Interview: Don Coscarelli On 'John Dies At The End'

"John Dies At the End" stars Rob Mayes (John), Chase Williamson (Dave), and Allison Weissman (Amy)

Writer-director and jack-of-all-trades indie filmmaker has been making some variation of "John Dies At the End" for 30-odd years now. Or, that's to say, the works of Coscarelli are imprinted in the DNA of David Wong's cult novel turned film. The man who created Phantasm, flying silver murder orbs, killer robed dwarves, and the seemingly immortal Tall Man was an obvious match for the material when the question of who would bring Wong's book to the screen.

When I tell him at the start of the call that I'm a longtime fan, the self-effacing director says with a laugh that it's exciting to hear--it's not like he gets a ton of recognition. He has his fans: chances are, if you read this site and somehow haven't seen one of the four "Phantasm" films (a fifth movie or possible reboot has been rumored for years), you've seen one of the approximately 6,000 repeat showings of his sole venture into sword and sorcery with 1982's "The Beastmaster." Horror filmmaker Mick Garris seemed to think he had the chops, tapping Coscarelli to write and direct one of the strongest episodes of the short-lived series "Masters of Horror," bringing Joe. R. Lansdale's short story "Incident on and Off a Mountain Road" to the small screen back in 2005.

As for his current project, he's thankful for Magnolia Films, which is releasing "John Dies At the End" theatrically this week, crediting the distributor with supporting smaller genre films down to a science. Still, he adds, "Our advertising isn't a major component of things, so we're just kind of reliant on any kind of publicity we can get." Describing the project as "audaciously bizarre," Coscarelli hopes that its reputation might be enough to get butts into seats over the weekend.

You kind of have to wonder what sort of career Coscarelli would have had with the still new Video On Demand releasing strategy in place when he was promoting "Phantasm" back in the late 70's (after much toil and a little help from his friends, it was finally released in 1979). His work is often tough to pin down, both in terms of plot and genre, often finding small, very loyal audiences who might not see the movie until well after the initial release (1988's "Phantasm II" will have a chance at getting a new audience when Scream Factory brings it to Blu-ray in March).

Has it gotten easier for him to get the niche films he loves to make in front of audiences? "To promote the movies, it's gotten super-easy," he tells me. "The rise of the Internet and the support of the genre and geek nation make it easy to publicize movies that are a little different and edgy." But when it comes to getting the money for his visions, "It used to be hard, now it's impossible." He points to the "hard realities" of the demise of the DVD business and the overall hit that film funding has taken in recent years has made people willing to spend money of a horror movie a little more cautious than in years past.

Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli

When I spoke to executive producer and "John Dies At the End" co-star Paul Giamatti, he said if anyone could get this film made, it would be the guy who scrounged together the funds for a movie about an elderly Elvis waiting out his twilight years in a nursing home only to come up against a murderous mummy.

In spite of all the challenges, he sought the challenge of "John Dies At the End" out after being impressed by the source material. On its appeal, he asks "What is it? Is it the talking dog or the monster made of freezer meats? A sentient drug that chooses you? A bratwurst cellphone?" Trust me, all of these disparate pieces make sense in the supernaturally drug-addled world of the book and film, both of which smartly find the right balance of calling attention to the weirdness without hammering it over the viewer's head. Coscarelli describes author and writer David Wong as "brilliant" (you might have been one of the legions of people sharing links to Wong's essay last year, "6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person"), saying that on reading the first book, his immediate thought was that it would "make a kick-ass movie."

Looking back at some of the themes and ideas of his earlier work ("Phantasm" is, in its way of coming-of-age story about a young boy and his first brush with death, for instance, while "Bubba Ho-Tep" is about aging and growing old), I asked what he thought was running under the surface of "John Dies At the End." He says he struggled with some of the broader, cosmic philosophical questions at the core of the source material and his screenplay which question the nature of faith, personal responsibility, and even the nature of the soul. It's heady stuff for a movie with a high, gruesome body count and a dog behind the wheel of a truck.

So a veteran director chooses his material (or it chooses him, maybe), and gets Paul Giamatti on-board to produce it. The next step was casting the thing, a process Coscarelli describes as "terrifying." While the film is packed with veteran performers like Glynn Turman, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones, Coscarelli settled on a pair of newcomers for the lead roles of narrator/protagonist Dave and his hard-drinking, let's say chaotic good (if we're checking his alignment) friend, John.

Constrained by the modest budget, he had to go with a pair of unknowns--that's not a knock against Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes (John), just the reality of making a genre movie with a smaller budget. It just worked out that Coscarelli has an eye for actors, getting two performers who were able to occupy the perpetually nonplussed Dave and the down-for-anything John.

"We have Chase Williamson walk through the door. The guy's just graduated from the University of Southern California Drama School, and he hasn't done a movie, hasn't done a TV show--nothing. And then he starts to read scenes from the script and he was just great." Coscarelli says Williamson is responsible for Bringing David's narration to life, one part story, one part real-time reaction to the terrible weirdness that has crept into his character's life. "He started reading that narration and I thought, 'Wow, this cold really be a movie! This might be a really good movie with this kid in it.'"

Williamson had something of a trial-by-fire in his first day of shooting, Coscarelli tells me, thanks to scheduling conflicts having to spend his first day on set working opposite an award-winning, veteran actor (that would be Giamatti) on eight pages of dialog. "It was wonderful, because the two guys just hit it."

This might not be the last we'll see of David Wong's characters. Producers Giamatti and Daniel Carey, after working together on Sophie Barthes's dry sci-fi soul swap comedy "Cold Souls," have been hustling to get some TV projects off the ground, recently entering into an agreement with the FX network. Coscarelli says there's nothing concrete and that it would all hinge on the commercial success of "John Dies At the End," but it's certainly a possibility that we could see John, Dave, Amy, and Molly the all-knowing dog on TV at some point in the future.

He's enthusiastic about the possibility, saying that "This could go on."

"John Dies At the End" hits screens nationwide from Magnolia Films and is also available now via VOD.

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