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Catching Up with John Carpenter (from Hollywood)

The legendary Hollywood director talks about movies he’s made, movies he wants to make, shooting on location…and video games.
John Carpenter. Photo courtesy of Thomas Smith for the Directors' Fortnight.
In May, the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes presented John Carpenter with the Carrosse d'Or (Golden Coach), its lifetime achievement award named after Jean Renoir's 1952 classic film. This occasioned a ripe opportunity to talk to one of the great Hollywood masters of genre cinema whose influence was very much felt at the Fortnight in 2019 with premieres of Takashi Miike's thriller First Love and Robert Eggers's horror-tinged chamber drama The Lighthouse, as well as a revival of Carpenter's once-flop, now-classic The Thing (1982). A week before the festivities I spoke by phone with the director, who was delighted by his upcoming award, and while he seemed to be resting comfortably on a career about which didn't have much to add, we never the less had an amiably wry, easy-going, and laugh-filled conversation about storyboarding, special effects, the delight of his sci-fi romance Starman (1984), and video games.

NOTEBOOK: This is Daniel Kasman, from MUBI.
JOHN CARPENTER: This is John Carpenter, from Hollywood [laughter].
NOTEBOOK: The Directors' Fortnight is giving you the Carrosse d'Or, which is essentially a lifetime achievement award—
CARPENTER: —hard to figure out, isn't it? It's a mystery. Why me?
NOTEBOOK: Do you have a sense of the reception of your career or your individual films being taken differently abroad?
CARPENTER: No, I have no sense of my career—at all, really. None: Everything is a surprise to me. This is a very pleasant surprise.
NOTEBOOK: There's a common thought that genre filmmakers in the United States are treated as entertainers, whereas abroad, and especially in France, they are elevated to artists.
CARPENTER: I do know about that. I've seen that over the years. "Entertainers"? Wow, interesting.
NOTEBOOK: When you present your films in France, or Germany, or Japan, do you sense the audiences are reacting to them the same way as audiences in the States, or are they viewed as distinctly American?
CARPENTER: That's hard for me to say. I don't really present my films anywhere. They get released and that's it. There they are, like 'em or not! I don't present anything. I'm pretty excited about this particular award because it brings me to a new place as a director.
NOTEBOOK: This may be a lifetime achievement award, but I hope it's not a cap on your career.
CARPENTER: [Laughs] I don't know, we'll see, we'll see. I'm an old man now, I don't wanna run around out there like a young kid.
NOTEBOOK: Yes, well, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Manoel de Oliviera, made films through the age of 106. You have a long way to go.
CARPENTER: 106? Wow, that's incredible.
NOTEBOOK: What kind of movie would you like to make that you haven't made yet?
CARPENTER: Gee, I don't know. It's more a question of where I would like to set the movie. There are a lot of movies I'd like to make. I'd love to do a movie in Venice. It'd be really cool. It's just so beautiful over there. It would be really hard—and there's nothing specifically scary about Venice....except it's sinking. That's the only thing that's scary. It's just a good story that needs to be told.
NOTEBOOK: Venice isn't scary? What about Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, with its labyrinthine of canals? It’s so crepuscular...
CARPENTER: "Crepuscular"? Wow, I gotta say. Man, oh, man—that's stunning, just stunning [laughter].
The Fog
NOTEBOOK: That's interesting you think of location first, as I grew up in Marin County, which figures in The Fog. I never saw the Pacific coast the same after that movie. Which film did you shoot in the town of Nicasio, Village of the Damned?
CARPENTER: Yeah. That's just paradise up there, no doubt about it.
NOTEBOOK: How important is it to you to shoot on location?
CARPENTER: Extremely important. That's half the battle—or three-quarters of the battle—that the audience believes where they are. That where they are is the real deal. The lighthouse in Marin [Point Reyes Lighthouse] is just beautiful—wow, look at this! Not tall, it's this squat, tiny thing—but where it is, out on this point. Oh man.
NOTEBOOK: That's in strong counter-distinction to Hitchcock, who was usually faking locations in the studio to get that effect just right. You took that out of the studio and found those effects on location.
CARPENTER: I totally agree.
NOTEBOOK: Was that a challenge you jumped at, shooting something like Christine on the streets and not relying on rear projection?
CARPENTER: It's not impossible. It's slightly a challenging deal. But it's fun. It's fun to do something like that. It's fun to do something that pushes you.
NOTEBOOK: The logistical challenge is a thrill?
CARPENTER: After a while, yeah. Logistics is not a big percentage of a movie, but it's part of it.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see your love of practical effects tied to that sense of fun? Getting your hands dirty, in a way.
CARPENTER: Let's just say that computer generated images are tools. That's all they are. They are no more or less important than that. It depends on how you use them. They can be very important and profound if used correctly. They can be realistic and absolutely convincing to an audience—oh my god, look at that—they can also be overused—way overused and for their own sake. Part of it is laziness: You're on set and you just say, "oh, well, we'll do it later [with computer effects]." No, let's do it now, let's try now. Let's try to get it right. Practical effects are harder and maybe they succeed or maybe they don't look right, or whatever. You can use computer images to great effect, it can really work.
NOTEBOOK: At the same time, while practical effects seem to age quicker, often they don't date at all. Because what you're really doing is recording an object, and while that object may look more or less realistic, it's always going to be that object. But with computer images, in five or ten years the tech has changed and we're used to looking at different things. But when you're filming a head exploding [Carpenter laughs] and it's made from a sculpture, it still feels tactile.
Big Trouble in Little China
CARPENTER: You think that the original Star Wars has dated a great deal?
NOTEBOOK: The 1977 one holds up very well primarily because they're shooting models. How do you break down the visualization of a non-special effects scene? When you're coming to set are you coming with a storyboard or shot list in hand or in your head?
CARPENTER: I just have experience now, I've done so many movies. I don't work as hard on that as I did when I was a kid. When I was a young director I would storyboard everything out: I gotta make sure this is okay. The one thing storyboards are still good for are to figure out how many set-ups you need and how long it's going to take—there's always that time limit on set that's clicking away on you. It's instinct now, it's just easier. Thank god I don't have to do that anymore!
NOTEBOOK: When you were using storyboards, did you draw things out before you found locations or the set was built, and then you'd have to improvise after you knew the physical constraints of what you were shooting?
CARPENTER: Absolutely, all the time. That's the whole gig. Things don't look like they're written on the page—they're all different. I'd storyboard something and then we'd find a location and I'd be like, uh oh.
NOTEBOOK: If it's more intuitive now, do you feel like your later work has loosened up in a way?
CARPENTER: Maybe it's laziness [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: I said "loose," I didn't say "lazy"! [Laughter] I feel like storyboarding can lead to schematic approach, it's all pre-visualized, all set in stone: A to B to C. If you're walking on set with a general idea and executing, the film can stretch out a bit.
CARPENTER: I think it opens up for new possibilities. There's something about a storyboarded sequence that looks like a storyboarded sequence. It doesn't have a kind of natural flow or rhythm to it. Especially for a non-special effects driven sequence, if you go on set with the actors and start staging it, just because of their physical relation to one another, where they are on the set, suddenly visual ideas start happening—it's really amazing. Oh wow, if I'm over here, this would really look good. It's a sense of discovery. Whereas, if you have it storyboarded, you get as bored as Hitchcock did at the end of his career. You could sit in your car while they make your movie.
NOTEBOOK: How close are you collaborating with your cinematographers on finding those images? Across films, across directors of photography, you have the same compositional sense in the arranging space and framing of actors.
CARPENTER: I maintain it—I try to maintain it! I bring a viewfinder and I watch the scene. The position I watch the scene from is where we'll put the camera, in general. I enforce my sensibilities on whatever we're doing, whoever I'm shooting with. Now, it's a little harder in the new digital world, it's a little different.
NOTEBOOK: Why is that?
CARPENTER: I don't know! I haven't figured it out. It's just a different thing. They "print" everything in digital, so you don't get preferred take. And there's a framing issue in digital: framing is not locked. I've always wanted to lock the framing, that's why I love Panavision, because you're locked into it: That's it, there you are. But in the digital world that's not necessarily true, you can frame it up and down. It's a little loosey-goosey. It's just a difference, I have to adjust. Not a problem, but I noticed the first time / last time I worked with it, with digital: oh I see, interesting...
NOTEBOOK: If constraints inspire creativity, a locked in frame forces you to make decisions, but if you have an open frame and you can crop in post-production then you're not really sure what you're actually making when you're making it.
CARPENTER: That's exactly it! You're sort of approximating instead of directing. I want it here and I want it to look like this. "Well, we can sorta do that or we can change it later, what do you think?" You just have to adjust; it's not bad.
NOTEBOOK: One of the things I really admire about your cinema is that it's bullshit free—
CARPENTER: [Laughs]
NOTEBOOK: —you cut the stories to the chase, there's not an excess of shots or exposition. When a scene's over, it's over. Your movies feel like ninety minutes, max. There's a real honing of what needs to be shown, what needs to be said. Where does this concision start? Do you have a longer script and then cut out what you don't need, or are you just filming the bare necessities?
CARPENTER: Well, it's just a philosophy. I think movies play better when they're fast. When they're moving along. Especially a genre movie: the quicker you can move it through, the better off it is. There's no secret to it. Sometimes the movies I make are too short, because I've screamed through them. And I have to go back and fill out stuff. I've had that happen to me a couple times, woops, damn man. But it should play real fast. I think—but that's just my personal opinion.
NOTEBOOK: I've never heard of a director who complains that his or her movie is too short after shooting it. The legend is always that the director shoots too much and the studio says to cut it down.
CARPENTER: Well no, I don't shoot that much [laughs]. My preference is: Let's keep it short and sweet. Let's move it. Make it move, let's go.
NOTEBOOK: You seek that speed across all aspects, not just the pacing but the actors, the dialog?
CARPENTER: All of it. All of it working together. I have tried over the years to make it move really fast between the actors, so they overlap. I've done it occasionally, but it's hard to do. Actors aren't used to what they have to do to get that effect.
NOTEBOOK: Most movies aren't His Girl Friday.
CARPENTER: No, they're not. You watch that thing and it's still amazing how fast it goes.
His Girl Friday
NOTEBOOK: That whole movie basically takes place in one office room but it's completely enthralling and incredibly swift. I know you're often pulling from people like Howard Hawks and Hitchcock as inspirations. When you were first setting out, did you want to make movies like them or did you want to improve on what they were doing, make your version of their thing?
CARPENTER: I didn't know at the very beginning. At USC [University of Southern California] they came and talked to us and then we watched their movies, all of their movies. And we got to see things and really understand them: Oh I see, he's been working at this for twenty years, he's been fooling around with this for twenty years, with varying degrees of success. It became a different story. During film school I began to submerge myself. I loved Hollywood movies and didn't necessarily want to make New Wave, French-type films—didn't want to do that—I wanted to be a director in Hollywood, so I studied the masters, the guys who made it happen for themselves.
NOTEBOOK: Is it equally important, in that way, for you to teach the following generations in the same manner?
CARPENTER: You know, I hesitate to teach anybody anything because you gotta come up with it yourself, all of it. What you want to make a movie about, what you're concerned with—you have to come up with that, nobody can do that for you.
NOTEBOOK: I don't disagree with you, but I think one of things that's magical about your cinema is that it feels personal—as you're describing it—but also it feels intended for an audience. I'm certainly a fan of hardcore art-house cinema—next week at the Fortnight I'll be watching a four-hour black-and-white picture—
CARPENTER: —[Laughs] four-hour, black-and-white? You got it, man! That's it.
NOTEBOOK: I'll be there, that's the good stuff! But as much as I enjoy that, I also really admire a filmmaker who can keep their vision personal but also be hoping a larger audience can enjoy that personal work. I think that's pretty rare marriage, usually it's either one or the other. You're either making highly personal work that no one else wants to watch, or you're making highly commercial work that is completely indistinct.
CARPENTER: That's true. Again, I go back to the directors who showed up at USC to talk to us. Especially Hawks. His idea was always to make an entertaining movie for the audience. Hitchcock: He would experiment, but if it didn't work, like he said, run for cover. He'd go right back to an entertaining film. The shock was that they were dealing with the same sort of things that we were as student filmmakers, only at an advanced level.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of Hitchcock and his desire to please an audience, you're a filmmaker who is concerned with the effect you're causing in an audience. Where the studio-mandated test screenings a useful practice for you or was that mostly nail-biting and an irritation?
CARPENTER: It's a mixed bag. It can help you. It has helped me in the past. I've seen things that didn't work the way I wanted them to, in a test screening. Really unless you go outta L.A., outta town someplace, because all the L.A. audiences are really inured to tests. It's not really fair. Your movie is going to suffer [being tested] in L.A., really big time.
NOTEBOOK: People are just too self-conscious and entertainment-savvy?
CARPENTER: That's it. They know too much—they think they know too much. They know what movie's going to be shown [rather than be surprised at the screening]. I remember when I was at USC someone said, "the new Hawks films is going to be showing out at blah blah blah, they're going to have a preview." And I thought, "How do you know?" It's supposed to be a secret. L.A. is a real know-it-all city. They know, they know where it is, "let's go out there and crash it. Let's make the filmmakers feel like shit. We'll talk about it online" [laughs].
Starman
NOTEBOOK: We've been talking pretty generally, but I wanted to mention that my particular favorite film of yours is Starman, which I feel is made in an unusual emotional register from the rest of your career, softer and sweet. Was that a direction you ever wanted to push more into?
CARPENTER: I'm happy with it, I'm happy with the career I had. But, at that time, along came Starman and I got to make a romantic comedy—on the road! And, aw hell, I've always wanted to do that. Ever since I sat there and watched It Happened One Night. I said to myself, "when am I ever gonna get a chance to do this? Here it is!" It's a science-fiction movie, it's got its antecedents in E.T.—but that aside, hey I get to do this, I get to try this. I was very excited by that.
NOTEBOOK: It's a lovely movie, as well as very funny.
CARPENTER: Yeah, yeah! What it truly is, is a Jeff Bridges movie. He made it, he made that movie. I loved working with Jeff, he's just a tremendous actor. Yeah, I got to do it, and I'm very happy with it. It's a chick movie, man!
NOTEBOOK: You're not chomping at the bit for another romantic comedy script?
CARPENTER: If somethin' comes along, yeah. I just don't want to work too hard these days—that's the big thing, you know? I'm having a good time playing music.
NOTEBOOK: You've been playing a ton of music and touring around with your son.
CARPENTER: We've had a great time; we're doing albums. Americans don't really get second acts in their lives; I've gotten one.
NOTEBOOK: I imagine touring like this you are encountering an entirely different audience experience.
CARPENTER: It's weird. But I love it. It's a lot better than directing—a lot less pressure! Oh man, it's easy.
NOTEBOOK: Even though you're right in front of the audience?
CARPENTER: Oh, that's fun! You get to look at the chicks out there, some nice good-looking girls [laughs]. You know, it's fun to play.
NOTEBOOK: Does your experience playing live change the way you compose now in the studio?
CARPENTER: No, hell no. It's all the same. But that's changed too, since the old days. It's digital recording now. It's just different—it's fun. Plus, you know, and this is my happy time of year: It's the NBA finals and I get to watch these incredible basketball games. My god! Boy, they're great games.
NOTEBOOK: I'm glad you bring up games, because I wanted to talk to you about video games. You're one of the most famous people who prominently advocates for video game playing, which I'm always happy to hear about.
CARPENTER: Oh yes, yes.
NOTEBOOK: What are you playing right now?
CARPENTER: I'm foolin' around with Fallout 76. The game came out in November, it had problems on its launch, there were a lot of glitches with it, but I love the Fallout series. I'm trying to beat it, finish it. There's one last mission, and it's really hard, so I'm trying to prep for it, getting all this ammunition and stuff. Ah, I love video games, man!
NOTEBOOK: I’ve read that you play a lot of first-person shooters.
CARPENTER: Oh yeah.
NOTEBOOK: Forgive this obvious comparison, but I can't help but think those games are pulling from the kinds of tricks that you originated with first-person tracking shots and the Steadicam.
CARPENTER: Well, look: I started playing video games with Sonic the Hedgehog, which was not a shooting game. Have seen the trailer for the live-action Sonic the Hedgehog [laughs]?
NOTEBOOK: Games are inspired so much by movies, but movies seem to have been unable to creatively pull from games.
CARPENTER: Isn't that weird? Isn't that strange?
NOTEBOOK: When you're playing Fallout 76, is there something that you can apply from that to your filmmaking?
CARPENTER: Hmm, I don't know. I don't think so. It's such a different experience and different issues. That'll be something I'll have to think about.
NOTEBOOK: The struggle perhaps is that in a game you, the player, are usually aligned with the protagonist. Whereas in a movie, you can change the perspective of the narrative.
CARPENTER: Yeah, yeah, I agree.
NOTEBOOK: We should wrap this up. I’m excited you’ll soon be in France to get this award. If I see you walking down the red carpet, I’ll give a wave.
CARPENTER: Please do! Say, “hey man, what’s happening!” That’s all you’ll have to say.

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