Director John Carpenter is a veritable anomaly in modern Hollywood: a veteran craftsman who eschews auteurism. Carpenter grew up in Kentucky as a fan of tough genre movies, and went to film school at USC at a time when cinema studies emphasized the old Hollywood masters. After bursting out of the gate with an Academy Award for "The Resurrection Of Broncho Billy," a short student film he co-wrote, edited, and scored, Carpenter prepared himself for a career in the Howard Hawks mold: a life of making lean, truthful movies in a variety of genres.
Then Halloween happened.
After years of knocking around Los Angeles—writing screenplays, playing in a rock band, and pouring his disposable income into his 1974 science-fiction splatter comedy feature Dark Star—Carpenter scored an international cult hit with the 1976 urban action classic Assault On Precinct 13, and used his clout to secure financing for a thoroughly unnerving slasher film. Halloween made a pot of money, and though Carpenter spent the '80s channeling his skills into a variety of cinematic tones and genres, he kept getting drawn back to horror, where fans began to treat the name "John Carpenter" above the title as a mark of quality.
Now approaching 60, Carpenter has become one of the elder statesmen of fantasy filmmaking, though he tends to shrug off adulation and analysis, preferring again to think of himself, like Hawks, as a humble artisan. These days, he spends his time revisiting classic films like Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China via special-edition DVDs that have him reminiscing with his favorite star (and political opposite) Kurt Russell. He's also been collecting residual checks for the recent remakes of Assault On Precinct 13 and The Fog. When The A.V. Club spoke with Carpenter, The Fog had just topped the weekend box office, and the cable network Showtime was gearing up for a new anthology series, Masters Of Horror, featuring a Carpenter-directed episode. He spoke—tersely, as is his style—about the day-to-day life of a reluctant legend.
The A.V. Club: Do you feel good about The Fog opening at number one?
John Carpenter: It's not bad. I take absolutely no credit. [Laughs.] It's not my movie. I just sort of showed up on the set and wished everybody well.
AVC: This has been a big year for you. Two remakes of your movies, and now this Showtime Masters Of Horror series.
JC: I know, it's getting horrible, isn't it?
AVC: How did you get involved with Showtime?
JC: It grew out of these dinners that we have… "We" meaning horror directors. Horror and science fiction and fantasy. We all get together and commiserate and break bread and make fun of each other. We do it a couple of times a year, very informally. People come, people go. They're just a lot of fun. And Mick Garris, who's one of our numbers, said, "You know, wouldn't it be great if we could all get together and make little movies, maybe for television?" Somehow it all fell into place. Garris is the one who did all the work.
AVC: Who draws up the invitation list for those dinners?
JC: I don't know, I'm not on the inviting committee. [Laughs.] I think Mick started it with a basic core group of people we've all known for a long time. Tobe Hooper and I go back to the '70s. George Romero and I, John Landis… But we have new members showing up. The last one we had, David Cronenberg showed up. He hadn't been at the others. Rob Zombie came to one. Rob's a real nice guy. I don't know who decides who comes.
AVC: No printed invitations, dripping blood?
JC: [Laughs.] No. Just a phone call and an address.
AVC: You've made a lot of different kinds of movies, and have done almost as much science fiction and comedy as horror. Does it bother you being called a "master of horror?"
JC: Not a bit. It's delightful.
AVC: At this point in your career, do you find it easier to play to your strengths, in terms of sticking with horror and science-fiction films, as opposed to trying a drama again, or a comedy?
JC: You know, it all depends. I've made a pretty good living doing what I'm doing. The hardest thing these days is just to get the energy to get out of bed. [Laughs.] I'm enjoying myself these days. I don't want to work that hard.
AVC: How does one become a "master?" Given that it isn't too hard to scare people, what do you have to bring to a movie to make something more of it?
JC: That's a great question, and I don't know that I have a satisfactory answer. Partially it's the story, and the director's connection to that story. Horror is a universal emotion. We're all afraid. We're born afraid. The fears I have, probably you share some of them, and I share some of yours. It's something we can all relate to. But it depends on how it's presented. It can be as subtle as a psychological thriller or as outright as a monster from outer space. They all deal with certain human aspects. A lot of these movie killers are just our fears wrapped up in a human body. I don't know, really. It's just a connection you make with the material.
AVC: It's odd that the basic visual grammar of horror still works. After a hundred years of cinema, people still get frightened when something jumps out of from the side of the frame, and audiences know to be tense when they see a tight shot of a human head with a little space over the shoulder where something might appear.
JC: I don't know what it is, but you know, horror stories have always worked on film. It's where they work. That's where vampires and ghosts and UFOs are real. They're not particularly real in life, but they're real on the screen. It's the communal aspect of movie-watching. Sitting in the dark. It goes back to sitting around a campfire when we had just come out of the trees.
AVC: What makes the horror genre so suited to political comment? This year especially, movies like George Romero's Land Of The Dead and Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects have had more to say about the current geopolitical situation than straight dramas or comedies.
JC: Well, that's always been the case with the "B" genres. Not to say that horror movies are always "B," but they usually are. Because they're supposed to be about horror and blood and all that horrible stuff, it's easier to sneak in little subversive messages. You have to be more careful when you're making big mainstream comedies or mainstream drama. Nobody wants to touch that stuff.
AVC: Do you go looking for material that gives you a chance to make a statement, or do you look for ways to put statements in whatever you're working on? Or is it all unconscious?
JC: All of the above. It depends on how the story expands and adapts to various human themes. It's just a feeling you have.
AVC: Something like They Live, in which world-dominating aliens come disguised as Republicans, is obviously a little bit more overt.
JC: Yeah, that's more overt.
AVC: While The Thing, with its poisoned group dynamics…
JC: That's more subtle. Oddly enough, yeah.
AVC: Other genres are equally suitable to political comment. You've said in the past that you'd love to do a straight Western. Any progress on that front?
JC: If I could find a story that was great and a star to play in it! That's the problem. Once you lost John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood's not doing them anymore… You need that mythic star. But I've learned in this business never to say never.
AVC: Do you keep a list of projects in your head that you hope to make?
JC: I always have ideas. I have an office full of them. Some of them have been underway for years, and I'm either too lazy or haven't figured out the third act. It's usually one of those two things.
AVC: The script you shot for Showtime, was that one you picked for yourself, or was it assigned?
JC: We all picked our projects. I was given a bunch of scripts that had been written and I picked the one I liked. I could've written my own. We could do anything we wanted to.
AVC: Even though he's not in your episode, any chance you could get Kurt Russell to join you on the inevitable DVD commentary track? You guys always seem to have so much fun together.
JC: We do, yeah. He's too busy these days. He must like making money.
AVC: You've been a hardcore movie buff since you were a kid, right?
JC: Oh yeah.
AVC: Does watching a movie have the same kind of appeal to you now that it did then, since you know the mechanics of the art form so well?
JC: It depends. Sometimes I'm carried away like everybody else. A lot of times I'm looking at things a little more cynically. Looking at the plumbing.
AVC: Can you stand back and admire the plumbing?
JC: Oh, absolutely. Some of it's brilliant. [Laughs.]
AVC: How do you make the leap from being somebody who likes to watch movies to somebody with the confidence to make them?
JC: I have no idea. [Laughs.] You just have to want it enough. You have to have the passion for telling stories. You have to get by the love-of-movies aspect and move on to another plane, if you know what I mean. You can't just be a fan.
What a director does… essentially, it's storytelling, but a director also controls the feeling and the sounds and the texture. It's an act of creation, like a symphony or a painting or a story. But with different tools. And the tools keep changing each year. Anybody can make a movie now, if you have the will. The digital revolution has made it very inexpensive to make a film. Anybody who wants to can do it.
AVC: Could you see yourself working on the cheap like that? If you had no other means, could you make a movie for, say, $100,000?
JC: Oh, less! I don't care. If I have a good story, and I have the will.
AVC: You went to USC at the end of the '60s, during the era covered by Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But generally, your name doesn't come up alongside the other "film-school brats," like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola, even though you were out in L.A. around the same time that they were shaking up Hollywood. Did you know any of that crowd?
JC: I knew a lot of them, yeah, sure.
AVC: Did you run in the same circles at all?
JC: Probably not. [Laughs.] They just don't mention me because they're ashamed, that's why.
AVC: But you worked on an Academy Award-winning short film!
JC: So what? [Laughs.] No, it was a great, exciting time, because I don't care which one of us it was, we all loved movies. And the New Wave had struck. There were all sorts of new influences. There was a war raging, and radical politics. It was just a great time to be in movies.
I spent my time learning about Hollywood films at USC. We had great, close ties with Hollywood, so I got very interested in that. And foreign films, and experimental films. It was a great education.
AVC: When it came time to put projects together after graduation, were you actively trying to exploit this new interest in young directors?
JC: As much as I could to get myself a job. [Laughs.] That's the thing that the film-school graduate always faces. "Now what?" There's not an on-campus recruiter there, looking for directors. You have to find a way to get in the business, which is always hard. My path was a little bit different. I went into independent film. And I wrote my way in. I wrote a lot of screenplays, and made a pretty good living doing that.
AVC: Were you ever jealous of your peers? Did you find yourself wondering why other directors who were your age or younger could get multi-picture deals at Universal while you were spending year after year making Dark Star?
JC: Well, I knew the answer. [Laughs.] A lot of it's luck. That's a huge part of it that no one wants to talk about. You just got to be in the right place at the right time. But I got a lot of advice from a lot of people who said "Keep working, no matter what. Just keep working."
AVC: You told Variety a couple of years ago that you had some stories you wanted to tell someday about your Kentucky childhood. When do you think you'll tell them?
JC: Oh, it's just some things I know. If the right form comes along, I'll tell them.
AVC: A memoir, perhaps?
JC: Never say never.