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January 23, 2013

‘John Dies at the End’: Paul Giamatti, Don Coscarelli on cult cinema

Posted in: Movies

If this were a scene from the new movie “John Dies at the End,” the waiter serving breakfast to actor Paul Giamatti and director Don Coscarelli might suddenly shape shift into a giant insect. Or maybe a walking, talking monster assembled from different types of raw meat. You don’t even want to know what could become of the pancakes.

Although the inter-dimensional possibilities are nearly limitless when it comes to the latest outre tale from Coscarelli — the L.A.-based filmmaker whose extensive résumé in the far-out includes the cult favorites “Phantasm” and “Bubba Ho-Tep” — things seemed cosmically in order on a recent Saturday morning at Du-Par’s at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles.

Except perhaps that the Oscar-nominated Giamatti, best known for playing irascible contrarians in critically acclaimed indie movies and awards-season fare, was talking not about his upcoming turn at Yale Repertory Theatre as Hamlet or his role in British director Steve McQueen’s historical drama “Twelve Years a Slave,” but about his love for underground movies, especially those made by Coscarelli.

“I don’t know what you’d call them,” Giamatti, 45, said. “They don’t really fit into any genre, which is what I like about them. This movie too. The humor of them, they’re kind of fantastical, science-fiction-y, I don’t quite know what they are, which is something I really like about them.”

Opening Friday, “John Dies at the End” is certainly hard to categorize, unless there’s a category for time-bending narratives brimming with gore, drug humor, prosthetic creatures and doorknobs that transform into male sexual organs. It’s like a late-night drive-in version of a David Cronenberg movie, but funny.

Chase Williamson and Paul Giamatti in "John Dies at the End." (Magnet Releasing)

Chase Williamson and Paul Giamatti in “John Dies at the End.” (Magnet Releasing)

“The movie makes certain requirements of the audience,” said Coscarelli, 58. “That opening sequence when the doorknob morphs, it establishes that you’re in for something really weird.”

Adapted from the oddball novel penned by an editor at Cracked.com, the story involves two college dropouts, Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), who become caught up in an ultra trippy conspiracy after ingesting a street drug nicknamed “Soy Sauce.” Giamatti, who also produced the new film, plays the hard-boiled journalist Dave calls to let him in on the story.

Giamatti became a fan of Coscarelli’s work in early adolescence after his brother sneaked him into see “Phantasm” when he was just 12. Oddly enough, it was horror director Eli Roth who introduced them.

“He was shooting ‘Hostel’ and I was shooting something, and I told him I liked Don’s movies,” Giamatti said.

“So, I get this email,” Coscarelli continued. “’You know who likes your movies?’ I was like, ‘Yeah right, Eli.’ Then I saw this interview with Paul and they [asked him] which directors he wanted to work with. He said Coscarelli.”

“John Dies,” however, was not the movie they set out to make. The pair intended to film a sequel to Coscarelli’s 2002 film “Bubba Ho-Tep,” about the unlikely friendship that springs up between Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy as they face off against an ancient mummy in a dilapidated retirement community. Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis, respectively, played the elderly incarnations of the American icons.

Even with a script in place and Giamatti signed up to play Col. Tom Parker, they couldn’t find financing for the low-budget outing (the original movie cost roughly $1 million).

Instead, Coscarelli went into production on his adaptation of “John Dies” — he’d become a fan of the novel, written by Jason Pargin under the pseudonym David Wong, after having discovered it through the “Amazon recommends” function on the e-tailer’s site.

The film was shot in about 40 days in Paramount with some sequences filmed at an abandoned youth prison in nearby Norwalk. (“Truly one of the spookiest places I’ve ever been in my life,” Giamatti said.)

Williamson, a USC grad who had never acted in a feature before, was cast in the lead role, the character David Wong, and tasked with delivering a barrage of rapid-fire monologues with a noir-inflected world weary intonation.

Rob Mayes in "John Dies at the End." (Magnet Releasing)

Rob Mayes in “John Dies at the End.” (Magnet Releasing)

“There’s all this funny portentous dialogue between the two of us,” Giamatti said. “I remember saying to Don, I have some line like, ‘You have my attention, Mr. Wong.’ That’s right out of some Peter Lorre Mr. Moto movie from the ’30s.”

When the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, critics warmed to the offbeat humor — Variety described “John Dies” as “immensely entertaining,” praising its wit and energy and Giamatti’s “low-affect” turn.

Now that their little cult oddity is finally opening in limited theatrical release after a VOD premiere late last year, the pair is eager for another opportunity to work together, either on a “Bubba” sequel or another project, maybe something for television through the deal Giamatti has with his New York-based company Touchy Feely Films and cable outlet FX.

Coscarelli said he’d welcome the chance to branch out beyond horror, the genre where he’s been laboring almost exclusively since he made 1979’s “Phantasm,” about a pair of brothers and an ice cream vendor who run afoul of the mysterious, cemetery-raiding Tall Man and his lethal silver orbs. He understands, though, that a radical departure might not be in the cards.

Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli on the set of "John Dies at the End." (Magnet Releasing)

Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli on the set of “John Dies at the End.” (Magnet Releasing)

“I’m stuck,” Coscarelli said with a note of resignation in his voice. “Once you have a little success in the horror genre, it’s a real slippery slope. It’s tough to work your way out of it.”

For Giamatti, though, a continued Coscarelli partnership might be just the thing to feed the geekier side of his soul, an outlet to collaborate on projects that feed the wilder side of his creative spirit.

“I love genre stuff, you can get away with all of these ideas,” Giamatti said. “That’s why science fiction is so great — so much of it is so bad because people don’t use it as a vehicle for interesting ideas, they just use it as an action vehicle and it’s boring. But if you can smuggle the ideas into it, it’s great.”

– Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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