Copyright Empire Magazine, November 1996

Carpenter’s Log

He made the fabulously dark Dark Star, the truly terrifying Halloween and the very gooey The Thing. He was on of America’s foremost exploitation directors. And then he made Big Trouble In Little China. And it all went wrong. John Carpenter talks Adam Smith through career’s worth of films.

Dark Star (1974)

“A baptism of fire is the nearest thing I can think of to describe that movie. It started out as a student film and we shot it bit by bit. It took years to complete. And then it actually got a theatrical release. But nobody cared, it sank without trace. I managed to get an agent off it and decided to try and write my way into the movie business.”

Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

“I’d managed to sell the script for The Eyes Of Laura Mars to Columbia and this angel came along in the form of an investor and put up $100,000 which was more than I’d had on Dark Star. We had a 30 day shooting schedule which was a shock. But I did it, I directed, wrote it, did the music, cut it and out it came. The discipline was extremely good, it brought me a long way. But nobody cared in the States. It went down really well in Britain and once it was discovered here it got this cycle going and the popularity increased. One of the weirdest things is that at the time people said it was unrealistic that the gang would have had automatic weapons. Now take a look at the world...”

Halloween (1978)

“It was based on an idea by the producer who said we should do the babysitter movies. It was a great move, and since Assault I’d fallen in love with Panaglide (also known as Steadicam). It released us from a lot of the restrictions of using a dolly. In the end we overused it in that movie, but I think it worked. The whole movie’s just a scare machine. When I was a kid I used to go on the haunted house rides, and that’s all this movie was - my job was to make you scream. But I also wanted to make it more mythical than your standard sorority house being stalked by a killer. That’s sort of banal. That’s why we had the body vanishing at the end, to kick it to another level. Then they threatened to sue us if we didn’t make a sequel. I got to the point where I was saying, ‘You’re going to make a sequel anyway so I may as well try to help it.’”

Elvis (1979)

“My agent said to me there’s this script knocking around that no one will touch. I opened it up and the title page said Elvis. I said, ‘I’m doing it!’. I did it out of love because I love Elvis. Without him I might never have gotten laid so I owe him a debt. It was a three hour TV movie with 88 speaking parts, and 150 locations. We had one actor who was a dead-ringer for Elvis but who couldn’t act any more than a chair, and then we had Kurt Russell, who didn’t look like Elvis but could act up a storm. So we went with Kurt. We were doing six-to-ten pages day. Holy shit, I got my sea-legs on that movie. It was a total challenge. But I survived it.”

The Fog (1980)

“I wanted to do a ghost story, something with a Lovecraftian feel about it. Stylistically it was the trickiest I’ve done, and it didn’t work first time around. I had to go back and reshoot about a third of it. That’s a real gut test, you gotta find out if you have any balls. So we patched it up and it was a success...”

The Thing (1982)

“I tried to be true to the original John W. Campbell short story, but I wanted to avoid the cliché of keeping the monster in the dark. I’m like, ‘I wanna see the Devil!’. It’s like sex scenes. Everyone says, ‘Don’t show’. But I wanna see the ass, man! So I decided to do it the reverse and not have it in the shadows but right in your face. I thought if we pulled that off you’d hit a home run. You’d have the granddaddy of all monsters. You’re never gonna see anything like that head sequence ever again...”

Christine (1983)

“I needed the job. That thing was such a big failure. I sleepwalked through it but I learned something from it. I’m never going to do that again. There’s something in the way Stephen King writes that doesn’t translate to screen well. And maybe a haunted car just ain’t scary...”

Starman (1984)

“I was sent this script which they’d developed, but ET had come out in the meantime and kinda stolen their thunder. It was a romantic comedy and it was funny and it had only one sentimental scene at the end. I thought if we could pull this off it’d be really nice. It really wasn’t hard to make, I just left the actors to do it. It was nice to watch and audience get misty as opposed to screaming...”

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

“I still love that movie. I wanted to do a Hong Kong movie. I thought that the script was great, and it was the beginning of the Rambo era where there was a lot of jingoism. And I got the chance to have this earnest white hero who can’t do shit, thinks he can but he can’t. We had this tremendous preview for the movie but then it was an unimaginative release. They had a really odd policy of not spending more than $3 million on a release and the audience didn’t dig it. It was too hip for the room. If you’re a comedian and you’re too hip for the room the audience ain’t gonna laugh man. They’re gonna throw eggs...”

They Live (1988)

“I wanted to return to low budget movies that would turn a profit for the studio cos it cost shit to make. I wanted to say something about a lot of the things what were going wrong in the country at the time. There was this trend to unrestrained capitalism, it was absolute total stupidity some if it. All the problems I thought had been solved were back: censorship, racism. But I didn’t want to preach. So I took a short story and adapted it. And I also wanted to make the longest fight scene in film history...”

Escape From LA (1996)

“Plans for a sequel started in the mid 80s, but we had no story. Then there were all three disasters in California is the 90s which kind of defined LA forever as a really dangerous city to live in. And then Kurt got really excited about it a year-and-a-half ago. So basically I wrote the script and inverted Escape From New York. Instead of a prison it’s the only free zone left in the country. Instead if being a rescuer he’s an assassin. I got to see the film once fully completed. I’m extremely pleased with what we got. It’s a better film than New York. It’s funnier, it’s got more subversion, it’s dealing with more issues and I’ve never seen anything in American film with an ending like it...”

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