Writer-director Don Coscarelli is well known to fans of cult horror and fantasy as the precocious creator of the Phantasm series, as well as the offbeat gem Bubba-Ho Tep and former HBO staple The Beastmaster. His latest film, John Dies at the End, is classic Coscarelli: a giddy romp based on a picaresque novel about two friends who discover that using a new street drug called “Soy Sauce” allows them to see creatures from some sort of infernal limbo attempting to invade our dimension.
We sat down for a press conference with Coscarelli, actors Chase Williamson (“David Wong”) and Rob Mayes (“John”), and executive producer Paul Giamatti, who also has a small role in the film as Arnie, a skeptical journalist who listens to Williamson tell his incredible story. It was a lively session as the quartet touched upon the challenges of independent filmmaking, a potential sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, and finally getting to work with a meat monster.
John Dies at the End will be released December 27 via Video On Demand and hits theaters a month later on January 25, 2013.
Be advised that the following transcript contains spoilers…
Paul, what is it that spoke to you that made you not only want to be in the film, but have your name brought in as executive producer on the project?
Paul Giamatti: Well, the whole thing spoke to me, frankly. I’ve wanted to work with Don for a while. I’m a big fan of his – the Phantasm movies, Beastmaster, Bubba Ho-Tep especially. I was just eager to do something with him, and then this thing came along and everything about it I liked. I like that kind of Philip K. Dick type of thing, which is what this is in a lot of ways, all that twisty kind of stuff. I remember when I first read it, the whole monologue about dreams the Rastafarian guy has, I was like, “If I can be in a movie where that’s on the screen,” that’s so weird and disturbing and kind of funny. And if I could help in any way producing it, I just thought, you know, Don should be making more movies.
Is it hard to wear two hats like that?
PG: No. I didn’t really do any producing. I have a partner who did more of the actual producing. I just show up with my cup of coffee and say, “How’s it going, everything ok?” [Laughter]
Don Coscarelli: Paul is really too modest. Producing isn’t just about the shooting, it’s about the entire making of the movie. As all the actors can attest, I have this little trailer in my backyard and they’d each come over and give me voiceovers and help figure scenes out. We had this structural problem in the beginning of the movie that was in the book, and it seemed like it there was no solution to it. I remember Paul and [executive producer] Dan Carey came out one day and said, “Don, you have got fix this, and there’s gotta be a way.” It was their one criticism of the cut, they loved everything else. But they put me on the path to solving the problem, and Paul really did have an impact in a lot of respects.
So Chase, this is your first acting job out of school, right? Can you talk about how you were cast?
Chase Williamson: It was crazy. It’s hard to believe, still to this day. I kind of expected I would be where I am now, just sort of grinding away as soon as I got out of college and for years after that. So to be able to have this opportunity right out of school, fresh out of hearing people talk about acting every day for four years, to be able to just do it and watch [Paul] do it and actually work was an invaluable experience.
Were you intimidated sitting down with Paul that first day?
CW: It was weird. I was nervous, sure, but when I met Paul he was just so cool. I wasn’t nervous when we were first shooting it because it was my first couple days, and I felt like “I already got this job,” so there’s nothing to be nervous about. I’m just going to do my work and watch him.
PG: That’s what you seemed like, you seemed incredibly relaxed.
CW: But after one of our first scenes, Don was like “Wow, it looks like Chase is gonna work out.” [Laughter] So I guess I should have been nervous. [Laughs] I kind of just approached the rest of the shoot like that.
What was the most memorable experience on this film for each of you?
Rob Mayes: That’s a tough question. It’s such an awesome book and such an awesome script. Once the cast came together, the whole thing was such a treat. It was nice to do something you really believe in and to play a character, not just a football player who dates a hot girl. [Laughter]
PG: I do remember one of the coolest things was the place we shot the exteriors for the restaurant. It was the decayed ruins of a youth prison. It looked a neutron bomb went off, and there was weird stuff scrawled on the walls. It was super creepy, easily the creepiest place I’ve ever been. But it was awesome, I love that kind of stuff.
In the first scene between David Wong and Arnie, did you guys take the approach that you might be talking to someone who’s out of your imagination?
CW: No, I didn’t approach it that way.
PG: Well, you have no idea until much later, until I realize that I’m not actually there. So before that, no. And the whole David Wong thing was he’s clearly a freak who’s apparently on this drug and I have an attitude about him already. He’s just some young punk who’s on some weird drug.
DC: We always decided his initial reaction [to discovering the truth] would be funny. We deleted a line about he had wasted his whole day talking to this guy.
PG: Once it happened, it was just fun to react that way, like it pissed me off.
CW: Yeah, and when I asked if someone really called [your character] the N-word, and you say “Is that some kind of joke?” that was the hardest thing not to laugh at. Because it was so sincere.
PG: It was just fun to play that stuff. How do you play a guy who knows he’s dead in the trunk of his own car?
Don, how did you go about developing the overall look of the film, and especially the creature creations?
DC: The look of the movie was a challenge for me because as an old school film guy, this was my migration to digital. There was a learning curve in terms of trying to duplicate the visuals you would get with film. We had a color palette we were working from, but the beauty of it is that it’s so easy now. It’s all done is post-production with a color correction suite and you can do whatever you want at that point, truthfully.
As far as the creatures, I’m lucky to have made a few of these movies and work with some really great makeup artists, especially the guys at KNB Effects. Bob Kurztman, who was one of the founders of that, had created the Bubba Ho-Tep mummy on a really tight budget, and I went to him early on with the idea of the meat monster. But another creative partner we had was a terrific animation director named David Hartman, who did the animated sequence in the film. I was complaining to him about making the meat monster, and he offered to do a drawing of what it could look like. He did a little design, and you could look at it and see that it could be a man in a suit. That raised the comfort level for going in that direction.
Then we actually had an actor on the set that the guys could relate to. And going back through the movie, thinking about where the actors had to work with digital and where they had to work with prosthetics, I remember one of the best scenes in the movie is where Paul is flopping around on the ground after seeing the spider creature. We hadn’t finished the spider creature yet, so Paul was just bringing that out of his acting talents.
PG: I had seen what the spider creature was going to look like. That kind of thing is your job, to act freaked out. And it was fun to be able to do the moment you see in movies of the guy who goes “Guah!” [Freezes in mock terror]