John Carpenter Talks with DVDTalk
It's been too long since John Carpenter's name has been up on the big screen. Sure, his last effort with Ghosts of Mars wasn't exactly the filmmaker at his finest hour - and I'm sure he'd say the same - but the list of classics the man has made will forever be in our good graces. If he made 10 more Ghosts of Mars before his career ended, Carpenter would still be remembered as a legend.
The Thing, Halloween, The Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Fog, Christine, They Live, Assault on Precinct 13, and the heartfelt Starman. How many directors have a filmography that impressive? Not many.
His latest film, The Ward, is a bit of a return to form. It's a slow-burn, features the theme of paranoia, and is set mainly in one location. It's an old school horror film, as you except from the director.
Here's what director John Carpenter had to say about working with actors, how directing lost its fun, and why you should never expect him to revisit his films:
You usually work with mostly male ensembles, this is the opposite. Was there any noticeable difference in making an authentic female ensemble versus a male?
Well, I didn't do anything different from what I usually do. I trust the actors that I work with to bring everything that they got everyday, and it was the same here. The characters were very specific in this movie, so it wasn't that hard to do.
I spoke to Jared Harris the other day for the film, and he said that he gave you different tones to play around with in the editing room. Do you do that with most actors you work with, try to get different versions that you can later chose?
You try to get as much as you can in the time that you have, and that's always the general rule. We experimented a little bit. There's a scene in the film that's a group therapy session, in the reality of that scene, the doctor would be talking to one person, and not a number of people, so where would he look? Jared [Harris] said maybe he could do one take where he's looking at Amber Heard, because she's the only real one.
I remember you once saying that early on in your career you didn't know how to work with actors. Why was that?
Well, I was scared of actors. That was my big problem. I just didn't know how they operated or what they thought about. They were really intimidating. Once I got to know their process and figure out what they do, I came to really love them. At the beginning, I had no idea about actors. I remember a moment on Escape from New York, where they had the scene on bridge, I'd just tense up with Ernest Borgnine. I just thought, "My God, he's been in some of my favorite movies." I got over it.
When you started out directing, did you just think about the visual side of things, and not how to work with actors? That's exactly right. I wanted to learn about the plotting of making films, and I wasn't quite so worried about the acting part. I should have been more worried about it. It comes pretty easy to me now.
Do you think you can only make the films you want to make independently now, like The Ward?
Not necessarily. I don't think there's any rule to that. It can all be different. It just depends on the movie and the story that you're telling. It is certainly more fun to be an independent filmmaking. You certainly get more freedom being an independent filmmaker. If it was a good story, I would consider [a studio film].
I've heard you say that filmmaking just stopped being fun for you. What changed from the start of your career to, say, 10-years ago?
It was just so many [films] in a row. It was so much work in the time that I had. As a young kid, I wanted to have a career as a director. I used to want to make as many movies as I could, but I just got burnt out. I had to stop for a while. I had to rest, because I just can't do it at that pace anymore.
I know some of your past couple of films had budget problems and you definitely had to answer to a lot more people. Did you not have any experiences like that early on?
I didn't care about budgets, and that didn't really matter to me. I could do a movie for peanuts, it doesn't matter. It's never fun to disagree about the creative direction of a movie, but that's a part of the game.
Were you at all open to the notes you'd get?
No, I'm not open to it. I'd fight like a crazy person.
[Laughs] Are you being truthful?
Were you ever getting good feedback?
They were pretty much all the same, but sometimes, you'd get a good note. It all depends. I just had to learn to be more open. They just want to take all your power away from you, and I won't let them [Laughs].
[Laughs] When it comes to music, could you describe your relationship with composers?
Well, I've worked with a couple of different composers other than myself. There's a process you go through when you're scoring a film. We talk about the score and what the composer hears. I had a great time with Mark Kilian on this.
Do you have a sense of what you want for music early on?
Nope. I don't even think about it. It's all about having that later. I just don't think that way while making a film. It's just not my process.
Do you still write music?
Sure. My son and I do a lot of improvisation at our little studio here at the house. We have a good time.
Obviously there's a lot of horror conventions, especially for films like this. When you're filming a scene or prepping, do you think about putting spins on those conventions?
Oh, God no. I don't think about that. I think about what's the story we're telling here. What's the story about?
Don't you think it's fun to play with cliches, though? I mean, in Big Trouble in Little China, the whole joke is Kurt Russell's character isn't the hero.
That's right. That is the fun part of the movie, because he doesn't know that he's not a hero. He has no clue.
[Laughs] Wasn't it just the 25th anniversary?
Do you actually like to look back on the films you've done?
I just don't look at them anymore. I don't want to see them anymore. It's enough, please!
[Laughs] Would you start getting sick of them after having to watch them over and over while editing?
Yeah, it destroys you. After a while you just say, "Stop. How can I get away from this? I just don't know how to do this anymore. Let me go."
[Laughs] I understand. I've actually always been struck by how out there and bizarre of a studio film Big Trouble in Little China is. Could you get away with making that today?
It is bizarre. I don't know, though. The studio wasn't aware that was the kind of movie I was going to make. They had no clue.
I'm curious about the blu-rays for your films. None of those HD-transfers have changed the product of its time feel. Is it important to you to keep your films as is, and not do any digital removals or re-editing?
God no, I'll never do that. Number one, I don't ever want to watch or think about a film I've done again. Ever. It's finished, I'm done with it, it's out in the public, and I don't want to talk about it anymore. I don't want to see it anymore.
The Ward will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 16th.
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