HT Talks To . . . John Carpenter
Coming off a pair of low-budget, high-concept films (Assault on Precinct 13 and Dark Star), John Carpenter forever changed the world of horror cinema with his landmark Halloween. He's been pushing the genre envelope ever since, with fan favorites such as Escape from New York and the truly original They Live, along with unexpected turns such as Starman and TV's Elvis starring frequent go-to guy Kurt Russell. He's also given fans the occasional sequel, as well as his remakes of horror classics The Thing and Village of the Damned, even as Hollywood has begun remaking his signature works, including The Fog and Rob Zombie's upcoming Halloween. Carpenter knows monsters and how to portray a tense siege, and his experience with both benefit his second installment of Showtime's Masters of Horror anthology series, "Pro-Life." Ron Perlman stars as a gun-toting conservative dad out to retrieve his young, pregnant runaway daughter—at any cost—from the abortion clinic where she seeks refuge, even though the "baby" was conceived in the underworld and really, really needs killin'. "Pro-Life" is out on a fully loaded special-edition DVD from Anchor Bay/Starz Home Entertainment, and it boasts the only audio commentary I've ever heard where the director exits in the middle of recording to catch a quick smoke.
In the making-of segment on the "Pro-Life" DVD, you downplay the political aspect, saying, "it's really just a monster movie, not much more." How deliberately did you strive to achieve such a delicate balance on such a controversial issue?
The delicate balance that you refer to in "Pro-Life" was in the script by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. As a director, I don't shy away from political statements, as in They Live. In this case, what interested me was simply a dramatic setup that could produce a siege and a monster, plus the Ron Perlman abortion on the doctor.
Even so, does the unique medium that Masters of Horror offers embolden you to broach such a hot-button topic?
Every Masters of Horror director brings his own vibe and style. As you see with Joe Dante's "Homecoming" in the first season [in which soldiers killed in action in an unpopular overseas war return as zombies to vote in the upcoming election], the freedom of directing an episode is an attractive proposition that different directors utilize differently. In Joe's case, his episode was overtly political. In my case, I was more interested in the monster.
Does it perhaps free your hand as to the level of gore, as well? We see old-school blood effects and some nifty computer work in there.
There are still certain taboos in Masters of Horror; for instance, child-on-child violence. Gore seems to be left to the discretion of each director. I tend to use more or less violence as the story dictates. I suppose, however, that most viewers expect a little bang out of a horror series.
You've directed some pretty large-scale movies: Was the 10-day shooting schedule here a challenge?
A 10-day shoot is both challenging and fun. You have to move so fast that you can't afford to be obsessed with perfection. But, on the other hand, the stress and fatigue associated with a long feature don't bother you.
It was also great to feel some familiar strains: the siege as in Assault on Precinct 13 or the birth of a horrific creature as in The Thing.
Good. I love siege movies.
Carpenter provides a commentary track for the Rio Bravo Special Edition DVD.
Do you approach a project differently if you intend to make a statement? Again, I'm thinking specifically of They Live, for example, which also said a lot about America at the time.
Any statement made by a movie has to come directly out of the story. Dr. Strangelove is a great example. The political ideas in They Live came right out of the story. At the time, I was angry and depressed about the changes that had taken place in America during the Reagan years. Only now are some of these attitudes beginning ever so slowly to change.
Is it gratifying or frustrating to see so many Halloween sequels?
The Halloween sequels leave me with a deep sense of gratitude when they're made because, when I extend my hand, a check is placed in it.
A scene from Masters of Horror's "Pro-Life."
You might have noticed THAT Many different editions of Halloween DVDs have been released.
Yes, I've noticed. They're just trying to find ways of selling the same thing over and over again.
As someone who directed a remake of one of his favorite classic films, The Thing (From Another World), is it an odd experience to watch someone else remake one of your movies?
When someone else directs a remake of one of my films, the project becomes their film, not mine. I enjoyed the remake of Assault on Precinct 13.
Any thoughts on the impending Halloween remake?
Rob Zombie has been a friend of mine for many years. He did some music for me years earlier. He called me up and asked what I thought about his directing a Halloween prequel. I told him to make it his own and wished him luck.
Carpenter on the set, hard at work.
You've always been very generous to your fans, with commentary tracks and so forth. What's your take on the home-video revolution, with DVD now the most popular way to watch movies?
I love the home-video revolution, especially the DVD. Now there's a way of building up a library of classics and favorite movies. I also love doing my commentaries, about my own films and some of my favorites, like Once Upon a Time in the West and Rio Bravo. It's a chance to record my own thoughts about a movie as I watch it.
Would you ever want to do something completely non-genre?
Lastly, your titles usually begin with "John Carpenter's. . ." How did this come about?
I used the classic possessory for two reasons. One, I thought "A Film by" was stupid and pretentious. Two, it was a way to get people to take me seriously as a director. I can understand why any kind of possessory credit by a director pisses off the writers.