Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 35 years or so, you know the name John Carpenter. He is synonymous with horror, a legend in the industry with such cult classics as Halloween, The Thing, In the Mouth Of Madness, and of course They Live! Many of us have grown up with him, he’s gathered us together, sat us down, and told us tales as though he was part of our family. We feel as though we know him, but do we really??
His filmography is vast and most are well aware of his Director credits, but how many realize that he has been a composer on about 20, yes 20 films?! How about the fact that he has jumped IN FRONT OF the camera close to a dozen times as well? Or how many out there know the OTHER film that he is credited on in 1978? Eyes of Laura Marsh, 1978 written by John Carpenter, fan points for you if you knew that! And for the prize… What film was Mr. John Carpenter a part of that won an Academy Award, and what year? No I’m not mistaken an Academy Award! Carpenter co-wrote, edited, and composed for the short film, Resurrection of Bronco Billy, in 1970 that took the Academy Award for Best Short Subject. If you are one of the handful that truly knew all of this than you can proudly proclaim your place in Carpenter fandom! However for everyone else the point here is that John Carpenter is so much more than what he may appear at first glance.
I was recently granted the opportunity to speak with Mr. John Carpenter. So yep…. I can knock that one off my Bucket list!
Let me set the scene, so to say...
The sky is gray, a cold drizzle seeps from the above. I sit in my office watching the clock, the minutes steadily moving closer to that 5 o clock hour. My anticipation steadily grows, as I try to convince myself this is no big deal (laughable right!).
Finally! 459! Magic time! I dial the phone (playing over in my mind how this is going to go) It rings, someone picks up….
Hello (I know I recognize the voice but I don’t assume)
Hi! This is Heather Omen with Digital Macabre, I believe Mr. Carpenter should be expecting my call for a phone interview.
He Is, and I am…
To try pretend that I was this perfectly composed piece of professionalism would be a lie. I gasped, and stammered excitedly (can you really blame me? John Carpenter was speaking to ME!), what follows is surely going to be on my highlight moments in life reel!
I know your time has to be very precious, so if you don’t mind I will just go ahead and jump right into the questions.
Okay lets go…
When and why did you decide to go into film making?
Wow, it started, it was several things but it started, for me in 1956, I was 8 years old and I saw a movie in the downtown theatre in the little town I grew up in, Capital Theatre. The movie was Forbidden Planet and I was 8 years old. I didn’t know anything but I just was completely amazed with what I saw, I fell in love with what I saw and I somehow at that time realized that the director of the movie was behind the scenes, was controlling the vision, that was responsible for the central aspects of the vision, the way it was presented and I said to myself I want to do that. So that was kind of the beginning.
Your place in history is definitely at this point assured with the inclusion of Halloween in 2006 into the National Film Registry and at that point there was only 450 films that had been giving that level of recognition. When you found out that you were going to be one of those included what kind of reaction did you have and what does that honor mean to you.
I thought that was really cool, and that is really neat, it beats getting kicked in the ass. It was wonderful, it was wonderful that the movie was being preserved, I just think that it is fabulous.
I can’t get over how throughout all of your interviews, and believe me I did a lot of studying since I found out that you were going to grant me this opportunity, you are just humble to the core. What keeps you so grounded?
Well now, have you experienced a lot of egotism on the part of the people you interview?
I have had some great responses, I have also had some that won’t give any response, but with someone of your stature… You are literally an American icon, so to have someone like you… You seem so well grounded, you almost don’t seem to be aware just how much of an impact you have made to the culture, let alone the fans and then to go ahead and allow people like myself access to is just phenomenal.
I remember where I came from, I remember who I am now I am just a small town boy who was lucky enough to make it in Hollywood, but I’ll never forget that.
That is truly a gift that you share with the fans and we appreciate it.
Well thank you.
People tend to examine and interpret this great deep meaning and obviously some of your films like THEY LIVE, do include definite underlying elements in social failings, consumerism etc. but do you find it at all strange that some of the audience feels this need to dig so deep for meaning?
Well that’s part of it. I don’t find it strange, that’s part of the experience of cinema. Cinema has a lot of thematic concerns, things that bubble above and below the surface that the audience can pick up on, or not. Movies are just meant to simply tell a story and entertain so if you take them on that level it works fine and it’s not necessary to take it any further. But if you do… I enjoy exploring things of interest to me.
Do you agree with the concept that Jamie Lee Curtis is sexually repressed, therefore she goes at Michael Myers the way that she does, or is that a film that’s a campfire tale, just you know, a fun story that explores the evil that is capable in all of us?
That second one, that second thing you said. It’s a campfire story, it’s no more that, just a little horror movie. That whole idea comes from a critic, a Canadian critic, uh which explains a lot. Robin Wood, he wrote a really nice book on Howard Hawks, one of my favorite directors. He was the one that came up with idea that this is the revenge of the repressed. He thought that horror movies, uh traditionally pushed the boundaries. He thought that I was bringing the boundaries back to a more repressed puritanical time. I would totally disagree, but that is okay. It’s an easy thing to come up with, that is the only thing I find wrong with that, real easy to come up with cheap, cheap deal its more complicated than that but that’s fine.
I agree with that completely, it’s almost the fallback psych.
Well you know that’s okay, everything is good, all is good.
You’re the composer of a holiday anthem, with the film Halloween, it’s basically the guilty pleasure that’s helped transform Halloween from the free candy grab that I grew up with, into this huge multi-billion dollar industry catered more towards adults. Do you feel your part in that?
I don’t know, you know everybody loves to dress up, that’s just part of it, and I loved Halloween as a kid I mean I loved that holiday. It was fun, tricks and treats all of it, and adults as well as, children love to get dressed up parade around in the streets and make fools of themselves and that is great.
You really did help open that up for adults, it’s such an incredible legacy, it’s a part of our new history.
Well you know the weird thing is, that before there had never been a movie titled Halloween, ever. Which makes no sense, that seems like and obvious title, it was not my idea, so I can’t really take credit for it, but you know you would have thought they would have come up with that earlier. I was just lucky, that’s the one thing I learned through the years, the role of luck and what it plays in someone’s career. You know the most talented people in my film school never made it, never had a shot which I just find shocking, and I admit I’m lucky, are you kidding, the luckiest guy there is.
To you what seems to be luck, to us as fans seems to be a multi-level genius because not only…
I don’t know about that, that’s very kind, I don’t think so but thank you.
That’s very kind.
You’re someone who is not a one hit wonder. You’re not, you have so many levels to your artistic abilities. You’ve got the talent as a writer, as a director, as an actor, as a composer. You’ve composed numerous scores that are such a strong presence in their respective films that they basically become a character on to themselves, so it’s certainly in your humbleness luck, I definitely appreciate and love the fact that you are willing to say its luck, but there is definitely a lot more to it than JUST luck.
In speaking about the composing aspect can you tell me a little bit about what it takes to compose a score, it’s such an intricate dance on so many different levels. What kind of musical background do you have that gave you that ability?
Well when I was, well I grew up in a household where my dad was a musical teacher in a college in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He taught music, and eventually became the Head of the Music Department there. I grew up around music, it was a constant in my life every day and uh it was just so normal to have music as a part of life as I grew up. My father made the mistake of, when I was young, trying to teach me how to play the violin. Unfortunately I had no talent so that didn’t go great. It was a miserable experience for the both of us, he trying to teach me, and me suffering through these lessons. But I picked up a lot of stuff from my dad, you know general music knowledge. I have to give it to him. You know, I think secretly he always wanted me to have a musical career, but of course I didn’t and he is somewhat happy that at least I had, sort of, a musical career in movies. But movie music came about because I was cheap and I was fast (stated with a smoothness that was beyond cool). You know low budget film making, student film making especially, you don’t have any money for music. Not for original music, so I just started composing for my friends and it uh it just kept going, into my directing career so… It’s hard, I gotta tell you, it’s really hard. I don’t want to work that hard.
I appreciate your honesty on things like that, I think fans truly love the fact that you don’t come across with pretense. You’re happy to state the fact that you’ve done your work and would prefer to have a slower time at this point.
Absolutely I’m an old man are you kidding that’s the truth!
There’s not a lot of people that would admit that thing it really is one of those things that once again just sets you apart from so many others.
Have you ever noticed how politicians just can’t apologize for the mistakes they made? That’s what happens to a lot of creative people, directors especially, their egos won’t let them admit they were wrong and who are you hiding from, everyone knows it.
They would definitely do well to take a page from your book.
Well that’s kind, Thank you.
It’s known that you are a fan of H. P. Lovecraft I will admit he was not an author that was in my house as I was growing up but I love the H.P Lovecraft movies I grew up with. Can you tell me what it is about his work specifically that appealed to you so much?
Well I came to know him again, through my father who bought a book called The Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It was this big thick book with all sorts of stories, from everybody, from Edgar Allen Poe to Arthur Machen to M.R. James, all sorts of legendary horror writers. H.P. Lovecraft stood out to me just because of the depth of his imagination, I mean, I take, I drop silly kind of British affectation, and he gets carried away sometimes and does some silly things. There is a story of his called The Outsider, which is almost a perfect horror story. He constructed these things so you would be frightened up until the last sentence in the story, so the last sentence was actually a BOO and that’s a perfect example. I recommend, highly recommend the outsider, also there is elements of science fiction in his stories which I just find fascinating, I fell in love with him.
One of my favorite of your films is, In The Mouth Of Madness, I have to believe that you did him proud in that, it is a fantastic movie.
Have you have you seen any other movies that have been Lovecraft inspired?
I grew up with all of the Jeffrey Combs adaptations. Jeffrey Combs is to H.P. Lovecraft, what Vincent Price was to Poe.
Those are some of my favorite films, in fact just last night I watched the Re-animator again.
Yea well you’ll… Jeffery is a nice guy, you’ll enjoy reading H.P. Lovecrafts’ work, I mean you really will!
I have no doubt, I am almost ashamed to tell others that I haven’t really read him yet, because it is just such a prerequisite, now books actually leads into my next question...
You are very open about the fact that your dream job is to get paid for doing as little as possible,…
(Excitedly) That’s me! You got it!
Who wouldn’t want that opportunity if given it, but you also made mention of the fact that you have a drawer full of scripts that you’d kind of like to work on, so my question is with all of this at your fingertips is there any possibility, with an audience that already craves works from you, would you, at some point in the future consider reworking some of those scripts into novellas or short stories for publication?
Absolutely I, uh I have learned to never say never. I am, I may, not be done making movies. I don’t know, absolutely, as soon as I can tear myself away from playing video games and watching NBA basketball, I would be glad to do some more work.
Your films haven’t always received the critical acclaim that I am sure you would have liked, the interesting thing is that most of those same critics reexamine those films years later and come up with entirely different perspective often. They go from almost panning the works to suddenly saying they should be in the top 50 horror films ever made, do you find that vindicating?
Well it’s better than being called a piece of shit. It’s very nice, uh you know, you have to develop, you try to develop, let me put it that way, the thickest skin possible, cause you never know what people are going to say or do, you just don’t know and its beyond my control. So it’s always nice when somebody says a kind word about the old man.
My perception of them going back and re-evaluating these materials with a whole new found respect, I think that is a reflection of the fact that you are able to find a way to basically stay a step ahead. You continue to be fresh as far as what you put out on screen. How do you maintain that level?
Well I take it very seriously. I’m not just a guy traveling through horror movies on my way to somewhere else. I truly love them and respect them and you know most people don’t think horror films are uh worthy of being called art or worthy, they think they’re all bad, evil and nasty, and how could you make those kind of things? That’s the wrap that horror has had, its one step away from porn. How could you make that stuff? If you, if you make movies in horror you are going to get criticized, and that is just part of the gig. I actually love horror movies.
It’s interesting that you say that, because I think back to the fact that Halloween is in the National Film Registry now, that really kind of helps elevate horror to more of an art form, which again falls back to you and the skills that you have.
Well that’s nice of you to say, yea that’s a nice gig, but in general if you think about when people experience new things sometimes they react very badly to them, for instance when the Beatles… You’ve heard of them right?
(laughs) Of course I know about the Beatles are you kidding …
Well when the Beatles first came out there was a lot of ridicule and a lot of people said that they were just an awful band. Well they transformed MUSIC!!!!!! And it took time to change attitudes and make folks realize, ehh this happens okay. It’s just part of life. There is nothing you can do about it, yea because you are a little young to know about the Beatles young lady!
I, um, I’m… (that’s right he knows, but you all can guess lol)
You’re a child!!
I appreciate that is your view, I promise!!!
Look it’s always great. When you’re young, you love horror movies unconditionally, you don’t think about the bizarre, when I got to film school I started studying some of them, the silent films, the early Universal movies, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein especially and uh, you learn to see a little bit deeper than a lot of people do.
That reflects in what you produce and put on screen.
Well, it’s lucky because, I wasn’t a football star in high school. I wasn’t a basketball star. I was a bum, so at least something goes well for me!
Being in the industry and maintaining a career for as long as you have, can you tell me a little bit about how the business has changed over the last 35 years? Specifically in the terms of risk taking for funding and distribution of horror? There don’t seem to be those leaps of faith like we saw in the 70s with new directors, or even ideas.
That’s because the movie business has changed dramatically and its somewhat recent changes. I had an agent the other day explain it to me. Three things happened in the movie business to change it to what it is today. One is we had a writers strike, and the major studios took a look around and said you know we don’t need to develop movies any more based on our ideas of what the public will like so forget that. Second thing of course, was the recession, so the money dried up for smaller films or for a lot of films. People got very scared, they began protecting their money. The third thing was the dvd market died, and now you can download everything online, used to be you could put together the horror film per say, and sell the dvd rights and you would be able to make a movie, but you can’t do that anymore. There’s also really cheap films, really, really, cheap films became popular for obvious reasons. There are people that can make a lot of money on them, the producers are going to make a load of money, so you have movies that are hardly made for anything.
Right the low budget and micro-budget films which actually leads into the next question. With the rise in those low budget and micro budget horror films do you think that is going to help impact the horror industry and make people see that it is worth-while to take a risk sometimes?
Uh I don’t know. I think the issue is its always better for the director to spend a little bit more money on a movie, it has more tools to tell a story. And those really small budget movies don’t allow you much scope. So there’s not a lot of experimentation they’re designed to make money. However within the horror genre it has always been the same most horror films are bad, some are fair, and a very, very, few are good. You keep looking for the good ones they can be any budget, they can be small, they can be big. I happened to have loved World War Z last year. I thought that was a great little, uh big horror movie. But most are bad, some are fair, and very, very, few are good I think it’s kinda of the way it’s always been.
I would definitely agree with that, as fans there has been an acceptance over the years in a learned love of the bad, so to say.
(Laughs) Yea okay.
I am a self-professed lover of them all, from the silent films, to the $5000 micro budget to the big productions. I see horror, especially foreign as a, much better, indicator than say drama or romance, of where society is. It exposes our fear on a cultural level, shows where our conscious lie, which tells us to a point where we are as a people.
I do like your evaluation, I think it’s good.
What current film would best represent the professional legacy that you hope to leave and why?
Of my own movies?
Oh god, I don’t know I don’t watch my own movies.
I can’t stand it. I see all the mistakes. I see everything that I did wrong. I watch them and say, what was I thinking, stupid move, why did I direct it that way, its slow speed it up john!! Its torment, so I don’t think about them after I finish them. I used to when I was younger, but after a while I thought why am I watching this shit?!
I find that very surprising.
Come on by the time it is released I have seen it, you know, a 100 times. I don’t need to see it again. Every once in a while I run across a clip or you know pass it by on a television then, I will say, why did I do that? That was a stupid thing to do.
You are definitely not what I expect!
Are there any current projects that you are thinking about possibly looking at getting started that you could possibly talk to us about?
Uh yea, there are a couple of things I’m working on. You know that my wife and I and others have put out a comic book that we are very, very, proud of. It’s called Asylum, I recommend highly that you buy it, and read it, at your local comic store. It’s very, very, good! I can say that because my wife does most the work on it (laughs). We are developing, have been developing for a while now, a movie we based on Darkchylde. It was a comic based back in the 90’s, and we are thinking about doing some television here and there. So I got a couple of things, nothing to announce, nothing that is eminent but… You never know. (there is no way to explain just how creepy cool he said that line)
In closing I have to ask is there anything in particular that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
I think you have covered almost everything that I could think of.
Well thank you. And once again I cannot Thank you enough for the opportunity. It has truly, truly been my pleasure.
All right you stay scared young lady!
With the help of you I’m sure I will!
Be sure to swing by for more scary good interviews with great names you know and some of the best in up and coming talent in the genre!