Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Q&A: Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli

A combination that works. (Shame about the Bubba Ho-Tep sequel.) 
It's weird how things work out sometimes. I was given two six-minute interviews with these gentlemen, which spelled death. What in God's name was I going to do with six minutes? It takes me three minutes to say hello to people. 

But I think this turned out really well. The key, I've learned, is to cut to the chase. Have a game plan ready, say a polite hello, and let's go. It also helped that Giamatti and Coscarelli were pleasant and eloquent, especially Coscarelli. Yes, the dude behind Phantasm and Beast Master is a mensch. 

Honestly, though, I would have loved 35 minutes with either guy. Soon, child. Soon. 

This interview originally appeared in the February issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


Paul Giamatti, the actor’s actor, loves variety. Don Coscarelli, the horror maestro behind Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep, has never been content to just throw gore on the wall and see what sticks.

These two men, who abhor the obvious, were meant to be together.

Giamatti has a supporting role in and is an executive producer for Coscarelli’s latest, John Dies at the End, a delightfully trippy, time-skipping adventure. (You can read my review on page TK.) Two things stand out about the film, opening February 8th in Philadelphia. First, Giamatti doesn’t go beyond his assignment. And that’s why he’s invaluable here and elsewhere: He can cooperate for a film’s greater good as well as lead the band. Second, Coscarelli shifts from shock to laughs to insight without losing momentum or creating annoyance. 

In separate phone interviews last month, Giamatti and Coscarelli briefly talked about John Dies at the End, working together, and their careers.

Giamatti is first.

Pete Croatto: I don’t know how to predict what you’re doing next. Since the summer, you’ve been punched in the face by a monkey (Rock of Ages), appeared in a Don DeLillo adaptation (Cosmopolis), and now a movie from the man behind Phantasm. How would you define your career path at this point?

Paul Giamatti: Oh, an unholy mess. I’m glad to hear you say it, that’s exactly how I like it. I don’t know where I’m going to go next; I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I do know what I’m going to do next, but I don’t like to have a plan. I like to do as many different kinds of things as I can. I just feel like it keeps me interested. It keeps me young. I feel like it’s kind of my job to go far afield and find different kinds of things to do.

PC: It seems like John Dies at the End ties into that.

PG: Yeah, sure. I enjoy movies like this. I enjoy kind of genre things like this and haven’t gotten much of a chance to do something like this. And I particularly enjoy Don’s movies, so yeah, this is something out of left field, but part of something that I’d been looking to do—a bit more fitting with the no plan thing.

PC:  I know that you and Don had wanted to do a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep, but that fell through. How did the two of you first meet?

PG: I was working in Prague on a movie called The Illusionist and I became aware that a guy that I liked named Eli Roth [the director of Cabin Fever and Hostel] was also working there. You’re in Prague, why not hang out together with the other people making another movie? I got together with him, and he was talking about Don. I had always liked Don’s movies—I had recently seen Bubba Ho-Tep, I was very enthusiastic about it. And he said, “Well, I know him.” And he kind of got us together when I was in LA the next time. Don and I went out and had a meal and he started talking about the sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep that he wanted to do. We became friends and tried to work on that, but it was Eli Roth that got us together.

PC: I remember first seeing you as a screen actor in Private Parts, which blows my mind. It will be sixteen years old this year.

PG: Wow, wow…

PC: Did you ever think that part would be a springboard to a remarkably varied career?

PG: No, no. I loved doing that movie. That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had making a movie. I was doing stage acting, and I figured that’s what I would do, which would be great. And I did not figure that that movie would particularly lead to much else at all. I guess it sort of did. I just started following the movie stuff that came along, and ended up doing more movie stuff than stage stuff.

PC: So, there was no master plan: “OK, I’ll transfer from stage to screen”?

PG: No, no. In fact, I’m going to do a play [Hamlet at the Yale Repertory Theater] again in a few weeks and I haven’t done a play in eight years or something like that. I was kind of shocked to realize it’s been that long that I haven’t done a play. I never intended not to be doing theater. If I had any plan, it was that I was going to do theater and subsidize a theater career by doing whatever TV or movie stuff I could do. And then it just changed into something else.

PC: What is it about the stage that you love?

PG: Everything about it is so different. It’s kind of a clichéd thing to say, but stage is the actor’s medium. You’re in control of it. The live audience and the audience’s reaction. And the physical space of it, there’s something I actually really miss: the freedom to think around in that space and act with your whole body, not sort of just your head for the most part. I miss it. It’s really fun. It’s kind of joyous in a way. Films can be totally great. It’s hard to describe [the theater]. It’s just a different thing. 

PC: How are you going to squeeze that performance in? You’re promoting this film, and looking at your IMDB page, it looks like you have half a dozen projects that are upcoming or in pre-production. Do you like being this busy?

PG: Not really, it’s too busy. I’m a little too scattered right now…A lot of those things I think are probably done. I have something to do in Texas and then I’m going to do the play. [Laughs] I’m a bit more lazy than it would appear to be.

And, now, Don Coscarelli.

Pete Croatto:  As a director, are you more attracted to the visual aspects of the story or the emotional? Because in watching Bubba Ho-Tep and John Dies at the End and even Phantasm, there’s a bit of a yin and yang going on.

Don Coscarelli:  Well, I like ‘em both. To me, there’s nothing like a movie that can capture you emotionally and, at the same time, a beautifully composed and designed shot. I come from a photography background and I just revel in that kind of stuff. I don’t know if I can pick one or the other. I like to shoot for both if I can.

PC: I don’t want call them horror movies, because it seems almost like a disservice to what you’re trying to do.

DC: One thing I’ve noticed during the process of this publicity it’s like retrospectively revisiting my career. It’s interesting that you bring this up because I look back at the movies and I think what I started in Phantasm and continued in Bubba and now into John is to really explore mashing up genres if you will. Phantasm was on many levels a horror film, but it was also a science fiction film, it was also a fantasy film, and it was also a comedy and it was also an action film. It had a lot of different things going on. And then I think about Bubba Ho-Tep in a very similar situation. We ostensibly had a movie about a mummy who is 4,000 years old at an old folks home, but the focus of the story [was] this drama—this story of dying with dignity—of these two old geezers. But at the same time it talks a lot about how we as a culture treat our elderly. It worked on a lot of levels, and I think John does the same thing.

PC: It’s very funny and it’s memorably graphic but there’s this philosophical side to it that caught me off guard.

DC: It really does. Some of the elements were in David Wong’s book. He had some monologues by some of these different characters, and I really tried to have them preserved in the movie because it was talking about some really deep subjects. In the context of this movie…I think we make that work.

PC: When I saw that Paul Giamatti was in your movie, my curiosity was piqued. Did you have any reservations working with him? How did it go?

DC: It went beautifully because the guy, in my mind, is one of the greatest actors working on the planet. To have him in a modest-budget horror film, or whatever we’ll call it—a mash-up—is a gift. To top it all off, he’s a decent and funny guy and a huge genre fan in his own right, so that part of it was great. And working with him was a total dream. The other great part about him is that, by nature, we used some lesser-known actors to play our two leads, especially Chase Williamson [who plays Dave, the film’s hero]. He had just gotten out of college, he had been in, like, one YouTube project video and his absolute first acting job of any sort, he’s on the first day of shooting with me and filming eight pages of dialogue with Paul Giamatti. Paul led him through it and made it happen. Some of the best acting in the movie is those two guys in the Chinese restaurant.

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