Oftentimes, when an actor lays claim to the Hollywood mainstream, he will shy away from some of the weirder, more niche (and often more interesting) projects that might have launched his career to begin with. But Paul Giamatti, a performer who has no deficit of major Hollywood roles, stays loyal to the offbeat cinema for which he clearly has a passion. Giamatti stars in the wholly bizarre horror/sci-fi comedy John Dies at the End, directed by Don Coscarelli (who also spoke to us about his thoughts on the cult movie phenomenon) from a novel by David Wong. Facing off with big screen newcomer Chase Williamson as a necromancing loafer, Giamatti takes on the role of an impassioned reporter investigating the strange stories of his newest contemporary (a role that actually draws inspiration from the actor’s real life experience). Below, Giamatti discusses the process in delivering such a strange piece of film, and where exactly he thinks the future of the industry is headed… is Hollywood setting up to treat us to more of the “weird”? Or will we have to seek elsewhere for our cult obsessions?
Right off the bat, I’d love to know what attracted you to the movie to begin with.
I’d been eager to work with the director, Don Coscarelli. I’m sort of a fan of his movies, and a fan of lots of genre movies — horror movies and science fictiony stuff. And his movies kind of cut across the genres. I was eager to work with him, and he sent me the script. And I thought it was really, pretty crazy. He seemed very confident that he could make this on a small budget, and in a very “off-the-grid” way — which seemed exciting to do, too.
Were you familiar at all with the novel beforehand?
No, He told me it was a novel. I did not read the novel until afterwards. I often don’t — if I do something based on a book, a lot of times I don’t actually read the book.
Because you don’t want to influence your performance?
Right. I’ve got to just have one thing that I’m working from. That said, I will fudge things and I do sometimes read… I can just sort of tell sometimes that I shouldn’t read something, that it just isn’t going to be helpful. And I’ll read it later. I abuse that policy sometimes, but for the most part I feel like I should just have the one thing to work off of. Not two different.
With that, since we don’t really get too in depth into the background of your character, how did you develop him and figure out what he was about?
I said to Don, when I read the script, [my character] sort of seemed like a kind of guy who has aspired in his career to be like a Rolling Stone reporter, but never got there. He’s a bit of an archaic, lefty, free newspaper kind of guy. His heyday was the late ‘70s. I thought that was an interesting, funny kind of guy. And Don said, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
And there was actually a specific journalist, the first journalist I was ever interviewed by — I don’t remember his name, or where he was from — but he just had this incredibly, hilariously skeptical attitude about everything. It was very funny to me. So, I remembered this guy, and I just kind of played him.
Is that something you do regularly, or that you’ve done in the past? Channel people you’ve met into characters you play?
There are some times in my life when I’ve been conscious of doing that. I’m sure I’m doing it all the time unconsciously. There are a couple of times where I’ve remembered that I’ve just seen in the street, who really struck me. I remembered [them] and consciously used that, sometimes.
This movie is definitely one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a little while. From script to screen, with a movie like this, was there any pushback to make the movie more accessible?
I sent it to one studio. The woman that I knew there is a very nice woman, who was very enthusiastic to do something with us. I sent her that, and she sent us back a very nice letter — very enthusiastic, loved the script, four or five pages going through it with a fine-toothed comb, naming every wonderful thing about it… and then, at the end of the letter, she said, “Everything that I have listed here is exactly why we can never make this movie.”
So, one of the reasons we then said, “Screw it, we’ll go completely off the grid and do it,” is because you can’t make this movie and then have somebody step in and say that you can’t have a talking dog. Or that you can’t have the doorknob turn into a penis. Somebody like Don has got to be able to make the kind of movie he wants to make, or there’s just no point to doing something like this.
That said, we were co-producers on it. All of us, as producers, our mission was to support Don as much as we could. Moneywise and logistically … so that he could make a movie with no interference about what the movie should be like.
In the direction that the film industry is going, do you think that there is becoming more of a welcoming presence for movies like this? Is there more of a place for weird, strange movies? Or is it going in the opposite direction?
It’s so hard to say what’s going on. You can be somewhat cynical about it on some days, and say that nobody cares about things like this. On the other hand, if I really look at it, there seem to be so many more weird niches for stuff like this. So many other ways of seeing things and distributing them now.
I have a feeling that maybe “movie movies,” in theaters, are going to turn into giant, big old things, where they show stadium event-type movies. There’s going to be a bazillion other ways to see every other kind of movie. At some point, maybe it will turn into something like that. I actually think, at some point, maybe it will turn into something welcoming to weird, small things. Whatever that will look like, I actually think that the end point of it will be that you will be able to make more crazy things. I’m actually optimistic about it.
Speaking of stranger movies, there’s something I noticed in both John Dies at the End and another recent movie of yours, Cosmopolis. In both movies, we have you and one other character set in a single room for, pretty much, your entire performance. Knowing of your background in theater, I was wondering if there was any specific draw to those types of roles? Either from a theatrical background or anything else that makes it interesting?
It does make it interesting. I suppose it [because of my] theatrical background. Those things are often dialogue-driven in a way that movies aren’t always. So, it’s nice to feel like you have a lot of nice things to say again. I never really thought of that with this movie.
With Cosmopolis, part of the attraction was definitely that it was an almost 25-minute-long scene. A single scene in one place with nonstop, really complicated dialogue. That was enormously appealing, because you just don’t get to do things like that on film. It was its own weird little short movie, practically. That scene. It was very challenging in a great way. The appeal of it was — not even just as a stage actor — that this was something I just haven’t done. You don’t get to do that many 25-minute-long scenes on stage! It was a really unusual thing to do.
Did you feel that kind of challenge in John Dies at the End? Or was it different because it was broken up a bit?
It was broken up a little bit, but this was a lot of talking. There was a lot of dialogue to say. It was well-written exposition, though. There’s exposition that’s clunky, but this was fun, interesting expository dialogue. It was cleverly done, and with a lot of color to it. I actually really do like to be able to sit and just talk. It isn’t something you get to do in film a lot.
I would like to ask about working with Chase. You’re with him for the entire time, and I’m pretty sure this is his first feature role.
His first anything, really! He had done stage stuff in college. I don’t think he had ever done anything on film. If Don hadn’t told me this guy had never done anything, I wouldn’t have known. He certainly seemed in total control of what he was doing. Not for a second did this guy seem like he had never done this before. I felt like I was catching up to him, frankly. He was absolutely ready to go and terrific. He carries the whole thing. Really, genuinely, that whole movie is on him. He’s in practically — I think he is in every scene.
There are a lot of philosophicals questions and scenarios proposed in the movie. I was wondering if any one of them stuck out to you as the most interesting?
One of the things that really made me want to do the movie when I read the script was the monologue that the Rastafarian guy has about dreams. About the way that things happening outside of your dreams become apart of the dream, and vice versa. It articulated something that has gone through my head about dreams. It was amazing to read something like that. It’s kind of a fun idea, and actually kind of a creepy idea. I was excited to think that I could see that onscreen. The guy who does it, that actor Tai Bennett, does it so perfectly. It just makes me really happy how he does that. It’s kind of creepy, too, actually.
As for the fate of your character, the reveal at the end, was that something that took you by surprise when you read the script?
Yes. It was very weird. At first, I was just kind of like, “What the hell just happened to him? What the hell is going on?” It was very weird. And I actually really, really liked it. I find it so strange, that thing that happens there. Really odd. I loved that. It definitely took me by surprise. I didn’t think the guy was going to get drawn into the weirdness, particularly. I thought just seeing the crazy spider monster in the back of the truck was going to be it for that guy. To have him not even exist, in some way, was really interesting.
You know you have an interesting movie when a giant spider that suddenly appears in the back of a truck is not the peak of the weirdness.
No, that’s hardly the weirdest thing that happens! Really not at all the weirdest thing that happens. [Laughs]
John Dies at the End reaches theaters on Jan. 25. You can watch it now on iTunes, Amazon.com, and VOD.
[Photo Credit: M3 Alliance]