John Carpenter

The horror auteur on dropping out of filmmaking, getting pulled back in, and synthesizer vs. violin

Not every director who signed onto the anthology series Masters Of Horror deserved the title, but John Carpenter surely did. Although he’s made significant contributions elsewhere—the exploitation thriller Assault On Precinct 13, or the dystopian action of Escape From New York—he’ll forever be the director of Halloween, the movie that stripped the masked-killer subgenre to its shambling essence. But apart from his Masters Of Horror episodes, Carpenter has been largely out of circulation since the failure of 2001’s Ghosts Of Mars (not counting the brisk business in remakes of his films lately).

The Ward, starring Amber Heard as an amnesiac committed to a mental institution in the 1950s, is Carpenter’s first feature in nearly a decade, and if it’s not at the level of The Thing or They Live, it’s good to see him shake the dust off and get back in the ring. The Ward had its East Coast première at Cinefest this weekend; tonight, Carpenter accepts the festival’s Phantasmagoria Award via Skype at the Trocadero, followed by a Q&A and screening of Big Trouble In Little China. The A.V. Club talked to Carpenter about dropping out of filmmaking, getting pulled back in, and taking up the synthesizer instead of the violin.

The A.V. Club: You’ve said that after Ghosts Of Mars, you were basically disgusted with the film business. What changed your mind?

John Carpenter: I stopped directing in 2001 for—oh, damn—four or five years, until I did the TV series Masters Of Horror. I had been working steadily as a director since 1970. That’s a long time. I was burned out—absolutely wiped out. I had to stop. It didn’t help that my last film was a big tank. That never helps you; but it was beyond that.

AVC: What was wearing on you?

JC: The stress. Jesus, it’s enormous. You have to fight really hard for a private life, and sometimes you don’t have one. It just gets to you after a while. It’s tough. I don’t know—I like to whine. I’m just going to whine.

AVC: Be my guest.

JC: Well, thank you.

AVC: Was there a moment when you realized it wasn’t fun anymore?

JC: It hit me when I was looking at the extras for the DVD of Ghosts Of Mars. It showed me at the beginning of the process on the set. I looked okay. Then it showed me at the very end of the process, doing the music. I was like a dead man—dead man walking. I thought, “Okay, all right, I can’t do this for a while. I just can’t.” I thought it was a good time to stop.

AVC: You don’t exactly make things easy on yourself by taking on multiple roles in the production. You’ve directed, written, and composed the music for most of your movies.

JC: That just shows you how stupid I am.

AVC: You’ve managed to make something productive out of your stupidity, at least.

JC: Sort of. Some people would disagree.

AVC: Other than simply having recharged batteries, what made you decide to get back on the horse for The Ward?

JC: As I said, I did Masters Of Horror. It was [executive producer] Mick Garris who got me back. He said, “Come up to Vancouver. We’ve got a great crew up there, and you’ll have a great time.” And he was right. It was an hour show, so about 12 or 13 days of shooting, which wasn’t a big investment. But I enjoyed working with the actors. I just enjoyed the whole thing. And I thought, “I may want to do this again, under the right circumstances.” The right circumstances being a somewhat limited movie. By that I mean small cast, low-to-modest budget, location that’s all there—you don’t have to run around, not a lot of moves. And it would be fun to work with actors again.

AVC: Looking back, a lot of your work consists of siege movies—Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York, The Thing, and The Fog, Village Of The Damned, and the last act of In The Mouth Of Madness, and The Ward fits that template as well. There’s a practical advantage to that structure, in terms of limiting the locations you have to shoot.

JC: You think of it another way, I get to spend my days in a room with these beautiful Hollywood actresses. Life isn’t too tough.

AVC: Beyond the practical, is there something that attracts you that type of story?

JC: Oh, big time. I think I figured that out when I was young. They were the kind of movies I enjoyed watching. But maybe it has some life truths for us all, that we’re all under siege in our own way, and it’s our job to survive the night.

AVC: The movies you scored have a distinctive sound to them. How did you end up focusing on the synthesizer as your primary instrument?

JC: From early on, when synthesizers were first introduced into music, I liked the idea that you could get a big sound with them—electronic, but like an orchestra. And I could play it all myself. That was exciting. I was kind of a half-assed musician. To my dad’s chagrin, I was not a violin player like he wanted me to be. He had dreams, and I shattered them. I played in a rock and roll band, which was great, but not what he had in mind. I had a talent for scoring films; I just developed it. And I could use synthesizers to get the sound I wanted, and make it sound like something. But after a while, I thought, “I can get somebody young, and better than I am.” I really loved what Mark Kilian did with the score [for The Ward].

AVC: If your father was disappointed you didn’t turn out to be a violin virtuoso, he must have been thrilled when you decided to go to film school.

JC: He figured he’d let me try. I don’t think he thought I had a shot. But he got real happy when I started supporting myself, real happy. To him, that was me making it, being able to pay my own bills. I have to tell you, a lot of it’s luck, like anything else. A lot of the most talented people I went to school with never got a shot.

AVC: You have to have an obsessive quality, not just to make a movie, but also to get to the point where you can make one, and another, and another.

JC: Oh, God yes. [Laughs.] That’s a huge deal. You have to be unnaturally obsessed to do it, almost crazy. A lot of people just wanted a life; they didn’t want to do this shit, put up with this.

AVC: Did that obsessive quality come early for you?

JC: It happened almost immediately. One of my first classes, this beginning production class, the teacher said, “I know you all want to be directors, but only 1 percent of you is going to make it, if you’re lucky.” I thought, “Well, that’s going to be me.” And that’s what happened.

AVC: You’ve had your name above the title on almost every movie since Halloween. The Toronto Film Festival actually filed John Carpenter’s The Ward in the catalogue under “J.” Why was having the possessory credit important to you? Does it go along with looking up to directors like Howard Hawks?

JC: Sure. Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford—all those guys. They all had at one time or another “John Ford’s... ,” “Alfred Hitchcock’s... .” What I hated was “A Film By... .” I thought that was stupid.

AVC: What’s the distinction between using a name and “A Film By...”? 

JC: There’s no such thing as “A Film By... .” It’s a collaborative effort. All I can take credit for is the directing. It’s like a picture—I didn’t paint this thing. I thought it was pretentious. Maybe it’s just me.

AVC: It’s interesting, because you’ve also used pseudonyms frequently, often as an homage: “Martin Quatermass” on They Live, “John T. Chance” on Assault On Precinct 13. Why?

JC: I was doing so many different things on a lot of these movies. I remember looking at the Christine poster on Hollywood Boulevard. I remember how awful I felt, because the poster repeated my name too many times. It was like eight times. I thought, “That’s ridiculous. I seem like an idiot.” I started taking pseudonyms, rather than have my name everywhere. One time or two times is fine, but that’s enough. Stop.

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