Known as “The Horror Master,” John Carpenter is Hollywood’s ultimate auteur of fright. In this new interview, the writer, director and composer talks about his career and the constantly shifting horror landscape. Internationally renowned for genre classics including “Halloween,” “They Live,” “Escape from New York,” “The Thing” and “Christine,” he is touring this fall in support of his new album, “Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998.”
Anna Drezen: Writer, director, musician and comic book creator John Carpenter has defined the modern-day horror genre. His Twitter handle is literally @TheHorrorMaster. Most notably Carpenter co-wrote and directed the landmark slasher film Halloween in 1978 with a $300,000 budget, which if you don't know a lot about film budgets that's basically like $10 and a roll of tape. The film went on to gross over 70 million dollars and resulted in seven sequels and countless nightmares. I'm your host Anna Drezen on the American Masters podcast.
Anna Drezen: Other John Carpenter films include The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, and about a dozen other titles, many of which have become household names to fans of horror and sci-fi. Carpenter also writes and performs original compositions for the majority of his films and in recent years he has turned much of his artistic focus to writing and performing original music. He released his debut studio album in 2015 titled Lost Themes and in 2016 he released Lost Themes 2. This guy loves a sequel. In the world of comic books, Carpenter is the co-creator of the award winning bi-monthly series, John Carpenter's Asylum, and the acclaimed annual anthology collection, John Carpenter's Tales for a Halloween Night. We are so excited and very scared to have the horror master himself in the studio for a conversation with American Masters podcast series producer Joe Skinner.
Joe Skinner: Well here we are in L.A. It's actually my first time out here with John Carpenter.
John Carpenter: Where are you from?
Joe Skinner: I'm from New Jersey originally.
John Carpenter: What the hell. Welcome to Los Angeles.
Joe Skinner: Thank you. Thank you. I feel like you're one of the first names I think of when I think of L.A.
John Carpenter: Oh is that right.
Joe Skinner: It is. Because so many of your movies seem to take place in L.A. but I was hoping you could talk about L.A. a little bit and how that location is important to you.
John Carpenter: Well I came out to film school to USC to go to cinema school in 1968. John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles. I saw all these guys in film school. They all came down and spoke to us. There was Orson Welles; there was Howard Hawks in my class. Man that's a great time. But I digress. L.A. It was like coming home. I should have been born here. I should have been raised here. This is my home. I love Los Angeles. We have it all. We've got ocean. We've got mountains. We've got snow if you go high enough. We've got lots of crime. We've got lots of pretty girls. We've got the prettiest girls in the world here in Los Angeles and there's a great music scene. And I learned what I learned about cinema here in Los Angeles so it's always been really important to me as a city to live in and I love making movies about it. Probably for a number of reasons just because of my proximity to locations in the city knowing it but, you know some of the great crime thrillers took place here. Raymond Chandler type things took place in Los Angeles. So. I love it. I love L.A.
Joe Skinner: But you grew up in Kentucky.
John Carpenter: I did. I was born in northern New York but I grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Joe Skinner: Did you ever make movies out there?
John Carpenter: I made 8mm movies, with my dad's movie camera.
Joe Skinner: What were those about?
John Carpenter: I'm not telling you and you're never going to see them ever. My father bought me a book called Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It was a big Random House book and they had various authors famous authors like H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Mencken and others. And I started reading that book and that was that was it. I was terrified absolutely terrified. The Outsider by H.P. Lovecraft was a great scary story. You gotta accept some really bad writing but he kind of invented modern science fiction horror. He's scary Lord God is he scary. The movies that scared me, are movies that I saw when I was a kid when I was a little kid. Pre-teen and teenager that that's when you get scared. As I age and I learned how movies are made, I see what they're doing it becomes less scary. So you talk about movies that terrified me as a kid, we'd have to talk about the original Thing. The Thing From Another World. There's a moment in a movie called The Fly in 1959 and the popcorn went flying. I was jumping out of my seat. It is when the wife pulls the hood off her husband there's this giant fly head twitching terrified me but I don't experience that kind of terror anymore. Not quite.
Joe Skinner: Did you have siblings growing up?
John Carpenter: No.
Joe Skinner: Did you and your friends tell stories through each other scary stories that kind of thing?
John Carpenter: I made my friends appear in my 8mm movies- made them act for me. So pretend you see this giant monster run and then that kind of thing.
Joe Skinner: Did you retain some of the directing techniques that you had?
John Carpenter: Yes that's- I learned everything I needed to learn right there.
Joe Skinner: More recently you've been working on music…
John Carpenter: That's right.
Joe Skinner: Could you kind of walk us through what your writing process is like for you when you're writing these movie scores?
John Carpenter: Most of them are improvised on a synthesizer, primarily using a synthesizer. My musical career as a movie composer began in film school. In film school you have no money so you don't have money for a composer or an orchestra. So you have to find a way to make music that sounds big or sounds big enough for your movie and the way to do it is with a synthesizer because with a number of tracks in using a synth you can build up a sound that sounds like orchestra or like Switched-On Bach or you can sound like a scary movie or it's like an action film. All sorts of things. So that's where I began. And my first score was Dark Star which I can't even tell you what kind of synthesizer I use but it was really primitive and then Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween and then I just began one after another doing the scores to my movies. The technology and synthesizers got better over the years. But basically it's a keyboard and you can call up various sounds by call up I mean you can do it now on a computer by just punching in a program or in the old days in the tube synthesizer days they had to tune the synth, saw-tooth or whatever sound they wanted. So I of course know nothing about that so I had to get somebody to do it for me. And that's where all my associations and working with other people came and they were they had to work the machines I couldn't all I could do sit down at a keyboard say make it sound like a deep bass sound, they would, and I'd play and that was it. And in the beginning I would just play the music and then cut it in in various places. But as time went on I began to play to the image to the movie which is great.
Joe Skinner: What were some of the early reactions that people had to this music?
John Carpenter: Indifference, complete indifference. My first claim to fame was the theme to Assault on Precinct 13. Somebody in England did a cover recording of it and released it as a single and that was called “Can't Beat the System” I think it was called. God it was awful, awful. But, reaction was never much you know until later in my life people reflected on it.
Joe Skinner: How did the theme song to Halloween come about?
John Carpenter: My father bought me a pair of bongos for Christmas when I was 13 and he taught me five four time pop pop pop 5:4 time. So I thought that was clever. I sat down with the piano just one in dun-dun-dun and played octaves- that's where it came about. I showed the movie to an executive without music which is a big mistake. Don't ever show a movie to anybody unless it's completely done. And the executive said that's not scary and I'm not scared by anything like that. And then you know the movie came out and it was with the music, it got scarier. So my revenge always takes place after the fact and that's the problem. Never mind that's not the story.
Joe Skinner: You've also released two albums that have the title Lost Themes. Do you have lost stories that you think connect to some of those songs or were those created without a story in mind?
John Carpenter: They were created without a story in mind but they're soundtrack-ish, soundtrack-ish music. What I mean by that is I just generally compose that way. And I started this the first Lost Themes with my son Cody. He and I would play videogames we'd go downstairs to the music, the computer for about an hour and we'd improvise some music we come back and play videogames and go back down play some improvise some more music. And over a period of time we had about an hour plus of music. So I just gotten a new music attorney and she said to me well do you have anything new? So I just sent along this improvisational stuff. Two months later I had a record deal. Well there is nothing to this. This is easy. Why haven't they done that? I'm kidding. Really excited. So that's how it started and what it went on from there and included not only my son but my godson Daniel. We all perform and mix and off we went so we decided to do, so my score is you know music just as the title says Movie Themes from 1974 to '98 or whatever that was.
Joe Skinner: So it sounds like the writing process for you with music is largely improvisational or even instinctual.
John Carpenter: That's correct.
Joe Skinner: But then when it comes to films I see that you have a lot of collaboration and co-writing credits on a lot of your work. Could you tell me what the collaboration process is like for you?
John Carpenter: Well in the beginning I mean it's all different after I had finished my first film Dark Star I got an agent which is really lucky. That was the main thing I got out of that movie and they told me you'd have to write your way into this business. And I really mean they won't just hire me as director now. No. So. I had to become an idea machine. In other words just crank out all these ideas and try to sell them. And I for a while I made a pretty fair living. I would go in and get hired to write. I don't know. Snakes attack a town and OK great. So I'd have some so much time to write a screenplay. Let's say two months three months whatever it was. So I'd sit down for two weeks to write an outline and then I go and date girls and go to movies and do other things until the last possible minute then I'd write it out based on the outline and you get paid for doing that. It's not bad so I had a pretty good living but that wasn't what I wanted to do. So I had a self-defensively wrote my way into the movie business. I wrote my way into directing is what I wanted.
Joe Skinner: But primarily you were just trying to get to the point of being able to direct your own projects.
John Carpenter: That's right. That's right.
Joe Skinner: But a lot of your projects they seem to have a very similar sort of theme or through-line of outsiders sort of attacking or invading in some way. I mean I think of They Live, I think of Prince of Darkness, The Fog.
John Carpenter: Well probably that all comes from my growing up in Kentucky. My family we were outsiders and we didn't fit. This was the Jim Crow south of the 50's and everything I learned everything I know about evil I learned in that little town. Every single thing. So I felt like a complete outsider with forces of darkness all around me and that slipped into a lot of the movies, plus people that I knew that I grew up with or to high school with, I put in my films in idealized ways and I wrote for what I knew which is this kind of crazy upbringing.
Joe Skinner: Do you specifically think about politics when you're coming up with stories or is that case by case?
John Carpenter: They Live was a particular case. OK. I just I had it was a scream in the dark at Reaganomics and the whole 80's ethos of making money just all the things that I that I grew up with and valued especially in the 70's had been overturned by Reaganomics and this wave of conservatism I just couldn't take it. So I adapted this short story and made it about our culture. But the 80's never ended. They're still happening. So that's why the movie seems kind of timeless because it's still going on and especially with recent developments in politics. I think that you get to be a certain age and all of a sudden you stop listening to rock n’ roll music and you start listening to political radio. That's what happens. It just happens naturally. I think I was 40 or 45 maybe when that happened. So I've been really tuned into politics ever since. To my chagrin. But that's what They Live was. Yes it was an overtly political movie. Short story was called “Eight O'clock in the Morning”. It was about a guy who goes to a hypnotist show. Hypnotist is on stage says wake up to the subject. Our hero wakes up and looks around and amongst the humans are these creatures. And it's a pretty typical alien invasion movie of the 50's and 60's. But I made it about you wake up with these sunglasses and you see what life is really like. So you see hidden messages on billboards and things like that.
Joe Skinner: What kind of movies or stories do you think people should be telling today?
John Carpenter: They're telling the stories they need to be telling today. It always works that way they're telling stories that make money as you see a lot of superheroes make money some do. Maybe it's starting to change. There are a lot of personal stories that get made. Some really interesting stuff being done and there's some really interesting filmmakers too.
Joe Skinner: How do you think the horror genre has changed in recent years?
John Carpenter: It goes through little evolutions for instance in the early 2000's I think it was Japanese horror, remaking Japanese horror films, which had their own little code. They had their own little style like The Grudge and The Ring and things like that. Then there's right now we're in kind of this knowing horror, which the filmmakers and the audiences are aware of all the tropes horror tropes and they use them in teasing ways. I don't know where that started really. Maybe Scream, it's all smart-ass horror. But that's OK. That's alright it works. Look horror always veers into comedy at some point. And that's probably the end of that cycle. It kind of reflects the end. The Universal cycle of monsters Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman. They were in the 30’s and in 1948 there was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and that kind of was a comedy and that's sort of sealed the doom, that's kind of the way it goes with the comedy. Pops its head up and it's fun to watch. Horror films are an interesting case because they're all- they've always been with us and they always will be. They keep changing with the culture and the decades, the people. But everybody in the world is scared of things. Everybody on the planet is scared of things. We're all born afraid that some big stranger whacks us on the butt, most of the time when we're born. I mean there's death. You realize that you're going to die. We're afraid of that. We're afraid of loss of identity of loved ones. We're afraid of being disfigured by something or physical pain. Emotional, whatever it is that you're afraid of I am too. We're all afraid of the same things. A universal language is spoken in horror and horror evolves with society as the society keeps moving along it does too. So horror movies have evolved and since I started making them. A very few are great. Some are good most are fair and the big majority are pieces of crap. It's always been that way.
Joe Skinner: Is there a moment in your writing process when you feel like you know you've got something or you know you've arrived at something?
John Carpenter: Upon completion of the movie I feel like God put this piece of crap out. And you know I've written and I've written and planned so many things that haven't come to fruition. You can't invest in that. You always think you have something interesting you always think, well this is special this is great, I love it. When nobody else does. You move on. That's life.
Joe Skinner: You're a busy person. You've been doing a lot of stuff with comic books too. Could you talk a little bit about that?
John Carpenter: Well I'm not the busy person it's my wife that's a busy person. She publishes a line of comics that we have. I put my name on it to try to make money. But she does most of the work we have, we had Asylum. We have Tale's For A HalloweeNight, which are scary tales. We have now Tales of Science Fiction coming out and it's just a new world. It's great and it's a different art form. Shares some similarities to movies and shares some similarities to storyboards. But it is in itself very different also. And it's really fun.
Joe Skinner: How do you select the stories?
John Carpenter: Make them up. And find really talented people who make them up. It's always the same. And we've got a lot of really great writers working. Steve Niles contributed to us. James Ninness really and the art. Oh man these guys are talented. Even I made up a story or two. So it's fun. I keep my hand in.
Joe Skinner: Do you currently have a preferred medium to be working in?
John Carpenter: My preferred medium is to sit in front of a television set and watch either basketball or play videogames. That's my preferred living style. What my dream is as a human being now, now that I'm older and sort of semi-retired from movie directing, I want to do nothing and make money while I'm doing nothing. That's my dream and if you can help me in any way achieve that dream I would appreciate it.
Joe Skinner: Well John if somebody gave you an unlimited amount of money- maybe 300 million dollars today to tell a story for 2017, what would that be?
John Carpenter: The country is really divided between two ideologies. So you'd have to really make two movies. One I wouldn't have to do much because the name of the movie is Donald Trump, President. That would scare about 75 percent of the public. The other 35 percent that would have to be something different. I don't quite know. Maybe a Communist takeover or they'd have to live under my rule maybe I don't know. But you would. It would. It's bifurcated, it's two because the country is so divided. Again the base- the language, the gore, the stuff that you see would be stuff that scares everybody. But you have to get people to buy into your plot. So that would be two movies but I'd be willing to start on that tomorrow if you just come up with the money. Matter of fact you just leave it over there by that chair and I'll start right away. It's always been crazy. America's a crazy place, they used to fight duels. Congressman fought duels. I mean they're nuts. They used to publish scandalous stories about each other you know call each other horrible names. So it's you've got everything in America. You've got these crazy people here and wonderful and surfers and everything people from New Jersey are even allowed to live in America.
Joe Skinner: Fertile ground for horror movies.
John Carpenter: Yeah.
Joe Skinner: John, thank you so much for coming in.
John Carpenter: I loved it, it was great man.
Anna Drezen: You can hear John Carpenter’s new album, Anthology: Movie Themes From 1974 – 1998, which collects 13 works from across his filmography, Friday, October 20th.