JOHN CARPENTER – THE DAILY GRINDHOUSE INTERVIEW

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. Now, without further hint or preview…

 

MR. JOHN CARPENTER

 


 

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.

 

How so?

 

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 OUTTER 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?

 

Oh yeah.

 

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.

 

SPECIAL FEATURES:

 

JOHN CARPENTER’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE

 

FOLLOW JOHN CARPENTER ON TWITTER

 

STORM KING PRODUCTIONS

 

 

SEE YOU ON FORTY DEUCE,

 

G



25 Comments

  • Reply
    May 1, 2012

    The first John Carpenter film I ever saw was Halloween. Like most other people, that was my first slasher film and possibly, if memory serves me, my first horror film (not counting Howard the Duck). I was around 6 years old, and my uncle came over and told me, “You are going to watch a special film with me tonight.” I was excited, thinking it was an unknown Star Wars or Indiana Jones film (I was obsessed). He throws on Halloween on VHS and I sat there, mouth agape for 90 minutes, shaking and almost covering my eyes. Hoping that Laurie Strode would survive. The Shape was terrifying, because all I could hear was his breathing for weeks after. But I wanted to watch it again and my uncle gave me the tape as a gift because I just wanted to watch it nonstop. Halloween was my gateway film into the horror world and since then, horror has been my favorite genre, no matter what part of my life I’m at. Carpenter was then my obsession of sorts, having to see every film of his. Each time being excited because I heard films like The Fog and The Thing were scarier. But nothing will ever match the thrill and the excitement I got from that first viewing of Halloween. It’s a yearly tradition now because Halloween is still my favorite slasher and in my eyes, one of the best horror films to ever come out.

  • Reply
    bill norris
    May 1, 2012

    Me and my friends lived in a dinky 1 movie theater/screen town and “They Live” came to town. Needless to say we hit the late show and walked home after. So its 1:30 – 2 in the morning and the group gets smaller and smaller as were dropping kids off at their houses. We all started off laughing and reciting the cool lines , bubble gum and all that, only to start getting a wee bit more freaked out with everyone we left behind. So what started as a walk with 8 or 9 people ended with a mad dash with the last 2 of us, both promising not to mention the running to the others, ever. Love the movie, but dig the story between me and my friend even more.

  • Reply
    david
    May 1, 2012

    I was 12, I snuck out of the show we paid for to go see Halloween. 5 minutes in I knew why I needed to be older.
    The style and the music stuck with me forever. Carpenter films have always held a special place in my collection

  • Reply
    May 2, 2012

    If you love Carpenter, there’s a looong video interview with him that you can watch free on the YEAH app. You can also watch Halloween free. The service costs $5, but Halloween and Carpenter is their free trial, so definitely worth checking out for fans.

  • Reply
    May 2, 2012

    Of course I forgot the URL. It’s yeahtv.com

  • Reply
    May 2, 2012

    Imagine being about seven years old and seeing what Rob Bottin can do to a man.

    I was never going to be the same again. I was going to be better.

    The Thing is one of those movies I’ll always associate with VHS. The best bits started to blur and warp slightly due to every teenager in my neighbourhood using the pause button to try and work out just how it was done. The answer: with magic.

    The Thing remains one of my favourite movies and watching it still reminds me of being young, being in the dark, being thrilled, and wanting to forever be creative.

    John Carpenter, I thank you.

  • Reply
    May 2, 2012

    I was thirteen and had friends over for a sleepover where everyone had to bring a movie for a marathon. Everyone brought light, age-appropriate comedies and I had In the Mouth of Madness as my pick. We watched maybe 20 minutes of it before everyone decided it was a bit boring and switched it off in favor of one of the silly comedies. Eventually, I finished the movie after everyone had gone to sleep and I loved the movie but it freaked me out so much I slept in bed with my mother at my own sleepover. :P

    Thank you, John Carpenter <3

  • Reply
    June 6, 2012

    Carpenter is one of my favorite directors; I love a lot of his movies, like most of the ones I don’t love, and can find a few positives even in the few I don’t like very much.

    And personally, I think his most recent movie, “The Ward,” is underrated. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I hope he has something new on the way soon!

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012

    I love the way you wrote this article. This is wonderful. I do hope you intend to write more of these types of articles. Thank you for this interesting content!

  • Reply
    November 7, 2012

    Like most people Halloween was my first John Carpenter movie. I just loved how the white mask made him way more terrifying than any other villain I saw coming out of 80′s horror flicks. Sure Freddy had knives and dreams, but that mask and Carpenter’s use of tracing shots really solidified Halloween as a horror benchmark for me. I’m forever thankful that my dad let me watch HBO constantly without any regard for a film’s rating or content.

  • Reply
    Michael
    November 7, 2012

    The first and best Carpenter film I saw was They Live on what I believe was regular cable so it was cut to shreds. But I still loved the tone and never looked back!

  • Reply
    November 7, 2012

    My first Carpenter Flick was They Live. I saw it on Monstervision hosted by Joe Bob Briggs. I saw Halloween a couple of weeks later. Personally, I’m surprised his Masters of Horror episode, Cigarette Burns, didn’t get more attention. It’s brilliant!

  • Reply
    Tim Palace
    November 7, 2012

    I’ve been a genre fan my entire life, and Mr. Carpenter is a huge influence on me. I believe watching The Thing at my cousin’s first birthday sleepover was my introduction to the genius of John Carpenter. I’ve seen all of his films now, and there is always something new to enjoy in them.

  • Reply
    Tom Shumaker
    November 7, 2012

    My first Carpenter film was HALLOWEEN, seen in a theater in Richmond, VA during it’s first week of release. Been a fan ever since & have seen all of his films.

  • Reply
    Steve
    November 7, 2012

    My parents rented BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA for my older brother and a few of his friends and I got to watch it too. I LOVED it then, and I love it even more now!

    I also recall seeing THE THING at the video store years earlier but I was too scared of horror movies at that time to want to see it. Besides, that scary guy on the great Struzan poster was most decidedly NOT the ever lovin’ blue eyed Thing from the Fantastic Four!

  • Reply
    Ken Lamplugh
    November 7, 2012

    HALLOWEEN – in a theater when it first came out. Best communal audience experience short of JAWS, with everyone screaming, yelling and freaking out in unison.

  • Reply
    November 7, 2012

    Halloween was definitely my first JC. Will never forget it either. Was on HBO back in 1980 or so and I had to turn it off then turn it back on repeatedly during that final sequence. It was scaring the shit out of me but I couldn’t resist.

    Great interview here. Saw Carpenter at Flashback Weekend a couple months ago. Could’ve listened to him talk all day. Lots of great answers to mostly good questions. The best one when asked, “Any reason why you, Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges and Roddy Piper don’t get together and make something and just fuck the money?”

    Carpenter flatly replied, “Ego.”

  • Reply
    Justin
    November 8, 2012

    The first Carpenter film I ever saw was In the Mouth of Madness. I have only seen bits of it since then, but I remember it being pretty effective.

  • Reply
    Joel E.
    November 8, 2012

    My very first Carpenter movie was Halloween. When I was a kid, my father brought home the VHS one day, and I was scared stiff. But I braved it just to watch it with him.

  • Reply
    Michael
    November 8, 2012

    I was about 11 trying to sleep in the basement of my aunt’s house when I heard a terrible noise from upstairs. Dog whines, awful growls, a clatter. I crawled up the stairs immersed in fear. I peaked around the corner from the floor at the top of the stairs. A dog’s face burst open. I was forever intrigued by fear and horror movies. I was first utterly terrified, but The Thing started my search for controlled fear and horror movies. Thanks John.

  • Reply
    Jake Cole
    November 8, 2012

    First Carpenter film I saw was Escape from New York when I was 14. Was absolutely hooked.

  • Reply
    Adam
    November 8, 2012

    For years I’d heard the phrase “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum”, and known it was in this mysterious film called They Live.

    Finally, the time came, and I watched it. That movie was powerful. The 3 year long alley fight alone was enough to make it a classic, but the final scene cemented it as one of the greatest movies ever made. For me, at least.

  • Reply
    Michel Sabourin
    November 8, 2012

    My first Carpenter was Halloween as well. I think it will always represent a high water mark for me in its goreless violence that nevertheless is genuinely scary and unsettling in a way that really sticks with you. The mute, masked killer with little or no motive is a tried and true trope of slasher cinema, but here it is perfected in the guise of The Shape.

  • Reply
    Chance
    November 8, 2012

    My first John Carpenter film was HALLOWEEN. I snuck downstairs and caught it on TV on Halloween night when I was about 6. It scared me out of my mind and I actually turned the channel a few times because I was too afraid but would flip right back to not miss anything. The sequence of Michael breaking down the closet door to get Laurie has been burned into my minds eye forever. Thus began my love of the horror genre, the reason I have a film degree and the impetus to my fascination with the silver screen which eventually led me to becoming an actor and getting my first real gig on Dawson’s Creek many years ago. And here I am, so many years later, in L.A. still cracking away. I met John Carpenter some years ago but what do you say to someone who helped light a spark that changed your life other than thank you? I have a very small bucket list of people I’d give anything to work with and John Carpenter is at the top. Thanks for the awesome article and interview!

  • Reply
    Rees
    November 8, 2012

    When I was 8 my older brother was given a couple of bucks to take me for a walk and see ET. When we got to the theater he bought two tickets for the friendly alien flick and snuck me into The Thing with him. I was already nervous but wanted to be cool like my older bother (I was ‘husky’ and had coke bottle glasses before I could speak). Everything was going okay until 20 tentacles sprouted out of a fluffy dog and I screamed abd ran out of the theater and into ET. While in ET I couldn’t stop thinking about what was going on so I went back to The Thing until Rob Bottin’s designs got the best of me and out I went again. I watched back and fourth for the whole film. My brother told me not to tell mom and dad but it got the best of me and I had screaming nightmares. Mom and dad found out…my brother got into trouble. The Thing has been my favorite movie ever since and started me on my writing career and a horror obsession. I thanked my brother 20 years after the fact for sneaking me into that flick!

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