This was the first interview I did a few years. I called up Don Coscarelli (director of Phantasm series, Bubba Ho-Tep, The Beastmaster) to ask him some questions about his latest film John Dies At the End and some other questions about his work in general.
Ian – Hi Don, this is Ian Schultz. How are you doing today? It’s morning there, isn’t it?
Don It’s about 9 am. It’s a nice day, looks like it ‘s not going to be too cold.
How is it over there
Ian I’m in Leeds, its ok – its not super cold.
Don So yes, I hear there’s going to be releasing John Dies at the End in the UK.
Ian Asda, which is like the UK Walmart, did an exclusive DVD release, then it’s coming out in Blu-Ray next month
Don Is that a traditional way of doing things?
Ian No, I think they wanted a copy out so they can get some cheap copies out and then if people like it they can get the Blu-Ray. Just so they can get some copies out in time and get some buzz going for it. I actually saw the film back in 2012 when it played the Leeds Film Festival.
Don Oh yeah, I heard that it had played there, I wasn’t able to come over personally for that one.
Ian It was a very late screening, a right before midnight sort of screening.
Don Yeah, that’s a problem that we face which has […] differently with all [?] my other movies, it always gets put into the midnight programme. John Dies at the End is a complicated film and I try to imagine audience members trying to comprehend it at 1:30 in the morning…
Ian Yeah, I’ve seen it a couple of times, and it definitely does hold up much more on a second viewing. It’s so crazy you need to see it two or three times to really get what’s going on.
Don Yeah, all the answers are in there, you just have to look for them!
Ian How do you think European audiences will receive it compared to the US audiences?
Don Generally I think that the European response that I know about… I saw it at the Londoo Film Festival, and the response was excellent —I didn’t see it as much different from America. I feel that neither audience didn’t get it, any more than the American audiences didn’t get it. Some folks prefer movies that are absurd, strange or different, and a lot of folks just don’t like that at all. And so,, you just have to be prepared. But I can laugh about it—Almost every one of the movies that I’ve ever made gets that kind of response. there’s folks that love ‘em and folks that just don’t get ‘em at all I mean, there are people talking about Phantasm achieving “classic” status now but boy, I can remember some terrible reviews when that came out.
Ian Yeah, I remember when Bubba Ho-Tep came out, most of the reviews were pretty good but there were a couple, maybe two, three star ones that said “It’s OK but it’s not great…”
Don Yeah, its funny how that works. In any case it does seem that folks, a certain portion really like the movie a lot so that’s fine.
Ian What appealed to you about the book initially?
Don Well, what really appealed to me was that I felt the author, David Wong, had a very distinctive voice that felt very current to me in terms of the way he depicted young people. They were a lot more apathetic. The way he would respond… In previous generations if a monster shows up the young person screams and runs out of the room, or gets a weapon and tries to fight it. In Wong’s world, its more like the characters sort of size up the monster and “well that’s different,” you know. Just the interesting tone that he had, I felt it was something fun, something I could…
Ian Sort of like Stephen King meets Philip Dick in a way
Don The dimensions of the thing are strange and even, you know, there’s William Burroughs the weird stuff.
Ian Definitely, definitely.
Don Well, it’s the kind of thing I enjoy, and also the book just has a wicked sense of humour about it!
Ian Yeah, that the [same] thing with Philip K Dick, that he has such a great sense of humour about everything.
Don Oh my god yeah, well, he’s the master, and I’m just a huge fan of his work. And I sure would love to make a Philip Dick book into a movie sometime.
Ian Well, there’s not been that many good ones, so there’s a market there.
Don Well they really haven’t, and there are still a number of great books out there that haven’t been touched.
Ian I’ve heard Ubik will be the next one, I think. Michel Gondry has the rights to it, which should be interesting.
Don Well he’s been working in that field for a while, making Dickian movies.
Ian I know Gilliam’s been wanting to do one as well for quite a long time
Don Oh yeah, for sure. It’s funny, those directors that you mention make movies that are very strange. And some folks love them and some folks don’t get them. But it sure it better than going to one of these… far be if from me to comment on whatever filmmakers are making, but the studio movies that are coming out are not that challenging it would seem anymore, even the comedies seem to be done by the book. So when I see a movie like one of those you mentioned, well I race out to see it!
Ian Yeah, definitely! The film is full of lots of great character actors, like Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, and Doug Jones. What was the most surprising thing they brought to their roles?
Don Each one of them had something surprising. Paul Giamatti wanted to play Arnie as an overweight, full-of-himself character, which was a bit of surprise. I was so amazed that Paul was happy to wear clothes that were too tight, that made his stomach stick out. Now that’s a great actor, it’s something I would never do on film! Clancy Brown showed up and had this strange accent that he wanted to use for Dr Marconi that I thought was amazing.
Ian Yeah, that was perfect, absolutely great!
Don And Doug Jones is just an amazing individual, if you ever get a chance to meet him. The way I cast John Dies at the End, honestly, was. I went to a horror convention and I was sitting in one of the autograph areas all day one day. There weren’t that many people at the convention and I was watching the table across the way with Doug jones, and so I watched him most of the afternoon, and I was so impressed with how fans just love him. They’d come over to him and each one he gets up, comes around the table, give them a big hug, and they kiss him, and they’d think he’s a greatest. His fans love him, and he’s just a special-looking guy, and just really couldn’t wait to try to figure out a movie role to try to get him into.
Ian What were any specific films or filmmakers you were looking at when you were looking for the look of the film?
Don Hmm, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure if I was really trying to…you know, some of my other films I have really focused on something that I would use as an overall style. [This time] I don’t think I was really conscious of selecting a movie to use as an influence, I wish I could give you one title that I followed in that respect. You know, the budget was tight so there wasn’t a lot of latitude in terms of art direction. I found a guy called Todd Jeffery that I had never worked with before. He just had some amazing drawings that he brought me and I just really went with his vision in a lot of respects. One thing that I really liked about him was that we’re going to spend so much time in the Chinese restaurant, that Todd suggested that we take a big portion of our set design budget and put it in the Chinese restaurant.
Ian Yeah, you can definitely tell, that’s beautifully designed.
Don Yeah, there are different areas, design-wise and look-wise, because the first feature film id ever done—I should say the first feature movie I’ve ever done—that was not shot on film, everything looks a little different than I expected, but it was a good learning experience for me.
Ian What was the most surprising thing that happened during the making of the film?
Don What was surprising? Well, I guess that we were able to make that monster out of meat work—that was something that we were grappling with throughout the movie, throughout the pre-production. How would we make this into an actual creature that worked? Todd was looking at making it a digital construct, and then I had a couple designers do designs and I saw that we could do it as a man in a makeup suit. Then it was just a matter of how to get all those meat pieces that assemble themselves, and that actually worked out well. I wish you could have seen how we did it, it was just all done old-school using pieces of rubber meat on fishing line pulling them around on the floor of a basement, making some of some of them in fast motion, making some of them reverse. And it came together really nicely.
One of the other surprises: throughout the entire movie we were struggling because we needed to find a place to shoot that deserted mall. And we couldn’t find anything in Los Angeles that we could shoot at. At one point we were going to try to build that whole thing in our little warehouse—it just would have never worked. We used the Craigslist over here to put an ad, “does anybody know where there’s an empty mall?” And some gal wrote in and said, “for a fee I can take you to an abandoned mall that’s available.” We had to pay her $300, and she took us like ten minutes away there was just a perfect abandoned mall, it was like a week before we shot so it was just fantastic to find that.
Ian When you’re look at new scripts, what makes you sit up and pay attention? What makes you throw it in the trash right away?
Don Well I’m always looking for something different, you know, something that ‘s got some energy to it and surprises me. We’ve all seen so much filmed entertainment, television, movies, and what have you, books. We know every plotline, we know that at this point in a traditional story the girl’s going to come on in, and this point the boy’s going to find the girl, and it’s all going to wrap up in a happy ending. We’ve seen these stories over and over and over again. So when I find something that I’m reading and I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know what’s happening that always gets my attention. So often you can just watch a film and say I know what’s going to happen next – this guy’s going to betray her, and now they’re going to get back together. That was the beauty of that David Wong novel, I didn’t know what was coming on the next page.
Ian With Jim, the World’s Greatest you hold the record for being the youngest director to ever have his film bought by a major studio. How did you manage to sell it?
Don That was a long time ago, it’s hard to remember it was so long ago!
Listen, it was an amazing story. I only could have done that when I was in my late teens and early 20s, it wouldn’t work now. I made the movie with my neighborhood friends and got my father to put up a few thousand dollars, and we shot this movie. It was a different time back then… Very few people were making independent movies. My father actually was getting worried because he was afraid he was going to lose his money and he started calling up the Los Angeles Times film critic, a man called Charles Champlin. Champlin was a great guy and would take a phone call and talked to him. He said, “well have your son show me the movie and maybe I’ll have some ideas.”
So we had this big rough cut version of the movie and we screened it for Mr. Champlin, and he didn’t seem all that impressed, it was a kind of a let down after we had this big run up to the screening. But the following Monday he called and said, “I had lunch with the president of Universal Pictures and he wants to see the movie. Send it over to his house this weekend.” So we packed the movie up and took it over to Beverley Hills to his private screening room. He watched it and he liked it, and Universal bought the movie and gave us the money to do all the post-production, shoot a few more days, and clean it up. It was just an amazing education—like, [make] a total student film and get an office on the Universal lot!
Personally the movie didn’t make any money, so I lost my office on the lot, and I’ve been working my way downward ever since—but it was an exciting time for a young guy, I’ll tell ya!
Ian And my final question is what is your next project—and if budget constraints were no problem, what would be your dream project?
Don If budget constraints weren’t a problem… well, I would love to do what Christopher Nolan is doing now, a major interstellar science fiction movie, part 2001, part Star Wars.
Ian Yeah that one sounds amazing, it should be fantastic.
Don Yeah it really sounds great, I can’t wait to see that one!
But, well, I haven’t started a new film yet, I’ve been working on a couple different scripts, trying to fine-tune which one will be the best one in terms of financing. In America a lot of folks, filmmakers, are finding it easier to get funding and control in the cable television markets. So I’m proposing a couple of projects and the next few months I’ll be out soliciting. Hopefully I’ll find an intelligent visionary network who will give me some coin to make another movie, or something like that. That’s what I’m up to.