Bubba Ho-tep in Hollywood
Q&A with Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli
Don Coscarelli is a respected cult director whose works include the four Phantasm films and The Beastmaster. Actor Bruce Campbell is a legend in the B-movie world, best known for playing the Deadite-slaying nitwit Ash in the Evil Dead films, but he's also made appearances in more mainstream fare like Spider-Man and The Majestic. On February 27 the two hosted a screening of their latest venture, Bubba Ho-tep (written and directed by Coscarelli and starring Campbell), at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood; they took questions from the audience -- on Bubba Ho-tep and other projects -- following the film.
Bruce Campbell: I think I can speak for Don here, thank you all for supporting independent movies. Personally, I feel that it's a word that's way overused. If there's a Fortune 500 company associated with it, it's not an independent movie. Like it or not, this one is. If it bombs, Don is screwed.
Question: Don, how did you come to find out about this short story [the Joe R. Lansdale work on which the film is based] and how much of it did you have to enhance make it into a feature film?
Don Coscarelli: I was in a bookstore in Sherman Oaks that's no longer there called Dangerous Visions and I asked the clerk, "What's new? What's cutting edge in horror?" And he said, "Joe Lansdale; he always has a high body count." So I said, "Oh, I gotta read this." I actually called Joe up and told him how much I liked his work, and went down to [Lansdale's home in] east Texas, made the pilgrimage, and just started reading all of his stuff. There are a couple of other stories I wanted to use.
BC: Now he lives in Nacogdoches, right?
DC: Where the County Fair was [in the film], that's right. As far as what I did in terms of adaptation, I used his entire story -- I don't think there was anything I cut out -- and pretty much treated it like the Bible, because Joe has this ability with the Texas vernacular, something I could never aspire to. I really treated it very faithfully.
Q: What was actually in the story, on the page... and what kinds of things were you interested in exploring? Like some of the things about old age -- were those in the story?
DC: Oh yeah, it was all there. I think the thing that most appealed to me were the regrets that Elvis had, because I think that if... well, since Elvis is still alive, he probably has a lot of regrets.
BC: Don, you know that we have a special agreement with the Presley estate. We can't discuss it.
DC: But that was one of the things that appealed to me. I would say that the only thing added that wasn't in the story was the scarab beetle stuff, because when Bruce [came onboard], I thought, "We gotta do something a little more physical." The other thing in terms of the screenplay was the back story, because there were some allusions to it in the short story, but I thought that would be some of the coolest stuff to actually show: Elvis switching places with [an impersonator].
Q: So, Mr. Campbell, how did you get involved in this project?
BC: I believe, Don, that you actually brought it to Sam "Spider-Man" Raimi.
DC: No, actually I got a crank call from somebody, saying that Sam Raimi was having a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I called up his office, and Sam called back and said, "No, I'm not having one." But while I was talking with Sam, telling him about the story and this movie with Elvis, he said, "You should get Bruce Campbell. He would be great for that." [turning to Bruce] And I thought maybe he was just saying that because he's your friend...
BC: Yeah, he was...
DC: But the other thing that really hooked me when he said that is I had seen Bruce at a convention -- at Fangoria -- where a good friend of mine, Angus Scrimm, got a lifetime achievement award, and Bruce was one of the presenters. He was introduced to come out and give the award, and he did this pratfall that was unbelievable. He risked his life in service of his fans, and it always stuck with me.
BC: I tripped on the stage, Don. I really tripped. Anyhow, then Don sent it to me, and I read it and said, "Okay, that's the freakiest script ever." And then I said, "Don, I want to know one thing: are you going to show the penis?" He said, "I'm not going to show the penis," and I said, "Okay, I'm in." The next thing was convincing my representatives, because it was pilot season. For pilot season, actors must be in Los Angeles and they must be available for auditions. But no, I wanted to go make a picture featuring Elvis with a growth on his pecker. So I got this date from my representatives about when they would shut up about it -- on when pilot season would be over. I made sure to suck worse during pilot season than I normally do and not get anything. Then I said, "Can I go do the dick movie now?" And they let me go. The other thing I have to say that interested me is that with a lot of low-budget movies, everyone gets a woody out of trying to do them in, like, six days. I think that's a mistake, a BIG mistake. But Don was willing to spend more time on it, and I said okay, because that meant he wouldn't do a hack-and-slash job.
Q: What was going on in your head when you were playing Elvis... Elvis as an old man?
BC: Well, he's no longer the persona -- that's all gone. He's an old guy dying from cancer in a rest home, so he's crabby and can't walk and can't take a leak and can't do much of anything. So it's really just that. That's all he is. He's no longer Elvis. I mean, he is Elvis, but he has to get his mojo back.
Q: So you decided, then, to do a more subtle performance as Elvis?
BC: Yeah, subtle. That was VERY subtle.
Q: But without the stage presence...
BC: Oh sure. And I can even see the scenes in there that torture me now, because it was early, and I was doing too much impersonation instead of just being the guy.
Q: And Ossie Davis, how did he get involved in this movie?
BC: That's a good question because Don and I kept going, "What is Ossie doing in this movie?!"
DC: It was really a struggle. When we submitted the script to his agency, the [agent] came back and said, "I don't like this." In fact, he said, "This is kind of like Grumpy Old Men. If you could just cut the mummy out..." But after really pursuing him, we got a response from the agent saying, "I really don't like this script, but my client does." And I think Ossie had read it and saw some redeeming value in it, thank God.
Q: What was the film shot on? Was it on Super-16?
DC: It was actually shot on 35mm. I guess it didn't look that good. [laughing] It was a high-speed stock.
Q: Where else is the film being screened?
DC: Next week we'll be at the South by Southwest, and then the Florida Film Festival the week after that, and Brussels after that, and then Hong Kong. Oh, I want to make an announcement. This is premature -- it's not going to be announced until Saturday night [March 1] -- but I just found out. Concurrent to this, Bruce and I had to make a wrenching decision whether we would go up to Aspen, to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. We were really actually quite excited to be put into a comedy film festival, because we realized there was some comedy in the film. Anyhow, I got a call from the director yesterday, and the winner of the Festival for Best Actor? Mr. Bruce Campbell.
BC: Yeah, that and a buck will get you a cup of coffee.
Q: Can you talk about any possible sequels?
DC: Should we ask [the audience]? We have two choices. There's Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Now Bruce sees this as a little more of a young Elvis...
BC: It's what Elvis did, like, between Clambake and something else. He's into a bunch of voodoo and black arts, so it's like [affecting an Elvis voice], "Come on sonny, we're goin' to New Orleans!"
DC: That's number one. Now number two -- we realized that you could take "Bubba" and put any monster name after it and have a sequel. So the other one that we were really getting into was Bubba Sasquach, where we would send Elvis up to the north woods and team him up with somebody to fight a tribe of killer Bigfoots. So I think we should take a vote.
[An impromptu democratic caucus spontaneously develops. Bubba Nosferatu wins a clear majority.]
BC: All right, we'll do [Bubba Sasquach] third.
Q: How long did the Elvis makeup take?
BC: I think it started at about three hours, and then we got it down to a speedy two-and-a-half. Then an hour to take it off. That's the best part of all: taking the brush and the... the KNB effects guys -- are any of them here tonight? No? Good. These bastards use something called Simple Green. It cleans kitchens and shit. On Evil Dead II, that's when they introduced it to my face, because it got the appliances off. I remember one of the effects guys going, "Look, it's an all-natural product!" So, we used Simple Green and it came RIGHT off.
Q: Do you guys have any projects on the horizon?
BC: I'm actually writing another book. Don't clap, you haven't heard the title yet. It's called Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way. It's really stupid, but there it is. It's a book about relationships, but it's not meant to be taken all that seriously. And then it looks like this summer for Sony and the Sci-Fi Channel, I'm going to direct and be in a film called Man With the Screaming Brain. It's a tender love story. Sort of like Body Heat with a brain transplant.
Q: What Elvis songs served as the biggest inspiration for you?
BC: Well, Don was gracious enough to get an Elvis guy to come in and work with me. He's the shit, this guy. He's the only Elvis impersonator on the Vegas Strip. He came in one day and he was going to show me the moves. We worked for about 20 minutes, and then he gave up. He tried to show me the moves -- and he could do them all -- and he said, "Just forget it, man. I hope they shoot a bunch of close-ups." So he gave up, but not until he told me his life's moment [involving] the suit, the white jumpsuit in the movie. There's only one company that makes the Elvis jumpsuits. They always have, they always will. Don contacted them [to get the costume for the film] and they sent the big Hawaii Comeback version with the big gut. Anyway, this Elvis guy had a big charity show, so he contacted the company and said, "For one performance, could I wear a suit that was actually worn by the King?" So they got it down off the rack and he got to wear it for this one performance. He said that about halfway through the performance, he really started to heat up and the suit started to smell like Brut. I didn't really make the connection initially until he explained -- almost religiously -- that Elvis... because these suits were so fancy, they had sequins on. You couldn't send them to the dry cleaners; it just would be disastrous. So they didn't really wash them. Elvis would just dump Brut all over himself. When he was kissing all those women he smelled like a cross between a dying muskrat and... and Brut. That's the whole story of the Elvis impersonator. And unfortunately, we couldn't afford the rights [to any of the songs] so we didn't have to worry about that, about shooting any of him actually singing. I was spared by the budget.
Q: Don, can you talk for a minute about how you make a low-budget film that has special effects in it?
DC: One of the great assets I have is that, having worked on a number of genre pictures, I got to know a lot of the effects people, and some of them have worked on my earlier films. The guys at KNB have worked on Phantasm II, as they worked on Evil Dead. And when we gave them the script and they read it and they realized we were doing something a little different than the usual studio project, then they... you know, they loved the idea of working with Bruce. Also, I was able to find a couple of really wild guys who worked over at Sony Animation who were diehard Bruce fans. The two of them came on as visual effects supervisors, really based on the cult of your personality, Bruce.
BC: Whatever gets a cheap effect.
DC: But it's basically a concept of focusing all your resources on the things that count, and not wasting any money. You know, there's just so much waste in a usual film. There's waste in the movies I make, but I try to keep it to as little as possible. It's trying to spend every dollar correctly.
Q: Is it true you don't feed the crew?
DC: No, I feed the crew well. It's paying them that causes problems. [laughs]
Q: [to Bruce] Can you tell us what will impede you from making Evil Dead 4?
BC: Because in order to make Evil Dead 4, you would have to convince Sam Raimi not do to Spider-Man 2.
Q: Don, there seems to be a preponderance of hallways in your movies. Is that coincidence, or...?
DC: I never thought about that. It's an interesting point, though. I think I got a thing for them.
BC: It was actually a great facility to shoot in because it was just about that scary. It was a veterans' facility from the '40s, so it was one of those cheery places to begin with, where if you weren't crazy when you went in there you would be by the time you got out. It was in Downey, California. Scenic Downey.
Q: In the credits for this film, there's a listing of "Senior Wrangler."
DC: Well, it's someone who wrangles the seniors.
BC: The good thing is that they couldn't get very far...
Q: Can you comment on the film's prospects for distribution?
DC: There's been a lot of talk. We have had offers, and it's easy -- with the power of Bruce in terms of selling DVDs -- to take the easy money and the direct-to-video route and all that, but we're holding out. We think the movie should play in a theatrical environment.
BC: What's been really nice is, you always sort of get it in your head that there's only multiplexes left, and to a large degree that's true. But I took Bubba around when I was doing some of my book tour, and it was really refreshing: in most large cities there is some funky-ass theater that shows all these wacky movies. They were really supportive. If you like independent movies, then keep doing what you're doing and support them, because that's the only way they're gonna get made. I was pleased to see, just on a personal level, that there actually still were venues that will take the oddball non-Taco-Bell-tie-in kind of movie.
DC: There could be a Taco Bell tie-in. We would have accepted that. [laughing]
Q: Who came up with Ho-tep's western attire?
DC: Our costume designer Shelley, who happens to be my wife, did a great job. We scoured everywhere to find that hat. We found it under a box in Western Costume, it was the worst ratty hat ever. We took it over to KNB, who actually had this artificial snakeskin and put the feather in.
Q: Bruce, will you return for Spider-Man 2?
BC: Are they doing a sequel to Spider-Man?! Oh, it did pretty good, didn't it? So will I be in it? That's what you want to know? Why don't we ask Sam Raimi. He's right over there...
Sam Raimi: [from the audience] I loved the movie, Don. It's a great picture, it's a great, great picture. But now that I've seen Bruce's performance in it, I'd like to reconsider that offer, Bruce.
BC: That's okay... I'm busy doing Bubba Nosferatu!
Article published 03.03.2003.
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