He could care less about the box office. Everything he does is to satisfy some part of him that feels incomplete, that craves expression. It is no surprise that he is a magnificent storyteller. When you are speaking with him he has the casualness of two friends at a bar, chasing a beer buzz as you are told stories about a childhood in a place that felt foreign to a career he always dreamed of but never thought would be realized, at least not on this scale.
I have been a fan of his work since I can remember falling in love with film. He is a true icon of cinema and continues to influence new artists and filmmakers to this day; many of whom have mentioned him directly on this site. He has directed 28 films, many of those classics that went on to alter the face of their respective genres. He is genuine, funny, and one of the most interesting people we’ve had the pleasure of speaking to.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: You know we usually start with our guests talking about the first film that really changed their life and I know there were a few for you, but I want to go a little further back. You moved from Carthage, New York to Bowling Green, Kentucky at the age of 5 which would have been 1953 or so and stayed there until you went to USC in the late 60s. Talk to us a little bit about growing up in Kentucky?
JOHN CARPENTER: Well it was and is a beautiful state back then. We were Northern New York Yankees my parents and I. We moved into this little town in the middle of the Bible belt in the Jim Crow south, so this was culture shock for my parents and I, more my parents than me because I was just an idiot then and didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was a mixed bag.
So you just felt like a complete outsider.
Oh lord yes, man. I will give the town something though; everything I learned about evil I learned in that little town.
In every way you can imagine. The way people treat each other. The way people treat outsiders, the suspicion of outsiders. Like I said, this was the Jim Crow era so there were some pretty outrages things going on.
Do you go back to that time frequently when you’re writing?
Well, I haven’t written in a while so I don’t I have to worry about it much but sure I think about it. I think about the past a lot. I still go back and see my father, he’s 92 now and I think he finally fell in love with Bowling Green. It’s changed a lot; the south has changed a lot. It’s not the same place it was when I was young. Jobs were scarce then, my father was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and jobs were scarce for him and this was an opportunity. The other choice he had was Hawaii which I do not understand why he didn’t take that. What were we doing in Bowling Green?
What did your parents do?
Well my Dad was a music teacher, he was a violinist and my Mom was just a mom. She worked occasionally but she was mostly a stay at home mom.
I assume that’s where you got your musical talent, from your Father?
Yeah, that’s where I got it all. He mistakenly tried to get me to play the violin at an early age and that was a horrible, horrible mistake for everybody involved, I didn’t have any natural talent. I learned a lot about music and musicality and I’ve learned a lot from that experience; never let your father teach you how to play anything. I learned how to play piano, I learned how to play guitar and I played in a band. I had general musical knowledge but I grew up with music, that’s the big thing, I grew up with music and was listening to it all the time, classical music primarily. My Dad was a session musician in Nashville, Tennessee and was one of the founding members of the Nashville Strings; they played back-up for the likes of Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, people like that. I would go with him to recording sessions and see all these people and it was just amazing. I had a little more than just a classical upbringing.
Were you old enough at the time to appreciate the people around you at that time?
Sure, I was really impressed with them.
So if we kind of fast forward, do you find there are things that you’re able to express musically that you can’t theatrically, or are they just two completely different mediums to you?
Well they are just strictly different. I don’t have anything really that I want to express that films won’t do fine. It all depends on if it’s story driven. You know I think music is probably the ultimate art form because it doesn’t require words but I fell in love with movies so that was my calling.
I watched a documentary on Woody Allen the other day and he was telling a story about one of his friends telling him that he had gone to the movie theatre and was shooting spit balls at the screen during the picture and they were bursting into flames, the idea of the theatre is really magical to a kid, I remember as a child thinking there were actors behind the screen doing a performance…
Tell me about, tell me about it man, me too!
…it was just this unique experience you couldn’t replicate anywhere. Tell us a little bit about discovering the movie theatre as a child and what that meant to you?
Well my experience was very similar to yours. I think the very first film I saw was THE AFRICAN QUEEN. That was in 1951 and I was in the theatre in northern New York. I was thinking there were people behind the screen; this is like a theatre show, they’re back there! My Father had to explain to me that no, that’s not how it works and he pointed to the projection booth and there was this flickering light and he said “that’s where they come from, from in there and then they’re projected onto the screen.” I thought man, that is magical. That was my first taste of movies. My first early influence was a film called IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. In 1952 that was a 3D movie back then, it just blew my mind. It was like my god what is this? I think I fell in love viscerally with the movies then. I was so terrified by the opening sequence and I thought anything that can do this is magic, absolute magic.
So how then do you take that next step? You always hear about comedians transcribing sets so they can see how a joke is laid out, young screenwriters studying scripts to understand and comprehend the mechanics of a scene. How did you take that next step and start putting together the craft?
I didn’t have an outlet there for that kind of thing. I had an amateur magazine that I published and I kept going to movies and loving them. I had my father’s 8mm camera so I made some movies with my friends and starring my friends but that was about all. Life moved on until I was in college at Western Kentucky University, that’s the university in Bowling Green, and it was a dead end. There was nothing there and nothing I wanted to do there. So, I asked my father if I could go out and study film. I had heard that there was such a thing as film school as part of a university. I went and did some research and found there were several of them that taught cinema and I thought it was like a dream. There was this guy George Lucas who had won an award for a movie called THX 1138 and I was impressed. My Father agreed and he said okay you can go and that’s where I began my real education.
When you were at University of Southern California you had some pretty impressive lecturers.
It was unbelievable. Old Hollywood was still alive and still there. Even if many of the guys had retired they were very present. We had Orson Wells, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Hitchcock. For me it was incredible. We watched some of the films I saw when I was young but in this new way. A lot of the kids there didn’t really appreciate the directors that showed up; they kind of took them for granted. I remember one time Howard Hawks was there and one of the audience members attacked him for having films with violence in them. This was the height of the Vietnam War so there was a lot of political stuff going on. I remember in the Department of Cinema at USC there was a program to train soldiers in cinematography, in filmmaking. We were side by side with these great guys, just really wonderful people but there was this faction of our school that just hated anything to do with the military so there was a lot of conflict. Especially when Nixon started bombing Cambodia, things really heated up then.
What was the political climate of the campus at the time?
It’s a pretty conservative campus, USC is pretty conservative, it was then and I think it is now to. There were people who were very passionate but then there was an equal number of people who are status-quo type kids, I took no particular sides. I had a girlfriend who was wildly against the war and she would call Richard Nixon “Hitler” and I would have to tell her no, no, he isn’t Hitler. One of the biggest conflicts on campus was one day I was going to class and I saw this giant mass of people confronting each other using these really angry words and I asked someone what it was and they said that it was the Arabs and Israelis and they were just screaming at each other. This was right after the six day war I guess.
That’s pretty interesting that you came out from Kentucky and walked into this protest environment.
It was really different. I was still a kid from Bowling Green for many years. It just didn’t feel right for me to be a protestor. I just wasn’t that fired up and passionate. I did worry about my draft status, after the lottery, in other words they picked numbers) after that I was alright.
So when you had these lecturers come in, John Ford, Howard Hawkes, did you have time to pull them aside and ask them questions directly?
Well I would ask questions as part of the audience but I didn’t have the guts to pull them aside, hell no. That was big time. Orson Wells, I mean that’s really big time.
What a great story teller.
And that’s what he did. He just got up there and told stories. He was there making a movie called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND which I don’t think he finished, but he wanted to get questions from a student audience asked of a director so we were the guinee pigs and he would film us asking questions, but yeah he just told stories, just a big, giant guy.
You are in a small league of directors who make a very identifiable style of picture, I think you know a Scorsese, you know a John Ford, just as you know a John Carpenter film, there is just a very distinct way of telling a story. Do you know when you kind of found your voice or when you realized Ah this is what a Carpenter film looks like?
Yeah I think so; I think I am still figuring some of that out, I mean you never stop learning. It was the synthesis of everything I fell in with about cinema, techniques I saw that I could borrow… that’s a kind statement… techniques I could steal. I always thought that directors had a unique and identifiable style that I could tell after seeing a couple of their movies. For instance Sydney Pollack, apparently he’s a guy without a particular style but I could tell his style after seeing a few of his movies. The way he frames them, the way he sees a scene and Kubrick is the same way, all directors have a style.
Have you ever seen Sydney Pollack’s THE YAKUZA?
Man, what an amazing film that is.
Yeah I love that film, it’s terrific.
I have heard THE THING described as an allegory to the aids epidemic, I have heard BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA described as a discussion on reality, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK questioning our humanity, obviously THEY LIVE has a very heavy message about capitalism attached to it. I think this means two things. 1. People care about your films a great a deal and 2. Because of that they are looking deeper than the basic story. Are you aware of that as a filmmaker when you are looking to make a feature?
Messages don’t work in movies, that’s the first thing you have to forgo. You can’t present a message to people, it doesn’t work. Movies are an emotional medium, a dramatic medium, people go to lose themselves and project themselves into people on the screen. They want to go see horror stories, funny stories, not messages. Any filmmaker though identifies thematic material they’re working with. The thematic material of this movie covers “X”, then your choice is to how far you want to delve into that. Some people really dive into it and most don’t.
Is THEY LIVE an example of you really diving into that message?
Well, THEY LIVE, its flaws as far as I’m concerned is that it’s too preachy. That was my primal scream, my rage at the Reagan Revolution. I hit it on the head; I should have been more subtle on it. I had a choice of stories; one was told from the working class point of view and that’s what we shot, the other was from the upper middle class point of view at the TV station, someone who discovers this. As far as I am concerned that’s a documentary, it’s still going on. The 80’s never ended as one of my socialist friends keep telling me. Unrestrained capitalism still carries us along in its embrace.
There have been a number of your films that have not done particularly well at the box office but have gone on to mean a great deal to a large number of people. Do you feel like your films always get a second look and if so do you think you have kind of an additional at bat that most filmmakers don’t have?
I don’t play for the box office, I play for the horizon. What I mean by that is that I play for a longer game, something that’s going to last. If you strip away the costumes and the acting styles, hopefully it’s something that will last.
Nearly every film you have made has a huge fan base behind it. There is really only a small handful of your films that aren’t considered classics. That has to make you feel good as a director.
You know what? I am 64, I am going to be 65 next year, and that makes me very happy. I have had a great career. I wouldn’t have dreamed I would have had this career. As kid I wanted to be a professional movie director and I got to live out my dream, not very many people can say that.
Your early films feature characters that are geographically trapped but as you move along in your filmography you start to see that you move from geographically isolated to mentally or psychologically isolated. IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, THE WARD, you can really see that progression.
That’s interesting, that is really an interesting comment. I hadn’t thought about it that way but it’s true.
Is there a parallel there?
Well sure, the geographical is a stand-in for the emotional but after a while you have to just go for the emotional. My last film though [THE WARD] was really an internal landscape type film.
Anti-heroes populate the landscape of your films; with some exceptions of course, what is it about these loners that you dig so much?
I can identify with them, it’s who I am. Not that I am a hero of any kind, but I identify with that kind of a person; a loner, isolated in certain ways, I know those people, I am one.
On the flip side of that, I was talking to Larry Cohen the other day for a story we are doing and he said the old rule in the business is the better the villain the better the film, and if that is to be believed you got it made because you had had some iconic villains. Talk to us about writing the villain and if you give credence to that saying or is it just another part of the story?
It’s just another part of the story, another part of me, of us, of we, of humanity. Villains are fun to write though; you just have to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing and what’s in it for them.
When I watch films with my buddies we always start talking about films we want our favorite directors to make and with John Carpenter it always comes back to a tried and true western film which you have written a few times but haven’t directed yourself. Was there ever a film or genre you wanted Howard Hawks, or Fred Wilcox or John Ford to explore?
Well I wish Hawkes had done more of an explicit spooky movie. His reputation was originally of a director of really terrifying scenes unlike westerns, that changed with RED RIVER. He was known for scary moments in film. A lot of his aviation films have really tension filled sequences. He had a movie he was trying to set up called DREADFUL HOLLOW; I would have loved to have seen him do that.
What about you, would you like to do a western?
Oh hell yes, but there’s no more stars. Eastwood quit, Wayne is gone.
There’s this guy Kurt Russell that’s still around.
Yeah, he’s doing a western right now with what’s his name? The young genius?
(Laughs) That would be Tarantino.
(Laughs) Yeah, him.
In the world of stage productions, writers are God but in the world of films their words almost act as more of an outline than gospel. Even though you haven’t written in a while, did it bother you when someone took your work and changed it? Used it more of a guideline?
Not really. It’s a director’s medium. As a writer when I wrote THE EYES OF LAURA MARS, they changed a lot of things about it, that’s fine; I didn’t direct it so it’s not my movie.
The screenwriter Melville Shavelson said – A writer by choice, a producer by necessity and a director for self-defense – It sounds like you employ all those areas. How do you navigate the discipline and responsibility to each of those?
Let me make one thing very clear to you; I don’t like to work, I would much rather not work, if I could find a profession of some kind that paid me money to do nothing I would love it. After a while, when you’re directing from film school on, you have to do everything. You have to know editing, sound, acting, writing, you have to know everything to be a good director or else you’re unarmed. You have to know the lenses in the camera, nobody in film school wanted to learn that. You have to memorize the American Cinematographer Manual; you spend a weekend memorizing that and then move on. Shavelson is right; it’s something that you have to know. It’s a requirement. That is the secret of direction; no matter what anybody asks you, have an answer. The worst thing you can say is “I don’t know.” If someone asks you “should this be green or blue?” have an answer. You may think about it later, it may have been a stupid thing to say, but then you just go back and say that you’ve changed your mind and I want to be this. Not being decisive is not directing. Decide.
Outside of it being your livelihood, what does film mean to you?
Passion. It’s all about Passion and love. I fell in love with cinema as a child when I was little. I always told myself that when the love ended, when the flame died then you gotta get out. That’s what it’s about, that’s what it’s always been about, love.
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