In the adaptation from the director of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, “It’s a drug that promises an out-of-body experience with each hit. On the street they call it Soy Sauce, and users drift across time and dimensions. But some who come back are no longer human. Suddenly a silent otherworldly invasion is underway, and mankind needs a hero. What it gets instead is John and David, a pair of college dropouts who can barely hold down jobs. Can these two stop the oncoming horror in time to save humanity? No. No, they can’t.”
This film had a little help from Hollywood A-lister Paul Giamatti, who produced and plays a role in the film. He wanted to work with Coscarelli on Bubba Nosferatu, the aborted Bubba Ho-Tep sequel, so offered his services when Coscarelli read the David Wong book John Dies at the End. “Yeah, he wisely just said, ‘Let’s forget it. It’s too difficult. There’s too many tricky things.’” Giamatti said of ‘Nosferatu’. “He said, ‘I think I have another idea. I read this book and I’m working on a script on it and I’ll get it to you when I’m done’ and it was this movie. He sent me that and I thought it was fantastic and he seemed to think it would be easier to do than ‘Bubba Nosferatu.’”
Giamatti and Coscarelli laughed at the foolish thought that ‘John Dies’ could be an easier film. The complex story includes monsters, time travel, alternate dimensions and a drug called Soy Sauce. It is also a horror comedy, always a tricky tone.
“It’s got a lot of really strange stuff going on,” Coscarelli said. “Wwe were talking earlier about finding the right tone was probably the most absolutely difficult and frightening part of making the movie because we wanted to maintain the humor that’s in the book, but at the same time we never really wanted to go too camp so you wanted to have there be genuine threat from the characters, that they were terrified or whatever. Watching the movie last night, I think some of the most satisfying scenes to me were the way that Chase Williamson who played Dave, his bafflement as the story unfolds, he’s trying to figure out what’s going on as things just get weirder and weirder and weirder. He reacts very seriously to a lot but he does have some deadpan moments that I find really funny. He’s a really nice guy and good actors. You need to find actors like I was noticing last night that Glynn Turman who played the detective in the movie, he played it really dead ahead and he was very serious. Yet he’s got some of the funniest moments. It’s a very challenging part of making the thing.”
David Wong is the hero of the story. It is a pseudonym he uses to make himself harder to find. Williamson read the book as soon as he got the script. “I read the script and I was just like, ‘This is real?’” Williamson remembered. “It was everything I ever wanted in my life to be able to play pretend in the confines of. It was awesome because I’ve done theater my whole life and I’ve been a huge horror fan and I’ve never been able to merge acting and genre stuff because there aren’t a whole lot of horror theater pieces. Being able to do it was like oh God, super fun.”
Rob Mayes plays the title character, John, who may or may not die in the end as promised. He also became a fan of the Wong novel. “I literally got it on my iPad the day that I heard that it was a book and it has become one of my favorites,” Mayes said.
Wong’s book is filled with many outlandish monsters that Coscarelli got to put on screen. Even though they are original creations, they recall old school monsters because Coscarelli filmed them the old fashioned way.
“Coming from old school, there’s nothing like a good rubber monster,” Coscarelli said. “There’s nothing more exciting than watching a quality actor battling with a rubber prosthetic either. I’ll tell you that Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie ‘Ed Wood’, it may be the greatest scene in movie history with Martin Landau battling that fake octopus. That’s where I come from. When I started making movies there was no digital. You had to do it with tape and paperclips. It’s always the natural way. I know too the more you can do it practically, the actors have something they can really relate to. Yeah, the power in digital is fantastic. The trick is to not overuse it. So we did a lot of a mixed collage of effects. Like the meat moving across the floor, we decided to do it all practical just with fishing line and pull the stuff and go in with digital and take out the fishing line.”
One of the film’s most memorable creatures is a meat monster who Dave and John bust early in the film. That was a guy in a suit. “It was awesome,” Williamson said. “They had to lube him up all the time. I had sausage wrapped around my neck for a while. I like the moustache bat a lot.”
The moment that brings down the house is when the meat monster takes a cell phone call. “The fellow who played the meat monster, he’s never been in a movie before,” Coscarelli said. “I don’t know if that was direction or if he did that on his own. You know, whenever anybody takes a cell phone call, they kind of turn away from the other people. It’s funny the audience response to that. It wasn’t meant to be a joke but they just love it.”
Mayes had a hard time choosing a favorite ‘John Dies’ monster. “My favorite monster in the film, can we consider perhaps Largeman a monster?” Mayes asked. “I do. Daniel Roebuck’s character who’s like, ‘We’re so happy you are here.’ He’s terrifying. Meat Monster’s super, super cool. You know actually, one of my favorite parts now that I’m thinking back to it is Angus Scrimm, when he’s like, ‘Your mother writes on a wall with her own sh**.’ That was terrifying for me.”
One of our favorite monster actors, Doug Jones, actually appears in the movie without makeup or prosthetics on. “The thing was, he was such a strange character from the book,” Coscarelli said. “In the book they had described him as wearing all kinds of funny clothes and women’s clothes. I just couldn’t see that working and I thought, ‘I need to get a really unique actor.’ One of the guys who was working on the movie, we’d talked to a couple of different people. We even talked to Jeffrey Combs but he was unavailable, because I always like his work. Then somebody said, ‘What about the guy who played Abe Sapien?’ We were just like, ‘Oh, yes!’ I met Doug and he is the absolute nicest gentleman in the world. There’s big love as he likes to say. He’s a mime and if you see him, watch how he acts, when he’s talking about that thread.”
When Dave gets injected with Soy Sauce, the supernatural world to which he’s already accustomed spirals totally out of control. Coscarelli found Wong a kindred spirit in the kind of material he wrote.
“In senses of unreality, really having it be strange and getting to stranger places,” Coscarelli said. “Yeah, absolutely but you can also see that there are similarities. I think one of the most interesting comments I got was from the book’s author, David Wong, actually it was from his wife telling me how he had grown up with ‘Phantasm’ and he actually sees ‘John Dies’ as being a parallel story. I don’t exactly get it myself but he really sees them being parallel stories. Maybe that’s why I was reading his book and going, ‘Oh, this reminds me of ‘Phantasm’ a little.’ But stranger and cooler and better in some respect.”
For the actors it was like making a different movie every day. “The funniest thing is I’d come home from work, and my roommates would be like, ‘So, how was work today? What did you shoot?’” Mayes said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, the flying moustache. Then we had to beat up Korrok. Then this girl is blown up into snakes.’ He’s like, ‘I cannot wait to see this movie because it sounds like a different movie every single day. It was crazy because it was like we’d do this scene, now we’re going to do this scene, oh my God, I totally forgot about that scene. And this scene, where does this scene fit? So making the movie you feel completely discombobulated, I did at least. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without Don’s help but I think part of that kind of lends itself to the film. As an audience member you kind of feel as though you’re under the soy sauce effects. You’ve kind of ingested this whether you want to or not. You’re going for the trip. That’s how I felt when I was filming.”
Aside from his role as producer, Giamatti really wanted to be in a Don Coscarelli movie too. He played the role of Arnie, a man who comes to Dave for some supernatural help. It’s a small role but the only one Giamatti felt he could play. The role of magician Marconi was already taken by Clancy Brown.
“I don’t really think I would’ve been right for Marconi and I really didn’t care,” Giamatti said. “I was like this is great and I just want to be in it. I thought this’ll be fun, sure. I think he got a far better guy, the right guy for Marconi.”
Finding the leads took a lot of auditions to land on the right combination of young actors. “We both had to come in and read a bunch of times and had to kind of work for it and hope for the best,” Williamson said. “I was in 3 or 4 times I think, not counting when [Mayes] was there because I got cast before they started casting John. So I came back for the callbacks and read with some people. Before that I’d been in three or four times.”
If day to day filming was confusing, imagine auditioning with a single scene out of context. “The way that the whole process evolved was so cool because I didn’t have a script,” Mayes said. “I had one scene that didn’t make any sense to me, the scene where I was in the truck and I get electrocuted by the dog and I come back to life. I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Let’s just go for it.’ I go in the room and they’re like, ‘Do you have any questions?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah! What the f*** is going on, man? I don’t know what’s going on.’ Just do it. So we did it and it was like whatever. Then I get the script and I read the script and I’m like oh my God. Then I meet this kid and then Don. Then I hear that Paul Giamatti’s producing it and in the movie and Clancy Brown. I was stoked from day one. When I read the script I was like, ‘Whatever this is it’s going to be great.’ Then finding out these little surprises along the way.”
Coscarelli and Giamatti still hope to do a ‘Bubba’ movie together. Giamatti wants to play Col. Parker but they have to find a new Elvis.
“‘Bubba Nosferatu’ has challenges in that you need Elvis to play both young and old,” Coscarelli said. “It’s a tricky actor to play that. You’d need to find a guy in his late 30s who could play Elvis at 42 and also at like 75 which is a real challenge. When Bruce Campbell declined to participate it really threw us into disarray and we just couldn’t solve that.”