Coscarelli’s stories about making movies are better than the movies he made.
Imagine you bought a ticket to a very specific horror convention called Coscarelli Con and spent the weekend listening to Don Coscarelli, the writer/director behind the Phantasm franchise and The Beastmaster, recounting his long career in the movie business.
True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, Coscarelli’s new memoir, has the conversational style of a man with a microphone telling anecdotes that have been well-honed through repetition, whose enthusiasm for his work and the creative process is surprisingly infectious. The war stories are so good you’ll find yourself searching your favorite streaming services to watch the resultant movies. But beware. If you grew up at a time when Phantasm and The Beastmaster were staples of your cable television diet, nostalgia won’t make up for the deficiencies of those movies. Coscarelli’s stories about making movies are better than the movies he made.
The tale begins with a shotgun blast. This isn’t hyperbole. Coscarelli entices his readers with a prologue that describes how he and his crew got the shot of a shotgun firing from one car into another on the first Phantasm with no budget or real stunt crew. His indie crew’s on-set improvisation establishes a motif that informs Coscarelli’s entire life: if you can imagine the shot, you can achieve it. But to get it, as an indie filmmaker you might end up with your head on fire.
Coscarelli grew up in Long Beach, California, at the beginning of the baby boom and the development of suburban expansion. During this idyllic time, he and his friends were free to dream and roam among the construction sites, stealing materials for any projects their adolescent minds could conceive. Coscarelli recruited them all to work on a short film after he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome, an experience so powerful it set him on the path of filmmaking.
After that short won an award, Coscarelli and his partner and childhood friend, Craig Mitchell, made the movie that would eventually be called Jim, the World’s Greatest. As his first feature, the story of its making is important because it encapsulates so many of the lessons an independent filmmaker needs to know. Bankrolled by his father, Coscarelli set out to tell a slice-of-life story about a teenage boy who is raising his younger brother due to an absentee and alcoholic father.
It is important to note that Coscarelli, Mitchell and the students and friends who worked on the project were all teenagers themselves. Wanting to make the most polished film possible, Coscarelli hired a professional crew, but they could only afford a ragtag crew of porn veterans from the Valley. The crew undermined the fledgling director at every turn until the
inevitable confrontation. In a very funny and Hollywood resolution, instead of firing the crew, Coscarelli got them to quit on their own, leaving a hungrier and more reliable crew of amateurs behind. Due to their youth and desire, these kids worked day and night to achieve Coscarelli’s vision. The film was completed, but getting it exhibited was another matter.
The story of his first feature encapsulates Coscarelli’s biggest moment in the Hollywood machine. Desperate for information about getting a return on his investment, Coscarelli’s father called famed film critic Charles Champlin at the Los Angeles Times. The critic agreed to a screening and was impressed enough to mention the film to Sid Sheinberg, then head of Universal Studios. Sheinberg bought the movie and agreed to finishing funds, and, at 18, Coscarelli became the youngest director to ever have an office on the Universal Lot. It seemed at the time Sheinberg was collecting wunderkinds, since one named Spielberg was directing TV and thinking about sharks at the time.
Jim, the World’s Greatest was released to little fanfare in 1976, and the fact of its existence didn’t make securing financing for his next feature, Kenny & Company, another slice-of-life comedy, any easier. Sheinberg did offer Coscarelli the Spielberg path through television, but whether too spirited or simply too young to recognize the opportunity, the young director declined. The memoir becomes a film diary with Coscarelli’s second feature, each with its own craft lessons, cautionary tales and comic moments.
It is impossible not to root for Coscarelli when reading his stories. He loves filmmaking and is a loyal friend and employer who creates a continually growing family of collaborators with every shoot. Family becomes a constant theme, from his father’s early financial help to his mother’s work as food service, make-up and wardrobe on his films through Phantasm. Angus Scrimm, first cast in Jim, the World’s Greatest but destined to cult renown as the Tall Man in Phantasm, becomes the most significant member of this extended family. A fascinating man, he takes on the role of friend and mentor, a 40-year relationship that ends with a touching chapter about Scrimm’s passing. Coscarelli is generous enough to give his dear friend a final bow, but generosity is another trait that makes the director so relatable.
Any career in filmmaking that spans 40 years is also a story about film history. Coscarelli saw his first two movies abandoned due to the advent of the blockbuster era and Jaws, turned to horror at the moment that genre was resurgent, stood at the creation of the international film market where different regions will buy distribution rights to indie films, inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery and began his career with one mogul, Sheinberg, and had formed an important relationship with another, J.J. Abrams. If you’re around long enough you’ll have a story about everyone, and Coscarelli offers cameos to the Coppolas, Brad Pitt, Stephen King, Dino De Laurentiis and enough actors, critics, producers and directors to fill out a new Muppet movie.
Refreshingly, he doesn’t offer any varnish. It has been 40 years, so the world gets to know how awful Marc Singer was during The Beastmaster, but Coscarelli rarely expresses any real invective. Names are named, which is fun and gossipy, but in the end True Indie is a kind of manifesto. To make it in the movie business, be yourself, be kind, be generous and surround yourself with the kind of people who will save you when your head is on fire. But make sure you get the shot and try to keep it all under $100,000.