Flashback Weekend 2012: John Carpenter Panel Highlights Part Two

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Chicago’s Flashback Weekend 2012 celebrated the legacy of one of the genre’s premier Masters of Horror- John Carpenter, and this writer was lucky to be on hand as one of the con’s co-hosts. Here’s Part Two of our coverage from the highly entertaining panel with Carpenter.

In this installment Carpenter chats with moderator Nick Digilio of WGN Radio in Chicago as well as numerous fans in attendance at the standing room only panel about several of his classic films like Escape from New York, Christine and They Live; what sparked his musical career throughout the years; what he would want his next project to be if he could pick anything and a whole gaggle of other entertaining topics.

In case you missed it, click here for Part One, and then check out the second part of our John Carpenter panel coverage from Flashback Weekend below!

Flashback Weekend 2012: John Carpenter Panel Highlights Part Two

Question: A bit of a technical question for you. On Escape from New York, the lighting scenario on that, you’re shooting high speed negative, was there anything else to it? Because the images are incredibly crisp for the low light levels, I was just wondering what else you used to achieve that.

John Carpenter: That was it. That was the whole secret. You could shoot in Panavision, anamorphic movies, at 2/8 or below, sometimes at 1/8. The only problem was focus. We had several shots, because the focus was so critical in anamorphic that we couldn’t use, because if an actor would move a certain way he’d be out of focus. But we didn’t really know more than that. Dean Cundey is a great cameraman even in low light. That’s really the whole secret.

Question: In Escape From New York, how did you get the establishing shots of blacked out New York seeing as you shot it in Missouri?

John Carpenter: Gee, I don’t remember. I think that was a model or matte painting, I’m not sure. We did shoot in New York. We shot the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. But I don’t remember, sorry.

Question: One of my favorite films of yours is They Live because of its political undertones. If you were to make They Live in the current political climate, how would you change it and would it be more of a comedy than a horror film?

John Carpenter: Well, the 80s have not gone away. It’s still with us. We all kind of experienced the downsides of unrestrained capitalism in 2008 and 2009 with the recession. But if you look at the political landscape, and you look at the value system in America, it’s not changed at all. So, I think it’s too tragic to make a comedy out of it. But anyway, that was years ago. It’s a new age, let’s move on.

Question: Speaking of They Live, they’re finally getting the Blu-ray out in November. Did you contribute anything to the new Blu-ray?

John Carpenter: No, they never tell me anything. But they did ask me to come in and shoot question and answer on video. It was a little barrage on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, across the street from where my son used to go to school. It was a couple of guys sitting there; they shot and asked me some questions. I don’t recommend this particular documentary because I didn’t have anything good to say. But it’s going to look pretty good because Blu-ray is high def.

Question: If you had carte blanche, green light, full budget, final cut, what would be your next project?

John Carpenter: Oh man, I don’t think I want that responsibility anymore. You know what, I’ve always wanted to write a little bit more than I have in a long time. If I had carte blanche I’d take a couple years off and sit down and write some more, that’s probably what I’d do.

Question: Just wondering who your inspiration was in the music that you and Alan Howarth created.

John Carpenter: From classical music, from old movie music, it’s just the added synthesizers that changed things. Rock and roll, synth driven rock and roll. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, that kind of thing. That’s where it all came from. And then the early pioneers of synth music, some of the music from The Exorcist, some of Jack Piche’s early stuff was really great stuff.

Question: Your son is a musician; he did the music for “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life.” Do you play with him a lot?

John Carpenter: Yes he is. We do, we play all the time.

Question: One of my favorite films of yours is Christine; I think it’s one of your best horrors. Also, it has such a strong performance from Keith Gordon, who I think is really underrated. Were you kind of mentoring him? Because he became quite a good director himself.

John Carpenter: No, I had nothing to do with his talent. As a matter of fact he should ignore me. Keith has become a great director. He’s done a lot of work with “Dexter,” I don’t know if any of you have seen that. He’s just a terrific director and a great actor, too. He says that the thing he learned from me was just to relax and have a good time on the set.

Question: When Christine kills all the people that smashed her up in the garage, and she’s going down that dark road, is that car being towed or is someone actually driving that? Also, Christine is alive at the end, why didn’t you ever make a sequel?

John Carpenter: Well, the first thing is that the car is being driven by the legendary stunt man Terry Leonard. He’s all in a Nomex suit, a fire suit. The problem with driving the car was that if we engulfed the car in flames, the engine would die; there’s no oxygen, so we couldn’t light it all the way. So it’s being driven.

And why didn’t I make a sequel? It didn’t make enough money to warrant one. If it did, we would have.

Question: One of the things I’ve always loved about in The Thing was that there was never one definitive form; every time we saw it, it was something else. Was that kind of freeing not to have to snap it back to something or was that harder to keep coming up with new looks for it?

John Carpenter: Freeing? Absolutely. The perfect thing at the time for us because we didn’t have to make it look like anything. The studio kept trying, obsessing saying, “You have to show the original monster.” Well, no, you don’t. Let’s not do that.

Question: Can you give me one good reason why you, Jeff Bridges, Kurt Russell and Rowdy Roddy Piper don’t get together, fuck the money, and just do something?

John Carpenter: Well, I have a one word answer for you. Ego. *laughs*

Question: I took a couple of film courses, and my instructor mentioned how Morricone’s scores sort of wrote the films themselves, because the score was so influencing that they would write scenes for it. When you would do the score for one of your movies, would the music sort of move the story forward?

John Carpenter: Well, in my case the music was the last thing we did after cutting the movie, it was a complete afterthought. In other words, it was only done to support the sequences. When I would do music, every once in a while I’d come up with a theme or two the night beforehand. But in most cases what you’re hearing is improvised. It’s on the day, and I’d watch what we cut together, and I’d just try to improve the scenes. Morricone, for instance, recorded all the music for Once Upon a Time in the West before the movie was made. So Leone would play it on the set for the actors, it was great. I didn’t do that.

Question: I was wondering if you could reminisce on what it was like working with the amazing Donald Pleasence and if you could share a story or two with us.

John Carpenter: Well, Donald was a close friend of mine. When I first met him I was frightened of him. He was big hero of fine; he was a character actor from the old days. He agreed to do the movie. I met him at…I believe it was the Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles, which is no longer there. I met him, I was extremely excited, and he said “I don’t know why I’m doing this movie. I don’t understand this movie.” I didn’t say anything. He said, “The only reason I’m here to work your film is because my daughter is in a rock and roll band in England and she liked the music to Assault on Precinct 13. But that’s the only reason.” Which made me more terrified of him.

But I finally found out who Donald was. Donald just needed to be wanted. He wanted to know that the director cared to have him and wanted him for the part. Once I understood that we really became close friends. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. Self-defacing, humorous, and I’m really sorry he’s gone.

Question: Was he your first choice for Halloween? Because I had heard it was Peter Cushing.

John Carpenter: Peter Cushing and then Christopher Reeve. They both turned it down.

Question: What are the chances you’ll work with Kurt Russell again in the future and was Escape from Earth really close to a possibility of ever being made?

John Carpenter: Well, the chances of working with Kurt, you never know. And, no, Escape from Earth was just bullshit between the two of us.

Question: Was there ever a sequel planned or devised for Prince of Darkness?

John Carpenter: No.

Question: Are we going to have a Thing 2? And what’s Snake Plissken up to?

John Carpenter: Well, if there was a Thing 2, not a prequel but a sequel to the movie that I made, I would recommend all of you get the limited series from the 80s, The Thing, the Dark Horse comic series. It’s a fantastic story. It begins with Childs and MacReady walking across the snow, they’re discovered. It’s just incredible.

And are we going to see Snake Plissken? Well, we might because I think they’re going to remake the film. They’re going to remake it with a new actor. But they’re paying me! They’re paying me!

Question: I remember that you played and enjoyed video games. About 10 years ago there was a video game of The Thing, which was a sequel to your movie. Did you play that game?

John Carpenter: Yeah, as a matter of fact I’m a character in that game. Yes, I have played it, although they didn’t go too in depth. They just took some photos of me. I’m a scientist that gets killed later on, of course.

Question: What is some advice you could give to upcoming directors?

John Carpenter: Well, one of the key elements to being a director is perseverance; you have to stick with it. And having enormous ego strength because the world’s going to try to tear the shit out of you. And if you withstand it you’ll be all right. That’s the biggest thing I can tell you.

Question: I think all the scores in your films are incredible. Do you do the scores for your films because of budget reasons or is it because you know what’s best for your films?

John Carpenter: Well, I started because of budget reason, you’re exactly right. I was cheap and I was fast. I could sound big because I used synthesizers. We couldn’t afford a real orchestra, nobody could afford that. So that’s how it started.

As I remember, on Assault on Precinct 13, we recorded the score in one day, Halloween in three days. That was a big deal. And then when I started working later with Alan Howarth, we would literally do it while watching the movie. And I kept doing it and it just became a tradition until finally…in the last film I made for a studio, Ghosts of Mars, there was a making of. And it showed me on the set and I looked okay. Then it showed me sitting in the recording studio finishing the music, and I looked like walked over shit. That’s because it was exhausting. It’s a whole new creative process that you start, from scratch. After you’ve directed and sometimes written a movie and now you’ve got to start all over again. I thought, “I’m getting too old for this, this too is hard.” So, if I could possibly help it, I would hire other, more talented people.

Question: Did you tell Ennio Morricone to use synthesizers on The Thing soundtrack? And why the hell are you in The Fog?

John Carpenter: In the movie The Fog? Hey, dude, what do you want? *laughs*

Ennio Morricone played several pieces that he wrote, and I said, “Less notes, less complicated. Simpler, please, just simple.” So he came up with the opening theme. Then later he came to California and watched parts of the film and composed beautiful interstitial pieces which I loved.

But why am I in The Fog? I don’t fuckin’ know.

Question: I loved In the Mouth of Madness and Prince of Darkness, they are masterful. But I also noticed that you have the idea of the unstoppable evil, which seems to harken back to Lovecraft. Can you comment on that?

John Carpenter: I have an ultimate concern for mankind. I have a feeling, and this is all based on faith, that we’re going to be all right. But there’s an enormously pessimistic side to me. All I have to do is look around the world and see how cruel it is. That’s where a lot of this stuff comes from. And the unstoppable evil that you’re seeing, in real life, is human evil and how overwhelming it is. Lovecraft was about ancestral gods that used to roam the earth that were repelled and were going to come back. So, in a sense, I really responded to his work.

Guys, we have to wrap this up soon. I have to go meet my drug dealer. *laughs*

Question: We have so many classic horror films through all the generations and we’re kind of stuck in the era of remakes now. Are there any original horror films that you’ve seen in the last decade or two that you think can carry on and be those classic movies in the future?

John Carpenter: There are a lot of good horror movies made. A lot of them are from Europe. The last one that I saw that really stuck with me was Let the Right One In. It was an original idea originally done. It was done in a leisurely, smart way.

Nick Digilio: And of course it was remade.

John Carpenter: Yeah.

Question: What was it like working with James Woods?

John Carpenter: I really enjoyed it. After you understand who he is, and the enormous talent and improvisational nature that he brings to the movie, it’s worth it. He and I became friends. He’s a complicated guy, no doubt about it. And he’s a challenge, no doubt about it. But I really enjoyed working with him.

Question: What do you think of the Rob Zombie version of Halloween?

John Carpenter: Oh, don’t ask me that. *laughs* I can say one thing; he took on a big challenge remaking them and trying to do something different with them. What he tried to do was give the Michael Myers character an actual backstory. Whereas my whole idea was to strip character out of him, so he was a force of evil. He stuck with it, but I can’t comment on it.

Flashback Weekend 2012: John Carpenter Panel Highlights Part Two

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  • Terminal

    He sounds a lot like John Ford who was mostly in the business of filmmaking to make money. This entire article read like a lot of enthusiastic fans and an old man replying with shrugs and “Who gives a shit?” No intended slur on the interviewer, more on Carpenter. That’s a shame.

  • Vanvance1

    Good questions, alas Carpenter isn’t the best interview. There was also the question where he was asked what he would do with unlimited creative freedom and the idea wasn’t even appealing to him.

    This sounds like a man who has retired and has little desire to make more movies.