Director Don Coscarelli established himself as one of the most intriguing filmmakers in the horror genre. He exploded onto the pop culture landscape in 1979 with his terrifying film, “Phantasm”. Featuring a horde of death dealing silver balls and Angus Scrimm as “The Tall Man,” the film became an instant classic. To this day, his ghoulish creation haunts the nightmares of horror fans, old and new. His other works, such as “The Beastmaster” and “Bubba Hotep,” are no less impressive and garnered him more notoriety in the world of cult cinema. A true master of horror, Coscarelli’s most ambitious film to date was unleashed to warp the minds of moviegoers around the globe! “John Dies At The End” is a wild and twisted ride. At its core, it’s all about the Soy Sauce, a drug promising an out-of-body experience with each hit. Users drift across time and dimensions, but some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly, a silent otherworldly invasion is underway and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John (Rob Mayes) and David (Chase Williamson), a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two save humanity? No. No, they can’t. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Don Coscarelli to discuss the making of the film, the challenges of bringing it to screen and much more!
I am a fan of your work, Don. I was curious to learn what about the world of filmmaking intrigued you early on and made you pursue it professionally!
Well, making movies is fun, generally! [laughs] It is a great way to communicate and a wonderful way of expressing yourself creatively. As to making it a career, I sort of fell into that. My student projects just outgrew one another until I finally made a semi-feature film. Then I made another one and another one. Pretty soon, I was making a living at it. It’s not a great answer, I guess, but I was really inspired by some great directors. When I first saw, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it blew my mind, literally. It made me aware that movies could be art. All these years later, I still enjoy making them quite a bit!
You are doing a fantastic job, especially with this new one, “John Dies At The End.” It is a lot of fun!
Good! I am glad to hear you liked it! That is great to hear!
What was it about this piece of work that made you want to bring it to the screen?
I liked the audacious nature of it. I mean, what’s not to like? You have a talking dog, a monster made out of freezer meats and an inter-dimensional drug that chooses you! These are all themes and concepts that are so out there and strange! I liked the way David Wong centered it all with these two guys and their sense of humor. This was his first novel and his attitude toward the younger generation and the way in which he wrote the dialog was wonderful. All of those things conspired and, when I first started, I thought it would be a really simple film to make! I started making it and realized I had made a mistake there because it was pretty difficult! [laughs]
That leads me to my next question. Where do you start when it comes to taking on a project like this one?
The thing was that from the first time I read the book, I thought that there were sections of it that would work completely well as a conventional motion picture. Then there were the other ones that were so insane that I couldn’t get anywhere close and I knew there was no way I could make them. The first third of the book almost read like three quarters of a screenplay and then it took a hard left turn and went into very strange areas but then it came back with a relatively traditional type of ending. I just figured I would cut that chunk out and do the others and have it serve as a screenplay. That is how I started.
What was the biggest challenge in putting this film together, Don?
One of the big challenges was maintaining the right tone. I say that because you have a book where on one page it is hide under the bed scary and on the next page it is laugh out loud funny. How do you serve both of those? You want the comedy to work but you also want the darker sides of it to work. That is something I was always grappling with on this film. The other big challenge was in whittling down that book. Even to get the smaller part of what was in my screenplay, I always had to whittle it down and keep it moving, moving, moving. The movie plays at break-neck speed and that was another challenge.
You have directed for so many years and make it look easy. How have you evolved through the years as a director?
That is a good question. I think as a technical filmmaker, I feel like I am a little more comfortable making movies. I don’t sweat it as much when things go wrong because I know there are all kinds of tools to fix problems. I used to agonize over poor choices I made or errors that scened. Many times when I get into editing or special effects, I can fix so many things. There are so many tricks — a filmmaker’s Band-Aid kit! I now know those are there and I think it has made me a little more confident. I think I am also better with actors. I think I used to be afraid of them in the early part of my career. I treated them more like tools back then and I think as I have gotten more mature I respect actors because I realize how much pressure is on them. When you understand how much pressure is on them, when they act out, do strange things or yell at directors, I don’t take any of that personally. I know they are going through a really difficult process. I am at a point where I can help them more. I am much more collaborative and I try to help them give their best performance. We spend weeks and weeks preparing a movie, years even, and then we get out there on the set, you point at the actor and say, “Action!” That is such an overwhelming responsibility that they really do need to be treated with care. That is one big lesson I have learned along the way.
You assembled a wonderful cast for the film. What did they bring to the film that helped bring the script to life?
For me, it was awesome to work with actors who I have admired throughout their careers. I have been following Clancy Brown since his early days, with “Highlander” and those sorts of things. I loved him in “Starship Troopers,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and that “Carnivale” series was just awesome! To work with these powerful screen presences was just a joy from Doug Jones to Glynn Turman and, of course there is [Paul] Giamatti. I will tell you one thing I learned from them, I can see why the big shot Hollywood directors want to work with these guys. It is because they make your life so easy! These guys can take whatever you have and make something good out of it! That is a real asset to have when you are making one of these movies. It was just an awesome experience for me!
You have done amazing movies, which tie together stylistically. Is there a particular type of project or genre you are keen to tackle in the future?
Oh yeah! I would love to do a straight action picture, like a Bruce Willis movie. I would absolutely love to one day do a World War II film. I love World War II films and I would also love to do a straight comedy one day. The problem we get here with my particular situation, and with some of my contemporaries in the horror world, is that when you make a movie that is even halfway successful in this genre, you tend to get stuck. The only kind of funding you can get is for movies that have some type of genre element attached to them. I think that may be why the last couple movies I have done, “Bubba Hotep” and this one, I have tried to branch out from just straight horror and go into some of the other areas that they inhabit.
As a seasoned veteran of the film industry, what is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring writers and filmmakers?
Number one is that everyone has their own story. Try and tell your own story if you have nothing else. Number two is to be prepared when, after you finish a movie, you are out of work and you have to go out and sell yourself. Number three is you need to be a salesman and be able to pitch your ideas. There are a host of other things I have learned through the years but a big one is that the writing is so important. I think that everybody should learn how to communicate with words. Try to write your own screenplays and tell your own stories. It will simplify your pre-production process because you won’t have to buy a book or hire a writer. It also allows you to make adjustments to it when people don’t like it. Writing is super important in my mind. Then of course, you need to school yourself on all of the tools that are available on your desktop right now. Everybody needs to learn an editing program, so that you can edit your own stuff. At the very least, everybody has to understand After Effects, Photoshop and programs like that. Those are just a few, meager words of advice.
I am sure they will be helpful to someone out there, Don! We appreciate you taking time out to speak with us today! “John Dies At The End” was a lot of fun and we look forward to spreading the word!
That is so nice for you to say, Jason. I really appreciate you supporting the movie because with these movies, we don’t have the big advertising budgets, so anytime we get a kind word here or there it really helps! I want to thank you in advance for that!
It is my pleasure, sir! Hopefully we will catch up with you again soon!
Absolutely! Thanks, Jason! I will see you soon, man!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.