One thing I can say about Don Coscarelli's movies is they never remind me of something I've already seen. The Tripoli-born, South California-raised Coscarelli makes mind bending, original films that start trends but never follow them. For instance, there's the not easily classified 1979 horror classic Phantasm, which spawned three sequels and pre-figured the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. His 1982 sword-and-sorcery crowd pleaser, The Beastmaster, was played so often on HBO that the pay-cable's call letters were said to stand for "Hey, Beastmaster is On." And his 2002 comedy horror film Bubba Ho-Tep, is a contemporary cult masterpiece that has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture and aging out in a world that worships youth. On Friday, Coscarelli's latest cinematic Rubik's Cube, John Dies At The End, began a theatrical run after debuting on such VOD carriers as iTunes in December. Based on the novel of the same name by David Wong, the movie is about two friends Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes) who come under the influence of a drug called soy sauce, a black viscous goo with a life of its own. Most who come under the thrall of the Sauce experience extremely heightened perceptions followed by a grisly death. But Dave and John appear to be special cases — I can't say for sure until I see the movie a few more times — who are able to harness the power of the Sauce to protect mankind from the evils of other dimensions.
Shortly before the release of the film, I sat down with Coscarelli and Paul Giamatti, who is a producer on the film and gives a painfully authentic performance as a jaded, condescending reporter who learns the hard way that our eyes and minds can play tricks on us. The two men talked about their love of alternate reality theories, Philip K. Dick, whether contemporary remakes of horror classics hurt the credibility of the originals and where things stand with Coscarelli and Giamatti's attempts to get his Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires, off the ground.
Paul Giamatti: When did it come out?
Don Coscarelli: 1979
Giamatti: I always thought I was younger when I saw it, but that would make me 11 or 12 when it came out.
Coscarelli: That's not that old.
Giamatti: It's not, but I remember somehow being younger.
Coscarelli: It wasn't until later life, in the last five or 10 years that I've started to understand that not only did that film work as a horror movie, it actually worked as an empowerment movie for young men and boys. The whole concept of the kid whose brother let him drive the muscle car, and he’s shooting shotguns and drinking Mexican beer and fighting demons — if you saw it when you were in the 10-14 year-old range, it stuck with you forever. I don't know that people that are making movies directly for that demographic, and I didn't know I was doing it at the time. But now I realize that I was.
Giamatti: It's true.
Has there been any push to do a remake?
Coscarelli: Yeah, for sure. A few years ago an executive over at New Line was really eager to do it. It never ended up happening, and I think that, in some respects, it's a good thing because, maybe Evil Dead's going to break the trend, but if you look at what's happened with the remakes, they make money....
Coscarelli: So that's a good thing. But they're populated with these model/actor/actresses from the CW Network and the story is aimed at the lowest common denominator. And the question I would pose to both of you is do, just for my own purposes later, do the remakes ruin the image of the original?
Giamatti: I think they can. I think they can work adversely retrospectively.
Coscarelli: That's my concern. But if it's well done it could exist. Like Dawn of the Dead was one where I feel like the remake exists on its own, and it didn't affect my perception of the original one.
That's interesting. I won't see the remake because the original is sacred to me.
Coscarelli: It's so great, yeah.
Giamatti: Huge for me, too. But then I saw the remake and I was like, oh, good. It exists on its own. It's a rare one, though.
Coscarelli: Yeah, it's really rare. Somehow he pulled it off.
I seriously wish we could explore this subject more, but this interview has a time limit, and I want to talk to you about John Dies at the End. When I see a movie like this, which has such a fascinating take on perception-versus-reality and parallel worlds, I always find myself wondering if the filmmaker believes in any of the ideas he's putting in his film.
Coscarelli: Look, I like to fantasize that there's more to reality than what we have here, and that's why, from a young age, I just loved Philip K. Dick's books. I got hooked on reading them because he would create these alternate realities that swirled around us, and you just needed a little edge to be able to penetrate or pierce them and see what's going on inside.
Giamatti: This movie and the book, too, seems like one of the better Philip K. Dick stories.
Coscarelli: That is high praise, Paul.
Giamatti: But it's true. In some ways, John Dies at the End feels like a better Philip Dick movie than most of the ones that are made. It feels closers to the spirit of what those books are actually like than what happens most of the time when they adapt them as films. They iron them out when they make them and take all the weirdness out of them, oddly enough.
Coscarelli: Another thing Paul and I talk about — because Paul's a very well read guy and it's fun to talk to him about stuff — is that such strange things are being discovered every day in science, especially the Grand Unified Theory of reality — you know, how particles can be in two places at the same time. You can just sit and ponder that for an hour. I'm really interested in that kind of thing.
Paul Giamatti: That's interesting because I do remember one thing that really made me excited to do this was the speech that the Rastafarian (Ed. Note: the character's name is Robert Marley) gives about dreams.
The speech where he talks about how the thunderclap outside Dave's window ends up being the sound effect for the dynamite explosion in his dream and then asks Dave how his brain knew that the thunder was coming? I loved that moment.
Giamatti: When I first read that, I thought: that perfectly articulates something I've always wondered about. And the guy [Tai Bennett] delivers it so well that I thought it was great to have that in the movie. It's so bizarre and true, and it freaks me out. It all ties in weirdly.
Coscarelli: That means your dream would have had to happen from the time the thunder clap started to the time you woke up, which would be like ten milliseconds.
Giamatti: It happens though it makes no sense. It's very weird.
Paul, how did you get involved in this project?
I met Don through a mutual friend of ours, Eli Roth, and Don and I hit it off wel because I really like his movies. We talked about doing some other stuff that there was interest in at the time, and then Don came to me and I said I have this other thing actually that I've been working on. I thought it was so insane, but he was really confident that this would be something that could be done on a small budget. And I was like, "Really? I want to see how you do this." I was happy to play or do whatever in the movie. I have a small production company, Touchy Feely Films, and I said, "We'll do whatever we can, but do whatever you need to do."
You do journalistic skepticism really well.
Giamatti: Thanks. To be totally honest, there was a specific guy I was thinking of. I can't remember his name and it was a long time ago. It was the first time I was ever at Sundance and even that line I have, "Did you fall asleep?" comes from that experience. I was like, I'm going to play that guy. I wish I remembered his name, but I remember the encounter really well. I was like, whoa, this guy is really treating me like a fool.
So you joined the project as both an actor and a producer?
Giamatti: Yeah, it kind of went along with the whole thing. We're always happy to help Don produce.
Coscarelli: Yeah, and hopefully we'll make more movies in the future.
I've read that you're going to play Colonel Tom Parker in the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu.
Giamatti: Well that was how Don and I got to know each other — taking that around to people.
Coscarelli: The funding came together amazingly and we spent a good year working with Paul and his partner Dan Carey. It was a fun time, despite the ups and downs of all the different financial entities that might do it.
Giamatti: People would be interested and then they would not be.
Coscarelli: We had it pretty much together, but it didn't work out. And then Bruce Campbell decided he didn't want to be involved.
But then I read that you were talking about casting Kurt Russell.
Coscarelli: Kurt Russell is a great Elvis — and not only that, he's a great action hero and should do more movies as such. He would have been great, but, no, that didn't go anywhere. We also talked to Ron Perlman, who's another great actor.
Giamatti: He was very keen on doing it.
Coscarelli: But then at that time, the funding had fallen apart.
So it's not happening now?
Giamatti: Not right now. We might try and get it going again.
Giamatti: It's a really great script and it fits really well with the other movie.
Coscarelli: We're just waiting for the stars to align. One day maybe it'll all click.
You only make movies that you want to make. Is that getting harder to do?
Giamatti: Part of the reason I was interested in doing this movie is to watch how he was going to do this — how he makes the movies he makes.
Coscarelli: When I look back at this career I've had, I don't know where it goes from here, but certainly any time I can make a movie that's different, that explores something that's not a retread of something else, I'm interested in it. But since I had my first little success with Phantasm, I'm always getting offered opportunities to basically redo movies or...
Giamatti: Do something like it.
Coscarelli: Sequels of other movies. I made Phantasm and then, you know, Nightmare on Elm Street came out, which was a good movie, but, you know, it took place in kind of the same domain. And, of course, they offered me the sequel. But I'd already done Phantasm. And after I made The Beastmaster, I got pulled into Dino De Laurentiis' bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he was trying to force me to do the second Conan movie, Conan The Destroyer. At the time, everyone thought I was insane to turn it down. Now I can look back at what the movie was — I knew there were script issues — and probably –
Giamatti: It was a wise decision.
Coscarelli: Yeah. Look, it's not easy following this path. You know, a lot of my friends and other horror directors, they've gotten opportunities where they made something cool and edgy and then they got Spider-man, you know, but it's never worked that way for me. So I try to just look for projects where I can do something interesting when the assets are available to me. And it's not getting any easier with this business today.
There have been a few observations that in terms of your adaptation of David Wong's novel, you're faithful to the beginning of the book and to the end, but not the middle. What decisions went into what you kept and what you discarded?
Coscarelli: That's interesting. Well part of it was strictly financial. That first section of the book is eminently filmable. But then it takes this left turn.
Giamatti: The movie would end up being over seven and a half hours long.
Coscarelli: And then you'd also need hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve the visual effects. So, it just wasn't possible.
Giamatti: That's a pretty accurate description of what you did though. It's the beginning and the end of the book.
Coscarelli: Yeah. I will say that I asked David Wong how he would adapt the book and he came back in a paragraph in an email and basically said what I was thinking of doing. So, I thought, well, shit. If that's the way he would do it then I'm probably on the right path. And it seemed to work okay.
A while back, I wrote a post about how the Soy Sauce in John Dies at the End reminded me of the black goo in Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Do you see any parallels?
Coscarelli: Not so much. I like Prometheus. I saw it twice in 3D, and it was great. But, you know, the difference to me was it was the stuff in Prometheus was some kind of DNA-like material. I didn't really think that Soy Sauce really had a DNA component, although now that I think about it, it might. Maybe it changes Dave and John forever.
The Mall of the Dead that's in the movie. Is that a set you created, or is that real?
Coscarelli: It's a real.
Giamatti: He found these places that make you think, how the hell did you find that place?
Coscarelli: That was divine intervention.
Giamatti: And he didn't do anything to dress it. That's what it looked like.
Coscarelli: Completely. We were at this point where we thought we'd have to build the Mall of the Dead. But we had this one young co-producer on the movie, Aaron Godfred, and he is the master of Craigslist. It became this joke, and because he'd always say, "I'll go advertise on Craigslist and see if I can find a…" And he advertised, "Need empty mall," and somebody said, "I can find one and I'll only need $1,000 finders fee." And we got…
Giamatti: Not just any empty mall, but a super-ass creepy empty mall.
Coscarelli: It was within 20 miles of where we were filming in Faulkner, California. Oh, and get this: great story. One of our co-producers, Roman Perez, when he was like 14, he went to that mall to see Phantasm.
I know that you like to cast your original Phantasm actors in cameo roles in your movies. I saw Angus Scrimm, but I didn't see Reggie Bannister this time. Did I miss him?
Coscarelli: No. Reggie is like my good luck charm. I try to work him in to every film. There was just no role for him in this. But believe me, I'll be making more films with him.
What's next for each of you?
Giamatti: I'm going to Texas to do a movie called Parkland about the Kennedy assassination. I play Abraham Zapruder.
Coscarelli: Isn't that awesome?
Giamatti: It's a good script. It's a really interesting script.
Coscarelli: I'm publicizing John Dies At The End, but then I've got to examine my options. Try to cook up something.
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