Monday, January 28, 2013

Coscarelli/Wong's JOHN DIES AT THE END: taking sci-fi/fantasy/horror/humor to new heights; at the roundtable with Don & Paul

While waiting for the round-table to begin with adapter/director Don Coscarelli and actor Paul Giamatti, TrustMovies was sitting in the large entry area of Magnolia Pictures, the subsidiary of which, Magnet Rekleasing, is distributing JOHN DIES AT THE END, he noticed several copies of the novel by David Wong upon which the film is based. So he picked one up and began reading. He was immediately taken with how true -- in both dialog and spirit -- to those first few pages was this convulsively energetic and crazy movie. While he knew almost nothing about the film before sitting down to watch it, being a fan of all the genres it so expertly blends (horror, comedy, science-fiction and fantasy), he became almost immediately aware of what a smart, speedy and hilarious movie this looked to be. By film's end he was not in any way disappointed.

Although TM was not a fan of Mr. Coscarelli's last film, the much-loved in certain circles Bubba Ho-Tep, which he found too slow and obvious, he has a great fondness for the filmmaker's earlier work like Phantasm and The Beastmaster -- both enjoyably old-fashioned in the extreme (though Phantasm probably seemed sort of new-ish at the time of its release). John Dies at the End (henceforth to be known as JDATE), however, is about as new-fangled as they come, and he can't tell you how much he admires the ability of Coscarelli, shown at right, to give us a film that keeps up with all this so very well. The effect is bracing indeed, so much so that you may feel, while watching, that if you stop to take a breath you'll miss something. You won't be alone.

Those who did take a breath and then couldn't catch up are probably still rubbing their heads in disbelief. (The friend who attended the screening with me -- we're both in our 70s -- hated the movie. "We must have read very different comic books when we were young!" is all he had to say.)

So what's the movie about? Well, a crazy new drug that has side effects unlike anything ever seen; two screwy friends -- Dave (beautifully played by relative newcomer Chase Williamson, above) and the titular, sexier and dumber John  (Rob Mayes, below) -- who get involved with this drug; time travel; other worlds; and a fellow named Arnie Blondestone (played by the amazing and wonderful Mr. Giamatti (two photos below), in what may very well be his weirdest role in a career of them); and a lot more. Or maybe a lot less. Don't hold me to it. See the movie and figure it out yourself.

Things happen, we go back and forth in time, and the world may be coming to an end. And all of this is racing by us with the kind of speed that, until this movie appeared, only drugs could provide. I don't claim to have understood it all but I had one hell of great time trying. For the Chinese restaurant scene alone, to which we keep returning and returning, and for what's in the trunk of that car, I will be forever grateful. And confused.

JDATE, in fact, is so satisfyingly swift and and swoony, with just enough sense and philosophical underpinning to give it the ounce or two of hot air it needs to propel, that it becomes a kind of instant classic -- a term tossed about far too often but here, I think, actually worth using. The movie will be imitated, for sure, but not successfully. One of a kind, after all, means one of a kind.

This oddity of oddities is currently playing in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt. It opens Friday in New York City at the Sunshine Cinema, hits another seven cities on February 8, and will then continue opening around the country in the weeks to come. (Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.) JDATE has also been playing via VOD since the end of December, where I suspect it has racked up a lot of viewings.

Note: Director Don Coscarelli will appear at the 7:30 
and 10:00 pm shows on Friday, 2/1, and Saturday, 2/2, 
at the Landmark Sunshine, 143 East Houston St., NYC 


At that round-table held a couple of weeks back (which I don't have time to transcribe fully), Coscarelli and Giamatti were in wonderful form: easy-going, affable, charming, funny and happy to address any questions tossed out to them. Mr. Giamatti (below) looked far younger than expected. He so often plays older roles, that I think many of us may have pegged him as a decade more senior than he actually is.

The two gentlemen told us how they came to this project and how young Mr. Williamson was cast. Giamatti in particular was lavish with his praise. Because the younger actor was more of a novice, there was some thought that perhaps Giamatti should slow down a bit until Williamson could catch up. ("Chase was way better at this dialog than I initially was, Giamatti told us") So instead, the award-winning actor noted, he found that he himself had to to catch up with Williamson, so on the mark and in tune with his character and dialog was this young actor.

How involved with Wong with writing the screenplay? "I pretty much did that myself. I would have loved to work with him," Coscarelli (shown below) explained, "but Wong had gotten another job and didn't have that much free time." The director and adaptor had a plan of how the book might be shorn down from 350 to 100 pages. When he approached Wong with his ideas, the novel writer, it turned out, had quite similar ones.

Has Mr Wong seen the finished film? Yes and he liked it a lot, for, as Giamatti points out, "The movie skillfully condenses the book, while keeping its tone quite well."

At one point, the actor was asked about all his upcoming films, which he then took the time to describe to us in some detail. (You can peruse the list of them by clicking here, then scrolling down. This guy works a lot.)

"When you saw the finished special effects," one blogger asked, "were you surprised at how great they were?" The director noted that he knew the effects team was going to do great stuff. Giamtti added, "When you think about how small this movie actually is, it is kind of astonishing how much it accomplishes and how good it actually is."

What's its like to see yourself on film? one person asked of the actor. "It's all right. You get used to it. I can watch myself now pretty easily."

Regarding how unusually fast the movie moves, "It might help if you have seen tons of other horror movies already," TrustMovies offered. "What amazes me is how well it works. And even though it gets beyond complicated, you can still follow it somehow."

"This is a genre that invites so much weirdness," explained Coscarelli, "so that a lot of interesting and good stuff can pop out of it." The director remarked that Hollywood and movie funding seems to run in cycles. He recalled trying to pitch a zombie project in the mid-90s. "Nobody would even look at it. A Zombie movie? Forget it!  But Hollywod is like that. Something new comes along, like J-horror, and then after a few years, it's imitated way too much. But some brilliant filmmaker is out there right now, doing something new and great. Horror fans are such optimists:  Once they've experience a really great scare in a horror movie, it stays with them."

The question, What's your favorite horror movies? drew interesting responses: Giamatti goes for the old Val Lewton films, and mentions in particular The Seventh Victim. "I really love them cause they are so very weird and were made for practically nothing. Lewton made six or seven and they are all great." Coscarelli: loves the old Univeral horror films from the 30s and 40s, and then Invaders from Mars and Godzilla from the 50s. "The 70 brought us Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Suspiria.  And now Cabin in the Woods -- which is so good it can't have a sequel!"

The director also brought up the concept of reality not always being what it appears. "This is always fun and worth thinking about.  When I first approached Wong about making the book into a movie, he said, "Yes this is perfect. In fact, one of your earlier movies is like the template for this." I said, "Of course: Phantasm. And he said no, no: Bubba Ho-Tep!

What is the soy sauce? one blogger wanted to know. "I always thought it was almost something sentient -- like a third character! Hmmmm. Now, that's interesting.

Has Giamatti ever done a horror movie before? "I can't remember any," TrustMovies told the actor. "Hmmm. Well, maybe something close to sci fi, but no, never a real horror movie. And that was one reason I was so intereted in doing this film. It gave me the chance to do some things I'd never done before."

I'll say. One of the treats of film is to seeing the actor do exactly that.

The round-table thanked the actor and director for their time. These guys were fun and smart and have now, along with novelist Wong, provided us with something new and different. This genre doesn't get much better than that.

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