The life of an indie filmmaker is one problem after the other. Long, hard months are punctuated by awesome days. Or, so the story goes. For the record, I buy it. We talk today with a master of indie filmmaking, Don Coscarelli. He’s just written the book on his experience with the life, entitled “True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking”, available October 02.
Making a no-budget indie film is like going to war. But you’re not General MacArthur storming the beaches with a force of a hundred thousand soldiers. Instead, you’re more like a small squad of Vietcong guerillas behind enemy lines, trying to complete an impossible mission using guile and your wits, the odds stacked against you. It’s risky, difficult and dangerous. I can swear to it. I’ve been there. – Don Coscarelli “True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking”
I recommend the book to film fans and aspiring filmmakers alike. Check out just the first three pages, which tell the story of getting a camera’s eye view of a shotgun blast in the middle of a car chase. Faces are literally set on fire. You’ll be sold. It’s chockablock with behind the scenes stories of his work on all his films. He discusses below his intent to make something relatable and useful for both audiences. He’ll be hitting the road to promote his career retrospective over the next month. He’s teaming up with, amongst others, the Alamo Drafthouse, to host the events. They’ll feature repertoire screenings of his films, like Phantasm (Boooooyyyyyyy!), and an opportunity to hear some of his many stories. Check out the schedule and, you know, treat yourself.
The book tour has already unofficially kicked off. The first event was a team up with The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – L.A. Branch. Miskatonic may be new to you. No, it isn’t the fabled University from Re-Animated. It’s the creation of genre-film aficionado Kier-La Janisse. She’s recently teamed up with Rebekah McKendry and Elric Kane to open a chapter in L.A. Their goal is to connect passion with passion and create a series of lectures and deep dives into movie nerdery appealing to all folks excited about the art.
Their opening event couldn’t have been more fitting. That lucky audience got to spend their evening on a three-hour exploration with Coscarelli into his career. What an opening!
Check out our conversation below. We share some love over Bubba Ho-Tep and then dig into the daunting challenge of putting a career into perspective. There are some up and downs to opening all those memory boxes. There are always happy and fun moments to bring back to light. There are also fond memories of dearly departed colleagues and thoughts of what could be if they were still us.
Also, I may or may not accidentally imply that he is an old man. If I did (I did), he takes it very graciously.
A Conversation With Don Coscarelli
William: So, I’m a big fan of Bubba Ho-Tep. All of your work, but that movie holds a special place in my heart. And I’m really happy to see all the love it’s been getting around its fifteenth anniversary.
Don: Bubba is funny. You know, it’s weird how it’s taken on a life of its own. I got so much flack when I was planning it. When I found that short story, I could just see a movie there. And wow! I made a script version of it, and I’d take it around. Even my friends would criticize it! They’d want to know why I would put it in an old folk’s home. Yet, there’s something about making the movie with those older actors that were not only just a wonderful experience for me but special to be a part of something that’s taken on a life of its own this many years later.
William: Ossie Davis and Bruce Campbell are so good in it. Their performances bleed pure heart. It is beautiful.
Don: Those guys! It was an amazing casting. Who would have thought? Ossie Davis?! He was a social activist, an author, a historian, and a director himself. But, he honestly didn’t know anything about the horror world. (laughs) Yet, he bonded with Bruce Campbell. Both of them had a working-class ethic about getting the thing done and not suffering fools. I think that bond showed onscreen, amazingly.
William: I love it. Right! So, let’s get into it. You’re about to properly kick off the tour for “True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking”. Your first event, back on September 13, was also the opening event for the L.A. branch of the Miskatonic Institute. How’d you come to be involved with them?
Don: I didn’t know much about Miskatonic. However, I’ve known the people involved in it for a while. I have a lot of respect for them. Kier-La Janisse, God. I’ve known her for a decade since she was a programmer down in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse. She has really good indie and genre film instincts. And Rebekah McKendry and Elric Kane have Phantasm cred. They actually hosted the very final Horror Convention panel that Angus appeared at. I think what they’re doing is just wonderful.
William: Oh, wow. Those two are a good fit for Miskatonic, which seems to be about passion. Connecting a community of passionate listeners with passionate knowledgeable speakers ready to deep dive. You know, Elric remarked that there really was no better time to have you come and participate. Having just completed your book and having all this experience ready to go. Even still, three hours. You and a stage. How did it go?
Don: You know, it’s a little daunting, they said, “Come in and we’ll talk for three whole hours! It’ll be great.” I thought, “Wow, gee, I wonder if I can keep it interesting.” The timing was perfect because writing this book was hard. Really hard work. You know, there’s the review process you have to go through before publication. I had to read the damn thing, not so much for content, but for questions of correct names and punctuation and grammar. Just again and again and again. (laughs) And, I’m also very diligent about that kind of stuff. So I was really familiar with my own material. To the point of almost having it memorized.
Jared Rivet, who was doing the interview, pretty much followed the book. It kept me on track. But, the block of time and format was nice because I could go into things that I couldn’t go into in the book.
It was a wonderful night because obviously, the people who would come out and sit through three hours of me are folks who are really familiar with my movies. It was like talking with an audience through shorthand, you know? They knew all the films. There wasn’t any explanation whatsoever. I could dive right into not only the behind-the-scenes or the-making-of but also the philosophy and intent of each of the films.
William: That’s got to be a one-of-a-kind experience. I can’t imagine that any of the book tour engagements in the future are going to be three hour deep dives into your whole filmography.
Don: No, no, no. I’m looking forward to them. It’s an interesting mix of cities. And, thankfully, the Alamo Drafthouse is anchoring the screenings in six or seven of the theaters. Some of the events are film festivals or revival theater events. There’s an event at the AFI Silver in Washington D.C.
William: That’s my home base! October 04! So, you’ve been making movies since you were 19. Like, professionally making movies as a teenager with an office on a film lot. You’re still a young man. Uh, I don’t mean to say that you’re a whippersnapper, but you know-
William: Oh geez. All’s I’m saying is you’re not ready to be ushered off to the old folk’s home. It’s got to be a bit surreal to spend that amount of time digging into such a deep career.
Don: It was for sure. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into! When I started making movies in the late 70s, we were making movies with the same technology that filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Buster Keaton used. The cameras were bigger. But, they were on the tripod and running film. We did have synchronized sound, which came in the 1930s, but truthfully, the technology hadn’t changed for 50 years when I started.
There was no difference. They made them on film. They got a studio. They put them out in theaters. And now, you know, you can make a movie with your cell phone. The technology change has just been astounding in the move to digital.
The same is true for how the means of delivery have changed throughout my career. You can distribute online or through streaming. I worked through the age of the VHS video cassette or the DVD and the Blu-ray era.
I felt I needed to educate people as to how I was making films back in the day. A lot of aspiring filmmakers make their way into theaters showing my movies. And so this was an interesting talk about my career. But, the book, I think, can also serve as a textbook in some respects on the film business. Or, maybe as a small guide on how to maneuver through the minefields of filmmaking.
William: I completely take your point about the technology changing. It’s a strange thing to sort of see that happen around you and then have to relate to a new group of people. But, as you said, I think the philosophies of filmmaking don’t necessarily change.
Don: Yes. It’s just that, you know, the way the business works has changed. There was a much higher cost of entry. What with having to rent cameras and buy 35-millimeter film and then process it and all that stuff. For example, the theatrical model has changed so much. The thing is now, getting it seen certainly in a theatrical environment is almost impossible compared to back then. I don’t want to get too into the weeds here, but you know, it’s the commodification of the movie business. It’s sold like soap now. In the major studios, so much of their business are superhero franchises and the audience’s consumption has changed with them.
When I was younger, when I was coming up, indie and international films were just cherished. I mean, if there was a new subtitled picture from France or Italy or whatever, there’d be a line around the block at the theater. And nowadays, there seems to be an aversion to subtitles.
Although in a weird way, it’s being balanced by the streaming services. You can get some of this international content through Netflix and others. It’s a time of great change. It definitely made writing the book more interesting.
William: I think a lot about the way that access to content is changing. I think curation, especially with the advent of the streaming age, is going to become much more important. Things like the horror streaming service Shudder are going to take off. Their very curatorial approach to it is practically essential. Here’s what we think is cool. Here’s why. Here’s its relevance to the genre as a whole.
Don: I think that there’s a window there to make a huge amount of money. Not to start your own streaming service, but just to provide a place where you can get the curation. I agree about Shudder. Colin Geddes works over there, and he used to run Midnight Madness at TIFF. His breadth of knowledge and depth of his understanding for genre film is so deep. He is in a perfect position there. Shudder is a must-have service, for sure. But you know, (laughs), everybody always says that technology’s going to save us. I’m waiting for that AI to show up to curate all of this stuff.
William: (laughs) “Alexa, what’s good to watch tonight?” and like some kind of responsive thing there.
Don: Especially if Alexa knows that you read Film School Rejects or Bloody Disgusting or whatever you turn to for your deep dives. Because I don’t know about you, but I go to that main page of those streaming services and it’s like damned if I can even find what I’m looking for.
William: (laughs) So, I have to ask this question. A big part of my hustle is chatting with indie filmmakers. I want to celebrate the things that they do. But, having talked to a bunch of them, I think the one thing that’s common amongst everybody, and I’m sure that you know it, is that making movies is just really freaking hard. It’s so easy to get down while you’re lost in the labyrinth of trying to problem solve on a budget.
So, when you’re having a really crap day and things are just not working right, is there a particular moment in your life that you like to look back to as that thing that says, “You know what? This is making it all worthwhile. This is the thing that I want to do.”
Don: You are so right about not only the psychological stress but also the freaking grunt labor required in making an indie film. Unless you’re blessed with money. It’s never quite been that way for me. That’s actually part of what I wanted to get with “True Indie.” I wanted something that was a primer for the experience of making films and what kind of challenges one would face. And what one needed to do that.
Nowadays, I’m sorry to say, it has never been more difficult for B film. The numbers game is so wrong. Especially if you want to get into the Sundance Film Festival. You’re going up against 10,000 other films. You know? The odds are just stacked against you.
And the other thing that I didn’t really go into is the timeline. If you make a movie, it’s probably going to take a year to figure out what movie and get a script ready. And you have to get it started. It’s probably going to take you a year after that to get the film completely shot and then finished. And then at least another year getting the film to market. So the day you say, “I’m going to make an indie film,” you got three hard years ahead of you. There are a lot of filmmakers who start that road and they never finish it. They get the script written and don’t get it going. Or maybe they get it half shot, and then it crashes and burns.
So, the beauty of having a little longevity in a career is I’ve got a lot of moments of filmmaking that I can look back to. Times where we were up against the gun on many different levels, be it production or post-production or distribution. And I somehow found a way to survive or avoid those pitfalls.
I had some crazy things that couldn’t get into the book. (laughs) You know, my dad helped me on a couple of my early films. I remember we were doing the mix on one, and I won’t say which. We were doing the sound mix in a studio that costs like 500 dollars an hour. We had this wonderful sound effects editor. But, he had a little problem with the drink. He freaking showed up on the mix stage blasted drunk. And he would keep stopping the screening and telling the mixers how the sound effects needed to be mixing.
And the time was just getting eaten up. I’m looking around and I grab my father and said, “Do something with this guy!” And put his arm him and he said, “Hey, let’s go get a drink.” And he took the guy out and had a drink with him for the rest of the evening so we could get our work done.
We didn’t want him humiliated and ordered out, because the guy was super talented. So that was like a little minor detail, but there are always other things. We all share these challenges. There’s a shorthand amongst filmmakers. We could all share a drink and have a nice laugh over the challenges.
William: So, would you recommend your experience at Miskatonic Institute to other well-experienced filmmakers?
Don: Oh, heck yeah. In fact, I’d like to come back and sit in the audience. You know? Who would be on my wishlist? Oh, I’d like to see them get Paul Verhoeven over there. Oh, I wish they had kicked it off sooner. I would have loved to have some of my dear, departed colleagues participate. Like Tobe Hooper.
William: If only. You’re so right. I’d love to have seen an evening of conversation with Hooper. So, who’s your favorite newer filmmaker? Like, who should we be looking at now?
Don: I saw a movie the other day that I loved called, The Endless. Have you seen that?
William: I love that movie. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
Don: Yeah. They’re super, they’re super great. I certainly can’t wait to see the next film by the guy who made The Witch. Of course, It Follows from a couple years ago was pretty darn awesome. And also my cinematographer from John Dies at the End has gone on to great success, Michael Gioulakis. He’s working for M. Night Shyamalan on his movies. Look, great films are being made right now. A year from now, I’ll be waiting in the theater to see them. So, indie filmmakers out there, keep at it.
Listen to a full chat with the director, conducted behind-the-scenes at the AFI Silver in Washington D.C.