From his low budget beginnings to his iconic films, it’s hard to ignore the impact John Carpenter has made on the cinematic landscape. A short list of his work includes ‘Escape From New York,’ ‘The Thing,’ ‘Christine,’ ‘Big Trouble In Little China,’ ‘They Live’ and ‘Halloween.’ With his impressive resume, it is easy to see why he became engrained into the collective conscience of film fans worldwide. Now approaching his fifth decade of filmmaking, Carpenter is about to re-emerge from a self-imposed hiatus to recapture hearts and imaginations across the globe. Icon Vs. Icon‘s Steve Johnson and Jason Price recently were given the rare opportunity to sit down with the legendary director and discuss his career evolution, the current state of film, his upcoming projects, and what the future holds for him in cinema!
First off, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in southern Kentucky. Bowling Green, Kentucky. I wasn’t born there but I grew up there. When I was growing up, I loved the movies. Probably like the both of you did. My coming of age time was during the 1950s. I saw everything that could be seen, every kind of movie, but I fell in love with horror, science fiction and westerns.
Who was your biggest influence?
Roger Corman, big time! Some of those early movies like ‘The Thing’ and ‘Forbidden Planet,’ those types of films. I saw those in theaters when I was a kid. That is what I thought I would do. I didn’t have any other direction in life, other than playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band which wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
It is interesting you mention that because music has played a very important role in your films. How did music first come into your life?
My dad was a music teacher, so I grew up with it.
So it’s in the blood, so to speak!
Yes! [laughs] It’s in the blood. Second nature!
You have made so many iconic movies. To what do you attribute your longevity in that medium?
Luck. To survive you have to withstand the changes in the business. This business has gone through so many changes since I was young and now it is on to something else. It is all weird today, for me, because I am from the old times. You just have to keep adapting. Isn’t that Darwinism? The creature that adapts to its environment survives.
How do you think you have evolved as a director since starting out?
I have gotten older! Had a family. Got them through so they aren’t dead and they are out in the world and evolved. [laughs] The only reason to do this is because you love cinema. I love cinema. I have always loved it. There have been a couple periods of time when I didn’t love it so much anymore. I didn’t make a movie for eight years.
What turned the tide to bring you back?
I had this opportunity to make this low budget, contained film called ‘The Ward.’ It was different from the kinds of things I had done and it had a really cool cast. Young girls, Hollywood actresses in an insane asylum. I can’t say no to that! [laughs] It was a decent script and I thought “I can do something with this!” I had done a little bit of work with ‘Masters of Horror,’ the TV show, and that was fun. I love being on the set shooting. Love it! That is the best part, so I decided to try it.
So you are back at it!
For now! For now. I am getting older and older, dudes! You don’t understand yet and you won’t understand for a long time. You’re young.
What was the reason behind that hiatus?
Burned out! That’s it. I thought “I can’t take this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore.” I kinda had a bug when my last movie tanked pretty big time. I thought to myself “Why am I doing this. I am killing myself with this.” So, I decided when I came back what I will and won’t do. I won’t do the music anymore, I can’t do it. I am burned out on that. On my last film, before the one that is coming out now, ‘Ghosts of Mars,’ there is a behind-the-scenes deal. There are shots of me on the set that I looked at and those shots are after the music mix, after I had gone through it and I was a zombie. I thought “I can’t do that.” I can’t live with that stress anymore. No thanks! I am just whining! [laughs] That’s what I love to do!
You have been so hands-on with all of your films. Is there a part of the film-making process that you prefer?
Being on set. I live for that.
What is the typical screenwriting process like for you? Are you always writing or is there a point you sit down to lay the groundwork?
It isn’t that specific. It isn’t like I wake up and say “OK, today I am going to start writing.” It just germinates. There are always things germinating but I don’t do the work. Writing is grueling, ugly, solitary work, just sitting in a room doing that shit. I try not to do that.
You have a bunch of new projects coming out now that you are back. You touched on ‘The Ward’ a little bit already. What can you tell us about the cast of that film and was it difficult to assemble the right mix?
I worked with a really great casting director who just knows all of these young girls, actors and kids and really put me with some great ones. I just read them. The company that I work for had recommended Amber Heard. They had worked with her before. She is a really smart, young actress. Then I meant Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, Mamie Gummer and Laura-Leigh and really got a chance to talk to them. You may know Lyndsy Fonseca from her last film, ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.’ The whole group is extremely talented but they aren’t big stars yet.
What was the biggest challenge in making that film?
To be honest, it was the food! [laughs] The catering was just absolute shit. Garbage! Never solved it. I had an assistant and I just sent her out every night to get me food. It was awful! Inedible!
We have been seeing some stills crop up recently. When are we gonna get a chance to see the film?
How much money do ya have on ya? [laughs]
Probably about 60 in cash … there were tolls.[laughs] We are nearing completion. I am just doing some little color correction issues on the print. I think it is going to the Toronto Film Festival and after that it will be bootlegged and you can see it anywhere.
How do you feel about that sort of thing as an artist coming from an era before downloading was a factor?
Well, it is interesting. Your generation or even younger thinks that it is OK. They don’t think that it is stealing. If you talk to a kid, he will likely say “Why should I pay for it? I can get it right off the computer and not pay for it.” It’s a whole ethical change brought about by technology. But tell me the truth, when you listen to music, where do you usually get it?
Usually these days we use iTunes or actually go buy a physical CD, but yeah, from time to time, we will go download something via a shadier avenue.
Well, there ya go.
Another project that you are attached to is ‘Fangland.’ Can you talk a little bit about that?
It is a novel that has been turned into a script and we are still trying to get a good screenplay out of it.
How did you first cross paths with that project?
Somebody at the office said “Would you like to do this?” I read it and I thought it had a very interesting idea. So, now we will just have to see if we can get it there.
Originally the script had been described as a modernized version of ‘Dracula.’ Right now, vampires are all the rage and you have tangled with the undead before. Maybe this is a little premature but, what is your vision for the film?
Well, it is not about a vampire. We’re changing that. Vampire movies always work. They are always fun but they are a little over-saturated right now.
Another one is ‘L.A. Gothic’ …
Which has undergone a title change. I actually have a copy of the script which I am supposed to read this weekend and we will see where we go from there.
Although you are well known for horror and sci-fi, is there something outside of those realms that you might still want to take a stab at?
Well, at this point in my career, this is what I am known for. It’s what I get offered.
What are your thoughts on being labeled a ‘Master of Horror?’
It’s a way to sell DVDs. That is all it is. It’s all marketing! [laughs] Everything is marketing.
Horror is a lot different than it used to be. What are your thoughts on the current state of that genre?
Horror is always the same. It just changes with the culture and changes with the technology. The stories are always the same. There are just two basic stories in horror, two simple ones — evil is outside and evil is in here [pointing to his heart]. That is basically it. There are a lot of good horror movies being made right now, there have been a lot of good movies that have been made, and a lot more probably will be made.
You made one of the highest grossing independent films of all time with ‘Halloween’ …
Yeah! We used to be number one but ‘The Blair Witch Project’ killed us! [laughs] That movie was a giant hit!
I saw it in the theater … but ‘Halloween’ is still better!
There ya go! But boy, it killed us!
Did you have any idea the impact that it would have on the horror genre when you were making the film?
No clue. None. Zero. I had no idea. I just wanted to make a film!
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you ‘helmed’ the film?
It was a tiny little movie. Everyday it was a challenge, just trying to shoot. It is hard work, especially when you have no money to do it! We didn’t have the technology that you geniuses have today. You have digital cameras and can make a movie fairly inexpensively today. You really can.
3D and remakes are two subjects that I am sure you get asked about all the time. As a director/creator, do you think that these are signs that the Hollywood machine is running low on original ideas and do you think fans will eventually look to alternative mediums for their entertainment?
Hollywood already ran out of original ideas years ago, except for a very few films that come along that try something new. A lot of the stuff that they program is not new anymore. 3D is another way that the technology has evolved. Look at when the original ‘Toy Story’ came out. That was a huge step in storytelling. 3D has evolved in that same way. Personally, I don’t really know. I know one guy in Hollywood, Jeffery Katzenberg, says that soon every movie will be made in 3D. I don’t believe it. I went through the first 3D craze, I was there! I wore those glasses and I remember it! It died!
What are your thoughts on remakes, as a director who has directed a remake and had a few of his films remade?
It is the tradition of Hollywood. It has been done a lot. They remade ‘The Maltese Falcon’ four or five times. They remade ‘A Star Is Born’ … and they will be doing that again. Nowadays, for genre movies, it is so difficult to advertise for films, there is so much clutter, so many advertisements and so many people wanting your dollar that producers and studios try to cut through all of that with something that you will recognize. A title that maybe you heard of when you were young or your siblings watched it or you have heard of it but haven’t seen it, they cut through with it a new version. So, it can penetrate this almost impenetrable wall of attracting people and getting them into a theater. All of this stuff is about commerce. All about commerce. It is all about money. You see these sequels being made and people line up to see them. If no one went to see them, they wouldn’t be making them!
Are there any young directors out there that really make you stand up and take notice of their work?
Lots and lots. I like David Fincher’s work a lot. I think he is very talented. He is REALLY good!
Is there any film that you might have passed on in your career that you regret?
I have no regrets!
You recently lent your talents to a video game, F.E.A.R. 3. What can you tell us about that experience?
It was weird! I worked with a comicbook writer named Steve Niles. He drug me into it asking “Do you want to do this?” and I said “Sure!” It was a lot of fun. Mostly, we worked on writing. The story and the structure were pretty well figured out by the gamers. They said, “We want to go from here to here to here. So, it was a process of filling in the blanks and filling in the character with mainly dialogue, lots of dialogue. It is a totally different world than I am used to.
Is that a type of project that you can seeing yourself doing again in the future?
They were very nice people. So, yeah, sure!
Are you a gamer yourself?
What is your favorite type of game?
I love first person shooters. I just can’t help myself! My son, when he was young, got me into it. We used to play together and then I got hooked!
What do you consider the defining moment of your career so far?
That’s a great question. Defining moment? Well, in my position, being a director, it is all subjective impressions of how things go. So there is not one moment where the spotlight hits you and you go “Ahhhhhhh!” [jestering with his hands] I don’t know, there are several. My first job, first paying job, was a big deal. When I directed my first 35mm movie in Panavision, that was a big deal. Actually, finishing every movie, that is what you look for, that is success as far as I am concerned. That is the biggest deal as far as I am concerned because a lot of people never finish. They get fired or they run out of money, that is just the way that it goes.
I am sure that you have seen some crazy things during your career. Have you ever considered doing an autobiography?
Most of those stories I can’t tell anybody! I don’t betray confidences with the actors and the crew. But sure, I have a lot of crazy stories! Sure! About a lot of crazy people!
What is the best piece of advice that someone has given you along the way in your career?
It was probably from my dad. He said “Opportunity will come, just be ready for it.”
What about the flip-side of that question? What advice would you give to someone just starting out in this new age of film making?
You have a lot of advantages that I didn’t have. You can actually go to film school without actually going, by buying movies on DVD and watching the special features and interviews with directors where you can see what they did behind-the-scenes. You can really see how it works. You have equipment and technology now that allows you to make a film, cut it yourself with computers and show it. All that is stopping you, at this point, is you. The two of you can go out and make a movie starting today if you want to.
Very true. Actually, we are working on a little throwback project called ‘Bride of The Werewolf’ …
Well, there ya go! Good luck with it!
What is the biggest misconception about John Carpenter?
Horror director. People who direct horror movies always get typecast by the outside world. People might say “You guys must be real violent and weird and love that kinda shit!” That is what you must be like, right? People judge you by that and think that must be who you are. That is far from the truth.
I read online some things about a remake of ‘Escape From New York,’ one of your classics …
What can you tell us about that?
They paid me cash money! To sit there and do nothing! [laughs] I think Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are going to do it. They are working on getting a script that they like first. I think they are getting close. If they pay money, that means that they are probably going to make it.
Speaking of ‘Escape From New York,’ you worked with Kurt Russell quite a bit early in your career …
Four or five times, yeah.
What your working relationship like with him and why did you use him so frequently?
He is my kind of actor. He was a Disney trained actor, meaning that he comes in and knows the scenes, knows his lines and knows what he is going to do. He is a real pro! He came from the days where, on a Disney set, the script supervisor would cut the take if he wasn’t aligned perfectly. Every single line, he knows it. He is amazing to work with and has the greatest attitude about working. He didn’t give you any problems, he didn’t used to, a little more of a diva now … [laughs] but that is OK! He has the right to be. He has earned the ‘divahood.’ [laughs]
Any other projects that your fans should be aware of?
I have a couple different things in development. I have a movie called ‘The Prince,’ which I am really happy about. It is not really a horror film, it is more of an action film. Hopefully, I will get that going. I am ambivalent about work. I will do it if it comes along. I don’t like to get up too early in the morning! [laughs] But I am getting close to the age where I can just say [with his arms outstretched and middle fingers in the air] “Fuck this! Goodbye!” and kick back! [laughs] Every time that the NBA starts its season, I get less and less interested. I am more interested in basketball! I am a basketball addict!
Do you have any last words for you fans before we let you go?
Simply, thanks for the memories.
For all the latest news on John Carpenter, be sure to swing by his official website at www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com!