John Dies at the End is a tough movie to describe, but my initial impression from the trailers that it appeared to be Buckaroo Banzai meets Naked Lunch is probably as close as you can get to nailing down this cult film in-the-making about two amateur supernatural sleuths who take on such foes as a meat monster, a body-infecting swarm of alien souls, and an extra-dimensional sentient machine who is the source of all evil on parallel Earth.
Of course, I could just ask the people who made it to tell me more. So in the first of two exclusive John Dies interviews, I spoke with actor/producer Paul Giamatti – who is definitely using his fame and acclaim for good – in a wide-ranging conversation that also touches on Shakespeare, Mary Poppins, Bubba Nosferatu, The Goon and yes, even Big Fat Liar.
Luke Y. Thompson: How did you come to be an executive producer on this film?
Paul Giamatti: Well, I have a small production company, and we’ve done several movies, a couple of touchy-feely films, and I was interested in doing something with Don that was – anything really. We were interested in doing a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, in which I was going to act, and provide producorial services, and when this movie came up, the same deal was in place; we would help in whatever way we could as producers, and I would act in it as well. So any way we could help them get this movie made, I was willing to do.
LYT: When you talk about the sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, were you going to be playing Elvis, or a different role?
PG: No, it was a sequel called Bubba Nosferatu, in which I was going to play Colonel Parker, his manager, and a lot of it was about the relationship between Elvis and Col. Parker. Hopefully, we might actually get it done. If people like this movie, maybe it’ll help with that.
LYT: That sounds like pretty perfect casting.
PG: Yeah, it would be fun!
LYT: When you’re playing a role like this, I’m going to dance around spoiling anything, but your character is not what he thinks he is. As an actor, do you play only what he thinks he is, or do you throw in bits of what he doesn’t know he is?
PG: I only played what he thinks he is, because he doesn’t know he’s not – and then the fun of it is playing the crisis he has of realizing he’s not who he thinks he is, and the sort of sadness he has when he realizes…
So basically, there’s no need to play two things, because he has no idea.
LYT: Were you just on set for the days of your scene, or were you there to see some of the other craziness?
PG: A couple of other times. For the most part, it was mostly just the days that I (had to) be there. I went a couple other times to see him.
LYT: Was it a surprise when you saw the final film and saw how cool everything was?
PG: I did see parts of it as he was editing, so I was sort of aware, but to see the whole thing done and how closely he had realized what was on the page was kind of amazing. I was really, really happy with the whole thing.
LYT: What was it that made you a fan of Don’s in the first place that made you want to work with him? Was it the Phantasm movies, or Bubba Ho-Tep?
PG: Yeah, the Phantasm movies. I always remember them; I was very much a fan of the Phantasm movies. I saw the first one when I was a kid, when it came out, and I really liked the sensibility of them, the mixture of pop genres, the horror and sci-fi thing, and the humor. I’ve always liked them. Bubba Ho-Tep kind of particularly put me over the top. I really, really liked that movie a lot! So that was the one that made me want to work with him, more than anything.
LYT: Even though it’s early in the year yet, I think it’s safe to say this is probably one of the most original movies that we’ll see all year. Did that make it difficult to get made, the fact that it wasn’t really like anything that you could pitch, except maybe Naked Lunch?
PG: Well, we did originally submit this to one studio; a woman I knew at one studio, and she loved it. She wrote us a four or five page letter back, a point by point list of everything that she loved about this movie. Then the last thing on the letter basically said “Because of everything I’ve just pointed out to you, there’s absolutely no way we’d ever make this movie. Every single thing I love about this movie is why it will never get made.” So that was pretty much a clear indication that no studio was ever going to make it! (laughs)
So we had to make it off the grid, completely. Don was going to make it the way he’s made things before, which is an insane, laborious, crazy way of doing things, but it’s how he’s done it before. So it was not going to be compromised in its originality; he was going to do it in the crazy way that he does it. If we had made it at a studio, it wouldn’t be original. We couldn’t have made it.
LYT: It really speaks to what you can do on a low budget these days. If you compare the visuals in this to some of his other films, it’s a leap forward because of how easy the technology is to access at this point.
PG: He was saying that in Phantasm 4, they had two visual effects shots that cost something like ten to fifteen thousand dollars, and now you can do it in fifteen minutes on your computer, and it’s nothing. So it really is kind of astonishing that you can do this.
LYT: There’s more source material, and you’ve got an expansive world out here. Have there been thoughts of doing more with it, obviously with some regard to how it’s received and how well it does?
PG: Sure. It would be helpful if people like it. I know that David Wong, who wrote the original, the book, he wrote a sequel to it. That would be fun to do, if people like this. There are all kinds of ways this could continue on. I could almost see this being a good television show, in a funny way. I think it could work as a TV series. But if people like it, I’m sure Don would be game for doing something else.
LYT: Are you still involved with the Goon animated project?
PG: Yeah! Absolutely! Every now and then it surfaces; they’re doing stuff with it and getting money together for it. I recorded something else a little while ago, so absolutely, I’m eager to see where it’s going.
LYT: I know they raised their goal on the Kickstarter project, so I was wondering if they were going into production.
PG: I don’t think they have, not yet.
LYT: I live close to Universal Studios, and I have to say I’ve seen that climactic clip from Big Fat Liar with you so many times. Did you ever imagine that that would live on so long?
PG: Is that playing over and over again at Universal Studios?
LYT: Yeah, when they take you on the tour to the part where they do the water pouring down, that’s the clip they show.
PG: Really? Wow. That’s an immortal scene! (laughs) That’s hilarious. I didn’t realized that. That’s very funny.
LYT: Speaking as someone who sees all these things in the theaters at press screenings, we always love when good actors come on board in kids’ movies.
PG: I really loved it. I thought it was a really fun movie to do, actually. I loved doing that.
LYT: Was the blue paint really as bad as it seemed in the movie?
PG: It was tricky, yeah. It was hard. They had to literally scrub it off of me every night. Of all the kind of weird make-up effects I’ve done, it was the only one that was kind of uncomfortable.
LYT: And after this, you’re doing Shakespeare, right? You’re doing Romeo and Juliet?
PG: I did a Romeo and Juliet film that we did in Italy this past year that comes out this year at some point.
LYT: Was that a long-time goal, to do Shakespeare?
PG: I’ve done Shakespeare on stage; I’ve never done any on film. That was an unexpected thing to have come up. I was psyched to do film-Shakespeare, yeah; it doesn’t happen a whole lot.
LYT: What else are you looking at producing after John Dies?
PG: We have a deal with FX, the cable channel, and we’re going to be doing television stuff, I know that much; various kinds of things, hopefully there on television. Mini-series types of things, series, genre stuff, historical stuff, things like that. And that seems like more of what we’re going to be doing next, the TV thing.
LYT: Is there anything you can say about your role in Saving Mr. Banks?
PG: Sure! It’s a nice movie. It’s mostly about the woman who wrote Mary Poppins. It’s about the process of making Mary Poppins, and the tension between P.L. Travers, who wrote it, and Walt Disney. Emma Thompson plays P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, and she was a very difficult, prickly person. I play the only person she could deal with in America, who was her chauffeur. When she was in Los Angeles, she was assigned a chauffeur, who is the only American she liked and could deal with. And so that’s my part.
John Dies at the End is currently available on-demand, and opens theatrically January 25th. Tomorrow on TR: Don Coscarelli’s side of the story!