John Carpenter, The Ward
John Carpenter has a well-earned reputation as the Master of Horror, even if the legendary director’s still-growing body of work has encompassed everything from TV biopics (Elvis) to sci-fi thrillers (The Thing, Escape from New York) and the occasional action-comedy (Big Trouble in Little China). Early on, he just seemed to have his finger on the pulse of something, well, evil. If you came of age in the late ’70s, before cable and home entertainment systems made R-rated movies easily accessible to viewers of any age, the dread-inducing, nightmarish trailers on network television for films like Halloween and The Fog (still viewable on YouTube) afforded brief but chilling glimpses into the nihilistic world of “John Carpenter,” a name more or less synonymous in my mind with the bogeyman.
Something of a miracle worker with low budgets (his highly influential street-gang thriller Assault on Precinct 13 cost around $150,000), Carpenter has toiled and survived more than three decades in the movie business as a genre director who often writes, produces, and scores his own films. Having drawn inspiration from groundbreaking predecessors such as Val Lewton (via his handling of atmosphere and tension) and Roger Corman (whose shoot-at-all-costs exploitation tactics were instructive), as well as the mid-century pulp comics and popcorn flicks of his youth, Carpenter has left his own deep imprint on the cultural landscape. Jonathan Lethem recently published a book-length study of They Live for Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series (it’s brilliant — highly recommended even for non-horror/sci-fi fans) and in 2006, Halloween was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. That’s to say nothing of the Michael Myers franchise itself, or the remakes and revisionings of Carpenter’s films by Rob Zombie and others.
Now, after a nearly decade-long absence from feature filmmaking, Carpenter has returned with The Ward, a period thriller set at a psychiatric hospital for girls where newbie inmate Kristen (Amber Heard), committed to the asylum for torching a farmhouse, is menaced by sadistic staffers and the apparition of a ghoulish female seemingly intent on killing the residents.
Filmmaker spoke with Carpenter about Bernard Hermann, basketball, scare tactics, and the arc of his storied career as an independent filmmaker.
Filmmaker: What frightened you as a kid?
Carpenter: Everything. The thing about fear is that everybody is afraid of the same things. That’s why horror movies and thrillers are so universal in their appeal. We’re all afraid of death, the unknown, the loss of a loved one. Anything you’re afraid of, I’m afraid of.
Filmmaker: Were you into reading Tales from the Crypt and H.P. Lovecraft or other gothic stories when you were growing up?
Carpenter: Absolutely, I read all those things — EC Comics, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft. I went to a lot of science fiction and horror movies in the 50s, and I loved them.
Filmmaker: Did your initial ideas about genre films come out of your moviegoing experience primarily?
Carpenter: Moviemaking, like novel writing or any storytelling, is based on your life experience, your beliefs, your emotions, your family background — all of it. This is true of every storyteller.
Filmmaker: You started off making 8mm films at a very young age. Later, you wrote and edited a Western, The Resurrection of Bronco Billy, that won an Academy Award for best live action short when you were still at USC. How did you teach yourself what you needed to know about making movies?
Carpenter: My experience at USC’s film school, during the period I went there, was invaluable. We basically learned all the disciplines involved in making a film — camera, editing, writing, directing, acting, sound mixing, animation, history and criticism. We learned it from the bottom up. I was very interested in Hollywood cinema, movies that came out of that system. And USC had great ties to Hollywood. A lot of the masters came down and talked to us. I got to see John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock. It was pretty incredible.
Filmmaker: When you first touched down in the independent film world with Dark Star, you attracted the notice of studios who were very impressed with how much you could pull off with a budget of $60,000. Was it really just a matter of “Dammit, I’m going to make a film. This is all the money I have and I’m just going to do it”?
Carpenter: That’s it. And being stupid, not knowing any better, not knowing how difficult it would be to take a little 16mm film and turn it into a feature. My partner at the time was Dan O’Bannon [Alien, Total Recall] who went on to become a very talented writer in the business and has since passed away. We worked for four years getting this thing done, and it was a baptism. We learned a lot.
Filmmaker: It probably helped you figure out what you didn’t know.
Carpenter: Well, I’m still figuring that out. There’s a little magic that happens in cinematic storytelling. You can know all the basics, but something happens occasionally that kicks up beyond what you started with. Those are intangibles. You can’t get that by buying it. Sometimes it’s the actors, sometimes it’s a location—there are all kinds of things you can’t plan on. They can make your movie great or they can make it suck.
Filmmaker: Working as an indie director on smaller budgets, you’ve managed to attract some fine actors over the years: Jeff Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Harry Dean Stanton, Chevy Chase, Sam Neill, Daryl Hannah, to name a few.
Carpenter: At first I was really frightened of actors — I didn’t know how to deal with them. But over the years I learned exactly what they do and what they need. And I’ve gotten better at it. I first I wasn’t sure — they’re a different breed. But I think it was my fear turned into a love — I really enjoy actors. Sometimes movie stars are a pain in the ass, and there’s a lot of crazy things that go on in Hollywood. But in general actors are tremendous people and enormously talented. I came to learn that.
Filmmaker: You’ve always had a very productive relationship with Kurt Russell. You put his humorous side to work in Big Trouble in Little China, for instance, which was a great combination of his action-hero charisma and cheeky line deliveries. And early on you cast him in the Elvis biopic you directed for television in 1979. I think people forget about that particular John Carpenter film and Russell’s performance in it.
Carpenter: Well, I was a desperate hire on that project — no one else wanted to direct it. They were afraid it was going to be a bunch of shuck and jive and that it was going to tank. Kurt had been hired by ABC to play the role so I just stumbled into it because I loved Elvis. I realized very quickly that Kurt is a born mimic and he has enormous talent as an actor—he can do anybody, I think. He can do you! He understood how to play the part. We get along so well because Kurt’s an old pro. He was trained in the Disney system, which is a whole different place to learn your chops. In the old days you had a script supervisor who, if you didn’t say the lines exactly as written, would cut [the scene]. You had to show up and be ready. That’s the thing about Kurt — he figures out what to play in his character and he brings it every day. So we enjoyed ourselves. He was trying to get back in the movie business — he’d been a baseball player and had left Disney and was trying to establish himself. And I was trying to break into the movies, so off we went.
Filmmaker: You’ve been christened the Master of Horror — and you’re an iconic figure in that world. Does it bother you that people seem to associate you so closely with that one genre and seem to forget your other work in romance, comedy, and sci-fi, like Starman and Memoirs of an Invisible Man?
Carpenter: Hey, I don’t mind. I mean, look, I got to have a career as a director, which was my childhood dream! Not many people get that. In 1958, when I was eight years old, I decided I wanted to have a career as a movie director — and I got to have it. I’m really lucky. So no, that’s okay.
Filmmaker: How do you know what you’re doing is going to be scary and effective, especially when you’re so immersed in the nuts and bolts of putting it all together?
Carpenter: You start with the story — there’s not a horror rulebook where you turn to page five and it tells you the seven things to do in this scene. It all comes out in the story and that’s where you start building. You figure out which scenes contain elements of suspense or fear and thrills and the techniques to use — point of view, camera angles — what kind of style you’ll use. But no, I don’t sit around and think to myself, Man, I am such a genius, this is scary! Plus, on the set, it’s not. You have to understand that the most horrific scenes are the funniest on set. They’re ridiculous! It’s like dressing up for Halloween. I mean, imagine how George Romero feels. Everyone knows how to be a zombie. It’s fun!
Filmmaker: Precisely what I found terrifying about Halloween or The Thing at a young age was what you’ve called the “cheap scare” — the way things would dart into the frame suddenly, which seemed new at the time. Old horror movies were creepy but they didn’t shock.
Carpenter: A lot of it comes from Val Lewton’s movies. Have you ever heard of the Lewton Bus? The bus came in suddenly [in a key scene from Cat People] because he had to break tension. I think it all comes from there. You can use it in a different way, though, as punctuation to a scene. See, that’s the trick — you can see patterns and just undo them.
Filmmaker: What kinds of films are you inclined to watch these days?
Carpenter: Pretty much everything. The Academy sends me all their screeners, and I watch them. But you know I’m a big basketball fan these days. And I’m in mourning because apparently there’s a lockout. I don’t know what’s going on here. Don’t you have some kind of juice in New York to fix all this? [Laughs]
Filmmaker: You pioneered the use of the Moog in the scores you wrote for your films: the basic leitmotifs from Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween are a perfect example of how indelible your sound has become. What were you looking to as models for the music you created ?
Carpenter: I think the biggest influence on my composing was Bernard Hermann, who could get maximum effect from minimal means. He had very simple and direct themes — I can hear a little three or four notes and I know it’s him. It’s really specific. And my synthesizer work was to make [the scores] all sound bigger because there was no money for an orchestra.
Filmmaker: Is that the only reason you preferred the synthesizer?
Carpenter: Yeah, I could play all the parts. I was trying to make a big sound—most movie music even today is Mickey Mouse Max Steiner kind of stuff where the music goes along with exactly what you’re seeing; it’s telling you how to feel and how fast you’re going to go. And then there’s some that’s a little more impressionistic and minimalist. I had to work within the limitations of the budget and the talent that I had. I was also heavily influenced by rock’n’roll, things like that.
Filmmaker: Do you look back on any one of your films with special pride, either because of the quality of what you achieved or because of the simple fact that it got made at all?
Carpenter: All my movies fall into the latter category! [Laughs] “My God, how did we ever finish that thing…” I just look at all my movies and think gee, that was me at the time, me in that year.
Filmmaker: Have changes in the movie business made it harder for you to get films made?
Carpenter: It’s always about my desire to make a film. But studios today do [seek out] younger directors who come from television or commercials — they don’t necessarily look at old John Carpenter.
Filmmaker: I did wonder why there was such a long gap between your last two features. The Ward was shot in 2009, so it had been eight years since your previous feature, Ghosts of Mars. Was this because you hadn’t found material you wanted to work with or were you tired of making films?
Carpenter: Man, I was burned out. Completely burned out. I just couldn’t do it anymore, I had to stop. I looked at myself and said you know, I’ve been working constantly. I’m like a drug addict — I need a little bit more of a life. It stopped being fun, it stopped being glorious. I’d fallen out of love with cinema. So I had to rekindle it. That happened on this TV series I did for Showtime called Masters of Horror. I did two episodes for them and it was fun again. Thus began my road back.
Filmmaker: What advice can you give budding independent filmmakers, given all your experience?
Carpenter: To be happy as a filmmaker, you have to concentrate on only one thing: You have to love the story you’re going to tell. You have to put everything else aside. Details like, Who’s going to distribute my film? and What camera will I shoot on? — all those things are important. But don’t get obsessed with that stuff. Stay focused. If you’re pure in spirit toward cinematic storytelling, then you’re way ahead of the game, because that’s what’s going to carry you.