Best described somewhere on the Blu-ray extras as ’Bill and Ted’s Naked Lunch’, John Dies at the End is the latest Don Coscarelli film in a nigh-on 40-year body of work. He doesn’t make perfect films, the early ones tend to oscillate between ramshackle goofiness and arresting surrealism, but he does make winningly inventive ones, crafted against the odds on tight budgets. Phantasm and Beastmaster are genuine cult classics, and hell, if you don’t love Bubba Ho-Tep there’s just something wrong with you.
In a phone interview conducted at 9am Los Angeles time, Mark Stafford talked to Don Coscarelli about filming a spider crowd massacre, the Presley estate’s reaction to Bubba Ho-Tep, and how Tarantino has changed indie filmmaking.
Mark Stafford: I first saw John Dies at the End at the London Film Festival a couple of years back. That was fantastic, but it’s been a long, long road to this DVD/Blu-ray. Was the cut you first screened at Sundance different to the LFF version?
Don Coscarelli: It was an interesting process because we filmed in digital format, so consequentially after every festival screening I was able to make adjustments to the movie. I showed it at Sundance and I made some changes, and we showed it at South By South West and made some more changes, and probably by the time we showed it in London that was the final version… I don’t think they’d let me make changes that late into the process.
It becomes clear watching the extras that you do a lot of takes. Was that always part of your process, or has the technology encouraged that?
As I’ve made more films I think I’ve made less takes. Early on I took a lot because I didn’t have confidence in myself. It was always: ‘that was pretty good, can we get a better one?’ But it all depends. Some actors, by the way, seem to get better the more takes they do, others get worse. It’s the actor. But I do like to shoot lots of takes because movies are like a puzzle that’s built in the editing room, and the more material you have to work with the better. Sometimes you’ll get an odd look from an actor during a take, which doesn’t have any meaning at the time, but that you can use in the edit to make a point. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many as Stanley Kubrick did…
John Dies at the End relies a lot on the casting, which is great. How long was the process? Did you get everybody you wanted?
Generally yes. I’d worked with a couple of the actors before, like Angus Scrimm. And I knew Paul Giamatti, and he came on board very early, to help also as a producer. There was a built-in challenge making this movie: we had limited resources, so I had to find some unknown guys for the two leads, and as a horror director the most terrifying part of making the movie was whether I could find those two actors. The first few days of casting I’d only seen actors who were wrong for the part, who’d just butcher the dialogue, and I began to question whether I could make the film. Luckily Chase Williamson wandered in, this guy who had just come out of college and had never been in anything at all. And then, to compound the challenge, first day of shooting he has to come in and shoot eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti as his first scene ever. It all worked out.
How much of the film was locked down on the page before shooting began? Some of the stuff on disc gives the impression of a film being made on the wing, on the fly…
I pretty much follow the script but sometimes the most interesting elements in a movie happen by accident, when one of your collaborators does something extraordinary. An actor, a set designer, a cameraman will do something with lighting, and you have to try to stay open. The challenge of making movies is that you have this finite amount of time. Every day you have your 12 hours to get the shots done, and you don’t always do it, and being an editor I know how crippled I’ll be if I don’t get those shots… So you want to have it pre-planned, you want to have it organised, and you also want to be spontaneous, but usually spontaneity takes time, to investigate where the spontaneity takes you. It’s a juggling act at all times, and just talking about it gets me exhausted.
I haven’t read John Dies at the End, the novel, but watching the film again I noticed how much it shares some bits of business with your other work, the interdimensional travel, insects, the way that Phantasm has a severed finger and John Dies at the End has a couple of pills that turn into flying bugs…
Reading the book was exciting for me. What was nice about it was this brilliant young author exploring themes and topics that I’ve been interested in for decades, but with this fresh voice, especially the way he writes dialogue. I thought the book handled those themes in a way that would connect with a modern audience. So I jumped at the chance to get the rights and make a film out of it. Then it became a challenge because he had so many wonderful ideas, and unless you’re Coppola or Cameron or Scorsese, who can make three-hour movies, you’re limited to a very tight time frame of maybe 90-100 minutes. Trying to find a way to shoehorn that book into a tight screenplay was difficult. I had to leave a lot of good stuff behind, unfortunately.
You said onstage at the LFF that your method was to go through the book and cut out anything that cost a million dollars.
That’s true, there were things that, with a huge effort, we could still never really approach. Still, I did look for ways to do that. There was this massive sequence in the book that I just loved (the spider trench massacre), and there was just no way we could create that in the movie. But I was able to get a friend of mine (David Hartman) to come in and do a little animated version of that sequence. Though I was worried for a while that that wouldn’t be accepted by fans of the book…
John Dies at the End is based on David Wong’s novel, Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story. Is there a pile of books by your bed waiting to be adapted?
There aren’t that many. It’s hard to find a book that suits my taste and where I can see a viable path to getting it funded and made. What was great about the Joe Lansdale story was that, other than the mummy, it was a pretty simple story that you could make on a budget. Some of the best moments of that film are just the two actors talking in the bedroom, and that’s pretty simple to shoot. I’m always looking for something like that. John Dies at the End is a lot more ambitious but I’m always reading, looking for projects.
Did you ever get any reaction from the Presley estate to Bubba?
We did get a reaction, I don’t know how legitimate this story is. We were always a little concerned that we’d gone too far with the movie and that we’d get an adverse reaction from the estate. I don’t think it’s any secret that they guard their intellectual property, trademarks and images very carefully. Luckily, I’m assuming, they approached it like everyone else did, that Bubba Ho-Tep was a piece of fiction, a parody. But I did hear that one of the folks who worked on our crew called over there just before the movie came out to see if they could get co-sponsorship on some kind of promotion. It was a completely ill-advised move and I was really angry when I found out about it. But apparently, when they called the response that they got was just, ‘oh, we’ve heard about that movie, we really want to see it!’ The thing is that the movie and the book had a really good spirit, and despite the state, the terrible predicament Elvis is in Bubba, we really did treat him and his legacy respectfully. I think we all looked to the better side of Elvis. That was the very nature of it, we couldn’t accept the fact that Elvis died the way he reportedly did. We had to say, ’he was the man, he wouldn’t go out, wouldn’t die that way! He had to die on his feet kicking mummy arse!’
You’ve been an independent filmmaker for 40 years, what do you think’s changed the most over that time?
There have been all kinds of changes. I think the worst is that it’s just much more difficult to get films funded these days. There used to be a lot less films being made. It’s all Quentin Tarantino’s fault, for making being an independent filmmaker cool. Millions of young people across the world decided ‘I’m gonna be a director!’ They’re all making movies and the competition is fierce. It seems to me that back in the day there was a lot more experimentation, a lot more willingness to take risks. There were always young filmmakers out there trying to figure out some new way of making a movie, it was exciting. There were a lot of movies that were popular back then, but wouldn’t be considered viable now, like The Last Picture Show or, say the Truffaut movies that were very simple but not exploitative, and they seem to have gone away.
I once interviewed Franco Nero, talking about the 60s, and all his stories seemed to be like ‘my hairdresser mentioned to me that her boyfriend had written a script,’ and four weeks later they’re shooting a movie. These days everything seems to take years. I asked him what the difference was between then and now, and he said ‘We used to have producers.’
There’s something to that. It’s gotten strange in that the divide has grown. There used to be a lot of pictures in the middle range, or lower middle range. These days you have the micro-budget on one side and the mega-budget on the other, so you either have to make your movie for two bucks or for two hundred million. That limits the kind of movies that can be made.
Interview by Mark Stafford