Silver Screen: David Wong’s John Dies at the End: A Local Author Sees His Novel Hit the Big Screen
The forthcoming comedic horror movie John Dies at the End, which stars Best Actor Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Paul Giamatti, is based on a novel of the same name by local author and Cracked editor Jason Pargin, written under the pseudonym David Wong.
Major imprint Saint Martin’s Press picked up the book in 2009, which is now available in both hardcover and paperback, and just printed the sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, in October. Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep, The Beastmaster, Phantasm) optioned and directed the film version of John Dies at the End, which will receive a limited theatrical release starting January 25.
“It was a prank, a Halloween internet prank on the few people who read my blog,” Pargin told Nightlife. “The idea was that the story would start as a traditional first-person true scary story-- what the kids on the internet these days would refer to as ‘creepypasta’-- that steadily got more and more insane as it went along. It was almost like an endurance test, to see how bizarre the story could get before the reader threw up their hands and walked away.”
However, people did not get sick of the story.
“[P]eople loved it,” Pargin said. “It became a viral hit, and they kept making me write more and more chapters to it until, after five years, I had hammered out something that was novel-length. So that whole time I was giving the story away on my website for free. Then in 2007 I got an offer on the film rights and, well, that was that. Keep in mind, I was not a professional writer at the time. I was working in a cubicle in a Medicare office in Marion. So suddenly I’m looking at this contract and it has all of these clauses about how we would split the royalties on potential David Wong action figures, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I need an agent.’”
Even if John Dies at the End doesn’t appear in local theaters, however, viewers can already enjoy the film.
“[I]t is available now on all of the streaming services-- iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, whatever video-on-demand your cable or dish provider uses-- but as for the theaters, they are doing the limited-release thing where initially it will come out in thirty to forty theaters, and how it rolls out from there depends on what kind of response it gets,” Pargin said. “I don’t see Carbondale on the list yet, but that’d be nice if it was successful enough to come here. I’d like to see it with a crowd again.”
Pargin did not help with the movie, but filmmaking and script writing are not where his interests and talents lie.
“I wasn’t on set and I didn’t ask for a chance to write the screenplay,” Pargin said. “I wouldn’t have known how-- not only have I never successfully written a script, but I wouldn’t have had any sense of what was or wasn’t possible with the budget, et cetera. I’ve attempted to write scripts in the past. It’s a whole different ballgame. The structure is so rigid: ‘The main character’s crucial choice must occur on Page 60!’”
His calls first experience seeing the film unusual.
“In what was by far the strangest experience of my life, I actually got to see it at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, at the big premiere with the cast and crew,” Pargin said. “It was bizarre. I had seen no footage beyond the trailer-- I kept in steady contact with the director but had not asked to see clips-- so I was sitting in this packed, rowdy theater next to Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown and the rest of the cast, and then they appear up on the screen, acting out this ludicrous story that came out of my head a few years earlier.”
The film brought back memories of writing the book, along with the unusual experience of seeing on-screen details that he created only in his mind’s eye.
“It was kind of an out-of-body experience, because I can remember where I was when I, for instance, came up with the opening scene, set in a Chinese restaurant with a grammatically incorrect neon sign out front,” Pargin said. “And now there it is on screen. They went out and found a real restaurant just like it to shoot in, and had that sign made, and hired an Academy Award-nominated actor to sit in there and act out the stuff I had written while sitting pantsless in my bedroom.”
Immediately following the film, he was thrust into answering questions from a crowd.
“When it was over I got up and ran to the bathroom,” Pargin said. “When I came back to get my coat, the producer grabs me and says, ‘They need you on stage, they’re doing the audience [questions and answers].’ That was the first I’d heard of that. And so then there’s a few hundred people shouting questions at us, and at that point I was sure it was all a hallucination. Anyway, I think the movie is great, but man, can you imagine how awkward it would have been if I had hated it?”
Part of the success of the novel comes from its unpredictability, something that Pargin kept in mind when writing it.
“I hate predictable stories, and I feel like even horror falls into that trap-- so often it’s just, here’s a mysterious monster/killer, now it’s going to kill most of the good guys, and at the end the lone survivor will find the monster’s weakness and kill it,” Pargin said. “Well, I feel like [John Dies at the End] is one of the few stories you’ll see in your life where you can stop it in the middle of a scene, try to guess where it’s going, and be wrong every time. One thing it’s not, is predictable.”
He attributes his success to hours and hours of writing, and recommends aspiring writers hone their craft through practice. When asked why he thinks his story was successful, that’s what comes up first: “Practice, and a short attention span,” Pargin said. “By practice, I mean I have been writing steadily, and I mean multiple pieces a week, on the internet since 1999. I have probably twenty-thousand hours of writing practice under my belt because of it. This was done in my spare time, and virtually all of it unpaid-- I would be hired to write on the web full-time in late 2007, with Cracked.com. And by short attention span, well, I have no tolerance for slow-moving stories. You let a scene, or chapter, or book run just as long as it has to in order to be effective, and then you move on. The readers really seem to appreciate that. Who has time to read these days?”
Self-publishing, the internet, and other factors have made writing professionally easier these days, Pargin said.
“The good news is, all of the barriers that scared me off of writing in my twenties-- I wouldn’t get [John Dies at the End] into print until age thirty-two, and wouldn’t hit the [New York Times] bestseller list until thirty-seven-- have fallen away,” Pargin said. “If you have talent, step one is to get practice, and for that, you can have a blog up and running in thirty seconds. You can have steady traffic showing up within a few months. If you can’t get a foot in the door with a literary agent or publisher, just go around them-- self-publish on Kindle, or via print-on-demand, or just do what I did and give it away for free on the internet to get noticed.”
However, lack of success in writing is now a much more personal thing.
“The bad news is, all of the old excuses are gone,” Pargin said. “Once upon a time, struggling writers told themselves that they’d have been successful if it just wasn’t for those dumb agents and editors who wouldn’t give them the time of day. Now, that’s no longer the brick wall it once was. Now it just comes down to what you can do, and how hard you’re willing to work. But if you aren’t writing, if you’re not forcing yourself to turn off the TV or XBox for an hour every night to get some writing done, then I have no sympathy for you. You need a few thousand hours of practice under your belt. There is no shortcut.”
Pargin, however, has a suggestion for where writers can get a start.
“If there are in fact any aspiring writers out there, my day job is at Cracked.com, the largest comedy site on the internet-- we did four billion page views in 2012, billion with a B-- and our articles are entirely user-submitted,” Pargin said. “We have a whole online workshop where you can work directly with the editors and other contributors. If you want a start, we can get you in front of a million readers in a few weeks if you’re good and willing to work your butt off. Come to the site and there’s a yellow button at the top that says, ‘Write for Us. Do it!”
For more information, visit <http://JohnDiesAtTheEnd.com>.