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Not every director who signed on to 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. 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). The Ward, which stars Amber Heard as an amnesiac woman committed to a mental institution in the 1950s, is his first feature in nearly a decade, and while it isn’t at the level of The Thing or They Live, it’s good to see him blow the dust off and get back in the ring. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Carpenter about getting out of and back into the game, and why you shouldn’t expect to see “A Film By John Carpenter.” [Editor’s note: A shorter version of this interview was accidentally posted this morning; this is the full, unabridged version.]
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 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: 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 recharging your 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. 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: Thinking 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 about 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 very distinctive sound. 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 ’n’ 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 [of The Ward].
AVC: The scares in Halloween and the tension in Precinct 13 are pretty practical things. There’s not a lot of hocus-pocus that goes into them. But the sound of the score really takes them in a slightly otherworldly, less gritty direction.
JC: I wish I could say that’s what I intended. I just really wanted to make it effective. That’s what it comes down to.
AVC: With Halloween you were at pains not to explain things, to give it a kind of sub rosa supernatural quality. You mention the Bogeyman in the movie, and that’s what Michael Myers ends up being.
JC: That’s right. Sure. Sure. We kicked it up into a different level, but tried to keep it somewhat real. He was a semi-supernatural object. Semi.
AVC: That’s a line that not a lot of people are successful at walking, and I definitely don’t think that’s where the genre is nowadays.
JC: Where do you think it is? I’m not sure I even know. Seriously. I don’t mean that—I really don’t know.
AVC: There’s a lot more gore: the Saw franchise, or Piranha 3D or the Final Destination movies.
JC: I kind of liked those, some of the early Final Destination movies. They were fun—in a ridiculous way—but they were fun.
AVC: If you go on YouTube, you can see the Final Destination movies edited down to nothing but elaborate death scenes, which is a little unsettling.
JC: Still fun. I mean, the girl in the tanning bed, that was pretty good.
AVC: That was a neat trick.
JC: I really enjoyed that one. Silly. But it’s all silly.
AVC: Before you started making films, you played in a psychedelic rock band called Kaleidoscope.
JC: When we started out we were a high school band. But then we went to college and played fraternity gigs, which were really fun to play. Those guys got so drunk! And everything sounded good to them. And we kept getting hired to do it. So we played a lot of soul music, a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we started trying a lot of stuff that was popular at the time: “White Rabbit,” Jimi Hendrix. I wouldn’t say that we were solely psychedelic, but we had a great time doing it. It was a great way to meet girls, a great way to make a few bucks. I could have done that maybe, but I would still be there.
AVC: Did you just say to yourself, if I’m going to do this movie thing, I just need to go ahead and do it?
JC: Well, there came a time when I realized, what am I gonna do here in Bowling Green, [Kentucky]? That’s where I grew up. I could become an English teacher. I could continue to play in a rock ’n’ roll band with the dreams of making it big. But there’s no fucking way. Or I could really try this out. I somehow got accepted to USC and my dad sent me. I don’t know how I got accepted, actually; I wasn’t that smart. But you have to realize, it was cheap back then. My God, like a thousand dollars a semester. Nowadays— what? How much do they pay? It’s unbelievable. It’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.
AVC: Everyone wants to direct nowadays, but it was still something of a crazy career choice at that time, wasn’t it?
JC: Absolutely. It was nuts. No one did that. I remember the first time reading about it. It was in Time magazine and it said you could actually go to school and become a movie director. It was like, what?
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 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: People associate your name with horror now, but that’s not where you initially started out. Had Halloween not been such a massive hit, your career could have gone in a different direction. Was horror an important genre to you growing up?
JC: Oh I loved science fiction and horror, mostly science fiction, when I was a kid. But I got into the movie business to make Westerns. I didn’t want to make this other shit. I love making it now. I’ve had a great career. I got to be John Carpenter; nothing wrong with that. But Westerns died a death. Everybody keeps talking about how they’ll come back. “Tarantino’s doing a Western, it’ll come back.” I dunno. Maybe.
AVC: Westerns are too far away from most people’s experience.
JC: I think you're probably right. The last gasp of them was the spaghetti Westerns. They were really pretty interesting and pretty clever. Beautiful cinematically. Some of them. Star Wars came along and took away all those myths by putting them in outer space.
AVC: You’ve talked about how important Howard Hawks was to you, but horror and science fiction weren’t genres he spent much time on, apart from The Thing, which, even if he did direct it, he had no interest in taking credit for.
JC: They weren't important enough for those guys. They were shit movies, really, B-movies, and these folks had dreams of grandeur, so that's why it was beneath them, they figured.
AVC: There’s that subversive element to some of the old horror movies, where they could get away with things because no one was watching. It’s interesting how in They Live, which mounts a very pointed critique of consumer culture, the messages Roddy Piper sees when he puts on the sunglasses are spelled in in block letters on white backgrounds, like a generic cereal box. It's a very anti-commercial presentation of these ideas that are theoretically being encoded in television and ads.
JC: What do you mean “theoretically”? It's obvious. Look around the world now. That movie is true. That movie is a documentary. It's not science fiction. Look at what's going on in our country.
AVC: Obviously, the studio system was long gone by the time you became a director, but did you have in mind something like Hawks’ career?
JC: Oh, I don't know. I think my dream was to live in the ’40s and make movies in the studio system. But that didn't happen because it was a whole new world when I got into film. I don't think my dreams were that specific. I just wanted a career and to be a professional director. That's about all there was to it.
AVC: Was there a point at which it seemed like you would go in a different direction instead of doing studio film after studio film after studio film?
JC: Yeah. Horror movies and science fiction films are somewhat cyclical, but they are mostly always popular and they ebb and flow. If The Thing had been a hit, my career would have been different. I wouldn't have had to make the choices that I made. But I needed a job. I'm not saying I hate the movies I did. I loved making Christine and Starman and Big Trouble In Little China, all those films. But my career would have been different.
AVC: I think of The Thing in terms of its critical reputation now, which is very strong...
JC: That's too late for me! I'm an old man now!
AVC: It’s hard to imagine it was so savaged when it first came out.
JC: Oh lordy, lordy. It was hated by, oddly, the fans. They thought I had raped a classic. It was the most hated movie of all time, some people were saying. The fans. What the hell is going on here?
AVC: Do you think if it hadn't been perceived as a remake it wouldn't have—
JC: I don't know. I stopped trying to analyze it and was like, "I guess it didn't work."
AVC: You’ve said it’s your favorite of the films you’ve made.
JC: Oh yeah. Close to it, if not the one. I thought I did a great job with it. But what do I know? [Laughs.]
AVC: That must have made it feel even worse, to legitimately feel like you'd done as good a job as you can do, and to have people differ so strongly?
JC: It was like, "Why are you shitting upon me?" But it's over now. You just go on.
AVC: Elvis is finally available now, after being out of circulation for a long time. Was the musical aspect of the story a big point of attraction for you?
JC: It was about him. I thought, my God, it's an opportunity to do a movie about Elvis Presley. Shit, man, I'm in. I had no control over the music. It was all public-domain Elvis. We didn't have rights to much. They got "Suspicious Minds" in there. But it was all about making a movie about Elvis and trying something different, way different. It was fraught with danger. A lot of directors didn't want to do this because they thought it could be really bad. But I was stupid enough to be like, hey, I want to do this. I just had no fear. Sometimes.
AVC: Was Elvis important to you growing up?
JC: I remember seeing him in 1956 with a friend. When he came out he was a sensation. You gotta realize that when I was a kid, there was no youth culture. I was there at the beginning and there was nothing for us. It was just our parents’ music. But something else was going on. We were too young at the time to quite get it, but sexuality was happening. It had never been around before. It was a big deal.
Some monster movies were a little bit like that in the ’50s. They were kind of our youth culture. I remember seeing, this would be 1956, Roger Corman's movie It Conquered The World. In one sequence, one of the lady scientists, I can't remember who, had her brassiere and panties on, and it was shocking to me. Oh my God. And it was great because there was something very outlaw about that. I look at it now and I still love that movie. It was really silly. So we had to find a youth culture of our own. That was it for us.
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 the possessory credit 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: You’ve also used pseudonyms frequently, often as an homage: “Martin Quatermass” on Prince Of Darkness, “John T. Chance” on Assault On Precinct 13. Why?
AVC: 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 staking pseudonyms rather than have my name everywhere. One time or two times is fine. But that’s enough. Stop.
AVC: Is part of coming back to making features and making it a little less grueling on yourself taking on fewer of those positions?
JC: You have got it! That’s right. I'm a senior citizen. I'm a member of AARP. I've been a member of AARP for years. So I have to take it easy.
AVC: Did it end up being a more pleasant process doing it that way?
JC: Oh, well, it’s still the same stress. You start stressing out about making things good and worrying about it and coming up with ideas. The work itself can be somewhat stressful. The TV stuff I did for Mick Garris, it was easy because it was television. I don't give a shit. There wasn't a lot of pressure. This is a little bit more pressure. But it was okay.
AVC: Do you feel like you could do it again soon?
JC: I might. I might. I’m working on a couple of things. I’m not ready to start shooting tomorrow. But I’m developing a couple screenplays. But to get the money for this stuff, it’s hard to get money nowadays.
AVC: With a career like Howard Hawks’, the main benefit of the studio system was that he didn't have to build every production from the ground up.
JC: Oh yeah. They had a great system. They had all these stars on a contract. It was fabulous. Not like now.