Phantasm: Ravager (2016), the fifth film in the nearly-40-year arc of the Phantasm series, ends with a bittersweet reunion.
Brothers Mike and Jody and their best friend Reggie, the protagonists from the original 1979 film, sit inside the trademark black Plymouth Barracuda.
They had been separated over the course of their endless battle against the otherworldly Tall Man and his minions. Now, as they sit in the muscle car, they exchange wordless looks. Age has altered their features, and there’s a weariness in their expressions.
However, as the ‘Cuda drives off towards a city under siege by a swarm of alien silver spheres and hordes of the undead, the exhaustion on their faces is replaced with contented smiles.
Like the aging outlaws at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, these old friends defiantly face down overpowering forces against impossible odds. But now they do it together. And, like the Wild Bunch, there’s no place they’d rather be.
As you read director and horror legend Don Coscarelli’s memoir, True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking (St. Martin’s Press-ISBN 1250193249), you may find yourself thinking of that scene from Ravager every time Coscarelli and his film crew head out to make movies, odds be damned.
From his first independently produced feature film at the age of 19, to his breakthrough horror classic Phantasm, and the cult hits Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End, Don Coscarelli overcame snubs from all the major studios, clueless film distributors, and even disinterest from the Sundance Film Festival, to make his movies his way.
How Coscarelli beat the odds time and again is a surprisingly warmhearted story of lifelong friendships, loyal film crews and actors, hard lessons, dumb luck, and the talent to adapt to the challenges inherent to low budget independent filmmaking.
In the book prologue, Coscarelli scuffs up the shiny myth of the hip and cool indie filmmaker epitomized by Quentin Tarantino and the sea of wannabes that came after his success:
“He made it look so damn easy, but all those wannabes quickly found out it’s not. Indie filmmaking is damn hard.”
Don Coscarelli knows of what he speaks. After all, by the time he was 16, he blew a chance to work with Disney and got ripped off for his work by…the YMCA.
He even got to interview visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull for a proposed magazine under the American Zoetrope umbrella, guided by August Coppolla (Francis’ older brother), only to have the project dissolve mysteriously.
“Would it dash your dreams if I report that we never heard a word back from August Coppola…or anybody from American Zoetrope ever again?” writes Coscarelli.
And yet, by the time he turned 19, Don Coscarelli had made his first full-length feature (Jim, the World’s Greatest), had an office on the Universal Studios lot, his second movie in production (Kenny and Company), and had the ear of one of the most powerful people in Hollywood: Sid Sheinberg, then President of Universal Pictures.
All of that was short lived. But, the corporate indifference of Hollywood executives and the politics of ineptitude not only make for great stories, but also lit a fire under Coscarelli to make his next movie on his own terms. That film was Phantasm, and it propels an eccentric career full of twists and turns that make this book a captivating read.
Despite the penchant for flying silver spheres, reanimated corpses, and fountains of yellow and red blood, the Phantasm movies have always been about friendship, loyalty, and family at their core. While True Indie is a wildly entertaining look at the technical, artistic and political battlefields of independent cinema, it is also a heartfelt love letter to family, friendship and personal integrity.
Coscarelli entertains us with personal stories around his 40-plus year career making movies, but he also allows us a glimpse into his formative years as a boy growing up in Orange County, California.
The author devotes as much time to his childhood and his first movie experiments as he gives to his more famous work. It’s a shrewd move because Coscarelli’s youthful enthusiasm and ambition are contagious. It also shows how friends, teachers and family inspired him in ways he took to heart. There are passages that gratefully acknowledge the people who taught him life lessons that speak volumes about what Don Coscarelli values.
Of course, the book bursts with anecdotal stories about the long, strange campaigns to make his films, including the roadblocks, the hardships of picking the wrong actor or crew, and the missed opportunities (or dodged bullets) of potential films left unmade. There are sobering passages where the director chooses loyalty to his cast and crew over bowing to potential backers, and takes a career hit for it.
Coscarelli also gives the reader a crash-course on how to navigate and survive low-budget independent movie making. The chapter, “Don Coscarelli’s Five-Minute Film School” is worth the price of the book alone. However, the book is peppered with pragmatic and inventive ways to make the most of limited time and resources.
The book is most assuredly the author’s story, but you may be surprised how much time he devotes throughout the book to honoring his friends, family, and the actors and crew of his films. Coscarelli believes in film as a collaborative art and he is quick to praise those he worked with. There is real love and admiration for the late actor Angus Scrimm, and the chapters which feature their friendship are poignant and respectful.
Coscarelli’s mixture of sincerity, humor, blunt self-reflection, and an egalitarian mindset reveal a true love for making movies, the people who make them, and the people who help the people who make them. His style elevates this book into emotionally engaging and satisfying territory. True Indie has the rare misfit glee and personality of books like John Waters’ Shock Value and David F. Friedman’s A Youth in Babylon.
It has heart.
You can order True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking from Amazon.com here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1250193249?tag=macsupaduinstalpa-20