Posted February 5, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Don Coscarelli: A director on the fringe (where mustaches fly)

Directing his first film when he was 19, the now 58-year-old Don Coscarelli has built a cult following through the years with the release of B-movies like Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep. The campy John Dies at the End continues Coscarelli’s work in that realm. Based on a David Wong story, the film centers on two slackers (Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson) who begin using a drug called soy sauce that allows them to travel through time and encounter a variety of bizarre creatures (including a monster made out of frozen refrigerator meat). All the while, an incredulous reporter (Paul Giamatti) tries to make sense of their incredible story. Coscarelli recently spoke to us about the film.

You’ve said you have been a fan of sci-fi and horror since you were a youth. What initially sparked your interest?
There used to be this Saturday night movie channel show that would play horror movies. I was not allowed to watch it. That was probably the thing. It was on Saturday nights. The babysitter would be there talking to her boyfriend and I’d sneak over and watch it. They showed amazing movies. It started with the Universal monsters and I was a huge geek for Frankenstein and those types of things. As I got older, my taste become more sophisticated and I liked more sci-fi and horror stuff.

I think it’s funny that an Amazon recommendation led you to the David Wong horror novel that’s the basis of the film. Talk about what you like about the book?
That is an absolutely true story about how I found the book. It’s a little scary how those computer algorithms work. They can really identify what you like and it’s a little creepy. It started from the log line they had in that ad. It talked about these two young slacker college dropout guys who have an experience with this street drug called soy sauce that allows users to drift between dimensions. That image had me hooked. When I ordered the book and read the descriptions, I realized how much magnificent imagery there was. It was great. There’s some snappy, crackling, bizarre dialogue between the characters. There was a lot going on in this. There was a monster made out of freezer meat and a talking dog and a phone made out of bratwurst. And it had a great sense of humor, too.

I haven’t read the book but it seems like it would be challenging to adapt into a movie. Was it?
I am just a naturally ambitious and optimistic person. I probably should have given that a little more thought because it was a real challenge. There were so many different kinds of effects. I had some experience with certain kinds but not so much with others. A lot of times, we were shooting things that I didn’t know how the effect would work. The thing I had going for me, having made a number of genre movies through the years — the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep — that I could bring in people like Robert Kurtzman, who was one of the founding creators of the K.N.B. EFX Group. He is also a great sculptor and he created the meat monster and a couple of other ones. He’s done some great work on my other movies, too. That provided a certain comfort level.

In many cases, you’re creating something new that no one has ever done. No one has ever done a flying mustache, for example.

You made this movie with a modest budget. How much different would it be if it were a big-budget film.
Oh well, then I could sit in the trailer and let someone else take care of it. Rather, I would consult with anybody that I knew who had experience.  A director friend of mine had done a small budget film where he did all the visual effects himself. I consulted with him again and again. I had another friend who had created visual effects himself and created computer programs. Both of these guys gave me guidance in that respect. In many cases, you’re creating something new that no one has ever done. No one has ever done a flying mustache, for example.

Talk about working with Rob Mayes and Chase Williamson. What do they bring to the film?
Chase is a terrific actor who had never done anything. He hadn’t been in a TV show or movie and this was his second audition since he graduated from college. I thought he was great. Rob Mayes had more experience and had been in some feature films before. He was more seasoned than Chase, but the two had camaraderie. Rob has a sense of humor about him. He has comic timing that’s just great. That’s the kind of thing that you can’t create. You have to find people who can do it.

How were you able to convince Paul Giamatti to sign on to the movie?
There wasn’t a lot of convincing. He tends to do high brow movies but, in addition to being one of the greatest living actors on the planet, he has a wide range of interests. He loves horror and sci-fi and just general weird stuff. He had been a fan of Bubba Ho-Top and I got an introduction to him then. I gave them this script and he wanted to be involved. He has a production company and he and his partner came on board as executive producers and helped us get the film together.

You started making movies when you were only 19. Have your ambitions changed in the time you’ve been directing?
I have a wide variety of interests but I have to be realistic about my plight. You need to know your role, as the wrestler The Rock says. I have learned that if you have some success in the horror genre, you tend to get stuck there. I love the horror genre and I enjoy the movies. In these last couple of movies, I’ve tried to push the envelope a little bit. Bubba Ho-Tep didn’t have that much horror in it. It’s about these two elderly men facing death with dignity and about how our culture warehouses the old folks. That’s the real horror of that movie. With this movie, it defies categorization because there’s so much comedy and weird-ass philosophy in it, too. I’ve tried to do select projects that can be sold as horror movies but can reach a broader audience.

To what do you attribute your success and the fact that so many of your films take on a cult status?
It’s hard for me to say. I like to think that it’s because I make movies that are bizarre with unexpected elements so when people see them they know they’ll see something different than the traditional thing. My movies are out there conceptually. I feel like I’m on the fringe of horror where folks can enjoy it but can also experience something a little different than what the studios feed them.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].