At 75, Legendary Director John Carpenter Isn’t Done Raising Hell in Hollywood
John Carpenter has nothing left to prove.
The writer-director hasn’t made a movie in 13 years, and yet he’s asked about his work incessantly by reporters, fans and fellow filmmakers. And now, here I am, asking again.
Sitting in a comfy-looking chair in the living room of his Los Angeles home, he’s got cable news running on a TV just out of sight, and sometimes, when a question doesn’t strike his fancy, his answer will carry on, while his eyes dart toward the flickering box. “It was a Western they wanted to make. I was unsure about what I would do with it. … God, Iran just hung a protester, man.”
The occasion of this conversation is his upcoming 75th birthday, Jan. 16, which also marks nearly 50 years since the release of his first movie, the USC student-film-turned-feature “Dark Star.” Since then, Carpenter’s subversive genre films have inspired decades of knockoffs, sequels and reboots. In one six-year stretch alone, he directed three hugely influential works: the 1976 indie ”Assault on Precinct 13,” in which a small group of cops and criminals defend a police station from hostile takeover by a gang; 1978’s ”Halloween,” in which a teenage babysitter (played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut) is stalked by the unstoppably evil masked murderer Michael Myers; and “The Thing,” from 1982 (considered a masterpiece of practical effects), where Kurt Russell and a killer group of character actors are pitted against an alien that has infiltrated their Antarctic research facility. That’s not even counting fan favorites like 1980’s ghost story “The Fog,” starring Curtis, and 1981’s dystopic “Escape From New York,” featuring Russell in one of his signature roles — the post-apocalyptic badass Snake Plissken.
Lest it seem Carpenter isn’t locked into our conversation, when a question conjures a rowdy memory or sets up a funny joke, his eyes light up and he lets out a full-bellied, reedy laugh, which makes his signature handlebar mustache wiggle. Maybe it was a cold and drunken night in 1981 when he was shooting the shit with Russell while making “The Thing.” Or the fantasy of giving tough critics a piece of his mind, served with his fists.
It’s this impish sense of humor and interest in cultural satire that sets his best films apart. That irreverence has made him a cult figure, which was somewhat inevitable considering he created the modern slasher, a classic Stephen King adaptation (the 1983 killer-car flick “Christine”) and an ’80s creature feature thought to be one of the genre’s best.
Despite his fanatical fan base, Carpenter is self-deprecating. “I don’t evaluate myself,” he says at one point, when asked about skill as a filmmaker. The comment is made not with false modesty, but rather a disbelief that anyone would take the time to analyze his oeuvre — let alone call it an oeuvre.
Elsewhere, he reflects on the decades of analysis moviegoers have invested in his work. “There’s always some interpretation that I have no idea what they’re talking about, but I keep my mouth shut. If people put interpretations on my movies, it makes me seem smarter than I really am, which is what I want,” he says, still stunned that the little boy who grew up watching ’50s monster movies would someday be perceived as an auteur.
These days, music has become a larger focus. After years spent scoring his own movies, in 2015, he began collaborating with his son, Cody Carpenter, and godson, Daniel Davies, eventually releasing three volumes of his “Lost Themes” album series, scoring the most recent “Halloween” trilogy, and even taking the band on tour. He also collaborates with his second wife, film producer Sandy King Carpenter, on her Storm King Comics publishing house.
Armed with his wicked humor and irreverent takes on Hollywood, Carpenter speaks with Variety about his career, his biggest triumphs and challenges and what his future may hold.
What is the perfect day for you at this point in your life?
Get up late, watch a little news, play a video game, watch some basketball, go to bed.
You’ve overcome so many obstacles making your movies through the years. I’d love to discuss a few titles and have you walk through the biggest challenges to making them, starting with “Assault on Precinct 13.”
Everything about that was hard. That was the first time I had to work every single day and get up early. That was immediately tough. I was dazed. It was the first time I worked in Panavision. I had worked in regular vision for so long that Panavision came as a bit of a shock and I had to get used to it, but I loved it. And the hardest thing for me really was getting up in the morning. The movie went real well.
“Halloween” was probably the best experience as a director I’ve ever had. It was so much fun. We were a bunch of kids who were out to make a movie and make it fast. We shot primarily in Hollywood, which is right near where I was. It was a lot of nights, but it wasn’t hard. No, that one was very easy.
Next, “Escape From New York.”
We shot it in St. Louis for the exteriors. And because they’d had a big fire there, it burned out the center of town and St. Louis just let us do all sorts of things: Turn off lights, take down television antennas, all sorts of great cooperation. So we were there in summertime. The heat is really oppressive and it’s also humid, so staying up all night and working it had its own challenges, but it wasn’t bad. Great crew, great cast. Everything about that part went really well. The great thing about this stuff early on was I really did have final cut on all these movies and no one was judging me, or bugging me, or saying strange stuff. That’s what made it so smooth.
That said, one of the hardest projects I had was in between.
The hardest thing I’ve ever done was “Elvis,” a three-hour TV show. We had 88 speaking parts and 100 and some odd locations in 30 days. Holy Toledo! I was too dumb and young to realize how tough that is. That was a baptism of fire. Hurry up, let’s shoot! It was unreal.
Next, “The Thing.”
Oh lordy, that was pretty hard too. But that was my first studio film and it was pretty great. You get a lot of stuff that you didn’t have as an independent. It was just incredible that way, and the studio was very nice to me throughout shooting. We had a second unit that went up to the glacier field above the Mendenhall Glacier. We shot for a couple of weeks up there and got some great footage, and we came back to the sound stages and worked there. Then we went to our set in British Columbia, which was built on a glacier, and built a set so we could blow it up and burn it down. And that was extremely cold and tough.
It was an active mine, so we’d drive up in the mornings on a bus and the word would come down: “Get over.” We’d have to pull over the bus because here came the trucks and they didn’t stop, roaring down the hill. The crew stayed in a barge that had pulled into the harbor there. And me and the actors and producers were staying at this hotel in town. And wow: Actors on a location with nothing to do on a Saturday night, it’s a dangerous situation. But this was in Stuart, British Columbia, and it was right near Hyder, Alaska. It was right there on the border. This was a town where they had thrown out the sheriff and burned down the police station, so it was completely wild there. It was a quite a location, but lots of things went on that I cannot discuss with you here. (Laughs)
Anyway, we finished that up and came home, and then it was finishing up the special effects, and of course that was a horror and the studio was kind enough to give me some more money to finish it right, and we did. So the movie was finished but all of a sudden nobody liked the ending. It was, “Oh no, it’s not like that, is it? We want it triumphant.” [Universal exec Sidney] Sheinberg said, “Well, you know what, it’ll be great when you have this big orchestra and they’re killing The Thing.” That’s not the kind of movie we made, so we previewed it and it didn’t do so great. So then they were on me pretty bad to change it.
So we previewed it with a different ending. It didn’t matter. The movie was about the end of everything right from the start. You felt it right when that dog was running through the snow. You felt the feeling of it. And we were going to change that with some ending? That’s just not going to happen. So my cut went out and it was great. Then the movie was attacked like nobody’s business. The fans hated it, because the original “Thing” is kind of a beloved movie. I love the original “Thing.” So I lost a job because of it, got fired off a movie because it didn’t make enough money. It was a hated, cursed movie for a very long time. And I was out of work and feeling pretty bleak, but you know, I’m happy that my movie was not compromised. I didn’t give in.
“Christine” was the movie right after “The Thing.” It wasn’t right after, but it was the movie I made when I needed a job and “Christine” came along. I love my cast in that movie. Keith Gordon was fabulous, and Alexandra Paul was… I believe she’d been a model, and she’s just a terrific actress. And the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton was on that. Harry Dean is quite a character, I really loved him. But it was a fun movie to make and easy — nothing tough about it. And it did OK, you know, it opened alright. So people were kind, which is nice.
A lot of fans who saw “Halloween Ends” felt like it shared a lot of DNA with “Christine.” Did you see that at all?
Not a bit. Nope, I didn’t see that at all. I guess I’m much happier nowadays, I’m just a musician. I’m like a carpet guy. A movie needs some music. OK, that’s like, “I’ll carpet your front room” and I just do it and go. And get my lunch paid and I go home. I love it.
Next, “They Live,” which has one of the best fight scenes of all time.
That fight was pretty cool. The stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, Roddy Piper and Keith David worked the fight out in the backyard of the office. Then we shot it over about three days, and I’m really proud of it.
Did you get a lot of notes on that movie? It’s driven by such a subversive anti-consumerism message.
Yeah, I got some notes. (Laughs) Yeah, which I ignored completely, but they didn’t want the aliens to be capitalists. They wanted to gut the whole movie. “Why don’t you make them cannibals from outer space?” It was just ridiculous. But anyway, we did it and I got the movie I wanted to make.
Next, 1992’s “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” was a bit of a departure for you.
It gave me a chance to make a quasi-serious movie. But Chevy Chase, Sam Neill — who I love and had a longtime friendship with — and Warner Bros. … I worked for them, and it was pleasant. No, it wasn’t pleasant at all. I’m lying to you. It was a horror show. I really wanted to quit the business after that movie. God, I don’t want to talk about why, but let’s just say there were personalities on that film … he shall not be named who needs to be killed. No, no, no, that’s terrible. He needs to be set on fire. No, no, no. Anyway, it’s all fine. I survived it.
Speaking of Sam Neill, “In the Mouth of Madness” is a wild one.
Sam is a terrific actor. I love working with him. He’s very similar in working style to Kurt Russell, so he comes prepared. He knows what he’s going to do. He reacts to other actors who are there. I mean, he’s just a dream come true.
Were there unique challenges in making that film?
Well, when you work with a bunch of rubber, which we did on that film, there are always problems making it not look so ridiculous because it is ridiculous: There’s a bunch of rubber moving around!
That movie had some interesting notes when I showed the final cut to the studio and, oh man. The head of the studio wanted to gut it and throw it out, said it didn’t work. And I thought, “What the hell are you talking about? We can’t. This is the movie.” I didn’t want to throw out Hobb’s End, I was in such shock. I’ve gotten some great notes. Let me tell you, just great. (Laughs)
I’d love to hear about some of the worst notes you’ve ever received in your career.
Note on the script for “Halloween”: “This is not scary.” I’m not kidding. You just keep moving when you hear things like this. “Big Trouble in Little China”: “Can we cut out the comedy in this?” Those are my two favorites. But, believe me, there is always something.
Even “Halloween” did not get great reviews in the beginning. And I remember some of the sweeter lines in the review. One was: “Carpenter does not have a lot of talent with actors.” Oh man. And then “Assault on Precinct 13” got pretty heavy-duty negative reviews. I remember a line from those: “This is an example of how not to make a thriller, and the man in charge is John Carpenter.” Whoo! You might say, “This guy only remembers his bad reviews,” but they’re teaching moments in my life.
Not everyone has thick skin, and they could learn from that attitude.
I have no thick skin at all. I have real thin skin. I have some plans for these reviewers down the road; I just want five minutes with each of them in a room. That’s all I want. No, that’s the way they see it and it’s fine. It’s all good.
As a film fan, are there any horror movies from the last few years that impacted you?
Jordan Peele I like a lot. I think he’s really talented. There’s a bunch, but I don’t watch as many as I should, probably. But I love David Gordon Green. I just think he did a great job. I mean it, you know. And he was fun to work with. I can’t wait to see his movie “The Exorcist.”
Did you ever have any dreams of continuing the Laurie Strode “Halloween” story?
Well, I thought after the first one there was no more story. Boy, was I wrong, huh? They kept bringing that thing back. I wrote the second one — it was out of desperation. Anyway, I thought after that, “Let’s steer this baby away.” I wanted to do different movies every year under the title “Halloween.” So “Halloween III” was that kind of a film. Boy, the audience didn’t like that! “No, no, no, no! We want our Michael Myers back with a knife!” I thought, “Oh God, OK. Well, this is what they want.”
But then the producers brought back Michael Myers in some storyline. It was great in one sense though. I want to just be real honest about it: They had to pay me every single time they made those movies, and it was wonderful. That’s my favorite kind of experience in Hollywood: I’m on a couch, maybe watching some TV, and I extend my hand and a check arrives and it rubs in my hand. That I’m talented at.
What do you think your greatest skill is as a filmmaker?
Man, I don’t evaluate myself at all. I don’t know. I’m really proud of one film I made: “The Thing.” I really think I did a great job with that. I would love to have made more serious films like that, that aren’t teenage movies and not geared to young people. That was a movie I’m proud of. I don’t know what my strength is. I have no clue.
Films like “The Thing,” “Halloween 3” and “In the Mouth of Madness” all amassed cult followings in recent decades. Do you sometimes feel your ideas are too ahead of the curve?
Yeah, way ahead of the curve — way, way ahead. People don’t see things like I do. Kurt Russell’s story to others is that I set up a camera shot, and he went over and looked at it and said, “He doesn’t see things like other people do.” And I guess I don’t. Yeah, either that or he’s just bullshitting, I don’t know.
If I had to say, that might be your greatest strength as a filmmaker.
Bullshitting? Yes, I agree with you. Boy oh boy.
Do you have a favorite decade in horror history?
I guess the 1950s are my favorite decade, because movies then would scare the shit out of me. A famous example was the movie called “The Fly,” a Vincent Price movie from 1958 by 20th Century Fox. Kurt Neumann directed it. “The Fly” was a short story that appeared in “Playboy.” The scientist goes through a teleporter and mixes his atoms up with a fly, and the consequences are not good. His wife thinks that she’s found a way to cure it by sending him back through; she thinks it’s going to change the fact that he’s part fly. But when she rips off the hood that covered his head and there’s this giant fly head, boy, the popcorn went flying for me. I was up out of my seat. Such a great scare. You know, nowadays you look and it’s a little funky fly there, with a big fly head. But it was cool.
As we get older, you know what the dangers of life are about. They’re not under the bed. Let me just get this out of the way before you might ask it: What scares me the most is real life.
Your “Sight and Sound” top 10 films of all time ballot came out recently, and you included four Howard Hawks movies. What about his work has inspired you?
It’s a long discussion to have about Howard Hawks, but he was a very straightforward visual director for the most part. But he just believed his movies were about characters: Cary Grant being emasculated by modern life, or Katharine Hepburn. But he loved to turn around sexual role play, and so he would put Cary Grant in a bathrobe. You know? I mean, they’re just amazing things.
But you have to bow to Hitchcock, who was a great formalist. His whole use of montage to convey certain things, you can study that forever. And one of the best movies ever made is “Vertigo.” I mean, talk about a nightmare. And it doesn’t have a happy ending.
But you know what? I will complain a little bit. I don’t think the modern movie industry knows much about film history. They don’t know where it came from really. They don’t care. Anyway, that’s another subject.
Are there any plans to do more “Lost Themes” albums or tour again?
I can’t tell you the answers to those questions because they’re secret, but yes, we have plans to do all of that.
Are there any other projects coming along that you can speak about? Could we see a John Carpenter-directed movie in the future?
We might see something, but they are shrouded in total mystery, like Skull Island in “King Kong.” But, yeah, I’m open to it, given that it’s honestly budgeted and there’s plenty of time to do it — and that people allow for the basketball season and the playoffs.
If the opportunity came and it involved a streaming platform, would you be amenable to that, or would you want your film to go theatrical first?
I’m wide open to anything. It’s fine, I don’t care.
If somebody offered you a blank paycheck to go back and remake any of your films, is there one you’d revisit or add more to?
God, no. Nope I wouldn’t.
You’ve spoken recently about directing a “Dead Space” movie. Is there any movement on that?
No, no, no. I can’t believe how that spread. I’m a big video game fan, so I played all the games. I was down looking at the new digital cameras, the RED, and happened to mention to them that I would love to do a “Dead Space” film. That just went around, and everybody said, “Oh, when are you gonna do it?” I’m not gonna do it. I think they already have another director involved. And they haven’t asked me to do it. So until someone asks me, I wouldn’t do it. But there’s a new version of the “Dead Space” video game coming out in January, and I’m there.
Are you going to be involved at all with the new “Escape From New York” film? The news just came out a couple weeks ago.
No one told me about it. This is the thing about my career in Hollywood — no one tells me anything. They never tell me things. Have they cast it yet?
Not that I know of. The group that did the latest “Scream” movie is going to do this one. I don’t know if it’s a remake or a third Snake movie.
Hey, great. The last I heard was they were developing it where Snake would be a woman. But, no, I haven’t heard about this latest thing. No one wants me around, and they don’t tell me anything to keep me in the dark. It’s safer for them. [His wife says something in the background.] Apparently, we got an email. My wife tells me we got an email.
If you could go back now and talk to yourself as you’re about to start your film career, what advice would you give?
Well, I probably wouldn’t listen to myself, so I don’t know if it would be worth it saying anything. But I’ll sum up John Carpenter: I dreamed of being a movie director ever since 1956, and my dream came true. Whether it’s hard, whether I’m always successful, I don’t care. I’m living my dream, and there is nothing better as a human being. So I would say to myself, “Man, go to it. You’re going to have a drink. You’ll have your dream fulfilled. Go make your movies.”