Filmmaker Don Coscarelli on Elvis, Bigfoot, and 'John Dies at the End'
FILM It was a particular thrill to talk to Don Coscarelli on Jan. 8 — Elvis' birthday. He is, after all, the guy who made 2002's Bubba Ho-Tep, which imagined an elderly version of the King fighting the evil mummy that's menacing his nursing home. Coscarelli's other credits include 1979's Phantasm (and its 1988, '94, and '98 sequels), 1982's The Beastmaster, and his latest: supernatural noir buddy comedy John Dies at the End, based on David Wong's comedy-horror novel.
San Francisco Bay Guardian I'm a big fan of Bubba Ho-Tep. I read that you met [John Dies star] Paul Giamatti because he was also a fan of that film.
Don Coscarelli Absolutely true. About five or six years ago, I received an email from Eli Roth, who was over in Eastern Europe working on one of the Hostel movies. He'd had a meal with Paul while they were there, and Eli sent me this email right away: "All Paul could talk about was Bubba Ho-Tep!" I thought he was just exaggerating, but it was true — Paul really liked the movie a lot, which was really rewarding to hear.
When we first met, I was trying to put together a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, and I had this idea that Paul could play Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The Bubba project didn't end up coming together, but when I came across the David Wong book, I pitched it to him and he really liked the idea. So he helped as both executive producer and by playing the role of Arnie in the movie.
SFBG Besides Giamatti, the cast is mostly up-and-comers — plus Glynn Turman, who played the mayor on The Wire. Are you a Wire fan?
DC A huge Wire fan. I'm toying with the thought of starting from scratch and watching it from the beginning again.
SFBG How did you cast the dog, Bark Lee?
DC Here's the thing with dogs: many years ago when I was a young lad, I made this movie called The Beastmaster (1982), and I learned not to expect much from animals. [Their performances] all have to be done in terms of editing and just lots of shooting. But this dog — and his real name is Bark Lee — I'd known for awhile, because [his owner is] a good friend who was one of the co-producers on the movie, Brad Baruh. So I thought, "Why couldn't Brad's dog just play the role?" Brad started training him on his own, and it worked out great. He did very well.
SFBG How did the special effects in John Dies break down, in terms of props versus CGI?
DC I never really quantified which is which. We probably bit off more than we could chew in terms of too many digital effects. But, look — they're all just tools, and you just have to find the right one for the right thing. Sometimes, combining the two can be so much better than either of them.
The meat monster sequence [in John Dies] was always a challenge. In pre-production, I was trying to figure out how to do it. I consulted a lot of friends and effects folks, and was thinking at one time of making it a 3D construct. But then it had to interact with the actors, and throw out a sausage link and grab 'em by the neck, and I just didn't see how that would work in CG.
Robert Kurtzman, who is one of the guys from K.N.B. EFX Group, had also done the Bubba Ho-Tep monster. He did an illustration where we could do it as a man in a suit, so we did it that way — and the suit is a total work of art. When it was finished, we added some highlights with CG, where we animated the little trout that runs up the back of the meat monster as he's coming together. I think that added a level of bizarreness to it that took the edge off it just being only rubber.
SFBG John Dies has a lot going on: gore, surreal humor, buddy comedy elements, and even some film noir flair. How did you get the tone just right?
DC It's all a function of the editing process. Going into it I had a lot of ideas about what the tone would be, but when you're filming it's hard to really keep track of that. With this screenplay, there was always the opportunity for it to go off the rails. It takes so many liberties and it's so out there.
Luckily I had enough time where I was able to bracket the performances. I could do a subtle one, I could do a moderate one, and I could do an over-the-top one. Editing's really like writing with visuals — you can watch the previous scene and watch the succeeding scene and then tailor it so that you've got some sort of tone and flow. But it always was a challenge.
SFBG Any chance you'll ever make that Bubba Ho-Tep sequel?
DC Elvis is eternal. He will outlive all of us! It's something I would like to do. It felt like it was gonna happen, about three or four years ago, and then it just fell apart. But I still would love to do it one day, and I've got a lot of great ideas.
One of the best things about Bubba was that we had a load of fun thinking up sequels. You can just take Bubba and put a monster after it, and you'd have a sequel. You're talking about weird ones like Bubba Blob, and of course there was always Bubba Sasquatch, which would have been great. Because, you know, Elvis in the woods fighting a tribe of Bigfoot ... now that would be cool!
JOHN DIES AT THE END opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.