Today: April 19, 2024

Director Don Coscarelli On John Dies At The End

A veteran horror director best known for the Phantasm series, Don Coscarelli made his name with fascinating and off-beat titles like Bubba Ho-Tep.  This week his latest, John Dies At The End, film finally gets its long awaited UK DVD release.  Horror aficionado Ed Boff chatted to Don Coscarelli about just what has made this slacker comedy/cosmic horror mash-up such a darling of the indie movie scene.

How did you first find out about the novel?
True story; I got an email from a robot at Amazon.com.  I had been reading some some horror fiction, and the robot must have decided that if I liked that, that I would like John Dies At The End.  So it sent me an email recommending it, and the funny part was that the robot was right.  The tagline for the book was terrific. It talked about these kids getting involved with the street drug Soy Sauce, so I bought the book and I just thought it would make a great movie.  So I got a hold of the writer, got the rights and set out to make the movie.

How long was the project in development?
A while. I read the book back in 2007/2008, and it took me about a year to get the screenplay ready.  Then I went out to get the funding for it.

Was getting the funding an issue for a project like this?
It’s really difficult but I managed to get funding through Paul Giamatti; a terrific actor.  We were trying to get a different movie made, a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, and we went out on a meeting to a Hollywood studio. They didn’t want to do Bubba Nosferatu, but I could tell the executives really wanted to work with Paul badly.  I had just done the John Dies screenplay, so I sent it to Paul and said “would you mind showing this to that executive. It might be a great opportunity” and he said “sure”.  He sent it off in a nice email, and like a day later he got this three page email back, completely analysing the script.  I read it, and this executive really got the story …  But then it comes to the last line of the email, and it’s very disheartening, because it goes “and that’s exactly why our studio could make this movie without taking it into development, and taking out everything in this script that you think is so clever, because we would have to dumb it down for multiplex audiences”.  So then I knew I wouldn’t get it funded through traditional means, and I had made friends with a couple of chaps from a company called M3, and they helped fund it in the end.

The book is a long, sprawling ramble of a story. Was it hard getting it down to a workable screenplay?
Absolutely. As I look back on the process, it went from the script writing where I tried to shoehorn 350 pages of novel into 100 pages of script: that was a challenge.  Then came the filming, and even in editing I was still trying to juggle it, to decide how much the audience would keep up, whether we needed to take sequences out, skip over some of the more confusing material.  It was a constant challenge. But the beautiful thing is that the book is so rich, so dense, so full of material, that even taking a bunch of it out, there’s still a bunch of really great stuff left.

Did you work closely with Jason Pargin, the original author?
He wasn’t really involved with adapting the book since he’d just taken a [new] job [but] what’s really nice is that I had an idea about how to adapt the book, and without telling him, I asked him how he’d do it, what he’d cut out etc. He sent me a couple of paragraphs and it was interesting how similar it was. We were really thinking along the same lines.  It really gave me the confidence to move forward with it.

How was the process of casting the film?
It was terrifying really. We had limited resources, and we knew that we needed two young guys to play the leads, and they would have to be unknowns.  I had no idea how unknown they would be, because the actor that I found, who I thought was terrific was Chase Williamson.  He had only just finished college when he came in, and he was just so superior to any other actor I was looking at. That led to some really nervous moments, because on the first day of shooting, he had to come and do eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti.  I was really fortunate that he was a really bright and cool and confident kid.

How did the shoot as a whole go?
Movie making is difficult. You’re constantly battling the clock to get scenes shot.  It’s only fun in hindsight … [but] a lot of really good things happened; we had a whole sequence that was meant to be filmed in an abandoned mall, and we couldn’t find one.  We talked to a working mall, but they wanted something like $30,000 a day to get in, so that wouldn’t work.  So one of my associates ended up asking if anyone knew of an empty mall to film in, and one woman wrote back saying she’d take us to one for $300.  So we went, and it was this huge place that had been abandoned for years. It was a great find, and just a week before we had to shoot there.

There are a lot of pretty elaborate creature effects in the film. Were any of those a particular challenge?
Yes, it’s always a challenge trying to get them to be effective.  The biggest one was for the monster made of freezer meats. How we were going to pull that off was a big question mark all through production.  I was convinced were going to have to do it digitally, but the tests just looked ridiculous. A friend of mine did a test illustration of what he thought it would look like, and looking at it, you could see that it was possible to squeeze in an actor in a make-up suit, so that was the big break through.  The special effects artist, Robert Kurtzman, sculpted this magnificent meat monster costume, and it really is a work of art. I wish I could get it displayed in a museum somewhere.

So you’re pretty happy with the final edit and such on the film?
Yeah, the thing is, I wanted it to run really efficiently and quickly, so I did have to cut it pretty tight, leaving out a few scenes that I really liked.  (Though I think they are on the UK Blu Ray.)  Whenever you make a film, you’re never really done. Whenever I watch one of my old films, I’m always seeing places where I could have reorganised or edit.

Any plans for the future?  Perhaps adapting the sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders?
That’s a terrific book the thing is, we’d have to still see how John Dies plays internationally.  Once again, that’s another dense book.  I actually had someone solicit me about doing a John Dies television series; nothing settled yet, but I just think that might be a better medium.  There’s still a lot of material left over from the first book and I think if you could get a good producer behind it, it might be fun to do it that way. That’s something we’ll have to see in the coming months.

John Dies At The End will be out on DVD and features packed Blu Ray special edition from February the 17th.

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Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin (under the alias David Wong) first