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.
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