Exclusive Modern Masters of Horror Interview Series: In-Depth with John Carpenter
John Carpenter has been making films for longer than you have been living. Do the math. His post college career, alone, is probably longer than your lifespan.
A seminal director and one of the foremost experts in the Horror genre, John Carpenter is often credited with popularizing the concept of the slasher flick. With a distinct eye for talent, Carpenter has helped launch the careers of names such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Kurt Russell.
Despite an illustrious career and a reputation that has already stood the test of time, Mr. Carpenter has a surprisingly simple outlook on the way he makes films. He’s the type of guy that does not like to over-complicate things. For him, the entire process of filmmaking comes back to one, essential element: the story.
Beyond being a filmmaker, beyond being a director, John Carpenter primarily sees himself as a storyteller. Whether it’s an escaped, homicidal mental patient, or a metamorphosing creature from outer space, John’s main motive is to do no more than tell a good story.
Now 65 years old, Mr. Carpenter is in good health (despite his own predictions to the contrary), he’s looking toward the future and he’s still passionate about his straightforward theories on filmmaking. He’d be the first to tell you that if you don’t have a good story, you don’t have much of anything.
In an exclusive interview with Dread Central, Carpenter digs deep into his years of experience to provide some of the most common sense filmmaking advice that you can get from someone with a resume as long as his. In our second installment of the Masters of Horror series, these are The Guts of the Craft, according to John Carpenter.
DC: Let’s start with the most basic question. What do you think makes a good horror film? What distinguishes a great horror film from, say, a B movie?
JC: A good story, well told. That’s the essential element. That’s the element that cannot, no matter how many tricks you use, and what kind of a budget you have, can’t be overcome.
DC: But then what makes a good story? What goes into that good storytelling?
JC: Well, if I had the formula, I could make a lot of money selling it, couldn’t I? But you know, there are basic rules, you can read about them, you can study old films. You need compelling characters and a plot that won’t let you go, especially in a horror film.
DC: What do you think an audience is looking for in a good horror film?
JC: Well, a lot of things, but mostly just entertainment and fun. People go to movies to escape and have fun, especially when they’re seeing a horror movie. And to be scared in a safe place, face your demons and your fears in a safe place, scream and yell and grab your girlfriend in a safe place, or your boyfriend, whichever.
Horror films are a universal genre in that they appeal to the entire world. Whereas, say comedy, that doesn’t really travel sometimes. But horror does. What scares somebody here in Los Angeles probably scares somebody in Hong Kong.
People have tried for years to think ‘what is it that scares, people and I’ll make a movie about that.’ Well, it’s not that simple… The question is: what is it that you have as a storyteller? What do you have to give to the audience that makes your story compelling?
DC: You once said in an interview that all horror films are about people who have lost control of their situation. You said that the essential goal of a protagonist in a horror film is overcome these atrocious obstacles that have been put in front of him or her.
JC: That’s smart! I can’t believe I said that. (laughs)
DC: But really though, when you’re looking at your characters, how do you imagine them heroically? How do you add that sort of element to a character and make it believable?
JC Well, you don’t add an element. No, you put a character in a situation and then they respond. Anybody can be a hero; and anybody can be a coward. It depends on how they respond to the situation.
Assume [that when] an audience is watching a movie, what they’re doing is projecting their own feelings, their own fears, their own selves into the characters they see on screen. I (referring to an audience member) become this person, I take sides with this person, and I like this person on screen, that’s the projection. [It’s a] literal, emotional projection…I (referring to himself) want a character to be heroic, and I want him to fight for his life, and to fight for the lives of loved ones.