“Movies are a Harsh Mistress:” An Interview with John Carpenter

Will Schube speaks with the Hollywood legend about scoring the new Halloween film and leaving directing behind.
By    November 8, 2018

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John Carpenter is only associated with the recently released iteration of Halloween as a collaborator, but to say he’s thrilled is an understatement. The 70 year-old director and sometime-musician contributed the score to the latest version of the Michael Myers-based franchise, his first role in the series he birthed in almost 40 years. The pressure is gone and the king of horror is more than content hanging at home and watching basketball, hanging out with the series’ latest director, David Gordon Green, for the occasional spotting session. As he says, none of the blame can be assigned to him, and making movies are horrifyingly stressful; likely more stressful than the new Halloween.

But Carpenter made clear during our conversation that film is his first love and that while his focus with Halloween focused exclusively on his musical contributions, the right gig to push him back behind the camera may be around the corner.

The notoriously thorny interviewee graced us with a witty and fascinating look into his mind, a close examination of a genius filmmaker and a tremendous musician—even if he calls himself an amateur as a composer. John Carpenter may be most well known for what he’s accomplished in the past, but his career is still growing. — Will Schube

It’s been almost 40 years since you’ve been involved with the Halloween franchise. Why did now feel like the right time to re-enter that world as a collaborator?

John Carpenter: Jason Blum convinced me to do it. He’s a really, really talented salesman. He said, ‘You know they’re gonna make this movie with or without us, so why don’t we work on it together and make it better?’ I thought that was a pretty cool idea. He sold me on it.

How long ago was that initial conversation?

John Carpenter: It must have been three years ago.

Have you been following the modern horror landscape with what Blumhouse and other production houses have been doing?

John Carpenter: Sure! I mean, I’m not following it such that I think about it every day, but I watch the new ones when they come out. I check ‘em out to see what’s happening.

Can you talk a little bit about your working relationship with David Gordon Green? Was it ever hard to see someone else controlling a project that was yours at one time?

John Carpenter: No, not at all! I think it’s great, he’s doing all the hard work. I’m just sitting back and relaxing. Dave did a great job. He’s a real talented director. Really, really talented. And he’s not a horror director, which is what I love about him! It’s not what he’s known for, so it was great.

What do you think it was about his style that helped make the film a success?

John Carpenter: I don’t have a description of his style, it’s just very interesting. He sees things very differently than I do, and I like that. I’m fascinated by how he tells a story. It’s really interesting. He’s really great with actors. They respond to him. He’s very patient and gentle, too. I saw him on set, I was very impressed with him. It’s all good, man!

How often were you on set?

John Carpenter: I went to the set once. I don’t wanna spend a lot of time there. It’s not my favorite place in the world to go. Plus, it’s not my movie so I felt a little like an outsider. I went to visit and say, ‘Hi guys! Good work! See ya!’ That was my job and then I’m outta there.

Your original Halloween had a budget around $300,000. What’s it like seeing this universe where millions of dollars are poured into the project?

John Carpenter: It’s still that same guy with the mask on and a bunch of cute teenage girls. The situations just go from there. I wish we had that money but we didn’t. There’s nothing I can do about it. Why worry about something I can’t do anything about?

How did your composition process with collaborators like Cody [John’s son] and Daniel Davies change for a film score versus the records you’ve recently put out?

John Carpenter: We work well together so it was pretty much the same. Look, we had a task. Let’s put it that way. We just went right at it. You consider working on a particular movie, doing a spotting session with David Gordon Green and him telling us what he wants and where he wants it. That’s just like him directing us. That’s what a good director does with a spotting session. Once we have that information, we’re good to go…And off we went.

So it wasn’t ever difficult to divorce yourself entirely from the creative process?

John Carpenter: No, it wasn’t hard at all! That’s great, I prefer that. I don’t have to make decisions, I’m not responsible. If something goes wrong, it’s his fault. I can sit here and watch basketball. I don’t have to worry about that.

Are you a big basketball fan?

John Carpenter: Oh my gosh, yes.

Who’s your team?

John Carpenter: Well, there’s only one team in the NBA. There’s only one. The Golden State Warriors. I love them. Are you kidding me? Are you serious? It’s unbelievable. Steph Curry is so fantastic. The games this year are so high scoring. Man, I guess it’s just because people are hitting a lot of threes? I dunno. Wow.

Are you excited about LeBron being in LA?

John Carpenter: It’s interesting. I don’t know if this team is up to winning yet, but we’ll see. I’m glad when they win. I’m not the biggest fan of that team, but that’s okay.

When you’re dealing with this score, especially re-creating the iconic “Halloween Theme,” did that bring back any memories from doing it the first time?

John Carpenter: Well yeah, I remember working on it [laughs]. In that sense it brings back memories! It’s a piece of music that’s very simple and anyone can play. A child can play it. It wasn’t upsetting or anything. It was great. Everything was great.

I’m happy that was the case. Films don’t always work out that way.

John Carpenter: The whole thing worked out just great. I was delighted by it.

Have you seen the film in theaters?

John Carpenter: I scored the film! I’m intimately aware of what it is. I know every frame. I’ve watched every frame over, and over, and over again.

Are you happy with how it turned out?

John Carpenter: Ah, I think it’s terrific. I’m really happy. And I’m really happy for David. I think he did a great job. And I’m really proud of the score, too! I think we did a really good job.

How intent on you were changing the original framework of the score for this updated film? Was that a focus of yours? Or were you purely under the direction of David?

John Carpenter: It’s two things. I knew before talking to David about the score that it was going to be a combination of the old score and brand new music. With the main theme and other themes, we updated them and refurbished them with modern technology that I didn’t have 40 years ago. Synthesized sounds and techniques are now really advanced. We just applied that to these themes. And then we invented new music. It just went from there.

Is it at all frustrating for you as a musician to still be known in some circles as John Carpenter the director making music?

John Carpenter: No, that’s not frustrating. My first love and my biggest love is movies. I’m just a minimally talented musician. It’s true, I can’t play very well!

You’ve stepped away from directing for quite some time. If that’s still your first love why have you been away from it for so long?

John Carpenter: Because movies are a harsh mistress. They destroy you if you don’t get away from them. It’s the hardest art form to accomplish, be good at, and have a life … Movies are consuming. They’re anxiety-provoking and stressful. It’s horrifying. It’s like working in a coal mine every single day. So I had to stop. “My life is falling apart here, I gotta stop! I gotta rest. It’s too tough.”

So you don’t have any interest in directing again?

John Carpenter: Sure I do! I’ll get back to it if there’s something good that comes along with the right situation and is not a cheap-o movie. I’d consider doing it, sure.

I know you didn’t spend much time on set, but what was it like being back involved with the film world as a composer?

John Carpenter: It was great. I just haven’t had this experience before. It felt fabulous. I love it.

What was your favorite part about it?

John Carpenter: Everything was my favorite part about it. The fact that I wasn’t responsible for the movie was my favorite part about it. Being able to work with my kid was a joy. I think we have a good score and I’m very proud of it.

Did David Gordon Green seek out your advice in terms of the story and directing it?

John Carpenter: In terms of the story, yes. When the script was done I gave some input and notes. That was all. He didn’t need to ask me about how to direct. He knows how to do that so I stay out of the way.

What is it about music and composition that satisfies something that film doesn’t for you?

John Carpenter: I grew up with music in my house. My dad was a musical teacher and a pretty accomplished musician. It was all second nature to me, I grew up with it, listening to classical stuff and creating. It’s really fun. It’s a different art form than directing movies, it’s just different…And very fulfilling. Music is a great art form because you can’t talk about it really, you just have to listen to it.

It makes my job a little harder but that’s okay.

John Carpenter: I love that! I enjoy that [laughs].

Do you generally have an antagonistic relationship with critics or journalists?

John Carpenter: Oh, no. Well, wait a minute. Journalists, no. Critics, there are some over the years that I’d love to spend just five minutes alone with in a room. That’s all. Just five minutes. Some really relish it. A couple I’d love to give a bit of payback to.

The original Halloween came out 40 years ago. Why do you think it still has such a resounding impact within our culture?

John Carpenter: I don’t know, there are probably 100 reasons. There’s something encapsulated in Michael Myers. He’s the perfect fear machine. He’s perfect for Halloween. You can wear him as a costume, you can be Laurie Strode, too! I don’t know, I just think it was a scary movie for its time. You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m just happy it worked!

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