Outpost #31 – The Ultimate THE THING Fan-site – has reminded me that it’s now thirty years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Later this month (or possibly at the start of next month) I shall be endeavouring to answer questions submitted to the message boards there. In the meantime, while rooting through boxes of papers in search of something else entirely, I came across this typed transcript and thought it might be of interest…
In June 1996 I talked to John Carpenter on the telephone to tie in with the UK release of Escape from LA, but also because I was writing my book on The Thing, and I had a couple of questions I wanted to put to him before I submitted the manuscript.
It should perhaps be pointed out that in 1996, although The Thing already had a lot of fans, it was still officially regarded as a flop and was still pretty much despised in old-school critical circles. So when Ed Buscombe at BFI Publishing solicited from me a list of films I might be willing to write about for their Modern Classics series, I was surprised when they picked that one; it seemed to me they were taking a risk. (Other titles on my list included Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers. There may well have been other horror movies – possibly Dawn of the Dead – but my memory is a little hazy on this score.)
All I had at my disposal was a pan-and-scan video of the film, with ad-breaks, that I’d video-ed off the television; the film had yet to be released on commercial video; it still amazes me that many of its fans at this stage had only ever seen pan-and-scan versions of it on television. I had already watched it twice in 70mm on its release, but the BFI very kindly laid on another screening for me so I could refresh my memory of what I remembered as very elegant widescreen compositions.
My telephone conversation with Carpenter was short – less than 20 minutes – but he was helpful and articulate – so articulate, in fact, that I’ve been able to post the transcript of what he said with very little editing. If I’ve changed anything here, it’s the questions, which I didn’t bother to transcribe verbatim; instead I just jotted down the gist, so I’ve had to retrofit them.
AB: Would you describe Escape from LA as a western?
JC: Very definitely. Escape from LA is a nihilistic western. I call it cowboy noir. And it resembles the first movie, but times ten.
AB: The budget was $50 million?
JC: By five million dollars it’s the biggest (budget). I had one at 45 million.
AB: Did you write the theme tune?
JC: I did, and I’m co-composing with Shirley Walker on the entire score. The title track is mine.
AB: Is Kurt Russell your alter-ego?
JC: Well, I think the character that he plays [Snake Plissken] is my alter-ego. We seem to share a whole lot in common in terms of just our approach to making movies and what we like to do and so forth. But Snake Plissken is definitely an alter-ego of mine.
Snake Plissken is basically is a character who is incorruptible. He has no causes; he only lives for the next sixty seconds. He doesn’t want to kill you. He doesn’t want to save you. He just wants to move on. And he’s only forced to do anything when he’s forced to do it. You can’t make him do something unless you threaten to kill him. So in a sense he’s the perfect free man, if you want to call it that.
AB: Could you give me some idea of what Escape from LA about?
JC: Well, basically it takes place in 2013, and a new model America has risen in reaction to crime and immorality. It’s basically a theocracy. And the United States has banned smoking and drinking and drugs and foul language.
AB: It doesn’t sound so different from now.
JC: Very true. The president has been elected for life, and the rights have been suspended, the borders have been closed. And if you don’t fit in you’re banished for ever to the island of Los Angeles, which is sort of like Armageddon and hell and the wild west rolled into one. And the president’s daughter steals a doomsday device and escapes to Los Angeles and gives it to this revolutionary Rasputin-like figure who’s about to attack the United States, so Snake has to go in and get the Doomsday device but he’s also supposed to go in and kill the president’s daughter, so this time he’s an assassin. And that’s our set-up.
AB: What is it you like so much about the horror and fantasy genres?
JC: Well, I grew up watching those movies when I was little, and they were among my favourite films when I was a kid. I grew up watching every kind of movie when I was young, and I got into the business wanting to make westerns. And fortunately, horror and science-fiction kind of found me. I made a movie called Halloween, and it became a big hit, and one gets typecast, very quickly in Hollywood… I wanted to work and I wanted to direct, so I began directing all sorts of science fiction and horror and fantasy films. I got to spin a little bit different emphasis on them – I got to do a love story with Starman, and I got to do kind of a kung-fu action movie with Big Trouble in Little China, so
they weren’t all the same kind of film; I’m very happy about that, I don’t like just doing the same thing over and over.
AB: There aren’t many directors who stay loyal to the genres they started out in.
JC: That’s kind of a Hollywood… It’s accepted wisdom that the minute you have the chance, you get out of the genre that you came in. I don’t think that’s right.
AB: Why does big budget horror so rarely get it right? [I think here I was probably referring to mainstream “horror” films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Wolf.]
JC: I don’t know it they ruin it or not.
AB: Well, mainstream film-makers don’t get the point somehow…
JC: No, they don’t, and what I find what they do – by design – is avoiding what it is about the genre that’s so much fun. I think they were really making epics. They were trying to make period costume epics, as opposed to horror films. I mean Dracula wasn’t really very horrible at all. There was nothing to it, really. It’s not that there weren’t some really interesting things in both movies. Some very interesting sequences. I especially liked parts of Frankenstein, I know it was put down a great deal by critics and so forth, but there were parts of it that were very good. Parts.
AB: Where do you stand in ongoing debate on screen violence? [I can’t think why I asked this, unless it was because the British press was throwing one of its perennial wobblies about sex and violence in the cinema, possibly related to David Cronenberg’s Crash, which in 1996 was coming under heavy fire from the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. The seriousness of their conviciton that the film would inspire copycat highway carnage can probably be gauged by the number of people who have since pranged their vehicles in a quest for sexual kicks.]
JC: Since I was a kid I’ve been hearing the same things over and over again. It all comes under the heading of Seduction of the Innocents. This was a whole flap that took place over comic books in the early 50s, where the EC comics were supposed to be turning everybody into killers. But you just replace that with an analogy that television violence or movie violence, and over the years you have the same basic fight over and over again. And it just goes to show you that, I think, people are very, very terrified of any kind of freedom. They just really want to run from it.
AB: Was Dark Star a big influence on Alien? [Duh. Dan O’Bannon. Of course it was.]
JC: I think in some ways it was. But more of an influence on Alien was a movie called It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Made in 1958. Basically it’s a rip-off of that movie.
AB: Did you enjoy playing a corpse in Body Bags?
JC: Enjoy is really not a good word. Five hours of make-up in the middle of the night is not fun. I didn’t like that much. And I’m uncomfortable in front of a camera; I’d much rather not be there.
AB: You had a cameo in Village of the Damned.
JC: Oh I don’t have many cameos; as long as I don’t have to do much, it’s all right, but basically getting in make-up and saying important lines – eugh, I don’t know about that, I feel very uncomfortable doing that.
AB: You looked like you were having a good time.
JC: I enjoyed the part with the lady with the breasts.
AB: What do you think about the new generation of film buff film-makers. For example, From Dusk till Dawn? (From Dusk Till Dawn had just opened in the UK.]
JC: I have not seen the film, but I know Rodriguez. He’s a very talented young man, and I think Quentin Tarantino’s a very talented young man. A lot of talent going on, a lot of these up-and-coming film-makers. What I like about what they’re doing is, they’re trying to bend the rules a little bit and get things made and do things differently, and I think that’s as it should be.
Every generation hopefully will produce young film-makers who love cinema, that’s the whole point, and it doesn’t matter what area they’re in. I mean they could be in science fiction or horror, they can be in drama, they can do any things. I just love the fact that new film-makers are still alive and up and coming; I think it says a whole lot for the health of the movies.
AB: Which of your films do you think is the most underrated?
JC: Prince of Darkness is the most underrated of my films. Then The Thing has been fairly underrated in America. It’s never really mentioned as being worth very much. It was universally put down here; it was a pretty generalised reaction to it. You must remember the time when it was released was the summer of E.T. And it was a very bleak and hopeless film. There were no women in the movie and people, I dunno, they thought I went too far.
AB: Do you think this was a generational thing?
JC: Partially generation, and nowadays a lot of younger fans and film-makers come up and tell me how influential it was for them.
AB: What were your plans for the monster?
JC: It’s one of those things where you decide to do a monster movie, you’d approach it in one of two ways. Either you do the classic Howard Hawks way, which is to keep the creature in the dark. You never see it, it’s all shadows, which sounds safe to everybody, that sounds like we don’t need to do anything else to this, that’s enough to scare people. But I thought well, why don’t we bring it out in the light, and really show that there’s a creature here, make you believe it. And if you can pull that off, then what you’ve really done is something… different. Because most monsters end up like men in suits, like Godzilla. So what if we brought something out that you really believed was hideous and alive? That’s what we tried to do.
In the script it was always emerging but never quite seen, and Rob and I started talking and realised the Thing could look like anything. It imitates so many different life-forms, and it can do so many different things to the human body that it’s just your imagination that needs to take over. So that was the exciting part of it.
AB: And the special effects?
JC: They didn’t change my concept of the film, but what they did was, I didn’t realise the power of those effects until I saw it with an audience.
AB: They haven’t been topped.
JC: I don’t think so either. I don’t think they’ve ever been topped [though] I was particularly fond of the evil Terminator in Terminator 2. I thought he was well-realised. There’s this kind of liquid that keeps re-forming itself, but I thought that in terms of just pure imagination, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything equal to The Thing.
AB: How come Ennio Morricone did the score for The Thing, and not you?
JC: First of all, if you have a chance to hire Ennio Morricone, you should always hire him. He’s one of the greatest composers of all time. And he was one of my heroes, and I just loved his score, and loved working with him.
AB: And no female characters…
JC: The original short story did not have any women, and we just went back to that, thinking that was more realistic. It was more like a Peckinpah choice – you don’t throw in the love interest in The Wild Bunch unless it’s done right, so we figured we were going to keep pure in this case.
We especially had a great time up in the glacier filming because the actors all became themselves up there. It was pretty grim conditions, so we all realised what it would be like to be trapped with this Thing in our midst.
AB: Did you manage to keep track of the torn underwear, and to whom it belonged, and so forth?
JC: I had it all plotted out at one point, then somebody asked me, “Well, whose is that?” and I went, “I don’t know, I don’t remember now.” All of that was basically – it doesn’t really matter.
AB: What about the ending?
JC: There was a great deal of pressure not end the movie the way it ended. We tried a cut where MacReady blows up the creature and then just basically sits down by himself, and it didn’t make a difference, the audience didn’t care, so we went ahead and left my ending intact.
AB: Was there ever talk of a sequel?
JC: There never was contemplation of a sequel.
AB: What about a Director’s Cut?
JC: Well, pretty much what you see is the director’s cut. That’s my cut.
AB: I read there were some scenes with an inflatable sex-doll.
JC: I took those out because of the slowness of one particular sequence. There’s a couple of sequences that I removed, but I wouldn’t want to put them back in, I’ll tell you that.
AB: What happened to Nauls the cook?
JC: We presume he got eaten.
AB: If you could remake any film in history, what would it be?
JC: Only Angels Have Wings. Maybe with Kurt Russell. I might have Sam Neill play the Richard Barthelmess part. And I might have Jeff Bridges as Thomas Mitchell.
AB: What do you have nightmares about?
JC: The same things that everybody has nightmares about. We all have the same dreams. We all have the same worries and concerns – it’s just human.
AB: Would you say the horror genre is going through a bit of a slump?
JC: Definitely. It’s in trouble. One wonders what’s going to happen. It’s not very popular any more. And maybe perhaps it needs some reinvention to get going again. I was hoping to do that with In the Mouth of Madness, but I think it was a little too cerebral for some people.