The director of Phantasm: Ravager discusses taking over the latest chapter in the iconic franchise
Taking on directorial duties on a series which was helmed by the same director for the first four entries could be something of a huge task to have on your shoulders. With a “Phan”-base as strong as the Phantasm one, one could only assume that filmmaker and FX artist David Hartman could fold under pressure. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Hartman not only stepped into the director’s chair with Phantasm: Ravager but gave viewers an innovative, imaginative and otherworldly experience that not only holds series creator Don Coscarelli’s stamp of approval, but a film that is in this writer’s opinion, the absolute best way to bookend such a fun series.
With his background with Shock Till You Drop leading all the way back to the site’s early days in which Hartman provided artwork for STYD, we sat down and talked the pressures, the successes and the end result of bringing the series to an end.
SHOCK: So I saw Phantasm: Ravager and as a fan, I really loved it and it made me giddy seeing all of my favorite characters coming back into the series. I think it was such a great way to tie up the series as well. I’m curious how your involvement came to be on the whole project.
HARTMAN: First off, I think this is awesome. I actually did artwork for Shock Till You Drop in the site’s early days with Ryan Turek (Former STYD managing editor, now with Blumhouse), so yeah, it’s really funny and cool to be chatting with you guys. How my involvement came to be was when I started on Bubba Ho-Tep with Don (Coscarelli). A mutual friend hooked us up and I did some artwork for Bubba and visual effects and stuff like that. I stayed in touch with Don and worked on his Masters of Horror episodes and things but I would spend every weekend just shooting stuff, like little short films you know, little monster movies and stuff. It’s just fun, having me and my friends get together and just film something on the weekend and I would send these things to Don, just for a joke and stuff. One time I was like “Hey Don, why don’t you come out here and we’ll shoot some stuff together?, because there are no executives, no one giving notes, no pressure. If you hate what comes out of it, you don’t have to show anyone.” Just for fun and that stuff keeps you on your game and stuff. So Don and I were going to shoot something and Don was like, “Hey why don’t we do a Phantasm thing and I’ll get Reggie Bannister in there?” Hearing that, you know, I was like a kid in a candy shop, I was always a fan of the series myself. So there I was, thinking this whole time that I’m just going to be setting up lights and stuff, I didn’t mean to be like directing any of it, I thought Don was. We start getting ready for it and Don was like “You know you’re directing this right?” I was like “No, but ok.” So we shot this short which was actually the cabin scene with the girl and Reggie and him playing the guitar and stuff, it was just do a little scene that’s a derivative of the Phantasm series and tone and with that character.
So we shot that and Don was really happy with it and was like “Hey, why don’t we do another one?” And we did another one, and then we took some time off. Don went to go do John Dies at the End and I went to go work on this show Transformers Prime. Then you know, we got back together and we’re like what are we going to do with this footage? Should it be a web series or are we going to just put it on DVD as an extra, and Don’s like “I’ve been thinking about it and I think we’re going to make part five.” I’m like “YES! Awesome! That’s going to be fun!” And then he’s like “…And you’re directing the film.” And I’m just silent. I don’t know how to react to that, you know, I was just so excited. One side of me is like “No Don, you’ve got to direct this, this is your world,” and the other side is like “Shut up stupid, this is an opportunity you can’t pass up.” But I wouldn’t make any decision without Don’s approval and for me this movie, I’ve been a lifelong fan of Phantasm and I didn’t want this movie to be a show-off piece for me to show cool camera moves or anything like that. It really needed to fit in the world, fit on the bookshelf with the other movies and have Don’s blessing, and all that. I hope that plays through for everyone.
SHOCK: That’s one of the many things loved about it. I mean I’m a lifelong fan of the series as well and my kids are into it just as much as I am at this point. But what’s great about Ravager I thought was how it feels like it fits so wonderfully within the rest of the series. It doesn’t feel like it’s something completely different. You know, when a different director typically comes on board in a franchise, they try to do their own thing so much to the point that it doesn’t even resemble the kind of series before. And I thought Ravager really paid respect to the spirit of the previous films and yeah, there were some new spins on it but I felt like you really did such a great job being faithful to the whole mythology while putting your own spin on it as well. You kind of spoke on it being a little surreal you know, directing a Phantasm film while also being a fan but I mean how was it when you get Angus Scrimm on set or Michael Baldwin and all those people. Was it hard to step into director mode and kind of put that kind of fan part aside?
HARTMAN: I was been able to put a wall up in brain between those two sections. Once I was in the director mode, I can keep the fanboy at bay a little bit. You know, once Don said I was directing, I didn’t really get much time to get excited about it. We really just jumped right in there… but bringing Angus on set and getting to hear him say the words that you’ve written and him telling me, “Yes the Tall Man would say this!” and just getting everyone’s love and approval and excitement in the air when we’re filming, gosh man, I can’t even explain just how much fun that was, as a fan but also on the professional side as a director. Everybody knows their characters already and how they react to things and that made it really easy to jump into the director seat and have time to be creative, instead of just making sure the story works. It gave us that opportunity, which is just fantastic.
SHOCK: I love how you guys sort of shot this on the sly and not a lot of fans knew about it or anything. Once that original poster came out, I remember the internet in general that day was just insane. The talk was just nonstop. Were you surprised at all regarding how passionate and how into the series the fan base still is, decades later after it was started?
HARTMAN: Yes and No. I mean, I’ve always known the fan base because I consider myself part of it. I always called it an eclectic group of an eclectic group. You know, there are horror fans, and within that circle there are Phantasm fans. I feel like I’m right there with them. Seeing all of that is surprising and at the same time, it’s not. Part of me wished we had released things later than we did because I still had a ton of effects in post work. I thought, “I’m just not going to get this done in six months!” And then I got really sick and was in the hospital, which slowed things down and was one of the many reasons why there was a delay in the film coming out. But yeah, you see that fan base and you can’t help but be frightened a little bit, because like you said earlier, there’s a new guy coming in and it’s almost a recipe for disaster and if anything, I’d be an easy person to blame if things on if they didn’t work out too well. I’m hoping they dig it and really get into it, because for me, it was really about getting Don’s blessing, because to be honest, he’s the biggest fan and then after him it’s Angus, those two guys love the series just as much as any fan does. One of the parts of the experience that I really cherish is that I got to screen the film for Angus before he passed away and he absolutely loved it and having those two guys’ stamp of approval was a huge relief.
SHOCK: The film is a huge testament to the presence that Angus Scrimm had with that character and just in general, he was just absolutely larger than life and it shows in the earlier films but also shows in Ravager. It made me almost teary eyed watching him on the screen this last time, you know? It’s wonderful. RAVAGER in a lot of ways, reminded of the first Phantasm, where approaching the film and shooting it here and there, little but little pays off in the best of ways. Did you find that liberating at all, being able to take breaks in between shooting?
HARTMAN: It was definitely liberating. We kind of knew from the beginning that the story was going to be very nonlinear. We knew it was kind of jumping around, we knew that we had different looks for each actor, so I was able to give them the time to prepare for those differences and their personalities, but it also gave Don and I time to start editing and make little tweaks on things we hadn’t shot yet, just make up for either a mistake or a great idea we didn’t think of originally that could have come to fruition. So it was definitely liberating. We could take our time and do it when we were able to do it and give it the love we wanted. We were all fans. The actors are fans of the series and you know, we wanted to give it the love it deserved when we could give it 110%. Absolutely, it was a lot of fun to make a movie that way, really.
SHOCK: Being a visual artist yourself, I mean, did you design the poster?
HARTMAN: That was a guy, Aaron Lea, I believe that’s how you say his last name. He did the poster and I think he did a fantastic job. I love the big red V.
SHOCK: Yeah, It’s cool and visually striking. When it comes to the different sides of your career, doing your animation stuff and directing that and now this, is there one you prefer over the other, or do you approach them in different ways?
HARTMAN: Definitely a different approach. As a kid growing up, I always wanted to be a horror film director and to be honest, I still do. I could be totally happy just doing that. But as an illustrator, I went to art school and got a degree in fine art and could draw, and I needed a job and was able to get into doing storyboarding for cartoons. I moved here to LA, I’m originally from Ohio and moved out here and started doing that and they moved me up very quickly. I made my way to director and I think I’ve been doing that for almost 17 years now, directing animation, which I absolutely love, it’s been good to me. But there’s still that side of me that wants to do horror movies and you know, I feel blessed and honored that Don gave me that opportunity to do this on the weekends. You know, hopefully it will lead to more projects in the future, or at least I’m hoping. And if it doesn’t, I’ve still got this job doing animation, which like I said, has been very good to me. But it is two different worlds, I’ve gotten some comments like, “Hey you’re working on Winnie the Pooh!” but at the same time I’m doing artwork for Rob Zombie, you know disemboweling people and everything, then I go draw a little cute bear. So, it keeps you grounded and a lot of fun.