Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. One of my favorite moments at Sundance this year was watching Paul Giamatti’s introduction of Don Coscarelli before the premiere of their film John Dies At The End. I’ve known Don for a long time, but I’ve been a fan of his for pretty much my entire life.
Paul Giamatti’s one of us, a movie fan through and through, and seeing him lavish Coscarelli with emotional, heartfelt praise really made my inner geek smile. He talked about his “bastard brother” freaking him out at age 12 by sneaking him into Phantasm and went on to call Bubba Ho-Tep one of his all-time favorite movies.
What can I say? It touched a brotha!
The following morning I interviewed Coscarelli and Giamatti and we start with that moment and get into some specifics on their working relationship, how they met, their work trying to get Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, Bubba Nosferatu, off the ground and ultimately John Dies.
It’s a good chat with two genuine cinephiles. I hope you guys enjoy it!
Quint: I loved your speech about Don last night, how you saw PHANTASM as a kid…
Paul Giamatti: I did. My brother snuck me into it.
Don Coscarelli: Haven’t I been telling you that? Paul… What he is is a really nice, decent guy? He continues to amaze me.
Paul Giamatti: I try. But yeah, I had seen all of those movies, but it was when I saw BUBBA that I was just like… You know, I was insane for it. It’s amazing and I guess I said something in Variety or something.
Don Coscarelli: Actually where it started… it’s all Eli Roth’s fault. I got this email. You know how Eli has this overabounding enthusiasm? It was “Dude, I just had dinner with Paul Giamatti and he freaking loves Bubba Ho-Tep. You’ve got to get in touch with him!” I read that and I’m like “Yeah, that’s just Eli making up stuff.”
Paul Giamatti: I met him in Prague, because he was doing HOSTEL and I was doing, I think, a movie called THE ILLUSIONIST there and I really wanted to meet him, so I met him and he was going to give me a part killing somebody in HOSTEL or be a dead body. I was like “Please let this work out.”
It never worked out, but I did tell him that, because he told me he knew you and I was like “Oh my God, you’ve got to tell him that I want to work with him.” Then I guess I was in VARIETY...
Don Coscarelli: It was around Christmas of that year, 2006 I think, and there was this article and they are asking Paul these questions about CINDERELLA MAN and then it’s “What directors would you like to work with?”
Paul Giamatti: And I said, “Don Coscarelli!”
Don Coscarelli: I’m like “Wow!”
Paul Giamatti: No, totally. So we went and we met and we had breakfast at the Farmer’s Market and he said, “I have this idea for a sequel to BUBBA HO-TEP…”
Don Coscarelli: Paul doesn’t know this, but I was thinking, “He could make a fantastic Colonel Parker, could I bring it up?”
Paul Giamatti: I still want to fucking play Colonel Parker in that.
Quint: We still want you to play Colonel Parker. (Laughs)
Paul Giamatti: I really want to play Colonel Parker in that.
Don Coscarelli: And if not, we’re going to cook something up one of these days. We just have to figure out a way to pull off the Elvis question, but anyways.
Quint: So, when BUBBA ended up not going forward…
Don Coscarelli: That was about a two-year process.
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, we’ve worked that thing for a while and it was funny, there was interest and then it would go away. These guys are so fucking tricky. It wasn’t just the Bruce [Campbell] thing, these guys were so fickle that were sort of like they were in and they were out and they were in and out. They were just a headache.
Don Coscarelli: Yeah, the money people. Then there were certain actors, who shall remain nameless, that Paul was kind enough to induce his manager to contact on our behalf to take over the role and literally the script would go out and Paul would make an effort to contact them. We would wait like three or four months to get a no on the thing. It was terrible.
Paul Giamatti: That’s true. Yeah, that’s right. There was a lot of that, too. I know we talked to Ron [Perlman] and he was psyched for it.
Don Coscarelli: Yeah, what a great guy. We’ve got to work him into a movie.
Quint: He’d be great in the role, but I have to imagine that at a certain point you kind of knew you were either going to spend infinity trying to make something that might not happen or you had to move on to something else.
Paul Giamatti: I would have done it. I’m stupid enough to spend infinity, but you were like “You know what? Let’s do something else.” Then he had this.
Quint: So, whenever Don came up and said, “Alright, this is what we’ll do. I have the rights to this book,” did he send it to or did he wait until he had a script?
Paul Giamatti: No, he didn’t send me the book, no. I think he just gave me the script. I didn’t read the book until much later.
Quint: So, what was your initial impression of this weird universe?
Paul Giamatti: Oh my god, I thought it was great. I was perplexed though, because you were like “This will be easier to make than BUBBA NOSFERATU” and I was like “Why the fuck is this easier to make? How could this possibly be easier to make!?!” I said, “Okay, you must know what you’re talking about, so alright.” I was happy to do whatever in it. I didn’t even care. I was like “Whatever. I’ll play the cop with the mustache, I don’t care.” I have a small company and I said, “We’ll help you in whatever way we can.” So, that’s what we did, but I thought it was amazing. I thought it was fantastic, yeah.
Quint: Did you know right away that he wanted you for the reporter?
Paul Giamatti: I think you probably said you wanted me for that.
Don Coscarelli: Yeah, I think I did.
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, I think right away.
Quint: It’s a great kind of anchoring role, giving context to all the other craziness.
Paul Giamatti: It’s like a CITIZEN KANE thing when it comes down to it and you feel it in the movie. It always brings it back down to a little bit for a second, a little resting point for a minute, then moves off.
Quint: Even though its not a huge amount of screen time, your character goes through every single emotion that a human being can have.
Paul Giamatti: (laughs) That’s very true. There was a lot to do in it, totally.
Quint: Confident in himself…
Paul Giamatti: And scared. It’s a fun character. It was totally great and like I said, I would have done whatever. I would have been the bratwurst guy. I would have just been happy to be in it and do whatever. It was a pleasure.
Don Coscarelli: I thought one of the scenes that played really nicely last night was the part where Paul was flopping on the ground after seeing the (creature in the cage).
Paul Giamatti: It’s always good to see a middle aged overweight man scared on the ground. That’s always funny. (laughs) But that did, that worked great. All of it worked beautifully I thought. I was really pleased.
Quint: I remember you did an interview with Harry a few years back you said that if you could shape your career on any actor it would be Warren Oates.
Paul Giamatti: Yeah. I love Warren Oates and the stuff he did, too. To be able to have that kind of width of what you’re doing is the key thing to me. To be able to do all different kinds of things, that for me is a goal with all of the variety and it’s hard to do, but I think I’m managing to do it. I just want to be able to do all kinds of things, because I like all kinds of things.
Quint: I love that you can do a SIDEWAYS and you can do a CINDERELLA MAN, but you can also do genre…
Paul Giamatti: I’m lucky that I somehow can get away with that. I love genre stuff and I’ve done a lot of genre stuff over the years. I mean I did BIG MAMMA’S HOUSE and THE NEGOTIATOR and I mean I’ve done stuff like this…
Don Coscarelli: And SHOOT ‘EM UP!
Paul Giamatti: And SHOOT ‘EM UP and the John Woo thing that’s not so great. What was that? PAYCHECK! You know, I love stuff like that. So the more I can do both things, the happier I’ll be.
Quint: As a producer, movies like JOHN DIES AT THE END aren’t the kinds of things just anybody would produce. It seems like you are somebody with a passion for that kind of material. Are you looking for things like JOHN DIES, not so much in the genre, but in terms of some really unique movies that need a passionate support system?
Paul Giamatti: Definitely. We’ve done a couple of things. We did this one movie, PRETTY BIRD, which was a very weird movie that nobody liked, unfortunately. That was a very odd, very black comedy, and then we did this movie COLD SOULS, this weird science fictiony thing. I met this woman and she had this idea and I thought, “I really want to help this woman make this movie, because she’s really interesting and this is a really cool movie and it fits into the kinds of things I like.” We have other things that we are looking at and I would do something with him again in a heartbeat. If he wants to, I would totally do something again, but definitely if I see something… We are working on a thing right now with this Canadian writer that I know. It’s a very weird…
Don Coscarelli: Are you ready to talk about this story? It’s great.
Paul Giamatti: It’s this weird sort of thing about these French Canadian Christmas tree salesmen who are also these master thieves and there’s an incredible RIFIFI burglary sequence in this Christmas movie! There’s this amazing sequence where they steal something unstealable. I don’t want to tell you what it is, but they steal something that’s impossible to steal and they manage to do it. It’s just a kind of weird caper film, but I love stuff like that. They are off-beat and weird and aren’t necessarily mainstream tastes, so they’re not the easiest things to get off the ground.
Quint: Yeah, but every once in a while you will hit something that is original and finds its audience. Something like JOHN DIES, since it’s got such a unique voice to it, it feels to me like it could find the audience like FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS found. JOHN DIES almost has that absurdist OFFICE SPACE air to it, but it also has that FEAR AND LOATHING weirdness.
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, that deadpan weird humor to it.
Quint: It feels like there’s an audience out there with people who like the crazier Coen Brothers stuff, off kilter things.
Paul Giamatti: But this movie, I really was sitting there last night and by the time we hit the animated sequence I was like “This movie is fucking crazy, man. This is really crazy. It’s fantastic.” It’s great that it’s that crazy.
Quint: And Don, we should talk about the very opening scene of the movie and how much time you spent conceptualizing that, shooting it, and editing it. In that motor mouth monologue that Chase [Williamson] delivers so well… He explains pretty much everything you really need to know about the effects of soy sauce and the effects of this drug and what it can do and how it alters people. Just the way he thinks about things is completely changed, but it has everything. It’s got the dead guy. It’s got the violence…
Paul Giamatti: It’s fantastic. The humor… It’s true, everything’s in that opening thing.
Don Coscarelli: It was definitely from the outset. You know I’m a giant Edgar Wright fan and the way that he tells stories and the way his camera moves and that kind of stuff. I thought “Well, I’m a little older. I don’t know if I have the energy to do an entire movie that way, but I’m going to try to do this one sequence like Edgar might have done it, but maybe funneled with a little Kubrick,” because I wanted that opening wide angle shot.
Paul Giamatti: Which is such an amazing shot and you got it once, right?
Don Coscarelli: Yeah, well of course it was a one shot deal, because the steady cam guy was going to track up the snow. So we went over on this road and we practiced it a bunch of times and got it just beautifully. We had the snow fields out there and Chase had to tip toe…
Paul Giamatti: Yeah, how did he get out there?
Don Coscarelli: Over by where he was standing we had one set of footsteps where the guys brought out the dummy and they stayed in one set of footsteps, they set the dummy, and then they went back through those same footsteps and then Chase came out through there and knelt in the snow. We were all ready to go and everything was perfect and out of nowhere this dog comes walking onto the snowfield and he’s heading right across the whole thing and everyone in unison gives a collective “No!” The dog looks at us and thank God instead of turning right he turned left and ran that way and we were able to just do it in the one shot
But I did have a backup plan that I didn’t use, because once we had the footsteps in the snow what we did was we’d pan to the right of the footsteps, so you wouldn’t see it and we put a blood trail. So instead of going across snow, the backup take was following the blood trail that would then lead to him and you know that seemed more traditional. Sometimes you’ve got a lens, you’ve got a space, you get the light…
Quint: It’s striking, because you have the pure white snow and the pure blue sky. (The trailer opens with this shot, check it out below☺
Paul Giamatti: It’s fantastic. Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Don Coscarelli: And then you’ve got a wide angle Kubrick lens moving a la THE SHINING. It makes me want to go revisit all of the Kubrick movies and someday make a movie with wide angle lenses like that. Then the rest of it… There was so much in David Wong’s book, that little monologue was twice as long, and the trick was to go through and just parse it down, because you want “Is he right?” to resonate to the first line, so it can’t be too long.
Then there was the zombie… We had been working with (Robert) Kurtzman’s team long distance. We got Rob Hall’s company who worked with Brad (Baruh, producer) before and they came in with the make-up, but the great part about it was somebody said, “Well why don’t we cast this guy named Brett Wagner who was a lead zombie in THE CRAZIES?” He had just done it and was on the cover of FANGORIA magazine and I go “Yeah, I want a guy like that!”
Paul Giamatti: “Perfect!”
Don Coscarelli: And so this guy came in and by the way when he’s not working on movies he’s a pro wrestler, so he’s got that sensibility and he knew how to do the growling and everything. And the one thing that was beautiful is they used the weeding line, so I’m very happy with that.
Quint: Well, it’s a hell of a kickoff. You can tell from the reaction. The roof was blown off.
Don Coscarelli: Yeah, people really loved it. That was great.
Quint: Cool, well I think they are throwing us out. Thank you very much guys.
Paul Giamatti: Okay, cool. Thanks, man.
Don Coscarelli: Thank you.
I had a blast with this interview and I hope you guys enjoyed it as well.
Stay tuned for a few more interviews, including John Dies leads Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes as well as Robot and Frank’s Frank Langella (yes, I bring up Skeletor because I’m a huge nerd). Oh, and still a few more reviews as well. Sundance keeps on truckin’!