Director Don Coscarelli is best known for the Phantasm horror series—about folks getting their brains drilled out by silver spheres—and 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, about a nursing home showdown between an Egyptian mummy and a man, played by Bruce Campbell, who believes himself to be Elvis. Doesn’t the filmmaker ever dream of making a nice, romantic-comedy? Seemingly not. Coscarelli’s latest offering is John Dies at the End, which stars Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes as a pair of slacker-types who gain the ability to travel to different dimensions after consuming a drug called “soy sauce” and Paul Giamatti as a journalist Williamson’s character recruits to tell their bizarre tale. And “bizarre” seems the appropriate word for a movie whose outlandish sights include a flying moustache, a door handle turning into penis, and a monster made from cuts of meat.
Below, Coscarelli and Giamatti talk about the film — which is currently available on VOD and opens theatrically this Friday — their failed attempt to get a Bubba Ho-Tep sequel off the ground, and the surprising demureness of porn star Jenna Jameson.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you two meet in the first place?
DON COSCARELLI: I think it’s Eli Roth’s fault.
PAUL GIAMATTI: Eli was shooting Hostel in Prague and I was shooting The Illusionist and I met him. We talked about me actually killing somebody in that movie but it never panned out. But I told him how much I liked Don. And Eli knew Don.
DC: I got this over-the-top email: “Don, Paul Giamatti wants to work with you.” I’m thinking he probably made it up in a dream or something. But it turned out it was true. Paul and I got together and we had a like-minded sense of humor. I had this other project in mind and started talking to Paul about that. He and his partner Dan Carey have a production company, Touchy Feely Films. So we started talking about the other project and we did a lot of work in terms of getting that funded and then that never worked out.
The “other” project—that was the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires?
DC: That was it, yeah.
And Paul, you would have played Colonel Tom Parker? Or at least someone who thought he was Colonel Tom Parker?
PG: Oh no, I would have actually played him. No, no, it wasn’t a guy thinking he was Parker.
DC: We were doing research too.
PG: Oh yeah. I was watching footage of him and stuff like that. I would still love to do it. He’s a fantastic character.
DC: What’s cool about the story is that it’s a prequel and a sequel wrapped up in the same thing. We really explore the relationship between Colonel Parker and Elvis because he has this Svengali-like control over Elvis. Elvis fans to this day hate his guts because they blame him for his descent into drugs, for his crappy movies [laughs], and for the fact that he never toured outside of America. Because Parker had immigration issues. So, how else would he have this control if it wasn’t for some level of vampirism?
I read Bruce Campbell ultimately decided not to proceed with the project. Why?
DC: I’m not sure exactly. It’s hard to know. He said he had issues with the script. He had also gotten cast in Burn Notice, which had taken up a lot of this time. And he was directing his own movies. Everybody marches to his own drummer. But then I came across John Dies at the End.
David Wong’s original novel is a very big, very weird book. What was it like adapting that for the screen?
DC: It’s a big weird book and managing it into a modestly budgeted film was a gigantic wrangling job. But when I was reading the book I’m thinking, “Oh, it’s got this Citizen Kane-type narrator.” Paul might be good for this. And I showed it to him.
PG: When he gave it to me, I was like, “This is really nuts. How the hell are you going to do this?” But he seemed so confident that it would be a piece of cake.” So I offered my company’s help to help him out with it, in whatever way we could.
Paul, you’re credited as executive producer on the film. What was it like pitching this film to the money folks?
DC: We went to that gal at that studio. Remember her?
PG: That’s right. I forgot about that. She was freaked out by it, I think.
DC: Well, we had gone on the other project to the studio. This gal loved Paul and wanted to make a movie with him.
PG: Yeah, she really wanted to do something.
DC: I said, “Paul, would you submit this script to her?”
PG: So I gave her John Dies, yeah.
DC: And we got back, like, two solid pages of analysis. She’d really read the book and analyzed it.
PG: She went through all of these points of how great it was, and how interesting it was, and at the end of it basically said, “…and because of all of this [stuff] that makes this so great, there’s no way. There’s no hope in hell.” She was like, “This is insane.” Her reaction was, “This is amazing and we’re never going to do this.”
This was a major studio?
PG: Yes, yes, it was. Totally. And the fact that they even entertained it at all was amazing. The film goes on its own weird journey. It’s very hard to describe.
DC: There was no question that we were always afraid the train was going to come off the rails. “Are we going to far with this?” “Is this too strange?”
Paul, your role is an oasis of sanity in amongst all the craziness, at least at the start. What was that like?
PG: I was a little bit bummed out I didn’t get to have my head explode or didn’t get to have the penis door knob and stuff like that. But it was totally fun. I have that line where I say, “You’ve got my attention, Mr Wong.” I said to Don when we were shooting it, “I’ve never said a better line of dialog.” [Laughs] I mean, it was like I was in some crazy a– Charlie Chan movie.
Don, there is a scene in the film which features a lot of nudity. What was it like shooting that?
DC: Odd. I mean, I haven’t, in my life, ever spent a lot of time around 25 naked people. Well, 50 naked people and 25 of them are female. It doesn’t happen that often in life. It is funny how, in those circumstances, you get pretty used to it.
PG: It is funny how fast it becomes not-novel.
DC: Have you shot many scenes with [nudity]?
PG: I actually did this movie this summer with Steve McQueen, who did Hunger and Shame, this movie about slavery (Twelve Years a Slave). And I was a slave trader in it and I had this whole long sequence with all of these people who were totally naked. I had to be handling them like animals. And it was really bizarre first of all how willing these people were — they were okay with it — and how fast it didn’t seem like a big deal. It was really odd how fast it was like, “Yeah, they’re naked” and I’m, like, slapping them around.
One more story: In the Howard Stern movie (1997’s Giamatti-featuring Private Parts), Jenna Jameson’s in that movie. It was really fascinating that she was obviously perfectly comfortable being naked, but she got very sort of demure about it when the camera stopped rolling. It was very interesting. I was like, “Really?”
Can you see a future for these characters from John Dies at the End?
PG: That would be great.
DC: Absolutely. That’s just in the hands of the movie audience.
David Wong recently wrote a sequel called This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It. Presumably you’d have to change the title if you adapted that.
DC: Yeah. Or maybe not. It would be one of the longest titles in history. I don’t know. The guy’s brilliant. Look, we built a mini-sequel into the end of the movie where we showed a potential other world. But we’ll have to wait [and see].
The film almost seems like the pilot for a TV show for a network which doesn’t exist.
DC: That’s a good pitch line.
PG: That is a good pitch line. And it does make some sense.
DC: We’ve talked about how it could be a cable series. The X-Files on drugs!
Don, do you know what you’re doing next?
What about another Phantasm movie?
DC: Well, I’ve tried to launch some different Phantasm incarnations through the years. It’s something that I haven’t really been pursuing. You know, I thought when I made the fourth Phantasm that it wrapped the series up. But folks keep bringing it up again and again and I’m thinking that there’s a real desire for something. So I might try to work that up. Because the actors are still in great shape. The star of the Phantasm films, Angus Scrimm, is in John Dies at the End. So, we’ll see…
You can read more about how Don Coscarelli came to adapt John Dies at the End in the current issue of EW — and you can watch the movie’s trailer below.