Super Challenge: Don Coscarelli on John Dies at the End

The director talks about the difficult adaptation, the legacy of Beastmaster and the uncertain future of Bubba Nosferatu.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Woe betided any filmmaker any filmmaker who dared adapt the hit novel John Dies at the End to the silver screen. The novel by Jason Pargin (writing as "David Wong") is a psychedlic cornucopia of supernatural mind-bending story, about a pair of normal guys who gain psychic powers after using a drug called "Soy Sauce," and wind up fighting demons from other dimensions. But Don Coscarelli, the director of The Beastmaster, Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep not only did it, but made an amazing movie from the supposedly unadaptable text. We sat down with Coscarelli to talk about the difficult adaptation, the legacy of Beastmaster, potental remakes of his films and whether the long-rumored sequel Bubba Nosferatu was ever going to see the light of day.

John Dies at the End opens in select theaters on January 25, and is currently available on VOD.

CraveOnline: I’m an enormous of yours.

Don Coscarelli: Oh, well that’s nice to hear. Thank you! I appreciate that.

I started getting interested in film around the time when HBO stood for “Hey, Beastmaster’s On!”

Oh wow, isn’t that amazing how often they played the movie…?

It is. What was that like? Because your film was a success but it wasn’t a huge blockbuster when it first came out.

Well, look, it’s a mixed blessing for me, because I don’t know if you’ve ever heard or read but when I embarked on Beastmaster I had a lot of ambition and plans for what it was going to be, and this intersected with some really severe creative interference from the financiers. So I ended up with this movie that wasn’t quite what I had intended it to be. A lot of things I was very proud of, and a lot of things that made me groan, and I had no control of the editing of the movie, which is my favorite part of filmmaking…

That’s where the real work happens.

Yeah, where you can really make something. So there’s this thing out there called The Beastmaster, and it came out in theaters, and it was… You know, it didn’t get the best reviews, and it didn’t light the box office on fire. It was poorly marketed, because in retrospect we can now see that if somebody correctly marketed that thing they probably could have made Beastmaster dolls, and made zillions of dollars. But I don’t know. So anyway, it sort of was over with, with that theatrical [release], and I was thought, good. I can wrap my hands up, move on to the next and just leave that to history. And then [laughs] it starts showing up on TV, again and again and again, it just wouldn’t go away. So I mean, on the one hand it was really flattering that it would play like that, but on the other hand it was a big reminder of what it could have been had I done what I wanted. […] I mean the thing is if you look at it from a very youthful perspective, if you’re a twelve-year-old the movie’s just fine.

Oh, it’s great for twelve-year-olds. Speaking as someone who was twelve…

Exactly. And then I saw, I don’t know if you’ve seen this web video called “Beastmaster Jr?”

No. It sounds great!

Check it out on YouTube. This guy and his kid basically made a Beastmaster, with his six-year-old son. When you see it from that perspective, yeah, that was a cool movie. That was neat to have a little bit of an influence on some ten-year-old out there.

With the remake boom, would you ever want to go back and make it what you wanted?

Oh, Beastmaster?

Or anything. If Phantasm came out…

No, I think the problem is I wouldn’t fit into the demographic on the remake, because whenever they want to remake a movie, they don’t want to go back to the original director. They want to get somebody new.

You could produce.

Well, I haven’t controlled any rights to that one so it’s in the hands of other people. But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be really exciting to go see a huge $100 million Beastmaster movie.

$200 million.

Okay, $200 million. Okay. It probably is only a matter of time, isn’t it?

Yeah, because it’s got such brand-name recognition. Everyone remembers and loves it. Let’s talk about John Dies at the End. I feel remiss. I loved this movie a lot.

Oh, did you really? Oh cool.

I haven’t read the book.

Oh, fantastic!

But I’ve been reading up on it, and it looks like you must have had a hell of a time adapting it.

Yeah, it’s a real challenge. There’s no question, because it’s a wealth of material. Unfortunately, brilliant stuff was left on the wayside. I just couldn’t work it into it.

Were able to shoot any of it?

Oh yeah, sure. I shot some, so there could be a great extended sequence. The thing is, on many levels the source material had a lot of amazing things in it, and some of them were just way too ambitious to even think about filming in terms of creatures the size of this room. I couldn’t do that on a reasonable budget. But there are also these magnificent monologues that each of the characters were given that work fantastically in a novel, yet a little tough to translate. A lot of those monologues I did shoot, and several of them are still in the movie, in terms of the detective when he’s talking to Dave in the trailer and telling him about the country music radio station, that kind of stuff, but yeah, it was a super challenge. It was something I was working on from the beginning, from the day I made the deal to do the rights of the thing, to final, final cut of the movie, I was constantly trying to figure out how much I could put in and how much I had to take out.

Did you have a guiding principle? Like, if it meets this criteria it gets to stay, and if it doesn’t, it goes on the chopping block?

The movie needed to have some sort of thrust, propulsion, to keep it moving through. It couldn’t stop dead in its tracks. And tone-wise there was some stuff that got a little too out there. Believe me, I pushed it.

Oh, you pushed it…

We kept the talking dog in. For months I was going, “Argh, the f*cking dog. I think the movie crashes and burns right here.” I was, I think, able to make that so it worked okay and people accepted it, thank god, but there was definitely some other out there stuff that just would not have translated to the movie.

When I was watching it, it felt like I was discovering something with every single scene. Every single scene introduced a new idea, or a new concept.


Was there any concern about how to introduce some of these ideas? More exposition, or just let them play? What were you thinking about?

You know, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Unfortunately, there’s so much material that a little of the exposition might be a little lean, and yet I do think that at the end of the day, now, it’s all there. It’s all explained. You might need a second or a third viewing to get that [laughs], which may not be a smart thing to say as a filmmaker, but I think it was necessary because we had to cover so much ground, we had to get through it all, and I did try to make a conscious efforts to make sure that any idea we put up either had a relation to where it came from earlier, or had an explanation, or was left open to where someone could interpret. […] What is the nature of the particle swarms hatching and infesting and all of that? I’ve listened to a lot of people’s take on how those might be connected to soy sauce. It might be an off-shoot, that the drug could conceivably be connected to that in some respects…

I don’t know. I think some people place a little too much emphasis on making everything clear. I think there’s a difference between there being no explanation, and the explanation needs to be interpreted. Especially with something as psychedelic as John Dies at the End.

Yes, exactly. That could always be the excuse. Much like in Phantasm, we could always say, “It’s a reality-distortion field” whenever The Tall Man is around. But elaborating on that just a little bit, and you heard it here: I learned early on, from Phantasm, I took a risks and got away with them, is that you can never really go wrong leaving it up to the audience to interpret, as long as you do it correctly. Because thing is, I don’t know how you are, but I do generally feel that after seeing a movie, if there are elements have been proposed, and concepts, and you’re thinking about it for a few days afterwards – “Maybe that meant this, maybe that meant that…” – and if it has a structure-work that supports that, then many audience members appreciate that more than a movie that hasn’t. I’m telling you why, because when we made Phantasm II, the studio gave us very strict directions. What the studio said was, “We need to know where all the characters are at all times, and we need to know what’s happened.” So that’s why you have this narration in Phantasm II, where it says, “He was a grave-robber from another dimension.” Well, that’s what the guy was…


But it’s ridiculous when you say it like that. But if you go watch Phantasm I, where you never say that, it works great. So just to reiterate your point, I think that if you give the audience some credit, and give them some meat to chew on after the movie’s over, you’re probably serving yourself.

How dead is Bubba Nosferatu?

Well, I don’t think the intentions are dead, but it’s a tricky one, because much like Beastmaster, the movie seems to be percolating through the culture. People are always asking about this sequel. So there’s a want there…

You can’t see it and not love it.

Exactly. The problem that we’ve got there is we’ve just got to find a way to tell the story, because we tried… I had a wonderful script, I thought that it was great, I had Paul [Giamatti] involved, and at the time – and this was several years ago, times have changed – Bruce read the script and didn’t want to participate. So that was kind of the end of that. Because he’s so wonderful in the movie. He’s so great. He’s a great actor, and the fans love him, and it would be nice to include him. We explored some possibilities of not including him, and then we had some difficulty with the funding. Long story there. So, look, like you, I think there could be something, but there’s nothing concrete right now. So maybe…

I just wanted to get an update for the fans.

Unfortunately not. Let’s just call that one in abeyance for right now.

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and the co-star of The Trailer Hitch. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.