If you’ve read David Wong’s cult novel John Dies At The End, you’ll know that it’s an insane, madcap tale of interdimensional beings, slacker heroes and mind-bending philosophising so bizarre that only Bubba Ho-Tep and Phantasm director Don Coscarelli could turn it into a film.
Newcomer Chase Williamson plays David Wong, a young man with an incredible story to tell sceptical journalist Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti). He tells Arnie about how he and his buddy John found a drug called Soy Sauce, which opened their eyes to other dimensions and forced them to confront terrifying monsters. Surely these slackers aren’t the guys who will end up saving the world…
With Coscarelli’s film of John Dies At The End finally arriving in the UK on Blu-ray and DVD, we talked to the legendary director about the challenges of making something so ambitious, why Paul Giamatti is so great, and why Bubba Nosferatu isn’t dead yet.
How far did you get into David Wong’s book before you knew you wanted to make it into a movie?
I’ll be honest with you, I think I was thinking about the movie when I read the description on the book jacket. Actually, even before that. I found this book through one of these robot submissions from Amazon that said if I liked this other book I would like John Dies At The End, and I read the little short synopsis and the whole concept about a street drug called soy sauce and two slackers and interdimensional travel it definitely had me at that.
Paul Giamatti both stars and produces. Did he come on board while you were planning Bubba Nosferatu?
Yes, it turned out that Paul was a fan of the original Bubba Ho-Tep and I had pitched him an idea of coming on board a sequel and possibly playing Elvis’ manager Colonel Parker and he really sparked to that so we worked on it together. He had a production company who were very generous and offered to help try to arrrange financing but unfortunately, well, the whole thing just fell apart at that last minute; we almost had it put together. Concurrently I had received information from Amazon and got the book, and so I got the script to Paul and he liked it and he once again offered to help in the production area so it just worked out great.
You’ve got a lot of experience doing a lot of lot effects-wise with very little money. How did John… compare to movies like Phantasm? It’s very ambitious.
You know it really is and looking back from my perspective now, there’s a lot of questioning, you know, like “Don, what were you thinking?” Because especially when we got into some of the later aspects with the monster from another dimension and all of that stuff, it was just overly-ambitious, possibly. Thank God some of the effects did work and folks are accepting of it but honestly, if I look back I might not have the nerve to go forward with it knowing what I know now. Because if you make an ambitious movie you’ve gotta have some ambitious money to spend and it was a challenge.
It looks good, though. The Meat Monster especially is pretty much exactly how I imagined it from the book.
Aw, thanks for saying. Yeah, from the get-go that was a real challenge, though. How are we going to get that? I kept thinking that digital effects had advanced so far that we might be able to do it digitally for a reasonable price but it turned out that it was not the case. But then we got this one illustrator who did a concept illustration, and I was looking at this and I thought “Oh, that could be a man in a suit, actually, the way that’s designed.” So that’s what we did.
The film really nails the wiseass slacker tone of the book. Was getting that voice right as important as being faithful to the plot?
Absolutely, and I think that’s one of the things that drew me to the book is I really loved how David Wong had created these characters who were, I know it sounds strange but in a way they were just apathetic about things, you know? I don’t know, if I were to write some of those scenes I would have the actor see a monster and have them scream and run off shrieking, and the way David writes scenes it’s the two guys would look at something and go “Hmm. That’s different.” I enjoyed that attitude and tried to maintain it wherever I could.
Both the lead actors, Chase Williamson (who plays David Wong) and Rob Mayes (John), are perfectly cast. Did they get the tone straight away?
Oh yeah, it was good. And that was the beauty of having it based on that book, that both guys were able to read the book before they started the movie and, even though we weren’t able to put the massive amount of scenes into our film, we were able to use the book as backstory and subtext and information for them as actors. In fact, from time to time I would see the two guys and they would be running lines together from scenes which weren’t in the movie, that they would just be reading the book to one another and I think it helped a lot. I think it was great that both of them, certainly the lead Chase Williamson, he came right out of college onto the set of the movie, he’d been in nothing and so he was just really open to trying different things. I can’t say enough about those guys. If I hadn’t found them I’m not sure I would have been able to make the film.
It’s great that the scene with the axe is in the movie. Did you have a favourite scene from the book that you knew you had to have, and was there anything you loved but just couldn’t get in?
One of my favourite scenes in the book is just a very simple scene of Dave and John sitting in the diner talking, and the cellphone rings and it’s John calling from some other dimension. They’re sitting there and it plays so well in the book and I thought the two guys played that well, I just enjoyed it. That and the other scene I think worked well was the ghost hand that the girl had was perfect, it came off nicely, I really liked that a lot.
Scenes that I was unable to put in from the book, well, we had to cut so much out just because they were unfilmable in terms of scope. You would have needed a James Cameron level of budget to make the book. But there was a very simple scene that I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work in terms of flow of the plot where six months pass overnight, Dave goes to sleep and he wakes up in the morning and he’s got a beard and he rolls over in bed and the girl he’s been trying to get a date with is in bed with him and it turns out she’s his wife now and he lost all that time. I love that.
SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL
And probably my greatest regret, but having so much time with having Dave’s tattoo on his foot showing that he was a doppelganger, but I had it in at one time but it required…we’d have to leave the mall of the dead, we’d have to come back to the mall of the dead, he’d have to find the body, he’d have to discover it and go home, and I thought it would just have added another 20 minutes to the movie, I just couldn’t fit it in, so…oh well.
It’s impressive just how much you managed to get in.
Well, there are so many scenes that just had to be in, you know? And a lot of them play very concurrently along that one early story stream from the first third of the book and so I just kept every one of those that I could. But unfortunately, not everybody is as open-minded as you are and some folks, when they don’t understand what’s going on in a movie, they throw their hands up. At one point I had a longer cut of the movie which had a few more scenes in it and some of these folks were just rejecting it and I just had to be ruthless, you know, unfortunately. I do believe in the UK you’ve got some of those deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.
Paul Giamatti acts as the spine for the narrative. What was it like having an actor of his calibre on set?
All I can say is he’s just a wonderful person. I can’t speak highly enough of him. A lot of times you work with more mature actors and they can just give you a lot of hassle and demands and difficulties and questioning. Paul was a really wonderful, decent guy in addition to being a great actor.
And I’ll tell ya, the example of that is with Chase Williamson. This guy leaves college, comes to our set and on his first day of filming in front of any kind of a camera ever, he’s gotta do eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti. And it’s overwhelming really, but Paul was very good about getting together with Chase beforehand and they would hang out and run lines and they got comfortable. Just watching them read these lines you could see how much fun they were having and how much fun the scene was going to be. And I think the credit I can take is that I just kept the set very quiet and very sparsely populated and just let them enjoy themselves and do their thing. It’s some of the best acting in the movie, I think.
David Wong’s published a sequel, This Book Is Full Of Spiders. Would you be interested in returning to the John Dies…universe?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m still a huge fan of David Wong’s, I think his sequel book is amazing and it certainly deserves it. You know, it’s a bit out of my hands as to whether the movie gods think this has the right financial quotient to be a good investment or not, it’s still premature because it hasn’t opened in all territories, but if the opportunity presented itself I would absolutely be there. I will tell you that a few weeks back we got some enquiries about doing a television series about it. There’s a lot of material still in the books, you know maybe it could work. But it’s very premature, I don’t know if any of that’s going to happen.
Finally, is Bubba Nosferatu really dead?
No, I think… Look, I would love to make a sequel. There’s just no question. At heart I’m an Elvis fan. I wanna see more Elvis, we can’t just leave him resting in the grave. We’ll have to drag him out, make him perform for us some more! I think absolutely there is a possibility of that happening. It’s just a function of getting the right financial situation and they would pay for it, and enough money to make something reasonable, you know. I had some conversations with Bruce Campbell recently and he’s still into it, so you never know. And we have the opportunity to bring Paul Giamatti in as his manager Colonel Tom Parker, which has such wonderful dimensions so…with luck something like that may come forward soon.
This is the 35th anniversary for Phantasm so we’re hoping to get something going this year. To get a new release of the movie out would be my dream.
John Dies At The End is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 17 February. You can pre-order the Blu-ray for £10.22 at Amazon.co.uk.