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The Den of Geek interview: John Carpenter

Abandon all hope of an objective interview as Martin gets to chat with his ultimate Hollywood hero...

John Carpenter.

John Carpenter's student project for the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts won the 1970 Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon would go on to win cult acclaim a few years later with their sci-fi comedy Dark Star (which O'Bannon ultimately reworked into the hugely successful Alien). Further cult success followed with Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13 (now remade along with various other Carpenter films). Carpenter then wrote the hit glam-slasher The Eyes Of Laura Mars, as well as the acclaimed TV movies Someone's Watching Me (where he met future collaborator and first-wife Adrienne Barbeau) and Elvis (where he met lifelong friend and colleague Kurt Russell).

But it was the collossal success of Carpenter's seminal 'teen-slasher' Halloween (1978) that was to make his name and set him on the road to becoming possibly Hollywood's most acclaimed genre director since Alfred Hitchcock, directing classics such as The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Starman (1984) and the highly influential Escape From New York (1981).

Regular DoG readers might know that I am a huge Carpenter fan, so it was a great thrill to interview him at midnight in the darkened halls of Dennis Publishing...

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I’m a big fan of your commentaries – I listened to all of them a few months back – and in particular those that you’ve done with Kurt Russell. But I’m waiting to hear you both do a commentary on Escape From LA…?

No-one’s asked us, and no-one seems to care. That’s Paramount, who are not real active in that area. At least they haven’t been on my work…

I’ll start the petition! Escape From LA was a prescient film – it kind of makes more sense now than when it came out…

[laughs] Yeah!

…and the same dynamic seems to apply to They Live. What’s your reaction to getting it right, but no-one believing you at the time?

It’s the story of my life! [laughs] A lot of my career has been like that. I’ve made a couple of films that later on, upon reflection, you say ‘My God’…I just wrote those things on instinct, so it’s not anything I planned out. It’s just my view of the world.

It’s the same on The Thing, which, three years after release, would have been a trenchant social commentary…

But that’s what happens in the movie business – you have to know what’s going on when you make a film. I’ve always been a little bit out of touch with the immediate sense of the audience, I really have. So that’s my fault.

Also, no love for Village Of The Damned? I’d love a commentary on that?

Well, if anyone asks me, I’ll do it.

One of your most enjoyable commentaries was with Roddy Piper on They Live, and it occurred to me that you’d cast him against type, which you did with Kurt Russell early on. Do you sometimes think ‘This role needs this actor’, but then in later films you want to go back to surprising the audience with off-beat casting…?

Sure, that’s always fun to do, but sometimes you want to hit it right on the head in terms of casting. But sometimes it’s fun to go against what the expectations are. Also, if you’ve got an actor who wants to play something he hasn’t played before, that’s extremely exciting. It was with Woods; it was with Kurt also. It was ‘Oh God, I really want to play this, because I’m always cast in…’ ‘X’, you know.

Woods said to me, one day on the set ‘I want to go up to the door first’, as opposed to behind everybody else, so that was…interesting.

Hollywood seems to be remaking so many of these auteur horror films, including many of yours, driven by demographics and brand-familiarity, like the way Halloween is ubiquitous in other movies. But it was actually faith in the director that got them made in the first place. How can Hollywood get out of that loop again?

The business has gone down a path, and it’s changed since the old days, but in a way it hasn’t. It’s a little of both; it’s always chasing after money. The truth is the old clichés: ‘You’re only as good as your last film’…all the things that you’ve heard before are still true.

But nowadays it’s harder just for media in general, because of the glut – it’s harder to advertise a movie. Movies aren’t that special anymore. They’re appearing every week, we read about them and know about them on the internet. We know everything. We’re smarter than the movie.

Is it harder to get a movie made now?

It depends. I haven’t tried actively in a long time. I have a couple of things cooking, but it’s an interesting process. It’s very different now.

Are your new ideas genre-pieces?

Some are, some aren’t. It all depends. I have one that isn’t and one that is…one’s more of a straight thriller.

What about your life-long dream of making a western?

I kind of stopped believing in that. You can’t get a western made now. I had a western come along that I liked, but they wanted to turn it into a science-fiction movie! [laughs] They don’t believe that they can sell a western.

If you had got to make westerns early on, would you have made the other genre films that you did, seeing as you admit that all your films are pretty much westerns?

Maybe…but I don’t think that there are any stars to play in westerns anymore. We had two of the biggest with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. They carried the movies and were very powerful presences, and the actors aren’t there, and the interest just isn’t there.

I was hoping when Unforgiven led up to Dances With Wolves, that we might have seen the John Carpenter western in that period…?

No, no…it hit big, but that was a long time ago, man.

They’re remaking In The Mouth Of Madness now ---

They are?

Yeah, there was an announcement yesterday.

Jeez, I didn’t hear that.