Horror auteur Don Coscarelli on meat monsters, Paul Giamatti and getting typecast
With its bizarre onslaught of sentient drugs, invisible aliens and time-tripping insanity, Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (opening tonight at the Sie FilmCenter) is like no film you've seen before. Adapted from David Wong's debut novel of the same name, John puts the fate of reality -- not just our reality, but potentially all possible realities -- in the hands of a pair of shiftless burnouts who discover some of the universe's secrets after ingesting a strange drug called Soy Sauce. The result is a sci-fi horror comedy that's part buddy flick, part gorefest and part world-saving epic, all of it completely captivating. Before the film opens, we caught up with Coscarelli, known for his iconic Phantasm series and the cult film Bubba Ho-Tep, about adapting the bizarre source material, the future of the franchise and what it was like working with Paul Giamatti.
Westword: Tell us briefly what John Dies at the End is about.
Don Coscarelli: It's about a silent, interdimensional invasion of our reality, focusing on two college-dropout slackers who find themselves with the fate of the world in their hands. That's the short description, but it's a lot more complicated. What appealed to me in the source novel was this amazing sense of humor, and the fact that it was also a scary book, too -- that this first-time author was able to combine both of those into one unified work. That's what I tried to bring to the screen.
It's a very weird movie, based on what I hear is a very weird book, and I understand you were incredibly true to the source material. Was it a difficult task to bring that to life?
Well, yes and no, because there's so much wonderful material in the book that a lot of it was easy. I think for me the biggest challenge was that it was an epic book, and a movie is a different form. It serves a different audience, and you just can't have the level of detail or spend the amount of time you can with a novel. It was a whole lot of surgery to take his material and make it into a movie. At the same time, the other challenge was physically being able to pull off some of these insanely out-there concepts and effects when working on a budget of modest means. I think those were the two major challenges of making the film.
In terms of effects, you still use a lot of practical effects, somewhat in contrast to the trend of filmmakers using more and more CGI. Do you not like CGI, or is there another reason?
Listen, they're all tools. It's a matter of finding the tools that can do the job, really. Believe me, we used a lot of digital effects in the film. Look, I grew up making movies with a lot of tape, paper clips and monofilament to make my effects work, and I love rubber prosthetic effects. I try to use them when they're right and sometimes you can combine them both. One of my favorite effects in the movie is when this meat monster comes to life -- that's the monster made out of freezer meats. He's a gorgeously sculpted prosthetic costume, yet when he's first coming together, we're able to use some digital [effects], like the sliding fish along there, that add a level of unreality to it. I think the trick is probably that when audience has difficulty telling if it's a prosthetic or a digital [effect], that's the best thing. When you mix the two, you can get some really unique results.
I'm a big fan of your previous film Bubba Ho-Tep and, like this film, that one is based on source material full of high-concept ideas. They're not just "some guys get chased by a monster and have to stop it" -- they have all these crazy ideas layered on, like Elvis and black JFK in a nursing home in Bubba, or sentient drugs and interdimensional warfare in John. Are you attracted to high-concept ideas in particular?
The thing is, when you have early success, like I did, in the horror genre, you tend to just get typecast and find that funding is only available for those kind of movies. As I've gotten a little more mature, a little older, I have a lot of different interests. I'd like to try to do movies in other genres, but I have a very difficult time getting that to happen. Consequently, what I've been consciously attempting to do is stretch the bounds of the genre a little bit. Thanks for bringing up Bubba Ho-Tep, because it's a movie that I really am proud of. There's so little horror in Bubba Ho-Tep! It's really a movie about aging with dignity, and friendship and courage in face of the death. And also the state of how we warehouse our elderly at the old-folks home.
Those themes aren't usually found in horror movie, and yet the horror-movie audiences accepted it! That was maybe one of the most satisfying period of my career, that these younger Phantasm- and Evil Dead-black T-shirt-wearing horror fans were really enjoying and appreciating Bubba Ho-Tep. I think with that little measure of success, that then when I came across the David Wong book and saw it was just so far out there in terms of absurdity and insanity that it just seemed to me that it had its scary elements, but at the same time it was pushing the envelope a little bit.
Coscarelli, on set with Paul Giamatti
Speaking of your previous work in relation to this new film, it seems like Phantasm and John Dies at the End could almost be set in the same universe. They both have this element of dimensional travel, and these young guys fighting evil across multiple dimensions. Obviously, they're very different tonally, but it seems like you could do a crossover pretty easily.
[Laughs] Actually, that's a pretty cool idea, which I hadn't really given much thought to. Listen, they're definitely all in my wheelhouse, so to speak. I love the dimensional travel. I love the sense of unreality, of looking beyond the layers of what we consider our daily existence. I probed into that a little in Phantasm, and of course when I was reading the John Dies at the End novel I just loved it, and that's probably why I was so attracted to it. It's not a bad idea -- John and Dave versus Tall Man. That's a pretty cool image.
Speaking of where John might go from here, is there any truth to the rumor that it could become a TV show? Is that something you're trying to do, or would even want to do?
There are all kinds of possibilities. It's so premature right now, because the movie is just coming out. But the response has been excellent and it seems like a lot of folks really enjoyed the movie, to the point where they'd be interested in it, which is really great. That's fantastic. The other aspect to it is there's so much source material still available. The original novel, I probably had to leave out two-thirds of that. Plus the author, David Wong, has written a sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders. Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It is the title. And it has a lot more adventures with John and Dave that are pretty amazing, really. A lot of possibilities, we'll see how it all shakes out. It would be a load of fun to work with those actors again, that's for sure.
Looks like we're about out of time, so is there anything else you wanted to say before we're done?
Just that, obviously, working with Paul Giamatti was just a pleasure and an honor. He's one of the greatest living actors we have working now, and I can see why all the major movie directors want to have him in their films, because he makes it so easy. And at the same time, we had some great young cast, young guys in their first movies -- Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes -- and they were very dedicated artists, easy-to-work with actors who turned in great performances. The last thing I'll just mention is the guy who created that suit I was talking about, for our meat monster -- Robert Kurtzman, the prosthetic make-up effects maestro -- also created the Bubba Ho-Tep mummy. So he's two-for-two now!
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