With Firestarter still ahead, The Thing's director talks about his lifelong love of horror moives, the spate of films spawned by his Halloween, and the perils of remaking--or appearing to remake--a cult classic.
There are two equally vocal schools of thought on the subject of filmmaker John Carpenter. His promoters argue that Carpenter is one of the superstars of the current crop of horror and science ficiton film directors and that his films are technically brilliant, exciting, and full of unparalleled moments of horror and suspense. His detractors argue that Carpenter hasn't made a good film since Halloween (1978)--some say since Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)--and that his latest work embodies all the worst aspects of genre filmmaking: stick-figure characterization and gratuitous violence that pander to audiences' basest instincts.
Whatever the truth, John Carpenter might be described as one of cinema's "children of the damned," part of that generation that grew up not on America's playing fields but in the cool, dark expanse of her movie theaters, bathed in the screen's iridescent glow. Among these "children" one could list a number of contemporary filmmakers who grew up, if not "alien," at least alienated outsiders drawn to science fiction and horror films of the '50s and '60s, which became an integral part of their vision of the world. William Friedkin, Brian DePalma, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, George Romero, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter all have a share of that alienated, anti-social sensibility, and it's reflected in the imagery one finds in their films.
Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the son of a university music professor, John Carpenter started his filmmaking career as a child with his father's eight-millimeter camera. He also seems to have inherited some of his father's musical talent, composing the music for Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York. Later, as a graduate student at the University of Southern California (George Lucas's alma mater), Carpenter sharpened his filmmaking skills by assisting in the editing, writing, scoring, and directing of a short called The Ressurection of Bronco Billy, a film which won an Academy Award in 1970. While still at USC, Carpenter, together with writer Dan O'Bannon (who went on to pen the original story for Ridley Scott's Alien), made Dark Star (1973), a $60,000 science fiction film parady briefly released in 1975 that has since attained cult status on the repetory circuit.
During the period between Dark Star and his second feature, Carpenter wrote three screenplays--Blood River, Eyes,and Black Moon Rising--only one of which, Eyes, was eventually produced as Eyes of Laura Mars. Carpenter's second directorial effort, Assault on Precint 13, is a slick, low-budget thriller about a group of cops and convicts trapped in an isolated police station by an avenging youth gang. The film is something of an homage to Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo (Hawks is Carpenter's spiritual mentor) with urbanized villans in place of indians. A failure in the U.S., Assault was a sleeper in Europe, where Carpenter was hailed as a major young filmmaker. In fact, Assault so impressed producer Irwin Yablans that he offered Carpenter a film called The Baby-Sitter Murders, a film that was ultimately titled Halloween (1978), a $400,000 shocker that has since become the largest-grossing independent feature in movie history, with about $100 million in rentals so far.
Following, the phenomenal success of Halloween, Carpenter went on to make two critically acclaimed tv movies, Someone Is Watching Me and Elvis (with Carpenter's favorite actor, Kurt Russell, in the lead), and entered the mainstream of feature filmmaking with The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981), the former about malevolent ghosts who terrorize a small California seaside community, the latter a science fiction film about a World War III vet (agin Kurt Russell) who rescues the President of the U.S., who is being held hostage in Manhattan, which has become a walled-in penal colony.
Meanwhile, Carpenter's biggest hit, Halloween, has become something of an industry. It is re-released every year during the witching season, and it has already sired two offspring, Halloween II and III, both produced by Carpenter and the producer of the original Halloween Debra Hill. His latest film is something of an offspring itself. Based on the John W. Campbell, Jr., story "Who Goes There?" That inspired the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby 1951 film classic The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter's The Thing is an effect-laden paranoid fantasy about twelve men stationed in the Antarctic who battle a shape-shifting alien (compliments of special effects makeup expert Rob Bottin) able to assume the form of even the men themselves. Carpenter's next project will be a film adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling novel Firestarter.
TZ: Do you consider yourself part of the "children of the damned"--the generation raised on horror movies?
Carpenter:Well, I never thought of it that way, but I tend to agree with your idea. Personally, my experience with horror films was just that. I seemed totally out of place in real life, and I found some sort of life in the movies, especially science fiction and horror films and westerns. I formed a bond with escapist entertainment, and I wanted to make films myself.
TZ:Did your interest in escapism extend to the graphic arts? Were you a fan of E.C. comics?
Carpenter:Yes, definitely. I loved E.C. comics. But you see, my parents, my dad especially, felt concerned that all of this stuff was warping me very badly--movies, comic books. He wanted me to learn the violin and stuff like that. So of course it was partially because he didn't want me to do it that I did it. And E.C. comics were the real forbidden fruit. I mean they were dangerous to the mind because they were so graphic. But they were also wonderful, so inventive. As far as I'm concerned, The Fog is an E.C. comic. It's my tribute.
TZ:How did you turn an interest in genre films into a career in filmmaking?
Carpenter:I made my first film with an old eight-millimeter when I was eight. That's where I started. I've been doing it professionally for twelve years. I started at USC with Dark Star, which took four years and cost $60,000. And from there each thing was a step leading to Hollywood. Dark Star was released in 1975 as a counter-culture film, but it didn't get much exposure.
TZ:After Dark Star, did you hope that somebody like Roger Corman would come along and give you a break, like he did for so many other contemporary directors?
Carpenter:That notion is more legendary than true. Coppola's Dementia 13, for instance, was made because Corman was already in Ireland filming The Young Racers. He had three extra days with all the technicians and actors, and he wanted to make another movie. Corman offered to allow Coppola to make a film if Coppola could raise half the money. So Coppola dashed off a script and then sold the English rights for $20,000. In other words, he acted as his own producer. I know the legend sounds nice, but it's not accurate. I heard people say, "This is the training ground." And I would ask them, "Where do I go?" It was like any other studio. As soon as you have a track record, fine. Dan O'Bannon brought Alien to Corman, but Corman wanted to make it for $100,000 and Dan had to get half the money.
TZ:Were you discouraged by the domestic failure of Assault on Precinct 13?
Carpenter:Yes. I was upset by its failure, very disappointed. It was distributed as a violent exploitation film, almost a black exploitation film, emphasizing the youth gang element. But I was ready for failure. Dark Star had failed. By the time Assault was a star in Europe, it was two years later and anticlimactic.
TZ:Then you weren't prepared for the success of Halloween?
Carpenter:It was a very strange experience. The first thing I heard was a bunch of bad reviews. So I thought "Oh, here we go again." Then a few critics championed the film, and there was a demand for it. The distributor was an independent struggleing against all the majors, so he could only book time in October for two weeks. That's all the theaters would give him. He got it out and hoped for word of mouth to spread. Lo and behold it did, and the theater owners asked to get it back. October and November used to be the worst time to release a film--dead time. But if you had a small film, you could get it on the screen then, because the big studios were waiting for Christmas. It was a good time to see non-mainstream films.
TZ:Some viewers of Halloween expressed outrage because of all the victims in the film are sexually active, while the heroine is a virgin. Does that make you a closet puritan?
Carpenter:The killer in Halloween is sexually repressed. That's his problem. There's a connection between the killer and the virginal heroine. They're both repressed. I wasn't making any comment on sexually active girls.
TZ:The Fog, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned ghost story that seems to be about collective guilt.
Carpenter:Yes, it is truly about guilt. No one seems to come up with that in discussions. But it is about the past, and the guilt we all sahre. I telescoped in on the figure of the priest that Hal Holbrook plays.
TZ:Your films are full of fluid serpentine camera movement that adds to the malevolent atmosphere.
Carpenter:You can use the camera for manipulation. In Halloween the audience identifies with the killer because it sees things through his eyes in the opening scenes. More important that that, you can use the camera to add a three-dimensional quality to your shots. When you move the camera you create the illusion of depth.
TZ:Your films also contain cinematic allusions. In Halloween the kids are watching Forbidden Planet and The Thing on television. There is imagery that recalls Night of the Living Dead in Assault on Precinct 13. The Fog concludes with the admonition, "Look for the fog," which recalls the classic warning at the end of Hawks's The Thing: "Keep watching the skies." Your latest film, The Thing shares quite a bit of imagery with the original. Are you trying for some specific effect?
Carpenter:No, not really. Mostly it's for fun or it's unconscious.
TZ:There is a theory tha the images in certain classic films become part of the collective unconscious of a generation of filmgoers, and that hwen another film alludes to these images, it triggers certain unconscious memories.
Carpenter (smiling broadly): That sounds great. I wish I had said it.
TZ:Why make another version of a classic film like The Thing?
Carpenter:The original film was based on the John W. Campbell story "Who Goes There?" As a matter of fact, a lot of films have been based on that story. It's a classic of science fiction. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien are in some way based on it. I felt that the story ahd never ereally been done right, so I decided to go back and try again. The original film is a classic. It influenced me as a child, and I studied it in film school because it was influenced by Howard Hawks, who was the producer, and some say, the director of that film. However, I still wanted to make a film tht was faithful to the original story. The men in Campbell's story can't tell who's who. Who goes there? Basically, the question is, Is my best friend a monster? I don't think the original film addressed that aspect of the story.
TZ:Inevitably you will run afoul of fans who believe that the original is a classic that should not be tampered with.
Carpenter:I don't think my version is anything like the original, which was one of the first monster-from-outer-space films. It was made just after the big flying saucer scare over Mt. Rainier, which accounted for a lot of its popularity. I wouldn't try to compete with film. It would be stupid of me to try to remake a Howard Hawks film.
TZ:Then isn't a case of the student trying to exceed the master?
TZ:You've gone on record as saying, "The fans think they own these films, but they don't." That's an awfully bitter remark to come from a man whose career is perhaps a product of his popularity with the fans.
Carpenter:When I said that, I was referring to special effects. There's an insistence on the part of a lot of fans that they understand exactly how you do a certain effect. They want to know what the trick is. To me, that spoils the magic. Any film is an illusion that only works in the camera lens. To reveal the trick would be to destroy the illusion. There were a couple of magazines that were dead set on coming onto our set and phtographing our sequences. I said, "No way."
TZ:If you wanted to disassociate yourself from the original film, why didn't you use a different title--"Who Goes There?", for example?
Carpenter:If you want to make a monster movie, it seems to me that the greatest title of all tim is The Thing
TZ:Some suggest that, like many of your contemporaries, you suffer from the anxiety of influence--that you are so influenced by Hawks that you have to try to outdo him.
Carpenter:I don't think so. My study of Hawks was in the past. Certainly he influenced me technically, but I don't pretend to be able to do what he did--overalpping dialogue, simultaneous action. I wouldn't dare try.
TZ:Still, there is a spate of remakes, updates, and sequels today. Are young filmmakers trying to revise the myths of their childhood?
Carpenter:I hadn't thought of it that way, but it sounds good. I also think, thought, that a lot of remakes are made simply because, if a film's successful, people will often go back to see another version.
TZ:Are you disturbed when people refer to The Thing as an effects film?
Carpenter:No. It is, in fact full of special effects. The point was not to make a special effects film. The point was to make a monster movie. Then the question becomes, What does your monster look like? What can it do? Ninety percent of the time the monster ends up being a man in a rubber suit flopping around in the shadows.
TZ:How did you and Rob Bottin determine what your Thing would look like?
Carpenter:Well, we tried to imagine a look. Would it be a bug or a slug or a worm? Well, Rob suggested that we try for something completely different. He wanted to emphasize the fact that this thing could look like anything. We went on from there.
TZ:Since Halloween, you've been blamed for all the stalk-and-slash imitations that followed.
Carpenter:Yes, and I don't think it's fair to blame me.
TZ:How much influence did you exert over Halloween II?
Carpenter:That's a long, long story. That was a project I got involved in as a result of several different kinds of pressure. I had no influence over the direction of the film. I had an influence in the post-production. I saw a rought cut of Halloween II, and it wasn't scary. It was about as scary as a Quincy. So we had to do some pos-production work to bring it at least up to par with the competeition.
TZ:So, then, you did reshoot scenes.
Carpenter(pauses and sighs): There was some additional shooting done, primarily in the nature of connecting material. Plus they were under a whole lot of time pressure. But so was I with the original, so I didn't have a whole lot of sympathy for them.
TZ:You didn't choose Rick Rosenthal to direct?
Carpenter:Yes, I did. I chose him. He did a terrific short called Toyer. It was full of suspense and tension and terrific performances. He is making another film now, so his career is on the way.
TZ:Many of those who championed Halloween found the sequel odious.
Carpenter:It got some bad reviews, and it was exploitative.
TZ:Will Halloween III be a cmpletely new story?
Carpenter:Yes. It's directed by Tommy Wallace, who was my production designer and editer. We have a different story. Nigel Kneale, who wrote the Quartermass films, wrote the script. It's totally different. It's about a small town where people are producing masks that, when triggered, will send a plague of demons upon us all on Halloween night. It's almost a science fiction movie.
TZ:So the Shape from the first two films will not make a reappearance?
Carpenter:The Shape is dead. Donald Pleasence's character is dead, too, unfortunately.
TZ:Where will it all end? Will there be a Halloween IV?
Carpenter:I don't know. The original fiolm created a whole new season to show films--Halloween. And I love Halloween. I love the idea of dressing up and waring masks. But I don't want to direct a Halloween again. What the films are agood for is to give somebody who's never directed a chance.
TZ:Is Escape from New York a Midwesteren boy's fantasy about New York City?
Carpenter:That's pretty much correct. it was jsut an excuse for a science fiction adventure film. It was influenced by Harry Harrison's Deathworld novels.
TZ:You were a genre film fan. Do you have any guilty pleasures in the genre? Any truly bad films you love?
Carpenter:I love Attack of the Crab Monsters, Not of This Earth, and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. I see them again and again and still experience the same joy. Have you ever seen Plan Nine from Outer Space? It's one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences you can have. Bad films are fun. The Bride of the Monster, The Beast of Yucca Flats. Great.
TZ:Why do you want to adapt Stephen King's Firestarter?
Carpenter:I like that story. It's about a drug experiment conducted in the sixties that alters the glands of a couple who later have a daughter who can start fires with her mind. Ther govenment finds out, and it becomes a chase about a little girl who is pyrokinteic and a mutant. I want to do it because it's exciting.
TZ:Will Stephen King write the screenplay?
Carpenter:The screenplay is already written. It was written by Bill Lancaster, the same fellow who wrot The Thing script. I've never tyalke to King about it.
TZ:I understand that Lancaster's original scritp for The Thing contained quite a bit of humor that was eventually excised.
Carpenter:Who do you understand that from?
TZ:I heard there was a scene wiht the protagonist and a blow-up doll. Why did you remove it?
Carpenter:Well, I shot that scene, and it wasn't very funny. The movie was cut from over two hours to about one hundred minutes so as not to bore an audience. That's done on every film. You shoot more.
TZ:A couple of years ago you were plannng on making a film called The Philadelphia Experiment. What happened to that and what is it based on?
Carpenter:The Philadelphia Experiment is going to be made with me as executive producer and Joe Dante as director. Three years ago I was going to do it as my next film, but for the first time in my life I was unable to write a third act for a screenplay. I just couldn't figure out what to do. The film is based on an incredible true story about an experiment in invisibility that was conducted by the Americans during World War II. Using Einstein's unified field theory as a basis, scientists develped a mechanism, the idea of which was to somehow vibrate an object withing a magnetic field so that, according to the theory, the object would then disappear. So they got these degaussers and they put them on a ship and sailed it out into Philadelphia harbor one day in 1943. when the tuned on the fields, the ship disappeared. Boiggg, off it went. All you could see was the outline of the hull in the water. When the ship came back, every member aboard was out of his mind, crazy...and had been somewhere else. The government mmediately covered up the story. The men continued to go crazy. That's The Philadelphia Experiment.
TZ:The government did an awfully good job covering this up, since to most people this story will be news.
Carpenter:But if you look back over the years--the '40s, the'50s, and the '60s--there are newspaper articles all over the place about.
TZ:Will you be out of a job if the horror/science fiction boom ends?
Carpenter:I don't think it will ever end. It may not be at the peak it is now.
TZ:What is your concept of horror? Why do you think people deliberately subject themselves to terror in the movies?
Carpenter:Horror films give people an opportunity to express or to channel feelings that society frowns upon. All of us are fascinated by the forbidden, by the darkness, by monstrosity. But in our deallings with each other in society, we can't let those things out. We'd all be crazy. Film gives people the chance to be frightened, to be put through the wringer, to do go down into that forbidden area. And, of course, the great thing about movies is that they are harmless.
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