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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“I’m a Cheap Guy”: John Carpenter on Vampires

James Woods in Vampires

John Carpenter is a unique case among American filmmakers, in that his work is immensely popular and acclaimed yet still weirdly underrated – he’s acknowledged in many circles as great, yet he’s even better than most people think he is. Just about everyone agrees that he directed two of the greatest horror films ever made, Halloween and The Thing, though the second of these was largely considered to be a critical and commercial disappointment when it was released in 1982. And there’s no denying the massive influence of his 1981 action classic Escape From New York, or the prescience of his savagely satiric sci-fi masterpiece They Live (1988) a film about class and capitalism that (sadly) no longer comes across as exaggerated or ridiculous. I and many of my fellow genre fans recognized all four of these movies as landmark works when they came out, and every one of them plays even better now than they did upon their initial release. That’s because Carpenter, for all his skill as a technician who knows how to push the audience’s buttons even better than Hitchcock did, tapped into so many fundamental truths about human nature. His films, even at their lightest and most superficially frivolous, address profound philosophical questions. What is the nature of evil and how do we respond to it without becoming evil ourselves? What kinds of political, spiritual, and interpersonal structures do we need to survive, and how do we avoid being destroyed by their perversion? How do we maintain our individuality in a conformist, consumerist society, while avoiding letting the cult of the individual morph into an uncaring, unfeeling disregard for the working class?

Carpenter asks these questions not via Dardenne Bros.-esque naturalism but the way that old Hollywood pros like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Budd Boetticher used to: couched in archetypal entertainments where he uses the shorthand of genre to facilitate a wealth of ideas and effects in each individual film. The average running time of a John Carpenter movie is well under two hours, yet his films are densely packed because he knows how to use what the audience already knows to his advantage. He’s brilliant at taking the iconography of horror films, Westerns, and action movies and using it to set his characters and situations up clearly and concisely, paving the way for him to work his ideas over to the fullest extent. He’s also one of the most diverse talents of his generation; while the early success of Halloween forever established him as a horror director, he’s also directed a subtle and innovative musical biopic (Elvis), a martial-arts comedy that has attained cult-classic status (Big Trouble in Little China), and a criminally underrated Hitchcockian romantic thriller (Memoirs of an Invisible Man). For my money his best film might be the 1984 love story Starman, an exquisitely mounted road movie that conveys the full range of Carpenter’s ambivalent view of humanity. Both a celebration of common decency and a portrait of an incredibly hostile planet, Starman is sweet and scary, tightly paced yet loose and funky, and suffused with an aching sense of loss while nevertheless ending on a note of undiluted hope. It’s also one of the most visually stunning films of its decade, employing an expressive use of the Panavision frame (Carpenter’s favored format) and a seamless implementation of special effects that avoids overwhelming the humanity in the piece. Carpenter has always been a master of action because his action isn’t disassociated from theme or character; character is expressed through action, and that action is presented in clear, concise visual terms.

It’s an approach reminiscent of directors Carpenter admires like Hawks and Sam Peckinpah, the latter of whom served as a primary influence on Carpenter’s 1998 film Vampires. A highly effective blend of the Western and the horror genre, Vampires follows a group of vampire slayers led by James Woods as they pursue their prey across a sunburnt New Mexico landscape. When the mercenary Woods teams up with a Catholic priest who he needs to take on a master vampire, Carpenter is able to introduce a number of his favorite ideas and juxtapositions, particularly when it comes to the efficacy of action vs. talk and pragmatism and material concerns vs. religion and spirituality. As in Prince of Darkness, the oppositions are resolved in fruitful and surprising ways, but whereas that film (also a vampire tale of sorts) was strictly horror, Vampires turns into a sort of Wild Bunch-vs.-vampires action spectacle with set pieces that are as poetic as they are violent. The film is set to be released in a limited edition Blu-ray from the good folks at Twilight Time (available exclusively at their website and Screen Archives), and I figured the week before Halloween would be as good a time as any to talk with Carpenter about the making of the film.        

Filmmaker: How did Vampires come to you? Was it something you originated, or did someone bring the book or script to you as an assignment?

Carpenter: The script was at Largo Entertainment, an independent company, and a lot of filmmakers had worked on it over the years. For whatever reason, no one could ever quite figure out how to do it. I had just done Escape From L.A., and I went in for a meeting and they gave me the script as well as the book on which it was based. I read them both and liked them both. I thought, “I could really do something with this.”

Filmmaker: The movie’s got a nice sense of procedural detail in terms of how the vampire slayers operate that feels very much of a piece with your other work. You’re always interested in professionals doing their jobs and how they function.

Carpenter: Yeah, that’s something I really wanted to emphasize and expand upon. And I wanted to make an edgier film than some of the ones I had been doing a few years earlier, so I really let the actors loose.   

Filmmaker: The casting of James Woods as the hero is interesting in that regard. He’s not somebody you usually think of as playing that kind of conventional leading man role.

Carpenter: That’s exactly why I cast him; I thought, “We haven’t seen this.” You know, when you’re casting you really just make a general guess as to how it’s going to go. I figured the audience might enjoy it since they weren’t used to seeing him as an action hero.

Filmmaker: He’s very, very funny in the film. There are a lot of great acidic one-liners that he really pulls off.

Carpenter: He made a lot of that stuff up on set. Once I got a take with the dialogue as written, I would let the actors riff away. You sort of have to with Woods – that’s just who he is, and you either go with it or you don’t. He’s a challenging guy, and some of what he comes up with is good and some of it’s bad, but I had a good time with him.   

Filmmaker: Do you have a particular approach when it comes to directing actors that you find gets the most out of them?

Carpenter: You just have to figure out what each actor needs. Most of them want a father, and you have to determine as you’re working with them if they respond best to a strong father, a nice father, a severe father – what’s going to get the best out of them? Sometimes you have a group of actors who each need different approaches, and it’s tough to know what to do in that situation; you just do the best you can. It’s an exhausting job, I must tell you.

Filmmaker: One of the stranger but very enjoyable casting choices in the film is Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont in a small role as a guy who gets his car stolen by the vampire slayers. How did that come about?

Carpenter: We had become friends at a film festival over in France and I just thought, “What the hell, nobody knows who he really is, I’m gonna cast him.” And he was really good. The part wasn’t challenging, let me put it to you that way.

Filmmaker: Do you do your job differently at all when you’re working with an actor who’s not particularly experienced vs. when you have an old pro like Maximillian Schell here or Charlton Heston in In the Mouth of Madness?

Carpenter: Not necessarily. Just because someone is an old pro doesn’t mean that they know what to do any better than anybody else.

Filmmaker: I want to ask about some of your influences, because the primary ones in Vampires seem to be more from the Western world than horror. What traditions did you see the film belonging to, and were there specific films or filmmakers that served as inspiration?

Carpenter: Sam Peckinpah. I’m mostly attracted to Howard Hawks movies and Hawks’s style, but I also love Peckinpah’s work, especially The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, and I found myself thinking much more about him than Hawks on Vampires.  

Filmmaker: One particularly striking action sequence in the film is the early motel massacre, which you shoot very interestingly using a series of dissolves. It creates a really nightmarish, haunting quality that I don’t think the scene would have if you had shot it in a conventional manner with a lot of quick cutting. Did you know you were going to cut the scene that way, or was that something you discovered in the editing room?

Carpenter: That was an editing room situation. I’m not sure that we knew exactly what was going to happen when we shot it, but we came across that idea in the editing and it seemed to work.

Filmmaker: The movie as a whole has more cuts than your films normally do.

Carpenter: Again, that comes from being influenced by somebody like Peckinpah, where editing is the whole game. Now, my approach was much more controlled than Peckinpah, who used to cover everything with a bunch of cameras and then sort it out in the editing room. I didn’t do that; for the most part everything was planned out the way I usually do. I write down a shot list on a piece of paper and I take it with me, and then I forget about it – I don’t really refer to it until the end of the day, and then I’ll take it out and look at it and make sure I got everything I needed. In fact, usually I’ve done more than what I wrote down.

Filmmaker: One effectively haunting image is that of the vampires digging their way out of the ground after a night’s sleep. Where did you come up with the idea for that, as opposed to the old-fashioned thing of seeing them in their coffins?

Carpenter: It was in the script. It was a tricky scene to shoot, because we actually had to bury the actors with oxygen tanks so that they could breathe underground. They were under there a long time while we got the shot set up, and one guy panicked, which we expected, but eventually I got everybody to calm down and relax.

Filmmaker: Another moment that puts a nice spin on the genre is the scene where Thomas Ian Griffith bites Sheryl Lee and does it on the inside of her thigh as opposed to the neck, which is pretty provocative. Where did that idea come from?

Carpenter: My mind. [laughs]

Filmmaker: The Sheryl Lee vision stuff, where her character sees through the eyes of the master vampire, is very reminiscent of the plot in Eyes of Laura Mars [which Carpenter wrote early drafts of before being replaced]. Was that your way of getting to finally direct that idea the way you wanted to, since Eyes turned into something very different from what you had intended?

Carpenter: Wow, I never thought of that. If there was any similarity it was totally unconscious on my part. Completely unintended.

Filmmaker: You’re very good at – and I don’t mean this term disparagingly – cheap scares—

Carpenter: Well, thank you! I’m a cheap guy. That’s all just instinct. You try them and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.

Filmmaker: The climactic battle is a really effective combination of those kinds of scares with that Peckinpah-style action you’re talking about…

Carpenter: That was a nightmare to shoot. The set was on an east-west street where in the morning we’d have all these shadows on one side, and by afternoon they’d move to the other side. In that situation you have to split your days up; you shoot part of a scene in the morning and then continue it in the evening. We figured out how to do it and got everything we needed by splitting up the close-ups and all that, but it was really hard.  

Filmmaker: Something else Vampires shares in common with Peckinpah is this nice kind of sunburnt brown-orange palette. Do you remember how you and cinematographer Gary Kibbe achieved that look?

Carpenter: A lot of that was in post-production. We shot it pretty straightforwardly and tinted it in post. Other than that the look of the film was largely defined by the use of anamorphic lenses, which I always love. I like hard lenses rather than zooms…those old Panavision lenses are so crisp, they’re just great. It’s all really just taste and instinct. I did use a zoom a little in the early shots of James Woods looking through the binoculars, again keeping in mind that Peckinpah frequently used zoom lenses. I figured why not, it won’t hurt me.  

Filmmaker: One thing that’s instantly recognizable in your films is the music, which you usually compose yourself, as you did in Vampires. Take me through the process of composing and performing the score on something like this. How much is written and how much is just you and your musicians riffing in the studio?

Carpenter: Most of it was created by me and the musicians riffing; I had Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, “Skunk” Baxter played the pedal steel…I had a general idea of the music going in, but basically we just got in a room and jammed for a couple days. Composing my own scores started out as a cost measure when I was making movies that didn’t have the budget to hire a composer, but over time I found that music offered me another artistic voice…then the movies got bigger and bigger and I just got exhausted. I had a lot of fun when I got to work with other composers like Ennio Morricone on The Thing and Shirley Walker on Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

Filmmaker: That’s one of my favorite scores of all time.

Carpenter: She did a great job.   

Filmmaker: I revisited that movie again recently when Warner Archive put out a new DVD of it, and the last few years have seen a kind of bonanza of John Carpenter reissues from specialty labels like Twilight Time and Shout! Factory. Most of your films, even the initially successful ones, are more beloved now than they were when they were released. Have any of the evolving reactions to your work surprised you?

Carpenter: It’s great. It’s better than people calling me a piece of shit all the time.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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