Point Blank : The Total Film Interview

John Carpenter

King of the tracking shot, pioneer of the heaving-chested teen stalkee, Howard Hawksí biggest fan... We meet the man whose work is perfectly symmetrical in its mix of the crap, the okay and, happily, the great. By Stephen Applebaum

John Carpenter is a wayward, unpredictable talent. Sure, he won an Oscar in 1970 (for The Resurrection Of Bronco Billy, a short he made as a student), but his subsequent career has been all over the place. Though he was never likely to trouble the Academy again, by simple virtue of the type of movie he likes to make (shlocky SF and horror, mostly), the quality of his films, particularly in the Ď80s and Ď90s, has been up and down like a yo-yo. Thereíve been big critical (and commercial) hits, but his recent stuff has been distressingly lackluster - his redundant remake of The Village Of The Damned went straight to video on the UK, for instance, which surprised few who saw it. It wasnít always this way. Rarely has a genre director made such a promising debut - Carpenterís first two feature films, only modestly successful at the box office though they were, earned him a devoted following that still exists (if a little disillusioned) to this day, particularly here in Europe. First there was the black space comedy Dark Star, originally a student project; then came the great Assault On Precinct 13, Carpenterís nail-biting conflation of Howard Hawksí Western classic Rio Bravo and The Night Of The Living Dead. Anyone whoís seen Assault will attest to is wit and freshness. Then, in 1978, came the hit; Carpenter slashed his way into the publicís imagination with Halloween, a film that earned both critical and popular acclaim. Shot using an early version of the Steadicam, and cunningly directed, it re-defined screen terror. Since then, Carpenter has made us cry slightly with his ET-like Starman, retch quite a bit with his brilliant, bloodthirsty remake of The Thing From Another World, and puzzle over what he was trying to achieve with his Hong Kong action flick-alike Big Trouble In Little China. In 1981ís Escape From New York he introduced a new anti-hero in the shape of the lispingly titled Snake Plissken. Played as a sort of over-the-top pastiche of Eastwoodís Man With No Name by Carpenterís on-screen alter-ego, Kurt Russel, this eye-patch-wearing rebel was forced to pilot a glider into the then future New York (the film is set in Ď97, when the metropolis is one gigantic prison), to rescue the crash-landed US president ( Donald Pleasence at his bug-eyed best). In Ď96, 15 years on, Carpenter resurrected Plissken for Escape From LA - his first sequel. This time round the action was set in a future Los Angeles, home to all the familiar landmarks but trashed by earthquakes and - because it, too, is now a prison - populated by Americaís worst. It got mixed reviews but was a sizable success anyway - Carpenterís biggest hit in years, in fact. At last people were starting to take him seriously again. With Escape From LA now on video, we tracked Carpenter down to talk about that particular film, and those to come.

Total Film (TF) : Youíve resisted doing sequels in the past, so what changed your mind?

JC : I used to thing that doing sequels showed a lack of originality. Then I heard that Francis Coppola had initially refused requests to make a Godfather sequel for the same reason, but that, after thinking about it, had concluded it could be a great creative challenge. The idea intrigued me; and it got me thinking that maybe a follow-up to Escape From New York wouldnít be such a bad move after all. The rest, as they say, is history.

TF: Yet a lot of people regard Escape From LA as more of a big budget remake than a sequel...

JC : Paramount said that, with sequels, audiences want the same thing but somehow different. S we took the structure of the first movie and inverted everything. LAís not just a prison; itís also the only real ďfreeĒ place. Snake Plissken is not a rescuer; heís an assassin. I looked at in the same way Howard Hawks approached El Dorado after heíd made Rio Bravo. He made the same movie structurally but changed the details.

TF : But Hawks didnít wait 15 years...

JC : The problem was, we had no LA story until this tremendous earthquake devastated our city. It brought LA to a standstill; brought us to our knees. We had the biggest riot in American history and all the natural disasters of living in a reclaimed desert starting to happen. Weíre living in a dreamland there; we think weíve got a city, but really itís just a savage desert. Weíve got these houses made of all this expensive stuff, and one day theyíre going to come tumbling down. Because of everything that was happening, we finally got a vibe we could work with.

TF : Some people have suggested you made this film as a way for you to re-enter the mainstream, following the disappointment of In The Mouth Of Madness and Village Of The Damned...

JC : For certain historical reasons which donít really matter, Iíll never be able to get back into the mainstream, and Iíve accepted that. Iím not a mainstream director anyway, because I donít, wonít and canít follow a formula. Thatís now what Iím here for, Iím here to be John Carpenter. But sometimes I wish my movies were better received when theyíre released, rather than in retrospect.

TF : We can understand you wanting to remake The Thing, but why Village Of The Damned?

JC : They made me an offer I couldnít refuse! Plus, I think the book [The Midwich Cuckoos] by John Wyndham is beautiful, and I like the old movie a lot. Iíve always been fascinated by it because of the profound question at its core: what happens when you find out your kids are evil? Iím a parent now myself, so I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore. I actually love the movie I made and donít feel the need to defend it. I think itís brilliant and wouldnít change a thing in it.

TF : The Escape films are pretty difficult to categorize, because theyíre very much genre hybrids. How would you describe them?

JC : Theyíre science fiction on the surface, but really theyíre dark comedy westerns, or ďcowboy noirsĒ. Like all my films, they have a little bit of this and little bit of that in them. Man, if I had to define exactly what I was doing, I would never have made it this far. I operate on instinct a lot; if it feels right I do it. I try to get in touch with pure creation, and my most successful films have come out that way. Itís not something I can analyze.

TF : Escape From New York cost just $7 million. Would you have contemplated making Escape From LA fro the equivalent amount today.

JC : No. In the 1990s youíve got to do films big, because youíre competing against other huge movies, and audiences these days expect so much more. As it is, we didnít have enough money - we really needed to spend $75 million not $50 million.

TF : The films screenplay is credited to you, Kurt Russell and you producer, Debra Hill. How did that work?

JC : I hammered out the first draft with help from Debra; she came up with some scenes that I didnít have time to do because I was directing and scoring another film. The we worked on each section separately. Kurt came in at this point and helped make the dialogue scenes play for actors. Thatís his strength - and the ending is his. I had a similar ending but heís actually the one who made it clear what was going on. We worked hard together on the McGuffin, the thing that shuts off the lights, and on all the rules governing the hologram.

TF : The last line of the movie, ďWelcome to the human raceĒ, suggests that out of the chaos will come something better...

JC : Exactly. The funny thing about that line is that it originally took place in the scene where Snakeís told that heíll be killed if he tries to come out of LA. But it didnít work there, so I cut it out and the editor stuck it at the end of the movie. The editing process is effectively re-writing; itís where we invent new things.

TF : The cats is eclectic - Peter Fonda and Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi... Did you have an idea of who you wanted while you wrote the script?

JC : Not until we really got into it. We took each character and looked at what they had to do and then decided. We wanted it be like Escape From New York, where we took actors who, at the time, werenít necessarily big - like Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine - and cast them in our film. We did things then because they were fun, and I still love seeing people in those roles. The way weíve cast this film was really interesting too.

TF : In your films thereís often a tension between the ideas youíve come up with for the set-up - which are usually very imaginative - and the imperatives of the action genre, which maybe arenít. In Escape From LA you have your satirical elements and your critique of the right...

JC : ... and of the left! There are a lot of attacks on political correctness in this movie; weíre attacking both extremes of the political spectrum. For me, the whole point of making movies is to make people think. But the audiences arenít as curious as they were when I was starting to make films, so I sometimes feel like a gut out of his time.

TF : Are you disturbed by the continuing drift to the right in America?

JC : Yeah, Iím disturbed. But itís nothing new - itís been happening since the Ď80s and Reagan. Iím disturbed by a lot of things happening in the world. Weíre living in a dangerous time, and Iím concerned about the future. In the long term Iím an optimist, but right now Iím a pessimist. The last line in the movie says it all.

TF : Was is strange re-entering Snake Plisskenís world after such a long absence?

JC : Yeah. At first I was frightened that I wouldnít be able to get into it, because I made Escape From New York when I was a punk kid, and now Iím an old man. But as soon as I got on the set a thought suddenly came into my head, ďShoot the man with the eye-patchĒ, and all my fears dissolved.

TF : Have you and Kurt changed much in the intervening years?

JC : Weíre no longer boys, and these days weíre always talking about our aches and pains. We also have families now. Yet I think thereís a part of us that will never change: we still bitch about the business and threaten to retire, but itís all fake. Movies are still a giant love for both of us, and weíre shooting a film its like two pros working together. The fact that we both come from sports backgrounds helps too. He used to play baseball and I play basketball, so we know what it takes to win a game as part of a team.

TF : In your mind, who is Snake Plissken?

JC : Heís a guy I knew at high school who went to ĎNam and came back and had changed. He was Snake. Heís also and archetypal Western character; heís a bad guy from the Old West, a hired gun. Heís also a part of me thatís distrustful and dislikes authority. Heís also part of Kurt; Kurtís a tough guy. Snake is a sociopath and doesnít give a shit about anyone. All he cares about is living for the next 60 seconds. He doesnít want to hurt you, but donít screw with him. Heíll get you back.

TF : Has your won anti-authoritarianism ever got you into trouble?

JC : Of course. It still does. Iím sure my career would have been different if Iíd been a more malleable person. I donít play the political game well. If Iíd done that better - been more of a con artist - Id be in better shape. Bit I canít change now. Iím too old.

TF : How easy was it to adapt to working with digital effects for LA?

JC : People forget I made Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, which invented the computer graphic used in Forrest Gump. OK, my films wasnít a big hit and Gump was the sweetest, greatest movie ever. But how do you think they made that guyís legs disappear? ILM broke new ground on Invisible Man. No-one saw it, thatís all.

TF : You score most of your own movies. Why don't you let someone else do it?

JC : I can say it really simply: Iím cheap and Iím fast. Or I can say it broadly: I used to be in a rockíníroll band, I love music, my dad was a musician, and Iíve always wanted to keep music with me in my career. This is a way to do it.

TF : Finally, is it true that youíre planning to make another Escape Film, Escape From Earth? And what about Mutant Chronicles - another big SF project youíve been connected with?

JC : Escape From Earth is just and idea, really, but I doubt weíll do it. I think weíll put Plissken to bed at this point - unless someone makes us an offer we canít refuse. And as for Mutant Chronicles - well thatís a cool new movie Iíve been kicking around for a while, and looks like itís going ahead. Itís a sci-fi adventure, set in the Dark Ages of the future. If all goes to plan, Iíll be making it here in England. But of course, only time will tell.

This interview is copyright Total Film. It appeared in the May 1997 Issue of Total Film.

Back To Interviews Page Back To John Carpenter Page