Where many long-surviving horror franchises are in the process of continually rebooting their characters with little sense of continuity or care, the PHANTASM series has stood out since 1979 for mostly using the same faces in front of and behind the camera. It’s a sense of familiarity, and family that has endeared a legion of “phans” to the series, giving them a personal sense of identification not only for the undead-battling brothers Mike and Jody (A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury) and their best bud Reggie “The Cream Man” (Reggie Bannister), but also has made us love the gravely humored Tall Man (iconically embodied by the dearly departed Angus Scrimm). Writer-director Don Coscarelli has overseen this quest to destroy this extra-terrestrial evil and his dwarf minions, going from low budget indie roots to major studio funding and then back to hand-crafted scrappiness. It’s a saga that’s proven to be a continually imaginative road in its devil-may-care combination of horror, science fiction and guitar-strumming interludes where logic is just a wonderfully bad dream.
Now the series returns after an 18-year hiatus with PHANTASM RAVAGER, which brings the band back together, but with a longtime phan David Hartman in the director’s chair for the first time as Coscarelli takes the Cuda’s wingman seat as writer and producer. But while Hartman has never taken on a live action assignment of RAVAGER’s epically ambitious scope, he’s far from a neophyte when it comes to animation. With his toon direction ranging from TRANSFORMERS PRIME to ASTRO BOY and MY FRIENDS TIGGER & POOH in a prolific Emmy-nominated career. Hartman’s horror geek love is most obviously evident in his humorously ghastly E.C comics inspired art. Hartman’s mad visual effects skills would made a mummy spot obscenities in Coscarelli’s cult hit BUBBA HO-TEP, showing one filmmaker with no end of imaginative ambition that he could rely on a protégé after his own heart. The resulting trip down RAVAGER’s apocalyptic highway to hell brims over with not only Hartman’s crazed effects, but with a kinetic style all this movie’s own as PHANTASM’s telltale way of bending logic and chronology meets with the powerful emotion of actors and their characters aging before phans’ eyes. For Hartman, it’s a love letter to the series’ seeming end in a career with a new, promising start.
ASSIGNMENTX: When did you first become interested in horror and science fiction, and how important was the original Phantasm in determining your life’s direction?
DAVID HARTMAN: My earliest memory was around 7 years old, when I was going to a local bookstore with my mom and seeing the 2nd issue of Fangoria. I would stare for hours at the images inside, and two of those were from PHANTASM – the severed finger of the Tall Man and Mike floating in front of the red sky. I had no idea what the movie was about and these images both horrified and captivated me. I am absolutely sure this was a major influence on my love for horror and sci-fi.
AX: Did you ever find yourself watching the PHANTASM films, and imagining what you might do with them if given the chance?
HARTMAN: Well, I think most fans of the series have done that. The world of PHANTASM has so many possibilities that I am sure most of us have thought of a scenario we would like to see. That’s what is so cool about PHANTASM. It gets you thinking after watching the film. I never would have dreamt that I would get that chance though. It is pretty amazing to be working with Don on this and coming up with new ideas and expanding on old ones.
AX: How did you first meet Don, and when did you get the inkling that he was thinking of you to direct the new film?
HARTMAN: I met Don during BUBBA HO-TEP. He had already shot the film but I came on with my pal Michael Smith and was able to create some art, main title, and VFX for the film. Don and I kept in touch after that and I helped out on several of his other projects. We ended up shooting some fun short films of PHANTASM with Reggie Bannister that Don let me direct. That alone was a dream come true. At one point they were possibly going to be webisodes. It wasn’t until after we did several of these that Don said, “ We are making PHANTASM 5… and you are directing.” So really I didn’t find out until after I already started!
AX: As PHANTASM OBLIVION had a vast portion of it comprised of older, unseen footage as part of an intimate, desert-bound story, did you have the impetus to go for something far more epic in scope here?
HARTMAN: Once I knew we were making part 5 Don and I both wanted to broaden the scope and go for something bigger. With the tools available today we were able to be ambitious and try to do some scenes that Don hasn’t been able to attempt before. We really wanted to just go for it and push ourselves into areas we always wanted to see.
AX: What was it like bringing the band back together? Was it easy as snapping the actors’ character, and personal relationships right back into place?
HARTMAN: I’ve watched these characters so many times it seemed pretty natural for me to pick up their personalities and relationships. The actors all knew their characters well and jumped right in, head first, and picked up where they left off. As a fan it is an amazing feeling to work with all these guys and gals. We really had a blast filming this thing and I believe it was pretty nostalgic for everyone as well.
AX: While Reggie certainly gives his best performance of the series, how important was it for you to give everyone else their moment?
HARTMAN: It was very important. The movie started out as Reggie’s story just out of the nature of how this was put together, but once we got Angus Scrimm, Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury involved it really felt like a PHANTASM movie.
AX: Though Don might not have been directing, what do you think he brought to his role as a producer in terms of helping get the shooting days get done, all while stepping back and allowing you to creatively do your role?
HARTMAN: Don brought a ton to the production. I wouldn’t make a final decision on anything without getting his opinion first. We wrote the script together and I storyboarded every shot in the film so we were always on the same page with the story and content. Don really brought years of experience to the set and helped keep everything organized and moving quickly, which is invaluable for any director.
AX: With the film continuously slipping out of different plains of existence, how hard was it to “track” the story? Or given the dream-like appeal that makes for PHANTASM, is a certain amount of confusion a welcome thing?
HARTMAN: Well, a certain amount of confusion is necessary and I wanted the viewers to feel that somewhat. Don and I carefully planned out the dimension shifting and how it would appear on film. It wasn’t until the edit room though that we really saw it starting to come together and where we could push it further in some scenes.
AX: How did your wife Kathleen help out with the shoot?
HARTMAN: Kathleen was the production designer and built most of the props as well. It was a lot of fun working together where I could design something and then she would go build it. Probably her biggest contribution was the “Cudanator.” We had Don’s Cuda in our garage for a few months (which was so cool!) while she worked on decking it out in armor and weaponry.
AX: How did Angus’ health determine what you planned to shoot with his character, and what you were ultimately able to do with The Tall Man?
HARTMAN: When we started we had no idea that Angus was sick. He hid it well and we did a lot of shooting with him. It wasn’t until we shot our last scene with him, which really is his first scene in the film, that we noticed he was getting ill. We wrote those scenes so he could perform them from a relaxed setting with little physical movement. He really was energetic and we would shoot multiple takes of a scene without him getting tired. He really was an amazing actor and I am grateful to have worked with him.
AX: In many ways, this is the most emotional PHANTASM in the series, given Angus’ passing and the character’s meditations on death. How important was it to get this very real theme of mortality and acceptance into a series that played on the fear of death?
HARTMAN: It was very important as I feel the whole series centers around it. Mike dealt with the death of his parents, Jody and his pal Tommy in the first film. These were emotions that had to be dealt with and now we have Reggie dealing with possible dementia, unclear of what is real and unreal. Angus was able to see the film before he passed and that was also very important to me. I needed both Don’s and Angus’ support and blessing on the movie for me to be satisfied with it. Thankfully they both loved it.
AX: PHANTASM RAVAGER has a particularly impressive score by Christopher Stone, who’s scored the last two movies. How did you want him to continue taking the original, iconic themes by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave and build upon them in an operatic way?
HARTMAN: Besides bringing the original cast back it was exciting to get Chris on board for this. Because we have some complicated ideas happening in the picture it was really important to get a great score to help accentuate those ideas and help them seamlessly bleed into each other. I knew we wanted the score to be big, epic and cinematic but it was Chris who took those ideas and ran with them. I’ve always been a big fan of the PHANTASM scores and this is one of my absolute favorites.
AX: Was it frustrating to see how long the production took to get completed, or was it a trek you’d always expected?
HARTMAN: Yeah, it was a little frustrating at times. We started out as shooting these short films on weekends for a couple years. At one point Don went to do JOHN DIES AT THE END and I went on to do TRANSFORMERS: PRIME, which was a couple years of not working on PHANTASM RAVAGER at all. Once we finished those we came back together and decided to make this part 5. We released a trailer a little prematurely, as I still had a ton of vfx work to do, and then I ended up getting really ill during post-production that set us back.
AX: What kind of an emotional release is it now to see the movie finally come out? Or does part of you secretly wish you could still keep tinkering with it?
HARTMAN: HA! Yeah, it is hard to let go of something you have been working so hard on for years. This has been such an emotional ride and I now am good friends with all the cast of a series of films I have admired and been influenced by my whole life. Every free minute has been spent on PHANTASM for years, so I almost don’t know what do next.
AX: For the uninitiated who might watch this film without benefit of seeing the other PHANTASM movies, what do you think the reaction will be?
HARTMAN: This was really made for the phans. We don’t waste a lot of time giving back exposition on the earlier films so I would personally think an outsider would have trouble keeping up with some things. However, Don and I do think it is a compelling story on its own. You just might get more out of the experience if you are familiar with the earlier films.
AX: This isn’t necessarily the final chapter of PHANTASM. If the series should continue, have you mapped out where it could go?
HARTMAN: PHANTASM is never over! (laughs) It gets brought up in interviews and conversations a lot. Whether this is truly the last one or not. I would think that ultimately could be decided by the phans and if they demand to see more.
PHANTASM RAVAGER is now in theaters, and on VOD. Hit the road with The Ice Cream Man on iTunes HERE – PHANTASM RAVAGER
Visit David Hartman’s web page HERE
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Article: Exclusive Interview with PHANTASM RAVAGER director David Hartman