Interview with John Carpenter

The greatest movie ever made on a budget of less than $30

The greatest movie ever made on a budget of less than $30

This was originally published in NME in 1996. I’m still a massive fan of Carpenter: when I wrote this he had still to make Vampires, and gives the impression that his career was winding down.

Getaway Out West

After two decades making cult horror and sci-fi movies together, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell have returned to familiar territory with their new all-action anti-PC satire Escape From LA. Tommy Udo talks censorship and copycat killing with the alien butt-kicking duo.

John Carpenter is an infuriating sod. For every great movie the man has made – The Thing, Assault On Precinct 13 – he has made an absolute stinker – In The Mouth Of Madness, The Invisible Man, The Fog.

So much so that after making one of the all-time sci-fi classics, Escape From New York in 1982, he has for some reason, 14 years on, felt the need to counterbalance that with a sort of remake/sequel that’s just plain inferior. What is it with the man?

Carpenter’s first film Dark Star, made in 1975, was a classic cult hit. The director began the movie, a sort of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in outer space satire on the high minded sci-fi of 2001 : A Space Odyssey, while he was still a film student in Los Angeles. He dropped out and expanded the movie, blowing up the original 16mm footage to 35mm – so the film could be shown in commercial cinemas – and getting funding from an independent distributor.

The following year he directed another film that established itself as a classic on the late-night cult circuit, the flawed but brilliant Assault On Precinct 13, essentially a remake of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo set in modern LA in a decommissioned police station.

Carpenter wrote and directed the movie as well as writing the score, an edgy electronic soundtrack that added to the on-screen tension.

But he laughs at the suggestion that he is maybe one of only a handful of American directors (Woody Allen is another) who could be called a true film auteur. “I know that I can produce a soundtrack fast and cheap,” he says.

Carpenter is also one of the few directors to have dedicated his career to science fiction and horror.

“There are two basic kinds of science fiction and horror films, two kinds of stories,” he says. “They’re very basic and very old. Imagine us all sitting around the campfire with our tribe and the medicine man is telling us about evil. He says ‘Beware, the evil is out there,’ and he points beyond the fire light to the tree line. It’s the Other, the other tribe, the other race, the other religion. But there’s another kind of witch doctor who says, ‘The evil is in here,’ and points into the human heart. That’s scary.”

Even Carpenters most flawed works are interesting because he always deals with bigger themes and ideas than most low-budget sci-fi exploitation movies.

In They Live, his 1988 film about alien invasion, the Others have arrived and taken over. The only problem is that nobody knows. The aliens are yuppies (remember them? Never mind, it was an 80’s thing) who are asset stripping the planet, and only an armed underground resistance can see them. The film also made several witty points about homelessness, unemployment and rampant consumerism in between the roller coaster violence and alien butt-kicking.

“You have an opportunity in a lot of films to really tell a story,” says Carpenter. “They Live is a good example of a traditional story turned inside out. The aliens have taken over, they’re definitely horrible, ugly aliens, but what they stand for is unrestrained capitalism and what it’s doing.”

In the first Escape… film, New York has been turned into a maximum security prison where the United States dumps it human garbage. Snake Plissken, a near psychopathic outlaw is blackmailed into being sent to rescue the President and avert World War III. In the remake, the US is a police state ruled by a fascist Christian fundamentalist coalition under a fruitcake right wing president played by Cliff Robertson. LA, meanwhile, has literally broken away from the mainland after an earthquake and is being used as a lawless prison island for all the country’s dissidents. Plissken has to go in to kill the president’s daughter and recover the launch codes for a doomsday weapon she has stolen.

“I think he’s unique,” says Kurt Russell of his character Snake. “Most of these characters who are ‘on the edge’ as it were, doing all these disputable things, explain why their characters got this way. In other words they have a socially redeemable manner. What I like about Snake is that he doesn’t. He’s a sociopath. And it is a challenge to make people understand that, but at the same time to root for the guy to pull through.”

This is the fifth time Russell and Carpenter have worked together, but this time Kurt is credited as co-writer. They worked together for the first time in 1978 when Carpenter directed the TV film Elvis : The Movie, starring Russell as The King. Since then they have collaborated on high points including The Thing and Escape From New York, and lows such as Big Trouble In Little China.

“You don’t have to tell him what to do,” says Carpenter of his on-screen alter ego. “He’ll do what I’m thinking without me saying a word. It’s the great collaboration. It’s fun. I have a couple of actors I love working with, Sam Neill and Jeff Bridges, but Kurt is totally professional and a lot of our time is spent talking about sports and girls.”

Snake looks like a cross between Charles Manson and Jim Morrison, blazing through the film in the time-honoured tradition of shooting or blowing up everyone and everything that gets in his way.

The violence in Escape From New York and Escape From LA is obviously at a comic book level. However, these are nervous times for film makers in the light of a lawsuit recently brought against Oliver Stone, which alleged his Natural Born Killers inspired a copycat murder.

“Recently in America somebody was writing about that and finally pointed out the truth to me, because I didn’t understand it before,” says Carpenter. “There is a segment of the audience which is delusional, they cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. So they might come into a film that is a parody, they might come into a film that is a bit surrealistic, and not be able to tell that is what they’re seeing. And for their own problems, their own demons, they’ll go out and do a real life copycat killing. So the only solution I can think of, and I’m about to present it to the studio heads when I go back to the States, is that we put a warning label on movies, that watching a motion picture may cause emotional identification with certain characters and events. If a segment of the audience is so ill-equipped to distinguish between fantasy and reality then they should be warned.”

Carpenter, however, is pessimistic. Having just filmed a cameo role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, he feels the climate is changing for mavericks like himself and Tarantino.

“There’s a backlash in the press,” he says. “You always read about how Hollywood is out of Touch. Censorship is coming, no question about that. I recognise that my career as a film maker is reaching an end, but if I was a young film maker like Quentin Tarantino, I’d be very, very worried indeed.”

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