“In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain; a genre film director; and, in the USA, a bum.”
Somewhere in between the prolific function-over-form output of b-movie legend Roger Corman and the carefully considered, macabre artistry of David Lynch, lies the work of John Carpenter.
During his forty-plus years in movie-making, Carpenter has written and/or directed over twenty five films, from genre-defining sensations (Halloween) to critical and financial bellyflops (Ghosts of Mars).
He has composed and performed almost all of the scores for his films, which is itself a unique distinction. In addition to that, he has also produced, edited, and even made Hitchcock-like cameos in several of his films. Pretty much the only job he hasn’t done on a movie set is craft service.
So what lessons has Carpenter learned living half a life in the lion’s den of Hollywood? What mantra has earned him longevity in a town where so many others either burn out or fade away? “Get away with what you can, adapt to what you can’t.”
What Carpenter has gotten away with: Wearing every hat on a film set. Sneaking Watergate-inspired government distrust into shoot ‘em up action films (Escape From New York, Escape From LA) and Orwellian overtures into alien invasion flicks (They Live). Creating characters that are as memorable for the volume of their personality (“Snake” Plissken, Jack Burton) as for their lack thereof (Michael Myers). Passing on blockbusters (Top Gun, Fatal Attraction). Casting virtual unknowns in lead roles (Kurt Russell, Jamie Lee Curtis) and launching their careers.
He’s had his rock band do the theme song for one of his films (Big Trouble in Little China) and his name in front of every title of almost every movie he’s made. Carpenter has played the part of both director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone in the production of the spaghetti western that is his life. He’s even made a TV movie about Elvis.
What Carpenter has had to adapt to: The early death of his dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom, followed closely by the death of his ideals about film-making stardom. The clinging stench of box office failure. Being pushed out of the ground-breaking franchise he helped create because he ‘didn’t want to direct the same movie again’ (Halloween). Never getting a real western made in Hollywood despite it being one of his career-long ambitions. Being dubbed – for better or worse – “The Master of Horror”.
Above all, Carpenter has had to adapt to a mercurial career path dictated by the bottom-line. Then and now, remakes of his older films have multiplied like bunnies while his newer efforts have been panned or ignored.
While Carpenter sees most of his career as a film about Sisyphus with him in the starring role, the word “regret” isn’t in his vocabulary.
Cowboys and Aliens
“I’m a reasonable guy but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
-Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China
Carpenter may never have gotten to make his western, but it’s a story he’s told over and over again in his films in different ways: A gritty stranger comes to town to battle a seemingly unstoppable evil, and to do it his way or the high way.
The Carpenter cowboy is more anti-hero than hero; less stoic John Wayne and more his smartass kid brother. He’s just street-wise enough to occasionally seem brilliant, and just naive enough to not know his limitations. He’s grounded in realism and self-interest, but takes the sudden appearance of the supernatural completely in stride. In short, he gets away with what he can and adapts to what he can’t.
It’s no accident that these characters reflect how Carpenter sees himself: As a cowboy miscreant and a lucky fool with occasional flashes of brilliance. As a green kid from Kentucky naïve enough to think he could make movies in Hollywood; naïve enough to think he could walk from LAX to the USC campus when he first arrived, and naïve enough to think he would be part of the 1% of successful filmmakers his instructor suggested his class would produce.
Film-making Was His Second Choice
“Movies are pieces of film stuck together in a certain rhythm, an absolute beat, like a musical composition. The rhythm you create affects the audience.”
– John Carpenter
Certain directors work in tandem with specific composers, forming a symbiotic and memorable relationship onscreen (Spielberg and John L. Williams, David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, Martin Scorsese and that one Rolling Stones album he can’t get enough of).
Carpenter eliminates any gap between the two, composing and performing (along with collaborator Alan Howarth) the scores to most of his films. Aside from maybe Robert Rodriguez (who perhaps not coincidentally approached Carpenter about scoring his half of Grindhouse), Carpenter is virtually alone in this achievement in the realm of big budget film-making.
The son of a music teacher and a graduate of smoky rock clubs in his formative years, he sees nothing unusual about this aspect of his film-making. In an interview with The Onion AV Club he talks about his distinctive use of synthesizers in his scores:
“…I liked the idea that you could get a big sound with them, electronic, but like an orchestra. And I could play it all myself. That was exciting. I was kind of a half-assed musician. To my dad’s chagrin, I was not a violin player like he wanted me to be. He had dreams, and I shattered them. I played in a rock ’n’ roll band, which was great, but not what he had in mind. I had a talent for scoring films. I just developed it.”
While using synthesizers in place of an orchestra solves many practical problems for Carpenter (including his inability to read or write sheet music), it also allows him to create uniquely singular moods and atmospheres. The presence of hooks and strong melodies in his themes (probably a holdover from his rock songwriting days) allows these scores to stand on their own while remaining as integral to their respective films as the actors and story.
The ghostly drum machines and synth drones of Assault on Precinct 13 help paint the backdrop of its desolate yet foreboding gangland. The dark, ominous, thumping of the Escape From New York theme informs its dire, post-apocalyptic landscape. The pseudo-mystical synthscapes and fast-paced arpeggio dances in Big Trouble in Little China reflect its Ancient-Chinese-black-magic-in-modern-day-Chinatown theme and Kung Fu battle royales. And of course, we wouldn’t think of Michael Myers and Halloween the same way without that insistent, unstoppable piano-tinkling on top of those uncomfortable, ever-rising chords.
A Lion in Winter?
Onion AV Club: “You don’t exactly make things easy on yourself by taking on multiple roles in the production. You’ve directed, written, and composed the music for most of your movies.”
John Carpenter: “That just shows you how stupid I am.”
For a man who often talks about his work as being so much masochism and disappointment, and who often displays a pessimistic worldview onscreen, you might wonder what keeps John Carpenter going. After 2001’s Ghost of Mars flopped at the box office, Carpenter’s armor had indeed cracked in some places and, aside from some smaller TV projects, he did not direct another feature until 2010’s The Ward.
At this stage of his career, Carpenter has realized that in order to maintain his sanity, he needs to give up many of his secondary filmmaking responsibilities, namely his composing duties. He has also gained a clearer understanding of the types of projects he is comfortable working on and the circumstances he feels comfortable working in, making his decreased output both a matter of choice and necessity.
Meanwhile, Carpenter’s films keep getting remade, and the bombs he once wore as a badge of twisted pride now enjoy a healthy after-life and cult status thanks to VHS/ DVD distribution and the passage of time. Which begs the question: can an artist be appreciated ‘after his time’ even while he’s still around?
Carpenter is fond of saying he has no regrets, and listening to his interviews, I would take that statement at face value. As modern filmmakers go, he is probably one of our most transparent and honest, and speaks as openly about the disappointment of his biggest film flops as he does about the luck of his greatest successes. Despite the emotions they inspire, Carpenter seems to see his experiences as neither particularly ‘good’ nor ‘bad’; just as more stories to fold into the narrative of his own history.
“I’m pretty happy with who I am. I like myself and what I’m doing. I don’t need to be the world’s greatest director or the most famous — or the richest. I can do my job and I can do it pretty well. This is the realization I’ve come to, later in life. It’s called growing up.”
Again the hero is flawed, but that’s okay. It just makes for a better movie.
5 John Carpenter Movies to Watch (and listen to!)
They Live (1988)
Long before Shepard Fairey and Andre The Giant were telling you to “OBEY”, Carpenter’s race of camouflaged alien overlords were spreading the word in They Live.
Carpenter says They Live was a “response to the horror of the Reagan years”, but in today’s atmosphere of hyper-accelerated culture and distraction-based media, its lambasting of American greed and consumerism is even more relevant.
In exchange for their obedience and ignorance, Earthlings are given shiny trinkets and fleeting material wealth, while an elite class rules over them. In typical Carpenter style, They Live is equal parts bleak horror, sci-fi, and black comedy.
Escape From New York (1981)
Carpenter reportedly wrote Escape From New York in the mid 70s as a response to the Watergate scandal, and it’s another variation on a classic Carpenter theme: The authoritarian structure is conniving, incompetent, and corrupt, while the hero of the story is a self-interested criminal.
The backers of the film wanted a perhaps too-obvious Charles Bronson to play the role of “Snake” Plissken, but Carpenter insisted on the relatively unknown Kurt Russell. To date, “Snake” may be Russell’s most memorable character, and Escape remains one of Carpenter’s most memorable films. His vision of the island of New York as a maximum-security prison is dark, unique and unforgettable.
Because horror is a copycat genre, it can be hard to differentiate between the inventors and the mere practitioners. Halloween however, is considered the first of its kind by all accounts, and it’s been the inspiration for countless slasher flicks in the decades since its release.
The faceless, unstoppable killing machine in the form of Michael Myers predates both Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, and the film achieves more thrills and chills with less gore. It also provides a textbook example of how to make a memorable movie on a shoe-string budget. Extras were played by friends and family of the cast and crew. Michael Myers’ mask was fashioned out of a rubber William Shatner mask that was covered with spray-paint and had the eyeholes cut out.
Carpenter’s approach to independent film-making? “Shoot as little footage as possible and extend the scenes for long as [you] can”.
It worked, and Halloween still remains one of the highest-grossing independent films of all-time.
The Thing (1982)
Poor John Carpenter’s claim that The Thing was one of the films closest to his heart did little to stop its evisceration by critics and fans upon its initial release.
Now finally settling into some posthumous critical acclaim, it’s hard to see what everyone missed the first time around. The tale of paranoia, isolation, and impending doom resulting from alien infection set against a bleak and unforgiving arctic backdrop is- no pun intended- chilling. Perhaps its ever-present air of hopelessness did it in. Whatever the case, the ending scene of Carpenter regulars Kurt Russell and Keith David laughing amidst smoldering ruins as they slowly freeze to death is vintage Carpenter.
Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
While Halloween earned Carpenter the moniker of “Master of Horror”, it was a nickname he never used to define himself (“It’s a way to sell DVDs. That is all it is. It’s all marketing!”).
The still criminally underappreciated Big Trouble shows that Carpenter had much more than cheap thrills to offer audiences. Originally envisioned as a Western with a backdrop of Chinese martial arts and mysticism with Kurt Russell in the part of the High Plains Drifter, the screenplay was rewritten to be completely modern, taking place in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Big Trouble finds Carpenter at his most fantastical and comical. He captures the wit and pace of his favorite Howard Hawks dialogue while mixing in expertly choreographed martial arts scenes, colorfully exotic set pieces, and a fair share of over-the-top special effects for good measure. While “Snake” Plissken may be the best-known Kurt Russell character, Big Trouble’s Jack Burton is certainly the most fun.
Plus, there’s this: