Exclusive Interview: John Carpenter
Every year at Halloween, John Carpenter is contacted to talk about his seminal 1978 horror film Halloween, often called the first proper slasher film in cinema history. It turns out he himself considers Psycho to be the first slasher movie, and Halloween is just something he threw off in a weekend. He's glad it's successful, but he is the first to cut you down with overwhelming modesty about his own career. We consider him to be one of the greats of genre cinema. He considers himself to be just a guy who makes movies.
Carpenter is self-effacing, efficient, and to-the-point. As his name implies, he is a worker first, and a sophist never. It's no wonder, then, that all his movies – from the early days of Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, through cult movies of the '80s like Big Trouble in Little China and his remake of The Thing, to his more recent work with films like The Ward and Ghosts of Mars – have a straightforward, unblinking shop-talker's sense of craft. His scripts are all clever genre flicks with tough short dialogue, and his camera angles are all ineffably perfect in their own way. He's an old-school filmmaker who just knows how to make a movie. Even his “bad” films are immensely and infectiously watchable.
Carpenter's Halloween will be re-released in certain theaters, nationwide, all throughout the rest of the month. It will play in some locations alongside Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. You can find all the screening locations through this link. I can think of no better movie to spend Halloween with.
Carpenter sat down to have a conversation with CraveOnline the other day, and we talked about his influences on the genre, some details about his classic film, basketball, his idea for Escape from Earth, and some of his other flicks.
John Carpenter: What do you want to talk about?
CraveOnline: Well, I think I've been ordered to talk about Halloween for at least a little bit.
Ordered, eh?… Well, you gotta realize something: Now this was 35 years ago. I was 30 years old and was just hitting my stride as a director, when I had the chance to make this little, low-budget horror movie. And it was originally going to be called The Babysitter Murders. And one of the producers – the distributor, actually – came up with this idea that every teenage girl in America could relate to babysitting. So I was just thinking of the cast and writing the script of the movie based on that much. Out of that came Halloween. What I did is I took – and I'm a big horror movie and science fiction fan – I took all the things I'd seen in horror cinema throughout the years. All the good and the bad. And I sort of redid in one movie. In one low-budget movie, I rephrased the whole thing. We had no idea what was going to happen.
It's great [that’s it’s become beloved], but we never thought of that at the beginning. We were just trying to make a movie. We were just young kids.
Halloween became so very popular that is inspired scads and scads of imitators, kind of birthing the slasher genre; a lot of people say it was the first. Are you proud that you helped to created a genre, or were you pissed off that other people were ripping you off?
Well, you call it a slasher film. I guess the original slasher film was Psycho. That was the film that all of these things are kind of based on. And that was based on Ed Gein, who was from… Wisconsin I think? The crazy real-life guy. Danced in the moonlight with female skins on. Psycho was the big daddy of them all. And it had a literal slashing scene in it! The famous shower scene. So I don't think I created anything other than the fact that low-budget producers saw that this little film called Halloween could make a bunch of money, so why shouldn't they get in on it? It's all about money. The movie business is all about money.
The scariest movies to me were the ones I saw when I was a little kid. For me it was the 1950s. That's when I would jump out of my seat. So it happens to you, the movies you see when you were really young are the ones that leave the biggest impression. In terms of frightening you.
Which ones scared you?
Oh, there's a whole bunch of them. The Fly scared me. When she pulls the thing off of his face. Aw, that was nuts! You know, teens don't see things like that.
I'm younger. The one that got me was Poltergeist.
Poltergeist, wow. 1982, right? “They're heeere.”
Yeep. I've read (and even written) numerous essays on Halloween over the years, and run across several interpretations of the movie. Some say it's about human savagery. Some say it's all about sex or incest. What would you say Halloween is really about?
At it's core it's: the force of evil is man. This guy Michael Myers is human. He's only part supernatural. And there's really not much of an explanation as to why he's doing what he's doing. So it's just black evil coming to a small town. A bunch of pain. That's what it's really about. Horror.
In the sequels, Michael is eventually given a backstory. Did you bother to see those?
Yeah… I sort of stopped… I stopped watching and caring after three. I just thought that there really shouldn't have been another movie. That was enough. Far be it for me to say. They pay me every time they make another, so [laugh].
On Donald Pleasance…
Well he's just a great actor. Which is first and foremost. Also, he's British, which lends a kind of gravity to his roles. And he and I became close friends. I mean, come on, I cast him as the president of the United States in Escape from New York. So I cared about him. He's just a tremendous actor. And he had a way of playing scene unexpectedly. He would deliver lines in an unexpected way. I love it.
On Escape from New York, it's been said that the filming of it revitalized the theaters in East St. Louis where you shot, including some of the old theaters there. I wish you could do the same for some of the broken-down old theaters in Los Angeles…
Which ones are you thinking of?
The Fox Venice on Lincoln Blvd., for one. It's a swap meet now.
I know. It's sad. Or some of the downtown theaters. Some of those grad old palaces. The Los Angeles theater is still incredible. What else, fella?
Moving on then. I've always wondered about the setting of Halloween. Haddonfield, IL. Why that area of the world?
Oh, small town America. I picked the name from my then-girlfriend. But, yeah, small town America. Something picturesque. It was a very pretty bright place, where you wouldn't suspect something bid to happen.
So there's nothing specific about Illinois that's conducive to serial killers?
Oh no, no!
I'm sure hundreds have asked about your continued interest in the Halloween franchise over the years. Have you ever even been remotely tempted to come back? Direct? Write?
Not really. I don't think I could really do any better! If I thought I could do a better job, then maybe, but no. The Halloween movies are just the same thing over and over again. The same basic story with the a slight refit. I don't think I could do any better than what I did in 1978.
CraveOnline: The film of yours that really “got” me was In the Mouth of Madness. I saw it when I was 16, and after seeing it, I couldn't tell what was real anymore.
John Carpenter: Oh man! Yeah, that one was excellent. I'm really happy about that.
That one is more philosophical than some of your other films. Did the weird metaphysical stuff attract you?
I was drawn to the fact that it was really Lovecraft. It wasn't “by day,” but it was really Lovecraft. I just thought “that's great.” Because there really hasn't been a good Lovecraft movie. Well, mine, but that wasn't really picked up. Mike DeLuca write the screenplay, and there's a lot of love in it for Lovecraft, and for old horror and science fiction movies. So I'm happy we did it.
On Memoirs of an Invisible Man…
That movie was not a commercial nor a critical success. That was the movie that the making of it almost made me want to quit the business! But I got to meet Sam Neill. And I loved working with Daryl Hannah. Ho boy.
Anyone you'd like to work with again? I imagine Kurt Russell…
Well, Kurt. Sam Neill. Jeff Bridges. Any of the women I've worked with have been wonderful. But what I'm really looking forward to, mostly, to the beginning of the NBA basketball season.
Ha! Who's your pick?
Well, I'm a loyal Laker fan, but they're not going to win anything this year. So I dunno. I just don't know. There's a lot of great teams out there. Young people. Great young players. I'd love to see Chicago win. The Miami Heat are in the running.
As an L.A. native, I kind of have to put all my money on the locals, don't I?
[Laugh] I know. But they're not going to win.
I heard once that you once had an idea for an Escape from Earth movie…
Yeah. That was something Kurt [Russell] and I kicked around at one point. Something he wanted to do. That's all we had. No real story idea. Just Snake Plissken in deep space.
In addition to all your directing credits, you've written several. Eyes of Laura Mars is a personal favorite of mine. I have a fantasy that you have a drawer somewhere full of unproduced screenplays and teleplays. Is this a fantasy of mine, or is it true?
There is a drawer. It's full of uncompleted screenplays. I'd have to go to work to do them. Which is not something I'm looking forward to. That doesn't mean I won't!
On Dark Star…
I don't think I ever want to get near that idea again. [laugh] Oh brother! Once was enough.
Once you've seen one beachball alien, you've seen them all.
Yeah. Can't top that.
Have you ever wanted to work in serialized TV, or are you more comfortable with TV movies?
TV? Sure, sure. If people will pay me a lot of money to do very little, I'm on top of it.
That's the dream job, isn't it?
That's it! Well, the dream job is to do absolutely nothing, and get paid. That's the dream job.
I know you're really Howard Hawks films and westerns in general. Any favorites that you don't get to talk about a lot?
I love Rio Bravo, are you familiar with that movie? I love El Dorado. I do like a lot of westerns.
You've made a few westerns – Vampires, Ghosts of Mars – but they've always been tempered by genre conceits. Have you ever wanted to make a straightforward horse-and-hat kind of western?
They are westerns for sure, yeah. Sure, I've wanted to make one, but it's just never really worked out. You know, someone would have to clean the horseshit off of the set! But that would probably be me, so, uh I don't think I want to try… [laugh]
Originally, Big Trouble in Little China was a western. It was written originally as a cowboy who rides into 1800's San Francisco, and it was his horse that got stolen. So it was just updated. And I didn't have anything to do with the updating. I just read the first draft, then the update. I just directed it. It's good that it has a lot of love. I need all the love I can get.
On future projects…
I have a bunch of things I'm working on. But I'm not working with any intensity or urgency. Like I said: there's basketball. There's video games. There's life to be lived. You know, I made a lot of movies in the 1970s and 1980s, and I figured I deserve a little time off.
Can you get me a dinner with Amber Heard?
[laugh] She has a lot of potential as a young actress.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
Oh wow! Hang on, hang on… Hang on. “Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds. A 45. You'll have to try to listen to it. Somewhere in the old days. 1965?
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.