Thursday, August 28, 2008

Set Report: Phantasm III

Time for a genuine treat from one of Phantasm's own insiders, journalist Todd Mecklem, who just happened to be around during the productions of Phantasm III and Phantasm IV. Collected for the Phantasm Archives and joined with a slew of rare photographs is this Phantasm III set report of filming at Angeles Abbey in Compton. Todd maintains a spiffy website and blog, which you can visit at ToddMecklem.com. Continue reading for his set report or click the image below.


Introduction:
I first met Reggie Bannister in 1992, at a FANGORIA convention in Los Angeles. I was living in the L.A. area at the time. Soon after, I interviewed Reg and Angus Scrimm for a start-up horror mag that went belly-up. At the time I was married to the horror writer Denise Dumars. We were delighted when Reg showed up at one of our parties and stayed late, watching PHANTASM at midnight with us and a few of our guests. It was an amazing experience, especially for a guy like me who’d moved to Southern California just a few years earlier from rural Oregon.

Somehow I got my hands on a couple of tickets to the Film Threat Magazine First Anniversary Party, and I invited Reg to go along; hanging out there, and in Boardner’s bar in Hollywood afterward, cemented our friendship. I started driving down to Long Beach to work with Reg on a film script called HORROR ‘HOOD, the story of a creature on the loose in Washington D.C. and the heroic-but-rough-around-the-edges Medical Examiner who tracks down the monster. Sometimes we’d kick ideas back and forth until the early morning hours. We finished the screenplay eventually, and looked for an agent, without success. I had a friend who worked for Warner Brothers and we got on the studio lot and tried to take a copy to the Script Department—no dice. We even gave a copy of the script to Quentin Tarantino at a party. But HHOOD never did get produced.

In those days Phantasm 3 was still just a rumor, a hope—would the sphere fly again? One day, as I arrived at his house, Reg greeted me with “Hey, dude, we’re gonna do number 3!” Phantasm lived again!

I read Reg’s copy of PHANTASM 3: LORD OF THE DEAD (henceforth I’ll refer to it as P3), and I thought: this is wild, but how is Don ever going to film this? The answer was, with ingenuity, a devoted cast and crew, and very long working hours.
- Todd Mecklem


Set Report:

“YOU’RE ALL TROUPERS.”

It was 1993. My first chance to visit a Phantasm set was here at last. Reg gave me directions to a location a couple of hours’ drive north of L.A., in rural Ventura County. I drove my ’72 Olds Cutlass up winding Highway 23, through lemon groves and past oil drilling rigs, into an area of mostly bare hills. There were no guardrails, and a steep drop past the edge of the road kept me alert. It was starting to rain.

I reached a little valley hidden in the hills. Signs for the Lions Club and a Methodist Church gave a sense of the type of people living in the tiny community there. Near an old farmhouse, cars and trailers were parked. It was raining more heavily now. The ground was turning to mud.

Don Coscarelli was wearing jeans, a raincoat, and green, unlaced mudboots. He looked determined. Shooting would continue; with the barebones budget, Don didn’t want to have to bring the crew and equipment back another day. The rear of a black hemicuda was covered with a tarp, and another was stretched above it, supported by poles, to keep the rain off. And it was cold rain. My hands were already freezing.

The site was swimming in mud. The owner of the farm, a very tall bearded man with a fur hat, stared, bemused, at the scene. The crew shook water off the tarp above the car, then uncovered the trunk, wiping it down so it would appear dry. There were metal tracks on the ground for the camera dolly.



“Manpower, please,” Don said. “Grips? Anybody?” The grips were busy elsewhere, so I stepped in and helped move a pole supporting the tarp. Near the hemicuda, there were three “graves” topped with rough wooden crosses.

Reg got in the trunk. It wasn’t a very big trunk. He was in there for at least ten minutes while they shot the scene. Someone asked him what is was like in the trunk.

“It’s not bad,” Reg said, “but when it closes, man, first thing that occurs to you is—what if the keys don’t unlock this thing? Because there’s no other way out, you know. And then…let the claustrophobia begin! It’s freaky in there, I’m telling you. I didn’t like it. I did not like it.”

“Like a coffin almost,” I said. “Yeah, only less comfortable,” Reg said. “Well, you were the only one who was dry, in there,” I pointed out.

“That’s true,” he said. “That’s a plus.”

I finally fled the shoot, after four hours during which it never stopped raining. During that time the crew filmed scenes totaling perhaps a minute or less of action. I could see that the crew was suffering. The guy taking light exposures could barely move his fingers.

I told Reg, later: “You’re a trouper. You’re all troupers.”

SETTING THE STAGE

After my day at that miserable location shoot, it became clear to me why a large part of most movies are shot in soundstages. They’re dry. Conditions can be controlled. You can work all night shooting a daytime scene, or all day shooting a night scene.

P3 production had moved into a soundstage in North Hollywood. Walls were built, and sections of the building became new locations in the Phantasm universe: a desert campsite, rooms in an old farmhouse, a hospital room, and a creepy embalming chamber (complete with truly disgusting bloody toilet). In one room a pink hearse was parked; nearby, an otherworldly tunnel was under construction.

I visited the soundstage several times. On the first visit I was able to make myself useful, standing next to the fire ring on the campsite set while light readings were taken. Later, my “work” over, I took a rest (not an eternal one, luckily) on the autopsy table.



On another occasion there was a reunion of sorts of the original PHANTASM cast, as Kathy Lester, the sinister “Lady in Lavender,” showed up to shoot her appearance as an evil nurse. Another time, Bill Thornbury showed up on the set with a six-pack of Dos Equis, and cracked open a cold one. Eyebrows were raised among the cast—for anyone else, alcohol on the set during work time would be a no-no—but Don just smiled at his old friend. I could tell that Don was happy to have the old cast back together again.

I met Mike Baldwin—back to resurrect his namesake character after James LeGros played the part in PHANTASM 2—during a meal break at the soundstage. He told me the story of his cat waking up, panicking, and clawing its way across his face. Luckily this had happened some time ago, and the stitches had healed. It would’ve been terrible if he’d missed out on his return to Phantasm because of a frightened feline.



I kept returning to the set—can you blame me? One evening there seemed to be an unusual number of visitors. The occasion was a “blowback” effect, where Reggie gets thrown back against a wall by a supernatural force. Luckily for Reg, who gets battered and bruised every time a Phantasm film is shot, Don called in a stuntman for this particular effect. Disguised as Reg, the guy was attached to a harness that would be pulled back with great force by some grips yanking ropes behind the wall.

There must’ve been thirty people jammed in a small mockup of a room to watch this effect. I squeezed in and found a place to sit—right in front of the camera, unfortunately—and finally, while almost reclining on the floor so people could see over me, I watched as the stuntman was yanked back with great force into the wall. Then they did a second take! The guy made it through without serious injury, but he was definitely in some pain. Talk about suffering for your art. He could’ve used one of those Dos Equis…

BALLZ IN THE ‘HOOD

Instead of building mockups of mausoleums as he’d done in the previous films, Don contracted with Angeles Abbey Cemetery in Compton to use the amazing mausoleums there for P3. The mausoleums, with distinctive Moorish exteriors, were built in the 1920s, when Compton was a thriving neighborhood, but now the city was notoriously “The ‘Hood”—poor, gang-ridden, dangerous. During the day, the drive from the freeway to the cemetery seemed safe enough. At night, it could be a little scary.



Also scary was the condition of the once-lavish mausoleums. The place had been neglected for a while. Broken windows went unrepaired. A recent series of rainstorms had left puddles of brown water on the marble floors—I called it “corpse tea,” imagining the water filtering down through the crypts.

In one of the large mausoleums at Angeles Abbey I had my perfect Phantasm moment. I had been walking around the upper floor of the main mausoleum, looking at the decades-old inscriptions on the tombs, when I looked into an alcove and saw…THE TALL MAN…eyes closed, unmoving, sitting in a velvet-lined cherrywood chair. He was so still, I thought that this must be a latex replica, prepared for some special-effects shot. Then slowly, very slowly, his eyes opened, and The Tall Man looked at me and said, "Todd..."

"...how are you?"

Angus had been resting, waiting for his call, when he had sensed me standing nearby. I sat down beside him and we talked for a few minutes, until the crew summoned him for the first take of the "throne room" scene, shot in a columbarium filled with very real funerary urns, and genuine cobwebs as well.

The scenes that I watched being filmed at Angeles Abbey usually involved Reg hitting the floor. During one such scene, jammed in the “dead end” of a mausoleum hallway with the crew, I volunteered to be script supervisor for a few hours while the woman who normally did the job had to leave to run an errand. Basically I was making sure that what was being shot matched what was in the script.

When I was no longer needed I wandered off to another part of the mausoleum, where Daryn Okada and the second-unit crew were filming some sphere footage. I watched as the sphere wranglers made the shiny hell-bombs dart and swoop through the halls.



I luckily left early the evening that some local gang members hassled the crew for filming in the cemetery where their friends were buried. Supposedly a nervous security guard pulled a gun on the gangbangers, only to have them laugh and ask him “What are you going to do with that?” I’m glad I missed that particular adventure.

I also heard that there was another dose of reality one day that the cast and crew didn’t appreciate much—a badly embalmed body that was causing an unpleasant smell in one of the mausoleum hallways.
I did go to one night shoot at the cemetery. Reg was hitting hard marble again, shooting the “sphere in a toilet plunger” scene. After a while Denise and I, with hearse maven Guy Thorpe and his girlfriend (later his wife) Carrie, went to explore some of the outlying mausoleums. They were dark—the lights were out for some reason—and we only had one flashlight. Some of the crypts were missing chunks of marble, and the broken windows and cobwebs made it seem like we were literally in a horror film. At one point a clutch of roosting birds took fright, and so did we for a moment until we realized what the noise was!

The owners of Angeles Abbey later got into some legal trouble which I believe related to the neglect of the facilities there and questions about where certain funds were ending up. I don’t remember all the details. The place has been used as a setting for a number of movies; some scenes from the 2004 horror flick CONSTANTINE were shot in the mausoleums there.



MIXING IT UP

At last filming was finished. Next came post-production. Don agreed to let me hang out for a day during the sound mixing. I drove to CBS Television City in the San Fernando Valley. My huge Cutlass barely fit through the narrow lanes of the lot, and, as luck would have it, I was passing the Seinfeld soundstage just as Jason Alexander and Michael Richards were getting out of golf carts to enter the stage. They had to step back to let my car pass by.

I found the building where Todd-AO sound technicians were working on PHANTASM 3. Don was there, supervising the work. And it’s painstaking work. For most of the day, they were working on just one scene, adjusting all the elements of the sound. I remember them toning down the sound Kevin Conners—the kid in the movie—made as he slurped some baked beans he was eating out of a can.

Don and the sound techs were nice enough to put up with me for a number of hours, and I even found one guy’s lost car keys as everyone hunted for them…they’d slipped off the sound boards and gotten tangled in some of the dozens of cables behind it. Sound mixing isn’t as exciting as watching a movie be shot (though it is much safer and more comfortable), but it’s an important part of the process.

So that’s the story of how I was able to be a “fly on the wall” at various points in the production of P3. A couple of years later, Don was able to bring the old gang together one more time for PHANTASM 4: OBLIVION. Once again I was able to hang out, and this time even got to appear briefly on celluloid…but that’s a story for another article.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your involvement in this I love reading about the Behind the scenes I find it so interesting I Always find it interesting that they are allowed to film in such Sacred places like Mausoleums,Churches and Cemetaries I know they payfor the use but it still seems weird but it has really payed off in these series I love these Films Don Coscarelli is so Talented and all the actors in these films are Awesome I just want to say thanks Don Coscarelli and Cast for your Great Work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Found this and am pleased that I did. Thanks for sharing the awesome experience.
    Would like to see the article for your brief appearance on celluloid.

    ReplyDelete

Popular Posts