Sundance 2012 Interview: Don Coscarelli talks JOHN DIES AT THE END


If you read my review of John Dies at the End, you know that I had a great time watching the movie, at midnight, in the Egyptian Theater during The Sundance FIlm Festival. Introduced by a bushy bearded Paul Giamatti who was just as excited to be there as we were - it was a thrill. The next morning I got to sit down with the director, Don Coscarelli. He is a great guy and was very forthcoming about his career: past, present and future and about his latest film, John Dies at the End.

 

WARNING: There are a few minor spoilers during the following conversation.

 

My first question is really a statement and it simply is three words: Penis Door Knob.

That was in the novel. It's one of those moments in the novel where you look at it and you go, "Can I really put that in a movie? Will audiences except that and will they take it with the humor that I took it with when I read it?" There was a lot of artistry and craft that went into that. You know, they sent the wrong prosthetic and it was like this rigid, erect thing and so we had to build a second one. I would say that was one of the key moments in the movie and it seems like the audience really embraced it.

I have to give credit to David Wong who had a passage in his book saying that there is absolutely nothing more terrifying to a male human... [laughing] something like that... so it works so well. And then editing, I didn't realize that there was something thematically in there, you know, we've got all these snakes and then there is a "snake" on the doorknob - some weird themes working there. In any case, people really took it the way I was hoping.

 

So, the penis in question was a "prosthetic" but when it transformed from a normal doorknob, that was a digital effect. As technology has changed over your career - how do you feel about digital vs. practical effects. Do you prefer one over the other? How do the different options play into how you work out the budget and schedule?

Well, the thing is that digital effects have really come down in price. We're getting cool effects for cheap. Like, one of my favorite effects in the movie was the vortex in the dog's eyes. I just loved that and I think we only spent two hundred dollars on it. You know, it's three or four hours of an inexpensive compositor's time - so yeah, there's a leveling out of the two.

But hey, I am old school and there is nothing better than working with an actor who could bring a rubber prop to life. You have to give props to Tim Burton if you remember in Ed Wood when Martin Landau as Bella Lugosi is grappling with that rubber octopus. It's pretty amazing how an actor can really sell something. So I think it's really important.

Now a days, you know, there are effects that started out practical like the slugs and you sit there and you look at it and you think it's lying there looking a little dead and then maybe you go to the visual effects guys and have them wiggle the tail a bit and sometimes it's just a little nudge digitally - but you want to try and have a synergy in that sort of thing. I'm still a student of this stuff and I'm just learning. This is the biggest digital effects movie I've ever made and I made some mistakes, but I learned a lot too.

 

A lot of the fun of making a movie like this must be the learning process and reading the book and thinking, how am I going to make that look right on screen.

Yes, that's absolutely true. And the other thing is, I spend a lot of time with friends who have made movies that I've really liked with lots of digital effects and I take them out to lunch and say, "Tell me exactly how you did that shot. Draw it out!" And I am thinking about all the After Effects layers and they would explain it to me.

 

Speaking of effects shots, we've discussed the technical aspects, but let's talk about the artistic side now. One of the images that stands out in my mind from the movie is the meat monster. When creating a creature like that, do you see it as a metaphor? Is it social commentary? Do you have your own interpretation from the book or do you know the author's intentions from talking with him?

I love the way it was portrayed in the book. Being a committed vegetarian myself, there are some underlying meanings behind it. But I enjoy poking fun at having cuts of meat come back to life. I think the overriding part that I like from the source material is that you don't really understand until the end of the movie that there is this strange, freakin' enemy at the ends of the universe and he's trying to break into our dimension and he is not above using silly and infantile ways of tormenting John.

 

I think it also works because there are so many things in life that one could either see as horrible or as hilarious, depending on which mindset you choose to have. To that end, I was wondering about when you are first writing the script. As you come up with the outline and the structure, are you thinking in terms of the pacing of funny moments and scary moments? Do you look at a scene and have a checklist for each of those things?

I would say that it was the most challenging part of this adaptation - where you could have genuine scary moments and you could have hilarious moments at almost the same time. I tired to follow the book as best I could. There was some experimentation on set and I can't say that I necessarily have all the answers because watching the movie last night, I think a couple of the really big laugh moments came just from the way the actors performed it. Like the dogged nature of the detective. He points to the gas can and says, "you may wonder why I am standing here with this gasoline" and it's not a funny line on the page but somehow the way he played that... it's really intangible. Shooting lots of takes and then in editing, you know, "oh this really works and this less so." Maybe it's choices in the editing, really.

 

So you're saying that a lot of that humor/horror pacing comes more at the tail end of the process?

Yeah, it never hurts to shoot lots and lots of takes.

 

When you shoot lots of takes, do you direct the actors to go in different directions so you have lots of choices, or are you going after one thing and only trying to get subtle differences?

It depends on if I know exactly what I want or not. Sometimes there is a passage in the screenplay that I just know how it's going to be and I try and get that exactly. Other moments, I'm not sure so I let the actors do their own take. Then I go ahead and try and give them some direction until it feels like it works. Truthfully, I always like to get five to eight takes of anything. It's scenes I don't know what I'm doing that it'll be 15 or 20 - following the Kubrickian philosophy. He did really well with that technique. You have to orient your movie so you have enough time to do that sort of stuff though. That's what I think is really the failing of a lot of my friends when they make a bunch of movies and they allow themselves to get in the predicament where they only have 15 days to shoot so they only have time to get each scene done once and it's hard. Really you need to start thinking about this from the budget stage. You have to be thinking, how can we take cheap lunches here and there so that I can 50 days instead of 15.

 

Is that how long this shoot was?

Including some pick ups, probably 55 days - which is, for a small budget movie, an immense amount of time. But you know, two full days were spent on the floor with fishing line pulling around pieces of meat so we could get the movement right. I guess, yeah, I do have philosophy about this stuff. You're helping me crystalize it. I'd been going on instinct.

 

Very cool. So, was this the first time you saw it with a full audience?

Yes and of course, there are now things I want to go back and fix. You know, the problem with the internet is it makes it nearly impossible to do any kind of sneak previews any more. We used to recruit audiences and show them the movie. For Phantasm we did primitive audience research. It was hilarious. We had screenings where we hadn't finished the special effects and we'd stop the movie and someone would get up and explain how it is going to look. "Picture a tall man and he will turn into a thing..." and then we would continue the film. People pretty much hated the movie but we were able to get our questionnaires and we could learn what was working and what wasn't. That's a long story but to come back around to, yes, that was our first time seeing it with more than two people so the fact that it played so well is fantastic.

 

Doug Jones is such a great physical actor but I haven't seen him act so directly as a character and not as a monster with a huge costume and a lot of make up. He is so expressive with his face and his body. What is it like directing him? Do you have to push him to be like that in this role or do you have to pull him back because he goes too far?

You have to pull him back for sure, absolutely. He brings that because of his mime background. He uses that several ways - like he grabs the guy and it's entirely his own creation where he grabs him by the mouth and you see the fingers go one by one. But you know, I didn't really know if he even could act either. I'd seen him in all the Guillero movies but I know he had been revoiced in the first movie... but someone had suggested him and I'd seen him in person. I'd sat next to him at a convention because I was promoting a Masters of Horror episode. He was sitting next to me signing autographs and I watched him for hours and I thought, "this is an interesting guy." And yeah, he's a good, good actor. But yeah, you have to be careful because he could be a little over the top for the big screen and we'd do a number of takes and let him go crazy and then let him dial it back and he was really good about that.

 

Last night, Paul Giamatti was talking about how he got involved. He was a big fan of yours. How did he first get involved? Was he interested in just being an actor or a producer or both? How did that all come together?

He had really liked Bubba Ho-Tep. I found out he was a fan and we were introduced. I was trying to get a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep made. There was this aspect to Elvis' life that is very important and fascinating to fans and I always thought this would be a good way to get in - which is the unholy relationship between Elvis and his manager. I was thinking [Giamatti] would be a fantastic Colonel Parker. He had this control over Elvis and forced him to make a lot of bad decisions. Elvis' fans hate him. He's like the evil villain of the whole Elvis iconography.

So I went to Paul and pitched it to him and I started putting it together. I had this story in mind involving vampirism which is just perfect for having control, you know, Colonel Parker with his negotiating skills, trying to weasel his way out of covenants he's made with these vampires and Elvis is the bate. A collaborator wrote a screenplay based on the idea and I genuinely think the screenplay is wonderful. Paul came on board, as did Bruce [Campbell]. We raised the money and it was ready to go and then Bruce backed out. It was always unclear why, exactly. Sometimes he said, it was the script, other times it was his manager saying he wanted to work on his other projects. I basically lost him after two years working on it.

But Paul had been so intent and he liked that script so much that we kept trying to do it. Then I read the Wong book and from the get go I saw there was this role of Walter that Paul could play and he wouldn't have to work too many days. And he got it and laughed and loved the script and was willing to come on. He was the final piece to putting it all together and he became an executive producer on the whole thing. He's a really wonderful, decent guy and the greatest actor working at this time. I learned that if you want to be a great director, you put him in every movie.

 

Do you think the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel could still happen?

Funny enough, Paul's still committed to it. The Bubba Nosferatu thing... we'll just have to reconfigure it a little. Maybe we'll do it with Young Elvis. The funniest thing about all this is that you can take the word "Bubba" and put any monster after it and it can work. For several years I was thinking Bubba Sasquatch with Elvis battling a tribe of killer Big Foots up in the north woods. Could be pretty cool.

 

Yes it would. I want to see that movie.

[Laughing] Yeah, there are a lot of possibilities there. Other than that, I have no specific plans for the near future. It was such a rush to get John Dies done. We need to get the distribution set up but luckily we have some significant interest.

 

Any idea when it might come out?

We're hoping later this year. It's just January so there would be time to get it postured for a fall release. Usually they need about six months to get it all ready and October makes the most sense for this type of movie.

 

Last question: Continuing the line of thought around sequels, John Dies at the end left me wanting more in the best possible way.

Thank you very much.

 

It's such a cool, crazy world that's set up - I want to spend some more time there. I want to learn more about the Soy Sauce and what it's capable of. Have you talked to Wong, the writer of the novel? Are there any ideas in the works?

It's a 350 page novel and we left out two thirds of it. There is a lot of rich material still in there. There is a lot that would've worked in this movie. There was this one part where Dave goes to sleep and he wakes up and he groggily goes into the bathroom and he looks in the mirror and he has a goatee. Six months have passed since he went to sleep. He's with a different woman and he's lost six months of his life. Cool things like that, that we could maybe refabricate into another movie but yeah, sure. It's ripe for a sequel.

There is that little ending bit where they go to the other dimension and I didn't know if audiences would sit through that whole thing so I did it through the end credits as a mini sequel. People could see that they go through the black sphere and there is this liberation army that wants to enlist them in the fight against the plague but they have to get back home. It's just a little of what a sequel could be. The two actors are great and there are other characters in the book that we just didn't have time for. So, we'll see.


Our thanks to Don Coscarelli for his time.

 

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