INT: Justin Zaharczuk

The Arrow interviews Justin Zaharczuk

Justin Zaharczuk was born in Philadelphia, is a graduate of Tyler Art School in Elkins PA and possesses a degree in "Fine Arts". Justin has been, among other things, the camera assistant on "Phantasm 4" and the Art Director on one of my new favorite movies, "Bubba Ho-Tep". I had the chance to yap with the man and here's what went down.

ARROW: What’s your favorite horror movie?

JUSTIN: The Shining (1980) has always impressed me. It hasn’t lost its edge after all these years. Lately, I’ve been getting wrapped up in old-school, more obscure films. A few I've been studying are Tourist Trap, Don’t Go in the House, Lets Scare Jessica to Death, and Magic.

ARROW: What was your gateway within the film industry? How did you get into it?

JUSTIN: During my second year of College at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, I sent a batch of artwork to two of my favorite directors; George Lucas and Don Coscarelli. One of them was kind enough to write back.

ARROW: You were the camera assistant on "Phantasm 4: Oblivion". In hindsight, how would you describe that shoot in terms of it being hard shoot or a cool breeze?

JUSTIN: Shooting Oblivion was a surreal experience. It consisted of blazingly hot days, dry, dusty afternoons, followed by bone-chilling cold nights. All in the middle of nowhere (Lone Pine Desert Valley). It was absolute guerilla filmmaking. When you take into consideration how much we had to go through, and what the budget was, Phantasm: Oblivion was pretty successful. I also met a lot of people who are still friends and collaborators of mine including Jason Savage (Production Coordinator), Daniel Vecchione (Best Boy Electric ), and Chris Chomyn (Cinematographer).

ARROW: From what you know, did the film come out close to what was initially intended?

JUSTIN: Oblivion was intended as a modest seg-way between Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead and Roger Avary's huge Phantasm's End. We knew it was to be a small, introspective style film. Coscarelli wrote Oblivion as a sort of "calm before the storm" type script. I had been involved since the very first treatment. 99% of what was first written ended up in the final cut of the film. About the only thing I remember being changed at the last minute was a short dream sequence. It involved Reggie encountering Mike on the alien red planet.

ARROW: You were also the art director on "Bubba Ho-Tep". For the uninitiated, what were your duties on set as Art Director? Did you build the sets, do the designs or both?

JUSTIN: Since Bubba was on a smaller scale budget, the lines of responsibility were a bit blurred. Dan Vecchione, Damon Caruso, Todd Stauder, and I did whatever was needed to get the job done. Even cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash. I supervised and guided the art department when the production Designer had his hands full. I also had an interesting time early on, when I was initially commissioned to do some pen and ink renderings of the Egyptian cowboy hat wearing Mummy named "Bubba Ho-Tep". This was followed by studies of Elvis at age 68 and various evil rest home creatures. In 2001, Don and I met for lunch in Long Beach, CA. That’s when he told me the news that Bubba was now officially in pre-production.

Don asked me to be the Art Director. A week or two later, I found out some more good news. Dan Vechione (a fellow "Phantasm: Oblivion" vet) was now on board as Bubba's Production Designer. Our list of duties included designing and building many distinct rest home interiors, constructing unique props, and weirdest of all, developing the Mummy's graffiti writing style. The Production Designer and I studied "Seven" and "The Shining" to garner inspiration for the set layouts. Don, Dan and I are all big fans of Kubrick. I'd have to say that Danny came up with most of the big ideas, though. I was more of the detail guy.

ARROW: What set are you most proud of within that picture and why?

JUSTIN: We put a lot of time and energy into the Mud Creek Shady Rest Retirement Home hallways. We were only budgeted for 100 ft of hallway, but ended up giving Don 200 ft with several offshoots for the same price. Each Phantasm film had its own unique set of atmospheric hallways. With Bubba, it was our chance to put a fresh spin on this tradition.

ARROW: You’re also attached to be the concept artist on the upcoming "Phantasm’s End". Where is the film now in terms of development?

JUSTIN: The latest Phantasm sequel is in limbo right now, but has a good chance of being made.

ARROW: Have you started doing some designs for the film’s set yet?

JUSTIN: At this point, we have a whole Phantasm's End "Bible" full of character, creature, action sequence, set design, and CGI animated storyboard shots.

ARROW: You work with Don Coscarelli a lot. What is it about him that makes him the ideal director to work for?

JUSTIN: From a creative standpoint, Coscarelli is interesting. He will test the limits of what you can do. Also, if he thinks you have a good idea, he lets you run with it. I don’t think many directors are like that.

ARROW: What’s next on your plate in terms of projects in any field?

JUSTIN: I just finished up a gallery showing in Philadelphia. On display were Phantasm: Oblivion and Bubba Ho-Tep production artwork as well as various other paintings of mine. We had a little over 700 guests. I also recently signed an agreement with MGM for use of my artwork in there Special Limited Edition DVD release of Bubba Ho-Tep.

ARROW: Do you think you’ll expand your film ambitions to screenwriting and/or directing someday?

JUSTIN: A film short of mine called "Encephalon" is being edited in New York this month. I have a real love affair with underground and experimental films. I’m always looking to try something new and with Encephalon, I hope to be showing the viewer something new too. An inspiration for my short is an early influence called Eraserhead. That film stuck with me through the years and I wanted to give something of that nature a try, but with a new spin. David Lynch said that while making EraserHead, he was inspired by the brief time he lived in Philadelphia. His visions of the city are cold and somewhat decaying. It also happens to be where I was born and raised. I always got a kick out of that. The difference between Lynch's film and mine is that I actually shot Encephalon using an abandoned Philadelphia Mental Institution (By Berry). He filmed his Philly inspired story in Beverly Hills.

I'd like to say muchos gracias to Justin for popping on the site and sharing some of his stories and artwork. Keep us in the loop bud and keep doing your thing!

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