John Carpenter Interview

The following interview is taken from John Carpenter Collection, released now, and is reproduced with permisssion.

JC= JOHN CARPENTER
I= INTERVIEWER

JC:

Dark Star began as a student film when I was at the university of Southern California in 1970 and I was partnered with Dan O Bannon who is the production designer, editor and one of the actors in the film. He went on to have a very successful career as a writer and has directed on his own, so we put the movie together on 16mm over the course of four years three or four years, and it wasnt a movie shoot like we think of today, it wasnt you shoot the whole movie in one section in one block of time, it was shoot a scene, raise money, shoot a scene months later, raise money, shoot a scene and the effects were basically just a lot of animated effects, of on-set effects, kind of old-fashioned, old-school stuff, and it was a ridiculously ambitious movie for what we were doing and as I look at it now, pieces of it? I dont like to look at the whole thing anymore, its an amateur film. It was kind of a nice little amateur movie made at the time

Dan O Bannon really designed the effects of the movie so I have to give him ultimate credit for that and, uh, the ship itself, the dark star? the ship, was sculpted by Greg Jean and that was, uh? a model maker, and that was fibreglass, but the bomb for instance was a model of a box car I believe, or a train, a truck or a railroad car. Since 2001 its model kits stuck on, thats the standard, state of the art, makes it look sort of believable, as a scientific possibility, so we did the same thing

Well all these movies, Dark Star included, were spawned, influenced by 2001, the Kubrick film, because it broke such new ground with special effects, with shooting outer space, it suddenly looked like it was possibly a real thing. It turned out it wasnt really reality but it looked that way. So, uh, just the ideas in Dark Star, I think were probably more interesting than the way we executed them, the idea of the men isolated, this kind of meaningless mission that theyre on destroying various planets for whatever reason, and their existential dilemma, theyre so cut off from home, and theyre lost, and I dont know if thats really influenced a whole lot of films, but the situation; people in a spaceship, in close confinement having to deal with some problems, thats that goes back to IT The Terror From Beyond Space, I mean that goes way back so

Well my first film was released in theatres which was just fabulous, at least on my birthday, January 16th 1975, and right down here, actually this direction a few blocks away on Hollywood Blvd at The Hollywood Theatre, and it opened there, it great, I mean it was terrific. I was hoping, praying that someone would come and say we want you to direct a movie because thats what Ive always wanted to be as a director, and nobody came? it didnt happen, but I did get an agent out of the situation, and I began writing screenplays to get myself into the business. But it was a first step, it was something to show, I dont think it would impress too many people

Assault on Precinct 13 was one of two ideas that I came up with, uh, for this investor, he wouldnt invest in a certain sum of money, wed make the movie independently, and I just sat down and wrote it uh, what were the influences of it? The basic influence of Assault was Rio Bravo? the situation, but only really in a kind of generalized way, not in a specific way. But it was written to be an exploitation movie at the time, an action film, a siege film, and, er, god when you think about it now, Im sitting here and its been thirty something odd years since I made that film, although 1976, when I made Assault, it had only been about sixteen or seventeen years since Rio Bravo was out, so time was compressed, so oddly, uh, it was still fresh in my memory from having seen it as a kid. That was an inspiration, also just, uh, the limitations of budget. If you look at the movie theres some exterior shooting but mostly it takes place in one set, well that was the, you know that was the gig at the time and also that was my first Panavision widescreen film which I was dying to do, because I love widescreen. The most explicit tribute to Howard Hawks was in the credits of Assault on Precinct 13, the editor was John T. Chance, thats the character, the sheriffs character from Rio Bravo, thats if anyone wants to see it. But, just the idea of people in an enclosed space, dealing with this kind of hostile world outside, that was sort of Hawks, you look at the Dawn Patrol, theres this little bar, where the flyers would find meaning, you look at Only Angels Have Wings its the same thing, everything is dangerous out in the outside world, but here is where you have some sort of safety? Rio Bravo, El Dorado, I mean all the action kind of films, even Airforce? the safety is in the airplane, in a sense, all around is this kind of evil, and thats always appealed to me. I dont know that, uh, this is my own personal opinion, I think Hawks is maybe one of the greatest filmmakers because hes made a great movie in every genre, and hes just so understands movies, he made films with movie stars, and there were popular films that also expressed his personal point of view, his personal feelings about something; his feelings about masculinity, about male and female, uh, relationships, in comedy all throughout his movies regardless of how, sort of, studio-driven they were, they were his personal canvas to work on? that I admire a great deal and also his invisible, his invisible camera technique, which was, in a sense the technique of the thirties and forties when sound came in, and some of the great directors perfected their craft, Hawks included, uh, and Jean Ford? the invisible technique was that you didnt notice the camera in there, it was just in the right place, I always admired that, I think its deceptively simple? its hard to get that and to pull that off

I:

I heard a story about how you cleverly avoided an MPAA X Rating on Assault on Precinct 13

JC:

I dont know how clever it was, well we had a scene where a little girl gets killed with a gun, and it was pretty horrible at the time, explicit, I dont think Id do it again but I was young and stupid, so there it is on the screen and the MPAA said they were going to give us an X, so the distributor of the movie suggested just cut it out, well show it to the MPAA and then just let it go as it was and those were the old days where they didnt check so much, so thats what we did so I dont know, I dont really think it was very clever, it was pretty ham-fisted

Well the one thing I have to say about me as a composer from my point of view is Im cheap and Im fast and Im riff-driven, meaning that most of the title themes in my films or most of the music is driven by a riff. If you think in rock n roll the most famous riff-driven band is the Rolling Stones, I can say Satisfaction to you and youd know the riff of it, well thats what I, you know, employ not as successfully but I use it and, gee, on Assault I had three days, or two days to do the soundtrack, so I was on a synthesizer, and a piano, and in that case you dont score the film, what you do is you record three or four or five pieces of music that you can use in various places and thats what I did in that case? very quick, very fast, very, uh, simple, and Ive always been inspired by Bernard Herman, who was a composer who was, I think, probably the best, who had this incredible impact, using very simple means, the best example of that being Psycho as a score with strings only, and his idea was more like a knife, or razor edged, and then the scene in the shower with the kind of attacking string section, but his work is just amazing, beautiful stuff, his clockwork, Bernard Herman, so that was inspired by him

I remember in one movie, in Christine, the mixers, I did a particular piece of music for a scene and they said to me we can use this under the whole movie, this supports the mood, and its just there invisibly, so it was a little like Hawks invisible camera style? music is kind of invisible, now theres another style of musical composition, kind of Max Steiner-esque? hes the king of Mickey Mouse, which is that you, Mickey Mousing is that you emphasize every movement on the screen, and then in King Kong is a perfect example that Mickey Mouses BOOM BOOM BOOM? every move is hit with music, and thats also great. The king of Mickey Mousing I would say is probably John Williams

I:

You shot Halloween, once again on a very low budget, three hundred thousand dollars, very quickly? twenty one day schedule, is that in certain ways kind of creatively invigorating, to be under that kind of pressure?

JC:

You know its, its a great fantasy to say that, that having a low budget frees you, actually its terrifying because youre never sure whether youre going to make it, get all the work done, so youre operating in, under this enormous fear and pressure, and its not freeing. What it is, its focusing, like going into war, it focuses you on, as a director on saying ok, Im not going to be able to get this material, this script done the way I might prefer it so let me approach this in a different way, and how much can I get done in a single shot? in a wide shot that can carry me along, so Im not relying on a lot of setups, meaning you shoot something, light it, shoot it, move it, then you have to relight it? it just takes you time. So its it focuses your attention, and you just have to go for the essence of the scene, its very good for a director to have to do that I wouldnt say its fun or pleasant, its always nice to have enough time and money to do it, always nice

You do a low-budget film and you dont have a lot of choices, so for the mask for Michael Myers, we couldnt manufacture our own, so our production designer, Tommy Lee Wallace went up to Burt Wheelers magic shop on Hollywood Blvd and he bought two masks. One was a clown mask, so he wears a clown mask, and I suppose theres a certain iconic image to that, but the other choice, he bought a William Shatner mask which is doesnt look anything like William Shatner, but its a human face, with some fake hair on it and he spray-painted it, kind of paled it down, and changed the hair a little bit, changed the eye holes? that was more like what was written in the script, the script was written to say the pale features of a human face? its a face mask, is what it was meant to be, so thats the one that was the most effective? it was as simple as that

Having a lot of time and money creates its own problems ok, but its not necessarily a bad thing to have too much of anything, I dont think any directors going to tell you; oh my god, I have too much time on this film thats awful, cant we just cut some days out of this, can we cut the budget down? This is just terrible!? No, it was better but there are other pressures that go with that, that you trade off, yes you can take your time, you can shoot a film in the way you think is the best way to do it, but on the other hand there are certain things that, er, it kills your momentum in terms of theres something about the momentum in a film, if you can get the case and crew going at a speed that shows up on screen and, thats a problem youve got to watch out for that in bigger budget movies

Halloween came along and I had in mind the girl who was in Jaws 2, I cant remember her name now very talented actress and she didnt want anything to do with it, as a lot of people I wanted to be in Halloween. I wanted Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing to play in it and they didnt want to do it. So Deborah Hill, my partner at the time, the producer, suggested Jamie Lee, she was on a contract at Universal on a TV show called uh, cant remember the name of it now, Alzheimers has set it, and she was young, she was nineteen years old, a young actress and Deborah suggested it as an echo of Psycho. So Jamie came in and read and she was absolutely delightful and perfect for the part

The movie came out to these dreadful reviews, and it was platformed across the country, moved from region to region, so it would open in Los Angeles and then play in San Diego and then it would play in Phoenix and then slowly but surely the prints, and there werent many of them, would move across the country. By the time it got to the East Coast Ill bet those prints were in pretty bad shape it was a drive-in film, it was an exploitation horror film, but we got a good review in The Village Voice, kind of re-reviewed by people and it started, word of mouth started building on that movie and it began to make some bucks and I noticed it because people started paying attention to me, people began making offers to me to direct films, and that was the surest sign that it had become successful. Today I look back on it as just absolutely wonderful, its real lucky we were just trying to make a movie, hopefully, you know it was going to be something special but I cant say I knew that
My involvement with Rob Zombies remake was to extend my hand and have a cheque placed in it, and then close my hand and return to my position on the couch watching basketball

I:

[Laughs] Did you think he did a pretty good job then?

JC:

I havent seen it, I have no comment, I dont know what to say and I will say this for you, Rob is a friend of mine, hes been a friend since ninety six (96), he did some music for me on a film I made, so Im not going to say anything about his version, its his, and Im not going to critique it

I:

Lets go onto The Fog and, again you were working with Jamie Lee Curtis and you got to work this time, not just echoes of psycho, you got to work with Janet Leigh, what was that like?

JC:

Janet Leigh was fabulous, shes a real studio trained actress, back from the old days and one of the things that really impressed me was we had a scene where, its we shot it in a restaurant there in Point Reyes, California, and she had to break down and cry, and for technical reasons, because it was a very long sequence she had to do it over and over and over again, boy, she could do it every time, just: Bang Bang Bang? thats that old studio training, you know, she didnt have to sum it up, the emotion, she knew how to do it and, a very wonderful lady

I:

One of the influences on the film is an obscure British movie called The Trollenberg Terror, how did you discover that?

JC:

[Laughs] I love that movie, well we, err, its, we in America I know that movie by its re-title called The Crawling Eye. The Crawling Eye was a movie I saw in 1958 when I was a kid? mainly the fog moving, thats the inspiration for it, we didnt have the big eyeballs crawling in the fog

I:

And you also said a visit to Stonehenge was a big influence on The Fog

JC:

Just a visual, the fog moving across, standing in the plain there looking at Stonehenge and thinking this is smaller than I thought it would be, I thought it would be bigger, but its still impressive looking across the plain there? theres the fog. The fog? whats going on there, looks like a ghost story type thing, so thats what it was

Escape From New York was written in the seventies, and it was probably influenced a lot by Death Wish, the movie with Charles Bronson about a vigilante in New York killing, getting revenge for what happened to his family, that kind of thing, and that was I made it science fictional and I kind of thought of Clint Eastwood as the character would be playing it, its also based on a, kind of inspired roughly from a science fiction novel called either Planet of the Damned or Planet of No Return, I cant remember which, but the idea is this most dangerous planet in the galaxy and someone has to be sent in there, who do you get? The most dangerous man in the galaxy to go in, so that was the essential idea

Theres a big idea prison movie in the sense that New York is a prison? is the first thing you have to swallow, and the second thing you have to swallow is the president of the United States crashes in there, the third thing is that this eye patched guy goes in to rescue him and the rest is a sort of series of adventures.

I:

James Cameron worked on that movie

JC:

Thats right

I:

in the special effects department, did you have any inkling of what lay in store for him?

JC:

He was when I went over to visit the Corman facility, where the special effects were done, he was the genius, the resonant genius? everyone was talking about how great he was. I remember meeting him on the set, actually it was over in the San Fernando Valley, he was doing a glass painting for us, he was sitting on a hillside with some glass setup painting New York skyline to be able to shoot the next shot, it was just beautiful? he was really technically great. So I said hi to him, we talked a little bit and that was about it

Kurt and I met on Elvis, he played Elvis Presley? that was the three hour movie I did for television, and he was just terrific, you know, hes an all-timer, in the sense that he was a child actor, his discipline is beyond reproach? he comes ready to go, he knows how to he knows the job, the moviemaking job, and hes just enormously talented, so we became friends

I:

Escape From New York, like a lot of your early films portrays a very post-apocalyptic future world, are you surprised that weve made it this far?

JC:

Actually yes, after the, err, Cuban Missile Crisis, which I lived through knowing what was going on and after that whole confrontation, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, everything is amazing to me now, everything that weve made it this far, and Im probably a short term Im a long term optimist but a short term pessimist, you know, I think its all fucked in the short term but in the long term it may work out

The Thing was a movie that was an assignment, thats the first movie that weve talked about that I did not write, that this was my first studio feature and, uh, it had nothing to do with the Hawks movie, thats one of the things that immediately from the beginning I decided not to even get near. Hawks film, well The Thing From Another World, that Christian Nyby directed, supposedly, was very much of its time in the fifties, very early fifties, it was flying saucer Kenneth Arnold inspired idea? it came from a short story called Who Goes There, actually a novella, so we went back to the novella, and uh, it has a lot of neat stuff in it, this whole imitative business was never covered in Hawks movie, so I just struck out on our own and this was the early eighties, eighty two (82), so I made it very dark but, somewhat I thought at the time, realistic movie, as opposed to a Hawks film was very idealized, in a sense. Errm, but those are the differences

The Thing and The Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness are essentially about the end of the world, in one way or the other; in a fanciful way, in a real way and thats in the end of the world theres no hope, you know, its gone, its over and those films suggest in a way, in their own individual ways; its all over, its done, you know, its time to whip her

It seemed to me that They Live was a needed a kind of working guy, non middle class, blue-collar guy whos a working poor, who are real and who are still real in this country so, uh, I thought he (Rowdy) had a quality about him and not the personality you see in the wrestling ring or in his interviews, not that over the top guy, but a different fella, but a little rough you know and it was terrific, he did a great job for me

I:

And did he really come up with the line himself; Im here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, but Im all out of bubblegum?

JC:

When we started working on the film together he gave me several sheets of paper and he said these are things that I have said that I made up for my wrestling interviews. Theyre lines that Ive used. If Im gonna do an interview about some wrestler Im gonna meet on Saturday night, Ill say these lines and some of them were not what I needed for the film but that particular one I thought thats pretty great? and we can use this, its way out of way out of context here in a way but its fun, its his, so he wrote it.

I:

Do you think the film has, still, some relevant social commentary?

JC:

Thats never in it, thats still with us? They Live is a documentary about whats going on now relevance, of course, yeah its still here. Heres my philosophy on it, Ill just tell you? Ronald Reagan along with your gal there, Iron Lady Thatcher came into power my saying government was a problem, thats an absolute lie? good government is a solution, bad government is a problem, not government, thats all it is

I:

What are your feelings on movie violence?

JC:

Thats a tough one, you know uh, because I defend the directors right to show almost anything, I think we all have to use our err, we have to use whats inside of us to be the judge of whats too much, on the other hand there are things that I think go too far child pornography, I think, goes too far. But theres a part of me that says yeah I can see, coz if you fake it I can understand, and theres another part of me thats the dichotomy, in the sense the battle with an artist if you approach if you approach a piece of material that has some real violence in it, you know uh, you have to figure out how to do it

I:

How do you feel about the latest vogue in horror cinema?

JC:

I bet youre gonna say the words torture porn arent you? I bet youre gonna say that, and now you didnt say it, ok everybody says that

Horror movies always indicate something in the culture in which theyre made and I think if you just think a minute about the plots of a lot of these films, you have Americans going to another country, and are being tortured now if you think about our world, how does that fit in to what we know now?

The John Carpenter Collection is out on DVD on October 6th courtesy of Optimum Releasing.

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