To start 2015 off with a bang here is an interview with the legendary filmmaker John Carpenter, known for titles such as Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York / LA, and my own favourite The Thing. Not only that but he has a new music album out called Lost Themes, works on a comic book series called Asylum, and does voice overs for video games. With an immense body of work to his name he still remains a gentleman, kindly sharing his insights on work and life as follows below.
Hi there, is that Mr. Carpenter?
Hi, yes it is, how are you?
Hi! Good thanks. I meant to say a belated happy birthday to you, I believe it was your birthday there a couple of days ago.
Oh, thank you very much, thank you.
Did you celebrate in style?
Ah yes, it was very nice, very quiet but very nice.
Are you based in Los Angeles?
I’m based in the beautiful city of Hollywood, California.
Oh, you’re right there in Hollywood, okay
I’ve been a long time fan ever since your early movies and then recently came across your Asylum comic book series too. I wondered if you could tell me a little about how they came about?
Yeah, yeah! Well Asylum is the brainchild of my wife and an actor friend of mine, Thomas Ian Griffith. They worked out the basic story, I added a few touches here and there. And they do all the work and I get all the glory. There’s nothing better than that!
That must be very cool to work on something like that with your wife as well.
Oh yeh, you know it’s a very different narrative form than a movie. It’s different and really exciting. It’s fun, so much fun.
Do you think it’s a good medium for conveying horrors and scares, similar to movies?
Suuuurrrreee. Some of the greatest comics of all time came from the 1950’s… Tales From The Crypt, The DC comics. They did a great job of conveying horror and science fiction, so yeah!
One thing I noticed with them is that they have a very similar structure to storyboarding, in the sense that you take the precise feel and look of a scene and add the text, which correlates very closely to storyboarding…
I guess it does. You know the artist Leonardo Manco is a genius. He’s brilliant and his artwork is just incredible. Everybody who works on it is incredible… Yeah, I would agree, but it has a flow and a feel all of its own. A lot of storyboards are just sketches jotted down to suggest something, but this is a beautiful rendering.
Yeah! I’ve seen a few of them and enjoyed them. And in that sense, with comic books you have to choose very particular images to convey the scene, and I wondered if that related at all to the question as to whether or not movie directors have vision… I wondered what your own thoughts on that question are?
Well I believe they do. I think the only person who has suggested otherwise is William Goldman.
I was intrigued by watching the video of yourself and Kurt Russell speaking on the subject and he was absolutely of the opinion, as am I, that a John Carpenter movie is instantly recognizable as a John Carpenter movie. So in that sense you very much must have a vision and your own style.
Oh yeh. I believe it, but that would be self serving so I’m going to let somebody else say it.
And in regards to working with Kurt Russell, I was wondering back in your early movie days how that relationship came about and how it was to work with him?
Well it started back in the late 70’s. He and I made a TV movie named Elvis, and he played Elvis. I was really impressed with his ability. That’s how it started, and we became friends. And I said “hey, I want to work with you some more”, and he said “well, let’s let the material be our guide”. So that’s the way it worked. We’ve gotten together on some movies yes, and some movies no. It all depends whether Kurt thinks there is a part for him.
Okay, right. Yeah, he was great in Big Trouble in Little China, but my own personal favourite is certainly The Thing. He is just absolutely incredible in the role.
Oh, I think he’s great in it, yeah.
Actually one of my favourite lines is the last one in The Thing: “What are we gonna do?”, and Kurt Russell responds, “Why don’t we just sit here a while, see what happens”.
Yeah, that’s right! That’s right!
A fantastic ending to the movie! Then on the topic of working with people I’d noticed that you’d worked with some young guys, helped their careers and gave them a chance when they were coming up. Guys like Rob Bottin and Richard Edlund. And even Kim Gottlieb who has the book out of photos from working with you…
Oh yeah, yeah yeah yeah.
I was wondering how you chose these guys. For example I had watched the behind the scenes about Rob Bottin and he was very young when he made The Thing…
Well it isn’t about young or old, it’s about talent. My judgement said he had talent. And that he can pull this off… that’s what it was all about.
What do you think it is that differentiates the younger guys, do they have a certain style or something unique about them?
That’s what it is. You’re born with it. Talent is if you can play a beautiful instrument or sing really well. Not all of us are born with that kind of talent.
So, we happily celebrate it when we can.
Sure. Do you think there’s ways to learn it, or that it’s just a God given thing?
Well, some of it is God given. Some of it you can’t learn. You’re never gonna be able to learn that. Some of it, not all.
Sure, yeah. I was wondering too if you would have any tips for up and coming filmmakers, trying to do something on a very limited budget that goes down very well. Like back in the day, your own Halloween was a huge success ($40M box office receipts on a $300K production), and even if you look at other guys like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs… these kinds of movies are exceptional but also made relatively very cheaply.
Well the first and foremost thing is that you have to learn the craft of making movies, of directing, learn it. Learn it in and out, and know everything about filmmaking from the top to the bottom. And it’s a great time to make your own film, really because the equipment is so inexpensive. It can be really inexpensive. So just go out and do it. That’s what I would say.
Would you say to start with shorts and try and get on the festival circuit that way?
Well, you could. I personally started out with features. That’s what I was interested in.
I was wondering too if you thought any of your more recent work might make a resurgence in ten or fifteen years from now? I love the title you had called it when a movie of your’s makes a comeback… ‘John’s Revenge’.
(Laughing). Yeah, well I always hope that’s gonna happen. You never know. Maybe it will, maybe not. Maybe people will say ‘I always knew that guy was a piece of shit”.
(Laughing) Sure. Do you ever think about doing a cowboy movie like how your original interest in films was?
Ahhh, it would be… westerns are not… less popular in recent times. They used to be a staple, you know, a genre you could go to. But they don’t now. They don’t work now.
Sure. What’s your opinion on the newer cowboy movies… there’s been a few good ones here and there, and even ones that are sort of stylistic, like Django Unchained?
Well, yeah, I think that that’s it. It still resonates with people. They still want to see those kinds of stories, set in that kind of time. But, the real deal is gone. The real deal is… a bit like Space movies.
Okay. Do you think the audience and culture changing over the years effects things a lot?
Sure. It constantly changes and evolves, and different styles and all… It’s all part of it. What was really popular with audiences years ago is no longer that way. That’s just part of what happens, you know?
And from a director’s or writers perspective do you think you should write for yourself or a small group of friends, and see if it works for the public? Or should you be trying to appeal directly to the larger public?
If you want to be a professional director you have to work within the studio system. To appeal to the public, that’s just part of the game.
Sure, otherwise you’re just doing the arthouse stuff…
Yeah, but you know what, every film that you make… I mean you should just make films that you love, don’t just make them for money. But if you can make popular movies with audiences you’re ahead of the game.
Sure. And of course along with the changing cultures is also the changing studios, Hollywood old guard and new guard…
…I was wondering as Hollywood has changed, has it changed you at all?
Well… I don’t know, that’s a hard question to answer. People should be changed by everything. We are all affected by our environment, how we live and who we see, and the changing times. So you have to grow and evolve with those kinds of things and that’s very important to do. But, people generally are formed when they are young. And they don’t generally change their stripes on you, they don’t become someone else. They are who they are.
Okay. And would you say you look back on older Hollywood as the glory days, or would you still enjoy it as much today?
Well it’s just changed so much, and it’s different. I don’t know if I… it’s not as much fun as it used to be, I guess. Studios used to be run no matter what by people who were in love with movies. And now they are run by big corporations, it’s a whole different system now.
I getcha. And would you say that’s part of the reason you branched out into other mediums like music and video games, which some people might be surprised to know?
Yeahhh, well, sure, it’s all a part of creativity. I’m trying to have a good time on this Earth, that’s all.
I was wondering too what you are most curious about?
Well, besides the arts which I still take a great interest in… ahh, science! Basketball, video games…
Do you read much?
Yeah, I do! Recently I haven’t read as much, had some eye problems.
Oh, okay. And in a general sense would you say you are introspective at all, and reflective, or philosophic?
Sure! In a sense.
And is there anything about you… you’ve done a lot of interviews over the years with some great questions, but I was wondering if there is anything you think that people might misunderstand about you or not know about you?
Ah man. I don’t particularly want to… my job isn’t just to reveal myself to the outside world (laughing). I would like to keep some things to myself. Certainly a lot of things. Nobody ever knows somebody completely. Surely not necessarily from an interview… you can know about someone, but I’m not a confessional type of person. I don’t want to confess anything to anyone, you know?
Sure, I know what you mean. I’m actually based in Brazil, but I’m from Ireland. I wondered if you ever thought about doing any work with a theme related to either of these places, or even a plan to visit them yourself?
Haven’t been there. I understand it’s (Ireland) spectacular but the weather is very changeable. That’s what I hear, so that would be time consuming for a movie, to wait for the sun!
Sure. And what about down here in Latin America?
I’m not so sure about that. I’m a little scared of you guys down there. There’s a lot of drug dealers and that going on, I’m a little suspicious of it all… Maybe I don’t know enough, maybe that’s what it is.
Yeah, right. There’s definitely a wide range across the whole spectrum.
I bet, I bet.
Well I’ll just ask one more question… is there any message you’d like to share with your fans? I know you like to engage with them at the comic cons and that kind of thing…
I don’t have a message for anybody, that’s not my style. I would say for anybody who has watched my movies, thanks for being there and watching them. Stay in love with cinema, stay in love with fantasy, and I’ll see you down the road.
Great! Thanks a lot for your time.
Okay, you take care.
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