Interview With John Carpenter from SFX magazine.
"Fascinating," murmurs a twitchy John Carpenter, peering quizically at the large umbrella reflector our photographer is setting up. Fascinating? Surely a man who's directed more special effects-laden, blood-splattered movies than he's had TV dinners can't really be intrigued by something as resolutely low-tech as a tin-foil coated brolly?
You begin to wonder whether he's being sarcastic - okay, John, we don't all have multi-million dollar budgets to throw around - or simply whether he's so fed up to the nicotine-stained back teeth of answering questions about Escape from LA that any distraction is worthwhile. He's been doing the UK PR tour thang with a vehemence for four days now - his PR manager's vehemence, by the looks of it...
Sitting in a suite in London's Dorchester hotel, chain-smoking, fidgeting, eyelids drooping, eyes never look straight at you, he initially answers the questions be a brevity so practised you wonder if you can believe him when he professes that Christine is the only film he did, "because he did the job; all the others are personal projects." It's easy to believe that Escape from LA, being the sequel to one of his most successful movies, Escape from New York, was merely a way of re-establishing his career after the lacklustre preformance of his previous three movies - Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned. Suggest it to him though, and you just get a non-committal, believe-it-if-you-want shrug. But LA did get to number one in the box office chart in the US so whatever his motives, that must be a good feeling, surely?
"We're making some bucks, it's very nice," he nods casually, before deciding he'd better make the effort at explaining himself. "Years ago, Kurt [Russell] and I talked about doing this. It'd be fun to revisit the character. It'd be fun to, I dunno, go back to that kind of future. But we didn't have a story. We had zip. We knew we wanted to do LA because we'd done New York, but we didn't know basically how to handle it. Until we had a few disasters descending on LA in the '90s. Very clearly there were these natural disasters, but we also had this tremendous big riot. Everybody who lives in Los Angeles - like myself - still loves it. But we're in denial. We figured there was some kind of a germ of a story there, so we started working on it."
Things only started getting serious, however, shortly before Carpenter started work on his last film, "Kurt [Russell] and I got together with Debra [Hill - the producer]. We decided we were going to write it as a spec and sell it, so it became my thankless and wonderful job to bang out the first draft so that we could then start to work on it while I was directing Damned."
While we're on the subject of sequels, it doesn't come as much of a surprise to learn that one film Carpenter would love to direct a follow-up to is The Thing. The bery mention of the film transfers the man. His eyes widen, he leans forward - and starts talking with hitherto untapped energy, the cigarette temporarily forgotten. "They wouldn't let me do it. It was not a big hit. But we have a story. There is a story. It kicks off a few hours after the last one. It's good..." He leans back and stares into the middle distance. "It's good... But they'll never let me do it. I can't see Universal stepping forward and saying, 'Come on, guys.' But it's a terrific story. It's a story that somebody else told me. And it's right! It involves the two characters, Childs and MacReady. And there further adventures, a little later on...
"But they wanted to make this one," he says, coming out of orbit, adding with a wry nod. "This one there was a lot of interest in."
Which is hardly surprising on two counts. First, there's Kurt Russell, who plays Snake Plissken, SF's answer to Eastwood's Dirty Harry. It was Escape from New York that set him on the road to action hero stardom in the first place - and more importantly, he wanted to play Plissken again. "I think that's the primary reason," admits Carpenter. "He wanted to do it. He's the voice behind it. He was the voice that said, 'Let's do it again.'"
But there's also the matter of moolah. "New York was a big hit worldwide. It made over $50 million. It cost just $7 million."
So Escape from LA looked like a good bet for a hit sequel. But not such a good bet the studio was willing to go crazy with the budget. In fact, as Carpenter reveals, it actually had a smaller budget than the much lower profile Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
"So again," sighs the man who's been used to working with no very much at various points in his career, "it was another one of those, 'Let's make it as big as we can with the money we've got.'"
So this is a good moment to mention the dodgy CGI effects in Escape from LA? Nope. "They may not have been up to your scratch, but I sure was happy. This is a retro movie, so this was the style," he retorts, before not so subtly changing the topic. "This is the kind of movie where a box of matches is as important as any kind of technology."
One of the criticisms levelled at Escape from LA is that it's less of a sequel and more of a remake - almost how the original would have turned out if it had been made in 1996. Carpenter doesn't bite at that suggestion. "Well, it's a product of the '90s, no doubt. We had to bring it up to date. The studio told us most of the audience hasn't seen the original, so you had to re-invent it for them. They don't know who he is, what you're world set-up is... The structure is basically the same - you have the preamble which describes the world situation, then you have Snake set up on a mission, then you deliver the mission. So there you go."
Presumably some of the thinking is that, hit or not, Escape from New York won't have been seen by a hugh percentage of LA's audience? "You got it. That's the whole trick. Reinvent it for a new audience, but those who've seen the original can smile and say, 'Oh I see it. This is very familiar territory.' They're in on the joke."
Whatever anybody thinks of the movie, you have to admit that it has a classic ending. One which makes way for a sequel perhaps?
"Nah, I think this is it; we've done it." He throws his hands up almost in surrender.
As we're talking about endings, perhaps now is the best time to clear up a rather controversial rumour about The Thing. The mere mention of the film seems to trigger a Pavlovian response in the director. Once again, he leans forward, suddenly fired up with enthusiasm. So, that rumour... When Childs and MacReady are the only two characters left alive after the explosive climax, it's noticable that you can see MacReady's breath but not Childs'. Is Childs the shapeshifting alien, then?
"Ha, ha, ha! I've heard this!" At last a spontaneous reaction! "It's the way it's lit. It's because there's no cross-lighting on his breath. They're both definately breathing. But you can take credit for it. I'll say it's true. Ha, ha, ha...'
From here on in it's like interviewing another person. Still twitchy, but more animated and single-minded, Carpenter obviously has a great love of his craft and an enthusiasm for films. Though his eagerness to get off the subject of Escape from LA does make you wonder whether he'll look back on the movie with the same fondness he has for all his other work. Christine excepted, of course.
The Carpenter as a film-maker story began in the late '60s. "I was in a rock and roll band. We were out on the road all the time, meeting girls and having a great lifestyle. It was a great experience. But my father said, 'Look, you've got to do something.' And I always had a dream of becoming a movie director, so I packed up and came out to LA and then to the University of South California (USC). And it was a great experience. But I was there in the great days. All the classic directors would come along and talk to us: Welles, Hughes, Hitchcock, Polanski..."
However, Hitchcock, whose Psycho arguably invented the slasher movie genre, was not quite the influence on the young Carpenter you might expect. "Hitchcock is Hitchcock, you know. It's like he has a style which he wears on his sleeve that my son can imitate. It's not hard. I was more interested in the technique and the modernism of Howard Hawks. I thought he was awesome. He's my movie director hero. In my humble opinion, he's the greatest American director ever who has had a great movie in every genre. Musicals, Westerns, comedies, he's done it all."
And of course, he was producers of the original Thing from Another Planet. So was it a film Carpenter always wanted to direct? "The Thing was offered to me by Universal. I didn't generate it. They'd been working on it for years, getting the rights to remake it, and I dunno, they did a lot of attempts... One was underwater for some reason. But I just went back to the original source material to work from."
It was while he was at USC that he started work on a project that was destined to become his first theatrically released movie - the SF comedy Dark Star. "It was a project I started as a student and basically it just expanded into a feature. We got a distributer and actually got it released into theatres. It was like the big dream of every student film-maker - to take your little film and get it seen by everybody."
That makes it sound incredibly simple.
"Oh, it was horrible. We started that movie in 1970. I hooked up with Dan [Alien scriptwriter] O'Bannon that Summer. And the movie was relelased in January 1975. We didn't have any money. It was friends acting in it."
Even when the distributors gave Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon the money to expand their "little project," the sum was hardly astronomical even for the day - $60,000. And, as far as Carpenter's concerned, the main advantage of getting a theatrical release was increased recognition rather than financial gain. "It might have made a dime, but I don't know what it made. I certainly didn't see any of it."
Next up was Assault on Precinct 13, the edgy seige movie with one of the most catchy theme tunes in film history. One of Carpenter's peculiarities is that he's probably the only mainstream director who also gets a credit for writing the music for his movies. "Clearly, you can see the influence of the rock music," he laughs. "I became a synthesist so that I could layer my scores. And I went in the direction of minimalism you might say. I find my music very rock and roll, blues-orientated... Even the moody scores are all kind of based on old rock and roll riffs. They're riff lead."
In fact, The Assault on Precinct 13 theme was actually turned into [a] dance track. "Da... da... da... dum... dum! hums the director without the acid of a disco beat, thankfully. "There was a vocal to it as well. I didn't do it. Some guy did it. It's fine. It's great. It's extremely flattering. They're going to do some stuff to the Escape music as well. I just listened to it upstairs. I dunno. They've got a dance mix. They've got a jungle mix. They've got an extended mix."
But the film that really made his name was Halloween. While he admits to still liking the movie, he does have regrets about the sub-genre it created, blaming slasher movies for the downturn in popularity of horror movies in general. And as for the sequels... "There wasn't a story. There was not a story. There's a lot of this kind of thing when you're in a business situation. After Halloween was a success, my partners, the guys who put up the money for the movie, said, 'We're gonna do a sequel and if you don't let us, we're going to sue you.' Y'know, okay, well if you're going to make one, let me write it... I'll write it, but I won't direct it, 'cos I don't want to direct the sequel. But I'll write it and make it as good as I can make it. And halfway through the script, there's no story. There's no story. We've already done it.
"But it was a hit! When it came time to do the third movie, I made an attempt to start a new deal, which was to do different stories set around the night of Halloween. The audiences didn't want that. They wanted a Xerox copy of a nut with a knife. So by that point I just said, 'Look, you guys go make it. I can't help you.'"
Following Halloween, Carpenter directed the TV movie, Elvis, his first collaboration with actor Kurt Russell, who since has starred in four more Carpenter flicks. "I like him. We can talk about girls and sport," chuckles Carpenter. "Seriously, though, he's a very easy guy to direct. He seems to know what I want."
The Fog and Escape from New York saw Carpenter's reputation grow, then in 1981 came the film that the director glumly admits, "changed my career completely." For the worse. And ironically, it's the one he loves the most - The Thing. "The perception of it was something beyond the reality. That was the summer of '82, and I was considered something of a pornographer. There was a big backlash against horror movies because of Halloween, which had created the Friday the 13ths. You know what I mean? And people looked at them and said, 'Oh, this awful stuff!' So I think it was my time to get crucified."
Next came Christine, not a film Carpenter particularly wanted to do, but at that stage he had to take what he could get. "It just wasn't very frightening. But it was something I needed to do at that time for my career."
Still, he can console himself that few directors have managed to translate a Stephen King book successfully to the screen. "Nope, no-one has ever done it very well."
So is there a King book he'd like to make into a movie? He pauses for a moment. "The one that was great that got away was Firestarter [actually diected by Mark L Lester in 1984]. A great, great, great story."
Since then, Carpenter's filmography has been a eclectic mix, with some surprise successes and some equally surprising failures. While fellow horror director David Cronenburg is hailed as an auteur, Carpenter's mix bag of fantasy and SF seems to indicate a more jobbing director. Carpenter himself is typically pragmatic. "I'll tell you what I am. It depends on what country I'm in. In France, I'm an auteur. In England, I'm a horror movie director. In Germany, I'm a filmmaker. In the US, I'm a bum."
Having said that, Carpenter is quick to add, "Kurt Russell said to me the other day, 'I only know maybe ten directors in the world that I can say this about. You can see ten seconds of any of your movies and know they're yours."
So what are the signs of a Carpenter film? "All of it. Everything. Everything you see on the screen. Framing style, lighting, camera angles..."
Yes, but what's the Carpenter trademark? The director looks a bit perplexed. "I just make them. I don't know. I can tell you 100 different ways to get there but it's like, I know exactly how I'd go, how I'd do it, from beginning to end. There's not one thing. It's not just a tracking shot, it's not just a light show, it's not just the lenses, it's not just the lighting, it's not just the music... It's a marriage of those things."
One of his traits as a director, however, is not relying too heavily on storyboards. He feels they strangle a life out of a movie. "When you're doing a bigger budget film I think you have to plan it out, sure. Everybody has to be speaking the same language. But in terms of scenes, no, I don't storyboard. I stopped doing that a long time ago. It's just a waste of time. I learned to save some spontaneity for what the performers bring. What the moment brings."
So now that he's had a hit once again with Escape from LA, does this mean he can afford to choose a quirky project next time around?
"I've already got my next movie. It's, ah, I'm not going to tell you! I'm shooting it here in London. It's a big change." Rumour suggests it might be something called The Mutant Chronicles? He refuses to commit himself, but assures us, "It's a cool story. It's a chance to do something a little different. Not that it's that different at all, really. It's a very straight line Science Fiction adventure, but it's got a twist."
But is there one film he still dreams of making? "A sequel to The Thing." Um, other than that? "I don't care. I once spent a lot of time trying to adapt a novel, one of my favourite SF novels of all time, The Stars My Destination, but it couldn't be done. I realised - you know what - it's a novel. That's what makes it work. I have a stack of ideas that if I ever got the time I'd love to play around with. I don't know that I'd make movies out of them. They might be better as novels."
Considering the range of movies he's done, has he ever considered doing a musical?
"I had a musical once, you know. It was about a nuclear meltdown. But they wouldn't let me do it." What a surprise.
Carpenter on Carpenter
DARK STAR (1974) : B+ (SFX rating)
Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb, as the poster screamed. A bizarre black SF comedy, originally made as a student movie, staring four hippy astronauts.
Carpenter : "It was a real labour of love. We got a lot on screen for the money. It was a lot of fun. It might have made a dime. I don't know what it made, but I certainly didn't see any of it."
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) : A-
Not SF, but a superb, bloody thriller about a seige in an abandoned LA cop station. A bit like Night of the Living Dead without the Zombies.
Carpenter: "The fact that the cute little girl with the ice cream gets, uh, creamed seemed to go down well. I had a great time making that movie. Yeah, I still think it stands up pretty well today. Loads of people love it."
HALLOWEEN (1978) : B+
The film that created a sub-genre - the crazed, knife wielding, serial killer with mainly teenage victims.
Carpenter: "A very simple straightforward movie, but I never realized the effect it was going to have. It was the movie that started the trend that made horror movies unfashionable by the late '80s. Nuts with knives. All my fault."
THE FOG (1979) : B
A brilliant brooding slice of horror as a sinister bank of fog envelopes a sleepy seaside town. Nothing to do with the Frank Herbert [?!? duh!] novel of the same name.
Carpenter: "A little bit HP Lovecraft. A ghost story. I loved it, but it was very difficult to make. Not technically difficult. It was the balance that was difficult. Getting the tempo right."
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) : B
New York, 1997, and Manhatten Island has become a prison from which anti-hero Snake Plissken has to rescue the kidnapped president. The film that catapulted Kurt Russell to fame.
Carpenter : "I wrote it in 1974 but it didn't get made until the '80s. In the '70s everybody was frightened of it because it made fun of the president. It only cost $7 too. It turned out okay."
THE THING (1982) : A
Remake of the 1961 Howard Hawks produced (and arguably directed) horror flick, this is that rare case where modern effects actually benefited the script, as Rob Bottin's super shape-shifting alien picks off the members of an antartic expedition.
Carpenter : "A very difficult film to make. I invested a great deal into it. I had to embrace the dark side of me. It changed my career. And I love it dearly."
CHRISTINE (1983) : C
Every horror director must have a go at a Stephen King novel and make a mess of it. Carpenter is no exception, as this possessed car chiller proves.
Carpenter : "I enjoyed working with the actors. But I spent a lot of time with that damned car. It was difficult to make it frightening. Duel had a truck, it was bigger and that was cool. Here was this really hip '50s car, really rock'n'roll - and it was just too cute."
STARMAN (1984) : B-
Carpenter's SF love story stars Jeff Bridges as an alien who takes on the form of Karen Allen's dead husband by bonding with the DNA in one of his hairs (yeah, right). Soppy romantic stuff, but a reasonably sized hit. A bit pants, really.
Carpenter : "A chance to do a romantic comedy. A chance to do It Happened One Night on the road. It earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award nomination."
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) : B
Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Tsui Hark-style chinese vampire movies in this rollercoaster action fantasy which has bags of energy and fast action. Sadly, seriously marred by some sub-standard, cartoony special effects. Kurt Russell once again starred as the lead.
Carpenter : "Ah! I remember that with enormous fondness. I got to make a Kung Fu movie. What else is there to say?"
PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) : C
Green gooey goings-on in a church basement. Kind of Ghostbusters with fewer laughs. Carpenter wrote the script as Martin Quatermass.
Carpenter : "A return to horror. A return to low budgets. Quantam Mechanics and non-causality in a glass tube. I came up with the pseudonym because of my embarrassment when I saw the billboard for Christine with my name all over it."
THEY LIVE! (1988) : B
Bizarre, paranoia-driven, '50s style alien invasion movie in which the enemy infiltrates society by use of subliminal advertising.
Carpenter : "This is one of my favourite movies. It's a comment on unrestrained capitalism and features the greatest fight scene in history. I saw The Quiet Man and thought, 'I can do it better.' We rehearsed it for two months - and shot it in four days."
MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1992) : C+
Essentially a black comedy, Memoirs explores the more problematic side of becoming invisible and features some remarkable effects and quite a few brilliant visual gags. Still not up to stratch, though.
Carpenter : "I don't think the audiences wanted to see this kind of movie with that star (Chevy Chase). It ran out of audience goodwill. The horror movie has fallen on hard ground."
IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) : B
What is art and what is reality? As insurance investigator Sam Neill gets trapped in the world created by a Stephen King-style author he's never quite sure. A love it or loath it film.
Carpenter : "It's really simple. It's like a Western. A guy has to look for a guy so he gets on his horse, rides into town and then he gets trapped in a loop. And then he escapes town and finds that everything's changed."
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1995) : B
An updated, uprooted version of the John Wyndham novel. Alien babies impregnated into the womenfolk of a small US town grown up to be telepathic terrors.
Carpenter : "What happens when you discover your child is evil? I went back to the original source material and updated it... But the script to that black and white movie was terrific, so you don't want to screw with it too much."
ESCAPE FROM LA (1996) : C+
Escape from New York, the '90s remix basically. Fun, but a bit of a wasted opportunity, with some dodgy CGI effects. One of the best endings to a movie ever, though.
Carpenter : "Well, it's all inverted. New York is a prison, LA is the only free place. The prison is now the United States. He's not on a rescue mission, he's on an assassination mission. We just went, 'That's it!' Click. Just 180."
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