I was lucky enough to speak to John Carpenter earlier this year (bear this in mind for the section in which he talks about present/future projects) and you can read the fruits of this interview below. We covered a variety of topics including The Ward, Horror films, monster movies and much more. He also shared with me some very brief but details on the film project he’s currently working on.
Why did you decide to return from a break in directing features with The Ward and what were your reasons for taking the break?
I stopped in 2001 and I was seriously considering not making movies again. They were too hard, they weren’t fun. I think that my last film tanked didn’t help things at all. So I thought, I don’t know, maybe it’s time to quit. Then in 2006 Mick Garris came to me with this Masters of Horror idea. So he conned all of us into going up to Vancuver and shooting an hour television episode and we’d have complete creative control. Anyway, I went up there and it was a lot of fun. I had a real good time directing again. I thought, hell this is so good maybe I’ll give it a try again. The Ward came and along and it was the perfect choice to come back from being away from directing; It was a limited budget, a limited location, a few actors – very very talented actresses I worked with – and so I had a great time.
I thought the whole notion of it was pretty interesting and it was a chance to do something different, I hadn’t really worked with an all girl movie in a long time. It was just a lot of fun. And there was a lot of mood to the film and I thought I could bring something to that.
You’ve talked previously about directing large groups, on the commentaries for The Thing and The Thing From Another World. What was it like getting the opportunity to do it again here?
Originally when I was younger and making films that kind of thing scared me, having all those actors in one thing scared me very much but I got used to it and began to understand actors a lot more. Now, it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. The dynamics of a scene can change and you see things you haven’t seen before. And if you get really good actors that’s your ticket to success.
What was it like working with the young cast of women?
It just reminds you over and over again, you forget sometimes, just how accomplished actors and actresses are and of all different ages. My cast really brought it every day to the set and boy they’re great. I love working with them. And it’s nice to have pretty girls on set every day. It doesn’t hurt ya.
Did you intend for audiences to piece together the true nature of the plot of The Ward before the end?
There are plenty of clues as to what’s going on but they’re very subtle so you wouldn’t necessarily catch it. I also didn’t want to give away too much. But we were all thinking about, how much does the audience know here, how much should the audience know here about what’s going on here.
How did you decide on Mark Kilian for the soundtrack?
Enormous talent was the first thing. I decided early on, well I decided a few years ago that I don’t think I’m going to do the scores any more. They’re just too hard to do. You get so burned out after directing and editing and then you step into the recording studio and it’s like eurgh no please save me. So I met a lot of composers and Mark was just talented and he read a script and he wrote some music based on what he read and it was just great. I love working with him, he’s a really talented man.
What do you find so appealing about Horror and what do you think is the key to it succeeding?
Horror has been around since the beginning of cinema, since the silent era it’s been around, and it keeps evolving with the times and it plays around the world. In other worlds, a comedy might not play as well in the United Kingdom as it does in the United States. But a Horror movie plays everywhere because the emotions invlved are universal, they’re worldwide. We’re all afraid, we’re all essentially afraid of the same things, we share fears. It unifies us [chuckles], it’s an odd thing but it’s true. In that sense it’s a kind of classical genre that goes beyond boundaries and is adaptable to changing times. There’s nothing bad to say about it.
Do you think more basic, primal fears work better in Horror films?
The loss of identity is a fear that humans have. It is a slightly more sophisticated fear than the creature’s going to come out of the dark and get me, which seems to be a holdover from when we were coming out of the trees. But loss of identity or questions of identity is all fertile ground and this was just fun to do because it played around with a lot of things… I mean, I don’t know, you go by your instincts after a while because that’s all you have and that’s what I did in this case.
What scares you in Horror films?
It’s all about what scared me as a kid. The most vivid memories, the most fondest memories you have of things like music and movies all comes from when you are young and open-minded. you get a little cynical as you get older and you say, no I don’t believe that could happen. But when I was young during the fifties there were a lot of monster movies, monsters from outer space and they were just fabulous, just wonderful. I just loved those movies. And there were a lot of fears of obvious things at the time, there were cold war fears, there were fears of what radiation would do to us, what it would cause in humans if we were exposed to it. Listen man, a lot of that stuff is still true. There may not be giant bugs crawling around attacking us but some pretty horrendous things happen. So it was all those things and I loved those movies. And I did my share of jumping and screaming when I was young.
Would you ever consider making a big monster movie yourself?
I would if they asked me. I’d love to make a Godzilla movie.
I understand you also love westerns. Have you got any plans to make any westerns in the future?
I’m working on a Gothic Western right now. An odd gothic western, an interesting subject matter. We’ll see if we can get it made. These are interesting different times in the movie business these days. And I’m an old-timer, who wants to see a movie by me.
(He was reluctant to give away too much as he is currently working on this film but he also described it as follows.)
…True Grit spliced together with Silence of the Lambs. How’s that?
Is there anything else you’re working on at the moment?
I’m also working on a comic book, which is very interesting. We’ll see if we can set it up. A couple of other things. Right now I’m focused like a laser on the NBA playoffs here in America. Extremely important to me.
You’ve been working on Fear 3 too, right? How are you involved in that?
A friend of mine is a comic book writer, Steve Niles, and he and I have worked on a movie project that never came to fruition ut we had a good time together. He got the gig to work on the script for Fear 3 and he said how would you like to work on it and I said that sounds great. Games are basically scripted out in great detail, about which level and what happens and what the story is. In between the gameplay there’s a lot of cut scenes, where the plot gets discussed, the characters get discussed. We worked on those, we worked on the dialogue primarily.
What’s your starting point with scripts?
It’s always about story first. Always, what’s your story, what’s it about. Then you start dealing with who are the characters, what are the conflicts. Just basic storytelling frankly. I haven’t written my own scripts in a long time because a) I’m lazy and b) other talented people are doing it. That’s it though, you start with a story. What if New York was a prison and we had a character that went in there. Then you start dealing with the other issues.
What’s your process like when writing scripts?
Coffee, cigarettes and a lot of concentration. It’s brutal, you’re a writer, it can be brutal. That’s how I do it.
What’s the importance to you of the ”John Carpenter’s…’ title for your films?
I did that back on Halloween because I though two things. One was it would identify me with the movie so I would become known as a director and I would have a career and survive and pay bills. And there was a popular thing going on in the sixties and seventies, A Film By…, and I thought that’s real pretentious because it’s a film by a whole lot of people. It’s not just one guy up there baking a cake. There’s a lot of people working very hard on a movie. So it was choice I made.
Which of your films do you have the most fondness for?
There’s a lot of them that I hold a lot of fondness for. I tend to think about what was going on in my life during the time I was making a movie. So it’s not simply just the story. Some more than others. there are some I like more than others. I’m just happy when I’m finished with them, I don’t have to think too much about them any more.
What about Lovecraft interests you so much?
I’d love to do a real Lovecraft story. He’s sort of an acknowledged early master of Horror and Science Fiction. His whole story of the things, old ones, the elders are coming back to get us. It’s just right stuff. I really enjoyed his Science Fiction stories a lot. Some of his writing, you have to cultivate a taste for it because he can be a bit much but I love H.P. Lovecraft.
How do you decide on particular technical approaches in your films?
It all depends on the story and that’s where what techniques you use come from the story. It really depends on what the story requires. There isn’t like one template for making a Horror movie or science fiction movie, it depends on what the movie’s about. Let that be your guide and it will never fail you. That’s what I always do. It’s always about the story.
The Ward is released on DVD and Blu-ray on the 17th of October and you can read my review of the Blu-ray here soon.