He has been called the Master of Horror, but John Carpenter is truly a master of the art of cinema, an auteur of uncompromising vision and talent that is the lifeblood of each of his works. He is an artist that uses every corner of the cinematic canvas, from the soundtrack score usually composed by the director himself to those long widescreen shots that pull you into the world on screen. He has an unapologetic voice, cutting through the cluttered history of generic Hollywood blockbusters to find a much more substantial success and the eternal audience adoration reserved for only the classics.
With at least one notable exception, most of his movies did not break records at the box office, but they have since found a much larger, far more loyal audience, and they are easily watched more today than ever. He is a rebel who never played the Hollywood game to begin with, making his films his way, most often without studio support, doing more with a $300,000 budget in 1978 than most directors could pull off with ten times that amount, only to create new standards that have come to define each of the genres he has entered.
He is not only my favorite director of all time, but even more a personal hero that has defined more of my life than he will ever know, so when the opportunity to interview Carpenter arrived this past summer, I was just a little excited.
When we spoke in August (of 2014), Entertainment Weekly had recently named John Carpenter as the Most Influential Director of 2014, citing about a dozen films released this year and their creators, who each credited Carpenter’s unmistakable style – everything from his signature synth-heavy musical compositions to his choice in font colors to the deeper social commentary simmering just under the surface of each of his movies – and they praised him for what he is, a Master of Filmmaking.
We started our conversation with EW article, and went on to discuss the real Michael Myers, the origin of Snake Plissken, what really happened with Charlie Bowles in Russellville, and lots more. Read on for our full interview with John Carpenter!
I wanted to ask you about this article from Entertainment Weekly saying that you are the most influential director of this year. For a whole generation of filmmakers, you are now the guy they talk about the way you have talked for some many years about people like Howard Hawks and Hitchcock.
“It’s flattering to hear something like that. I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it all. I’m not that influential. It’s a strange idea though. “I think it’s true, though, a lot of people, audiences, filmmakers grew up watching my movies. I think that’s what it’s about. It’s very flattering. I’m flattered by it.”
If you had to describe what you do, what a “John Carpenter Film” is, what would you say?
“I would just say watch my movies. You can pick it up. It’s not very hard to figure out. “I’ve done a bunch of different kinds of films. I’ve made horror films, I’ve made fantasy films, science fiction, all that kind of thing, but my movies are mainly about imagination.”
It seems like all of your movies have similar endings in that the story doesn’t end with the film, whether it’s Michael Myers still being out there or Snake Plissken walking away and ripping up the tape. Has that been a conscious thing or has it just worked out like that?
“Well I’ve gone different directions on this thing. When I was younger, I embraced ambiguous endings or open-ended endings, but audiences hate them. So I decided at one point, ‘Well that’s not real smart to do that.’ But if you’re going to do an open ending, make it an up, happy open ending. Don’t make it a downer.
“There’s an open ending on Big Trouble in Little China, which doesn’t bother you at all. Yeah, that stupid monster’s on his truck. So what? There’s an ambiguous ending on The Thing, which just makes everybody feel like, ‘Oh God, there’s no hope’, so that’s another side of it. I have learned to make it positive if you possibly can. I’ve just noticed this. I’ve just learned it from my own films and learned it from watching people watching other movies.”
Originally Halloween was going to be The Babysitter Murders, but was that a developed script when you became the writer?
“It was just an idea. The distributor had his hands on some money, and he wanted to make an exploitation movie. He said, ‘We’ll call it The Babysitter Murders’. It’s about a killer stalking babysitters, because he theorized every girl in America can relate to babysitting. So he was trying to make a cheap exploitation movie.
“Halloween was constructed in a wholly different way. It was about babysitters, and yes it was about a killer, but it was about a lot more than that.”
Who is Michael Myers to you? Is he a supernatural force or is he just a crazy guy who picked this random girl?
“Well, he’s a little bit of both. He’s a human being, but he has supernatural elements to him. He’s a guy that has no personality, no character. He’s more like a force than he is human, but he skirts the edge on that. I was just playing around with it.
“I think that’s what makes that movie fun – the impossible, invisible, standing-in-the dark force that is Michael Myers. He’s going to kill you, and his motivations aren’t entirely clear. All he’s doing is not entirely clear. “He’s just pure evil. He’s human evil, but there is the supernatural ‘maybe he stays alive, maybe can’t be killed’ element to him.”
Is Laurie really seeing the Shape out the window? Could that be something that she’s just imagining or is he really out there playing with her that whole time?
“You’ll have to decide for yourself.
“I think that’s what makes Halloween a unique movie. I hadn’t seen a movie like that before Halloween. Before Halloween, it was all very cut and dry. You either had a monster of some sort or a ghost, or a killer, but in this (Halloween), there was a little bit of everything in Michael Myers. That’s what attracted the audience.
“It wasn’t an accident.”
I’ve heard the story before that Michael Myers was inspired by a real boy.
“Michael Myers comes from two places.
“His name comes from the United Kingdom distributor of Assault on Precinct 13. His name was Michael Myers. He ran Miracle Films over there. He was a delightfully wonderful man, and he helped to launch my career.
“Secondly, the idea of evil and mental illness in the movie came from a visit I took during a college course to a mental institution. It was very depressing. Seeing a guy, who just looked like the Devil. He was just mentally ill, but that’s what he looked like. That idea of evil, that’s where it came from. He’s not really, but it appeared that way. The mentally ill are not evil. They’re just sad. “I used everything, experiences and other movies, everything in my life to inform directing.”
In the gravedigger scene, he brings up this story that happens in the nearby town of Russellville, and I’ve always been curious where that came from, because he brings it up and then gets cut off by Loomis.
“One of my girlfriends from back when I was in college, her father was that guy. This guy was unbelievable. He was part of the Kentucky mafia. They ran theaters, drive-in theaters, and slot machines, all sorts of stuff. He got into gambling.
“Her husband got involved in the mafia, and her father killed him. He murdered him. So that’s the kind of evil, piece of shit he was.“He didn’t murder his family, but he was a truly evil guy.”
Another scene I always love is in the classroom when the teacher is talking and she comes to the “fate never changes” line. Is it Laurie’s fate to come face to face with Michael?
“I have no idea what I’m saying or I’m suggesting with that, but it sounds good doesn’t it? It’s the illusion of depth, without any depth.”
I know there were pickup shots done at the end of Halloween II. How much of that did you film?
“I did a little bit here and there. The sequel had its problems, and probably all due to me, because I didn’t write a very good script. I’m going to leave that one alone, because I know the director.”
I also wanted to talk a little bit about Escape for New York. They just announced that it’s going to be coming out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory next year.
“Great! Nobody told me about it.”
How did the character of Snake Plissken come about?
“He’s an antihero, whose roots are probably in the Vietnam War, but he he’s also a guy I knew in high school. The attitude is this guy I knew in high school.
“The name was actually a real person that a friend of mine talked about, but that’s the person I knew in high school, that’s just another person.”
Are you involved with the new Snake Plissken comic book?
You’ve said that you were a big comic book fan when you were a kid. How cool is it to have Snake and Jack Burton now in comic book form?
“It’s fabulous. But I have to point out to you that my favorite comic book when I was growing up was Uncle Scrooge, which had nothing to do with superheroes.”
Is there any chance that the comics will lead to more movies with these characters?
“I have no idea, man. You never say never in this business.”
What if Snake and Jack are around 50 years from now, like Batman and Spider-Man?
“Thinking about something like that turns my brain to mush.”
Can you tell us about what’s coming up in the comics?
“No, I’m not going to tell you about it. You have to go out and buy it.”
Would you ever direct a superhero movie?
“Sure if they approached me, but they’re never going to, so that’s not even going to be a worry of mine. Why would they come to me? They’ve got all these young teenagers out there making these movies. They don’t need an old fart like me doing it.”
You have been attached to a number of projects, like Fangland and Darkchylde, recently. Can you give us an update on any of those projects?
“Fangland is not going to go through.
“Darkchylde is in development. We’re going out to various money sources, and we’ll see what happens.”
So is Darkchylde going to be your next project?
“You don’t know in this business. You just see where you can raise the money. I’ve got a couple other projects I’m working on also. I don’t want to talk about it right now, but we’ll see what happens.
“But nothing is going to happen after October, because the NBA starts up again, and I am addicted to basketball and can’t be leaving the house.”
[This interview was originally published on October 31, 2014.]
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