The ball is back! Because there can never be enough Phantasm, earlier this year (courtesy of SXSW) Diabolique’s Heather Buckley chatted to Writer/Producer/Director Don Coscarelli, Actress Kathy Lester and Producer Paul Pepperman, about everything from the film’s legacy, the 4K restoration, Angus Scrimm, and stunt breasts.
DIABOLIQUE: When where you first approached for the restoration of PHANTASM?
DON COSCARELLI: It was just completely a strange coincidence. I had met JJ Abrams about a decade previously and he had expressed that he was really interested in PHANTASM – that’s how I’d met him, because he’d just called up and wanted to talk about PHANTASM and I ended up introducing him to Angus and then he put Angus into the TV series ALIAS, which was like a great moment for Angus because he’d been doing indy horror movies all of his career pretty much. Then he finds himself on the set of a big Hollywood TV show, and it was just some years that he really loved. But I stayed in touch with J.J. from time to time.
DIABOLIQUE: Why does he love PHANTASM so much?
DON COSCARELLI: I think it was just because it was maybe strange, but I do have a theory that I’m just starting to learn now that I’m getting to be a little older and I’m meeting guys in their thirties, forties, and fifties come up to me and talk to me passionately – males – about how they saw the movie when they were twelve and they couldn’t get it out of their head. And I thought I was making a horror movie, but now I’m starting to think that maybe I made like this male teen empowerment movie, which is kind of an interesting aspect. You have the loss of a brother, the kid driving the car, and shooting the shotgun, stuff like that. But at any rate, he called up and wanted to run the movie over at this company, Bad Robot, for his employees; a lot of them had never seen it, and wanted Angus to come over and do a Q&A, and which we were happy to do, but I said, all we had was this old 35mm print. It had scratching issues but beyond that what the big problem was, it really had some sound issues. It was a mono track and there was some drop-out where it goes really silent and that’s what really bothered me about it.
DIABOLIQUE: Why was it mono?
DON COSCARELLI: Because – I’ll tell you exactly why: When we made PHANTASM, the original PHANTASM, I think the first movie that came out in Dolby stereo was STAR WARS in 1977. We were finishing it in ’78 and early ’79. Not every movie was put out in stereo then. That’s how freakin’ ancient that movie is!
DIABOLIQUE: Did you envision it in stereo?
DON COSCARELLI: No, but I was constantly trying to make the movie more impactful. It was shocking because back in those days they would put it on an optical soundtrack. The optical soundtrack could only handle certain frequencies, so you would have all your nice soundtracks and they’d start to mix them. But then they had this thing called the ‘academy roll off’, so at 10,000 hertz they’d cut it off, ’cause otherwise it would mess up. But all that’s gone now; everybody can do everything that they want, with the new systems, which is great. So, anyway: J.J. Was shocked that there were no HD materials available. He has a can-do attitude, and says, ‘Well we’re gonna fix that.’ His head of Post-Production is a guy named Ben Rosenblatt; so he said, ‘Ben’ll call you, he’ll figure out a way to do it.’ And Ben called – a super-nice guy, really brilliant in a lot of ways— he had this plan where he would pressure the lab, ’cause they’d do so much work on it, give a really inexpensive laser scan of the original camera negative, they’d bring it into the Bad Robot servers over there, then when some of his techs had spare time – ’cause there was no time-frame for it – and so, like every other month, I’d get a phone call that said, ‘Come over tonight, they have finished working on STAR TREK for the day, you can work for six hours on it. So I’d get these calls, come over at night and usually work with the guys.
DIABOLIQUE: What did you learn about your film by going through that process?
DON COSCARELLI: First off, I learned that Thank God we had spent good money for high quality lenses, because that camera negative— that’s been sitting in the vault for all these years— really captured some amazing information that we were able to utilize, to show off. Looking back on it I realize it really paid off twenty, thirty years later. This seems off-topic, but in Los Angeles, there’s a very vibrant Three Stooges community. Every year, the day after Thanksgiving, they have this Stooge-athon in this old revival theater. They show 35 mm prints of the Stooges. We’d only seen them on television, and when I watch the Stooges on these prints, you can see so much more detail in Curly and the guys. It’s really funnier. I realize that now, with this higher resolution on PHANTASM, ninety-nine percent of the acting is improved. Because you can really see the Tall Man’s eyes, and Mike’s emotions.I’ve met a lot of folks that come up and say ‘Oh I’ve worn out my VHS copy!’ They’ve been watching that thing over and over again. I think l would just enjoy hearing from them after, when they have seen the thing with a clearer view.
DIABOLIQUE: What are the other reasons fans are attracted to PHANTASM?
DON COSCARELLI: Well, number one: the performances. The key performances: Michael, The Tall Man, Reggie, and even Kat. They’re really good. You think, “Wow,” if I had had a different actor or one of the actors from my lesser movies in those roles, it wouldn’t get anyway near it. The other thing was: the musical score. It holds up to repeated listenings, it’s so lucky to have that. And I think that maybe I had some ideas that were surprising and different. I took a risk to keep trying to put them all into one movie. The movie gets kind of out there at times; like you feel it’s maybe going off the rails. But it does allow strange twists that a lot of people wouldn’t expect. Maybe that’s what they respond to? I don’t know.
DIABOLIQUE: How did you get involved with Don Coscarelli?
PAUL PEPPERMAN: You know what? We met our first day at UCLA, we were room-mates. He said, ‘What are you gonna do? I’m gonna be a movie director.’ And started working that summer.
DIABOLIQUE: What was your background?
PAUL PEPPERMAN: I was gonna be an attorney and we just started working together making the first movie, did that one and then the second one, and then PHANTASM. So we just did everything that we could: we just hired the crew, taught hem how to use the sound, and do the lighting – I did the camera operating and assisted with the cinematography – I did everything.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you also load film?
PAUL PEPPERMAN: Well, on PHANTASM I did do the loading because he [Don Coscarelli] was still too paranoid to let me delegate that to anybody. Even on BEASTMASTER, there’d be times, ‘No no no, Paul, you have to go do it because the problem with that mag, you know – ‘ ‘Okay, I’ll take the black bag and – ‘ [Laughs] Like I say, on PHANTASM, not only I did do the special effects, I was the assistant director, I was the production manager, and the producer, so a lot of roles. Because it had to get done. We didn’t have much budget.
DIABOLIQUE: When did Don ask you to work with him?
PAUL PEPPERMAN: No, he didn’t start it until a year after we were there, by that time we had become best friends. So he said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna start making this first movie, I want you to help me’. I said, ‘Ah, I gotta get a job, what do you pay?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, we’re not gonna pay anything.’ ‘Okay.’ So we just started doing JIM, THE WORLD’S GREATEST.
DIABOLIQUE: What were your initial thoughts on PHANTASM?
PAUL PEPPERMAN: …It was our third movie together, so we’d gone through the whole preproduction and the writing, so it was something that we were thrilled to get done, but it was just obviously very very challenging without much budget to try and get all these looks that we wanted.
DIABOLIQUE: Can you tell us the story of your breasts, or your not-breasts?
KATHY LESTER: Of my not-breasts? Oh, I’ve said it so many times, but I’m sure there’s people who haven’t heard it before. My stunt-breasts. So what happened was I was supposed to do this scene, and it was supposed to be a closed set… out in the middle of nowhere and it was a real early morning shoot. It was dark out. And I was getting my makeup done and then they called me to do the scene. I opened the door of the camper, there are all these guys from I guess the nearest university and they’re like, ‘Yeah! Bring out the bimbo!’ And I said to Don, ‘I am not coming out, I am not doing this. It was supposed to be a closed set!’ And he goes, ‘Well what do you think of us getting a body double?’ And I said, ‘Fine.’So the next thing – it’s months and months later, maybe even a year – I go to the screening with my mother. I’m sitting there and there I see it: I’m saying, ‘Oh Tommy Oh Tommy’ and from the neck down you see these breasts, twenty feet high by twenty feet wide. And I yell out, ‘OH MY GOD, THOSE AREN’T MINE!’ My mother turns to me and says, ‘Oh my God, Kat, you should have done the scene yourself, you’re just so much better!’
DIABOLIQUE: Why is there such a fanbase for PHANTASM?
KATHY LESTER: Why? Because they’re longing for something that’s more realistic – it really takes talent, and it takes imagination – I mean CGI takes that as well, but it’s really fun to see something that was done when you have a sphere that was actually running on a wire. [Laughs.] You know? It’s like TV dinner vs. home-made food. It’s got an aesthetic to it.
DIABOLIQUE: What does it take to be Lady Tall Man?
KATHY LESTER: [Laughs.] Well let me tell you, I had no idea that that’s what I was, or that’s who I was supposed to be actually – his alter-ego. I didn’t know that until I went to the screening and I saw my face super-imposed over Rory’s face. Then, I still wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got something to do with him. So, Don was always really cool that way. He’s very imaginative, and he came up with all kinds of amazing things.
DIABOLIQUE: What did Angus think about you being his alter-ego when he saw it?
KATHY LESTER: He was just as surprised as I was. He never really got it – [Laughs.] He did tell me, ‘I wish they would have given more of an explanation, something that makes more sense of the relationship.’ And I said, ‘I’m with you! Give me more! Give me absolutely more!’ [Laughs.] I miss him [Angus Scrimm] dearly: Nobody and nothin’ can take his place. He was the sweetest, funniest man. Towards the end, like the last few conventions, we’d be doing a Q&A, and I look over, and I nudged Bill Thornbury, ‘Is he all right? Like, is he breathing?’ . As soon as somebody would ask him a question – and his eyes would be closed – his eyes would open up and he was sharp. He was funny and sharp and eloquent – quick wit – Yeah, I miss him so much. I’m gonna start to cry!
DIABOLIQUE: He was awesome.
KATHY LESTER: Yeah, he was. We hit it off right away when we met. Originally I was just supposed to be some girl. He [Don Coscarelli] told me, ‘Well, really what I’ve got planned for your part is you’re supposed to be a very easy pick-up at a bar. He’s gonna take you to a cemetery for a little hanky-panky. Then you get killed by some monstrous dwarf.” But then I did the screen-test and he got a different idea.