Dialogue: 'John Dies at the End' Director Don Coscarelli Explains Why He Makes Every Movie Like It's His Last

Dialogue: 'John Dies at the End' Director Don Coscarelli Explains Why He Makes Every Movie Like It's His Last

Jan 10, 2013

It's been over 30 years since Don Coscarelli made Phantasm, but you'd never know it judging by the sheer energy on display in his latest film, John Dies at the End. The same wry sense of humor, the love for often immature but out-of-this-world ideas and characters, the same kinetic camera work and bold creature design-- it's all still there. And that's not to say that he's stagnated as a director. Quite the opposite, really: Unlike some of his peers, he's still taking risks and making the movies he wants to.

Unfortunately the movies Coscarelli wants to make aren't exactly mainstream. John Dies at the End is about a pair of friends who take a drug that allows them to trip across time and dimensions and do battle with abominations from beyond that are threatening life on Earth, like a flying mustache or a monster made of frozen meat. It is unapologetically strange, and even if that's not your bag, you've got to give the man credit for fighting tooth and nail to make movies no one else is.

And he really does have to fight to not only get each and every one of his movies made, but to even get them seen. You'd think that after a career that includes immensely loved films like Phantasm, Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-tep, Coscarelli would be taking the safe and easy route. But he isn't, though, and it's awareness of the position he's in that makes him a fascinating filmmaker. And it's precisely why you need to give John Dies at the End a shot on VOD now or in theaters on January 25.

Movies.com: Do you find the challenges of doing something like a Masters of Horror episode or John Dies at the End more interesting at this stage of your career?

Don Coscarelli: [Laughs] I guess interesting is one way to describe it. Frustrating is another. The movies I've made and have been attracted to... not everyone gets the kind of stuff that I like. Certainly the folks who run studios don't, and so it's always been a struggle to get any mainstream financing.

Movies.com: Was it a more frustrating experience to get John Dies made than it was to get Phantasm made?

Coscarelli: That's an interesting question. It's hard to comment on John Dies because the jury is still out on how it's going to ultimately perform and whether it with burnish my career in the eyes of the big shots or not. Early indication is it's doing okay.

Movies.com: Do you consider John Dies at the End a horror movie?

Coscarelli: Well, it's a genre mash-up. It's horror, sure. It's comedy, yeah. And it's just plain strange all over. It really defies description, and that's what I liked about it when I read the novel. It starts off like it's going to be Clerks or Bill & Ted even, just focusing on two guys before it takes some turns, meets some incredible characters and pretty soon is an insane Alice in Wonderland story of sorts. It's challenging, so thank God some folks seem to respond to it. Believe me, when I was making the movie, a lot of the time I was wondering if I'd not bit off more than I could possibly chew. But some people seem to like it.

The director, right, goes over the John Dies script with star Paul Giamatti

Movies.com: Knowing that you made changes to it after its Sundance premiere and after SXSW, when is a film finished to you? What's the line in the sand where you have to say, "I'm done. No more tinkering"?

Coscarelli: Well, there's a movie I made in 1989 that I'm just looking for the opportunity to get back in to and I've recut it twice in the last 20 years. So, on the one hand, there are movies like Star Wars where George Lucas receives a ton of criticism for monkeying with it. And I understand the criticism, but I also understand the pain that a filmmaker feels watching his film over and over and thinking, "Oh, I could have fixed that. That could have been better." I hope I'm never put into the position where I have the opportunity to go back and rework Phantasm. [Laughs]

I pretty much stopped as of Toronto. Only a filmmaker with balls will go to Sundance and use it as a test screening. So, yeah, I learned a lot from that and I acted on it, and I think it played a lot better at SXSW.  But it brings up the question of working in digital. Wow, it's so much easier. If you can show at these festivals on an HD Cam, I could go in, make snips, and just output a new HD Cam tape. It may cost $300-400 dollars, but versus $20,000? What filmmaker can restrain themselves?

You get these big audiences and big theaters and if you're taking notes, you'll see there are moments you can tinker with a little bit. Plus, you have the added bonus that every time you're screening it, you can honestly tell the audience they're seeing a brand new cut. And genre fans enjoy that.

Movies.com: Do you think that may become a trend with indie filmmakers?

Coscarelli: It's a fantastic opportunity that's been presented, at least in terms of editing. Distribution is so much easier now. Magnolia's Magnet Releasing, our distributor, in anticipation of the John Dies at the End theatrical run, they're going to do a dozen or so midnights of Bubba Ho-Tep in theaters the week before as a bit of promotion. Now it's possible to screen in theaters on a high quality Blu-ray Disc and it looks pretty damned good. 

Now that you've opened up the subject, it's a completely different question if digital is better aesthetically. I'm really looking forward to Keanu Reeves' documentary Side by Side. In the last couple weeks I've sat through a color correction session on Phantasm 2, which was made 100% analog on film, and that movie really looked good. It's all changed and we're not going back. The stalwarts, the Spielbergs and all those guys, even they won't have a choice.

Movies.com: Was that for a Phantasm 2 Blu-ray?

Coscarelli: Yeah, Shout Factory is putting it out in March. That's going to be pretty cool.

Movies.com: Getting back to John Dies, what was the one scene you read where you thought, "I'm sold. This is what I need to do next."?

Coscarelli: It's really the opening of the book, and I hope the movie, that grabs you. Movies can really be effective if they have cascading sequences where one cool scene builds onto another, and if you see that in a novel, you see the possibilities. We go from that opening sequence to this basement where pieces of meat articulating itself into a monster, and prior to that a girl turning into something we won't give away, and these boys trying to escape this basement and the door turning into something we won't talk about. You have these layers of great moments built into the story, and once I read that, I was reading the rest of the book thinking, "Don't fall apart! Hang together!" I was cheerleading the book, which does go into some strange places and takes some sharp left turns.

Movies.com: Is there more material from the book that had to be left out purely for logistical reasons?

Coscarelli: Yeah, there's a wealth of material left over.

Movies.com: And David Wong has already written a sequel, right?

Coscarelli: Yeah, it was published a couple months ago and is called This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It. He's really tapped into something. David Wong is a very clever guy. I expect to be reading great stuff from him for years to come.

Movies.com: When you're not marketing a movie solo, what is a day in the life of Don Coscarelli like?

Coscarelli: Hey, I'm a normal family guy. I've got two kids, four dogs, and a lovely wife who all occupy a lot of my time. Unfortunately John Dies at the End was a massive project and I didn't realize how ambitious it was – I mean, I was feeling it all throughout, but a couple weeks ago I was flipping through the TV and Bubba Ho-Tep was on this MGM channel. I watched about a half hour of it and realized what a simple movie it was. Really, it was. Elvis is talking to the president. Then he's talking to the nurse. Then he sees the mummy. Then he goes back to his bedroom.

John Dies at the End is just so ambitious in terms of everything it required. It was just three years of constant work. Then we had to get distribution, and that took a while. And then continuing to promote, because I've realized that with independent distributors, the resources just aren't there to force feed it to the audience. You have to be very entrepreneurial and aware of any possible promotional opportunities to get it busted out into the mainstream.

Movies.com: Is there one thing you wish people knew about John Dies at the End?

Coscarelli: Other than just basic awareness, I want people to know it has a great sense of humor about it. At the same time, it's got some really interesting moments of philosophy.  Some of the visual material focuses a little more on the action and special effects and monsters and all that, but there's a lot of subtle humor in there. I'd also like it to get out that I think it holds up well to repeated viewings. 

Movies.com: At this stage in your career your films are still more unique and energetic than the similar films that some of your early career peers are making these days. What hasn't changed since you've first started making films?

Coscarelli: I think in some respects I'm a bit immature, so consequently I embrace the younger generation and can appreciate, I think, what they find funny and interesting. That's part of it. The other part of it is that I've been fortunate, especially for the last two movies, of coming across wonderful material and finding a way to make it. But the business is so... listen, I've watched films of fellow filmmakers that are god-awful, but there will never be a day when I say that to them, because the thing is it's such an impossible challenge to make a movie.

Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. When you're out there making a movie, you have a very indistinct path through a very dark woods and you're stumbling through it and hopefully you'll come out into the light. But sometimes you don't. And it's not because some folks are inferior filmmakers. It has to do with financing issues, creative inferences, problems with actors-- all kinds of issues that can destroy a film. People who finish films, you have to give them some level of credit just for doing that. But, I also understand audiences who pay $10 and sit through things that only want to make them voice their displeasure.

Movies.com: Knowing how people have embraced Phantasm and Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, and now that that portion of your career is kind of locked up, how do you balance your established base with what you want to do in the future? Do you cling to that base or do you want to spin wildly away from it?

Coscarelli: It's something I'm grappling with right now because I really don't know what I'm doing next. You can never forget that we don't work in a vacuum. If you make a movie that doesn't make any money, good luck making another one. I've approached every movie in my career like it's my last, because the reality is there is an excellent chance I could never get funding again and this is my absolute last shot at it so I'm going to work my ass off to make it the best possible film I can.

I'll tell you I have a broad array of interest in non-genre. I'd love to do a WWII film. I'd love to do a drama or a romance, or even just a straight comedy. I think my comedy is good in Bubba. Even Phantasm has a good sense of humor. But if there's a Judd Apatow-like script out there, they're not going to let me direct that. I think I could do a great one, though.

I do learn a lot from my own work. I had an opportunity recently at the Sitges festival in Spain, which ran Phantasm a few months ago. I realized that I've been making movies with too much talking in them. So I want to go back and try to make a film that's very lean and spare and tells stories much in the same way Brian De Palma did in his heyday, with just moving cameras. 

Movies.com: And do you have that yet?

Coscarelli: I don't have anything planned. As you get a little older you realize you're not going to make movies forever, so I want to try to make something that's unique and different if I can find whatever that would be. How's that for a vague answer?

 

John Dies at the End is now on video on demand and will be in limited theaters January 25. Please check it out.

 

Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.

Categories: Interviews, Indie, Horror
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