Last weekend yours truly had the opportunity to serve as one of the co-hosts at Chicago’s 10th Anniversary Flashback Weekend Horror Convention, where none other than Master of Horror John Carpenter was in attendance as one of the con’s celebrity guests.
And of course, whenever the Master of Horror speaks, you must listen so we thought we’d share some of the highlights from Carpenter’s panel at Flashback, moderated by WGN Radio’s Nick Digilio. Check out Part One of our panel coverage below to learn Carpenter’s thoughts on his various projects inside and outside of the studio system, things that influenced him as a filmmaker and so much more.
Look for Part Two of our coverage from John Carpenter’s Flashback Weekend panel coming tomorrow!
Nick Digilio: I was 13 years old when I saw Halloween in theaters, November 1978; my father took me to see it. It was the seminal movie of my life, it changed my life. It made me want to do something with movies, whether it was review them or make them or whatever. It was the first time I realized what a director did; I actually actively looked for your name in the credits. First of all, I want to thank you for that. It was literally the movie that changed my life.
John Carpenter: The same thing happened to me when I was young. When I was going to movies in the 50s, there was a director, Roger Corman. There was something about his movies, and they were different from everybody else. I recognized him as a director; I know exactly what you mean.
Nick Digilio: It was something else, though, it really was. It was life changing. Every movie that you made after that, I’d see them and I’d love them. A couple things I do want to ask you about. Obviously, it’s the 30th anniversary if you can believe that, the 30th anniversary of The Thing. Were you able to watch it with us again last night?
John Carpenter: I’ve seen that fuckin’ thing so many times. I never need to see that again. *laughs*
Nick Digilio: It looked great last night. Tell me a little bit about the shooting of The Thing. It was just all dudes, a lot of drinking?
John Carpenter: Yeah, it was all dudes. There was a lot of drinking, but there was also a lot of hard work. That was a rough ass movie to shoot. We shot in the Juno ice fields; it’s the glacier above Juno, Alaska. We stayed up there in a little research station. A bunch of Hollywood idiots come flying in there, it’s a beautiful, sunny day in the snow. We think, “This is going to be great.” The guy who ran the station, the scientist there, says, “You better get out there and shoot today. This may not last.” Of course, we didn’t know what he was talking about. We were a bunch of Hollywood boys saying, “Oh, we’re going to kick back a little bit.” Five days later, after the overcast, we finally start shooting. So it was rough up there.
We shot on a glacier in British Columbia where we built a set. That was really rough. There was a lot of drinking up there, very few girls up there, a lot of talk about girls up there, a lot of boasting about girls, but very few girls. The rest of it was done in Los Angeles on a sound stage, a refrigerated sound stage, one of the worst kinds.
Nick Digilio: How long of a shoot was it?
John Carpenter: I don’t even remember anymore.
Nick Digilio: The effects that Rob Bottin did that for that movie are just legendary, they’re unbelievable. What was it like working with Rob Bottin?
John Carpenter: Rob was a really great guy. But he was really slow and a big pain in the ass. He took forever and some of the things didn’t work. You’ve got to realize… we come in with our cameras, and he’s got this rubber sculpture in the middle of the room. It does a few things, it walks around, and we’re supposed to make this look good. He keeps wanting to take light off of it. He says, “It works better in the dark.” Dean Cundey, the director of photography, says, “Yes, but we have to light it because it’s moving. It’s not ready yet.” So he keeps putting light on it. The both come to me bitching. So we had to come up with a compromise.
Nick Digilio: But he ended up doing some of his best work; it still holds up. I watched the movie last night, and that shit is still amazing, it’s unbelievable. I’d rather watch that than the prequel thing they did.
John Carpenter: Now, now, now.
Nick Digilio: I did want to talk to you a little about that, the fact that a lot of your films are being remade now. How do you feel about the remakes? You get paid so that’s good, right?
John Carpenter: Well, I didn’t get paid on The Thing; that was not my original idea. They didn’t pay me a thing. So I don’t care about movies of mine that get remade as long as they pay me money. My dream, ever since I was a young boy, was to do nothing and get paid money for it.
Nick Digilio: What was it like for you to make a couple of remakes yourself? What was it like for Village of the Damned and The Thing?
John Carpenter: Well, Village of the Damned, that was a film for contract. So that wasn’t necessarily a project that I was the most passionate about, but I’m really glad I did it. It was the last movie that Christopher Reeve made before his accident, and he just did a terrific job in it.
The Thing was a remake, but we really changed it from the original so I’m pretty proud of it.
Nick Digilio: I think they’re both great. Ted White was just in here, by the way, who told some unbelievably hilarious stories. You worked with him in Starman; he told this great story about how he had to ram a car into a Greyhound bus on the set of Starman and how he wasn’t supposed to do it, but you told him to do it.
John Carpenter: I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. *laughs*
Nick Digilio: Now there was that period of time where you were working with the studios. There was Christine, Starman and Big Trouble in Little China. For me there was something really, really amazing about those two follow-up films you did after working with the studios- Prince of Darkness and They Live. They seemed like… I don’t want to say return to form, but it seemed like they were vital. It seemed like the kind of movies you should have been making. It seemed like you were revitalized. Was that the idea?
John Carpenter: Big Trouble in Little China… I really enjoy the movie, but it was not a fun experience making it with a studio. I decided that I couldn’t do that anymore. I have to do something independent. But I needed a good releasing company, a distributor. So I made a deal with Universal. They would release the film, I would make what I wanted to make. So Prince of Darkness and They Live are both pure films, films I really wanted to make. I’m real proud of them both.
Nick Digilio: It was amazing to see those two movies. I remember sitting in the theater watching Prince of Darkness thinking, “Goddamn, this is Carpenter.” You know what I mean? That’s how I felt, man.
Now there’s a theme that shows up in a lot of your movies that seems that you’ve been fascinated by the movie Rio Bravo, the Howard Hawks film. It shows up a lot, that theme shows up a lot, in movies like Prince of Darkness and Assault on Precinct 13. It seems that a lot of your films are about people who are in a room and there’s danger outside. Is that something that was important to you, something that struck you when you saw Rio Bravo?
John Carpenter: Well, I was 11 years old when I saw Rio Bravo in 1959, and there was something about that movie, where you have a group of people who are trapped inside a confined space, and all around them outside is evil. Maybe it was a metaphor for my life, for how I felt at the time. I was just a kid from northern New York growing up in the Jim Crow South. I was a stranger in a strange land. Maybe that just struck a chord with me. I’ve always loved siege films and trapped films and stuff like that. I think it’s a combination; I admired Rio Bravo so much that I just kept wanting to rip it off.
Nick Digilio: Also, I wanted to mention the “Masters of Horror” episodes that you directed. I like “Pro-Life” a lot, but I have to tell you I think “Cigarette Burns” ranks among the best things you’ve ever done.
John Carpenter: “Cigarette Burns” is great because I got to work with the great Norman Reedus. Anybody that’s watching “The Waking Dead” knows what I’m talking about.
Nick Digilio: Mick Garris brought that whole thing together. How did you become involved with “Masters of Horror”? I mean, if they’re going to do something called “Masters of Horror,” they obviously have to have you.
John Carpenter: Mick Garris had this dinner that he put together once a month or so where he got a bunch of horror directors together. We’d have dinner and insult each other and tell jokes. It was very nice, it was very fun. And he thought to himself, “How can I make money off of this?” So he sold this series to Showtime and convinced me to do it. “Why don’t you come and make it? It’ll be a week in Canada, it’s a short shooting schedule, you only have one hour to shoot. You’ll be in complete control and you’ll make lots of money.” He was right about everything except the last part; we haven’t seen a dime. But I enjoyed it; it’s what made me want to come back to directing. I loved working on “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life”; it was just great.
Nick Digilio: It had been a while; I mean, Ghosts of Mars was 2001, and then we had to wait 10 goddamn years for your next feature. *laughs*
John Carpenter: I was tired. *laughs*
Nick Digilio: Speaking of The Ward, I think it is a really terrific movie. You hadn’t made a feature in 10 years so I got the shakes when I was watching it; I needed the John Carpenter fix. But literally 5 minutes into the movie, I got this big smile on my face because it’s just so elegantly made. It’s a masterfully made film. Nobody frames in scope like you do, nobody cuts like you do. It’s just a fuckin’ great movie; it’s a joy to watch someone like you make movies. So tell me how The Ward came about.
John Carpenter: Well, The Ward was an assignment; it was a script that came along. It’s nothing that I hadn’t done before. It’s a ghost story, I’ve done that. But I hadn’t worked with an ensemble female cast. The most fun part of making The Ward was all these very talented and very beautiful young actresses in this mental institution. We did this great shower scene where they were almost completely naked, and I wasn’t. It was just great, just great.
Nick Digilio: Where’d you shoot that?
John Carpenter: We shot in Spokane, Washington, in a mental institution. It was an abandoned part of the campus. When we got in there, our handler said, “Look over there, out this window. See that place with the barb-wire around it? That’s where they put the criminally insane, the very dangerous patients.” And they said, “If you hear a siren, everybody gather downstairs and quickly get on the bus and get out of here.” Which is serious business.
Nick Digilio: It was a film that didn’t get distributed very well, I thought. It played in one theater when it was here in Chicago, which I think is bullshit. I feel that way about a lot of filmmakers like yourself, guys that are great American craftsmen. Guys like Walter Hill, George Romero, guys that I grew up watching. Walter Hill has a movie that’s sitting on the shelf right now that’s not coming out, and it sucks. How do you feel about that? You should be esteemed as an elder statesman; people should just worship these guys. These are the great American directors. What’s the deal?
John Carpenter: I totally agree with you. It is what it is. Look, it’s a business for the young. I’m an old geezer now. It is what it is, that’s all I can really say. I’m really sorry Walter’s picture isn’t coming out.
Look for more from the Master of Horror tomorrow!
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