Even if he had never called “action,” Carpenter would have been a major figure in movie history for his work as a composer. The score for 1978’s Halloween alone is among the most memorable — and most imitated — in the history of the medium, and Carpenter’s early embrace of synthesizers shifted Hollywood sound palettes for decades to follow. He has gone on to release music and play major festivals; last month, when the director David Gordon Green released Halloween Ends, the final part in his trilogy of sequels to the Carpenter-founded franchise, it was with music composed by John Carpenter and his frequent collaborators, Daniel Davies and Cody Carpenter (John’s son).
Shortly before that film’s opening, Carpenter spoke with the Los Angeles Review of Books about the state of horror, the movies he declined to make, and the video games he’s struggling to master.
PAUL THOMPSON: I’ve read that you said, in the past, that if you’d been given a bigger budget for your early films, you would have hired someone to compose their music. By 1982, you have Ennio Morricone composing for The Thing. What’d you learn from him?
JOHN CARPENTER: Well, he’s such a different composer from what I am: he does orchestral stuff, and I don’t know anything about that. But [approaching scenes] is the same. It’s all instinct — that’s what the movie business is — from actors to cameramen, composers, directors, it’s instinct. It’s your training: we need to do this, here. It’s how you feel about it. It’s a very interesting art form; it’s really fascinating.
The creative aspects are based on instinct, but the business apparatus around it is …
[Laughs.] The business around it is all about pirates. The movie business is filled with pirates. You have to watch yourself when you get in it.
The perception, from the outside, is that you’ve been able to maintain an artistic vision through that industrial bullshit, that you’ve been able to fend off notes from producers and studios.
Mostly, you know. I really dedicated myself to it; it’s the way I was trained to try to make my movies, my vision, not somebody else’s. Everybody wants to change what you’ve done; I don’t care who it is. [Executives] think they could do better. Everybody wants to please an audience. It’s all the same — the fights are almost all the same. I got too tired to do it anymore; unless you have something in your contract, you’ve got to fight for it. That’s not my personality. I’d much rather play video games and watch basketball. I don’t want to fight. I hate it.
You hear stories — sometimes you have to fight for things even if they are in your contract.
That’s true — they’ll try. But then you just smile and say, “Sorry!” People don’t want to give you that, though. They take the final cut — who are they? I’m sorry, excuse me.
You’ve created some — what people now refer to as intellectual property — that executives want to mine, and mine again. Do you get agitated, or protective, or frustrated at the idea that other people can make things based on what you made?
What do you mean: making Halloween movies? I don’t care anymore, I stopped caring years ago. You could make one!
That’s next on my calendar. Are there filmmakers today who really excite you?
Any David Fincher movie I’m there for, I think he’s really talented. There’s a lot of really good work being done. The — what’s the name of the UFO movie?
Nope? I imagine you heard Jordan Peele’s recent comments about you. [Editor’s note: Peele recently responded on Twitter to a fan who called him “the best horror director of all time,” saying he “will just not tolerate any John Carpenter slander!!!”]
Yeah, I heard about them. He’s very kind to old-timers like me.
I think horror movies occupy a somewhat central place in the movie landscape today, but so much of the discussion around them is about corporate interest: their low cost, their profitability.
I hate to break this to you, but it’s always been that way. From way back when. You know when Dracula came out, back in the thirties? Everyone looked around and said, “Hey … this didn’t cost that much.” It’s always been that way. That’s one thing about horror: it never dies. Horror was born with cinema, born at the same time the techniques of cinema were developed, and audiences love it — they eat it up when it’s good. They eat it up. They love to go with an audience and be scared. It’s the best way to cuddle a date. Come on now. What’s better?
For those of us who actually love what we’re doing in terms of story, it’s great. Every generation reinvents horror. They reinvent it in their own time and from their own point of view. The things that are floating in the culture, that scare us — those are always changing. The basic fears stay the same. You’re born afraid: you get whacked on the ass when you’re born. They cut the cord! Come on! That’s terrible! Why do you think we all cry when we come out? “I want to go back in!” Horror movies are always about that: I want to go back in.
Were you thinking about that when you made the original Halloween — reinventing horror for your generation?
I was thinking, “Well, this is a low-budget horror film. It’s an exploitation film about babysitters.” And I wouldn’t choose that topic — the distributor chose that. I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I was looking to make a name for myself as a director. So I made a deal: final cut and my name above the title. Within those restraints, I pulled out all the stylistic flourishes I’d been thinking about for horror films and put them in.
Well, it captures a lot of those suburban fears, fears of isolation. What scares you in the culture now?
It’s so weird now. It’s just crazy. A bunch of people believe in crazy things: this QAnon shit? My god! Are you kidding? And there are so many of them. How can this be? How can people be like this? There are wars … it’s tough. But it was tough then — what am I talking about, whining about stuff? The world is crazy, and it always has been. So you go to the sanity of a nice, cool theater, and you watch a horror movie. See? I’ve got it all solved for you.
You started making movies more than 50 years ago. Over the course of your career, how did your actors’ approaches change?
Boy … I boiled it down for myself, as a director, to What does the actor need to be comfortable to do the performance that I need? Sometimes they need confrontational shit; sometimes they need emotional support. Sometimes they bring it all together, and I don’t have to do anything. Acting’s a really special thing; it’s a gift. I can’t do it — I’ve never been very good. But I so love actors.
There’s something about a person that’s either captivating on camera or isn’t. How do you suss that out in casting, especially for smaller roles, when you’re working on a budget?
You develop a camera eye. The camera loves certain people — Howard Hawks said that. A lot of people have said that. You use your instincts, but then you put them in front of a camera: see what their best side is, see how they react to lights.
You talked about how much work directing is, on the creative and managerial sides. You’re on a deadline, on a budget. If things aren’t going well — a lead performance isn’t working, script problems reveal themselves once you’re already shooting — how would you manage that?
The worst thing is not finishing the movie. That’s the worst thing — that’s unbelievably bad. I try to finish the movie first and foremost, and then diminish the bad things while [I] bring out the good. I’ve been in a lot of different situations, but there’s always something. Not finishing it is the disaster.
What’s the closest you came to not finishing one?
It never occurred to me. People on the outside, who don’t direct, have this image of what it’s like in Hollywood, and what directors are like. We’re portrayed in movies as being really horrifying people — and some of us are really bad people. [Laughs.] But it really is a fucking job. It’s like your job: you have deadlines, you have things you have to do but don’t like doing. Just multiply the pressures by 100. Because when I fuck up, I can cost a hundred thousand dollars. It’s not like I’m a doctor, it’s not surgery — believe me, it’s better than that.
Do you ever watch your own movies?
Never. I might look for a minute — “How’s the transfer here?” — but when I see my own movies, I see all the mistakes, all the things I didn’t do. Then I turn them off.
In those 10-minute snippets, do you notice the mistakes you make changing over the course of your career — basically, do you see yourself correcting yourself?
[Laughs.] Every day I make mistakes. There’s a giant list — in film school they gave us a giant list of things directors do to fuck up, and I’ve probably done them all. I do them every day. It’s too hard; it’s an impossible art form. It’s great when it works, but you tend to forget about the pain. If you’re like me, where my entire life has been centered around directing movies, it’s cruel, because you forget the pain. It’s like being an addict: I want to get high again.
Do ideas for new movies pop into your head, then get tossed aside when you remember the pain?
I remember the pain first — I don’t even have to go to the idea.
So is there a circumstance in which you would come back to direct another film?
I’ll tell you the truth: I could be seduced back into doing it again. Give me a script I’m in love with and have to do, and I’ll do it. But if you give me a good script then say you’re going to do it for 10 dollars, well, then, no. All I’m doing is ranting. Can we talk about something nice?
Sure. How good have you gotten at video games?
I’ve gotten a lot better than I was, I can tell you that. [It used to be that] my son would just beat the hell out of me — I couldn’t do simple things. But over the years my hand-eye coordination has really improved.
What’re you playing today?
All sorts of games. I’m playing Fallout, ducking over to play a little Crash Bandicoot. I love the Borderlands games.
I can’t think of a great video game movie.
They’re not good, none of them.
Is it that the mediums ask for fundamentally different things?
Well, I don’t know. I’d love to try [to adapt] Dead Space; I think I could make a scary movie out of that. But I’m not gonna. [Laughs.]
I watch Assault on Precinct 13, and I see some of the logic, the architecture that you now get in video games.
There was nothing like that back [when I made it]. It was Sonic the Hedgehog.
You’re hosting this Godzilla marathon. What’s your favorite Godzilla movie?
The first, [1954’s] Gojira. But there are others that I like for different reasons.
Do you have half a Godzilla script in a drawer somewhere?
No, no, no, they know what they’re doing. But I met the head of Toho: he came to visit me. He wanted me to do [a remake of] Matango, but I wasn’t ready to do it.
I imagine you’ve turned down a number of projects offered to you over the years. Are there any of those decisions that you regret?
You’re happy with every “no” you said.
Oh, hell yes. I don’t worry about my oeuvre. [Laughs.] I love the movies I made; I’m very proud of them. I’m proud of my career. But come on. I’m a horror director. How serious is that? It’s not serious.
I do think the perception of that is changing a bit.
Really? That’s too bad.
Yeah — in some ways it’s good, because genre stuff has often been unfairly dismissed, but now you get these exhausting campaigns for things studios call “elevated horror.”
[Laughs.] Easy now! Take it easy.
Paul Thompson is a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, New York, Pitchfork, and The Washington Post, among other publications.