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John Carpenter Interview

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It’s been 30 years since John Carpenter arrived on the scene with Dark Star, his affectionate sci-fi parody of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that 1974 film, he established a unique filmmaking aesthetic that made horror films into pieces of art. Notable among Carpenter’s techniques are his means of pacing his films with innovative music, clever visual and makeup effects inserted into darkly lit scenes, and his presentation of absolutely unbeatable villains, such as the immortal Michael Myers and the camouflaging alien in The Thing. Carpenter’s nightmarish worlds have influenced the films of Guillermo Del Toro (Mimic, Hellboy), Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), and Robert Rodriguez, whose From Dusk Till Dawn references Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and other cult hits. In this retrospective interview, Carpenter reflects on his process.Below the Line: When you did Halloween in 1978, what did you think of the horror genre at that point?John Carpenter: I grew up loving horror movies, and seeing everything from the era of the silents all the way through what was happening in horror in the 1970s. The Hammer cycle was dead now; the vampire and Frankenstein were kind of dead at that time. And the culture was going through a really weird transition. So I thought, well, let’s make it really hand to the cheek. And the distributor gave me a basic premise. He said, “The babysitter gets offed by a Frankenstein, by a madman or serial killer.” So taking that, I tried to weave it into something that would entertain people, and that’s basically it… We were just trying to make a movie.BTL: After Halloween, you worked on films with a somewhat bigger budget, such as The Fog and The Thing. How did your process change after that?Carpenter: Well, it was a help and it was a pain. There was something really fun about making Halloween because it was so fast and simple. Twenty-two days of shooting with a low budget. The Thing was a more complex story psychologically, and it required some pretty vicious locations up in British Columbia and Alaska. That was a big challenge, and a whole different ball game. The story of a small town and this guy out of Halloween night is a pretty simple tale to tell. The story of a shape-shifting alien hiding in an Arctic camp, that’s a little rougher. Usually people keep horror in the dark. An actor once said to me, “Never show the devil. Don’t ever show it.” However, if you decide to show it, and you hit a home run, man, you’ve really got something.BTL: You shot Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, and The Thing with Dean Cundey [ASC]. What are you guys doing in there to either reference old films or create your own look?Carpenter: It was really funny. I don’t know quite how to explain it. Dean said what he does—the biggest job of a cameraman—is exposure. He said, “I put it right in the middle. And then later on, when we’re in the lab, we can make it darker or lighter.” You know, in the movie at night, there’s no light coming through the window. Maybe it’s just that Dean is an extraordinarily talented cameraman. So our collaboration produced the design.BTL: Are you making a brand of films with the horror pictures?Carpenter: I wasn’t in the beginning. In Howard Hawks, it was comedy; there was almost everything in Howard Hawks. There was Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford. So to be pretentious, I suppose I thought maybe I could do all those different kinds of movies. But years later, I realize I’m the genre guy. I became John Carpenter, and screwed myself over.BTL: What do you think you’re best at, ultimately?Carpenter: I excel at making John Carpenter movies. That is the one thing I can do in my life. Whether they’re good or bad, whether they’re successful or not, boy, I can make those babies all night long. I cannot do a lot of things. I could never have done a movie like Jurassic Park. Or I could not do a movie like Hellboy. I admire Hellboy a lot, but I couldn’t do that film. It’s beyond me. But I can do what I know how to do.

Written by Scott Essman

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