Here’s the problem with explaining how cool it is that veteran character actor Paul Giamatti and cult horror director Don Coscarelli (he of the “Phantasm” series) have joined forces to make a thoroughly deranged, time-stretching, alternate-universe, hallucinatory horror-comedy called “John Dies at the End.” Either you’re already incredibly excited by what I’ve just written, or your reaction is a bit more polite and confused — Don who? This isn’t making any sense — and you’re starting to back toward the door with a polite smile on your face.
Well, please don’t go yet, because if you do you’ll accidentally ingest a drug that will make you start receiving cellphone calls from dead people (channeled through hot dogs), be attacked by unreal police officers, undead street-talkin’ white boys and monsters assembled from a freezer-case full of frozen meat, and discover that what you thought was a defunct fast-food franchise in a dead shopping mall is actually a portal to another universe. Such is the simultaneously unsettling and ridiculous world of “John Dies at the End,” which was first a crackpot cult novel by David Wong (the nom de plume of humorist Jason Pargin), and has now been adapted for the screen by writer-director Coscarelli, one of the genuine underappreciated geniuses of American cinema.
I recently got to hang out with Coscarelli and Giamatti at the New York offices of Magnolia Pictures to talk about this unlikely and highly enjoyable movie and their strikingly different career arcs, which have intersected at long last. And it was pretty close to the most fun I’ve ever had doing an interview. I’ve excised various portions of the conversation that concerned various mechanical precursors to the Internet, and the fact that Nazi Germany pioneered a prototype version of broadcast television during World War II. (Those both sound like things out of “John Dies at the End,” but they’re actually true.)
Almost everyone knows Paul Giamatti, even if they don’t know they do. In a film and TV career that comprises something like 80 roles since the early 1990s, Giamatti has appeared in huge Hollywood hits and arty little indies. He has played John Adams (in the miniseries of the same name), Ben Bernanke (in the TV movie “Too Big to Fail”), Santa Claus (in 2007’s “Fred Claus”), Asterix the cartoon Gaul, and underground-comics legend Harvey Pekar (in the Oscar-nominated “American Splendor”).
Giamatti plays a modest but important supporting role in “John Dies at the End,” but arguably his executive-producer role on the film was more important. A hardcore film and literature buff with pronounced geek tendencies, Giamatti has rescued Coscarelli from a decade’s worth of obscurity and failed projects that followed his 2002 “Bubba Ho-Tep.” If you haven’t seen that movie, well, it’s perhaps even stranger and harder to summarize than “John Dies at the End.” You could say that it’s about Elvis and JFK, now senior citizens in nursing homes, doing battle with an ancient curse and an Egyptian mummy. Or you could say, as Giamatti did in our interview, that it’s one of the weirdest and most affecting films about old age ever made – “Amour,” for genre-crazed movie geeks.
In a world where subcultures can barely be said to exist and everything that was ever possible is just a mouse-click away, Coscarelli has managed to avoid any significant level of fame, fortune or compromise, despite a cadre of loyal fans. He was only in his mid-20s when he made “Phantasm” in 1979, a film that stood out for its peculiarity even in that golden age of cheap and uninhibited horror movies. Mixing elements of fairy tale, apocalyptic science fiction and subversive politics, the four “Phantasm” films Coscarelli made over a 20-year period followed the predatory career of the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), who uses deadly flying spheres and sinister gnomelike slaves to dismember and/or abduct the living to his foul purposes. (I was grateful to learn that Scrimm is still alive, and gets a brief cameo in “John Dies at the End.”)
Coscarelli has never tried to make art films; he has an old-fashioned grindhouse or drive-in aesthetic, but without the postmodern jokiness or relentless quotation of Quentin Tarantino. But there aren’t many filmmakers in American history who’ve combined low-budget, gruesome horror and outrageous gags with complicated, allusive storytelling where not everything is spelled out or explained. It’s like Coscarelli is simultaneously too lowbrow and too adventurous for Hollywood, and we may never find out what he could do with a big budget. Maybe it’s better that way; Coscarelli and Giamatti were a little cagey about any future joint projects, but they’ve clearly had a great time, and I get the impression that a sequel or prequel to “Bubba Ho-Tep” is in the works.
I was thinking about the fact that filmmaking has changed so much, Don. I mean, it’s clear that you didn’t have a trillion dollars, but it’s amazing what you can do these days …
P.G. It’s amazing what you can do with not a trillion dollars.
D.C.: Well, look, you’ve got the tools of digital effects now, and they’re in. Back in the mid-‘90s, in one of my later “Phantasm” movies, we did our first digital effect and I think we had two shots and we paid $10,000. Nowadays, you know, somebody on a workstation could, on an effect like that, whip it out for an hour of their time. So the tools are all accessible. But then how do you use it? And, look, I come out old-school with the rubber prosthetics and all that. I’ve got good friends in that business and I always feel that actors can work better off something that’s tangible.
P.G.: I like it — I just think it looks better. The fact that you can tell they’re in the same room…
I assume you’ve worked both ways, Paul. You’ve done movies with green screens and digital effects?
P.G.: It’s funny, I haven’t done it that much. But yeah, I’ve done that and then I’ve done it with the actual things there. As an actor, they’re both interesting. I don’t mind the green screen thing. It’s a little bit more like being onstage again. Everything’s not there, so it’s kinda cool in some ways. But I do — I always think the Ray Harryhausen clay monster looks better, that kind of thing.
D.C.: And we, you know, we have the other opportunity, which is to meld the two of them. Like with the Meat Monster [an early villain in “John Dies”] we have this gorgeous suit, really. It’s like a work of art, and a lot of it’s lost in the film. I hope we can display the suit because they’ve got wieners on there, pot roasts …
I especially liked the fish you can see crawling up the guy’s back.
D.C.: See, now, that was a digital component. We were able to take the beautiful suit and at the very end put a little wiggly fish. It’s like one plus one could be three, if you use it right.
Well, what you just said is that it’s about how you use it, how you tell the story. I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with David Chase, the “Sopranos” dude. He wants to make movies now, and really he always did. But he’s kind of down on what the movies have turned into. He feels like there’s less storytelling skill now, even though the technology is 300 times better.
D.C.: I don’t know that I disagree with that. Because those narrative skills are definitely in decline.
I mean, this movie isn’t going to cure cancer or whatever, but it’s a combination of, you know, funny and scary and genuinely unpredictable with cool effects. And how rarely we see that in the horror/science fiction/whatever universe! With all the toys people have, they still can’t pull it off!
P.G.: It’s true, and it’s the one genre where you really have carte blanche to do it, and a lot of people don’t. You know, people don’t take as much risk as they can.
D.C.: I think horror fans are optimists, because they go to the theater every time looking for that. Because they have that moment in their life, you know — the first time you’re really scared or uneasy in a movie it’s like a first crush, you remember that for the rest of your life. They’re optimists and they’re going every time hoping for that. You know, the posters and the trailers always promise something, and they’re disappointed a lot but they still keep coming back. And the truth is, from time to time something really edgy and strange surprises everyone, you know. Then Hollywood makes 10 more versions of it and destroys it. (Laughter.)
So you would agree with that general perception? There’s just too much of a cynical moneymaking endeavor going on here? Because it is strange – if you’re making a movie in this genre, you should have all the freedom you could want. But it never feels that way.
P.G.: Well, you certainly can make a bundle on them. So it’s not surprising that people go to pop out the same thing.
D.C.: Yeah, I mean, we can go back to the classic Universal monster movies and they were making sequels of those things. There’s a tradition to this. And you can make a case that maybe “Bride of Frankenstein” is better than the original “Frankenstein.” (Laughter.)
P.G.: And “Son of Frankenstein” is better than both of them, I think. Good one, really good one. Love that one.
Well, there might be some reason for optimism right now. I was just thinking about this, there’s your guys’ movie, and Joss Whedon and his buddy Drew Goddard made “Cabin in the Woods” last year –
D.C.: Oh yeah, what a cool film!
And I’m thinking you guys have seen “The Revenant,” which is a truly hilarious and creepy vampire-zombie dude bromance, very much in a similar vein …
P.G.: I have not seen “The Revenant,” no, but I’ve heard about it.
D.C.: “The Revenant” is — Kerry Prior is a good friend, he did the sphere effects in “Phantasm III” and “Phantasm IV,” he did the scarab beetle in “Bubba Ho-Tep,” and I’ve always relied on him. He did some second-unit direction, he did all the — I should take this off the record …
Go ahead. (Off-the-record anecdote about Kerry Prior’s work in “John Dies at the End” follows.)
D.C.: And then I also brought Kerry out on the set the day we were shooting the Mustache Bat [a particularly wonderful special effect], to get his suggestions on how we could get that in order. He’s a technical genius, in addition to having a wicked sense of humor. You know, he’d make a great director — he has made a great director, and I can’t wait to see his next movie. He’s so cool.
So, you know, I feel somewhat optimistic about horror movies. But I don’t totally understand what the deal is with you, Don. Because there’s a universe of people out there, and admittedly a lot of them are in my middle-aged bracket, and yours too, who loved the “Phantasm” movies and frantically called or emailed each other every time you got around to making a new one. So why are you not, like, famous and revered and incredibly rich? What happened?
P.G.: I would say Donnie is revered. He may not be famous or rich, but he is definitely revered.
D.C.: Well, my movies are … they’re a little different. As I was telling Paul earlier, I’m starting to look at them as an intelligence test. I’m thinking that the people who get my movies know what’s happening and those who don’t — you know, who cares about them! But, you know, maybe they’re a little harder to market. They do find their audience, though, and very passionately. So, uh… I don’t know. I had my chances! After “The Beastmaster” [in 1982], Dino De Laurentiis had me over and he insisted that I direct –
P.G.: Ah, just to be able to say that sentence. (Laughter.)
D.C.: He had me over at the Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow to insist that I direct “Conan the Destroyer.”
Yes! Wow, what happened? You somehow wound up saying no?
P.G.: That was still going to be an Arnold movie, right?
D.C.: Yes it was, but the script had some issues and I had just made a sword-and-sorcery movie, and I don’t know. Are you guys fans of that sequel?
I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
D.C.: That’s the one with Wilt Chamberlain and …
P.G.: Oh! Oh, yeah! OK! (Laughter.) Wilt Chamberlain! The Wilt Chamberlain barbarian movie? Sure, yes, I have seen it. I don’t really even remember it, except for Wilt Chamberlain …
D.C.: I should have done it, just to work with Wilt Chamberlain. But I — it just didn’t seem like the right one to sell out on.
I may have seen it after all, on a triple bill in downtown San Francisco, with “Red Sonja” and one of the “Rocky” movies – whichever one has Dolph Lundgren in it …
P.G.: There you go! Well, to me, the thing about Don is — “Bubba Ho-Tep” is funny, it’s not really a horror genre. The secret about that movie is that it’s one of the greatest movies about getting old that I’ve ever seen. It’s actually about, like, being old and being afraid to die. I mean, it really is! I remember the first time I saw that movie and I got to the end of it I was like: Why am I strangely moved? By this ridiculous movie? Because it’s really kind of great — they’re fighting off death, those two guys. They’re like, staving off the end. I mean, it really is about that. That’s what’s so great about the horror genre, which can also be frustrating. People get like, “Oh, it’s about Elvis and a mummy, so it’s just going to be weird.” They’re not seeing what’s actually there.
Right. Well, one thing I always say about your movies is that you don’t feel the need to explain everything, which is –
P.G.: Great! (Laughter.)
Which is great! We were talking about Thomas Pynchon earlier and maybe that’s a grandiose point of comparison for you …
D.C.: I see the parallels!
I kind of do too. It’s like, fans of the one are fairly likely to be fans of the other, you know?
P.G.: Yeah, yeah. Very much so.
D.C.: Your point is well taken. Look, I learned at an early age with the first “Phantasm” — part of it had to do with the resources of how we made that movie, and you know, and then some of the editorial choices that I made. I went in this direction of the film just being very mysterious, and part of it was because I couldn’t say what it was about! In the sequel, Universal made me say what the movie was about, which was “a grave robber from another dimension.” Which we never mentioned in the first one and it made it much more intelligent and mysterious.
And that one, the first “Phantasm,” was my most widely successful film and from then on I didn’t really have a fear of it. I relish it, because there’s no better experience than going to see a film with your friends and then having a bull session afterwards where you’re trying to interpret it. Maybe this lasts for days or weeks afterwards, but those are the movies that resonate with me and I like to try to do that. I guess I’m not afraid of the mystery aspect of it, even if it does frustrate certain elements of the audience.
There are always going to be people who don’t want to go there. I get the impression, Paul, that this is a genre you’ve always been passionate about.
P.G.: I’ve always liked it and it’s interesting, you know, Don talked about the first movies that scare the crap out of you when you’re a kid, and I really, really loved horror movies when I was a kid. In fact, the movie I remember is “Carnival of Souls” and that’s one of the first movies that I saw. I was 4 years old.
What was wrong with your parents?
P.G.: No, it was a baby sitter who, like, sat me down and we watched some WPIX Channel 11, you know? It scared the shit out of me, that movie. So I have always loved horror movies, but I certainly never got the incentive to act in them, and most of them I wouldn’t necessarily want to be in. But the good ones always captivate me almost more than anything. And Don’s were always really interesting to me.
Just looking at your IMDB page, you have an immense number of cool roles coming up, including “The Congress” for Ari Folman, which I think is adapted from a Stanislaw Lem novel, and “Twelve Years a Slave” for Steve McQueen. But a friend of mine asked me a very important question the other day when I said I was going to meet you. Why are you not in “Game of Thrones”? (Laughter.) How did that happen?
P.G.: I actually wonder that myself, sometimes — why am I not? I know! I’m wondering — I mean it’s clearly going to go on for a while, and maybe some character comes in riding on a horse. I’m a little bit miffed I’m not on “Game of Thrones” myself! Put that out there.
You know what part of it is, a lot of those people are Brits. They’re kind of taking over, they’ve taken the work away from us. You can’t be in the barbarian TV series because the Brits have to do it.
Don, I was so glad to find out that Angus Scrimm, who played the Tall Man in the “Phantasm” movies and has, like, the greatest name in show business, is still alive.
D.C.: Yes! He’s in great shape, he’s very spry. He’s very proper – he was the first real adult actor I had ever worked with. He’s very old school, and he does not want to have any profanity around him. And his whole scene in this movie revolves around him saying the F-word! So that was a whole process of negotiation. “Angus, this is a great role, it’s gonna be beautiful. But it’s off the table – you have to say it!” When he read the script and saw it in context, he understood. But I’ve been working with him for 40 years, and that is absolutely the first and only time you’ll hear him utter profanity on-screen.
“John Dies at the End” opens this week at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles; Feb. 1 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York; Feb. 8 in Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco and St. Louis; Feb. 15 in Cleveland, Denver, San Diego and Columbus, Ohio; and Feb. 22 in Boston, Greensboro, N.C., Houston, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas, with other cities to follow. It is also available nationwide on-demand from cable, satellite and digital providers.