Don Coscarelli talks ‘Phantasm’s’ strange, four decade-long ‘Star Wars’ connection

In 1977, Don Coscarelli was deep into production on his future cult classic Phantasm when he received a fateful call.

“We'd shot like 60 percent of the movie, and I get a phone call from somebody, and they go, 'We just saw a trailer for this new movie Star Wars and your characters, the little brown dwarf guys, are in it,'” Coscarelli remembered when I spoke with him on Friday. “And I was like, 'What do you mean?' And so I went and saw the trailer, and we actually sat around for a couple of days totally depressed and being like, 'Do we have to put them in red hoods, or grey hoods, and re-shoot everything?' Finally we just decided, 'Okay well, it's another movie. A few years later, nobody will remember it.'”

Little did Coscarelli know that Star Wars would soon become the highest-grossing film of all time, with Lucas's Jawas far overshadowing his reanimated zombie dwarves in the popular imagination. Little did he also know that nearly 40 years later, the director of the seventh installment in the Star Wars feature-film franchise — J.J. Abrams, just 12 years old at the time of Phantasm's release — would pay homage to Coscarelli's low-budget horror film in his mega-budget 2015 sequel The Force Awakens, by naming Gwendoline Christie's character — yes — Captain Phasma.

“That Phasma thing came out of the total blue. I read about it just like you. Nobody ever told me,” said Coscarelli of Abrams' tribute. “So it was kind of strange and kind of cool.”

The full-circle of it all continued when Abrams, after reaching out to Coscarelli about screening the original Phantasm for Abrams' Bad Robot employees, discovered that the elder director only had what Coscarelli himself described as a “junky old print” of the film in his possession. That led Abrams to offer Coscarelli the resources he needed to give the original negatives a high-def 4K restoration, which allowed him, among other things, to edit out all the pesky fishing lines that could be seen in the original 35mm print. “Every damn piece of fishing line has been erased,” Coscarelli enthused with a broad smile. “Cause you know, that's the only way we could fly those balls.”

So ensued a second round of post-production work on Coscarelli's nearly four-decade-old film; over the next year, the director would frequent Bad Robot's offices, working on the remastered version that's due for release on cable and digital platforms this Friday (it's also screening in limited theaters). “It would just be like, a Tuesday night I'd get a phone call: 'Can you come over at 8:00? We've got like 4 hours. You can work with this guy.' And I would come over,” said Coscarelli, who continued: “Best part really though I think is the audio restoration. There is a real Phantasm fan who works over at Bad Robot. His name is Robby Stambler and Robby and his partner, they made it sound so great.”

In some ways, this process also mirrored Coscarelli's experience making the first Phantasm, when the then-twentysomething filmmaker was forced to share — and often kicked out of — editing space with Lucas' Star Wars.

“I'd be sitting in there and they'd go, 'Don, you're going to have to leave the room now, because we're going to have to run some Star Wars stuff.' And I'd go, “okay, cool.” And I'm walking out thinking, 'Oh, so we've got Phantasm on the screen and then 10 seconds later, Star Wars is going to be on this screen. There's just something weird about both movies are being worked on at the same time.”

You can check out my full interview with Coscarelli tomorrow.

Phantasm: Remastered is slated for cable and digital release on Friday. Fourth sequel Phantasm: Ravager also hits theaters and VOD tomorrow.