Here we are, the big day!
Master of Nonsense Damien Sage meets Master of Everything John Carpenter!
As my readers probably have gleamed by this point, I love John Carpenter. He is a flawless cinema craftsman, especially of the Horror Genre. He has written and directed several classic genre films, including, 1978’s Halloween, 1980’s The Fog, 1981’s Escape from New York, 1982’s The Thing, and 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, to name just a few. Even his “failures” are successes in my book. Everything he’s been intimately involved with is a pleasure to watch.
That being said… I think I either actually went, or just came across as, a little hard on him. I definitely didn’t mean to. But, I was so excited to have gotten this interview, and there was just so much I wanted to know that I went a little overboard, I think… I hope this wasn’t the case… But, see for yourself I spose.
11 Questions, and 11 Questions Only (except this time.)
This interview took place on February 28th 2012 between myself and Mr. Carpenter directly.
As per the format of ’11 Questions’ I submitted my questions cold and let the interviewee do the answering. Any “conversational awkwardness” is because of this and is unintentional.
(The interview has not been edited in any way (for grammar, spelling or otherwise) to make either of us look better.)
DS– Dark Star, released in 1974, was your first theatrical film. It’s a delirious parody of the sci-fi genre, particularly the Kubrickian brand of science fiction. Shot for a mere $60,000 it’s an equal parts witty and crass tour-de-force showcase of your “man of many hats” filmmaking talents. The film (co-written by Dan O’Bannon) also ended up being something of a ‘test run’ for what became 1979’s Alien. Did you ever feel any resentment over having a creation you so notoriously slaved over co-opted in that way with little recognition on your part?
JC– Not really. Dan O’Bannon was a close friend and we worked on DARK STAR for 4 years. We parted ways after the movie. In 1976 he told me he was writing an IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (monster in a spaceship) variation. I read his script some time later. It was close to DARK STAR in many ways, but really not similar in tone or vision. I understand Walter Hill (executive producer of ALIEN) rewrote O’Bannon’s script in a weekend.
DS– Still thinking in the extreme low budget range; I’ve often felt, as a filmmaker (in the no budget world) myself, that, despite the overall limitations having little money to work with provides it causes one to be more genuinely creative and inventive. I’ve never written or conceived of a film myself that would even come close requiring the 100-250 Million Dollar budgets that get thrown around so often these days, and I would never want to. I think that there is such a thing as too much money. It stifles the imagination in my opinion. Induces cinematic lethargy if you will. You seem to be the ultimate proponent of this ideal (unwittingly or not) as almost all of your films, starting with Dark Star and continuing to this day, have never had the budget you’ve necessarily wanted (or deserved.) How much of a help has this been, and how much of a hindrance?
JC– A low budget movie is a challenge. A director has to be decisive, clever and inventive. Some say more creative. I don’t know about that; it’s nice to have a few bucks. I’ve had as much as 50 million for a movie. Didn’t make it any easier. A realistic budget is probably the best.
DS– In 1976 you once again pulled double (triple, quadruple…) duties on the making of Assault on Precinct 13. The movie is a moody, stylish, intense urban western by way of exploitation films and, one of the best of it’s type from the 70’s. I’ve always loved the taut pace, but loose feel it has (almost like it was improvised as you made it.) It’s the first of your films to be shot in Panavision 2:35 and it features the birth of the more wry sense of humor that would punctuate your future works. Despite working with another staggeringly low budget on the project ($100,000) you did have complete creative control. Is the finished project ultimately everything you wanted it to be?
JC– Yes, I had complete creative control. Looking at it now, it feels too slow. A kind way of putting might be ‘leisurely tempo’ or ‘stately pace’. I’m happy enough with the movie.
DS– Between Assault and Halloween you wrote the screenplay for 1978’s quasi-giallo, The Eyes of Laura Mars. I personally would have loved (still would love) to see you direct a true Dario Argento/Mario Bava-esque, ultra lurid Giallo style thriller (Halloween not withstanding.) And, while the finished product is still a respectable film (I love the performances from Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones and a lot of the supposedly “risque” photo shoots) I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like under your watch (and with Barbra Streisand in the lead role!) How is the final film different from the script you wrote and what would you have done differently had you gotten to direct it?
JC– In my version Laura Mars was a crime photographer. Also, I think Irvin Kerschner failed at making the visual style of the visions compelling. Finally, if you could see through someone else’s eyes you would be essentially blind to your own surroundings. You’d experience vertigo, lose your balance, etc.
DS– Your next film as a director was of course,. The film is a true classic of the horror genre and a master class of creating terror and suspense on a low budget. So much has been asked and written about the film (I myself did a dissertation on the series as a whole) I kind of hate to beat that dead horse myself. So, I figure I’ll take a slightly different route and ask about Donald Pleasance. I’ve long been a fan of his work. His brand of classy “scenery chewing” has given me endless hours of delight in my life and you got to work with him on several films… Was he as much of a hoot to work with as he was to watch and were there any projects you would have liked to make with him that you didn’t get to?
JC– Donald Pleasance was a close friend. Amazingly funny, kind and enormously talented. Plus he was an RAF fighter pilot in World War 2.
DS– You, by proxy Halloween, are pretty much credited with creating/popularizing the modern incarnation of the “jump scare” or “cheap scare” as you called it at the time. ie. Where an object/thing/monster/person/spring loaded cat jolts up into the fore or background of the frame, often accompanied by a musical cue or sound effect sting. You always make it work excessively well, but I despise the technique (even though I’ve fallen prey to using it myself) in almost every other of the countless number of horror films it has been used in. Do you have any regrets on kick starting the trend and do you have any advice to people on wielding it properly if they must use it at all?
JC– I didn’t invent the jump-scare. Val Lewton invented it in the 1940’s. It was called “the Lewton bus”. Check out THE LEOPARD MAN ( I think). Or maybe THE CAT PEOPLE. Secondly, usel it wisely or not at all if your images and situations are strong enough.
DS– You later contributed to the scripts and production of 1981’s Halloween II and 1982’s III: Season of the Witch (both of which I personally hold in high regard, along with Halloween 4, not so much after that), much to your apparent chagrin. Was money ultimately the supreme motivating factor in your involvement with those films or was it an effort to have some sort of hold on your most successful (at that time) creation, and do you have any regrets with helping to make those sequels now?
JC– I couldn’t stop the HALLOWEEN sequels from being made so I decided to collect a few coins writing the script for H2 and the music for H2 & 3.
DS– 1980 saw your next directorial effort, The Fog. In it you re-teamed with Halloween’s starand your wife at the time, the always alluring Adrienne Barbeau, to craft an old fashioned ghost story. I love the movie, it has a very “Hammer Horror” sort of feel, but it has always felt somewhat hurried or incomplete to me, almost like you were tired when you made it. Was this the case? Sort of making the film “just because” as it were or was it outside forces (the low budget again, working with your wife AND ex-girlfriend [Producer Debra Hill] at the same time, rushed time frame, etc) that ultimately caused your first somewhat uneven work?
JC– I agree THE FOG is uneven. The problem is the script was underwritten.
DS– The expansive, post apocalyptic action film, Escape from New York came next, in 1981. Despite a slightly slower pace than you were known for at the time, it was a return to top form after The Fog. Inspired by the Death Wish “city as a sick jungle” mentality you wrote the script much earlier in your career but nobody wanted to touch it then (due to it’s extreme violence and, for the time, weirdness.) When you finally got to make the film you once again had to shoot on a minimal budget, but still had total creative control, allowing you to cast Kurt Russell in the lead role, Snake Plissken (much to the dismay of producers who wanted a more established star.) If you could, would you go back and change anything about Escape from New York “George Lucas style” or is it the film you ultimately wanted it to be?
JC– No. I wouldn’t change ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.
DS– 1982 brought about my personal favorite of your films, The Thing (your remake of Howard Hawk’s seminal sci-fi/horror classic The Thing from Another World.) Working with the backing of a major studio for the first time you again teamed up with Kurt Russell and a cadre of the “Carpenter Regulars” and shipped off to Alaska to craft the film. The movie is a pitch perfect example of on screen terror in my opinion (in fact whenever I want to scare friends who have never seen it, but wish to be really frightened by something, I break out my laserdisc of the movie and watch them squirm.) In it you have the subtle, suspenseful, offscreen or just off frame sort of scares you were known for at the time and some of the most visceral, Lovecraftian, special effects/gore sequences (from the wonderful Rob Bottin) ever to grace an R-Rated film (in my opinion they’ve never been topped) in addition to a superbly well acted and written horror/thriller. What was it like moving to the “big leagues” on this film and was there anything they ultimately didn’t let you do that you really wanted to with the film?
JC– THE THING had a good budget. It was difficult to make (locations, special effects). I also struggled with the implications of the story. My editor Todd Ramsay gave me good advice: embrace the darkness.
DS-Despite it’s later (highly positive) critical re-assessment, The Thing was something of a “flop” at the time of it’s release (aside from being released the same weekend as ET I can’t see what people DIDN’T see in the film then that warranted such hatred.) How did the unfortunate fate of the film effect you on a personal level?
JC– THE THING was hated by a majority of critics and fans. Cinefantastique magazine asked at the time, “Is this the most hated movie of all time”. If THE THING had been successful, my career would have been different. I believe the movie was hated because it was too strong for 1982’s audience.
DS– Also, The Thing recently received it’s own (mediocre) remake/prequel. Aside from budgetary/fee reasons, why not go with your far more interesting sounding proposed sequel following the two survivors of the original film immediately after it’s events? And, is there any chance now, after the failure of the prequel, your continuation might ever see the light of day?
JC– My guess is that no more sequels to THE THING will be made.
DS– After a mixed Stephen King adaptation, 1983’s Christine, you avoided horror for several years. Working on sci-fi/action scripts for The Philadelphia Experiment and Black Moon Rising, directing the (terrific) fantasy/romance film Starman (with Jeff Bridges) and directing my second favorite of your films, 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China. Once again you have Kurt Russell in the lead (channeling his inner Bruce Campbell) as bumbling “hero” Jack Burton, for a strange and hilarious action/comedy/kung-fu/fantasy hybrid that never ceases to tickle me pink. Was this period of time and this film in particular a conscious decision on your part to veer out of horror territory, or were they merely the projects that just happened your way?
JC– CHRISTINE, STARMAN and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA were all projects that came my way. I felt comfortable directing these movies; they are either horror, science-fiction or fantasy.
DS– On that note, with Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China and later Memoirs of an Invisible Man, you have shown that you are more than adept (quite skilled in fact) at creating film works outside of the horror genre (especially when compared to your contemporaries Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, etc.) And, despite subsequent acclaim from critics and “the audience” at large a lot of your non-horror films have found in the ensuing years since their initial creation, most of them, especially the more light hearted ones, were considered failures at the time of their release. How did/does this make you feel, or do you relish your “master of horror” label without resentment?
JC– I embrace Master of Horror. I love horror movies, I love making horror movies. Many people forget about STARMAN or MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN. That’s fine. The audience likes what it likes. I’m both happy and disappointed with every movie I’ve made.
DS– In 1987 you released the second part of your “apocalypse trilogy” Prince of Darkness (The Thing was the first and later In the Mouth of Madness was the concluding chapter.) The film has always terrified me in a way I can’t quite explain, particularly the cryptic “message” and ambiguous ending. However, I’ve always felt like there was something missing from the film, something you weren’t able to add or do at the time; is this the case, or is Prince of Darkness the film you intended it to be from the start?
JC– If you felt creeped out, uneasy after watching PRINCE OF DARKNESS then there’s nothing more that I would want to add.
DS– 1988 saw the release of They Live. Yet another of your films somewhat maligned at the time of it’s creation, but later reevaluated and beloved. The plot, involving the discovery that aliens have been numbing, hypnotizing and controlling the masses via subliminal “right wing” propaganda hidden in advertising and watering down the media (and essentially reality itself) was quite prophetic (especially considering the depressing state of politics and the entertainment industry today.) And, star Roddy Piper’s infamous ad lib “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” has become a “household phrase” amongst the “cultish” set. How do you feel about society, politics, the media and the industry, today, have your worse fears (expressed in the film at least) been confirmed, surpassed or unmet in your opinion?
JC– The ethos of the 80’s never ended. Even the recent financial crisis didn’t stop it. If anything, things are worse. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a capitalist. I’ve made a great living directing movies. But unrestrained capitalism is a very destructive thing. Look at the rising poverty rate these days. This is, in fact, an ancient tale about the state of humanity told and retold. THEY LIVE is, in fact, a documentary.
DS– My third favorite of your films, and a truly unsung masterpiece of modern horror,came in 1994. The film about a missing horror novelist and the increasingly terrifying events surrounding his disappearance, starring Sam Neill, is your ultimate homage to the works of HP Lovecraft (and in fact the only time anyone has ever done cinematic justice to his works, aside from perhaps Stuart Gordon, even though it is indirect.) I’ve never loved Lovecraft’s actual, direct writing abilities, but have long admired his ability to craft utterly terrifying ideas and concepts outside of their time and beyond the boundaries of reality as we know it. Recently, due in part to my own and my friends admiration of Lovecraftian horror (and the fascinating scientific and metaphysical ramifications presented within his works and unexplored by most filmmakers,) I have been slowly working on an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth (with a dash of several other of his stories thrown in.) If you could do a direct adaptation of one of Lovecraft’s works what would it be and why, also, why have you never mounted it?
JC– Good luck on SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH. Dunno about slopping, flopping fish people though. I wish Guillermo del Toro had been able to make AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. I love many Lovecraft tales; THE DUNWICH HORROR, THE RATS IN THE WALLS, and especially THE OUTSIDER. I would love to make THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE, but it won’t happen.
DS– Quite a few of your films (and too many others not related to you) have been remade in recent years, notably Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and Halloween. Unlike your masterful remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, most modern “re-imaginings” are thoroughly lacking in the latter part of that most bandied about term. Have you watched any of the remakes of your films (even those you were somewhat attached to,) if so, what are your opinions of them and the current fad of repeated revisiting, on the whole?
JC– I enjoyed the remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. The others… no comment.
DS– 1995’s Village of the Damned, 1998’s Vampires, 2001’s Ghosts of Mars and your most recent effort, 2010’s The Ward, have met with mostly tepid receptions from audiences and critics alike and featured relatively little of the true “Carpenter Magic” in my opinion. Have you tired of the horror genre, filmmaking in general, or have the various production woes, budgetary restraints and studio meddling that have famously hounded your projects just taken it’s toll on you as an artist?
JC– I don’t know.
DS– Once Upon a Time in the West is my all time favorite film. There’s something about the movie that stirs every part of me, both as just a guy watching the picture and as an artist. You’ve long stated that one of your ultimate dreams would be to make a Western and I’d love to see you do one. Particularly of the ‘Spaghetti’ variety. You’re one of the most accomplished visual stylists of cinema, and your repeated “pseudo-westerns” (Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China, Vampires…) have more than shown that you could craft an excessively unique take on the genre, given the chance. Is creating a true “John Carpenter Western” the final frontier for you? If so (despite them being a tough sell) why haven’t you done one yet and/or do you have the perfect script already waiting around for the opportunity to present itself?
JC– I’m working on a Gothic western. We’ll see if it gets made.
I just want to end this with a great big Cthulhu tentacle hug thanks for John Carpenter. And, once again, REALLY hope I didn’t make him mad. I did come across a little fannish (in the bad way.) But, I am a big fan, so… yeah.
Also, wanted to interject that I meant to put in an “erroneously credited with creating the modern equivalent of the jump scare” back up there in that related question. But, that’s what I get for getting over zealous at times. Haha.
Overall though I hope everyone enjoyed this one, I know I did, despite my various minor faux pas.
And, along these same lines, next month’s interview is going to be with the former Mrs. John Carpenter, Genre Queen and all around brilliant actress, Adrienne Barbeau! (I promise, in advance, her interview is a DELIGHT.)
And, Coming Soon you all should be hearing from renowned character actress Lin Shaye, Elvira Mistress of the Dark herself Cassandra Petersen, the legendary Sybil Danning (who is going to be supplying your truly with some exclusive news,) Academy Award Winner Lee Grant, and many more!
Until then, look forward to new reviews, comedy articles, and production information on my next feature films “SOMETHING” and “Crime Against Nature!”
PS. Anytime any of you get the chance to take a listen to some of John Carpenter’s DVD commentary tracks (particularly when teamed up with Kurt Russell) please do so. They’re informative and hoot worthy.
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