Don Coscarelli was only twenty-five years old when he sunk a flying silver sphere into the skulls of horror fans the world over with PHANTASM. At a time when the genre was about to be overrun with slasher flicks, Coscarelli offered up a strange, sui generis nightmare of dead parents, dwarves and one truly menacing Tall Man. If you saw it at an impressionable age, you're probably still fucked up from the final scene.
Though PHANTASM provided Coscarelli with a reliable, consistently entertaining franchise over the years, he's been at his best when branching out with offbeat films like THE BEASTMASTER (one of most enjoyable sword-and-sorcery films of the 1980s) and the magnificent BUBBA HO-TEP, which pit Elvis Presley and an African-American John F. Kennedy against a soul-devouring mummy. How do you top that for originality? Well, you adapt David Wong's JOHN DIES AT THE END, a wild, endlessly inventive novel about two friends forced to battle a most unusual threat to mankind. If you've read the novel, you know what you're in for. If you haven't, you owe it to yourself to stop reading this article right now and order this movie from the VOD outlet of your choosing. Seriously. Remember that feeling you got during the first ten minutes of RE-ANIMATOR, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and SHAUN OF THE DEAD? I got that same charge from the opening sequence of JOHN DIES AT THE END - and the film never stops bringing the crazy. Sure, it occasionally runs up against the limits of its very modest budget, but that's part of its charm. This is a film from a director who dearly loves the genre, and who wants nothing more than to give like-minded fans an utterly unique experience.
I had the opportunity to chat with Coscarelli during last November's AFI Fest, and while our time was brief, we did cover what I feel are the three key elements of JOHN DIES AT THE END's success: the invigorating visual style, the clever use of practical f/x, and the excellent lead performances from Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes. And since Bruce Campbell is evidently reticent to play Elvis in the proposed BUBBA NOSFERATU, I closed out the interview by recommending a capable replacement.
Mr. Beaks: This really feels like a young man's movie. From that great opening steadicam shot, it seems like you're completely rejuvenated by the material.
Don Coscarelli: Thank you for saying that, because, boy, after this process, I need a little rejuvenation. There's no question that this was part of the allure of David Wong's book. He was a first-time novelist, and he came from, as they call it, an "undisclosed town in central Illinois". Yet as a young guy, he's got a particular voice and a particular take on youth. That was really easy for me to adapt. But I tried to bring a lot of energy to it. I admire some of my fellow directors, and some of the energy that they bring to movies. I love Edgar Wright, and the way he makes his movies, the dynamics of his camera. I have to admit that I was trying to emulate Edgar in that opening sequence, and really get that camera whipping around. It was a lot of fun.
Beaks: You've also got a great comedy-duo dynamic with Chase and Rob. It sometimes put me in the mind of Abbott and Costello, or even Martin and Lewis in SCARED STIFF. There's this great tradition of horror-comedy, right up to Pegg and Frost SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Did you direct them with these duos in mind.
Coscarelli: There's no question that they're two distinct characters. Truthfully, while the book does follow certain very traditional tropes in having two guys, almost like from CLERKS, playing off one another, I think it was really a function of how each actor approached it, and how I instructed them. For Chase, he was basically carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's a little more of a straight man, a little more serious. He's trying to get to the bottom of an unsolvable mystery. And then John is a character who is completely happy-go-lucky. He looks at the positive side of everything no matter how weird and strange it gets. Luckily, each of those actors has a style that they could bring to it. And truthfully, Jeremy, the real gift of the movie is that we were able to cast two young unknowns who could pull that off. When you don't have those actors, it's overwhelming. "How am I going to get accomplished young guys who can pull that off?" It's almost impossible, but luckily each of them walked in the door. There they were, and we just took them and ran with them.
Beaks: How extensive was that casting process?
Coscarelli: It was difficult. We looked at a lot of people. I think I saw Chase pretty early on. I think I'd gone through two or three days of casting, and seeing a lot of guys I'd seen around doing things I was very familiar with and just not getting it. But Chase walked in fresh out of USC Drama School. He'd just graduated. I think he'd been on two or three auditions. But he walked into mine, and the way he played it was just so good. There was a lot of narration in the script, so I gave him the narration to read, and he played it the way I'd always imagined it. It probably seems pretty obvious, but as the director you're the first audience. You're sitting in that casting room, and when an actor picks up that page and suddenly breathes life into it, it's almost like I'm sitting there at the premiere of the movie. You can see the possibility. That's what I felt with Chase. Plus, he and Rob are really nice guys; they put up with a lot of the difficulties we had making the movie with a modest budget. I can't speak highly enough of both those guys. I'm so lucky to have met them.
Beaks: Having grown up in the '80s, I have a preference for practical effects - especially when it comes to low-budget films. With CG in low-budget films, you're usually thinking, "Well, that's the best they could afford." But with practical make-up - and I'm thinking of the Meat Monster in particular - if it's done with care, you really admire the ingenuity. What's your philosophy on mixing practical and CG?
Coscarelli: Look, they're both tools, and you're trying to find the best one that's going to work. Obviously, each one has its benefits. In terms of actors, they respond so much better to rubber than emptiness, so I was always cognizant of that. We have that animated sequence in the film, and the fellow who did the animation was David Hartman. I told him about my concern about the Meat Monster, because we were thinking about doing a 3D digital model for it, and I just didn't know how it would interface with the actors. And he did a rendering of an illustration for me, and from that illustration I could see that it could be a man in a suit. One of the benefits from being around this business for a while is that I've gotten to know a lot of talented people. I've been friends with the KNB guys forever, since before they were KNB when they were just apprentices. And Bob Kurtzman - who's no longer with KNB; he has his own company now - has been a friend for a long time, and is a good director in his own right. He of course created the BUBBA HO-TEP mummy for me. So I took [Hartman's] illustration to him, and he did an illustration of what he thought he could do. I hope at some point I can show you this costume. The thing is a freakin' work of art! It's so beautiful, and there's so much detail in the way he worked in packs of wieners and trout and bacon strips and a ham with a pineapple... it's all built into the suit. It's gorgeous. I hope I can display it somewhere one day. But in any case, he created that thing, and then it was a function of a few little digital add-ons at the end. As the monster stood up, it was relatively easy to then have one of the trout slip back up into place by moving a digital model over it.
Another guy who was a great help was the director of FEARDOTCOM and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, William Malone. He made a movie called PARASOMNIA, and he did all of his own digital effects on the film. He did some really nice work, so he spent some time with me and consulted with me on where to go digital and where not to.
Beaks: It looks like we're running out of time, so one last thing: I have a feeling you want to announce to me that you will be casting Paul Giamatti as Colonel Tom Parker and Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley in BUBBA NOSFERATU. Can I go ahead and report this?
Coscarelli: (Laughs) Well, if you have an inside ear to the Kurt Russell management team, we can do that I'm sure. But let's face it: there have been some great Elvis-es in movie history. I like to think of Bruce Campbell as number one, but certainly a close second would be Kurt Russell. His Elvis and various Elvis-influenced roles have been fantastic. He's such a great actor. Wouldn't that be cool?
Beaks: Has there been any progress on the project lately?
Coscarelli: I would say the only progress we've got is that going through this publicity process we're realizing there are a lot of folks who want to see it. (Laughs) We've got to figure out a way to get it done. I don't know what that is exactly or who it is, but it sure is nice to know that after nine years the film seems to have found its place. I'm open to it. We'll keep our minds open, and hopefully we can get something going.