John Carpenter keeps his office in a converted hillside Hollywood home, on a quiet tree-lined street evocative of the sleepy suburb Michael Myers terrorized in 1978’s Halloween. Inside, the walls are lined with memories marking Carpenter’s four decades in film: original prints, awards, figurines of Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin and the Creature From The Black Lagoon movie Carpenter spent years trying to make at Universal, a sculpture commemorating the prankster goosings on the set of his Big Trouble In Little China. Carpenter, 67, chain smokes as we revisit the films that made his career — starting with Halloween, a film originally titled The Babysitter Murders that the hungry young director took after making his debut with 1974 sci-fier Dark Star and honing his chops with 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13.
Carpenter speaks candidly of his successes and failures, and of the health issues that required emergency eye surgery in recent years — what he calls “the most terrifying recent memory I have.” There’s still passion burning within the Master of Horror. But as the horror business has gone microbudget, those passions have turned elsewhere. These days Carpenter is big on video games (“I’m playing Destiny right now,” he says. “It’s this big $500 million game, beautiful to look at — no story whatsoever”) and shares his lifelong love of music with son Cody Carpenter, with whom he’s releasing an album in February called John Carpenter’s Lost Themes. He recalled having the time of his life shooting Halloween, a modest $300,000 slasher that would spark one of the most influential horror franchises of all time.
DEADLINE: Halloween turns 36 this year. At 30, you were the oldest person on set making a low-budget horror movie in 20 days. Why was Halloween one of your favorite shoots?
JOHN CARPENTER: Man, it was one of the most fun sets because everybody was young and we were just making a movie. Most movies involve pain. This wasn’t painful. But the ambitions of this movie were not bigger than its budget; it was designed for the low budget, back in the days when there were still low-budget exploitation movies made. There were certain things I insisted we invest in: Dolly shots for a low-budget crew take a bit of time; you have to lay down tracks and level it, put the dolly on and rehearse. Panaglide — you strap it on, and off you go, and there’s more freedom in the movement, freedom to track up stairs, around corners, follow characters. I was determined to use that so a lot of scenes were done in one take.
DEADLINE: Michael Myers’ now-famous mug was actually a modified William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask that became one of the most memorable horror faces of all time. You’ve said that once you nailed that mask, you had it made. Does Shatner know he is the proto-Michael Myers?
CARPENTER: The mask that Michael Myers wore was written as “the pale features of a human face” – that’s what the script said. However, we had no money to manufacture such a thing, so what did you do? There were two options – one was a clown mask, which was a better mask, but the Captain Kirk mask was altered, spray painted, eye holes cut, with the hair. I don’t know if he knows the story. I met him recently at one of these conventions. I walked up and introduced myself. Without looking up he says, ‘Nice to meet you.’ The guy’s 80 years old, I’ll just leave him alone. You know, he was busy and probably worried about something else. That’s fine.
DEADLINE: And financial pressures are what landed you a great actor like Donald Pleasence, who wasn’t your first choice but went on to make Dr. Loomis an iconic character.
CARPENTER: Wonderful man! I loved Donald a great deal. We were going to start the movie in a week or two, and he came to Los Angeles and I met him for lunch. He said, “I don’t know why I’m in this movie, and I don’t know who my character is.’ I was terrified. I hadn’t dealt with such an established movie actor, and I was a big fan of his work. He said, ‘The only reason I’m doing this movie is because I have alimony to pay, and my daughter in England is in a rock ‘n’ roll group and she said the music that you did for Assault On Precinct 13 is cool.’ But it turned out great.
DEADLINE: You were a voracious student of cinema. When in your life do you feel you were most shaped as an artist?
CARPENTER: There were two times in my life that inspired me the most. The first was when I was a kid, probably the most emotionally influential time, when you’re naïve and innocent. I went to movie theaters and fell in love with genre films in the 1950s, when there was a big wave of monster movies. My passion came from the young guy who was watching The Fly back in 1958. Then, going to USC I began to watch movies in a different way and was exposed to different kinds of movies, foreign films. We had directors like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and John Ford come down and lecture us. It was unbelievable! Roman Polanski was there with his bride, Sharon Tate, in 1968, with Fearless Vampire Killers. To sit and listen to Orson Welles … man, oh, man. He was there filming his last movie, The Other Side Of The Wind, so he had a camera crew there trying to get the students to ask his character questions. He was off screen but wanted these bullshit questions that didn’t make any sense to him that he thought intellectually pretentious students would ask. We were like little kids around the campfire, listening to the master speak. Everybody in that room was totally aware of who he was, what he’d done, what he hadn’t done, how he lost control in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: And years later you took inspiration from Welles when you shot Halloween.
CARPENTER: The opening shot was inspired by Touch Of Evil. Orson Welles did a couple of one-take sequences, but the most astonishing is not the opening sequence which everybody remembers. In a motel room, in the middle of the movie, a man is broken by Orson Welles’ character. It’s almost a reel-long one-shot. It’s astonishing. I was inspired by the idea of that. So in the opening scene, we were coming up on the outside of the house, around and up the back steps, and as we passed through a room going into another room the crew would re-light it behind us. We were just flying on the edge, but that was the spectacle, the money shot. Plus we had a naked girl upstairs! You couldn’t ask for more than that. There are a couple of cuts in that first shot. The mask allowed us to do a cut, and there were botched takes — we didn’t make it up the stairs, there was a camera shadow, something would happen. But it was fun.
DEADLINE: Back then you didn’t have instantaneous box office reporting. By the time Halloween opened and started traveling across the country, you were already on your next film, an Elvis Presley TV biopic with one-time Disney star Kurt Russell. When did you realize Halloween was going to be a hit?
CARPENTER: It didn’t do much in the beginning and got terrible reviews, then started getting word-of-mouth and picking up momentum. By Christmastime, everyone thought I was a genius. They thought I was a bum before. Neither are true. I had no idea what happened to Halloween until we were shooting Elvis and Bob Rehme came to see me from AVCO Embassy. The only reason anybody from a studio comes to see you is if they think you’re going to make them money; they don’t come because they like you. That’s when I thought, “This thing must be making some bucks.” Halloween got me a career.
DEADLINE: You wrote some of your most celebrated films, yet you don’t consider yourself a natural writer. Why is that?
CARPENTER: Writing equals pain. I can’t really do it too much anymore because I’ve had eye troubles the past couple years and it’s really hard to write. It was easier back then. After my first film, Dark Star, I expected the movie industry as a whole to greet me as a savior, pick me up in a limo and take me to a soundstage and anoint me as a director. That didn’t happen. I got an agent out of the first screening of Dark Star, and he said to me, “What you need to do is write your way into this business.” So I started churning out ideas and writing screenplays. It was dreadful work. It’s painful, tedious. Some people are really facile at it, and out it comes. Not me.
DEADLINE: I see scripts and books piled high on your desk. How much do you hunt for new material these days?
CARPENTER: It takes me so long to read now because of my eye problems. They were profound. I had retinal detachments in both eyes and had surgery, all sorts of horrible things happened. It’s a lifelong struggle now. Distance, reading, I wear glasses for both. My body said, Eye surgery? Fuck you, we’re not putting up with this. We’re going to retinally detach, you’ll have edema in your eyes, all sorts of fun things. Five surgeries in the last two years. I can see fine, but sitting here reading takes forever.
DEADLINE: That must be a particularly scary experience for a director.
CARPENTER: The most terrifying recent memory I have. It reminds me of the fear you have as a child, unnamed and profound. Two years ago I was visiting my daddy, who is 95 this month, and my retina detached there in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I had to run to see an ophthalmologist, and he said, ‘You have to have an operation right now. I can’t guarantee that you’ll make it on the airplane back to LA.’ So I had to be driven to Nashville 65 miles away to this big clinic. I didn’t know anything that was going on – I didn’t know the people, the doctors. I thought I was going to go blind. I’ve never experienced such terror since I was a little kid. Two days after his diagnosis I went in and had surgery. But what am I going to do? I can’t control this. It’s funny, for a guy who makes frightening movies… the situations in my movies are nothing compared to what I was going through.
DEADLINE: What else scares you?
CARPENTER: Everybody is scared by the same things – death, disfigurement, everything you can imagine. I learned to fly a helicopter back in the ‘80s to prove to myself that I had courage to do something really hard and physical and death defying, because I didn’t go to Vietnam. On The Thing, I got fascinated with them. First lesson, the instructor says, “Let’s see what happens when we have to land without an engine.” He shuts the engine off and down we go like a brick. But 200 hours later, I got my pilot’s license.
DEADLINE: You were learning how to fly right around the time when the Twilight Zone tragedy hit. What insights did your training as a film director and as a pilot give you into what really happened on that set?
CARPENTER: I was flying with an instructor at that time, and I understood what had happened. You had a situation with a big giant helicopter hovering above water with actors running through the water. In the back of every helicopter is a little book, and every helicopter has a height velocity curve – they call it the Dead Man’s Curve. It’s how high you have to be and how fast you have to be to land safely. All we have to do is open this up for ourselves as pilots and look at it. Thirty feet above the ground, zero air speed – I cannot land safely. I don’t care if you’re Jesus Christ, you tell me to do that and I’d say no way. The pilot should have said, “No way, get somebody else.” But you’re in Hollywood. “Ooh, they’re making a movie!” You’ve got Landis out there screaming, running around giving directions. Everybody wants to do a good job.
DEADLINE: How do you take it when Hollywood keeps milking your career by recycling movies like Halloween, Assault On Precinct 13, and The Thing, and why didn’t you direct any of the Halloween sequels yourself?
CARPENTER: I didn’t think there was any more story, and I didn’t want to do it again. All of my ideas were for the first Halloween – there shouldn’t have been any more! I’m flattered by the fact that people want to remake them, but they remake everything these days, so it doesn’t make me that special. But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness – it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake. However, I couldn’t stop them from making sequels. So my agents said, ‘Why don’t you become an executive producer and you can share the revenue?’ But I had to write the second movie, and every night I sat there and wrote with a six pack of beer trying to get through this thing. And I didn’t do a very good job, but that was it. I couldn’t do any more.
DEADLINE: You were used to getting multimillion-dollar budgets to shoot your movies, but when films like Saw and The Blair Witch Project took off, studios saw they could tighten their genre budgets. How close did you come to working with Jason Blum? Does the idea of making a movie on a microbudget even appeal to you?
CARPENTER: There were discussions. I had a couple of writers with me who pitched an idea, but they turned us down. I don’t know that it would have been my movie, either. But it depends on the script, the story, and how limited a location it is. Sure, I’d love to do that again. I had a recent brush with a low-budget horror film that I thought had a lot of potential, but I didn’t want to do it too cheap. I thought, “We could do this well for maybe $5 (million) to $8 million. They wanted it for $2 million. Forget it. It wasn’t the movie they cared about, it was the budget. The world is turned by unkind hands, and I don’t need my movies in unkind hands if I can possibly help it. But I’ve slowed down. I’m old now. Everything changes when you get old. Everything. You get aches and pains. Little things go wrong. But what am I complaining about? I’ve got nothing to complain about.
DEADLINE: When did you stop feeling like a young man in this young man’s game?
CARPENTER: I’ve been feeling old for years and years, and I think the movie business did it to me. At one point I just did movie after movie, and it starts tearing you down physically – emotionally too, if you do one after another. The stress, the emotional exertion of dealing with others. I’ve worked with really great actors and really difficult actors. The difficult ones are no fun. And the style of the movies today have changed a great deal. To me, I’m not a big fan of handheld. That’s just my tastes. That’s a quick fix for low budget. Let the operator direct it! Walk around. That’s how you burn through the pages. And found footage – how many times do we need to do that?
DEADLINE: You’re a member of the esteemed Masters of Horror, which went from a dinner gathering to manifesting itself as a Showtime series in 2005 that got you behind the camera again after Ghosts Of Mars. How did that experience impact you?
CARPENTER: Back in the early 2000s, Mick Garris said we all ought to get together and have dinner. So the first Masters of Horror dinner was the usual bums sitting around. Guillermo del Toro was there, which was great — some new blood. It was fun in the early days. We’d schedule these dinners and show up, talk and insult each other. Then Mick says: “I’ve sold this thing! We’re going to be The Masters of Horror. We’re doing it for Showtime, you’ll shoot it and have final cut.” Everybody said yes. We went up to Vancouver, and it was really fun – it got me interested in directing again. But of course, none of us made any money.
DEADLINE: You mean the Masters of Horror all banded together and they didn’t make any money?
CARPENTER: We were all chumps making director’s minimum! We were supposed to be getting percentages when it got into profits, but somehow, magically, like a lot of things in the movie business, it never got into profits. Hard to figure that out since it was so cheaply done. At Universal, a movie I made for $3 million called They Live isn’t in profit; that’s what (the studio) says. I have seen profits, but not the kind of profits I’d have liked to have seen from it. I think there’s more there. But I don’t know. This is my experience in the movie business. Garris is trying to get us all back again. It sounds fun, doesn’t it? Masters of Horror! But we want to talk about women and gossip about who’s an alcoholic – it’s not what you think.
DEADLINE: You told a sellout crowd at the Egyptian Theatre this month that you’ve been “screwed over by the studios” – do you feel you’ve truly been screwed over?
CARPENTER: That’s just bullshit. I just like to say that. They’re all wonderful human beings. Every one. But people in general assume that about the movie business. I wasn’t screwed over that bad. Others have been screwed over worse than me, financially or creatively; those are the two ways you can be screwed over. Sid Sheinberg was a legendary character in the old days. I made The Thing at Universal, and it didn’t do great. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t a giant hit like they wanted. I think he was mad at me because I didn’t listen to his creative ideas, so he cut a television version of The Thing without even talking to me about it, which had narration on it. I actually saw that thing once. It’s jaw-dropping. Now, how can he do that? He can’t do that. But he did it. That’s bad, that’s real bad.
DEADLINE: Your most recent feature, The Ward, disappointed critically and commercially — but so did films like The Thing, which eventually attracted a cult following and appreciated with time. How do you feel about the prospect of getting out there and making another movie now?
CARPENTER: It’s been the same for most of the last decade. If something good comes along, I think I can do something with, have an experience that I haven’t had – The Ward was an ensemble of girls. That was fun; I hadn’t done that. It was a tricky story, and I’m not sure that I did very well with it. There are all sorts of reasons to make a movie: drive, financial reasons, it doesn’t matter – in the end, people only care if it’s good, if it stands the test of time. If something comes along now and the money’s there, I’ll be glad to do it. I was on fire when I was young. I wanted to be a director, and it was my life’s dream, and I attained that. I finally said to myself, for this kid from Kentucky to have gotten to be a movie director – what the hell, let’s sit back and watch some basketball. You need to be burning to do that, to run around and raise money. So I let others do it. I wouldn’t mind directing some TV. It would be fun to do the right project. My career has been really good, and I don’t need to leave the house unless necessary – that’s my number one rule. I have three rules of living: Number one, never leave home unless absolutely necessary; two, never eat fish; three, never go south of the border. Ever. Those three rules have kept me well.