‘Movies are for the young’
Director John Carpenter has no regrets and little time for film whingers, he tells Tara Brady, ahead ofa Dublin performance ofhis best soundtracks and music
He has almost certainly creeped you out with such iconic movies as Halloween and The Thing, yet you’d be hard-pressed to meet a jollier fellow than director, screenwriter, composer and producer John Carpenter. Where many of his contemporaries (you will note that much of his early career unfolded adjacent to the heyday of the Brat Pack) are rather rightly miffed that their projects go unnoticed or unfinanced, Carpenter, who has made just two films since the turn of the millennium, shrugs off semiretirement.
“Audiences are still enthralled by the kind of movies that are being made,” says Carpenter (68). “That’s what counts. Audiences love superhero movies. And that’s all good. Things evolve and things change. That’s a good thing, I think. A lot of old-timers like to bitch, but that’s all garbage. Movies are for the young. Old directors get put out to pasture. I can’t complain. I had a great, great time making movies.”
The pioneering talent behind Escape from New York, Ghosts of Mars and Big Trouble in Little China can afford to be magnanimous. He has, after all, rerouted his career into electronica. Well, not rerouted precisely. Music is hardly a new calling for the composer and multi-instrumentalist.
“Multi-instrumentalist is maybe the wrong word to use,” says Carpenter. “I know my way around a synthesiser. With modern technology and multitracks, I can get that right. I can play guitar. I’m not great but I haven’t lost my touch. I used to play violin, tothe great chagrin of humanity. And whoa, was I bad. Oh my God. I will never let you hear me.”
The son of Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor who recorded and performed with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee, among others, John Howard Carpenter cannot recall a time when he wasn’t obsessed with music. A youthful lover of classical and rock’n’roll, he experienced something of an epiphany while watching Forbidden Planet, a 1956 movie characterised by its seminal electronic score.
To hear it is to marvel that Louis and Bebe Barron composed this music using DIY circuitry and Norbert Wiener’s 1948 book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, as long ago the 1950s.
“But it really was 1956,” guffaws Carpenter. “That was the movie that made me think: I want to do this. I want to be a movie director.”
His father’s encouragement provided an additional prompt. “What my dad said was: ‘Create. I don’t care what it is. Just make something.’ And I said well, okay, I might as well follow my dream here.”
Carpenter is currently on tour with his musician son Cody, godson Daniel Davies, and the Tenacious D rhythm section in support of his second studio album, Lost Themes II. He jokes about being the “weakest link”. The European tour dates get him away from a US presidential campaign, which he dismisses as “a cesspool”.
“I’m used to being behind the camera, watching actors, watching crew and making comments,” he says. “I’m not an out-front guy, and now all of a sud- den I’m out front, and the audience is so much younger than I am. Here’s this old balding guy playing a synthesiser. What the hell is going on around here? But it’s just awesome. About 70 per cent of what we play are themes from my movies and 30 per cent is the new stuff. And the audience seems to really dig it.”
Cut and thrust
In common with such meta-projects as Stanislaw Lem’s Perfect Vacuum (a collection of literary criticism on nonexistent books), Lost Themes is an odd fiction: a collection of scores for films that never were. Carpenter says that unhooking image from visuals has been freeing. But he must, on occasion, miss the cut and thrust of independent film production?
“Movies are my first love, for sure. I miss it in so many ways. But in other ways it’s a lot of stress. You don’t have a life. When you are making movies, that’s all there is. And there are all sorts of problems to deal with. And problematic people to deal with. But I was lucky enough to work on a lot of movies, and I may still do again.”
He retains a foothold in the industry he helped shape as an occasional adviser and executive producer on the many remakes of his many films. His recent spat with Halloween rebooter Rob Zombie has lately made headlines but, mostly, he’s prepared to roll with punches.
“They’re trying to make a new movie, so it’s never going to be the same film. And that’s fine. I try not to go. But sometimes I can’t help myself. The one I thought was okay was Assault of Precinct 13. The Fog was bad. But Igot paid, so thatwas a happy ending.”
He’s equally gladdened when he happens upon the term “Carpenteresque” beside such recent titles as It Follows and The Guest: “It’s very flattering. I have received some outrageous criticism in my time. I mean, just hilarious, unbelievable stuff. So it’s great to see ‘ Carpenteresque’ doesn’t mean awful.
“What a terrific time in my life. You live long enough . . . ”
A lot of old timers like to bitch but that’s all garbage. Movies are for the young. Old directors get put out to pasture. I can’t complain. I had a great, great time making movies
Synth man John Carpenter on stage. Below: on the set of Halloween in 1978.