John Carpenter: He shoots, he scores

How do you make class-A films on B-movie budgets? Few know better than John Carpenter. The director sits down with Derek O’Connor to talk slow-burning suspense, anti-establishment leanings and the art of the soundtrack

 

When they go on (and on, and on) about the Movie Brat generation who rocked Hollywood in the 1970s – the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola – they rarely mention a filmmaker by the name of John Carpenter. Make no mistake, however: in 1978, Carpenter changed the landscape of modern cinema forever, by way of a low-budget B-picture titled Halloween. Shot by Carpenter in 20 days for a mere $325,000, this slasher flick became one of the most successful independent films of all time, spawning numerous sequels, reboots and rip-offs.

Hollywood came calling, and Carpenter responded with a series of beloved cult classics, chief among them Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China and They Live. “I got to work within the studio system,” he says, “and make all those movies the way I wanted them, and I’m very proud of that. It was a fight, though, because the studios don’t ever want to give control to filmmakers. It’s all changed now. A lot of directors today don’t even care about the final cut to begin with. Hell, they just want a job.”

From the outset, John Carpenter’s ouvre bore a firm authorial stamp, with his predilection for slow-burning suspense, anti-establishment leanings (he’s an unashamedly old-school liberal) and meticulously composed widescreen framing.

 

He also composed and performed the scores, haunting, minimalist electro-soundscapes that have directly influenced several generations of electronic musicians. “At the beginning,” he says, “I was doing the music out of necessity, because we had no money. At some point, I realised that the scores became another voice, another way that I could further what I was doing as a filmmaker. It became an extension of directing. Composing was a lot of extra work, but I kept going as long as I could stand it. Kind of like directing.

“I’ve never had any illusions about my musical abilities. I’ve got very basic musical chops, that’s okay – I’ve proudly stretched them as far as I possibly could.”

Amiable quasi-retirement

Now, at the age of 67, the boy from Bowling Green, Kentucky emerges from the amiable quasi-retirement he’s been enjoying for the past decade to release his first album of original compositions, titled Lost Themes.

This moody (and at times magnificent) selection of instrumental mood pieces, which wouldn’t sound out of place soundtracking any of his movies, began life as a family bonding exercise. “It didn’t start as a record to be released,” he says. “It began with my son [Cody Carpenter, of prog rockers Ludrium] and I improvising music in between playing video games. We did this over a period of months – we’d play video games, make music, play video games – until we had around 60 minutes of music. . . dark score. So my son went to Japan to teach, I didn’t do anything with it, and then I got a new music attorney, who asked me if I had anything new. . . so I sent her the stuff we did, and a few months later, I had a record deal [with hip indie label Sacred Bones]. I’m thinking, Man oh man. . . there’s nothing to this,” he says, laughing.

Reviled his films were

The cult of Carpenter prevailsbut in retrospect, it’s easy to forget how reviled his films were upon their initial release. Case in point: 1982’s box-office bomb The Thing, starring his preferred onscreen alter-ego Kurt Russell, now regarded by many as Carpenter’s finest hour. This jaw-dropping tale of an alien shape-shifter laying waste to the inhabitants of an Antatartic Research Station had the misfortune to hit cinemas a fortnight after a rather less hostile alien intervention. “Everybody just despised it,” he says, “including the studio [Universal], who had just released E.T. I really thought my career was over.”

The classic final scene of The Thing – Carpenter films are celebrated for their ambiguous endings – caused a major bust up with the Universal brass. “Boy, they hated the ending. Hated it. They thought it was going to be different, even though it was written exactly as you see it on screen. They just couldn’t understand it. So, I tried their ending, and it didn’t make them any happier, so they left mine alone.”

Deeply subversive

Also undervalued upon release was his deeply subversive 1988 gem They Live, which suggests that America’s ruling class are in fact visitors from another world. “It’s a documentary,” says Carpenter. “I love my country, but America’s in absolute turmoil. Once the craziness starts to take over, and the screaming and shouting begins, the rich and powerful are the only ones who ever get ahead. We’ve got a lot of problems right now.”

Of late, Carpenter has eschewed the director’s chair in favour of other passions, primarily watching TV basketball and playing computer games – a subject upon which he’s positively evangelical. “It’s still a very young medium,’ he says, “it’s still evolving. Once you get addicted to gaming, you can’t stop. They’re so much fun. Movies just can’t compete.” He’s just finished the latest instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series, soon to become a movie starring our favourite Kerry-German hybrid Michael Fassbender. “A wonderful actor,” says Carpenter, “I’m sure he’ll do a great job.”

Making the headlines

He chuckles merrily at the mention of making the headlines for doing absolutely nothing. It was recently announced that 20th Century Fox are proceeding with another megabudget “reimagining” of his work – this time Escape From New York, with Downton Abbey’s Dan Stephens as Carpenter’s one-eyed bad-ass Snake Plissken. The production purports to have Carpenter on board as a “creative consultant”.

“I don’t have to take any heat for it, so god bless them. I stay away, and I really don’t have much to do with what’s put on the screen. They’re not going to destroy the original, and that’s all that really matters to me. If they want to pay me, then I’m smart enough to take the money.”

The only time the curmudgeonly Carpenter of legend rears his head is at the prospect of leaving his beloved California home for a forthcoming comprehensive month-long retrospective in New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the latest in a series of tributes paid in recent years. “There’s a downside to it. You have to fly for five hours, to New York, and that’s not fun.” So, what does it actually take do get John Carpenter out of the house these days? Pause. “A million dollars.” Cue another bout of riotous cackling.

Slices of Carpentry

Classic slices of Carpentry are regularly reissued on BluRay, and works are being rediscovered, and re-evaluated – most recently, 1994’s Lovecraft-ian In the Mouth of Madness. “It’s been marvellous,” he says. “I mean, it’s better than them calling you names. I’ve been surprised and delighted that these old movies have found an audience. You always hope that something lives on. I’ve been very lucky. I had a great run, and I’m very happy with the movies that I got to make. And now I get to be a rock star. I’m ready to have Beyoncé over.”

Lost Themes, the debut non-soundtrack album from John Carpenter is out now. For more, see johncarpenter.sacredbonesrecords.com

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