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If Don Coscarelli’s infectious smile and boyish glee doesn’t make you an instant fan, you have no soul. I was lucky enough to sit in with five other horror site reviewers to interview the esteemed Paul Giamatti and charming Coscarelli about John Dies at the End, their whirlwind joint venture based on David Wong’s book of the same name.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie in spite of its flaws, it’s the great admiration Don and Paul have for one another and their easy gravity that will make you love them and this movie all the more.
(Unfortunately, I didn’t catch everyone’s name as we went around the table with their questions, so I’ve given the other interviewers nicknames.)
Cool Girl with Glasses (CG):So, for both of you: Why this novel?
Paul Giamatti: Well I didn’t read the novel until after the movie was done, so for me it was just about the script. I wanted to work with Don; I knew him a little bit and we’ve tried to do some other things together. So I got a script that I thought was great. And I just thought it was an insane movie, I thought it was excessive and it would be fun to do. But Don came to the book first, so for him it was a different way.
Don Coscarelli: It was a truly different way. The true story was I got an email from a robot at Amazon and it told me that if I liked the zombie fiction I’d just read that I’d love John Dies at the End. And the weird part about it was that it was right. And so I read this book and I felt that it, in addition to being definitely in my wheel-house in terms of having inter-dimensional travel and strange creatures, things that I’d done before, what I loved about the book a lot was that I felt that this writer, David Wong, had just an interesting depiction of these two characters. It felt very contemporary to me, the fact that they could be so apathetic in the face of such strangeness. At my age, I wouldn’t write anything like that, so I liked that aspect.
Excited Lunatic (aka Karin Krighton):Were you familiar with David from Cracked
DC: Actually, he was not at Cracked when I read the book. He had his own website called PointlessWasteofTime.com [laughs all around] and that’s where I was familiar with him. Because as soon as I got that Amazon email, I tracked him down. You really have to give this guy credit. He really created a new paradigm in self-publishing. He hadn’t written the novel, he had written these short stories and he started posting them on the internet. It started on Halloween, but every few months he’d put more story up and pretty soon he had an entire novel online and pretty soon after that I’m told 50,000 people had read the entire book online. Who can read a book online like that? So that’s when I came across it. It had just been picked up by a publisher, Permuted Press, which was the zombie fiction publisher, a small market thing, and I got a copy of that. And after we made the arrangements for the theatrical rights, and did a little publicity about that, that’s when the St. Martin’s Press release came out.
Brunette with Sharp Bob (BB):How involved was Wong from writing the screenplay adaption to shooting the film?
DC: I pretty much did that myself. I will tell you that I would have loved to work with him. But he got the job at Cracked and I was surprised he was able to write the sequel while working there because he has to create so much original material every hour on that site. But when I first looked at the book, I had a plan as to how it might be shoehorned from 350 pages to 100 pages. And so, I thought what I’d do was take the first very linear section, about a third of the book, and then try to fuse it onto the end. It seemed like a legitimate way to go and avoid some of the impossible scenes. And after we made the arrangements with the rights, we asked him how he would approach it and he sent me this simple email saying “I would do this” and it was just what I was thinking. So it felt right.
Older White-Haired Gent (OG):Has he seen the film?
DC: Yes, he did.
DC: Which was a great relief.
OG:I just started to read the book in the waiting room and it seems the spirit of both of them seem very close, just in the first ten or fifteen pages.
PG: As I said, I didn’t read it until afterwards, and then when I did I was amazed at how well Don had condensed it and kept the tone amazingly well.
DC: Well, I think that the good part was that folks who enjoy the movie, if they want, they can disappear into the world by reading the book.
PG: There is more to the book which is good.
BB:When you saw the special effects, were you surprised at how great they came out?
PG: Yeah! I mean, I had a feeling, because Don, like me, he likes the old school prosthetics, the things that are there for the most part, and so I knew he was going to do great stuff with that. He knows guys that are really great with that stuff. And he’s great with them and appreciates it so much. I was amazed when you think about how small this movie actually is, it’s kind of astonishing. The entire thing. It really blew me away.
BB:How do you like seeing yourself on film?
PG: I’m okay with it. I’m fine; I’m producing now. It was weird for a long time, but I’m over being shocked by it. I can sort of watch myself and forget about it. Something like this is nice, I really look at it and I’m very quickly not watching myself at all and enjoying the movie, so that’s usually a good thing.
Blond Pixie-Like Chick (BP):Don was telling me Chase’s first scene in front of a movie camera ever was the one with you in the restaurant. How was that for you? Not only did you have to worry about your own stuff and then this kid?
PG: I was far more worried about my own stuff; I wasn’t worried about him at all. I remember this stuff was dialogue heavy with long sorts of speeches from both of us I wanted to meet Chase first to just run it for my own sake. I got in there with him and realized very quickly he was way better at it than I was. I started, “Jesus, I better step it up. I better be good and I better know what the hell I’m doing.” It was actually a wakeup call. It was tough; there was lots of stuff to stay. He was fine; I felt I had to catch up to him.
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BB:You have a lot of 2013 movies coming up; can you talk about what you’re working on?
PG: Sure, which one? I’m not even sure which come out this year. [He takes a paper from her to look it over] I have all these things coming out?! I don’t know what that is. Prey? I have no idea what that is. Madame Bovary I think will be made at some point this year. This HBO movie, this cable films that talks about Kruschev may get done this year. Turbo, the cartoon, nice, fun that probably comes out this year. It’s about snails. Saving Mr. Banks was something I just did. It was about Walt Disney and the woman who wrote Mary Poppins, the making of Mary Poppins. It’s interesting. Romeo and Juliet, that should come out this year, Twelve Years a Slave, these are all wonderful movies. [laughs] I’m supposed to go do Parkland tomorrow, I’m going to Texas to do something about the Kennedy assassination. I’m glad to see I have lots of movies coming out. I didn’t realize that. That’s nice, I’ve been working. It’s good.
BP:And what about the future plans for this? We were talking earlier, maybe an idea of turning it [John Dies at the End] into a TV series with FX?
PG: That’s certainly a possibility. It’s something worth thinking about. Yeah, I think it could kind of weirdly make a good series.
DC: You know, we were talking about that. I mean, it might be too out there, edgy for the TV execs but then she [refers to pixie] told me that FX makes American Horror Story.
PG: Which is great, have you ever watched that show?
DC: It’s a brilliant show.
PG: It’s really great. I don’t think it would be too out there for them. It seems you’ve had a lot of latitude there. It could lend itself to this show.
OG:It seemed to me it helps if you’ve seen tons of horror movies. Because this movie just seems to grab everything and throw it together and the amazing thing to me was how well it worked. And how in all of this, you could still have a through-line and keep following it. That was really quite something.
PG: It’s really kind of an amazing miracle.
DC: We’re thrilled that the audiences could see the through-line.
Dark-Haired Kevin (DK):Oh, it’s there!
OG:It hides. But it’s there.
PG: But that’s an interesting point, it has this funny thing if you’re a fan. This fulfills a lot of things you like seeing.
OG:I saw it with a friend my age, we’re both in our seventies, and he hated it. And I loved it. And afterwards we got up to leave and his comment was, “You must have read a lot of different comic books than I did.”
PG: There you go! I could see that. If he’s a DC Comics guy...
DC: Look, if it polarizes people I think that might be a good thing.
PG: I always think that’s a good thing.
BP:How do you guys feel about the horror genre now? You have this thing that’s so out there and different but then the entire genre now is drowning in reboots, remakes, and sequels.
PG: It does that. We were talking about that; but it’s always had that; the nature of it has always been a little of that serializing over and over again.
DC: Back to the universal monsters.
PG:Phantom of the Opera just gets remade over and over again and whatever. I always think it’s because a genre that invites so much weirdness that more really amazing things will pop out of it as much as anything. Plenty of uninteresting stuff, then something interesting pops out. I feel particularly in horror something really interesting can pop out because already it’s fairly wide open. So to me, even the more pedestrian and “uninteresting” stuff is more interesting than the run of the mill stuff. I think it seems to be doing well as a genre. [To Don] But you would know more...
DC: Oh, I think that the horror genre ebbs and flows. I think back to my veteran days in the mid-'90s where I was out trying to pitch a zombie project -
PG: And no one was interested?
DC: Not only that, somebody would say, “This is a zombie picture? We don’t want to do a zombie picture!” We had to go through and take the z-word out and replace it with “creature” everywhere in the script and then resubmit it.
PG: That’s hilarious.
DC: So things come and go. But it’s a genre that I believe invites invention and creativity. A wonderful, original movie will come up, like back when we met with the days of the J-horror, like The Grudge, Ju-on, and The Ring series were coming out, they were so original. Then after about three or four years if you saw one...more...Japanese gal...with her hair in her face [grins at the implied homicide] And yet, there is some brilliant filmmaker out there making a horror film that within the next year it will come out and we don’t know what it is.
PG: You can get away with so much more now.
DC: And I think that you hit on something, that horror films are optimists. Truthfully, the first time you have ever a really, true scare in a horror movie you never forget it, like a first crush, you remember it forever. You’re always walking into a theater, and seeing the trailers, and the trailers for horror movies are usually pretty good even if the movie sucks; there are images and things you’re going on in hoping it’s going to be like that [first time]. Then, every once in a while, it is. That’s the short answer.
BB:Do you have a favorite horror of all time?
PG: Horror movie? It’s hard to say. There’s a whole lot of things I like. Um...I really like those old Val Lewton movies. You know those? Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and there’s one called The Seventh Victim which is not one that people know very well. I saw a little while ago that somebody was thinking of doing a remake of it. And it’s really weirdly similar to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s about a satanic cult. [To Older Gent] You know this movie?
PG: Kim Hunter’s first movie. And again, it has one of the darkest endings of a movie I’ve ever seen and you could not do this movie with this ending in anything but a horror movie and get away with it. Because it’s okay to have this incredibly pessimistic ending to this movie. But I really like those movies. They’re very weird. Very weird movies. I really love those movies; they’re beautiful. They’re made for nothing. And totally inventive and interesting and strange movies. I really like those; he made like, six or seven of those. He was the producer of them.
DC: I have to go by just eras. In the Golden Age, it’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
PG: You really don’t like Son of Frankenstein?
DC: I don’t know that I’ve seen them all!
PG: That’s a good movie, you should see it.
DC: Then I would have to move into the '50s/Sci-Fi age and it’s Invaders from Mars for me there, and then the Monster Phase would be Godzilla for me, and '70s gotta be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or it’s Suspiria, or more modern stuff, I like this movie The Eye by the Pang brothers a few years back and just a lot of good movies out there. It’s hard to just say one.
DK:It speaks of what we were just talking about, everything you just said has either already been remade or is coming in the next year or two.
DC: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing how many are coming.
DK: In a few years we’re going to start seeing sequels to your own films. Especially with horror, every time there’s even a decent horror movie, not even a great one, people are saying, “I need to see another one.” Even things that should never have a sequel, like Cabin in the Woods. The world ends!
CG:So on the topic of other horror movies, how does John Dies at the End fit in to the Phantasm universe? It seems that they’re related.
DC: They certainly can be parallels. You didn’t have any overt drug use in Phantasm, except maybe behind the camera. [laughs] Certainly they’re parallel universes, parallel universes, we worked Angus Scrimm into both of them which was good. But with John Dies, I was just fascinated with this whole concept-reality not being what as it appears. It’s always been something I found interesting, maybe as an escape from the harsh fact that there are no alternate realities, but I don’t like to believe that. But it’s funny thought that when I first approached David Wong about making the book [into a movie], he said to me “This is perfect! Because one of your movies is the perfect template for it.” And I said, “Yeah, with Phantasm, you have two brothers, two guys, there’s this evil guy from another universe enslaving them, and all kinds of weird visions-“ and he said, “Oh, no, I see it being just like Bubba Ho-tep. Two guys fighting the mummy!” And I said, “Oh, okay!”
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KC (aka Exited Lunatic):How would each of you answer the riddle from the opening sequence? Is it the same axe?
PG:That’s a good question.
DC: That’s an unanswerable question.
CG: If you could solve it, you’d solve the question of the universe.
DC: It’d be the cure for existence.
PG: That’d be the whole thing, right there.
DC: There is no answer.
PG: There is no axe, or something.
CG: I have an equally hard one: What is soy sauce?
DC: Well, I have always interpreted, seen it, maybe we didn’t spend quite enough time developing it, but I’ve always thought it was some sort of a sentient thing; I thought it was alive. I thought it was a third character. And I think it’s somehow related to Korrok, but maybe not. They each have separate agendas. Soy sauce might be conspiring to overthrow Korrok.
PG: It’s its own alien thing. How did you do the thing with it growing?
DC: That was a digital effect. The guy had a program that could take anything and put spikes on it. He just bit-texture mapped an actual shot of the drop on it and then made it look really cool.
BP:You guys get to take anything home from set? I can see an axe sitting somewhere...
DC: I hate to tell you, but I got almost all of that stuff in that little room [gesturing to storage].
PG: Even the monsters? What happened to those?
DC: I still go the meat monster. Part of the agreement with Bob Kurtzman is that he would get all his stuff back, so I delayed sending it back, but it’s a really cool and interesting new announcement which is that Kurtzman is going to take molds of the meat monster suit and he is going to be selling high-end meat monsters for use in haunted house attractions.
PG: That’s genius. That thing is beautiful, that suit is amazing.
OG: [To Paul] Have you done a horror movie before? I can’t remember. Cold Storage?
PG: I’ve done some science-fictiony things, no, I have never done a horror movie before.
OG:And it was really fun and interesting to see you.
PG: I really like this kind of thing. So I was really, like, it was like I got to do some of the stuff I’d always wanted to do in one of these movies. It was great. It was really fun to do.
OG: [To Don] Would you, do you do something other than horror? I’m trying to think back - Beastmaster, of course. Which is still one of my favorite films of all time.
DC: The problem with this horror game, is that it’s a very slippery slope. You know, once you have 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 for two or three other projects that are outside the genre and try to get them funded and fail spectacularly, then go back and do something in the genre. So in my later years what I’ve been trying to do is stay in the genre but do things that are a little different. I think Bubba Ho-tep was the first step there; which was, I don’t know, that wasn’t really a movie about mummies, it was really more about these two old guys...
PG: Being old.
DC: Yeah. Some sly commentary on how our culture treats the elderly. In a horror movie. And the best part about it was that the Evil Dead and the Phantasm fans accepted it. So that was, in my mind, that was very satisfying. In John Dies, in some respects, I don’t know that it’s just a horror movie… it’s more of a psychedelic weirdly comic with elements of philosophy in it.
PG: Some of the stuff is really jarring. Like that the speech that the Rastafarian has about dreams. You sit and think, “Oh that’s really kind of cool”, but it’s really of disturbing. It’s super disturbing, that speech, and there’s a bunch of things like that in this movie. They’re all weird, but that particularly is really odd.
OG:You do come out of the film finding it hard to hold onto anything, which is not a way one tends to want to feel.
DC: Well hopefully people will revisit it a second time.
CG:Do you have any plans to make an adaptation ofThis Book Is Full of Spiders?
DC: Well, look, as I’ve told you, I have lots of plans. [laughs] Now, what exactly is going to come to fruition or not… I think it’s really nice of you to ask and to even propose it because I think all of us would love to try to do a sequel of some sort. One of the funniest things was when we first talked it over with Paul’s partner Dan, because they were co-producers on the movie, and I said “Well, of course, Paul wouldn’t be in it because he was killed.” And Dan said, “Now wait a minute, we can figure out a way to get Paul in it.”
PG: We can figure something out!
KC:He wasn’t really Arnie; he was never really there.
CG:So he could become someone else.
PG: That’s true! The guy in the trunk was the true Arnie.
DC: That’s a good idea. But it’s a little premature. We’ll get the commercial success first and then we’ll talk about [it], hopefully. One of the fun parts about the book, and something we tried to do in the film, was to have a little mini sequel at the end, kind of give a little flavor of how the sequel could possibly work, and with any luck we’ll be able to do it again. That book is great, by the way.
CG:I’m a huge fan. I’ve seen the movie three times. I’ve read the book four times.
DC: His books hold up well; hopefully the movie will hold up with any luck.
BB:Do both of you read reviews of your movies or do you avoid them?
PG: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I’m interested to read them and sometimes I’m not, so I don’t. It just depends. I’d be interested to know what people [thought] of this, so I will probably read these. But it’s a case by case thing.
DC: Reviews can sting from time to time.
PG: Oh yeah. They sure can.
DC: But over the years, especially between Phantasm and now this movie, there are people that get it and people that don’t. I’ve come to the sense that I know my own. It becomes an intelligence test. [grins] The ones who are highly intelligent get my movies and the ones that don’t are fools. [laughs]
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