Don Coscarelli interview: John Dies At The End, Conan

John Dies At The End was one of last year's most underappreciated movies. Owen chats to director Don Coscarelli about filming the unfilmable

Based on the novel by David Wong, Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End is an everyday story of drug-assisted interdimensional espionage, puppet alien spider things and heroic dogs. It’s Coscarelli’s strangest film yet, which is impressive from a man who previously made a four-film series about an undertaker who compresses people into dwarves and ships them off to be slaves on Mars. Or something. In this exclusive interview heralding the Eureka DVD release of John Dies… Don talks us though filming the unfilmable, and drops some hints about where on Earth he can go next.

The novel of John Dies at the End was widely considered unfilmable. What made you decide to try and film it?

Well, it didn’t appear to be unfilmable when I started. The book was so different and so terrific; it just spoke to me on so many levels. It had some great horror and was also just funny as hell, and it had some amazing twists and attitudes. It was very visually written, so I just thought it seemed like it would make a great movie. I was part way in before I realised what kind of predicament I was in!

How did you come across the novel?

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It was actually amazing. I had been reading some horror fiction, and one day I got an email from a robot at telling me that if I enjoyed the horror novel I just read then I would like John Dies at the End. Then I read the synopsis about two slackers taking this drug and travelling to other dimensions and fighting other-worldy invasions, and I was like, wow! This sounds like it was make a great movie! So in a funny way, it’s all down to one of those pieces of software: an algorithm on the Amazon server decided what would be my next movie. The more I think about that, the more I think that could be the subject of another film!

I bought a Werner Herzog box set from Amazon and I got an email from them saying if I liked that I’d like Big Momma’s House.

[laughs] Yeah, it doesn’t always work. It’s not always perfect.

So what was your process of adaptation?

Firstly I went out and got the financing. Actually, that’s not true: I did write a version of the screenplay before that. The financing influenced how it turn out in some respects, but I always knew that the film would be somewhat “budget-limited”…

So you didn’t write an infinite-budget version and then pare it back?

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No, I always had a low budget in mind. The thing with that book is that it was either going to be a $600m movie or just a couple-of-million dollar movie. There are things in it that are insanely huge and I just had to scratch those out. But I did feel that the way the book was written… it was originally written as a series of webisodes, but there’s a connectivity to it even though it jumps all over the place. But there was a storyline that I liked in the first third of the book: the part about the origin of the Soy Sauce drug and the introductions of Dave and John and their first encounter with Soy Sauce from which everything gets crazier and crazier. That seemed relatively straightforward, so I started there. I was able delete a huge section and come up with something that seemed quite a simple script, from my perspective.

Did you get to know the author, David Wong?

He’s a really interesting guy. He’s extremely talented. He writes for I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to read any of his other stuff. From time to time he writes essays and there was one about how to make it in the world as a young person. It was just amazingly straightforward and funny. It got about 17m views and really touched a nerve worldwide. So he can be an essayist and a humourist and he can also write horror: he’s really impressive.

And he’s a nice guy! When I first read John Dies at the End I thought it shared a lot of sensibilities with Phantasm. Then when I met with him he told me he was really excited that I was working on the project, because one of my movies was almost a direct parallel to his book. I said, “Oh, yes, I know…” But it turned out he was talking about Bubba Ho-Tep! I guess there are two protagonists in that film and they’re facing down a supernatural evil, but I hadn’t made the connection.

Wong’s sequel, This Book Is Full Of Spiders: Seiriously Dude Don’t Touch It also involves John. Do you have any intentions to film that one?

That’s about these strange spiders that inhabit the base of people’s craniums! I’d love to work with David’s material again, and I’d love to work with those characters again. But it’s always about the financing. John Dies at the End is still rolling out internationally, so we’ll see… I’ve actually had some solicitations recently for a television series, so it might be something that works very well on TV. We’ll pursue that and see what happens…

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There are a lot of practical effects in the film: rubber suits and puppets rather than CGI. What was the decision there? Does it make life more difficult and more expensive for you?

Well, that’s a good question. Sometimes digital effects are very inexpensive and sometimes they’re extremely expensive. They’re both just tools and each one has its strength. Obviously I grew up on prosthetic effects and my early films have zero digital effects in them. And you look back on them and they play pretty darn well. But there are aspects of digital work that can open up a movie, so it’s just about trying to compartmentalise and figure out which ones work right for particular scenes. I am still a fan of prosthetic effects. There’s nothing quite like getting a great horror actor working against a rubber suit. It can just approach magic if the lighting’s right.

Paul Giamatti is wonderful in the film but he’s also credited as a producer. What was his role offscreen?

I had a relationship with Paul from when I learned that he was a fan of Bubba Ho-Tep. We found that we shared a sensibility. He likes horror and genre more than you might realise from the work he’s done: he doesn’t appear in as many of those films as perhaps he would like. I pitched him the sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, in which he would have played Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker, who’s a character that really needs to be put on film. He jumped at that, but unfortunately it fell through, although it’s something we’re still talking about. But in any case, I gave him the script of John Dies at the End and he really sparked to it and said he’d be happy to help in any way he could. And he’d started a little production company, Touchy Feely Films, and he and his partner Dan Carey came on board to help us with the financing and the distribution. It was great to have that support.

You have Clancy Brown and Doug Jones in the film too: is this your go-to circle of showbiz friends?

I’m fans of theirs! I’d loved Clancy Brown’s work for decades and always wanted to find a way to work with him, and it turned out he knew some of my movies and was happy to join up. He’s terrific. And Doug Jones is just one of the greatest people on the planet. I hadn’t thought of him originally, but one of the production assistants suggested him. He can play that kind of stranger-from-a-strange-land role. The only thing I was concerned about was that he had done so many films in bold make-up. I didn’t know what he’d be like without it, so he was kind enough to actually come in and read for the role. But he’s a wonderful actor. He should do more parts without all the latex on him!

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You found a role for Angus Scrimm too: is he your lucky charm?

Yes, in some respects I think he is. He’s in all the Phantasm films, obviously, and I was lucky enough to be able to give him a non-horror role in the episode of Masters Of Horror that I directed. He’s a terrific actor, and very early on I selfishly sidetracked him into horror roles! I sometimes feel guilty about that. He’s been there ever since! So it was great to give him something different for once on the TV show, and then on John Dies at the End I let him play the priest, which has a nice twist to it!

Two very obvious questions follow that everyone must ask you: sorry about that! Firstly, you’ve already touched on this, but what’s the current situation with Bubba Nosferatu?

I would love to see it, and it’s certainly something I’m still pursuing. I’ve been re-investigating it recently. I had dinner with Bruce Campbell and Paul Giamatti and we discussed it. A few years have gone by since the first one now, and part of the problem is the restructuring of the motion picture industry in the meantime. Budgets are going way down, so it’s a challenge. When you approach a sequel you want to bring something bigger and better, but we’re talking to some people and we hope we’ll pull it off one of these days. So it’s not dead yet, is the short answer.

I think I read somewhere that it had morphed into Bubba Roswell: is that true?

Well, we learned early on that you can take “Bubba” and put anything behind it and you’d have a sequel! So we’re investigating various options. At one time we were going to make a Bubba Sasquatch, which would have been pretty cool: Elvis fighting Bigfoot up in the North woods. Paul Giamatti suggested Roswell, I think.

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And obvious question number two: are you done with Phantasm now?

[laughs] I don’t think I’ll ever be done with Phantasm: or it’ll never be done with me! The epitaph on my gravestone will be “The guy who did Phantasm”! I thought we wrapped it up nicely with Phantasm 4, but doing all this press for John Dies at the End I’m just stunned at how many folks want to see more Phantasm! So I’ve been talking about it with Angus Scrimm, who still looks great. The weird thing about him is, when we shot the first film, decades ago, he already looked old!

Do you know what you’re working on immediately next?

I’ve got about three different scripts at various stages, and a couple of TV series I’m putting together, but nothing I can formally announce. It’s just a bunch of meetings, trying to get one of these things going. The independent world has never been tougher, so it really requires some creative thinking and lightness-of-foot! You have to be a moving target and find your way through the cracks.

You’ve never considered a mainstream blockbuster?

Ohh, I’ve had a few opportunities… Years ago I was offered one of the Conan the Barbarian sequels, but it was a terrible script. From time to time there’s talk of something, but nobody ever gave me a big studio, big budget opportunity on a silver platter. A lot of my friends did those. Out of the blue one of them’ll get lucky and someone will say, “Hey, why don’t you direct this next Marvel movie?” That never happened to me!

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