BUBBA HO-TEP SPECIAL: Bruce Campbell & Don Coscarelli speak!
[An edited version of the Bruce Campbell interview appeared in Rave magazine, Brisbane 22/02/05]
It's not often we get to see the King in action on the big screen. I’m not talking Elvis Presley in Tickle Me or Girls Girls Girls - I mean the REAL King, Bruce “Ash” Campbell. Last time for me was on the canvas deckchairs at the sadly long-demolished Boomerang Cinema in Annerley watching Army Of Darkness in glorious 35mm. Now the long wait is over - Bruce Campbell's latest epic, the comedy-horror masterpiece Bubba Ho-Tep, gets a cinema release almost two years after its American theatrical run, thanks to Brisbane-based distributor Magna Pacific. And the real surprise is this: the King gets to play The King. Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis battling an Egyptian Mummy in a nursing home. I swear, every word is true.
Bubba... opens with a deeply stoic Elvis rotting in his hospital bed. He’s in his 70s, Priscilla has never paid him a visit, there’s a growth on his unmoving “pecker”, and since he swapped places with an Elvis impersonator in the mid Seventies, no-one believes he’s the King. And he’s hardly in disguise - on top of the extra 200 pounds and heavy crows feet he still has the trademark mutton chops and shades.
These days he hears a lot of scuttling at night and captures one of the “big bitch” cockroaches. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of weird goings-on at the nursing home. His neighbour, an octogenarian Negro (the late, great Ossie Davis) who is convinced he’s Jack Kennedy, points the King towards an unwelcome late night visitor prowling the corridors, sucking the souls from the orifices (ahem) of the nearly-deceased. JFK believes it’s the reanimated corpse of Lyndon Johnson; Elvis, after a spot of detective work crouched over a walking frame, deduces it is in fact an Egyptian mummy clad in cowboy boots he christens “Bubba Ho-Tep”.
And so begins one of the most sly, delirious, blackly comic and heart-felt sleepers in a long while. Thanks to the folks at Magna Pacific I interviewed both the star and director of Bubba... over the phone to help promote the film in Rave Magazine. Bruce Campbell needs no introduction, of course, and I can’t put into words how it feels to listen to the operator say “Mr Campbell, I’ll just put you through” and hear a familiar voice shoot back “Groovy”. Just as exciting for me was the interview with Bubba’s director the following week. The filmmaker, Don Coscarelli, may not be such a familiar name outside genre circles, but his work as a low-budget director, writer and producer is the stuff of legends. Don's first horror hit was in 1979 with the wildly idiosyncratic Phantasm (released in
Over the next 20 years Coscarelli turned Phantasm into a hugely successful film franchise, and with the release of Phantasm IV: Oblivion in 1998, he shows no signs of leaving the saga alone. But the Phantasm series is not his only calling card - his biggest budgeted film to date, the 1982 sword-and-sorcery hit Beastmaster, also spawned two sequels and a TV series. “Sequel hell”, I describe it in the interview, and if Bubba Ho-Tep spawns a legion of follow-ups all starring Bruce Campbell battling [insert monster here], hell ain't a bad place to be.
BRUCE CAMPBELL Interview 10/02/05
This is a real honour. I’ve been a huge fan for a long time.
Well, you’re obviously a fine man with great taste!
It was really sad to hear about Ossie Davis.
For sure, but he had a pretty full life, Mr Davis.
He’s amazing to watch in Bubba - there’s a guy with one of the most daunting resumes not only as an actor but as a human being, and he’s having the time of his life!
I think that’s why he did it. Not every actor can be in something just ‘cause it’s Hamlet. There’s a lot of times you ask yourself, “Am I gonna enjoy this project or not?” I think he was happy to do it. We were glad to have him.
Did he come out with any good stories?
I didn’t talk to him about Kennedy and I probably should have. I should’ve gone in there with a list of 15 people who are famous and asked him point blank, OK, give me the stories. And I’m sure he would’ve had a bag full. But we were so busy making that movie, we were all under the gun. It was a low budget movie and we were working at a good clip. I was buried under makeup half the name so there wasn’t much time for chit-chat.
It’s one of those amazingly compact films - a small cast, a limited set.
I think it’s OK to contain stories - everyone’s going for the sprawling epics. That’s what sorta lost me with Lord Of The Rings - I kept going “Where the hell am I? Which valley? Who’s the guy with the funny ears? Oh, OK, is he the bad guy? So I dunno, I like operating in a simpler world sometimes.
I’m so glad Bubba’s getting a big screen release. I’ve been a huge fan of yours since I saw Evil Dead in 1983 and I think it’s the greatest role you’ve ever played. It’s The combination of imminently quotable dialogue, physical comedy and one of the greatest sustained comic characterizations I’ve seen from anyone in years, AND one of the most endearing!
He’s kind of a loser at the beginning at the movie - your character has nowhere to go but up. And that to me is what’s important. It’s a cliché, but what is the arc of the character? Who’s the guy we’re gonna find at the end of the movie versus who’s the guy we see at the beginning of the movie. To tell a real story, the guy can’t help but be different by the end. Hopefully for the better. And in this case I think so. If I was a Presley family member I would be OK with Bubba. I’d be a little shocked at first but then I’d realize it’s all for the greater good.
You have to admit, it’s a pretty crazy idea.
Of course it is. But it’s not a mean-spirited movie for me. That was one of the deals. Underneath the wackiness it’s really a story about two old guys in a rest-home trying to get a little respect.
You ever much of a fan of Elvis?
Not really. ‘Cause I came along a little too late. When I was growing up in the 60s as a teenager, the Beatles really took over here, they were more of a sensation. Elvis - by the time I became aware of him, he was dead a year after I graduated from high school. To me he was running around in capes with these big sideburns with that black, black hair. I was like, who is this freak with the jewelry and the posse an’ all that. It wasn’t until later when you look at the archive footage and documentaries that you realize what an absolute STUD he was in his day.
If you forget about the fifteen years of shit films as well.
Sure. But, as far as live performances go, those early Seventies things, no-one could touch him. How he could stir up an audience and keep going for two hours. Those women were just LOSING it!
Elvis: That’s The Way It Is - one of the greatest concert films of all time.
Yeah. It’s a cool flick.
You had to work with a real Vegas Elvis impersonator? That must’ve been a real trip.
Yeah, for about a half hour until he quit on me! (laughter) He gave up. He said (lapsing into Elvis voice) “That’s right, man, you ain’t never gonna get it.” ‘Cause he was really convinced that I was never going to be able to do it. And that’s OK. He went back to Vegas. Fortunately the heart of the movie wasn’t really doing all the Elvis routines and things like that. It was fine to have him come in and show me some stuff, but every actor has to do his own thing at the end of the day anyway.
The voice is spot on!
I did the same thing, you mess around with it. You talk and it still sounds like you mostly, but sometimes you can match somebody else’s voice easier than the next guy.
I dunno - you did that audio track on the DVD (as Elvis)...
That was from an undisclosed location! We made that by special arrangement with THAT person.
Well... tell the King from me it was an amazing piece of work!
I’ll tell him if I ever see him. We were not allowed to have a big discussion with him when it came time to show him the movie.
He did take serious issue at certain points.
Yeah he did! At first he wanted to come in, do it and go - he didn’t want to have to discuss it. He made that deal. And he wasn’t entirely happy with it. About the swearing, and general behaviour, he wouldn’t have tolerated that.
Have any Elvis fans taken offense?
No-one’s said anything. I’ve never gotten one of those emails, “Hi Bruce, I’ve never known who you are but I had to see this Elvis movie ‘cause I’m a huge Elvis fan”, nothing.
Not even a letter from Priscilla?
No, ‘cause I think they’re too shattered. Bubba... shattered them too much. It put them into the Rapture - they were so happy when they saw Bubba Ho-Tep because of how the hero was treated that they ascended - I dunno.
And it is confirmation the King is still alive.
Most real die hard fans probably wouldn’t want to see Him in a horror film. So we may have missed that demographic.
You have to admit Bubba works like Army Of Darkness - the film goes so much further than the limits of the horror genre, the appeal is so broad.
Bubba’s not a horror film, it’s not a comedy and it’s not a drama. I dunno what the hell it is.
I’ve tried to explain the film to others and it’s true, you can’t pigeon-hole that film.
It’s just a weird movie. It’s nice that they come along so that’s the stuff that appeals to me, something that you’re not going to see every day. It’s not for everybody, but it’s just for folks who just want something a little bit different in their viewing pleasures. The goal is at the end of the day, how does the audience feel at the end of the movie? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a low budget movie, a horror film, drama, action, whatever the genre or whatever the budget, whoever the actors are, it’s “How does the movie make you feel?” And my feeling is the movie succeeds if it makes you feel better at the end of the movie. You know, filmmakers love to take that jaded cool flick-your-cigarette kind of approach, but that leaves people cold.
Bubba is a genuinely touching film.
Well, in its own way. It’s not a tearjerker but it’s sincere. And I think there’s not a whole lot of sincerity going on out there.
The more I watch Bubba Ho-Tep, the more I notice the deliberate pacing. It’s almost the polar opposite to a Sam Raimi film that hurtles along with a kind of out-of-control momentum.
Yeah, everything goes along Mummy speed! And so it’s perfect that a guy with a hip problem and a guy in an electric wheelchair fight a Mummy, cause they’re all about the same speed.
One of my favourite scenes is the long slow walk down the corridor - it’s quite surreal with the lighting and the sound, then touching when Kemosabe tries to do a shoot em up. What’s Don like to work with?
Very patient, and he hand-makes his movies which is really important too. He didn’t rush the pace of his shooting - he shoots at about the pace that I like to shoot. He shot for six weeks which is much longer than the average low-budget movie.
I guess, given the limited cast and set, he could afford to.
Well no, it’s just how you design it. The low budget mentality is, you find qualified people, you pay them a lot of money and make them work really fast, and that way you know it’ll get done ‘cause you have a qualified crew. In Don’s case, he doesn’t want to work that fast cause it’s not as fun in the filmmaking process. There’s no time for discovery ‘cause you’re always clipping along too quick. Don goes, “Well, I’ll just hire people that are cheaper and I can shoot longer.” Same as Army Of Darkness. We had a twelve week shoot. Now that’s a long shoot for about an $11 million movie.
I remember seeing Phantasm and Beastmaster in the early 80s - Coscarelli really seemed like he was trapped in franchise hell. It must have been a real kick for him to do something new and be so successful.
Oh, I think so, I think he’s tickled pink. He put up the money for all of this. I hope he’s getting it back in spades now. He took the risk.
Any news about Bubba Nosferatu?
There’s a couple of companies that are - what’s the phrase? - “circling the building”. They’re sniffing it out. They’re definitely interested. So we have to see. It has to be something that’s not too contrived or stupid or rehashy. We have to make sure it’s interesting.
From what I read, the story picks up when Elvis is still the King.
Yeah. Honestly it’s too rough to even get into. We’re trying to do a prequel and a sequel.
There’s no finished script?
No, not even close.
The nursing home’s amazing - everything about it suggests decay, from the Egyptian mummy even down to the old woman’s dolls. It’s great set design, but you were using a real nursing home?
It was a Veterans Facility in
I can imagine it was physically demanding under the fat suit and Elvis hair, even though you’re lying in bed for a good-sized chunk of the film.
I spent a lot of time in the makeup chair, two and a half hours a day, and what most people don’t even talk about is taking it off. It’s not like she throws me a wet towel and says goodnight! It’s a full hour to take it off.
Let’s talk about Man With The Screaming Brain - written and directed by you, and by the sounds of it, it’s taken a long time to get off the ground?
Plenty, yeah. The kernel of the idea was given to a friend of mine back in ‘86. I’ll let you do the math.
One of two films for the Sci Fi Channel?
Yeah, the other film (Alien Apocalypse) is by a friend of mine, Josh Becker, and that thing is about 14 or 15 years old! They’re both creaky old ideas that have finally come to fruition.
That’s a lot of dust on the cover!
Yeah, but you know, ...Screaming Brain was completely rewritten for
I loved your book If Chins Could Talk. You get the impression that there have been more ups than downs in a really fun ongoing ride.
Yeah, because you don’t get too wigged out about the stuff that doesn’t go exactly the way it should go, because in a lower budget arena you’re not gambling $100 million. Things get really weird once you’re spending lots and lots of money - decisions get strange, you have a lot more cooks, there’s a lot more at stake, the chance you’ll see profits are much less... So I don’t mind operating at a less expensive environment cause it provides you with more freedom, I’ve found, and the accounting is much simpler.
And it’s more fun.
Yeah, it’s more fun because you can do all sorts of stories like Bubba Ho-Tep. Bubba... done for $100 million, they would never allow you to do that story. He’d never have cancer on his penis (laughter), you’d see a lot more when he’s young - you’d have a young story and they’d flash back to him being old. It’s like him being old would be the beginning, middle and end of the movie and the rest would be young Elvis. So that’s the type of crap that why bother? I don’t need a bigger paycheck to make myself aggravated. I’d rather have a smaller paycheck and work in a better environment. Who needs that?
So it’s still fun?
Yeah, it is fun, as long as you can do different stuff. When you can no longer do what you wanna do, then it’s time to go into the insurance business.
Next book’s almost out?
Yep, Make Love The
Fantastic! And available from www.bruce-campbell.com?
You have to put a hyphen in between “bruce” and “campbell” though. If you don’t, you’ll get a Dodge dealership in
Don:Who would’ve ever thought honestly when me made that original Phantasm, my god, that over 25 years later that people would still be thinking about it at all. ‘Cause at the time it was a little low-budget movie and we were trying to get it done and finished and out into theatres.
Bruce said you “handmake” your films, which I believe is a huge compliment.
It IS a compliment, but for better or worse it is true, because we work on such micro-budgets making these films. And I think where that comes from about the long shoots with a cheap crew, there’s some truth to that because no matter what budget level you’re working at, what you need to make the film is never there on time, so what you need is time to wait to get things right. The only way I’ve figured out to solve that problem is to keep all the salaries as low as possible. I have friends that make these films in 10 or 11 days, and there’s no way to make a good movie on that. In a weird way I guess I got spoilt on movies like Phantasm ‘cause we probably shot that thing over a year and a half. We were able to work for a few days, then take a couple of weeks off and edit it, try to figure out what we were gonna do next, go back and shoot some more. It was almost like editing and writing while you were shooting. Pretty interesting.
I haven’t read any of Bubba Ho-Tep author Joe Lansdale’s work, but I can imagine that from a screenwriter’s point of view, most of your work is done for you.
It’s true. His work is really cinematic in nature, and at the same time strange and wacky even. When I read this short story, it unfolded in such a fashion that it seemed like it would make a great movie. Some of the people I let read this story, they didn’t see it really. But he’s really got a great attitude and a great sensibility AND sensitivity. I love his work.
The story really does have a heart, and it comes across on screen.
I think one the hardest things about the making of this movie was to find the tone. Because you’ve got a story that’s laugh-out-loud in one spot and you then you shift gears and it’s supposed to be terrifying, and you then you shift gears and it’s supposed to be sad. Trying to find a tone where that would work - we were so lucky with the cast, and I think that was the answer to that, ‘cause they were able to do those things without making it seem forced or obvious.
Was there ever any other choice to play Elvis, or was Bruce’s name on the dotted line from day one?
He was it. And looking back on it now, nobody else could’ve made that role work. It’s such a perfect marriage, and he’s just great in it. And you’ve gotta give Bruce credit, he really works hard- when he’s not on the set shooting he’s in the dressing room with his script, and he’s writing and going through every word and try to really prepare and understand what’s happening. A lot of other actors don’t do that at all.
I read another interview with Bruce where he said he spent his off time learning lines or singing Elvis songs in the shower!
(Laughs) We tried to get him to sing in the movie but he refused. I’ve never heard him sing but... We couldn’t afford any Elvis songs anyway so it didn’t matter.
As much as I love the Evil Dead movies, I still think Bruce as Elvis is the finest work he’s ever done.
Well that is really wonderful of you to say, cause he’s so amazing in that role. I tell ya, as a director, you’re really in the position of being the first audience. When we were making that movie, he was so funny in that role, and I could tell that this was really going to be special. There’s so many little lines and bits that he would throw away between scenes. Every day it was a pleasure to come to work ‘cause it was so funny, being with him in a scene with that character. Lovable in a way.
Was he riffing like crazy?
Oh yeah. And maybe the reason why he’s so good in the movie is the fact that for 12, 14 hours a day he was trapped in that makeup. So he comes down the hallway - he’s got the fat suit, the PJs, the robe and the slippers on, he’s talking, “Hey, baby, get outta my way, I’m comin’ through” - he was in this character and he would stay that way even through lunch. He couldn’t escape even if he wanted to!
Getting Ossie Davis was a real coup.
Yes it was. We were really fortunate because he brought a sense of gravity to the proceedings which we needed. He was an amazing actor, he was almost like an acting machine. Give him the action cue and he would turn it on and he would be that character for the couple of minutes we were shooting, and then you’d turn him off and send him back to his dressing room. He really threw himself into it. It was a scene right out of that film Ed Wood - you know that scene where Bela Lugosi is wrestling with the octopus, Martin Landau plays that role and he won the Oscar for it. The last day’s shooting was right out of that. You had Ossie down in the dirt with this rubber Mummy and you’re thinking “This isn’t going to work”, and he starts to fight with the thing and he’s making it real! (laughter) The guy was 85 at the time. Really going at it - that part was cool.
Not to mention being the genre geek that I am also, to have on your resume to have directed Bruce Campbell battling prosthetic rubber props, I mean that’s an experience. He knows how to work those rubber creatures. It was just great.
I really loved the visual tricks you used at the start of the film to mess with Elvis’ perception of time - the speeding up and the jump cuts.
Oh yeah. The idea being, when you’re in a predicament like that, you’re almost dead. And his grasp on what’s real, and the passage of time, I thought would be interesting.
I love the set design on all your films - the hallways in the rest home reminded me of the funeral home in Phantasm - I half-expected a chrome ball to hurtle round the corner!
There was something about those long hallways that’s interesting. That turned out nicely. We had a young production designer and he had some great ideas in terms of the surfaces on the walls, making them real dank and dingy.
I loved the pacing - Bruce described is as “Mummy speed”.
(Laughs) It’s old school in some respects. It didn’t really seem like the kind of the story sit well with a flashy MTV style editing pace, yet at the same time we could still make the points we wanted to make with it. What more perfect characters to battle a Mummy? First up, I loved the Mummy movies and it was thrilling to actually direct a Mummy film. The Boris Karloff Mummy, the only way he could get somebody was if the girl screamed and fainted! These guys don’t move so fast, so a Mummy is an actual threat to them! (laughs)
And Ossie delivered such wonderful lines about ass-sucking Mummies with such conviction.
We didn’t know what to think - the line was supposed to read, “Watch your asshole” - (Ossie said) “asshoawle”. I turned to Bruce with a puzzled look, like “Why did he say that?” But it was so strange we went with it.
It is a very odd film. Did you ever wonder how the hell you would market it?
That was a question, but the biggest question for me was whether the story would play for the key demographic for us. Forget the mall-going teen audience - the real question was whether it would play to the black t-shirt wearing Evil Dead and Phantasm fans, 18 to 25. Would they sit through this story and enjoy it/ And I tell you, that was probably the biggest thrill at the first couple of festival screenings that we had. There’s no question that the Evil Dead fans got the movie and liked it. So that was a breakthrough, we didn’t know that would happen. We thought we’d end up making an old folks independence sedentary movie. But it also speaks to the fact that these studios have turned down Bubba Ho-Tep and didn’t want to fund it or didn’t have any interest in making movies about that or working with Bruce. I think it proved how much they talk down to their audience , they don’t treat them with intelligence. Just ‘cause you’re 18 or 22 years old doesn’t mean you want that pre-digested typical
Bruce said you put a fair chunk of your own money into the movie.
Yeah I did, and they always tell you not to do that kind of thing. I have off and on put a little money in some of my other pictures too, ‘cause I’ve never been in a position where people will give me a budget that’s sufficient enough to make a movie, except for The Beastmaster. So I took a bit of a risk there, but it paid off. I don’t think I want to do it again though! Nerve-wracking! We had a difficult time finding distribution in the
Can you give us ANY information about the sequel?
There’s no question, there’s no final script (laughs), and funding is not in place! There’s a lot of talk. Bruce and I went to a lot of film festivals with Bubba Ho-Tep. We got to spend some time together and we talked a lot about sequels. There was no question that a sequel wasn’t going to be that difficult, because the thing is you just put a monster name after Bubba and you’ve got a sequel. We had seriously talked for a while about Bubba Sasquatch, where Elvis would be sent up to the north woods and would have to fight a tribe of killer Bigfoots. I really liked this idea a lot, and then Bruce and I would make appearances and Bruce would always end up doing an audience survey where he would say, “How many want us to make Bubba Nosferatu?” and “How many wanna see Bubba Sasquatch?” Bubba Nosferatu always won by a significant margin!