Don Coscarelli is back with his new film John Dies at the End. Our own Eric Havens had a chance to sit down with Don to chat about his new movie and filmmaking in the digital age.
Downright Creepy: Hey sir, how are you?
Don Coscarelli: Hey Eric, I’m doing good. How’s it going there?
DRC: Doing alright, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
DON: Hey, my pleasure. What part of the country you based in?
DRC: We’re almost exactly in the middle of the country. We’re in Kansas City.
DON: Oh nice, home of Angus Scrimm, “The Tall Man”. He was born in Kansas City.
DRC: Yep, we have him and Robert Altman, that’s about it.
DON: Wow, nice.
DRC: Let me start off by saying I really enjoyed John Dies at the End. It was one of my favorites of yours and that’s saying a lot.
DON: Oh Eric, thank you very much. I really do appreciate that believe me.
DRC: I guess the place I’d like to start really since this is a pretty famous adaptation, and I know you’ve done some adaptations before as well as original work, I just wondered how you decide on an adaptation versus an original idea and what leads to that inspiration
DON: Well, look I’m looking for something that’s outside my boundaries a little bit. Obviously, when I did the Bubba Ho-Tep adaptation I never in my mind thought about an old Elvis in a rest home with a dusty old mummy. I thought, “that’s a brilliant idea”. So when I saw the novella was easily adaptable into a movie that was even better. John Dies at the End was a little more problematic because it was a massive, epic 350 page mega-novel that had to be surgically cut down to about 100 pages to fit into our movie. But I did see a path on how to adapt it and I could also see that it might not be the most expensive movie in the world to make. Honestly, I’m testing my depths when I’m working on new projects. I’m always thinking you got to put a lot of effort into a film. Another thing with this film, you shouldn’t get shut down by the traditional studios and financiers. It’s also nice if you’re working on a project that could be adaptable to a more modest budget. I think that held true for both Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End.
DRC: Speaking of testing your depths, I was really impressed with how you handled the world of this story, because our formal logic doesn’t really apply. From one scene to the next, literally anything can happen and confuse everyone. I just wondered on a narrative level, how you dealt with that surreal element while keeping the narrative clear enough you wouldn’t lose the audience?
DON: Well, let me tell you Eric, that was something I was worrying about everyday that I worked on the movie. It was so freaking out there. My frequent question was “Have we gone off the rails today? Are we crashing and burning?” I mean, the stuff was so out there and we got into areas I honestly thought would never work. Like the talking dog thing, are people gonna buy this? It’s so ridiculous that the dog is gonna save him from a burning trailer. And then it manifests John within him and they’re having a conversation. How are you going to do that and not have people go “this is the dumbest movie I’ve ever seen”. So, some of those types of scenes, when they go over well at a screening I’m one happy guy. So yeah, it was an ongoing challenge in every moment. But listen, if you don’t take risks you don’t have rewards.
DRC: Was that kind of a leap of faith when you were shooting, and you were just hoping you could put it together in the edit room?
DON: Well, that’s a good point right there. You know, people ask me, “do you consider yourself a good screenwriter or director? I’d probably go ” I dunno”, but I do feel like over the years I have become a very good editor. That is something I pride myself on. There are a lot of tricks, in terms of editing, and sound that can solve problems. So, as I’ve gotten a little older, I don’t freak out as much. What I do is, if a scene feels like it’s gonna be one of those on the bubble scenes that may not work or has problems, I’ll look at it from an editing perspective. Like, I have to cut the scene in half, how do i get out of it and make sure I have the coverage so I have choices. Those problems can be solved. That’s one of my favorite parts of making films. In the privacy of my editing trailer where I work, I can sit by myself and take a day or two days to solve a little problem. Then, once you solve it, you don’t have to worry about it again.
DRC: Right, the story is pretty non-linear too. Is that something that was tackled in the editing room or was that a script level decision?
DON: A little of both. I will tell you though, I tend to be pretty passionate when I’m adapting these books. I figure if I’m gonna be making their movie, I have to buy into their story. And so, I treat the books like the bible while I’m making the film. I don’t deviate that much. I go back to it, I reread it, I look for the answers in the holy text, so to speak. The book has a very strange structure at the beginning, because it sort of starts in the future and then it jumps to the past, then it comes back a little bit and jumps back. I followed that almost exactly and it didn’t really work. wanna credit Paul Giamatti and his producing partner Jerry. When I screened that version for them, they just felt it was out of control. People weren’t gonna figure it out. So, I did some rearranging at the last minute that I think made it a lot more understandable in the first 15 minutes.
DRC: A more general question for you, you have a pretty good history of mixing comedy and horror. Why do you think those two genres work so well together in the same film?
DON: Well, look. Most of the popular horror movies, when you go watch them in the theaters, I mean I still remember when I saw The Exorcist in theaters way back in the day, and you see a really scary moment and people really shriek and then they laugh afterwards. It’s the function of the movie to create a build up and then a release. There is a linkage there that works. I like horror films that put an audience out of control, where you don’t feel like you know where the movie is going. I mean it’s so easy, we watch so much television and so many movies, it’s so easy to know where the movie is going. But I really think that part of it, especially when melded into it, that makes for something very interesting. When a movie really starts to get out of control and is scary, but at the same time gets ridiculous, I dunno, sometimes I’ve been able to make those moments work.
DRC: Also, since you’ve made so many good films, I wanted to get your thought on this. A lot of computer effects are taking over practical effects, especially in horror, these days. Do you have a preference at this point, what are your thoughts on that trend?
DON: It’s interesting you caught me today because last night I was working with a small company named Screen Factory who is putting out a blu-ray of Phantasm II and so I was there when they were doing some of the mastering process and I got to watch the whole movie. So halfway through it I realized there are zero digital effects in Phantasm II, and there are a lot of good gags in the thing. Look, they’re all tools, wether it’s prosthetic or it’s digital, they give you possibilities, but it’s the task of the director and producers to try and figure out which one is right. I’ve been moving towards a combination that’s worked pretty well. You kind of keep some reality to it, certainly with the creatures as much as you can and then slip out to the digital when you have to enhance it. That’s kind of the path I take with most things.
DRC: Do you shoot digital now at all, or do you still use film?
DON: This is my first digital film and it had its challenges and its successes. I don’t think there’s any choice anymore, truthfully. As every month goes by, it’s astonishing how quickly, especially in the exhibition world, they’ve embraced digital 100%. If you have theaters who are running film prints in Kansas City, I’d run out and go watch one because they’re gonna be closing up soon. Look, there’s all kinds of possibilities. These are tools we can use, the challenge is to use them in a way that’s right. I can’t tell you I’m not nostalgic for good old fashioned rubber effects. Making Bubba Ho-Tep, we had a mummy made out of rubber and we had Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis fighting with that mummy. Those were the glory days.
DRC: Seems like a lot of horror movies, and television too, seem to have more gore and more effects because they can do it quickly and cheaply and, to me, it doesn’t always equal better.
DON: It’s so much easier when you have blood effects, but I will tell you that all of us, when you see those head shots, we’re all knowing they’re not working as well as the first weeks they were using them.
DRC: Since you’ve made so many horror films I wondered if that makes it easier in the world of distribution and funding because of the niche and fan base horror has? Would it be harder to finance a historical drama or something?
DON: Oh, if not impossible. I dunno, I have a lot of interest in historical stuff. It’s funny you bring that up. In fact, I had a meeting with Paul Giamatti about a huge Civil War/World War II movie. We were trying to talk out ideas. I don’t know that I could ever get those funded or not. I’m part of that little “Masters” of Horror group and it’s a freaking slippery slope. All of us had early success in horror and it’s very hard to climb out of the horror shadow once you’re in there. That being said, it’s not so bad because, first off, most of us doing this stuff love horror. We love geeikng out over horror and enjoy it, so it’s okay. But it does present a particularly weird challenge trying to spread yourself creatively. I’ll probably be making horror movies for the rest of my life but it’s okay. Plus the fans are great, I love going to the conventions.
DRC: Well, we’ll be watching everything you make and we really do appreciate the time you took to talk to us and best to you.
DON: My pleasure and thanks Eric for the support, because you know this is a little movie we have here. So any publicity support is super welcome so thank you.