A few words from his friends


“The second you call yourself an artist,” John Carpenter verbally underlines the last word with a dash of sarcasm, “you’re dead.”

Carpenter may be the latest inductee into but he is determined to, as he says, “take it in stride, because I once made the mistake of taking myself way too seriously, and nobody else did, and that left me feeling empty at the end of the day.”

Instead, the 53-year-old writer-director, who had been frankly obsessing over science-fiction horror long before he happily terrorized moviegoers with “Halloween” in 1978, has adopted a new attitude these days. Perhaps it’s the post-partum satisfaction of finishing his 20th feature, “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars,” or perhaps it’s the kind of mellowing that comes from actually making 20 movies, but the helmer is the first on his block to talk trash on John Carpenter.

“I know I’ve said before that in France I’m an auteur and in America I’m a bum, but it’s true,” he says. “The president of my fan club lives in a cardboard box under the 101 Freeway near Cahuenga pass. I know how I’m perceived, and I’m completely happy embracing the darkness. Now I’m having a good time.”

The filmmaker has been embracing the darkness for decades: It’s right there in the title of his first full-length movie, 1973’s “Dark Star,” an absurdist sci-fi adventure, in which he started with buddy and colleague Dan O’Bannon while they were attending USC film school, and took an arduous four years to finish.

“Science fiction or horror may seem to the casual viewer to have been the huge influences on me,” Carpenter notes between puffs on a cigarette, “but it was the Western that really dominated my imagination from childhood. A lot of my movies are Westerns — ‘Escape From New York,’ ‘Escape From L.A.,’ ‘The Thing,’ ‘The Fog,’ ‘Vampires’ — but in a different setting or clothing.”

Literally raised in a log cabin (a replica of Lincoln’s birthplace) and educated in a one-room schoolhouse (“I pretty much graduated high school with the kids I came into kindergarten with”) in Bowling Green, Ky., Carpenter grew up with some of the elements that eventually fed his movies. There were, on one hand, his musically talented parents — his father was a virtuoso violinist — and it fed a desire to play and compose, which he does for nearly all of his films.

“I leaned toward rock ‘n’ roll, but music was a key for me,” he says. “When I score for a film, I just come to the studio, sit down with the keyboards, and improvise in response to what’s onscreen like the guys in the silent-movie houses.”

On the other hand, he says, “Bowling Green was one rough, Southern town, where I saw the bad side of small-town life — awful stuff, killings, you name it.”

And then he adds, portentously: “It’s something I won’t go into now, since there are stories from this place I’m saving for later.”

Making little movies with his father’s 8mm gave him the basics in camera placement, editing, but attending USC, he says, “taught me the plumbing of movies, and brought me in contact with the geniuses — we had regular lectures and visits from King Vidor, Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, everybody.”

Ironically, the only Oscar that Carpenter has been associated with was for a film he co-wrote, edited and composed for at the school — “The Resurrection of Bronco Billy,” the 1970 winner for short film.

After “Dark Star,” Carpenter made what he considers his two major breakthroughs, and neither of them involved “Halloween.”

“I was really proud of ‘Assault on Precinct 13,’ which I think really holds up well, and it was my way of giving tribute to ‘Rio Bravo’ and Howard Hawks, who for me is the master,” Carpenter says. “I wrote several scripts, and it was the sale of ‘The Eyes of Laura Mars’ which really set me up in the business, getting me an agent and into the writers guild.”

Making “Halloween” on the cheap, for $300,000, Carpenter says he had no idea that it would become, as critic Dave Kehr noted, “perhaps the most widely imitated film of the ’70s,” and for many years, the most profitable independent film.

“I was never able to enjoy that success, because I plunged right into making a three-hour TV movie, ‘Elvis,’ which was my first work with Kurt Russell and the start of 10 years’ work with my producer Larry Franco,” he says. “This was my first swim in the big directing pool, since I had to shoot over 150 pages in 30 days, sometimes nine pages a day.

“People don’t associate me with stuff like ‘Laura Mars’ or ‘Elvis,’ but they were really important to me. I hate being typecast, but it’s hard to avoid. That’s what I love about Hawks — he always resisted being typecast by doing a bit of everything.”

Moving into the ’90s, Carpenter says he grew alienated from the studios after several films underperformed commercially, “and I wondered if I was going to remain in this business.”

He has actually worked with nearly every major studio in a producer or distributor capacity, including four times each with Columbia and Universal. This insider-outsider position has served Carpenter well, for he has continued steadily to make his own kind of movies, from “In the Mouth of Madness” and its overt stab at the Bunuelian surrealism to the wild melding of science fiction and horror in “Ghosts of Mars.”

This is why all of his movies officially have his name in the title: “I mean, who else would make them? Nobody.”

Still, everybody seems to have made a horror-slasher movie, and Carpenter isn’t happy about it.

“The problem with the latest wave of these movies is that they’re never serious for a moment. It’s all a big joke and send-up, and that becomes a dead end,” he says. “All great horror movies are serious-minded. Part of it, yes, is a change in the culture. My generation grew up afraid they were going to die in Vietnam. That’s real. I’m not sure what’s real for younger filmmakers now.

“Even though I’d rather sleep in later in the morning or catch an NBA game, I still love making movies. There are some that say, ‘Why do they let that idiot near a camera?’ Hey, man, that’s OK.”

A few words from his friends…

Producer Roger Corman:

“With the groundbreaking ‘Halloween,’ Carpenter made a horror classic at the start of his career, and this was no fluke. His subsequent impressive body of work, including such movies as ‘Starman,’ ‘They Live,’ and ‘Escape From New York’ show him to be a master of horror and science fiction.

“John Carpenter, both as a writer and as a director, never fails to deliver movies that are emotionally gripping and intelligently conceived, so that they offer both visceral thrills and an underlying observation on the state of our society.”

Actor James Woods:

“Though always referred to as an auteur, John Carpenter is in fact an extraordinary full-service filmmaker. I always wanted to work with him, and the bonus of that experience is that I made a friend for life.”

Wife and producer Sandy King:

“It’s hard to say which of the films we’ve worked on is my favorite. We fell in love on ‘Starman’ and you can’t really beat that. But every movie has some challenge that makes it ultimately satisfying. Of course, at least once every film John decides that he’s gonna divorce me, but we pull it back together by the final dub.

“Maybe the most important thing John taught me is not to be precious with what we’ve shot, what we’ve written — to always be willing to be hard on the film, for the good of the film. It’s difficult to shoot a scene that you think is spectacular and then cut it out, but John is absolutely fearless about that. I was initially impressed by working with a director who could be that dedicated to the final product, that hard on himself.”

— Compiled by Jeff Reid

John Carpenter’s filmography (all credits inclusive)

Rank Film (dist/year) Total domestic B.O.* Credits
1 Halloween (Compass,’78) 47.0 D, S, M
2 Starman (Col, ’84) 28.7 D
3 Halloween 2 (U, ’81) 26.0 P, S, M
4 Escape From L.A. (Par, ’96) 25.5 D, S
5 Escape From New York (Embassy, ’81) 25.2 D, S, M
6 The Fog (Embassy, ’80) 21.3 D, S, M
7 Christine (Col, ’83) 21.0 D, M
8 John Carpenter’s Vampires (Sony, ’98) 20.3 D, P, S, M
9 Halloween 3 (U, ’82) 14.4 P, M
10 Memoirs of an Invisible Man (WB, ’92) 14.3 D
11 The Prince of Darkness (U, ’87) 14.1 D, S, M
12 The Thing (U, ’82) 13.8 D
13 They Live (U, ’88) 13.0 D, M
14 Halloween 5 (Galaxy, ’89) 11.6 M
15 Big Trouble in Little China (Fox, ’86) 11.1 D, M
16 Village of the Damned (U, ’95) 9.4 D, M
17 In the Mouth of Madness (New Line, ’95) 8.9 D, M
18 The Philadelphia Experiment (New World, ’84) 8.1 EP
19 Black Moon Rising (New World, ’86) 6.6 S
D-director, P-producer, S-screenwriter, M-music composer, EP-exec producer
*in millions of $
Source: ACNielsen EDI FilmSource