He’s the master and creator of one of the scariest iconic villains put to screen, not to mention the deadly skull-drilling spheres, and he’s back with the action-packed JOHN DIES AT THE END. It can only be the legend that is Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli! We were privileged to have an exclusive interview with the auteur to discuss book adaptations, different dimensions and whether Reggie the ice-cream man will be back for one final battle against The Tall Man.
HCF: Hi Don, thanks for speaking to us today. How did the story of John Dies At The End come to your attention?
Don: This is actually a true story. I’d bought a couple of books from an interesting publisher called Permuted Press, who publish a lot of zombie fiction and weird stuff. One day in my email inbox, I got an email from a robot at Amazon, who told me that if I liked the last book that I bought, that I would love John Dies At The End. It’s funny that the robot was right. When I read the description of it and the line about the street drug called ‘Soy Sauce’, I immediately bought the book and the whole time I was reading it I was thinking “this would make a great movie”.
As you’ve written previous films, did it feel restricting to direct somebody elses story with John Dies at the End? Did you feel a pressure to maintain their vision or did you have free reign over the project?
The first book – actually it was a short story novella – that I adapted, was Bubba Ho-Tep. I really loved the original work. I treated it very respectfully and I think that carried over to John Dies at the End, because the author, David Wong, has a very unique voice. I think he’s brilliant. So I did everything I could to maintain the tone of his work and you know, of course, it was a challenge because there was a wealth of material in this very large book and I had to squeeze it into a tight movie-like story. I was forced to do some surgery on his book, but I was very gratified that he liked the movie afterwards. That made me feel like I did the right thing.
With my previous movie, Bubba Ho-Tep, I know that author Joe Lansdale really liked it a lot. I think if you’re gonna make the effort to acquire a book, why totally re-envision it? That’s sort of my opinion.
Did David Wong work with you during filming?
He’d just took on a job at a website called cracked.com and it was a terrible amount of work. It’s still a vast amount of work. No, I went ahead and adapted it on my own but I do remember that when I was looking at the book, I had a plan for how to attack it, and out of curiousity, I asked him to send me his comments on how he would attack the book. It was funny that both of our plans turned out to be relatively identical, so in a way I was following the directions that he had suggested.
I believe David Wong has wrote a sequel to John Dies at the End, called ‘This Book Is Full Of Spiders – Seriously Dude Don’t Touch It!’. Would you return to direct and adapt the sequel if it was offered?
I loved working in that world. I think he’s brilliant, I thought the sequel was brilliant. I would love to work with some of the actors that were in the original film again, but I think it’s a little premature as the movie’s still rolling out internationally. We’d see if there was interest from the financiers in a sequel. I can tell you that I’ve already been solicited about a television series based on it. So there might be other options for John Dies At The End, going forward.
How did Paul Giamatti get involved with John Dies At The End?
It was a wonderful stroke of luck. Paul said he was walking in New York city one day and saw a poster for Bubba Ho-Tep and it looked interesting, so he went in, watched the movie and he really liked it a lot. About a year or two later, somebody gave me an interview with him where they asked him which director he wanted to work with and he said my name. [laughs] I was quite surprised because he said he really loved Bubba Ho-Tep, so I got a chance to meet him and we talked. At one point, I was trying to get him involved with a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep. It may still happen one day, but it didn’t quite come together. Then the robot from Amazon sent me that email and as I was reading that book, I was thinking “oh, there’s this great role of a reporter that would be perfect for Paul” and I gave him the script after I’d finished it. In Paul’s day job, he stars in a lot of these Academy award-winning movies and more intellectual stuff, but he likes horror and genre and he liked the David Wong story. So that’s how we got him on. He very kindly came on board. He’s got a production company and they assisted with some financing and distribution, so it was just great.
I also saw that Angus Scrimm made an appearance in John Dies At The End, which was nice to see.
Yes, well I’ve been working with Angus for a number of decades now and I think he’s just a great actor and I might have conspired to get him stuck in the horror genre with Phantasm, because once he played that role, from then on everyone considered him the next Vincent Price or the next Boris Karloff. Angus has a lot of range as an actor and so when I read that role of the priest, I thought it’d be a fun role to get Angus in for. He’s a wonderful actor.
Will Angus and Reggie Bannister be reuniting at all for a fifth Phantasm film? Will we be seeing one in the future?
Well, you know, here’s the thing. Whilst dealing with publicity for John Dies At The End, so many folks ask me about Phantasm V. I don’t know, cos with 4 I thought I’d wrapped it up pretty good. [laughs] But now I see that folks really want to see a Phantasm 5. They’re less interested in a remake or a different Phantasm with other actors. They want another Phantasm with the same actors. I’m still friends with all of them. Angus and Reggie Bannister still look great. And so we’ve been talking about trying to get something together. 2014 is going to be a good year for Phantasm because of the 35th anniversary, if you can believe it, from the release of the original movie. We got a couple of things we’re hooking up, so hopefully this’ll be the year for it. *
As a fan myself, and speaking to other fans, I think we invest ourselves in the characters of Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man and Reggie. We’ve got to know them throughout the four films, and like you said, I think people just want an extra film with them in. We enjoy seeing them on screen.
It’s great that you say that. When I think about it, I’m in such a peculiar predicament in terms of Phantasm. It’s gone on for so many years and we’ve made so many movies. I spend a lot of time with Phantasm fans, ‘cos I get to meet them at horror conventions, and they’re so intelligent and so kind. It’s almost like I’ve become a Phantasm fan too. I would love nothing more than to see three or four Phantasm movies, and sit down and watch them, it’s just very difficult to make. We’ve just never had the kind of funding that some of the other franchises, where they were given $10 or $15 million to make them. I think the last Friday the 13th they spent $20/$25 million on. The most expensive Phantasm movie we ever made, which was Phantasm 2, was $3 million. It’s a real struggle. I hear you loud and clear. We gotta get something going!
I came up with an idea myself for a new Phantasm film. A couple of years ago I had the good fortune of interviewing Dyanne Thorne who played Ilsa in She-Wolf of the SS and the sequels. I thought Ilsa vs the Tall Man, with Reggie battling them both, would be an interesting concept.
That would be awesome. That would be really wonderful. Over the years they’ve made these Freddy vs Jason movies, and they wanted to make Freddy vs Ash (Evil Dead). I always thought it’d be great fun to get The Tall Man to play off one of those guys. No-one ever suggested Ilsa. That’s an original one. Thank you for that.
Oh, I’d love to see that! Please do!
[laughs] Yeah, she’s great.
I’ve noticed in your films you use a lot of practical effects as well as digital. Practical effects in general are being used less and less in movies. Is it important to you to keep the practical effects aspect alive?
In some respects, yes, because there’s such a great tradition, and its traditionally used in horror movies, going back to Lon Chaney, the Man with a Thousand Faces. He could wear make-up like nobody else. I would hate for it to go away forever, but I just see it as a different tool set. Digital effects can be wonderful in terms of enlarging a set or you can paint the sky out and put in dark clouds. I think spheres, like in the Phantasm films, can translate well to digital. When you get to things like creatures and what have you… I dunno. To be honest with you, there are a number of movies out there, and I’m not going to criticise any horror filmmakers, but they make movies and they make the entire movie rely on a digital creature, and sometimes those things fall flat in my mind because there’s no reality to it. You know when they make Alien movies and the Predator movies nowadays? If you want running, crawling aliens you got to go digital but when someone is fighting face-to-face with an alien, it’s got to be something tangible. You got to use those tools correctly, in my humble opinion.
Anything that has to do with gore, I think it’s much better when there’s bits flying everywhere rather than being digitally added in.
It is funny, that’s one point how horror fans are starting to get very familiar with the difference between real blood effects and digital bursts of blood. It just doesn’t have the same effect.
I’ve noticed there seems to be a running theme in your movies of protagonists battling enemies from different times, universes and dimensions – like Mike fighting the Tall Man in Phantasm, Elvis battling the Mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep and Dave and John fighting creatures from a different universe in John Dies At The End. Is that a conscious decision when writing stories or, in the case of John Dies at the End, producing them?
You know, I don’t think anything I do is conscious. [laughs] There are things that I like, you know. Now that you mention that, it’s an interesting theme. Not many people have asked me about that. I just go back to movies that I like when I was a boy, I really liked this film called Invaders from Mars. You know, when the ship lands in the kid’s back yard. I dunno… I guess they’re kind of the stories that I’ve always enjoyed and I tend to respond to them. I think stories like that, like Phantasm, it’s easier to get funding for them. So it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways.
I suppose if you enjoy those films yourself, it’s somewhat easier to make or write them?
Yeah. I do have a lot of interests outside of horror. I grew up on horror, I love horror and science fiction, and anything fantasy or genre. It’s difficult for me to get funding through for projects. I’d love to do a World War II movie but I don’t know if that’s on the cards.
Thanks for answering our questions, Don!
It’s been great talking to you and thank you so much for supporting John Dies At The End!
JOHN DIES AT THE END is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon and all good DVD/Blu-Ray stores in the UK from 17th February 2014.
If you’re looking to get some cool special features, then we heartily suggest the Blu-Ray! Make sure to read our review too!
*Don’t miss the Phantasm 35th Anniversary reunion too at Flashback Weekend, Chicago on 8-10th August 2014.