. I think, ultimately, the most satisfying thing for me and for Bruce (Campbell) was that the 18-30 year-old black T-shirt wearing the Evil Dead fans liked the movie. They genuinely get it. Once again that just reinforces that the studios and the executives really don't treat the audience with any respect. They look down on them. They don't expect much of them. And I think if you give them something interesting people will come and pay and enjoy it.

[Bubba Ho-Tep]Could you tell me a little about how the project came together?

I'd known Joe from a few years previously, a couple of his other stories I'd had an interest in, I was never able to do anything with them. One of them was unavailable, but I try to get funded but never had any luck with it. And then I told him, and he was baffled. He knew that some of his stories really would make good movies. But he never dreamed that Bubba Ho-Tep was among them. It was funny that he would also be someone who just couldn't imagine what I was thinking! So it I got an option on it and I started working on a screenplay adaptation. I tried to get Joe to do it but he was too busy with a novel he was writing. So I got the script finished and took it around but it was rejected everywhere.

The great thing about the story and the screenplay, which is very faithful to the story, is that it's very simple. Basically it's two actors talking in two rooms - a hallway and the bathroom. And that's it. Except you know, it needed a mummy, and it needed old age make-up. Those were the two question marks if you like. Before I got the financing lined up I went to the guys at the KNB Effects who had been very helpful to me on some of the Phantasm films. Bob Kurtzman and Gregory Nicotero had worked with Bruce on Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. They read the script and they really liked it. And they probably did the film for something like less than cost, especially when they found out that Bruce was going to be starring, then they were just gaga. They had done something with him on the Xena TV shows, but that was when he was working as a director. They hadn't worked with him as an actor in a make-up, and they were excited by that. That was the big draw.

The third guy, Howard Berger, came on and did the old age make up. And that's something that I'm really happy with. Before we started the movie it was like 'Yeah, the script is really good, and the actors, and the mummy looks like it's going to be really good but...' you know… most old age make-up sucks in movies. Generally it's a nightmare. But it worked out fine. Actually, it was like a research and development project. If you know which scenes we shot earlier, they're not quite as good for the first couple of days we were still trying to figure it out. Like the neck was crinkling and coming loose, if you go back and look a couple of scenes. But then they perfected it. An interesting thing, Bruce came up with this line which we used as a mantra, it really helped focus everybody: camera, the lighting, and all those guys "Old-age make-up has to be treated like an ageing starlet. It needs to be lit like an ageing starlet" and so on. And we kept thinking about that. So, if we went outside we'd make sure that the make-up was really on perfectly, also to made sure he was under some sort of tree shading so he wouldn't get too dry. And in the interiors we were careful not to hit him with too harsh a light. I was real happy about that.

It's definitely a career defining performance for Bruce, and the voice is incredibly convincing. If Elvis is still out there somewhere in his Seventies, then that's what he's going to sound like! Did you always have Bruce in mind for that role?

You know, honestly, when I got the story I didn't know who I was going to use. Of course, my first inclination was to go to one of the guys who had played him before. I probably had this naive notion that somebody like Kurt Russell or Nicholas Cage would be interested. I bet that they would be. I honestly believe that if they watch the movie they will probably be jealous of Bruce. It's a cool role, and am sure those guys could have done something interesting, but the only one I tried submitting it to was Nicolas Cage. But he really doesn't do these kinds of movies so it wasn't really possible.

[Bubba Ho-Tep]But, about that time, true story, the casting of Bubba Ho-Tep was predicated on a crank phone call. I had known Sam Raimi before he was making Darkman, and he had suggested Mark Shostrom for make-up and production designer Philip Duffin for when I did Phantasm II. He was a nice guy, and he was really helpful, and I had just seen Evil Dead 2 and I just thought it was an instant classic - a great movie. But, I hadn't talked to him for a while. Then I came back to my office one day and there was a message on the answer machine - his agent or his assistant inviting me to a retrospective screening that Sam was hosting in LA of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I was thinking 'I didn't know he was a Spielberg geek', you know? But, 'I guess that sounds interesting' so I called him back, his assistant picks up the phone: "Screening? We're not having a screening". The next minute, Sam comes on the line laughing and he's going "Screening what screening?" so I said, "There's a message", and he said it must be somebody playing a joke or something. So anyway, we had a laugh about it.

We hadn't talked for a while, and so we started comparing notes, and he was just really into the Hercules TV series at that time. Anyway, he asked me what I was up to and I told him I've just got a short story, and it's got a mummy, and he said "You should cast Bruce Campbell, he's a great actor! I'll have him call you." So, fifteen minutes later the phone rings and it's Bruce: "I hear you're making this Elvis picture? What's going on?" So we got together for a meal, and I gave in the script and he just thought it was the weirdest thing he'd ever read, basically. Ultimately, he decided to do it once we were all set to go (it took about another year until we were ready to go), and he had this really sincere problem, a question, which was 'Are you going to show it?' you know, the cancerous... 'little Elvis' [penis]! I honestly hadn't thought how I was going to show it yet. So I said we wouldn't and he was in.

We had a couple of meetings about it and he had some worries at the beginning. The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness are broad, really broad stuff. Who could have thought that Bruce Campbell could play sensitive? So it was a surprise and delight the way he toned down his performance. It also shows us how shortsighted casting agents and us directors are. One of the things that I think is cool about the success of the movie is to think that all those die hard Bruce Campbell fans, for the last 10 to 12 years in their hearts they believed that Bruce was one of the greatest actors working. Nobody else did, just those geek, hardcore fans. Then Bubba Ho-Tep comes out and in the mainstream press Bruce is given these great reviews. And it's like they are saying years ago, 'I told you so. I knew he was a great actor. I've known it for 10 years'. They were just out there, boasting about their guy Bruce. He'd hit one out of the park.

[Bubba Ho-Tep]The cast is great. Ossie Davis is well cast, and Ella Joyce gives a terrific performance.

Yeah, she's mainly played smaller roles, but she was really wonderful. She was much warmer than in the short story, or even the script. She brought a depth to their relationship. I'll be honest with you, when we were in the editing phase, I was showing the movie around to get some comments from friends and people that I trusted, and a lot of people were saying that that scene, that I'd always thought was one of the most pivotal of the movie, that I love, when Elvis blows up and tells her to "Fuck off" They'd say it's too harsh. She is too sweet. There is this relationship you're just blowing up. But I stuck to it. And I thought yeah, maybe he does seem a little harsh, but that's the moment of empowerment, when he decides that he's not going to babied any more. But Ella is an unsung hero of the movie.

The film says some nice things about old age, but it's never sentimental or mawkish which is a hard balance to strike. I wondered how much of that was in short story, and how much you added for the film?

Well, I was really faithful to the story. Generally, almost everything was in the story. So, it was there, but it was something I wanted to highlight. Elvis's regrets, I thought that was a key component. Sometimes I was a little bit worried it was going too overboard, but I added some of the stuff about his daughter. I thought that was an interesting thought, that if he really were still alive he'd be thinking about contacting her. In fact, in one draft of the script we had him try and call the Presley estate to try and get her on the phone. But we were always a little nervous about the reaction from the Presley heirs, so we eliminated that before we shot. But that was one idea that I had. The story briefly alluded to Elvis switching places with to the impersonator and that was a theme that I really just jumped on.

[Bubba Ho-Tep]That's interesting, because I think that is one of the strongest parts of the film. Because it's entirely convincing, as portrayed, that he would do that.

Yeah, yeah exactly! It's like the Prince and the Pauper where the King goes out to live among the commoners. It's one of my favourite devices from literature. I was just fascinated with the idea 'What will this be like if he lived in a trailer park?' and 'what kind of people would there be'? We didn't spend too much time on at but we just caught a glimpse of the actual transference of power.

The dialogue is fantastic, I haven't laughed at a film so much in years. Dozens of memorable lines, but when I heard "A bug the size of a peanut butter and banana sandwich" I just thought it was terrific. Which you get those sort of lines from?

A lot of the dialogue came from a short story. Certainly, the exposition between JFK and Elvis - the bulk of that came from the story. But that particular line you brought up is a totally improvised line by Bruce. I'd wanted to have Reggie from the Phantasm films in the movie but I didn't have the scene for him, so I said let's have this scene where you [Bruce] kind of quiz him [Reggie] about these bugs. You [Reggie] don't believe what he [Bruce] is saying. He'll respond and tell you about what he saw. That was the only instructions they had, and these guys worked that scene out. Then it is just a question of going through the takes and cutting the best of little bits. Yeah, that was a funny moment.

Writing or directing - which gives you the most satisfaction?

I'll be honest with you, certainly writing, it is the conception, way you're making all your grand plans and in your mind it's all looking pretty good. While it can be hard it's not as hard as making a movie, when you have to go out there and create it all. You know? If you're gonna have a war you have to build the war! And that's a lot of hard work and a lot of heartache when things don't go the way you want.

My answer is editing is what I enjoy. The shooting is over and editing as I see is still a function of writing 'cos you're chopping and rearranging, we were still experimenting with how the narration, that voice was going to work. There are a lot of decisions. We had the luxury of a little money squirreled away for some additional sequences, and that is one of a most exciting things when, for instance there's a scene in the movie when Elvis goes down to the creek to look for evidence, and he sees evidence. Now when we shot that all you saw was a bus bumper, but nobody could make out what it was. I'd show it to people and they'd go "Well, he saw something in the creek, but I've no idea what he saw or what it is". So, then I thought well I will get a licence plate, and then it turned out that they make licence plates that say 'Bus' on it, so you can instantly identify it. So, we went out and in five minutes we shot it in a little pool and cut in. The question is gone, and you are solving problems.

The special effects are impressive, especially the mummy. You seemed to have achieved a lot on your budget.

Thanks. It was really low. Under a million dollars actually.

[Phantasm]   [Phantasm II]   [Phantasm III]

You are perhaps most famous for Phantasm. Three sequels already, rumours about a fourth. How many more do you have planned?

Oh, I don't know. We have a lot planned but if we actually produce is another question! Certainly, I would love to work again with Angus, Reggie. These guys are good friends of mine. We've been friends for decades. They are good, good people. Michael Baldwin, everybody. [Sighs] You know, that's the business realities of what they could be. There is the possibility of another sequel. A friend of mine, who ultimately won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction, his name is Roger Avary, came up with an idea that he could write a really different, sort of 'end all' sequel. He wrote it, and it is wonderful but it is very expensive and hyper violent and we were just never able to get the funding for it. We spent a few years trying to get that going before Bubba Ho-Tep. Yeah, I think there is a chance we will do something more with Phantasm. I hope so.

Outside of genre or circles you seem to have a low profile but almost everybody of a certain age has seen either Phantasm or The Beastmaster. How does that feel? Is that a bit strange?

Look, it's wonderful that people have seen my work. That is really cool. At the same time, you know guys like Spielberg have got all that money and stuff, but I wouldn't like to go out in public and be recognised. That would be a weird thing. On the other hand, it's a strange little predicament that I'm in. It is like I always seem to have money available to me to make these modest budget Phantasm films, but if I go out with something non-genre it's really difficult. You know I have director friends who have never made a movie like Phantasm, so they don't have that option, so it sucks. It's like it's a blessing and a curse, but it's okay. Another thing I love about Phantasm especially with the internet, is the fans of the series are genuinely really thinking, intelligent people. I get a lot of interesting feedback. People send e-mails into and it's interesting to read them. They will extrapolate things that I'd never thought of in the series and yet it makes sense to me! It's give-and-take, which is pretty neat.

[Bubba Ho-Tep]I wondered where you got your more twisted ideas from? My mum always told me not to eat cheese before bed I wondered if you do?

That's a good question! It was frightening in the fabrication of the movie because, what is the tone? Is it a laugh out loud comedy? Or is it correct? Or is it serious sentimental drama? It's all of those sales and we are jumping between them. Look, I'd love to take all the credit for a, but I've got to tell you why the movie works. Number-one, we got great performances from Bruce and Ossie. The other secret to its success is the composer Brian Tyler because he was really able to assist with the tone, in setting the tone and making transitions in and out of scary, to comedy, to drama, and back to scary again. It really was the glue that held it all together.

What's next for you?

You know, that's an interesting question, I'm trying to determine what that's going to be. Right now, I've got a non-genre project they are really interested in, and but whether I can get it funded is... questionable. But, what's kind of cool is that the success of the movie in the States, and what appears to be good news from here in the UK, fingers crossed, [whispers] I actually think we can make a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, and get it funded easily. And Bruce really wants to do it. He's like a very rabid about it. We could really have some fun with it.

This could be a new franchise!

Yeah, in a weird way. We came to a conclusion early on that you could take any monster name and put it after "Bubba" and you'd have a sequel. We talked about maybe a Bubba Sasquatch, where he would go into the north woods in an old folk's home up there and find a tribe of killer bigfoots! You know, nobody has made a bigfoot movie in a while. (Has anybody made a good bigfoot movie? Oh, there was Harry and Henderson's but that was a comedy.) One guy has even suggested a Bubba Blob, which was a really weird idea where he is a rest home and they had a blob in the bed next to him! You know, the idea got out of control! But I think we're going to focus on Bubba Nosferatu and try to do a vampire picture.

Just one last question, Don. Did Elvis really die on the John?

[Smiles] Well, the facts show that he did. But any true Elvis and would not believe that. I like to think that he has survived. That he is out there, travelling the southwest.

(With thanks to Richard Larcome at The Associates.)

See also:

Bubba Ho-Tep review
Evil Dead, The (R2 UK DVD) review
Phantasm (R2 UK DVD) review
Phantasm II (R2 UK DVD) review
Phantasm III (R2 UK DVD) review

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