In the neo-sci-fi-comedy-noir John Dies at the End, friends and colleagues David and John investigate paranormal occurrences for a living. When they stumble upon a conspiracy surrounding a drug not-of-this-world called “Soy Sauce,” the pair find themselves dealing with possessed suburban teen gangsters, mind reading, and the end of the world. If you can’t guess by the title, not everyone makes it out unscathed. The film is available on Video On Demand and digitally now and will be released in select theaters on January 25th. We caught up with Executive Producer and co-star Paul Giamatti and writer/director Don Coscarelli (The Beastmaster, Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) to talk about getting the film made, working with first time actors, and why a movie like this won’t get made by a major studio.
Nerdist: Don, first off, The Beastmaster was constantly played in our house growing up.
Don Coscarelli: Well you know those old jokes now, there was the Billy Crystal one, which was HBO stands for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On” (laughs) and then somebody said that TBS was “The Beastmaster Station”. It’s amazing how often those things played and played, but I’m glad you liked it. The perfect age to enjoy that movie was probably about 12.
N: It was, and Rip Taylor scared me to death for years. Er… Rip Torn, sorry, why did I just say Rip Taylor… Rip Taylor still scares me to death, actually. (laughter)
DC: He does. (laughing) He’s probably scarier than Rip Torn was, yeah. It was a crazy film in a lot of respects. I’m glad the kids liked it.
N: John Dies at the End is a very, very fun movie. With a name like John Dies at the End, I never in a million years pictured how much fun I was going to have watching it. When you first read the novel, how did you react to it?
DC: I saw, I’ll be honest with you, I saw it all as I was reading it. In fact, when I got my hands on the book, it was so good from the opening that I was cheerleading the book as I was reading it. I was just hoping it wouldn’t take a wrong turn or something would go wrong. It’s a brilliant piece of fiction, and it’s also a credit to the author, David Wong, now that he’s gotten the opportunity, how popular that it has become. I am meeting so many folks who have read the book. It’s like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, so I am so happy for him.
N: You got together a very impressive cast of people that haven’t really done much. How long did you search for your actors? I mean, I think Chase is pretty phenomenal in his role as Dave.
DC: I thought so, too, and thank you for saying that, and, believe me, I’ll pass that on to him, because he will appreciate it Yeah, for sure that was one of the big question marks in making the film. We were a little budget-limited and we were able to bring in these great veteran actors for a lot of these supporting roles, but to meet our budget we were going to have to go with basically unknown guys for Dave and John. I can’t tell you how blessed a stroke of luck (it was) when Chase Williamson walked into my casting audition. He had been a student at the University of Southern California, in their drama department, and he had not been in a TV show, in a movie, I think he did one project video on YouTube, that’s it. Due to the scheduling, on the very first day of shooting, he had to film eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti, and he’s never been in a film before. There was an overwhelming challenge for him, and, for myself as director, of course, too, and so that was really for me like the white-knuckle part of making this movie, because the first couple days I thought, if Chase wilts under pressure and this doesn’t happen we are gonna go down the tubes. The kid’s got ice water in his veins, and he had this character of Dave down so pat. I think the book really spoke to him. He could really sympathize and empathize with Dave’s progress during the film.
N: Your scene partner for the film is first time actor Chase, he played Dave, and he’s a bit of a younger actor; When you got down and you were filming your scenes together, what was that atmosphere like? Did you get to pass on any tips?
Paul Giamatti: He doesn’t really need it. He really didn’t need it. I actually had wanted to meet him and rehearse with him a little bit beforehand because there was a lot of stuff to say, and I just wanted to meet him and… it helps me learn my lines to actually rehearse with the other person, and I remember sitting down and thinking that this guy was like, “You could have fooled me that this guy’s never done something before.” He seemed completely on top of everything; In fact, it made me nervous. I was like, “Oh my God, I better step up my game, because this guy is really ready to go.” So I never felt like he was a younger guy or was an inexperienced guy or anything. He seemed completely at ease. It didn’t seem like he needed me to teach him anything.
N: His line delivery is very subtle for some of the over-the-top things being said. Don, was that the tone you wanted?
DC: Absolutely and I was… I would like to take credit for his performance and all of the performances in the movie but, you know, look, I’m just the cheerleader, I’m there on the sidelines helping them to do the best that they can possibly do, to get them in the right frame of mind, keep them comfortable and then just give them the slightest bit of guidance. That’s what I did. The rest of it has to come from them, and Chase had a natural nuanced way about him, and I’ll tell you, it was there from the beginning. When I started off the auditions by giving him a page of the narration that Dave has to read and listening to him read that, especially because as the director you’re the first audience member and it’s almost like listening to him and going, “Oh, this movie could really be great. Wow.” And then I saw that he could do the role.
N: Paul, you get to play the straight guy who gets a nice twist at the end, but you are kind of the everyman gateway for the audience in this film. When you play something like that, when you get to see the rest of the script, is there any kind of disappointment that you don’t get to do the wild and crazy things?
PG: There’s a little bit of this. I was like, my head doesn’t get to explode. This was the right role for me actually. But the twist this guy gets is kind of great. I really enjoyed that part of it. Other than that I actually really liked the character, the kind of cynical, skeptical smart-ass-y guy like that. But yeah, there was a little bit of disappointment like, oh I don’t get to run around with a weird gun shooting the crazy aliens and stuff like that but I was fine, I was happy to do what I did.
N: With all these weird things going on, at any point did you look at crazy weird theories people had about dimensions?
PG: I guess, I mean, I kind of like stuff like this. I’ve read a lot of science fiction-y stuff like this in my life when I was a kid and stuff, so I feel like I’m familiar with the sort of genre of it and the kind of the ideas in it and stuff. I mean, I feel like I approached this thing already eager to do it because I find this kind of thing interesting, and then I will just play with it in the script… if that makes any sense? Does that make any sense?
N: This film is kind of weird and strange, and looking at your career, there are so many… you just hop around everywhere and you get that flexibility that a lot of actors don’t get. How much does that mean to you in your career?
PG: A lot, actually. I mean it’s pretty much… I couldn’t think of it being any better getting to do all different kinds of things. That’s pretty much how I like it, so it means a lot to me because I don’t want to get bored and I kind of think it’s my job, actually, to do lots of different kinds of things.
PG: Producing-wise we really just wanted to offer him whatever support we could and stay out of his way and let him do things the ways he does it, hopefully a little bit more easily with some help from us and stuff, but really just to facilitate his making the movie he wanted to make and just letting him… you know, if we could help him find locations, secure locations, get a bit more money and whatever, we would do that, but other than that, stay out of his way. As a director, as an actor he was exactly what I thought he was going to be like, which I was glad to see, and also, he was the kind of director I really like. He was super-prepared and on top of it and super-organized and really, really focused and anal about everything, but acting-wise completely letting you play around and have a good time… really, really, just a natural at what he does. It’s funny how few people you run into are really that skilled at it, but he was everything I like about a director; no-nonsense, really straight-ahead, on top of it but open to all kinds of things.
N: Don, You’ve always been able to infect things with a certain amount of humor, just somebody having a quick one-liner in the heat of the moment in something like Beastmaster or some really creepy, funny stuff in Phantasm. This movie, though, is almost showing off a type of comedy you haven’t done. How do you feel about the final mix? Was it the balance you wanted?
DC: I… look, it certainly is a mash-up of a lot of genres because you know you’ve got comedy, you got horror, you got some action, you got some super strangeness.
N: I thought you made one of the best noir movies in a long time, to be honest.
DC: (Laughs) Well, thank you. Yeah, we were trying to add a little mood and atmosphere to it too. If I’m looking back on my career, I’m seeing some of the movies I’ve had the most success with were, in a way, mash-ups of different genres. You go back to Phantasm and that had horror and humor and action and fantasy and science fiction, and then you had Bubba Ho Tep which once again was drama, comedy, horror, and now you come to this, which is a mix of a bunch of stuff. I think that what I’m searching for, or have been searching for through the years, is to just try to do something different, where it’s not just the same old stuff.
N: How are we looking on Bubba Nosferatu?
DC: Well, I don’t have much to report other than, Elvis is eternal, he will be here long after any of us are. I would love to do a sequel to the movie. I’ve got a great script to a sequel. I’ve got Paul, who would love to play Colonel Parker in the role and who is as big a Bruce Campbell fan as I am. We just don’t really have Bruce Campbell on board with us and there are some… you know, we’d have to raise some money. I just have to tell you that… gonna have to say that the project is something that’s a long range project, (but I’d) still like to make (it) if the stars align.
N: Paul, does it excite you to potentially work with Don again?
PG: Yeah, yeah, I’d love to do something with him again. It would be nice to make it easier again next time. You know what I mean? It would be nice to think that the guy could have a bit of an easier time. Part of me thinks there’s a part of him that actually kind of likes making these things this way. I think it’s really what he knows, and it’s what he likes, and he doesn’t want to compromise in anything, so he likes these things that his hands are really on. He’s really making something unique. So part of me thinks he likes it this way. But I would love to do something with him again.
N: In a day when so many people are saying there is no originality in Hollywood, you guys made this very strange comedy sci-fi noir film that is really.. in the weirdest of times in Hollywood, it would almost be a hard sell. What kind of challenges did you see in approaching a movie that, kind of from the get-go, has a bit of a weird style?
PG: Oh, I would agree with you, this is totally something… and I would emphasize that it’s aggressively non-Hollywood. (laughs) There was no Hollywood help at all on this movie. Dan and I were just talking about a woman I knew at a big studio and who was a friendly person and very interested in doing something with me, and I took it to her and she read it and wrote us back a good 3-4 page thing going point-by-point through it about why this was so great, this script… this was amazing… it went on for pages and pages and pages and the last thing she wrote basically was, “and all of these things that make this movie so great are exactly why we cannot make this.” (Laughter) It’s heartbreaking for me to go through everything that I loved about this movie and then (you) tell me there is absolutely no way we will make this movie with you. And nobody was gonna do this thing. This was a pretty wacky movie and we knew that nobody was gonna… after that nobody was gonna help us out, and Don was gonna kind of do it the kind of the way he does it, which is constantly overcoming obstacles, but he knows how to do it and he gets lots of people, calls in a lot of favors, and lots of people love him and will do stuff for him, you know, bend over backwards to make him a rubber meat-monster suit for free. Some of the best prosthetic guys in Hollywood did that for him for free. People have real regard for him, that he does these eccentric things on his own. It would be nice if he got some Hollywood help, but he wouldn’t be able to make the same movies, probably.
N: You guys overcame a lot of hurdles to get this movie made, and you’ve become really, I don’t know if I want to call it guerrilla film making, but you’ve become really adept at just getting what you need and working with people. When you know that the types of movies you want to make are going to create that extra challenge for you, does it ever get to you, or do you just go, “No, what I’m making is worth it?”
DC: Well… (long pause) It’s a good question. I would say, certainly, when I’m at the phase that I’m at now, where folks like yourself are so kind and liking the movie and I watch it with some audiences and I see that people get what I was trying to aim for, that I take a lot of satisfaction in that and it makes it all worthwhile, but there is no question that it’s getting harder and harder to make movies on a lower budget. Budgets are just dropping, and I have had to… you know, I had to pull out every trick possible to pull this one off and you know it’s… I don’t know, I don’t know. Looking forward, I wish I could get in a situation with somebody who would give me the resources I need to make a movie, but so far it hasn’t really worked out that way, so I guess I’m a lifer at this, so I’ll be making these guerilla pictures (laughs).
N: Corman, Troma, and you, then.
DC: Yeah, there ya go.
You can see John Dies at the End now via Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Video on Demand. The film will be in theaters January 25th.