You’ve probably noticed my affinity for the novel John Dies at the End and its film adaptation by now, as I keep bringing it up here. This is, what, my fourth article either about it or mentioning it in the last few months? Anyhow, as a fan, I am super blessed with this position as a film critic, because it gave me the opportunity to not only meet but talk to the director of the film and one of the stars. Don Coscarelli is a legendary horror director, he’s been making fantastic genre films for decades, and is the man behind the Phantasm series. John Dies at the End is Paul Giamatti’s first venture into the horror genre, but we all know him already from his dozens of other incredible performances. I somehow managed to keep my cool and only geeked out a little at the end, but yeah. This was amazing. Read it under the cut.
John Dies at the End gets a limited theatrical release on the 25th, and is available on VOD right now. I highly recommend it.
YWC: So for both of you, why did you choose this novel?
PAUL GIAMATTI: I didn’t read the novel until after the movie was done. For me it was much more of a script– and I wanted to work with Don. I knew him a little bit, and we had tried to do some other things together. So I got a script that I thought was great, and it was an insane movie, just excessive and nuts, and would be really fun to do. But Don came to the book on his own.
DON COSCARELLI: I got an email from a robot at Amazon, telling me that if I liked the zombie fiction I just read, I’d love John Dies At The End. The weird part about it was that it was right! So, I read this book, and I felt that in addition to being definitely in my wheelhouse in terms of having inter-dimensional travel, and strange creatures, and other things I’ve done before, what I liked about it a lot was that the writer, David Wong, just had an interesting depiction of these two characters. It felt very contemporary to me. I think the fact that they could be so apathetic in the face of such strangeness, you know, at my age I wouldn’t write anything like that.
YWC: Considering he’s the editor in chief of Cracked.com, were you familiar with David Wong before you read the book?
DON: No, actually he was not at Cracked when I met him. He had his own website called Pointless Waste of Time, and that’s where I was familiarized with him. As soon as I got that Amazon email I tracked him down. You really have to give this guy credit, he created a new paradigm in self publishing. He had written short stories and he posted them on the internet, and he kept adding more. Pretty soon he had an entire novel online, and then soon after that, I’m told, something like 59,000 people had read the entire book. Who could read a book like that online? When I read it, it had just been picked up by a [small press] publisher, Permuted Press. They do mostly zombie fiction, and I got a copy of that. Then after we made the arrangements for the theatrical rights, and all the publicity about that, that’s around when the St. Martin’s printing of the novel came out.
YWC: So how involved was Wong, from writing the screenplay adaptation to shooting the film?
DON: I pretty much did that myself. I would have loved to work with him, but he had just gotten the job at Cracked and so, I was surprised he was even able to write the sequel while working there. He has to create so much original material every hour on that site. But what I did do, I had a plan as to how it might be shoehorned down from 350 pages to 150 pages. What I thought was to take the first very linear section, about a third of the book, and then try to fuse it onto the ending. It seemed like a legitimate way to avoid some of the impossible-to-film scenes. After the arrangements with the rights, I asked Wong how he would approach it. He just sent me this simple email that said “I would do this,” and it was just what I was thinking.
YWC: Has he seen the film yet?
DON: Yes he did, and he liked it a lot, which was a great relief.
YWC: It does feel like the spirit of both of them are very close…
PAUL: As I was saying, I didn’t read it until afterwards, and when I did I was amazed at how well Don had condensed it and captured the tone of it. It was perfect in that regard.
DON: The good part about it is that the folks who enjoyed the movie, if they want, they can disappear into the world by reading the book then.
YWC: And how do you think the special effects translated?
PAUL: Don, like me, likes the old school prosthetics, so I knew that he was going to do great stuff with that. He and his guys are really great. And overall, all of it, I was very amazed, when you think about how small this movie actually is, it’s kind of astonishing how well the effects came out.
YWC: I loved the little slug creatures. Did you take any of the crazy stuff back from the set? Like the monsters or the weird homemade weapons John and Dave get to use…
DON: I hate to tell you, I got almost all that crap.
PAUL: [laughs] Really? You got the monsters and everything?
DON: I actually still have the Meat Monster. Part of the agreement with Bob Kurtzman was that he would get all his stuff back. Well.. I’m delaying sending it back. But he made a really cool announcement, Kurtzman is going to take molds off the meat monster suit, and he’s going to be selling high end meat monsters for use in haunted house attractions!
YWC: How do you guys feel about the horror genre now? This movie is so different from everything that’s popular right now. It feels out of place amongst all the slasher remakes and ghost movies.
DON: The horror genre ebbs and flows. I can think back to my veteran days in the mid 90’s, when I was out trying to pitch a zombie project, and no one was interested…. not only that, somebody said, “This is a zombie picture! We don’t want to do a zombie picture!” I had to go through and take the Z word out and replace it with “creature” everywhere in the script and resubmit it. Things come and go. And yet, there’s some brilliant filmmaker out there making a horror movie that will come out within the next year, we don’t know what it is…
PAUL: You can get away with so much more in horror. It’s a genre that invites so much weirdness. I feel like particularly in horror, something really interesting can pop out, because already it’s fairly wide open. So, to me, even the more pedestrian stuff is more interesting than your run of the mill movies.
DON: And I think you hit on something.. in that horror fans are optimists. They go in there because, truthfully, the first time you ever have a real, true scare in a horror movie..
PAUL: You don’t forget it!
YWC: And on the topic of other horror movies, how does John Dies at the End fit into the Phantasm universe? It seems like they are related.
DON: There certainly are parallels! We didn’t have any overt drug use in Phantasm, except maybe behind the camera. But they certainly are parallel universes. We worked Angus Scrimm into both of them! I am just fascinated with this whole concept of reality, of things not being what they appear–it’s something I’ve always found interesting. Maybe it’s an escape from the harsh fact that there are no alternate realities. I don’t like to believe that. It’s funny though, when I first approached David Wong about making John Dies, he said to me “This is perfect! One of your movies is like the perfect template for this!” I said, “Right, because in Phantasm, you have two guys, and they’re brothers, and there’s this evil guy from another universe. He’s enslaving them and there’s all these weird visions..,” and he said, “Oh, no! I see it just like Bubba Ho-Tep! With the two guys fighting the Mummy.”
YWC: I do see that connection too! It’s funny, both John Dies and Bubba Ho-Tep are pretty genre-bending. Neither is exactly a horror movie. Have you ever considered really branching out into other genres?
DON: The problem with this horror game, is it’s a very slippery slope. Once you’ve had a little success in horror it’s so difficult to get the folks that put up the money to fund other projects. Through the years, I’ll finish a horror movie, and I’ll go out with two or three other projects outside of the genre and try to get them funded, fail spectacularly, and then go back and make something in the genre. In my later years now, what I’ve been trying to do is stay within the horror genre, but do things that are a little different. I think Bubba Ho-Tep was the first step there. I don’t really know if that was a movie about Mummies. It was about these old two guys facing death, with some sly commentary on how our culture treats the elderly. The best part about it was the Evil Dead and Phantasm fans accepted it! I was very satisfied with the response. I don’t know if John Dies is just a horror movie. It’s a psychedelic-comedy with elements of philosophy.
PAUL: Some of this stuff was really jarring, I keep saying I find that speech the Rastafarian has about dreams actually very disturbing. There’s a bunch of things like that in this movie that are really odd.
YWC: Do you have any plans to make an adaptation of the sequel, “This Book Is Full Of Spiders”?
DON: Well, I have lots of plans, so what exactly is going to come to fruition… I mean it’s really nice of you to even pose it because I think all of us would love to try and do a sequel. But, it’s a little premature. We’ll get the commercial success first, and then we’ll talk about the sequel. It was one of the fun parts about the book and something that we tried to do in the film, we had a little mini-sequel there, to give a little flavor as to how the sequel could work, and with a little luck we’ll be able to see what we can do. And that book is great, by the way. Are you a fan?
YWC: I’m a huge fan, I’ve seen the movie three times now, and I’ve read the book about four times. I love this stuff. I’ve got my own ideas, but what would you say the soy sauce actually is?
DON: I have always seen it as some sort of a sentient thing..
PAUL: It’s kind of like an alien life-form
DON: It was sort of a third character. It’s somehow related to Korrok, but maybe not. They might each have separate agendas. The soy sauce might be conspiring to overthrow Korrok.
YWC: Let’s end on a really hard one. How would you answer the question at the beginning of the movie? Is it the same axe?
DON: [laughs] Well, that’s an unanswerable question.
YWC: if you could answer it, I guess you’d solve the mystery of the universe.
For more information, visit: http://www.johndies.com/