Interview: Don Coscarelli on John Dies at the End

Interview conducted by Ben Bussey

How not to make a first impression, lesson one: if you’re supposed to telephone a long-established and revered filmmaker responsible for one of your favourite films from the last few years, it helps if you do it at the time and date you were allotted, as opposed to two full days early. Yes folks, this is what makes Brutal As Hell such a pillar of journalistic professionalism, with an editor who is seemingly incapable of telling the word ‘Thursday’ from the word ‘Tuesday’ when reading an e-mail…

Happily, when the man on the other end of the phone is the superlatively nice Don Coscarelli, such mistakes can be quite happily washed away under the bridge, it seems. Despite my horrendous cock-up, Don was happy to talk me that same evening – and I was very happy of that. John Dies at the End was one of my top films of 2012 (and, for the record, was among my personal nominees for Brutal As Hell’s recent fifth anniversary top 20), so I’m eager to do all I can to help promote it as it finally worms its way out onto Blu-ray and DVD in the UK in February – although, as we learned not long ago, if you really want to you can already get it from Asda…

Obviously I was very honoured to be able to speak to such a true legend of horror filmmaking, so if I come off as a bit of a kiss-ass in some of my questions… well, there you have it, I’m a kiss-ass. And I’d do it all again, I tell you. Only I’d call him on the correct night. And I would have actually thought of something to say to the one question he threw back at me…

Anyway, here’s how it all went down.

Don: Hi.

Ben: Hello Don? It’s Ben again, from Brutal As Hell.

Don: Hi Ben, how are you doing?

Ben: I’m alright, apart from feeling very, very silly about calling you on the wrong day.

Don: No, it’s okay, this is great. It’s the last one, I got through this, because I can’t tell you – it’s been so bizarre. I’d be on with somebody, then in the middle of the call other people would call, and then the other person would hang up – and I’m juggling all these calls, I’m not used to doing that. It’s a relief to be at the final interview, that’s all I can tell you. Nobody else will be calling, so that’s good. Anyway, how are you doing today?

Ben: I’m okay now, yes.

Don: Excellent.

Ben: I was going to try and work in some clever joke about how I was either calling you from a bratwurst, or after the point of my own death or something, but I’m not quite that sharp unfortunately.

Don: That’s funny.

(Note: I’m pretty sure he’s just being polite.)

Ben: First of all, congratulations on John Dies at the End, I think it’s fantastic. I’ve been really looking forward to it being released on DVD here in Britain ever since I saw it the Abertoir festival last November in Wales.

(Note: I mean November 2012. Momentarily forgot we’re in 2014 now. D’oh.)

Don: Thanks so much, I really appreciate that.

Ben: Cool. Well, thank you. So – I’m sad that it’s taken quite this long for it to come out on DVD over here, but the main thing is I’m very, very glad they didn’t rename it Demon Hunters or something really generic like that – (Don laughs) – which some British distributors end up doing. Thankfully, Eureka are a bit smarter than that. I wondered, was there ever any problem about the title? Was there ever any concern that you needed to change to something more commercial, or whatever?

Don: You know, I always embraced the title. I thought that the title might have been one of the coolest titles I’d ever heard of. Because – the fact that, here you had this author that has the audacity to intentionally give away his movie in the title to challenge you, y’know. So, certainly when I first saw the title I thought “oh wow, this movie’s for real.” I knew it was gonna be something different than ordinary. What other folks think of it, I don’t know, but I always loved the title.

Ben: I assume that if you were to shoot the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders – which, I have been told, I have to urge you to do this, by a number of people! – I assume if you were going to shoot that, perhaps there’d be an issue with the title there? I don’t know.

Don: (Laughs) Well, the challenge would be, when you convert it to a movie, it would have to be This Movie is Full of Spiders. It would’ve worked great for a tangible product like a DVD… This DVD is Full of Spiders… but I don’t know, I haven’t thought about how to work that. Probably be simpler for it be John Dies at the End, Again! Or something. But yeah, I like that book, a lot. I really love David Wong’s work, he’s a brilliant writer, and it would be wonderful to go back into that world, but I just don’t know about the… you know.

Ben: Does it not look likely that that will happen?

Don: Well, I will tell you that I have been solicited in recent weeks about a television series based on John Dies at the End. I don’t know if anything will ever come of that, but it sure is an interesting concept.

Ben: Yeah, I could imagine that working.

Don: Yeah, definitely. It would be very interesting to see.

Ben: How have you felt about the overall reaction to the film? It seems to have been really well received by a small group of people.

Don: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of passionate fans, there’s no question. I think the thing that was most satisfying was that the readers of the book seemed to like the movie. A few minor criticisms, but generally they said that they liked it, so that was good. But you know, there’s no question that the movie has its – there are folks that just don’t get it. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy but I think the movie is an intelligence test, you know? Folks that are really sharp and smart get it, and the folks that don’t – well, I don’t know if I care about them. (Laughs) So I just feel above it. It’s very challenging material. And now that I look back on some of my previous movies, like Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, those are challenging movies themselves, and it’s like – you know, there are folks who can embrace absurdity and strangeness and mystery, and then there are folks that don’t.

Ben: John Dies at the End does absolutely feel in-keeping with your overall body of work, in that for one thing it’s really hard to sum up in a sentence! I think the same can be said of the Phantasm films, definitely. Even something like Beastmaster, which would seem on the one hand to be fairly commercial, still has really bizarre elements in it, which are cool.

Don: Yeah, it does in retrospect (laughs). I didn’t realise it at the time so much.

Ben: I suppose the sword and sorcery films were all pretty bizarre anyway, really, when you look at it.

Don: Yeah, definitely.

Ben: I also wanted to say congratulations on discovering Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes, who are both really great in the film.

Don: Wow, that is so nice of you to say. Yeah, they’re not only very talented guys, they’re really, really nice, hard-working actors, and we were so lucky to have them. In retrospect, looking back I didn’t realise, but when I made the arrangement with our financiers I realised how crucial it was that we find young talent to play those roles, and we weren’t going to be in a position to afford known actors. And so – I’d forgotten about this, but I actually had them put a clause in the contract that if I didn’t find actors for those two roles that were suitable, then I had the option to abandon the movie (laughs). I completely forgot about how concerned I was about that at the time. Because, that day when Chase walked into the room – you know, he was straight out of college, never been in anything, but when he started to read for the role it was the first time I could really see what the movie might be like. It was really exciting.

Ben: I’ve seen on the Blu-ray edition they’ve included videos of their screen tests, and that’s – straight away you see the confidence, and the chemistry between the two of them. It’s fantastic.

Don: Yeah, it is great. They got along well. And once again, they’re just great guys, hard working, willing to work as long as necessary for little or no money, under very difficult circumstances. And I just remember with Chase, I edited that movie… and it was almost as if Chase was sitting by his phone waiting for me to call him. You know, I’d call him up and I’d say, “Chase, get over here, I need you to record voiceover,” and he’d go, “I’m on my way.” (Laughs) Always ready for work, and both great guys. And I so hope that both of them get other opportunities. I know that Chase was in a movie that played just this week at Sundance Film Festival for that terrific young director Adam Wingard, who did You’re Next – it’s a new movie called The Guest. And Chase has a nice role in that, so some good things are happening for him.

Ben: Excellent. Okay, with the Phantasm movies and – another thing that kind of has in common with John Dies at the End is this recurring theme of other dimensions, higher states of consciousness and stuff. This is something it seems like you’ve always had a fascination with, throughout your films.

Don: Oh, absolutely. And a lot of it comes from science. I mean, if you read some of the hard scientific theories and discoveries in recent years, there’s some really weird stuff out there. I don’t know if you’ve read anything about membrane theory, dimensions stacked upon one another, and there might be portals of entry – these are all works into hard science dissertations, papers and what have you. So I read about that, and then you give it a little more spectacle… you can’t tell exactly what’s going around, but perceptions of reality have always fascinated me, so if you can work it into some sort of a film-related project, it’s something very exciting to explore.

Ben: Yeah, it makes for fascinating viewing. Okay… so I guess I’ve got to get to one of the questions you’re probably sick to death of hearing – is there likely to be a Phantasm V?

Don: (Laughs) Well, let me throw it back at you. Tell me what you’d want from Phantasm V? What would you like to see in it? What are the key elements you would like?

Ben: (completely freezes up, laughs like a silly person) Oh good grief, um…

Don: Sorry to be so harsh. Look, I love… I’m in a really peculiar spot with Phantasm. Because, you know, this year is the 35th anniversary of the release of Phantasm, so Phantasm has been a big part of my life. And it’s like I’ve almost evolved into a Phantasm fan myself, because I just love watching these actors, and the things that they do in the movies. And there’s nothing I enjoy more than going to horror conventions, and sometimes I throw that question at people, and they have these very elaborate speculations about the Phantasm world.

Ben: If I’d had time to prepare a response I might have been able to do that!

Don: (Laughs) I didn’t want to put you on the spot there.

Ben: That’s quite alright.

Don: But that’s what people are like, you know, you get these questions, you go hmm, better come up with an answer… but in any case, I’m still great friends with Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, A. Michael Baldwin, they’re all still in great shape, looking good. I didn’t realise there was so much desire for another Phantasm; I thought that four was enough, I thought the fourth Phantasm wrapped things up – and yet, folks still want more. And I’ve been getting that every place I go with John Dies at the End. So I’m… I’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen. That’s all I’ve got to tell you. That’s the news. There should be a Phantasm V, so give me a few weeks, months, let me see what I can come up with.

Ben: I did read in an interview with you from last year, one slightly alarming comment, because you said you thought you only had two films left in you. Do you stand by that?

Don: (Laughs) That probably came out of the fact that, if you look at my more recent track record – you know, making a movie once every ten years – I literally only have one or two movies left in me. (Note: Don turns 60 this year.) So I have to increase my output. The thing you have to realise is that it’s so difficult to get funding for movies, and – personally, every time I start a movie I have to approach it as though it is my last movie. There’s no guarantee I’ll ever get funding for another movie. So I think that’s a good thing because it really forces me to focus my efforts and my attention, and I try to make the best thing that I can under the circumstances. But all the while, I watch some of the older movies on television, and some of these movie directors that worked at the studios were putting out two or three movies a year; how interesting a career that would be, to be able to do that. But I’d like to make more movies.

Ben: And we would like to see them.

Don: Well, thank you for saying that. I really do appreciate it, seriously.

Ben: Thank you very much. Well, that’s our fifteen minutes I guess, so thank you very much again for talking to me, and thank you for John Dies at the End. We will keep on plugging it.

Don: I really appreciate the support. The movies I make don’t tend to get the big advertising budgets, so this kind of publicity is golden for us. So thank you, and we appreciate it, and I hope I get to meet you in person one of these days.

Ben: That would be fantastic.

Don: Okay, well have a great day. Or, evening!

Ben: Evening for me, day for you I think. Thanks a lot man, goodbye!

Don: Thanks, take care!

 John Dies at the End is released by Eureka to Blu-ray and DVD on 17th February 2014. Buy it, or suffer death by arachnicide. Read Keri’s review and my review if you need more convincing.