If Paul Giamatti had his druthers, right now he’d be promoting Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She Vampires, the never-filmed sequel to 2002’s Elvis-versus-the-undead classic Bubba Ho-Tep. Although Giamatti wasn’t in the original, he and Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli had big plans for part two, with Giamatti playing what could’ve been the role of his career, Elvis’s legendary (and power-crazy) manager Colonel Tom Parker. But despite five years of trying, it wasn’t to be. Instead, he and Coscarelli ended up collaborating on something just as weird and destined for cult infamy. John Dies at the End, based on a book by David Wong, is about… Well, that’s hard to say. It’s about two college dropouts who take a designer drug called “Soy Sauce” and then realize they have to save the world. But from what isn’t entirely clear. Aliens, maybe? It’s definitely something from another dimension, which may or may not be related to a monster made out of freezer meats and zombies stuffed with insects. I’ve seen the movie twice, and I still don’t think I could explain what it’s about. But it’s awesome, especially if you’ve ever made a bong out of an apple.
I recently called Giamatti to talk about John Dies at the End, which you can rent now on iTunes, or wait until January 25, when it opens in theaters. We talked about drugs, meat monsters, drugs, conspiracies, drugs, and drugs.
When I heard you were doing a movie with Coscarelli, my first thought was, “Bubba Ho-Tep! There’s finally gonna be a sequel to Bubba Ho-Tep!”
Yeah, unfortunately not. We got close on doing that, actually.
You got the money?
Most of it. But as frequently happens with these things, it went away suddenly. So Don put it aside and popped out this other thing, which he’d been adapting on the side the whole time. He seemed pretty confident we’d have an easy time making it.
Making a movie with penis doorknobs and heads that explode into snakes is easy?
I know, right? I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Really? Seriously? This is going to be easier to pull off than the Bubba Ho-Tep thing? Okay, fine, I’ll help you however I can.” It was a little Fitzcarraldo-esque, like pulling a ship over a mountain kinda thing. But he found a way.
The meat monster alone should’ve decimated his budget.
Especially since he didn’t want a CGI meat monster. He wanted it to have a campy feel. Don knows all of these special-effects guys, and they all like Don on a personal level. So they were willing to do stuff on the side for free.
And who can blame them? Don Coscarelli calls me and says, “I need a favor: grab a fishing pole and as much raw meat as you can fit in your trunk,” I don’t ask questions. Just tell me where and when.
That’s probably how he did it. And I think a lot of people were like, “Absolutely. Count me in.” That’s what I was like, too. Even though I was dubious that this book could be made into a movie, I was like, “Sure, whatever you need, let’s do it.”
You should get an Oscar nomination just for the scene where your character sees a giant bug and freaks out.
Thank you. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s flattering.
Come on. The liberal use of expletives, the spitting, the crawling backwards on your ass. It really had finesse.
You’re too kind.
How do you get there as an actor? What were you thinking about to get to that shit-your-pants-with-terror place?
Don told me what I was supposed to be seeing, and that helped. But mostly, I was just so happy to be able to have a super-freaked-out horror-movie moment. I’ve always wanted to be able to do that. So when it happened, I didn’t need any help getting into that emotional space.
In a way, it was a scream of joy?
It was totally a scream of joy, yeah. There’s a fine line sometimes.
Watching John Dies at the End made me feel stoned. Not “it would be fun to watch this stoned,” but as if the act of sitting and ingesting the movie had put me into an altered state.
Well, great. That’s definitely part of the idea. You should walk away with that feeling. I’m happy to hear that.
Do you get that a lot?
All the time. I remember when I was at the first showing of John Dies at the End at Sundance, and I was talking to some of the people in the standby crowd, who were outside and didn’t have tickets. They were just waiting in line to see if they could get in. It was this whole gang of die-hard sci-fi wacko people, and they were just fantastic. One of the kids said to me, “I would love to smoke a J with you some time.” And I was like, “Great, let’s do it right now.”
You said yes?
Sure, why not? But he was like, “Ah, dude, I don’t have any.” So I just said, “Well, I guess we’re done here. Moving along. I’ve got to get inside.” It ended sadly.
So you basically called his bluff?
I suppose I did. I wasn’t trying to.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Don’t offer to smoke weed with Paul Giamatti unless you’re actually carrying.
If he’d busted something out, I’d have smoked it. It would’ve been fun.
This is going to sound insane, but I found John Dies At the End weirdly relatable.
If you’ve ever consumed illegal substances, you’ve been in that moment of thinking you’ve got it all figured out, and there’s a frustration and hopelessness in trying to communicate that to somebody who isn’t… under similar influences.
Yes, yes, absolutely. It’s definitely got that feeling to it. And then the increasing panic that goes along with it. It’s got all of those complex emotions and sensations you would have while being chemically altered in some way.
Would it be appropriate to suggest that my mom see this movie, to help her understand what drugs are all about?
I think it would be an excellent primer on drug use. Wait, are you trying to show her that drugs are a good thing?
I’m not sure.
I don’t know if this makes a convincing case. It could be a superb way to introduce people to the perils of drug abuse. Or just the experience of it.
Or the benefits of it.
Yeah, yeah, I was just about to say. Because thank god the guys in this movie are taking drugs. Otherwise, they’d never know that the world is in danger.
Drugs could be the only thing protecting us from extinction.
They could, sure. Who am I to argue? I think you should always pay attention to somebody who’s under the influence of recreational drugs. I take what those people have to say very seriously.
You’re a fan of conspiracies, right?
A big fan. I am very fond of them.
Do you have a favorite? Do you like Roswell, the JFK assassination, the 9/11 inside job, Bigfoot? What’s your poison?
Nothing gives me quite so much giddy joy as the fake moon landing. There are so many great ones to choose from, but that just gives me enormous pleasure to think about.
The conspiracy itself, or the people who believe it?
The people. Most conspiracies interest me because of the people who are into them, and the lengths they’ll go to expose it or the evidence they think they have. All that stuff. There’s just something so beautiful to me about people who sincerely believe we never went to the moon. It gives me so much joy. And I think a part of it is the experience of having seen Capricorn One when I was ten.
Yeah. About the Mars landing conspiracy? Have you seen it?
Not in a few years. But yeah, I have. And I think I was stoned.
As well you should’ve been. Not that I was when I saw it for the first time.
You were ten.
Not really an appropriate age for that kind of thing. But I didn’t need it. Capricorn One just seemed like… wow. That was it, y’know? Nothing was ever going to be better than that movie. And few things have actually been better than that movie.
In your life or career or…?
Just in general. Every moment in life, there’s that question: Is this more satisfying than watching Capricorn One?
And it rarely is.
Is what I’m doing right now more awesome than a pre-murder O.J. Simpson pretending to be an astronaut?
How could it be?
Agreed. So getting back to the topic of drugs.
I may have a great way to promote John Dies at the End. Have you considered releasing a tie-in drug called Soy Sauce?
That would be great. The only problem is, it might not deliver on its promise.
It likely wouldn’t have the same effects it does in the movie.
How do we guarantee something like that? I don’t know that you could get something powerful enough to do the job. Although there is some stuff that comes close. What’s that drug that’s supposed to make people crazy? Bath salts?
Bath salts definitely make people crazy.
I think it’s also called the Tarzan drug, right? Because it makes people super-humanly strong?
It is? I’ve never heard that.
I think that’s what I heard.
The Tarzan drug?
I’m almost positive.
I dare you to get in a car right now and drive down to a rough neighborhood and ask some sketchy-looking dude, “Where can I buy the Tarzan drug?”
Okay, maybe I don’t want to do that. Come to think of it, bath salts may not be the right drug for this at all.
It’d give people the wrong idea about the movie.
Exactly, yeah. Selling a movie tie-in drug probably isn’t a bad idea, but I don’t know who’s going to cook up a strong enough drug with the right side effects.
You want a drug that’ll make people see meat monsters and penis doorknobs and that kinda thing.
Not try to eat some homeless guy’s face.
Exactly. We don’t need that kind of publicity.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)