JOHN CARPENTER: THE 1996 INTERVIEW

 

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.

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9 thoughts on “JOHN CARPENTER: THE 1996 INTERVIEW

  1. Nice to see that Carpenter knew how good Prince of Darkness was in the context of his work as a whole. I think it's one of the most underestimated films in the genre.

    Carpenter was never going to loved in the Reagan '80s. Remember “It's morning again in America”? Not a Carpenteresque sentiment.

  2. Hey Anne,

    great little read.

    Just wanted to point out that The Thing was released on Home VHS by CIC in 1987 – shame on you for only having a “taped off of the telly version” 😉

    As well as the '87 tape, I still have my “taped off the telly” version from 1984.

    Vividly remember the ITV trailers for it all that week, and wanting the day to hurry up and get to the evening in anticipation.

    Checkers Wizard @ Outpost31
    I

  3. Interesting – I wonder why I didn't have that video. It's possible I didn't bother to buy it because, like the TV version, it would have been panned and scanned. On the cover it says, “Some music re-scored” – any idea what that means? Also, running-time is given as “approx 104”, not 109 minutes. Does that mean five minutes were cut? Could be another reason I didn't buy it. Gotta love the “incredible special effects by Foy Arbogast”. I seem to recall crap spelling and design (look at that letter spacing in the credits!) were a recurring feature of video packaging in the 1980s. The copy in this picture http://www.angelfire.com/film/robsclassicfilms/thingscan.html
    was apparently “ex-rental” – do you know if there was a retail version as well? If not, that could be another reason didn't have it – there was a big divide between rental and retail at that time. I know it sounds like I'm making excuses, but I'm genuinely puzzled that I didn't have the video if it was available, and just wondering why…

  4. Hi Anne,

    The “Some music re-scored” statement is most likely down to the fact that the Stevie Wonder's “Superstition” was only used in the theatrical release. All the t.v. / video / laser disc versions used some cheesy disco funk track – I think Santana or something.

    That really threw me the first time I watched the DVD, when “Superstition” had been restored – it took quite some getting used to.

    I don't recall any other musical changes.

    The difference in running time is due to the fact that the film was shot at 24 frames per second – whereas PAL runs at 25 frames per second, so the film is actually running 4% faster (the sound has to be pitch-shifted back down, so that everyone doesn't sound like girly chipmunk's).

    The film has always been passed completely uncut by the BBFC – ITV removing swearing is entirely at their discretion.

    I think the “Foy Arbogast” bloper is just a scan resolution thing. Here's a better scan :

    http://abadeducation.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/the_thing_uk_vhs.jpg

    That's the same one I had (yeah it was Pan & Scan. When the DVD came out, and was Widescreen, and had all those amazing extras on it, my mind was so blown I bought the DVD and a dvd player on the spot).

    That's not the Rental version ( though that's not to say whoever owned it didn't buy it as ex-rental).

    The rental version had a larger sleeve (I don't think it had the crappy black cover with blue stripes, which was the design for all of CIC's home release range) and the back of the cover featured a shot of Palmer's face mid-meltdown.

    Rental tapes were produced on much higher quality video tape, designed to be viewed about 70 times before stretching/degrading, whereas home release tapes were pretty shitty.

    I had a friend who wanted a Widescreen version so badly, that he ran his Pan & Scan vhs through a vision mixer, and cropped it to 2.35:1.

    I was wetting my pants laughing at him for cropping it even further, but he was happy…

    Checkers Wizard @ Outpost31

  5. Oh, another thing I forgot to point out about the VHS cover :

    Both of those scans (from the 1987 home/retail release) proclaim “From the Director of Big Trouble in Little China & Prince of Darkness”.

    Those films were released in 1986 & 1987 respectively.

    Additionally, the cover is emblazoned with the BBFC 18 certificate.

    The original rental VHS obviously wouldn't have been able to namecheck Carpenter's yet to be made films, and was also part of the “Video Nasties” furore – which as you know led to videos being subject to BBFC classification.

    I think the rental VHS came out in 1983 (maybe '82, my memory's a little hazy) so there was no age certificate on it.

    Hope that helps solve some of these puzzles.

    P.S. I am fully aware of the irony that I misspelt “Blooper” in my previous post.

    I at all times reserve the right to be a dipshit.

    Checkers Wizard.

  6. Hi Anne,

    I just stumbled across a video that features the Original Rental VHS cover that I mentioned previously.

    here's the link :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXRrIK7PVBk&feature=plcp

    It has an 18 certificate, so that's either a sticker added after BBFC classification (stickers were pretty common) or the tape is a post 1984 issue.

    Anyway, you can see the difference between this and the home release VHS cover, which had black boarders, diagonal stripes and no Palmer face-melt.

    Cheers!

    Checkers Wizard.

  7. Pingback: THE THING: MEN IN THE FRAME « MULTIGLOM

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