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Don Coscarelli talks to Live for Films about John Dies At The End and lots more

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Don Coscarelli is a horror icon. As well as writing and directing all the Phantasm movies and The Beastmaster, he wrote and lensed the brilliant Bubba Ho-Tep with Bruce Campbell. He has a style all his own that makes his work instantly identifiable, and there’s a blasé attitude that all his characters have to the many weird and terrifying things that happen to them that I love.

Don’s newest movie is an adaptation of a fantastic book that I got a few Christmasses ago and couldn’t put down: John Dies at the End. It stars Paul Giamatti as a reporter trying to get to the bottom of a story spun to him by Dave (Chase Williamson), about himself and his friend John (Rob Mayes) and their mind-bending, inter-time-and-dimensional adventures while on a mysterious drug known as Soy Sauce. It’s completely mad, and absolutely hilarious, sci-fi horror and I was lucky enough to get some phone time with Don to discuss adapting the book, working with Bruce Campbell and not wanting to be killed by an Alien.

Hello. This is Alan from Live for Films calling for Don Coscarelli.

Hello, Alan.

Hiya Don, I’m a big fan of the Phantasm movies, Bubba Ho-Tep and the John Dies at the End book – so it’s a big treat for me to get to talk to you for a little bit.

Oh, that is great!

So, you, plus John Dies at the End sounds like a perfect match of director and source material. Rewatching Phantasm 2 last weekend I was struck by a lot of similarities between that film and John Dies. So how did it come about? Were you approached? Or did you come across the book and realise how well suited it was to you?

Alan, This is an absolutely true story. I’d been buying all these horror books from Permuted Press, zombie fiction, and really enjoying it. Then out of the blue one day I got an email from Amazon.com, one of those robot emails, saying if I liked that last book that I read, then I would like John Dies at the End! And I read that little description and it got to me, so I immediately purchased the book and read it, and it was better than the Amazon description, and I thought it should be a movie. So that’s how I found it.

Hahaha, that’s crazy! Wow. Now, John Dies isn’t actually out over here until the 17th of February, so it’s been a really long wait, but when we do get it’ll be on my Birthday, which is nice. Do you know why it’s taken so long for the UK release to come about?

Wait, wait, wait. Hold up, Alan. When’s your birthday?

The 17th of February…

We have the same birthday!

Awww, we’re birthday buddies, that’s nice.

Isn’t that amazing? From now on, every 17th I’ll be thinking about ya!

Hahaha, we’ll virtually birthday high five every year.

What a coincidence!

Weird. So what were we talking about… do you know why it’s taken so long for us to get the movie in the UK?

I have no clue. I think part of it has to do with… This may be off the record… I don’t know if I should talk about it…

Oh, it’s alright. I’m only a movie blogger. I won’t tell anyone…

There’s a company called Revolver that was gonna put the movie out, but I think they went out of business.

Oh, right. Yeah, they did.

I think they had to excavate from that contract before we could get on board with Eureka! is what I heard.

Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli on the set of John Dies At The End

Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli on the set of John Dies At The End

How did you approach trying to capture the random humour and the anarchic spirit of the book?

Umm. Well, that was my challenge. Always. First off, so much of the humour was right there. There were complete dialogue passages, like where John and Dave are talking at the diner, and Dave gets a call from John – even though John’s sitting there, and this is all in the book, that had me laughing out loud. It was great! Playing some of the sight gags… a lot of that… But a director can’t control everything. You’ve gotta find the actors with that ability where you just point them in the right direction, and they’re the ones who have to make it funny.

How much input did you take on from (the writer of the book) David Wong? Did you want to keep him involved, or did he want to let you get on with it and do your own thing?

I think he was uhhhh… It was interesting how that worked out, because, at the time, I was intending… I didn’t have the money to hire anyone else to write the screenplay – it’s a big adaptation and would have cost a lot of money, and he had just taken a job at cracked.com – which was a lot of work, so he was busy. But how I did involve him was that I asked him how he would approach carving the book up into a movie length, and it’s really amazing because he sent me a paragraph description of what he would do, and it was exactly what I had already planned to do. So that gave me a level of comfort – knowing that I was going in the direction that the writer wants

Were they any parts of the book that couldn’t be included, either because of the content, or because you thought they wouldn’t translate very well to film?

Yeah, absolutely there was some sections that were so gigantic that we could never… with the budget we had on the movie would have been impossible. So those sorts of sequences were just immediately sliced right out of the script. Then it just became a matter of creating a comprehensible story flow, well, somewhat of a comprehensible story flow. You know I was doing my best to make this as understandable and accesible to a mass audience as possible. I know some folks aren’t as adventurous in their movie watching, and could just throw their hands up and go “WHAT THE FUCK?!” There are so many wonderful ideas in the book that throw off the narrative. There’s a great moment in the book, where Dave goes to bed one night and he wakes up the next morning and he’s got a beard, and he realises six months have passed, and he rolls over and realises that the girl he’s been trying to date – he’s been married to her for six months! You know, I loved that concept, but it would have thrown our story flow off completely!

I guess there’s only so much you can blow people’s minds, right?

Exactly.

And, in terms of casting, how did you go about finding the perfect John and Dave? As that relationship is so important to get just right.

It was crucial. I just looked and looked and looked. I was just blessed to have this young guy, Chase Williamson, walk in the door. He had never done a movie. He’d done a video that was on YouTube. He came right out of college and onto our set. Yeah. You wanna talk about scary moments for directors: first day of shooting, you’ve got an actor who’s never been in front of a camera with eight pages of dialogue to deliver!

To be fair, he was probably shi… petrified as well!

You know, Chase just had a confidence about him, and also, you’ve gotta credit Giamatti for being so wonderful with him. The guys developed a bond and turned out some of the best acting in the movie to be honest.

You mentioned Paul Giamatti, how did he get involved? Did you approach him, or was it just normal casting?

You know, I just got really lucky, cos he’s one of the greatest working actors on the planet.

Yeahhh, he’s amazing.

Well, as I heard it, one day he was walking in New York city and he saw a poster for Bubba Ho-Tep and he just decided to go in and watch it. Then I found out about it when he was interviewed when he was up for some award. They asked him what directors he wanted to work with and he said DON COSCARELLI! That still makes me laugh! I was like “wow, this is so cool!” And he’s a great guy – really wonderful and so talented. We were going to try to work together on a sequel to my film Bubba Ho-Tep, but that didn’t quite come together.

I was going to ask you about that later. I heard the rumour was it was going to be Bubba Nosferatu?

Yeah, that was it. We had it all pretty much put together, but unfortunately it all fell apart at the last minute.

That’s such a shame. Do you think it might ever happen?

The good news is that Elvis is eternal! Long after we’re gone. There’s gonna be a lot of people who would see that movie, forever. And the good news about the Bruce Campbell role is the older he gets, the closer he ends up looking like he should. We’ll save some money there!

What was he like to work with? I mean, Bruce Campbell is obviously a hero of mine, was he as cool as I’d think he is?

Oh he’s more so. The truth is that I had an experience that no Bruce Campbell fan will ever get. I spent eight weeks with him. He was in that old-age make-up, puttering around the set in his pyjamas and a robe, playing the character of a grumpy old Elvis, and it was hilarious! There are things that happened outside of camera range that… were hilarious. He’s a real talent, that guy. You know, I spotted him early on, I have to tell ya.

Yeah?

Back in the 90’s, before the Bruce worship really started, I was at a Fangoria show and he was giving away an award to somebody for something. I saw him walk across the stage, and he did that trick from Evil Dead 2, a very physical trick, I don’t think he’s doing it anymore. He put his hand behind his head and flipped himself over on stage and the audience went nuts! I was looking around thinking “wow! This guy has got something special here!” That always stuck with me, until I needed an Elvis and then luckily we were able to get him.

Ummm, popping back to John Dies, are you keen to now carry on and make a film of (the second book) This Book is Full of Spiders?

You know I would love to work on that book. I think it’s a brilliant sequel. Very strange, very bizarre, but a lot of these decisions are really out of my hands, and come down to whether financiers can see it as being profitable or not. The first one’s only just rolling out internationally, so that might be a little premature, but I will tell you that I have already been solicited by a company that wanted to do a TV series based on it. That might be interesting, but I don’t know whether that will happen or not.

I guess we all just have to keep our fingers crossed then. I’m running out of time with you, so if you don’t mind, we’ll just do some quick fire stuff to finish up.

Oh, we can go as long as you want but I’ll have to just jump off when the next call comes in.

OK. I’ll keep it quick just in case. So… would YOU ever try the Soy Sauce?

Wow. Well… I’m gonna say probably not. Only because there were indications in the book, and the movie, that the Soy Sauce might actually be a living creature and I don’t think it’d be wise to ingest a living creature. You know I… while in my youth, I confess, I did try various mind altering substances, but I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.

Fair play. What is the first film you remember seeing in the cinema?

The very first movie that I can recall would be… I think it was Godzilla. With my parents. Obviously that was a while after it had came out, so it must have been a reissue of it. But it was definitely a monster movie, so that’s how that started. It’s funny though because my parents didn’t like that kind of film. They always tried to keep me from seeing those kind of movies after that.

And do you prefer salted or sweet popcorn?

Argh! I prefer salted, but I just, I know that it’s not good to eat too much salt! It’s a guilty pleasure.

Are you a fan of 3D?

In a word: no. I think it’s a gimmick and you can quote me on that. I think it’s a bill of goods that’s been sold to us by people just trying to make money. I don’t think it’s that dazzling of a process, and I actually now… Well, I enjoyed Prometheus in it, because it was actually a careful and subtle use of it. But now I purposefully go out of my way to see the 2D versions. Plus I can’t tolerate how dim they are too. Interesting question though.

If you were to be killed by any movie monster, which one would it be, and what would your last words be?

… argh… ooh… I’m gonna say… I would wanna go quick… it would NOT be Alien – I do not wanna be implanted with anything! And… Unfortuantely, I’ve actually got my next call coming in. I will have to think on that and I’m gonna get your email address and I’ll send you my response to that one. Thank you, Alan

Alright, no worries! Thank you very much for your time, bye-bye.

So that was Don Coscarelli. Lovely guy. If I get an emailed answer to the monster and last words question I’ll update, but maybe you can ponder what his answer would be while you watch John Dies at the End. It is available in the UK on the 17th of February but don’t get me a copy for my birthday – I think someone’s already getting it for me.

Massive thanks to Steve at Eureka! for sorting this out for me and to Don Coscarelli for being such a blast to talk to.

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