John Carpenter kicks off WGA.org’s new column The Masters by reminiscing about the original Halloween, sharing his key to crafting suspense, and revealing what he fears the most.
Written by Denis Faye
Legendary writer-director John Carpenter has experienced a bit of a renaissance as of late, from the recent remakes of his classics Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog, to the Rob Zombie-helmed reboot of Halloween, to the new takes on Escape from New York and They Live in development. The only thing missing from this cavalcade of thrills and chills is, well, John Carpenter, who neither writes nor directs a single one of these projects.
Fortunately, the veteran filmmaker remains Zen about the whole thing. “It’s their film,” he shrugs, “It’s one of those things where you sit down and read the script and it’s familiar, but it’s wildly different. Different approach, tone, characters, and it’s not my movie anymore.”
That isn’t to say that the situation doesn’t overwhelm him, albeit not how you’d expect. “I get a very big emotional feeling in some of these projects…” says the man, pausing for typical Carpenteresque suspenseful effect, “when they pay me. Then I’m very emotional about it. That’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life, get paid to do nothing. It’s very pleasant, and I’m very happy.”
Despite this newfound manna from horror heaven, it’s hard to keep the master craftsman down. While his scripting days are behind him for the moment, Carpenter did jump behind the lens recently to helm The Ward [Written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen], a supernatural thriller set in a mental institution. U.S. distribution is currently being sorted out – quickly, one hopes.
The Writers Guild of America, West Web site had a chance to talk with Carpenter recently, gently steering the conversation away from the upcoming NBA season, to learn the nitty-gritty of his scripting process; why he writes about what he does; and how, believe it or not, the man behind Snake Plisskin and Michael Meyers doesn’t consider himself a “born writer.”
What’s your opinion of the current state of horror?
Horror today is pretty much like it always has been. Horror is such a venerable, such an adaptable genre. Ever since the beginning of cinema, it’s been with us. Most horror films are awful, some are good and there are a very, very few that are really good. It’s always kind of been that way.
Tony Moran as Michael Myers in Halloween.
Is there anything new that’s exciting you? Is The Ward influenced by things you’re seeing now?
Well, The Ward is pretty much influenced by its story. In other words, it’s not a designed movie to cover all the bases. It’s not like a 3D movie, where you have to have this, this, and this to fly out at the audience. You don’t have to have this many scares. It’s not quite like that. It’s a ghost story. The approach is very different. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than any other horror film, it’s just that the approach is somewhat different.
And how did you arrive at your decision to jump back in the game?
I stopped directing, or writing or doing anything for a while. I was burned out and tired, pissed off and miserable, so I quit for a bit. And I got lured into directing again. Mick Garris is a really nice guy, a director himself, who lured a bunch of us horror directors into doing this Masters of Horror for Showtime. So we’d basically shoot an hour story up in Vancouver. It was a lot of fun. Fun to get back on the floor again.
So, I thought, well, let me try it, give it a try, so I decided to try a little low budget movie again. It was perfect for me. It didn’t require too much in terms of production and complication. It was an isolated film with a small cast. It was perfect, and it was fun to get back.
I’ve read that you like to write on instinct, or off-the-cuff sometimes, yet at the same time, you are really good at building suspense and hitting those points. How do you combine those two?
The biggest issue in terms of writing is your structure and your outline for your film, and where things happen, and how they’re built up. That’s the big issue in any kind of movie, whether it’s a horror thriller, a science fiction film, a love story, a drama, a comedy. It’s all about structure. So the big work that’s done on the screenplay is figuring out the structure before you sit down and write it.
I never wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to direct, but I was forced to write my way in during the ‘70s to make a living – and it was a great living. I’d write screenplays for hire, sometimes [other] people’s ideas, sometimes my own ideas. I learned a lot from that. The biggest thing I learned during that time was to do a lot of the plumbing, the structural work, right up front, and then everything just kind of takes care of itself.
So did you do the whole 3x5 cards on the wall thing to nail the structure?
I’ve never been good at that. I thought it would be great to do but too time consuming. I just wrote an outline and perfected it, go over and over and over it until it was fireproof, in my opinion. Then I’d sit down and write the script. Sometimes very quickly based on the work I’d done before.
And how does developing character figure into that?
There’s the tricky part. You kind of have to rely on your instincts and depending on the story you’re trying to tell and your characters and how they mesh with the story and what their tasks are and what their arcs are. You just got to figure all that out. I write about people who appeal to me.
For example, Snake Plissken, where did he come from?
He’s an idealized version of somebody that I knew really well. His attitude toward the world, I thought, was really unique. He just didn’t give a shit about anybody. He didn’t want to hurt you, but he didn’t particularly want to help you. He was just moving through it. I thought, “Here’s an interesting hero.” He’s not motivated by country or revenge or anything like that, so I idealized him.
There’s a theme in most of your movies about the small group or the individual being cut off from the outside world and then forced to go up against something big. Why does that motif come up so much for you?
Probably because it resembles my life – the way I was brought up, circumstances of my upbringing. My parents were from northern New York, kind of Plymouth Rock Yankees. My father got a job in Kentucky in the ‘50s, teaching at a university, so we moved there. We were completely fish out of water in Kentucky, just strangers in the Jim Crow south. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, so I think that’s where the isolation came from. I found my escape from what was going on in the movies. I was very different from everyone around me.
And the rest is just survival. Everybody has to survive somehow. Gotta make it through the night.
Did you know right away that this motif was going to keep popping up? Or were you a couple movies into it before you started to see the pattern?
I didn’t realize it at first. It just sort of happened. I thought, “Oh, what’s this? I know where this comes from.”
Why is there such a renaissance right now for all your movies?
I think it has to do with the presold titles. What companies are up against to market a film are all these other films that are coming out. Competition for awareness is huge and confusing so they want a title that the audience is familiar with. And so, with some of my movies, the audience is familiar with them, so they just brush them off and refurbish them.
I guess it’s good for you as a guy who wants to…
Get paid to do nothing? Yeah.
Are you still writing?
I haven’t written in a while, which is delightful for me because it’s very painful.
Painful? How so?
Well, not painful, but not enjoyable either. You’re all alone in a room with a piece of paper there. All the clichés you’ve’ heard are true, and I avoid hard work whenever possible.
So directing is easier?
Oh no, no, no! It’s certainly not as solitary, so it’s more fun to spread the misery to the crew and cast.
I like the writing process. I just go into my mind and no one bugs me – like that Brian Wilson song, “In My Room.”
But see, you’re probably a born writer. I had to do it in self-defense. I had this student film, and I made it into a feature, and it was released. My hope was that when the movie was released, the studios would send a big limo and take me to the set, and then I’d start directing. But it didn’t happen that way, so I had to find another way of getting into the movie business: writing. I could write, and it doesn’t cost anything to just churn out ideas, so I became an idea machine and cranked out screenplays – and a bunch of them got bought, oddly, so I was lucky.
What do you find scary?
The secret of this is that everyone finds the same things scary. Everyone on earth fears the same thing. That’s why horror works throughout the world. We’re all afraid of death, loss of a loved one, everything you’re afraid of, I am, so there’s no secret to it. I don’t have a secret fear – well, I do, but nobody wants to be naked in front of a bunch of people. I’m afraid of the same things you are.
So that naked thing is your secret fear?
No. My secret fear is that I would be unable to sit down here in front of my television and watch NBA basketball. That would be terror for me. Terror!
That’s a tough one. Probably a lot of time in therapy dealing with that.
Oy! Hard to get through the summer, my friend. But we’re coming up on the season and I’m feeling better.
We’ve covered structure in a larger sense, but in a smaller sense, how do you build a suspenseful scene?
The big key is to let the audience in on something. Something’s going to happen, so they get nervous. The question is when is going to happen. This is all Hitchcock. He wrote the primer on it. The audience has to be in on something, whether the main character is or not.
And you have to bond with your main character so you care about him. It’s the old bomb under the table. People are talking, having a conversation, and there’s a bomb under the table. Somebody’s planted a bomb under there, we show the audience, but the characters don’t know, so they’re sitting there pleasantly talking, and the audience is saying, “Stop talking! Get out of there!” That’s the essence of suspense, even though it’s a cheesy example.
So when you look back at your movies –
Oh God, I don’t want to see them. I hate them all. I look at them again and I say, “What was I thinking? Why is this so slow? Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I shoot coverage on that scene and make it go quicker?” I can’t watch.
And do you feel the same way about your old scripts?
The opposite! I read a script and I think, “Wow, that was pretty good.” Much better than how I remember it.
So, when you look back at a movie you just directed, like The Thing [Screenplay by Bill Lancaster; Story by John W. Campbell, Jr.], versus a movie you wrote, like Halloween, do you feel differently about the two?
In a way, it’s the same. With The Thing, we had to do a lot of work on the script to make it work for a variety of reasons. But Halloween was lower budget. It was simpler. It was just trying to get the work done every day. I have really fond memories of Halloween. We were just out trying to make a movie. But I wish I’d had the time to get some of the stuff, some of the sensual touches that were written in the script on the screen. We just didn’t have any time. There was one scene where the doctor is on the payphone talking, there’s supposed to be clouds, a thunderstorm approaching. We couldn’t afford that!
Did Rob Zombie talk to you about his version?
He called me up when the Weinsteins offered him the movie. He said, “What should I do?” I said, “Just make it your own movie.”