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Interview: Director Don Coscarelli Keeps It Weird

Don Coscarelli is back. The director of Phantasm makes a bizarre and welcome return to skewed storytelling along the lines of such exploits as Naked Lunch, Buckaroo Banzai, and Brazil, stirring up a potent, psychotropic blend of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi and bakes up a very altered state in John Dies at the End.

Michele “Izzy” Galgana talked to the director for Diabolique.

Tell us about how you found this novel.

John Dies at the End may be the first motion picture project selected by a robot. I had been reading some transgressive fiction from an imprint called Permuted Press. One day in my email box I found an email from an amazon.com robot telling me that if I liked the last Permuted Press book I read, that I would love John Dies at the End. The robot was right! Phillip K. Dick could write a great short story about this subject, if he were still around.

One of the hallmarks of your films is that you infuse them with strong characters and actors who fully inhabit the roles. Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, and now Paul Giamatti and Doug Jones. How do you lure in actors for such wild material, and secondly, get such authentic performances out of them?

Most actors desperately want to be in interesting films. They may take their paychecks from the big studio movies, but they desire to work in different and challenging movies. Once these actors read the scripts, it was easy. As to the performances, I wish I could take credit for them. Truthfully, good directors know how to find the right actors, help them where needed, but generally stay out of their way. And good editing can help any performance.

Your subject matter is often completely outlandish, but the story is still taken and treated seriously. What do you say to people who think that horror films aren’t a valid art form, or worse, a waste of time?

It’s worse than that. For many folks, horror is considered one step above porn. And I don’t have much to say to them. However, for that audience out there, the ones I meet at the horror conventions and the ones I watch horror movies at theaters with on Saturday nights, I have a lot in common.

John Dies at the End is a very different film than most moviegoers expect, and yet you have a ready-made audience who relishes every film you create, like one of your characters itching for soy sauce. When were you last looking forward to and blown away by something you saw in the theater?

Well, I’m expecting big things from Prometheus this weekend! As to recent films, I loved Noe’s Enter the Void. That was a film to watch again and again.

The film has been doing well on the festival circuit. Were you surprised when the film made it into Sundance?

Absolutely. It was just terrific news. I met a lot of excellent filmmakers up there and it was so much fun.

Which audience or individual fan reaction stuck out to you the most?

There’s a singular moment in John Dies at the End wherein a doorknob turns into something else. That may be the defining moment in the film when the audience comes to understand the movie may be not what they expected.

Are there any other fests where fans can get a peek at John Dies?

Yes, but I am not at liberty to reveal them just yet. Check www.johndies.com soon for info.

Is the film still slated for a fall release?

It is coming soon. We will announce specific dates on the website soon.

This movie seemed like it must have been a hell of a good time to make. Are there any off-camera, outtakes, or future reels that you’d like to share?

Don’t be fooled, it was a struggle to shoot this film. Most independent films working on modest budgets are essentially two actors talking in a couple rooms or a bar. John Dies at the End is an extremely ambitious movie, and to pull it off was like going to war.

There are some recurring themes in your work, such as fever dreams, inter-dimensional travel, characters that are both black and white ethnicities, and strange creatures and worlds just behind the shadows of everyday life. Further along that vein, would you saw that shows like the original Twilight Zone and Outer Limits influenced you?  

I watched the Twilight Zone reruns all the time as a kid, and Outer Limits still creeps me out to this day. Absolutely both were an influence as they both seem to work in multiple genres; horror, sci-fi, and fantasy at the same time.

You seem like a director that really enjoys working with old school prosthetics and effects. What’s your take on the tug of war between practical effects and CGI?

They are both sets of tools. The trick is using each of them wisely. It’s great to have an effect work on set so the actor has something tangible to react to. But there’s nothing like what can be done with CGI.

You’ve said that John Dies is only an adaptation of one-third of the novel. With such rich material left on the table, are there any plans to make a sequel, prequel, or otherwise?

It’s all in the audiences’s hands. If they respond and come to the theaters and make John Dies at the End a huge financial success, then there are many options for sequels. There is a lot of material left over and John and Dave are great characters who could continue to battle the forces of darkness for years to come.

Glynn Turman’s role as Detective Lawrence “Morgan Freeman” Appleton was a fun spin on the jaded detective role, a performance I really enjoyed and one that reminded me quite a bit of Tom Atkin’s Detective Ray Cameron in Night of the Creeps. How much of the character did Turman bring to the role versus how it was written

Glynn interpreted the material brilliantly. His monologues are just fantastic. Glynn has been a working actor for decades, and his instincts are terrific. Plus, he’s just a great guy!

Another of your actors, Clancy Brown, the mysterious and enigmatic Dr. Albert Marconi, played his role strong with a touch of camp, and like Turman, it’s a character of which I’d love to see more. In fact, you could say that Dr. Marconi might inspire his own spin-off featuring possessions, poltergeist manifestations, and the like. Are there any plans for that?

I think that in the back of my mind I was always thinking of something like that. Clancy is a terrific actor and the character he created is so much fun that I believe a lot could be done with that going forward. He is a bona fide icon in the sci-fi/horror world and has created many memorable characters that fans salivate over including Zim in Starship Troopers, the Reverend in Carnivale, and of course, the Kurgan in Highlander. Maybe if John Dies at the End gets the right kind of traction, something interesting could evolve with Dr. Albert Marconi.

How have you managed to have such a strong career outside of the major Hollywood studios all this time?

Persistence and persperation.

Angus “BOOOYYYYYY!” Scrimm is a treat. Is there a chance we’ll see him in any more of your films any time soon?

Angus is a terrific actor. He looks good and still is in terrific shape. I hope to work with him on many more films in the future.

Is there still talk in Hollywood of a Phantasm remake?

Always.

We have to ask the obligatory Phantasm 5 and Bubba-Nosferatu question: is there still a chance of these films being made?

I am great friends with all the actors from Phantasm. There’s nothing I would like more that to see the saga continue. The fans can take heart in that I think about how to get that done every day.  Check www.phantasm.com for updates. As to a Bubba sequel, it’s a bit more problematic. There’s a huge fan demand for it, but it’s a multi-dimensional puzzle I’m still working on an answer for.

Thanks for your time, Don. Keep it weird!

About Michele Galgana

Michele “Izzy” Galgana is a freelance writer and film festival programmer. She has curated films for the Boston Underground Film Festival, Boston Science Fiction Film Festival, All Things Horror Online screening nights, and has written for Rue Morgue and All Things Horror Online.

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