Stranger Than Fiction: The Humble Start of ‘John Dies at the End’
January 21, 2013
Paul Giamatti and Don Coscarelli on the set of ‘John Dies at the End’/Image © Magnet Pictures
The new film “John Dies at the End,” based on the novel of the same name, is a pretty weird story. Narrated by “David Wong” (the book’s author), the tale revolves around two best friends (Wong and the eponymous John), who become what can best be described as “slacker paranormal investigators” after taking a drug, known as “soy sauce,” which opens their minds to the bizarre. Their madcap adventures include encounters with ghosts, invaders from a parallel universe, and a monster formed from butcher cuts of different meats. But the really odd part of the story is how this horror comedy started out as an online short story and ended up becoming a film starring Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti.
Here’s the background: David Wong is really Jason Paragin. For over a decade Paragin has been using the pseudonym as his byline, mostly noticeable on his website PointlessWasteOfTime.com, which he started in 1999 and ran while working a series of menial office jobs. (The site was eventually purchased by Cracked.com, where Paragin/Wong is now a senior editor.) It was there that Paragin published the first post that would become “John Dies at the End” (shortened through web speak to JDatE).
“One Halloween, I thought it would be funny to write a truly ridiculous but scary short story,” Paragin explained in an email exchange arranged by his publisher. “People seemed to like it, so the next Halloween I did it again, and it became kind of a tradition at that point, each episode picking up from the last.”
By 2007, the web serial had amassed a sizeable following and was about 150,000 words, when Paragin, who by then simply considered writing “an unpaid hobby,” was approached by small on-demand horror publisher Permuted Press with an offer to put “JDatE” into print. “I never thought seriously about being a full-time novelist or writer at all,” said Paragin. “I had given up on that years before. My biggest dreams at the time involved getting a sweet job setting up medical records databases.”
It was that first print edition, via an Amazon.com auto recommendation, that eventually made it into the hands of cult-horror filmmaker Don Coscarelli, best known for directing the “Phantasm” films and “Bubba Ho-Tep.” According to Coscarelli, the novel struck him as the perfect basis for his next film project. “The book was chockfull of amazing, creative ideas, which were right in my wheelhouse,” he told Word & Film. “I loved the horror, and more importantly I loved the humor.” Of course, that meant Coscarelli had to buy the film rights from Paragin, who thought the offer was a prank.
“I thought it was a fan screwing around,” recalled Paragin. But the director eventually convinced him that he was really Don Coscarelli and he really did want to turn “JDatE” into a movie. “I had no idea what was going on,” Paragin remembered. “I was working at an office doing data entry and one of my favorite directors shows up asking about my hobby.”
And while Paragin felt somewhat guilty about selling the rights (“I thought I was stealing the money,” he confessed), he was confident his story was in good hands (“Don Coscarelli mastered this style before I was out of elementary school”). It also helped that the director was focused on not disappointing Paragin. “He had put his trust in me and I did not want to let him down,” Coscarelli explained.
The film, which hits theaters January 25, is a fairly faithful adaptation, though the story is modified for film. Relative newcomers Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes play David and John, while veteran character actors Clancy Brown and Giamatti (who was also Executive Producer) fill in supporting roles.
Meanwhile, a major publisher, St. Martin’s Press, picked up the book’s second edition and in October, published the sequel This Book Is Full of Spiders, which some quarters of the Internet wonder about the chance it will be a film as well. It’s a prospect that both writer and filmmaker seem open to. “It all depends on how many people pay to see the first movie!” Paradin responded. “If everyone goes out and sees our movie it might open some doors,” Coscarelli added.
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