An interview with director John Carpenter

Four years ago, I had the opportunity to co-promote a series of screenings at the now-defunct Theatres at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Not expecting to hear back, I shot a quick e-mail to the publicist repping the subject of those screenings, director John Carpenter. I explained who we were, what we were doing, that my co-horts and I loved Carpenter’s movies and wanted to celebrate them on a big screen with fans here in the Twin Cities. I did ask for an interview, but I’d have settled for a few quick quotes for the promos we were running for my (also now-defunct) website, Cinematallica. Carpenter’s camp came back with fantastic news. I’d been granted an unfiltered, enlightening hour-and-a-half with The Horror Master himself.

John Carpenter needs no introduction. Classics like Halloween are embedded in the framework of modern horror, and any realistic conversation around horror’s greatest directors has Carpenter in the mix. His contributions to the genre are many and substantial, expanding beyond just directing. While the writer/director/composer hasn’t directed a film since 2010’s The Ward, Carpenter’s found continued acclaim in the music industry. His latest album, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, revisits the master’s most memorable compositions via brand new tracks (in collaboration with his son, Cody Carpenter, and godson, Daniel Davies). Carpenter can currently be seen playing concert venues across the U.S. in promotion of the album (dates and tickets).

This interview took place in September 2013. It covers the five films shown during the Carpenter series at MOA: Escape From New York, Escape From L.A., They Live, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Prince of Darkness. The audio of this interview played over the load speakers for screening attendees and audio clips were originally presented at Cinematallica. It is transcribed here at Cult Spark in print for the first time, with only a few minor edits for clarity. Special thanks to Mr. Carpenter for taking the time to speak with me. Happy Halloween!

Tim Kelly: Mr. John Carpenter, how are you today?

John Carpenter: How are you? Where are you calling from?

TK: I’m actually calling from the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

JC: Excellent. Excellent. Excellent. Are you a supporter of Michele Bachmann?

TK: [laughs] No sir, I am not.

JC: Okay. Just checkin’.

TK: Okay. Would you have hung up on me if I said yes?

JC: I don’t know what I would have done. I was just curious.

TK: I’d like to ask you primarily about the films we’ll be showing (at Theatres at Mall of America) and then if we have time at the end we can go from there. Does that sound okay?

JC: Sounds good to me.

Escape From New York (1981)

TK: When considering your influences, the filmmaker that most comes to mind is Howard Hawks. From a writing standpoint, many of your leads seem cut from that western mold. Can you talk about some of your favorite characters from westerns?

JC: One of my favorite movies is a movie called Rio Bravo, a western made in the fifties. I loved the characters in that. I loved the character that John Wayne plays, the archetypal sheriff. I just think it’s great. I love all the western characters in Hawks’ movies.

TK: When you’re creating a character like Snake Plissken, are you aware of the influences derived or does that happen on a more subconscious level?

JC: Both. Part of it was subconscious, but part of it was … I knew a guy in grade school and high school who I patterned [Snake] after a little bit. I suppose that Snake Plissken really grew out of the Vietnam conflict.

You could call him an embittered veteran. He’s complicated, but he’s also very simple. He doesn’t care about anything. All he wants to do is survive and move on. He doesn’t care about you and your cause. He doesn’t want to hurt you. He doesn’t want to kill you. He just wants to keep going and things get in the way. But you have to force him to do things. You can’t use god and country.

TK: Snake Plissken was a defining role for Kurt Russell. Prior to Escape from New York he was known primarily for lighter fare. What did you see that perhaps the studio executives didn’t?

JC: I met Kurt on a TV movie that he and I did together called Elvis. He played Elvis Presley and he played him perfectly. I just realized the extent of his acting ability and his mimicry. He could mimic almost anybody. So, he comes with an enormous of talent that’s god-given and he doesn’t really think about it too much. He doesn’t analyze it or worry about it. He just has it.

TK: Did you have to sell the studio on Mr. Russell or did they take your word for it?

JC: Well they did eventually. They weren’t really familiar with his work. I had one meeting where I just pushed him, powdered him, and said, “He’s gonna do great for us.” They believed me. They went along with me. It was great.

TK: You mentioned Vietnam. Escape from New York is ostensibly a political work. How did your worldview at the time affect your creative approach?

JC: In the seventies, New York went through a rough period. They were out of money and crime was huge. [laughs] It wasn’t too much of a stretch at that point to believe that something like Escape from New York might happen. But it’s now been revitalized. It’s now a Disneyland type of place. It’s awful. [laughs] It just breaks my heart. But, at the time, that was the American equivalent to Shanghai.

TK: I remember reading that Watergate may have influenced you as well.

JC: Probably so. I have a general cynicism … a generalized cynicism of politics and political structures. That’s kind of faded over the years … [pauses] No it hasn’t. Really, I do believe in some political solutions, but I’m not as cynical as I was when I was young. I’ve mellowed.

Escape From L.A. (1996)

TK: It would be fifteen years before you would revisit Snake in Escape from L.A. Watergate and Vietnam are a distant memory but Los Angeles is no stranger to political tumult of its own by the time L.A. films. Having envisioned it for years prior, did the film evolve over its years in development?

JC: Well, now, it wasn’t developed. Let me explain. I was making a movie, and Kurt Russell had become somewhat of a draw. This would be in the early nineties, mid-nineties. He wanted to do an Escape sequel. He wanted to play that character again. [chuckles] So he conned me into writing the script, and it really wasn’t something that I was burning to do.

While I was making another movie, I sat down and started to write. And I started to take some of the issues of the times that we were dealing, still are, with immigration. And I took Los Angeles as a backdrop because I happen to love L.A. and it went from there. But it was not some “passion project” of mine.

TK: Speaking strictly on a surface level, the tone of New York is bleak and nihilistic. L.A. is a much more colorful film. It ends, at least in Snake’s eye, on a much more optimistic note.

JC: [laughs] In Snake’s eyes, yeah. He shuts down the whole world. Yeah.

TK: How important was it to make L.A. its own film apart from its predecessor?

JC: It was important but there were certain strictures that I had to deal with and certain flows of the movie that I wanted to adhere to. But the Snake character, he’s not corruptible. So, we had to go and force him into something. He maintains throughout both movies.

TK: Did Kurt Russell have more creative stake in L.A.? Were you able to have conversations about things Snake would and wouldn’t do?

JC: Never have had a conversation like that. The only time we had a conversation was, I remember, we shot a scene early on. And when we were shooting Kurt came to me and said, “You know, that close-up you did of me delivering those lines, I really didn’t have the character. Could we re-do that for me?” And I said, “Sure.” That’s the only time we’ve ever talked about anything.

TK: You guys never spoke at all on set?

JC: [laughs] No, we talked all the time! Just not about the character. There’s no need to talk about it. He knows what’s going on, I know what’s going on.

TK: A mutual trust.

JC: Yeah! I mean, that’s what it’s all about.

TK: L.A. ends with Snake breaking the fourth wall and engaging the audience. Around the time L.A. came out, I remember both you and Kurt Russell mentioning the possibility of a sequel called Escape from Earth 

JC: [cuts in] Yeah, that was just an idea that Kurt had. He’d like to see Snake Plissken traveling off into deep space someplace. But it was never very serious.

TK: We live in a time when remakes and reboots are rather prevalent. That wasn’t necessarily true when The Thing came out. But it feels like an Escape reboot is unavoidable in this day and age.

JC: That’s right. They’re working on it, yep.

TK: In your mind, what’s the best-case scenario in that situation?

JC: The best-case scenario? The best-case scenario is that I get paid a lot of money!

TK: [laughs]

JC: But you give up when you make a movie, unless you’re a god or something, you give up some control. I don’t own the rights totally. I have a veto power. Y’know, I just hope that I get paid well and that the movie’s decent. That’s all you can hope for.

TK: Could you see yourself revisiting Snake Plissken in some capacity?

JC: You never say never in this business. Never say never.

TK: That’s a great answer. That answer gives me a lot of hope, actually.

JC: [laughs] Good.

They Live (1988)

TK: Moving on to our third film, They Live 

JC: Yep.

TK: Where works like Halloween and Escape connected with audiences rather quickly, They Live faced something of an uphill battle but has since achieved cult success and a critical re-evaluation. In retrospect, were audiences adverse to a film that suggested they weren’t in control of their own lives?

JC: [laughs] Look, we opened number one with They Live. So in that sense I’m very happy. They Live was a very low budget movie. And a lot of critics misunderstood the movie, thought it was about subliminal advertising, which it wasn’t, and really didn’t understand it. They were probably put off by the big fight [between Roddy Piper and Keith David], which was … excessive, and I agree it was excessive. But, over the years, what I was yelling and screaming about in economics, has become painfully clear to a lot of people. Not everybody, but a lot of people. I’m glad it went through a reappraisal. That feels nice.

TK: When considering eighties’ Carpenter, the iconography of They Live has become definitive. Of all of the items that could’ve pulled the curtain back for the characters, why sunglasses?

JC: It had to be something visual, a way to show things. It was the simplest way of doing it. I tried to put myself in the eyes of the revolutionaries. How can we wake people up to the world that they’re in? Sunglasses are simple. A lot of people use them. And you can do that whole sequence where you look through the sunglasses, see the truth; lift them, and fake reality returns.

TK: I have to ask this because I’m a bit of a pro wrestling fan. Is it true you and Roddy Piper met at Wrestlemania III?

JC: That’s correct.

TK: What an event to meet Roddy Piper at.

JC: It was amazing! It was really amazing. We met at dinner the night before the matches. And it was very nice.

TK: He was a heel (pro wrestling term for “bad guy”) at the time, I believe…

JC: Well, he was quitting. He was quitting and he had a match with … one of the Wrecking Crew … Adrian Adonis. A hair match! Of course, Roddy won the match and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake came out and gave the cut to Adonis. He was a babyface (good guy), or on his way to being a babyface …

TK: What did you see in Piper that led you to believe you could be a capable lead in film? Now with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it’s an easier transition. But it wasn’t always that way.

JC: I thought of it as, this guy, he had a personality. Wrestling is a unique arena to perform in. But he would be believable as a working man, as a blue-collar guy, as opposed to hiring a handsome lead to play that role. Roddy has scars on his face. He looks like he’s been through it.

TK: Right.

JC: So you believe him. That’s what my criteria was.

TK: Shifting gears over to the aliens of They Live, the word “OBEY” as used in the context of this film has taken on a life of its own. What’s it like to have an artist like Shepard Fairey reveal the film’s influences on his own work?

JC: Fabulous. It feels fabulous. There’s no money in it [chuckles], but it feels fabulous!

TK: The design of the aliens is so unique and very beholden to They Live. How did that specific look manifest?

JC: My girlfriend at the time, my present wife [Sandy King], designed them.

TK: Really?

JC: Drew ‘em on a napkin, yep. Skulls, with metallic eyes.

TK: That’s remarkable. I see why you had to marry that one.

JC: Yeah. Oh yeah. Hell yeah.

TK: Advertising and the ideology of Reaganomics have only seeped further into the popular consciousness since the film came out. Should we be worried?

JC: Well, y’know, yes! The eighties never ended, and they’re really with us today. We’ve been through this recession but we just haven’t come out of it. And things aren’t great. They are for the rich, but not for everybody else. So, yes, we should be afraid … until we do a serious change.

TK: Does that give you some satisfaction, in making socially conscious films like They Live and Escape, with the messages they had and the concerns they expressed?

JC: I don’t care about that. I just want to make a good movie. [chuckles]

The Thing (1982)

TK: Completely understandable. I would like to talk now about one of my favorite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ve enjoyed all of your collaborations with (cinematographer) Dean Cundey; but this, to me, feels like the apex of your work together. How much time did the two of you spend planning the shoot?

JC: Never planned it! Just like with Kurt Russell, we don’t plan anything. I mean, Dean is this great lighting camera man. He has this amazing talent. But I dictate the shots, and the lighting is brought on us by reality. What does it look like? How much light is around there? But Dean is just enormously talented.

TK: I’m fascinated by that answer. I think a lot of film fans, including myself, picture the whimsy of making a film as this back and forth process, setting up shots …

JC: Not my movies!

TK: Not your movies.

JC: I set up the shots but I don’t want to talk about it, let’s just do it. But you have to plan certain things out, really carefully, ahead of time. Some FX stuff.

TK: Is it true you had a longer-than-normal production time on The Thing?

JC: Yes, I had a lot of time. And a long time shooting it, too. That was my first studio film. So, I had the benefit of a studio and the benefit of time, sure.

TK: Would you say it was a more pleasant experience than other films, on account of that extra time?

JC: [laughs] It wasn’t pleasant, dude! That was a tough film! [sighs] That was a rough, fuckin’ movie, man. You go to British Columbia, build a set on a glacier and shoot up there. Oi yoi yoi. It’s tough.

TK: You guys were shooting in sub-freezing temperatures.

JC: Yes.

TK: Did you look forward to the scenes with the flame-thrower more than the others?

JC: No! You worry about that stuff. [chuckles] Things could go wrong. I’ve set guys on fire a couple of times. It’s not a lot of fun. It just makes me nervous. I’d look forward to coming down from that glacier every night and going to bed. That’s what I looked forward to.

TK: The sole female character in the film is a computerized voice played by your then-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Had (screenwriter) Bill Lancaster’s script always lacked female characters and was that kind of isolation (of the male characters) a conscious choice you made before production?

JC: Bill had a scene we took out of the movie [for pacing reasons] with a sex doll. That was the only other female character.

TK: The contributions of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston led to some of the most iconic and memorable practical FX in film history. Do you think anything’s been lost now that that sort of craftsmanship has taken a backseat to computer generated FX?

JC: Computer-generated imagery can do some great things. But it has its limitations. You just have to use it well. It’s just another tool. Just think of Jurassic Park. It was breathtaking. It’s all computerized, except for some big, giant rubber monsters and some rubber heads they had around. But imagine how exciting that was to see. So it can really work. It’s a tool, just depends on how it’s used.

TK: Ennio Morricone composed the score for The Thing, yet it has similarities to your own musical collaborations with Alan Howarth. The use of atmospheric synth … how closely did you work with Morricone on the score? Or were your own contributions entirely separate?

JC: Morricone did a lush orchestral score for the most part. People misunderstand. His opening theme was more electronic. But he did some beautiful orchestral pieces. Just beautiful. And there wasn’t really enough music for my tastes when we were going through the mixing, so I added a few interstitial pieces.

TK: Your scores are now being revisited on their own artistic merits; separate from the films, even. In addition, your unique musical contributions seem more influential than ever. What is it about the synthesizer that appeals to your sensibilities as a musician?

JC: [pause] I can sound big, with minimal chops. You understand what that means? Minimal chops, medium ability. And you don’t have to tie it with an orchestra.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

TK: The Thing is your first film in what you refer to as your Apocalypse Trilogy. The last film we’re showing in this October series is Prince of Darkness.

JC: A-ha!

TK: It’s one of your most underrated films, filled with a plethora of spooky ideas. What’s going on in Prince of Darkness?

JC: What’s going on? Oh hell, I don’t remember. It’s been so long! [laughs] It’s about an anti-god, I think.

TK: You wrote the script for Prince, yet you use a pseudonym in the credits. Why that choice?

JC: I made a movie called Christine. At that point in my career I was getting my name above the title. I saw a poster on Sunset Boulevard, and my name was on there like eight times. “John Carpenter’s Christine.” Repeated. I mean, it was like, “C’mon, who’s this idiot?” So I decided I’ve got to take my name off of this.

TK: The part in Prince of Darkness that still gives me chills to this day is the “this is not a dream” transmission. The film wraps itself in a lot of cool, scientific theories.

JC: It does, yes. The dream transmission business was lifted from a really fine novel called Timescape, by Gregory Benford. Messages from the future. He’s a scientist/physicist in Irvine, I think. Anyway, I got to know him and he’s a really, really brilliant guy, and was the most fun to talk to about science.

TK: Who came up with the mirror effect? That’s one of the more memorable practical effects that I’ve ever seen.

JC: It was shot underwater. Shot in a swimming pool. It was a blocked-in swimming pool with two actresses in there. It looked amazingly good. I was stunned.

TK: Composer/writer/director. Which do you enjoy doing the most, why?

JC: Director. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be from when I was eight-years-old.

TK: You hear a lot about artists writing or creating material for themselves. Sylvester Stallone with Rocky comes to mind. Did you find, in order to achieve success in directing, you had to wear these other hats?

JC: To become a director, when I was coming out of film school, just starting in the business, I was told I had to write my way in. So, what I came up with were ideas. Movie ideas. I started to write scripts and actually I had a nice little career going. A guy could live pretty well if he didn’t have a family of his own. I had a pretty good technique down. I’d sell a nice movie idea and they’d give you, I don’t know, let’s say, two months to write the first draft.

So, what I’d do is sit down for a day or so and write an outline, a detailed outline, and then forget about it for about a month-and-a-half. And then, oh, maybe four or five days before I had to turn it in, I’d sit down and expand the outline into a script and turn it in and get paid. It was a great deal. And I’d only have to work a few days. That was those days. Now, writing is just painful. Too hard.

TK: Mr. John Carpenter, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Any parting words for your fans in Minnesota?

JC: I appreciate you coming to watch these old movies. I understand your winters are cold. So, if you want to stay warm during the winter, go to the movies or put on one of my old movies, sit by the fire, and watch it. It’s been fun, thank you.