John Carpenter Interviewed by Michael Juvinall, MoreHorror.com
When you talk about film directors in the horror genre, very few names can be mentioned as being “masters” of their craft, it’s a short list which includes the likes of, Romero, Argento, Craven, Bava, Hitchcock, Fisher, Cronenberg, Whale, and my favorite John Carpenter. Carpenter single-handedly reinvented the slasher genre with his seminally groundbreaking film, ‘Halloween’. At one point, ‘Halloween’ was the most successful independent film of all-time.
‘Halloween’ influenced every slasher film that came after it. Without “Michael Myers” we wouldn’t have ‘Friday the 13th’, or any of the other masked killers that came afterwards. Not only was ‘Halloween’ a highly influential film, it was truly frightening, even to this day it scares audiences worldwide. John Carpenter’s career has spanned over 40 years in Hollywood and has directed 30 films.
He has directed such cult classics as ‘The Fog’, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘Escape from New York’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, ‘Christine’, ‘Starman’, ‘Prince of Darkness’, ‘They Live’, ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, ‘Village of the Damned’, ‘Escape from L.A.’, ‘Vampires’, and ‘Ghosts of Mars’ to name a few.
Carpenter is a triple threat, not only is he the best genre director in the business, he also wrote most of his most famous films and composed most of the scores to his films. Carpenter is almost as well known for his film scores as he is for directing them. His iconic synthesizer scores are his trademark and uniquely his own sound. For me, no other director has contributed to the world of horror as much as John Carpenter has. His films have not only scared the crap out of me, but cemented my love of horror and influenced me in a way that nobody else has ever done. I salute John Carpenter as having changed the face of horror forever and I was honored to be able to talk with him as we discussed what brought him out of retirement, his films, his childhood, Westerns, and ‘Godzilla’. Join me as I chat with the real “Master of Horror”, John Carpenter.
Michael Juvinall: I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
John Carpenter: Absolutely, my pleasure. Where are you now?
MJ: I'm outside of Chicago.
JC: Chicago...I was just there.
MJ: Oh great. So before 'The Ward' came out last year, you had almost a decade long hiatus from working except for your two episodes of 'Masters of Horror'. Did that time off help to renew your appreciation for directing or has the Hollywood machine changed so much for you that it's just not fun anymore?
JC: The Hollywood machine has changed a great deal since I got into the business, but that having been said, a director's storytelling craft has remained the same. It's the same job, there are different tools, there are different people who are distributing movies, there are different movies being made, but the basics of cinema are the same. As for my love of the cinema, which was rekindled a bit with the ‘Masters of Horror’ directing gigs and also doing ‘The Ward’, I really had a great time. Now, in the twilight of my career, I don't feel the need to work as often, I'm going to pick what I think I can do a good job with in terms of projects.
MJ: What was it about 'The Ward' that brought you out of your semi-retirement?
JC: That wasn't the only reason, again the pivotal change of coming out of my absence from directing was 'Masters of Horror' really got me back falling in love with what it means to direct and 'The Ward' was a low-budget, very confined, very contained movie and it was an ensemble of young girls, I hadn't done anything like that. I thought that would be kind of a challenge, it was a nice little ghost story.
MJ: I really enjoyed 'The Ward’; it was nice to see you back working again.
JC: Thank you.
MJ: Stepping back a little bit, 'Halloween' was a groundbreaking film that basically changed the face of horror and in my opinion so did 'The Thing'. I know that nobody intentionally plans on making a groundbreaking film, in your future films would you hope to maybe break new ground again or are you content with what you've already accomplished?
JC: Both, I'm content with what I've done, but sure I'd love to work in new territories and tell new stories, I think that's
the challenge, especially in a genre like horror. There are some very familiar, well-traveled pathways in horror and the trick is to come up with new ways of exploring in horror and science fiction, that's always fun.
MJ: When you were growing up, is there any one particular film that influenced you more than others?
JC: There were several, so many which influenced me in many ways. Of the films that I saw that made me want to be a movie director was 'Forbidden Planet'. The movie that I saw that instilled my love of cinema was 'Rio Bravo'. They're two very different kinds of movies but they're both very influential.
MJ: Did you like horror movies growing up?
JC: Loved them! My first love was science fiction, especially the science fiction of the 50's, I still love it, but horror was a very close second.
MJ: When 'The Thing' was released in 1982, it turned out to be maligned by both fans and critics alike, which I don't understand at all. I saw it in 82 in the theater and I loved it straight off and my appreciation for that film has only grown over the years, now it seems to be getting the recognition it deserves and is considered a classic. Why do you think people's opinions of that movie have changed over the years?
JC: I don't know, I think they saw it again on home video and other generations saw it on home video and its reputation began to grow, it's really hard to say. There are a lot of movies that upon their first release are not considered that good and failed either critically or by box office and later come to find a spot in people's hearts, so I'm in good company.
MJ: Yes you are for sure. Do you consider yourself or your films to be ahead of their time as far as some of the films you've made like 'The Thing' or 'Escape from New York' with some of those themes that seem to be coming true today?
JC: 'Escape from New York' didn't come true yet, but 'They Live' sure did.
JC: It's still with us today. I don't know if I’m ahead of my time but some of my films were just not appreciated till their time.
MJ: Did you ever intend there to be a sequel to 'The Thing' since it was kind of left open at the end with "MacReady" and "Childs" left alive?
JC: No, there's no intention of it, you don't make a movie with the intention to make a sequel, at least we didn't in those days, now maybe we do today, but not me. That was the end of the movie, that's where it should've stayed, although there is a sequel that could be made. If you go back to the 80's, there was a limited edition comic book from Dark Horse of 'The Thing', fabulous, that would've made a great sequel.
MJ: What a lot of fans probably ask you about 'The Thing'; were either "MacReady" or "Childs" alien at the end or were they both human?
JC: You know, I know the answer but it's something I cannot divulge. I've been sworn to secrecy on that.
MJ: Awwwwww! OK, moving on to 'Prince of Darkness'. It's an often overlooked and underrated film of yours.
JC: Thank you.
MJ: It's very creepy and seems to have a different tone than most of your other films, was that intentional on your part?
JC: God I hope so! Yes, I wanted you to feel unease and dread in that movie.
MJ: For me, it was a job accomplished on that one. I love that movie; it doesn't get its due.
JC: Some people see it, some people are with it, some are not, some don't understand it, but that's ok. That's the nature of pushing the form in a direction that it doesn't ordinarily go.
MJ: 'In the Mouth of Madness' I feel is also one of the more underrated films in your filmography. It's very "Lovecraftian" in its tone and themes. Lovecraft's writings don't really translate to film very well. How did you make his "otherworldly" type of themes more filmable for that movie?
JC: I disagree with you, I think that his themes translate perfectly for movies; it's just that movies haven't done a very good job with his themes. By talking about 'The Thing' and 'Prince of Darkness' and 'In the Mouth of Madness', you've actually touched upon the Apocalypse trilogy of mine.
MJ: Your trilogy, Yes.
JC: Each of those movies is essentially about the end of things, but in different ways. So you're a bleak loving movie-goer.
MJ: Yes, I guess I am, very much so. Your movies have been in several different genres but you're primarily known for your horror films. I know you're a big fan of the Western genre as well and I had read at one time that you were planning on making a Western yourself. Are you still planning on that or has it died off?
JC: You can't say "plan on"; you have to say "developing and hoping" because you never know in this business. If we raise the money and get the right stars, sure I'd consider it, absolutely.
MJ: I think a lot of fans would love to see a Western from you, myself included.
JC: Thanks. We shall see.
MJ: A lot of the themes that you use in your movies are sort of Western themes from older films such as 'Rio Bravo' and the like. Characters confined in a small space, being trapped and under siege. What's so fascinating about those types of tropes that you like so much?
JC: I think maybe for me there's a part of that idea that's a metaphor for life or certainly my life at one time. It talks about the human condition in a way, you can be philosophical about it, and I think that's probably what it is. "Search" movies that you do like 'In the Mouth of Madness' or 'Starman' where you're searching for something, that also is a metaphor for parts of life.
MJ: Very interesting. 'They Live' and 'Halloween 3' those are being re-released on Blu-ray soon, did you have anything to do with the transfers of those films?
JC: No, they never asked me to. They never tell me about it, they never asked me too. It's just high def, what am I going to do? Look at it and say "Oh great! That looks good."
MJ: Your film scores are some of the best in film.
JC: Thank you.
MJ: I love your scores. Do you still like scoring your films or have you stepped away from the music side of films.
JC: I still make a lot of music, but no one has ever asked me to score their movie, so I've always been a composer for myself. It shows you the esteem in which I'm held by other people (laughing).
MJ: Well now your son has scored a couple of your films.
JC: Yes, we're working on something right now together.
MJ: Great. How does his musical style differ from yours?
JC: He's extremely different than me; he's influenced by different things growing up. His abilities are way beyond mine, he's got chops that go way beyond what I've been able to do, his understanding of music. He has a deep love and understanding of music. He loves Japan, in a few weeks he's going back over to Japan to teach English to Japanese students, he loves doing that.
MJ: I had heard that you're also a big 'Godzilla' fan.
JC: Oh yeah, since I was a kid, sure.
MJ: I'm a huge 'Godzilla' fan myself. What is it about the original film from '54 that you like so much, has it influenced you in your films?
JC: That movie just had an incredible feeling to it. It's a much more somber film in its original form than was released in America with the Raymond Burr footage with the narration. The original film which came out several years ago on DVD that I recommend to everybody to watch is a really very grim and sad movie. It's sort of a more reflective film than you would imagine about the one nation that suffered atomic attack.
MJ: Yeah, Honda's version is stark, grim, and definitely a horrific film in itself.
JC: Very compelling movie.
MJ: Yes, I completely agree with you on that. As far as how you shoot your films, you use the Panavision wide-screen, scope format, 2:35.1; you're practically a master of shooting in that format.
JC: Thanks, that's nice but a lot of guys came before me.
MJ: Yes definitely, but your compositions are not what you see very much these days. You utilize the screen these days in ways that a lot of filmmakers these days don't use it for. For example, when there is a lot going on in the frame, you try to minimize it and when there is not too much in the frame, you make it look like there's more.
JC: It's a very personalized thing and maybe a lot of filmmakers don't think of that.
MJ: Do you have any particular style of directing or shooting that has changed over the years?
JC: The language of cinematic storytelling has not changed since I learned it. There are new tools and new things you can do. I just follow the rules as I understand them.
MJ: Are you working on anything now that you're able to talk about?
JC: I have several projects in development. One is 'Darkchylde' based on a comic book, we're working on that. I have the Western that you mentioned earlier, a gothic Western type, I'm working on that. We'll see, when I say "working on", that means mostly sitting around playing video games and watching basketball.
MJ: Nothing wrong with that.
JC: That's exactly right.
MJ: Now you're able to be more selective with what you choose.
JC: I don't know if I'm able to be more selective, I'm at peace with who I am and where I am, and if the right thing comes along, I'd love to do it. There's no reason to do something just to do it, just to be working.
MJ: Do you still like working in the horror genre?
JC: I love it, love it.
MJ: A lot of directors are always afraid that they will be pigeonholed in one particular genre and like to branch out doing other things. Horror is what you're primarily known for, are you happy with that?
JC: I got to have a career, the only thing I always wanted to do as a young man coming into USC Film school was become a professional film director and I got to do that. But within the genre of let’s say science fiction/horror/fantasy, I've been able to do a lot of different things, so I'm really happy about that. I've done a couple things that were non fantasy films and those are fine too. I'm just happy to be here, you've got to realize.
MJ: I wanted to say again, Thank you so much for taking time out to talk with me. 'Halloween' is my all-time favorite film and you are my favorite director. You've cemented my love of horror more than anyone else. You and your films have made me love horror to the point of becoming a journalist.
JC: Absolutely, I'm so happy for that. That's very nice of you to say. This has been terrific, you're fun, And may I say, you have impeccable taste.
MJ: Thank you again for talking with me; I had a great time talking with you Mr. Carpenter.
JC: Thank you man, it's very good to talk with you too, I'll talk with you soon.
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