Don Coscarelli is a living legend in not only the horror world, but in independent cinema. From having a major studio release his first film at the age of 19, to his beloved Phantasm series, to John Dies at the End, Don Coscarelli has always done it his way. His upcoming book, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking chronicles his journey on the often arduous independent road, and Daily Dead had the opportunity to talk with him about his book and his storied career.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with Daily Dead. You're going to be the spotlight of a master class at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, which is just opening their LA branch on September 13th. What can you tell us about that?
Don Coscarelli: It's my first time really doing anything in that environment. How cool is it that Kier-La Janisse, Rebekah McKendry, and Elric Kane have created the [LA branch of this] program, cause who would've ever thought there would be a horror university? How cool is that?
I haven't had a lot of classroom experience, to tell you the truth, other than sitting in them and watching, so we're gonna work our way through it and I'll try to pass on whatever limited knowledge I have about filmmaking in the real world. It should be a good time.
You’re also going to be there because of your book, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, which comes out on October 2nd from St. Martin's Press. What was the impetus to write it and why now at this point in your career?
Don Coscarelli: That's a good question. I don't know that I set out to do it—it just evolved. I had some contacts in the publishing industry, and had some solicitations to get me to do some writing, and it's something I've always been fascinated with. My mother was a published author. In fact, she was a bestselling author and worked through St. Martin’s Press at one time in her career. But she wrote more of general fiction, and I've always been interested in trying my hand at some fiction.
The editor I met at St Martin’s is Peter Wolverton. In addition to being the editor of David Wong from John Dies at the End fame, he also had a lot of success publishing the Bruce Campbell memoirs and he came up with this idea that I should write a memoir. At first, I was a little surprised because I don't really see it as being the end of my career just yet. But I started to think about it, and I thought maybe if I focus a little more on the filmmaking process, I could provide some help to aspiring filmmakers and give them something to think about before setting out on that course.
I thought that it might just be interesting to tell some of these stories about that. At the same time also, I'll be honest with you, I was a little struck by the untimely passing of some of our horror greats like George Romero and Tobe Hooper. I don't know that either one of them ever really wrote a memoir, and that's a loss to the horror community. When [Peter] proposed that, I thought, "Well, maybe it'd be good to try it now." I started writing and it went pretty easily, and now we have the book.
Do you have to put yourself in a different mindset than screenwriting? Because to me, it would seem that the recall alone would be tremendous. I can barely remember where I put my shoes.
Don Coscarelli: Well, I've had some pretty amazing encounters and experiences over my career, and many of them are seared into my memory. Some of them are the failures in my career, and I remember every moment of those. But the thing is that I was always focused on the future and I really never spent much time revisiting the past. I realized I had some pretty interesting experiences; actually, my first one [the film Jim, the World’s Greatest] that I made at a really young age was just like a Cinderella tale in which the studio president of Universal Pictures bought the movie.
My filmmaking partner at the time [Craig Mitchell], we were 19 years old, worked at Universal Studios, finished the movie, shot scenes there, and had access to the Universal top executives, and really witnessed what that whole world was like. So I thought that could make for a really interesting section of the book. Another thing I realized as I went through was that my career, for better or worse, really was set in a period of transition—not just strictly the transition from film to digital. When I first started making movies, we were making them the same way that Buster Keaton was, the same technology from the silent era pretty much, and then witnessed the whole transition to digital.
At the same time, I went through some pretty interesting eras in terms of film distribution, from VHS tapes to DVD, and now to streaming. So, I was able to tell of a lot of different experiences, and of course met a lot of really interesting people along the way.
When you’re writing the book, you're in a sense taking stock of your life and your career. When you looked back, were there any regrets?
Don Coscarelli: Well, the thing is that I've been able to make movies pretty much regularly, off and on throughout my career, so I'm really satisfied that I had that opportunity, more so than many. I've been able to make a living at it, which has been great. But in terms of regrets, yeah I've made some errors—a lot of errors along the way. I made this film The Beastmaster, which was a major setback to my career, and got in business with people I probably shouldn't have gotten into business with; it had an impact that really set me back for a number of years.
But I'm one of those glass half full type of people, and I have a pretty optimistic outlook on life, and I'm always trying to find the benefit in any situation, trying to make a film that's good however I can. Whatever I have to do, I'm a bit like a bumper car; I bump into an obstacle and just try to go around it, try not to fight it too much.
Right now the indie horror industry is thriving, and you certainly were a big part in helping to nurture that. What are your thoughts on the current horror scene? There’s a lot of great stuff out there.
Don Coscarelli: Well, there certainly is, and believe me, I get up off of my couch and go out to see the movies most weekends where possible. I really like The Witch, which was a really nice movie. I saw Hereditary, and liked that, and of course It Follows was great.
Having worked in the indie trenches, the only genre in the indie world that's working commercially is horror, so we have that collectively to rely on, but it's just never been more difficult to get your movies out and seen.
One of the things that I've revisited, or I've contemplated in the making of this book, was that with John Dies at the End, we were fortunate enough to get accepted and screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and it was my first time visiting there. We had paid a deep dive into the analytics, and you see that ten thousand independent films are submitted every year, and maybe a hundred and fifty get shown at Sundance. That's your best chance to get a commercial release at a major film festival.
There are only a few others, maybe South by Southwest and TIFF, or maybe Cannes Film Festival. So if you're excluded from Sundance, you're really out of luck. You see all the press coverage for those hundred and fifty films, and out of those maybe only twenty of them break through commercially. Then you think about that 9,500 other submissions of people that have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into their independent films and got turned down. A lot of people are making movies that just don't see the light of day, and there's not a lot of coverage about that.
I know how hard it is to make one of these movies, and how much risk you have to take. First, if you're putting your own or your family's money up, it's a tough deal. I'll be honest with you, with the change with the digital means of distributing and all that, I don't see a big future for independent film, in theaters certainly.
In theaters, perhaps, but certainly streaming is so prevalent that we are getting more platforms like Shudder, etc.
Don Coscarelli: Well, Shudder is a bright light, and that's a streaming service where they really curate the material. A friend of mine, Collin Geddes, has worked over there. He used to run the Midnight Madness at Toronto, and he knows his stuff. So there are a lot of great movies showing on Shudder, and now I've also heard that Shudder started investing in movies. So look, maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel here.
There are so many young filmmakers out there who look up to someone like yourself for inspiration. With this book, what do you think is the biggest takeaway for up-and-coming creators?
Don Coscarelli: I like to hope that I give some guidance in really trying to do something different. If you're gonna take the effort, number one, you need to be prepared. It could be a three, four-year venture if you start making an independent film. It's gonna take you a year to get it put together, a year to get it shot, a year to finish it, and then a year to distribute it, so it's a major commitment in your life.
I think I'm honest about that, but at the same time I really am trying to be encouraging, because much like you, I'm a film fan, and I know there are talented filmmakers out there cooking up interesting movies right now that we're gonna see next year and the year after, and I can't wait to see them. The guidance I try to provide, in addition to war stories and some suggestions on how to stay out of trouble, is to mainly focus on trying to do something that's really meaningful to you.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline that we horror fans can look forward to?
Don Coscarelli: I have a couple of things that are getting really close to a green light, but unfortunately nothing that I can report today, I'm sorry to say. But I am constantly working, and I just don't want to mention anything and then have it evaporate. But yeah, I have a couple things that are cooking, and some interesting stuff going on. This book is by no means an end to my career, it's just a milestone, and I hope to make a few more good movies before I hang up the old "flying ball," as some of you would say.
Well, we certainly look forward to the book and everything else that you have coming up. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with Daily Dead.
Don Coscarelli: Hey, thanks so much, Scott, I really appreciate it.
"This Thursday, Don Coscarelli will be taking part in a three-hour discussion of his life and career, as a special event from the LA branch of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. To learn more or purchase tickets, visit:
The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies is proud to open its LA branch with a career talk with one of the most important independent directors of American genre cinema, the man whose imagination brought us The Tall Man, whose KENNY & COMPANY and PHANTASM gave pre-teen genre fans an indelible image of empowerment in the form of actor Michael Baldwin, and who adapted the books BUBBA HO-TEP and JOHN DIES AT THE END into instant cult classics.
With a new biography on the horizon – True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, due out October 2 – Don Coscarelli has agreed to sit down with us at Miskatonic, and over the course of a three-hour discussion with Dead Right Horror Trivia’s Jared Rivet, will explore the key influences, collaborators and filmmaking lessons of his life, from being a young filmmaker navigating Hollywood to dealing with themes of loss, aging and brotherly companionship in his films, his deviation from the genre with SURVIVAL QUEST and the BEASTMASTER film, having the esteemed honor of being a part of the Masters of Horror gang and the current state of the business."
"To learn more about True Indie, including tour dates, visit:
From Don Coscarelli, the celebrated filmmaker behind many cherished cult classics comes a memoir that’s both revealing autobiography and indie film crash course.
Best known for his horror/sci-fi/fantasy films including Phantasm, The Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-tep and John Dies at the End, now he’s taking you on a white-knuckle ride through the wild world of the independent filmmaker.
Join Coscarelli as he sells his first feature film to Universal Pictures and gets his own office on the studio lot while still a teenager. Travel with him as he chaperones three out-of-control child actors as they barnstorm Japan, almost drowns actress Catherine Keener in her first film role, and turns a short story about Elvis Presley battling a four thousand year-old Egyptian mummy into a beloved cult classic film.
True Indie is loaded with the filmmaker’s behind-the-scenes stories, like setting his face on fire during the making of Phantasm, hearing Bruce Campbell’s most important question before agreeing to star in Bubba Ho-tep, and crafting a horror thriller into a franchise phenomenon spanning four decades.
Not just memoir, True Indie is also a crash course on the indie film world. Find out how Coscarelli managed to retain creative and financial control of his works in an industry ruled by power-hungry predators, and all without going insane or bankrupt.
True Indie will prove indispensable for film fans, aspiring filmmakers, and anyone who loves an underdog success story."