Director Don Coscarelli Talks His Bizarre New Film ‘John Dies at the End’
Lying somewhere between the words of William S. Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Corman, John Dies at the End is a trip to say the least. Adapted from the horror/fantasy novel of the same title by David Wong—which was first published in 2001 as a webserial—Don Coscarelli’s cinematic take on the work plays close to original text while bringing to life all those things you imagined too bizarre to burst onto the screen. Giving off a narcotic effect of its own, John Dies at the End takes place in a world where a new street drug that sends its users across time and dimensions has become available. But there’s one problem: some people return as no longer human. Two slacker heroes set out to save human kind from this otherworldly invasion, but not without some obstacles in their way— i.e. a monster made of freezer meat, doorhandles that turn into phallic objects, etc.
Paul Giamatti co-stars alongside newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes in a strange and enjoyable film replete with enough freaky twists and turns to keep any viewer in a trance. We caught up with man of awesomely-strange brain wiriing himself, Don Coscarelli, to chat about his affection for Wong’s novel, the hallucinatory story, and that damn freezer meat monster.
A few weeks ago you had a screening and Q&A at Landmark Sunshine. How was that?
Oh, t was great. Unfortunately they overbooked it a little bit and had to turn away some folks, which I feel bad about, but it was a lot of fun. Paul Giamatti was there and at the end, someone asked a really funny question; they as him what his acceptance speech at the Oscars was going to be for John Dies at the End. He improved something that was pretty hilarious, it was great.
So how did you come across David Wong’s novel in the first place?
True story: I received an email from a robot at amazon.com and it told it told me that if I had liked the last book I bought from them—which was an interesting piece of zombie fiction—that I would love John Dies at the End. It went onto describe why I would like it, and this artificial intelligence robot was right. It’s right up my alley—this crazy story about inner dimensional travel, a sentient drug that chooses you, an invasion from another world, and two slacker heroes. The log line in the description sounded great and then I quickly got the book and read it. It’s a great story and I thought it would make a great movie.
So when you’re adapting something like that do you plan it all out and then decide what you want to be funny or scary? What’s the adaptation process like with a film like this?
Well, I’ll tell ya it started from the first reading. I liked the description of the movie so much, I was reading the book like a cheerleader. It just starts off with a bang and just goes, and you meet this reluctant hero and he gets slowly drawn into this very strange situation and dangerous world, and I was just hoping when I turned every page that it wouldn’t go off the rails and not work as movie. It worked out perfectly because about 1/3 into book it takes this crazy left turn into a land that’s just un-filmable. But I had to take a 350 page book and turn it into a 100 page screenplay, so that was okay and I quickly decided I could just let that center chunk go away and make the first third and go straight to the ending. That was the plan I had when I attacked it and it worked pretty well. Then it was just a balancing act. There are so many marvelous dialogues that this writer has in his book and monologues for these various characters and I just wanted to preserve it as much as possible. So I did my best and you know, it’s an ever-evolving thing though because, truthfully Hillary, it’s not it just doesn’t end when you write this first draft. It’s like you continue to write the movie as you shoot it. Certainly, when you’re editing the movie, you’re editing the script; it’s all one process in my mind.
Did you want the film to feel like it was harkening back to old midnight movies?
By its very nature, the concept of the story is so far out there. We’re talking about elements of the movie that aren’t going to be in normal films. Look, we’ve got a talking dog, a monster made out of freezer meats, we’ve got this drug that choose you, a brautworst cellphone, a lot of weird freaky stuff and so obviously audiences have to enter it with an open mind. But in Wong’s story and in the movie, there’s a sense of humor about it all that makes for a lot of fun.
Was there a certain look you wanted to establish for the film as well?
Yeah, there’s no question that there’s this hallucinogenic, bizarre nature to the film—especially when they’re under the influence of the street drug, the soy sauce, I knew it had to get very strange during these segments so I did a lot of experimentation as to how those would work. A lot of them are these out of body experiences that our hero has and they’re very bizarre and compelling so I tried to find a language and style to convey that.
Were there any other influences going into it besides the original text?
Not so much. I’ve done other films that dance around elements of this, in terms of portals to other dimensions, and I’ve always had a fascination with questioning reality. As a young lad, I got hooked onto reading practically every book that Philip K. Dick ever wrote and I loved his style and I think what I found in this book, was a like-minded soul in David Wong—only it’s much more contemporary. He captures the current generation’s attitudes and then he has a sense of humor, which I really tried to maintain as much as possible.
How much interaction did you have with David?
Not a whole lot, other than discussions early on as we were planning. It’s interesting, right around the time that I acquired the rights, really good things started to happen for him and I’m very happy and proud of how it turned out. The film rights purchase got a major publisher interested in getting the rights and a major release of the book in hardcover and at the same time, Wong was a comic and humor writer in his own right, and he was hired to run this website called cracked.com. So I think he’s pretty much overwhelmed with that. He’s responsible for creating a massive amount of content on a minute-by-minute basis, so his plate is pretty full.The good news is, as I told you, when I first looked at the book without telling him that, I asked him what he thought would be the best plan of attack. He wrote back an email essentially describing the same path I was on and that gave me a lot of confidence to think that would be the way to attack it.
How did you go about finding Chase and Rob for their roles?
I don’t know if I found them or they found me. It was a gift from heaven. One at the challenges of making a movie for a modest budget, especially because we had so many of these great supporting roles filled with veteran actors and great actors that I always loved, one of the early compromises was that we knew we would have to cast the two leads as unknowns. And so we were just so blessed and with Chase—what an amazing story. I started casting and I knew I needed to have this narrator that would guide us through this strange story and find the right tone. Chase had just graduated a few weeks before from the University of Southern California Drama School and I think we were about the second interview he ever went on—never done a movie, never done a TV show. I think he’d done like one project video on YouTube and that’s the only experience he had beside these plays he was doing in college. And he came in and I gave him the adaptation narration that I was asking the actors to read and it was the first time you can possibly see what the movie might be, and he started to read the narration and I could see how he could lead us through this crazy story. And then Rob came in a few days later. I was struggling to find someone who had charm but was also a ridiculous character and Rob just had this natural, goofy sweetness about him that just translated perfectly. Both were great, I can’t say enough about having loyal young collaborators like those guys. It just made it so easy.
And how did Paul become involved?
I was really blessed in this process. A few years back, I got an email from a director friend of mine, Eli Roth, and he had been over in Eastern Europe making his Hostel movies and happened to have a meal with Paul Giamatti who was there filming a different movie. He said that all Paul wanted to talk about was how much he liked Bubba Ho-tep and thought it was the coolest movie. And Eli’s a very gregarious guy, so I wasn’t sure, but I did get an opportunity to meet Paul and he was right and Paul wanted to work with me. So we looked around for a couple different projects. He’s got a very active interest in horror genre type films and those aren’t the the type of movies people cast him in, so he was very excited when I gave him the John Dies script—about not only the playing the role but helping me get it out and helping me to get it distributed. He’s a nice, decent guy just a wonderful person. I love him and he’s the greatest actor on the planet so he’s got it all.
Since the beginning of your career things have changed a lot in terms of the technical aspects of making horror films or films like this with digital versus creating effects with props and other things; how have you seen that change?
Oh absolutely. I remember making a movie back in the late 90s where we had our first digital effects, and we spent 10 or 20 thousand dollars for two effects. It was very difficult and now these are the kinds of things you can pop out on your desktop with no problem. It’s wonderful, the ability but like any tool it has to be used correctly, and that’s why, being a bit old school I try to use tangible props whenever I can—especially when you can mix the digital effects with the rubber prosthetic effects, a lot of the time you can get some really sensational stuff. But with effects it’s always trying to find the simplest way to do things. In this we used some hi-tech digital visual effects but we used a lot of fishing line, a lot of filaments, reverse motion,a lot of old school stuff—you know, the certain organic feel things have. Maybe the thing I’m most proud of is that meat monster. Well we spent probably, like like 2 or 3 of us in that basement for two or three days on the floor with these pieces of rubber meat tied to these fishing line mono-filaments, and we were doing these highly choreographed things where we were pulling them around. I’ve used mono-filament a lot for effect and a lot of times it just never shows up on camera. One of my tricks is, you take a Sharpie pen and you black the filament out and then it tends to disappear and every one that shows up, nowadays we can just go in and wipe it out digitally.
And how has the audience’s reaction to the film been while watching it?
As a whole they love it and the praise has ben overwhelming. That’s not to say that there aren’t naysayers who don’t get it at all, but I think that what’s cool about the story and this goes back to Wong, even that minority.