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Q&A: Don Coscarelli on “JOHN DIES” & Independent filmmaking for 30+ years

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From the genre-bending head trip of the PHANTASM films to the inspired lunacy of BUBBA-HO TEP and now JOHN DIES AT THE END, Don Coscarelli has been a truly original voice in the horror wilderness for over 30 years. There was so much to talk about, but this one begins in much the same way these kinds of things always begin; we started with talk of the latest movie…

FANGORIA: So let’s start this off at the ground level. Tell us about JOHN DIES AT THE END.

DON COSCARELLI: It’s based on an amazing novel by an author named David Wong and it essentially tells the story of a young man who, with his best friend from kindergarten, in their early 20s and can’t hold down jobs. One night they come across this street drug that has showed up in their small town and it seems to allow users to drift between dimensions and causes all kinds of strange things. It actually kills certain people. As our hero Dave starts to investigate and to learn the nature of this pharmaceutical infestation, he comes to understand there may be an invasion by a silent otherworldly force bent on nothing less than universal domination.  So, essentially the fate of the world falls to these two hapless heroes.

FANG: This film has a lot of big ideas about multiple dimensions and all kinds of weird stuff going on.

COSCARELLI: It certainly has big ideas. One of the things that attracted me to the source novel is that in the context of what one could look at as this ridiculously hilarious and scary horror film, there is some philosophical thoughts running throughout that are quite captivating.

FANG: This idea of multiple dimensions seems to be a theme in what you do. Is that rooted in personal beliefs of yours?

COSCARELLI: I don’t know if it’s me alone, I think all of us are questing for big answers about what all this really is. Some of us find it in religion, some of us find it in science fiction. It’s an amazing universe that we live in and so many fascinating concepts are very current–especially scientific ones–that generate ideas that make no sense but they are scientific fact. There is proof there are particles that can be in two places at once. This may be part of our existence; that on a quantum level there are certain molecules that can be in two places at the same time. The concept of time itself, in terms of how it’s relative depending on your speed. When I read these ideas from the great sci-fi authors about interdimensional travel and then from the great scientists about multiple membrane universes layered on top of one another, I just find it compelling. I think about those things a lot and I think about “what exactly is this reality?” and how reality is different for each person. I don’t want to get too high-fallutin’ on you…but when I can work those kind of themes into a wacky horror film, all the better.

FANG: That’s the joy of it. There are multiple levels you can take this on: you can pop it in and take the ride or you can really get into the metaphysics of it because it is very compelling. It’s intensely compelling.

COSCARELLI: Sure. Just to expand a little, there is a dialogue passage where the character of Dave is trying to get this reporter Arnie to see something that isn’t necessarily visible to everyone and he’s asking him to look out of the corner of his eye and you have to think about the fact that you are going to die someday and it’s guaranteed you are going to have to face the unimaginable, we all will. Think about that and it might open up your perceptions and see this illusory image out of the corner of your eye. I love that stuff.

FANG: I don’t think we are weird. I think reality is weird.

COSCARELLI: I agree! Yet, there are people who seem to ignore all that and just move through life. Sometimes I admire them in a way. They don’t have to worry about it.

FANG: Right. They don’t wake up at 3 a.m. going, “Oh my god, this could all be a giant simulation inside a simulation inside a simulation…”

So, the heroes in your films–I’m thinking Dave and John from JOHN DIES AT THE END, Reggie from PHANTASM–they are everyday people. They aren’t particularly equipped to deal with these situations. How important is it to have these normal people be our guide through these weird worlds?

COSCARELLI: Extremely important, because it grounds everything. It allows the humor to unfold. You have Dave as the unwilling friend, dragged against his wishes into this mess by John, who may be the most optimistic person on the planet. He only sees the good in everything. It’s where the fun comes from.

FANG: You’ve always been an independent filmmaker, are the times we are in right now the best time for indie filmmakers?

JohnDies1COSCARELLI: I’m going to say it depends on what perspective you are looking at. The tools are available on the desktop now; anyone can make a feature film at minimal cost in terms of the technical side of things. Digital camera costs have come way down. You can buy a copy of AfterEffects for $700 and you can do magic, all on the desktop. You can get ProTools and do your own sound mix for another thousand bucks. The entry point is so low, it’s available to the masses.

The problem is how you make a living at it. How you turn a buck. If you do something a little more imaginative it’s going to cost more because it’s not just the technical things that cost money. It’s your actors, your transportation, feeding people, insurance and things like this. So it’s never been more difficult financially. There appears to be so much promise on the horizon and in a few years, there may be breakthroughs in the way movies are distributed. We are doing something very unconventional with this title in Canada, where we are doing this 25 city theatrical release one night only and then a week later it will be on DVD and then VOD and iTunes. So there is a lot of experimentation going on, but there are huge changes.

As far as making movies and making a living, 10 years ago it was so easy and I didn’t even know it. I thought it was difficult back then! Now the DVD is not selling as much, so they aren’t putting out as many and a major profit center for independent films has just evaporated. It hasn’t really been replaced by the digital outlets. One day there is going to be a situation where everyone will be able to tap on their computer and watch your movie and pay a nominal fee, let’s say 99 cents, and hundreds of thousands of people at that price point will watch your movie the first night it’s out and you can make millions. Now? It’s not quite working that way so there’s a big gap. I would just have to say it’s a tough time to make movies unless you are a first time filmmaker and not out to make a living at it. If you’re just making a movie for the hell of it, then it’s a great time.

The other issue is trying to get visibility for your movies. It’s so hard now because the major press is all sucked up by the two or three major studio movies every week, which they are spending 50 million dollars to launch each one of those and that’s all anybody hears about. Thank god there are people out there supporting the little guys because the publicity is like gold when you don’t have this big ad budget.

FANG: The independents are where everything interesting is happening.

COSCARELLI: This is true. The studios have abdicated because they are putting out less movies and they are making more marketed movies, these things designed by a committee starring certain superstars and aimed at the lowest common denominator. They’ve found there is a business model there and godspeed to them, they are making good money off of that, but the model I described has destroyed the upper-budget independents. I was talking to Paul Giamatti and he was saying a movie like SIDEWAYS, which was a great hit and an excellent movie, would not get made today. That was about a 10 million dollar independent film and those films are just evaporating. So it’s really the sub-million movies that are available, but that really limits the scope.

FANG: It’s kind of funny that this sort of mirrors what has happened to the class system. You have your thriving upper class, your middle class is disappearing and your underclass is struggling to survive.

COSCARELLI: There are some occasional breakouts in horror. It was different 10 or 15 years ago with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but now I’m thinking of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. But even with that they had to be grabbed by a major studio, who put extra money into it to put up the 25 million dollar marketing budget to launch it, so I guess it doesn’t really apply, so there is definitely a class system.

Summing this up, the message to the aspiring filmmaker is that this a great time to make an independent film and what you want to get out of that film is not a franchise but the notoriety to attract studio funding on your next picture.

FANGO: It’s like your business card.

COSCARELLI: Exactly.

FANG: Your name is held among the greats in the genre—George Romero, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and others—how do you feel about that?

COSCARELLI: I’m a horror geek. I was lucky enough to get invited to that first Masters of Horror dinner. This was about 10 years ago now and John Carpenter was there, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro. All these really great guys. Let me tell you something,  coming up through the horror ranks 99% of these guys don’t take themselves too seriously.  They understand that they had a really cool thing happen which was success in the genre which has these amazing and dedicated fans who make them demigods. When we all got together all we wanted to talk about was each other’s movies and how we did this or that. It was a really funny thing.

FANG: So PHANTASM V, what’s going on with it?

COSCARELLI: Would you like to see one?

FANG: Absolutely!

COSCARELLI: My questions back would be “How many PHANTASMS can a person direct in a lifetime?” because I’ve done four and I think that’s pretty good. Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD only had three. Romero has done five DEAD movies, so I guess there is precedent.

I had great plans to do this epic wrap-up PHANTASM because I had teamed up with Roger Avary, who had won an Oscar for co-writing Pulp Fiction. He was a friend and a fan and he wrote this really cool, epic PHANTASM kick-ass end-all sequel. We went out to try and get funding for it, didn’t happen. Very disappointing, and so I made PHANTASM IV on a micro-budget and used a lot of footage from PHANTASM that I still had to kind of wrap up the series because people had gotten their hopes up when the Avary script was talked about. It does have a very ambiguous ending though…

All the interviews I’ve done in the past few months have asked about this so I think I’m really missing something here. The actors are in great shape. Angus [Scrimm] had a role in JOHN DIES AT THE END. He’s in his 80s now, but he still looks good. Reggie is excellent shape. We’ve had a number of discussions about how we would do something in the current climate, it’s not easy. Over the years, I must have five or six versions of ideas of films that were never made, so there is a lot of source material.

Your vote means something though, so I think I have to figure out a way to satisfy this craving. If I can get a guaranteed cover on FANGORIA, I’m in!

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FANG: Have you thought about services like Kickstarter for that kind of project?

COSCARELLI: Yeah, I have. A lot. It seems there might be passion for that kind of thing. When you’ve got something that has a committed fanbase and you can get pretty creative with the perks…for a fifty thousand dollar donation the Tall Man will strangle you on film!

FANGO: Any plans for the JOHN DIES sequel novel, THIS BOOK IS FULL OF SPIDERS?

COSCARELLI: Well, nothing yet because the movie is just coming out on Blu-ray so providing we get a good success with JOHN DIES… The book is great. David Wong is a great talent. I’d like to see him write an action story! He’s got a voice that’s just awesome. I really enjoyed making this movie and if the stars align and big shot Hollywood financiers want to make a sequel, then count me in.

FANG: Your mother was a novelist. I’m imagining that this imbues you with a love of reading…

COSCARELLI: Absolutely. And a love of writing. I’d say up until high school, my mother wrote almost every report I ever had to turn in. I would sit by her side and watch her write my reports. Ostensibly I was writing them but she would step in and re-write them. That was a great training school and I learned how to write watching her write my projects. It was funny how it worked because she didn’t get published until later in life. I like to think she saw how successful I was with PHANTASM–her first published work was the novelization of PHANTASM—and I like to think that sort of kick-started her career.

She always had books around. She was in a book-of-the-month club. Some of my early scripts, I couldn’t really type so I’d handwrite stuff and kind of hand it to her and she would type it up for me and while she was typing she would be correcting things. She was almost a collaborator in some respects.

Thanks for bringing that up! It’s really nice to talk about that.

FANG: So we talk about alternate realities and parallel universes…let’s imagine a world where your mother wasn’t a writer. Does Don Coscarelli write? Does Don Coscarelli discover the novel JOHN DIES AT THE END?

COSCARELLI: Possibly not. I will say that I was attracted to cameras, photography and filmmaking from a very young age. This was due to my parents being pretty technically savvy and always having the state of the art Super 8 camera around to document the family. I owe my parents a lot.

Don’t forget my parents were very involved in the making of the first PHANTASM. My father funded the movie and my mother did a lot of the special effects. She actually animated that finger that moves in the box. She built the mechanism with the sticks coming into the box to make the finger move. It was a family affair, that picture.

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About the author
Dave Pace http://www.anidealforliving.com
For over 2 years Dave Pace has been documenting life on the cinematic fringes in his Fangoria.com column Long Live the New Flesh. He is also a guest-host on The Cutting Room Movie Podcast. Twitter: @davepacebonello / The Cutting Room Page: http://christianaproductions.com/cuttingroom/
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