Long before I wrote Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors, I was a fan of behind the scenes books on my favourite films and TV shows.
While planning my book I wanted to see what else was currently on the market, and one of the titles I read was Dustin McNeill’s excellent Phantasm Exhumed. A history of the film franchise, the book goes deep into the making of the movies and is a must-read for any fan.
As I was interested in finding out more about the book, I sent a few questions to Dustin and he kindly took the time to respond.
For anyone who enjoyed Seeking Perfection, I recommend taking a look at Dustin’s book and having a look around the online Phantasm community.
Tremors Guide: Can you tell me a little about your background – how long have you been writing professionally?
Dustin MacNeill: For two years in high school, I maintained a column in a local newspaper. In college, I wrote for a respectable DVD review website. Almost two years ago, I published my first book. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional writer, but I do enjoy it very much as a hobby.
My degree in film studies hasn’t practically served me anywhere else, but has certainly come in handy when I take on these kinds of writing projects.
How long have you been a Phantasm fan and when did you decide you had to write a book on the franchise?
I became a Phantasm “phan” in high school after happening upon the original at my local video store. Phantasm stayed with me long after I saw it but I wasn’t completely hooked until I saw the sequels.
Aiming to fill an online void, I created a fan website in 2007 that I still maintain to this day – PhantasmArchives.net. That became a gateway to my meeting and befriending many of the cast and crew including wonderful folks like Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, Bill Thornbury, Mark Shostrom, Kristen Deem, Guy Thorpe, etc.
Response to my website was exceedingly positive and I reasoned that this franchise was popular enough and good enough to warrant an entire book. In an impetuous move, I ran full speed into that project.
How did you go about planning the book? Did you know what you were doing right away?
Oh man, I had no clue what I was doing! I cannot emphasise that enough. That quickly resulted in several false starts and stops. Once I settled on a direction, I began interviewing everyone I possibly could and weaving their comments together to form a narrative.
I then immersed myself in script drafts, shooting schedules, production documents, press clippings, call sheets and journals to weave a story that matched what my interviews had turned up.
I found it helpful to read as many making-of books as I could get my hands on. This allowed me to see both what I did and did not want my book to wind up looking like. My biggest inspirations were the enormous tomes on Star Wars and Indiana Jones by J.W. Rinzler.
I so enjoyed how he tracked each stage of production chronologically with huge attention to dates and small details that you might not think about otherwise.
Did you ever worry that your love for Phantasm might suffer as a result of spending months researching and writing it?
This did eventually become a concern because I was ridiculously engrossed in the series by that last year of writing, but I never actually burned out on it. I will say that I haven’t watched any of the films since my book came out. I actually don’t even own them right now on any format.
Upon book launch, I packed up the vast majority of my Phantasm items and stashed them in a warehouse just to get some distance from it all.
Phantasm has been creeping back into my home more and more this past year, however. I now have several signed posters on my wall and other scattered items about, a replica sphere by BakerProps and a Chris Ness art print. I’ll probably get around to revisiting the series later this year when the films hit Blu-Ray. I’m sure that will be fun after several years away.
What were some of the highs and lows of the writing process?
One high for me was the editing process. Both Tall Man actor Angus Scrimm and series crewmember extraordinaire Kristen Deem came to the project with strong writing backgrounds, so giving them pages was a joy because I knew their feedback would elevate the material tremendously and it so did, particularly Kristen’s.
My chapters often came back to me drenched in red ink, but their comments, corrections and critiques were invaluable.
Perhaps my biggest low point was getting a firm “NO” early on from series creator Don Coscarelli, which resulted in my book being unauthorised. I have Angus to thank for seeing me through that disappointment because it would have been easy to stop then. His guidance and support for the project never faltered, despite him remaining close friends with Don.
Speaking of lows, Angus passed away last month and, although he lived a very full life, I find myself missing him every day. We’d remained in constant contact since the book was published. He shared in both the highs and lows of Phantasm Exhumed, boosting me enormously throughout the process. He was an amazing person.
How did you go about finding the interviewees?
I already knew about a third of my book’s 60 interviewees, so that part was easy. The other two thirds came from what I like to call Google-Fu, which is basically a relentless scouring of social media and public records to locate long vanished people.
I wrote letters, blind dialled phone numbers and contacted former colleagues of the people I was searching for. This all paid off in the end, but I sure felt stupid when I got hold of someone who just happened to share the name of an actor or crewperson I was searching for.
What’s the reaction been like from the phans and the cast and crew?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive on all fronts. So many readers have gotten in touch on social media or through email with the kindest comments. I’ve also done book signings in Chicago, New York City and Atlanta with Angus and Kristen at each and the hundreds of phans I’ve met have had nothing but the nicest things to say about the project.
I think maybe half of that owes to my book’s merit with the other half owing to the general goodwill people feel toward the Phantasm series.
In 2015 you released a special edition of the book – how did that come about?
The standard version of the book is paperback and black-and-white, which came my attempt to price it affordably. I think I achieved that goal because the “Blue Version” as I’ve come to call it can be found for roughly $15 to $18 depending on where you go. There was demand, particularly from cast and crew, that I also release a hardcover full-colour edition.
I did just this and expanded the book with thirty pages of additional photos, dubbing it “The Red Planet Edition” after the Tall Man’s home world. That version has been exclusively available through my book’s website for twice the cost of the regular edition for those who really want it.
I must confess, it’s wonderful to see Phantasm Exhumed in this premium format, but I still enjoy the regular paperback too.
What advice would you give anyone thinking of writing a book on their favourite movie or TV show?
I would say to go for it and not let anything or anyone hold you back. Don’t know what you’re doing? You’ll learn. Just take it one step at a time. Don’t have the involvement of everyone you ideally wanted? Find a way to work around it.
Ultimately, you will decide what factors are going to make or break your book. Also, surround yourself with smart people you can depend upon and bring onboard the most amazing editor you can possibly find. Lastly, learn to take constructive criticism and utilise it to make your work better.
Are there any film/TV books you think are must reads?
Besides Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors? (seriously!) I’d say go read Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday 13th (UK or US edition), Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (UK or US edition), Empire of the ‘B’s: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band (UK or US edition) and Making Friday the 13th: The Legend of Camp Blood (UK or US edition). Also anything by J.W. Rinzler (UK or US)or David J. Skal (UK or US).
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve been quietly working for a little while now on another making-of book based on another modern horror franchise. I’m still interviewing for that one, so not yet ready to announce it publicly.
I’m also finding that I’m not nearly as far gone from the world of Phantasm as I thought, so those who enjoyed Phantasm Exhumed can expect something else in that area in the not-too-distant future.
Thanks to Dustin for his time.
To read the full first chapter of Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors, simply preview it below: