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Issue 02, Volume 01

UNIVERSAL FEAR: A Conversation with John Carpenter

by Theo Zenou

The career of director John Carpenter spans over 40 years. The movie that put him on Hollywood’s radar was Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), now remembered for a scene featuring the startling murder of a little girl.  Carpenter shifted the horror genre and popularised the slasher film with the 1978 classic Halloween. With longtime actor Kurt Russell, he redefined the cool, silent anti-hero type: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York (1981). One of Carpenter’s greatest achievements is The Thing (1982). It is one of the most terrifying pictures of all time, as groundbreaking as William Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist (1973), but a commercial and critical failure at the time of its release. Since then, it has rocked America’s evenings and obsessed filmmakers such as J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi. In the 80s and 90s, he delivered a compelling adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), as well as They Live (1987), which Martin Scorsese considers “lyrical and tough at the same time.”  Carpenter also strayed into human drama with Elvis (1979), fantasy with Starman (1984), and action-comedy with Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

John Carpenter is not just the Master of Horror – he is also one of the great American directors.  This is a man who both touched the zeitgeist and missed it before finding it again. He is the man behind the boogeyman…

You are responsible for scaring multiple generations over decades. The horror never fades: it seems the dark has a life of its own and you reveal it. Which life do you think it has? Why is horror so enduring?

Horror exists since the very beginning of cinema. I think the audience enjoys scary films when they’re good. But more than that, it’s the one thing we all have in common, as humans. In other words, we are not all in love with the same woman or man, and we do not all believe in the same God. But we’re all afraid of the same things. It’s a very universal, powerful emotion; it’s the first thing we feel when we are born: fear.

You state that “we’re all afraid of the same things.” Which “things” torment us?

Death, loss of identity, loss of a loved one. Everything that you’re afraid of, personally, I am too.

Your characters are often lonely beings. Throughout your narratives, they face psychological, emotional and sometimes physical imprisonments. The Apocalypse Trilogy is the finest illustration: The Thing, Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1994). What draws you to keep exploring that theme?

That’s something I personally felt in my life. I am drawn to characters who have to fight, to strive, to survive this encasement. Because we’re all trapped in life, and yet here we are.

Did this feeling emerge in your childhood?

Very much so. I grew up in a very strange place for me. It was a small Southern town, during the Jim Crow era. My family were Yankees, northern New Yorkers. It was a very alien place to us. I didn’t understand anything that was going on there. I felt very removed from the culture and the people. I was very much a loner. That’s the way I grew up.

You believe all of us are trapped, fighting for survival. Yet, your characters - such as Snake Plissken from Escape From New York or R.J. MacReady from The Thing – still follow a code of honor. Somewhere, deep down, they have integrity.

Oh, absolutely! Ab-so-lu-te-ly. Well said, I couldn’t say it better.

There is a vital relationship between the story you are telling and the images you are showing: the content emerges from the style – not the other way around, as most filmmakers do. What’s your approach to putting the script onto the screen?

Instinct, absolute instinct. It has nothing to do with intellectualisation. It’s just the way I see things and approach storytelling. Everybody has a little bit of a different vision. A lot of people I admire don’t have the kind of vision that I have. They have different visions and that’s mine. Simply, I know what’s right, storytelling-wise. And it might not be right for the audience, but it is for me.

That connection to storytelling — did it come from movies, or from literature and theatre?

It came from a little of everything. But mainly, I fell in love with cinema when I was young. It informed the way I saw the world and what I wanted to do with my life. I think that my decision-making on a storytelling-level really has to do with all the education I got in film school and a lifetime of watching movies.

B-legend Jacques Tourneur said “The less you see, the more you believe…”

Yeah, that’s possibly true. Maybe not always.

When I look at your pictures, you do suggest. There’s a clear drip of fear in The Fog or Halloween. Yet, in The Thing or They Live, all hell breaks loose early on. When do you decide which type of horror it will be? Is it story-based, an organic need depending on the threat?

You hit it on the head. The point is what is the story? It’s going to dictate how much you show. It’s an old Hollywood cliché, which I think comes from this 1952 film called The Bad And The Beautiful. Kirk Douglas and Barry Sullivan are going to make a cat-person movie. There’s a scene where they look at these awful, awful cat costumes. Then they come up with an idea. It’s the dark that frightens people, so let’s not show anything. Let’s suggest it. That all comes from Val Lewton and that is effective. But it’s not the only answer.

I remember once, this very talented Italian actress lectured me: “You must never show the Devil!”  Well, if we have a real photograph of the Devil, let’s show it.  It’ll scare the hell out of people. Similarly, if you can create an incredibly great monster, then show it. Here’s a prime example. One of the great monsters of all time came from a Jacques Tourneur movie, Night of The Demon (1957). That was put in after he finished it; he didn’t want to see the monster. But the monster was fabulous! It was one of the great, big-old monsters. And it stayed with me as a kid. I remember what it looked like.  So it totally depends on the story. In horror films, you can go one of two ways. If you have an ability to show the creature and you think it’s strong enough, show it. Let me see the picture of that Devil. Let me see your photograph of a UFO. Let me see if it’s real. I want to know.

You once said that there are two blueprints to horror stories: the evil from outside and the evil from within. It’s a compelling dynamic.

It’s absolutely correct. There are only two stories. It’s all about the origins of evil. If you think about the development of mankind, it’s only fairly recently we’ve begun to understand that sometimes evil comes from within. Everything was supposedly done from outside. The Devil did it, the other tribe did it, the other country did it, the people who don’t look and speak like us did it. That’s very primitive. The heart of the story to tell is “I am evil.” All of us are capable of it. I believe there was this moment in the Nuremberg trials where a witness broke and realised, “We are all Eichmann.” We all have that capacity but we don’t act on it. That’s what elevates humanity. But we all could be Eichmann. It’s fascinating. It’s harder to tell that story and tell it to the audience. The audience doesn’t want to hear, “You could be evil so you are evil.” Nobody wants to hear that.

But do you see that self-realisation as an ending or as part of a process? Realising you could be evil pushing you to embrace light: is that a choice you believe one can even make?

You can. Every person does, hundreds of times in his or her life. When you don’t demonize something, it’s because it’s different. Making that choice is what elevates us, or makes the best of being human. You see a crowd getting out of control — that’s very dangerous. That’s coming from within. We have laws and religions that protect us from ourselves, and sometimes protect us from each other. They point us towards the best of humanity, the best of ourselves.

On that matter, in our contemporary society, the system is being questioned. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a fierce example of people’s disenchantment and an impulse to see change. All this makes They Live even more relevant today than when it was released.

They Live was a cry-out against Reaganism and Thatcherism. It hasn’t changed since then, nothing changed. What was going on then is still relevant today. I’m very sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street and their beliefs. Not so much the Tea Party, although I understand. But Occupy Wall Street seems to be about this idea. And in America, people are frightened of class. We don’t want it. So, there’s this myth we created about the American Dream. It means we are the land of opportunity, and it’s true to an extent. But it depends how far you’re coming to that. Can I become Warren Buffet? No, I can’t. It’s a lifetime of work. But I can go from this dumb kid in a small town in the South to a movie director. So I’ve lived the American Dream — it’s true. Unfortunately, if you choose my route made of fantasy and cinema, it’s a lot easier than if you go for the covert world of taxes or politics. It seems extremely corrupt these days.

Let’s go back to your movies now. The Thing is a truly terrifying picture. Not simply for its graphic content but also for the way it depicts human relationships. There is an absence of trust emphasized by the icy environment of the Pole. It originally garnered negative reviews and a low box-office (it opened two weeks after E.T.). Yet, since then, it has become one of the defining cult pictures of American cinema. Do you have any ideas that could explain this radical shift in perception?

I have no idea. It’s a really interesting question to consider. When The Thing was released, it was hated by the fans most of all. They thought I had raped the Madonna. They thought I had desecrated it. It was really a terrible time (laughs). I don’t know why, other than the fact that it got seen a lot more on home video. That’s the only thing I know…the movie is still the same one.  It’s very odd. I have no clue; I haven’t got an answer for you.

The Thing uses morose, dark humor in just the right way. Do you believe fear and laughter are two close emotions, the latter allowing the audience to release the pressure for a second?

That’s always a good thing. It relieves the tension. And there are a couple of laughs in The Thing. The biggest one is, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” spoken by Palmer. It lets you laugh and makes the scene a little less “grotesque” because what happens is very grotesque. It is very strong (laughs).

But still, you don’t release all the pressure. It never becomes camp or parodic. How do you find the precise balance between horror and comedy so the audience doesn’t feel jaded?

Instinct, once again. And sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does.

I reckon you compose your own scores using your instinct as well?

Yeah, even more so than in movies. My score are all improvised, essentially.

Do you compose them before to help you find the tone of the film? Or is it something you do once you already know what the movie is?

After, always after.

It’s rare for a director to be his own composer. What does music mean to you?

I have a background in music; I evolved in it and played it all my life. I did not just wake up in the morning and say, “Now, I’m going to be a musician.” That’s not possible; it requires a certain amount of talent and skills. If I woke up and said, “I want to be a leading man, a star right now,” it’s not gonna work. I knew what I was doing.

You are one of the last directors to have shot your pictures using CinemaScope (Panavision’s anamorphic lens creating an image with an aspect ratio of up to 2.66:1). How does this look enhance the horror experience?

I think Panavision is the greatest lens system in the entire world. The movies look great. I’ve been in love with it ever since I first saw it. I don’t know about horror, I think it works for everything. And is that true that directors aren’t shooting in Panavision anymore? Is that really true?

Some of them are still shooting in Panavision. With the advent and lower prices of digital, a lot of TV is shot using Red or Alexa cameras.

There’s less and less 35mm. Yeah, you’re right. That’s a sad thing, a very sad thing.

Directors in their 40s today – J.J. Abrams or Christopher Nolan, both clearly inspired by your work – will probably keep shooting in 35mm for as long as they can. But my generation will probably embrace digital.

I think you’re right. And look at all the things that are disappearing: books, bookstores, newspapers. Kodak has filed for bankruptcy. What is happening to the world? And I’m gonna blame it on your generation. It’s all your generation; it’s your fault (laughs).

It’s funny you should say that though. At the end of Escape From L.A. (1996), Snake pushes a button and shuts down all electricity on Earth. It’s a cry-out against technology and an extreme version of what you’re telling me right now. Do you think the essence of mankind is fading away?

Yes and no. There are some great advances in science and medicine, which lead to tremendous and unbelievable results. 50 years ago, those things would have been considered miracles. So it’s not bad. We haven’t lost our humanity. We are advancing. But there’s a big change in the world. And none of us are really sure where we fit in it. There have been other times like these in the past. And in Escape From L.A., I don’t know if I wanted to believe we should all run from technology. Because cinema is technology-based. Everything is told through machines. I’m not sure I could defend myself there. That was just an ending that allowed the actor to break the fourth wall and look at you.

And smoke a cigarette, which is very cool when it’s Kurt Russell doing it.

That’s absolutely right.

Today, horror films seem to have no limit: torture-porn. Most films of that genre have little sense of story or character development. Do you think this new wave of the extreme is too much?

It’s a broad subject. Not all modern horror films are bad. Some of them are good; some of them are fun. Some of them are extreme, you’re right. They are like hardcore wrestling.

Films from the Hostel or Saw saga seem like they do horror for the sake of doing it. To me, it’s as if there is no sense of ethics anymore.

That’s interesting. It’s a parcel of an Internet mentality. You see it in the discourse that’s going online and some of the brutality featured on websites constantly. It’s unbelievable. So, it becomes part of horror. But frankly, I have to admit I enjoyed the very first Saw.

The first one had a story with cliffhangers. But the others are just scenes of violence after scenes of violence.

They got obsessed with the torture apparatus. In other words, each one had to top the next. But the first Saw had a great twist ending when the guy on the floor stands up. It was fabulous. I have seen a lot of those modern horror movies recently. Hostel was a few years ago. I’m not sure they’re going to last. Again, I think it is part of the culture today. We enjoy being cruel to others.

You don’t think this is something we enjoyed in the past as well? You believe it has been amplified now?

It’s hard to say. I still maintain that there are really good movies being made. But the culture, the technology, everything changes. In the 60s, my generation was listening to The Beatles. We weren’t listening to doo-wop anymore. It changed and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ll see where it goes; I’m always hopeful.

You have made other types of films both for cinema and TV. One that stands out is Elvis, made for ABC. It’s an emotional picture about a man and his destiny. It’s interesting the way you present Elvis Presley as a man with an intimate, profound, spiritual sadness due to his twin brother’s early death.

In terms of Elvis, I read the script but I couldn’t finish it. It was so big, so dense. And it was totally invented. It was a tribute. It was not to tear him down because he had a lot of problems. It was to provide a bit of depth I don’t really think he had. I give all credit to Kurt Russell for his performance. He made you believe in what was going on; he made you believe all of it. That movie was a baptism of fire for me, as a director. I’ve never worked as hard in my life as on that film. I’m glad I did it. I can’t really talk about it in terms of its thematic context because I was just trying to cover a movie. I was just trying to be a journeyman.

As a child, Kurt Russell made a film with Elvis: It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963). Did he have any memories that helped him shape the character of The King?

No, he didn’t really base his performance on Elvis in the scene he did with him. Kurt Russell is one of the world’s great mimics. He can mimic voices, people, and mannerisms. He is truly gifted.

One of your most interesting collaborations with Russell is Big Trouble In Little China. It’s a standalone piece in your filmography. It’s a mix of action, adventure, and comedy. It’s weird. The audience rarely gets to enjoy films like that. How did it come about without becoming too much a one- or two-genre film?

That one was offered to me. It had been a Western originally. A guy I went to school with, W.D. Richter, rewrote it to be a modern-day adventure. He’s a very iconoclastic writer; he writes really bizarre dialogue. There was something really quirky about it. What drew me to want to make this film is that I remembered seeing the early kung-fu films when they hit America. And I loved them; there was a sense of innocence about them. The balletic fighting style was fun. It was a chance to do things that I had never seen before in an American film. The leading man, Kurt Russell’s character, does not know he is a sidekick. He thinks he is the star, but he’s just along for the ride. So it was really fun to make. I’m glad I made that movie.

Very few directors have the ability to go from being directors-for-hire to being auteurs and conveying a voice. It seems you did both. As Scorsese puts it: “one [film] for them, one [film] for me.” It’s fairly evident which of your films fit in one category or the other. Did you have that level of self-consciousness when you were making them?

You’re absolutely right. I don’t want to talk about which ones I did for them though. But I think it’s always good to do that, to give over. You learn from every experience, good or bad. Obviously there are ones I’m less fond of, but I don’t regret making any of them.

You have been a lot less productive in the first decade of the 21st century, with one cinematic effort Ghosts of Mars (2001) and two anthology episodes for Masters of Horror on Showtime. Is this because there are fewer stories you want to tell?

I was burned out, tired, fed up. I had been working since 1970 non-stop and I had to stop. I just had to stop for a while. I’m glad I did. It was very, very, very helpful to stop, to get out of it for a bit. I had some family issues to take care of. That’s always important.

Your comeback picture, The Ward, came out in 2011 in the States. It’s a horror film once again. Do you feel recharged now, ready to tell a new batch of stories? Or are you still searching for energy?

I’m much more energized now. Whether I’ll make other movies — all I can say is we’ll see. I am now much older; I am 64 years old and I feel 64 years old. My poor old body has been through a lot. So I do like resting. I don’t like getting up early in the morning. I don’t like working all day. I’m essentially a lazy person. So if everything is right and the stars align — a good story I’m in love with, a good amount of money in the budget – I’ll make another film. But I don’t feel like I have to.


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