In Conversation With... is our interview series where we talk to someone of the most well-known and respected actors and directors about their career, filmography, influences, what they make of the industry nowadays and everything in between.
John Carpenter's career spans almost 40 years. As well as pioneering the slasher genre, Carpenter's work has included groundbreaking work such as Starman, Assault On Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. At 68, Carpenter's focus is now primarily on his music with Lost Themes II set for release next month.
However, the focus of our interview was on Carpenter's legacy, his own status as a filmmaker and his thoughts on what's happening in film and the wider world today.
Are you retired from making films?
Maybe, maybe not. Let me put it a different way, because that's a cute answer and doesn't do anybody any good. I have projects that I'm interested in doing. If they get set up with a reasonable budget with distribution, great. If it doesn't, great. (laughs) I don't care.
So does filmmaking still interest you?
Yeah, sure, but the stress and the aggression that it takes to do it. I'm an old man now, I wanna have a good time in life. I worked like a coalminer for 30 years, it's insane how hard it is to work on movies. I just wanna have a good time in life.
You've more closely associated with horror than any other genre, but you've made films like Big Trouble In Little China, Starman, Assault on Precinct 13 and so on. Does the label bother you?
No, not at all, it gave me a career. I dig it. It's great to be associated with something with like that. I wish... It typecast me very early on; when you have a success with something, you get typecast immediately. It's just what happens. Everybody suffers it. I would have loved a little bit more varied material, but I'm not unhappy with my career, I'm not unhappy with what I did. Not at all.
Would you have liked to have done more Westerns?
Hell yeah! I would have loved to, but they were over with by the time I got into the movie business, so it never happened.
They're making something of a comeback, though. There's two with Kurt Russell, Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight, for example.
Are they? I dunno, you tell me!
Have you seen The Hateful Eight yet?
No, I haven't, is it any good?
Well, it was about three hours long, Tarantino shot it in 70mm, it had an overture and an intermission...
Oyyy... No, no, no, no...
And this is why I bring it up is because, when I was watching it, I was thinking John Carpenter should have made this film.
Yeah, I've heard other people say what you said about that movie, but I haven't seen it yet. I dunno if Westerns are back, I did watch Deadwood. I really liked that. I haven't seen Bone Tomahawk yet. I want to, I've heard good things.
Are you still friendly with Kurt?
Oh sure, we're two old guys now. He's done a few films for Tarantino, they really like each other, they get along great.
Do you still watch a lot of movies?
I do, I watch a lot of the end-of-year movies, sure, I don't see every movie or every horror film, but yeah, I still watch a lot o fmovies.
What was your favourite film of last year?
Oh brother, that's really hard to say. I guess if you put a gun to my head, I'd say The Revenant. Had some really nice things, really well directed it.
OK, let's change subjects. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to have a bit of laissez-faire attitude to your own legacy. You did an interview around the time of the remake of Assault On Precinct 13 and you said your involvement with it was basically taking a cheque and then continuing to watch basketball.
(laughs) What's wrong with that?
Not a thing! But you've created these iconic pieces of work, but you don't seem to really care that much about them.
But they're not mine now, it's some other director. I don't have anything to do with them. It doesn't matter what I think of them. Fine, sure, go, do it. But it's not my movie. I don't make those creative decisions, therefore why should I worry about them?
But if there's a bad remake of one your films, it's tied to you. Do you not think that reflects on you?
There's a law in this country, this is beautiful, it says you can't stop somebody from profiting. You can't. So, what am I gonna do? No, I don't want you to make it. Therefore, don't pay me. No, I'll take the money. Sure, go ahead. Send me the money and good luck. Nothing destroys the old movie. It's still there. So they make a bad remake? So what? It's not gonna effect me. My movie is still gonna exist, it's always gonna exist unless somebody burns the negative. So, I don't see a problem. I really don't.
What do you make of the remake culture?
I don't get it exactly. There's always been remakes, it's nothing new. I've heard all sorts of theories. One theory is that because people grew up with the video cassette world and the DVD world and a lot of old movies. The theory is they've heard the title or seen them, but they're really not that familiar with them, so why not gonna ahead and remake them?
There's built-in audience recognition which is really hard, believe it or not, is getting through all the noise in terms of advertising and clutter. You can have the John Carpenter story, nobody's gonna go see it, nobody gives a shit about that. But if you've got a remake with a title that people recognise, they'll go see it. That's the benign theory, I guess. The other explanation is that there's no fuckin' creativity in Hollywood anymore. It's all over. It's done. I dunno if I agree with that, there's good movies made.
Let me quote something you said back in 1986 and tell me if it holds true.
Oh dear God, why do you do this to me?! (laughs) I'm just an old guy trying to get through...
OK, here goes. "Hollywood is a weird place. The film industry has changed. Business is bad. Directors are treated like bums now. This is a bad time for creative people. Hollywood is a mean place to work." You said that in 1986.
That is true, there's no doubt about that. But then again we always were treated like bums. (laughs) I really agree with you. There's very few people that are treated like royalty, like Quentin Tarantino. They blow smoke up his ass like it's nobody's business.
Your films have always had a real cult appeal, but are there any independent directors out there that you think have got a talent?
I depend on the Academy to send me all the major releases of the year. I'm just a lazy asshole. I don't go out to movies anymore. I don't go out to theatres. I really don't. I just don't care about theatres, forget about it. The experience is awful, I don't know what it's like over there.
But what about Netflix and streaming service? Have you had any interest in working with them?
It's the same bit, it's just telling a visual story. It's odd to me. This is an odd time. Back when I was growing up, television had influenced what was seen in the theatres. There was 3D, there was widescreen, they tried to give you a reason to go to the movies, to see something big. Now it's completely reversed, everything's small now, nobody cares. I could bitch on and on...
No, please, tell me what you think.
Nobody cares about 35mm! Photographic film is over, it is done, daddy. It's all about digital. Everything is digital. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I feel like The Wild Bunch, man. It's the end of an era. Everything is over. So, I give up! I watch basketball.
But you're still doing music, though? Your soundtracks have inspired this entire subgenre, are you aware of it?
Sort of, yeah. The synthwave stuff, it's very nice. I think people like it because, well, people love to play it because it's simple. I've got no chops whatsoever. I'm a really bad musician. So everybody says, well, if he can do it, I can do it! (laughs) It inspires them is what it is. It's great, it's flattering, but it doesn't do me any good! (laughs) I'm just watching basketball.
Let's talk about the Escape From New York remake.
I've been told what the story is, they told me over lunch. I dunno if I liked it, but I enjoyed hearing it!
Did you give them any notes?
No, I just got to hear it. (laughs) That's my input.
Could I convince you to tell me what the story was?
(laughs) No. No way.
Thought I'd ask. OK, let's move on. What's your single favourite shot from any of your films?
Oh, that's an interesting one. Huhhh... I don't know if I have one. They all service the story. That's a great question. I don't know. You stumped me, man. I have no answer for you. I'm lost.
OK, let me broaden it for you - what's your favourite sequence or scene that you've done that you're proud of, one that you really nailed.
I did love and I'm very proud of the blood-test scene in The Thing. I'm extremely proud of that. I worked on it, it's storytelling scene.
You've said before that The Thing didn't go over with audiences. Did it make you gunshy going into future films?
It made me think about it, but it was unpleasant. It's always unpleasant to fail. I thought people didn't understand the movie, but it was just too hopeless I think. It was WAY too hopeless, people wanted something that made them feel good. Like ET.
But that whole summer, there was you, there was Blade Runner, there was The Wrath of Khan, but it's not until ten years or so that people realise just how good they all were.
It's great to be... everybody wants to be loved. (laughs) That part's great. It's great that people have seen what I wanted them to see in The Thing, that it's a pretty good movie. In the short run, there was a short run to it. I didn't work for a while, I got fired from a job. That was unpleasant. That had consequences. But in the long run, I'm happy that it stayed alive. It's awesome.
You were originally in the running for both Fatal Attraction and Top Gun.
They decided they wanted Adrian Lyne... I've no idea why. I guess 'cos he'd done another hit for them. I'm not sure if I was ever... I didn't like them. Fatal Attraction was simply Play Misty For Me. I didn't wanna do that. And Top Gun? Come on. They fight the Russians in the third act? Come on now. There'd be World War III. Stop that. Come on.
I'll put a hypothetical to you. You've got a chance to direct Top Gun. You can do whatever what you want with it. All you've gotta do is put in some jets. What would you do?
(laughs) Oh, man, that's an unbelievable question. I don't know. There's nothing I could do with that movie. I have no idea. It's strange, have you seen it recently? It's weird... it's such a weird movie. It is so strange. I don't know. They'd all be naked. (laughs) They'd all be naked in the jets.
OK, final question. You made Escape From New York as a response to Watergate, what do you make of the US political landscape?
Oh God. I want to deny reality. It's terrifying. I'm scared, I'm scared to death with what's going on here. There is a definite strain of rage in America and, boy, is it cooking. It's bad news. It's really bad news.
Has any of it influenced you to put pen to paper and write about it?
I don't know what to make of it all. It hasn't. I've kinda been there with this, there's no way to write about this. You think we might elect a fascist as President of the United States? Is it possible? I keep thinking, is it possible? I don't wanna believe it, but it might be.
Header Image via Wikimedia (Edited)