6 Filmmaking Tips From John Carpenter

By  · Published on October 17th, 2012

A true master of horror, it’s no surprise that John Carpenter’s work has shown up in our series where horror filmmakers discuss their favorite scary movies (and, spoiler alert, he’ll show up again next week). His figure looms large inside and beyond the genre, gifting classics like Halloween, Escape From New York , The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13 and Big Trouble in Little China to the world.

He’s a quiet-spoken man, which is perhaps not too rare in the world of horror. Although it’s fairly strange to think that this unassuming man made people terrified of being inside their own homes (and, you know, taking trips to Antarctica).

So here’s a bit of free filmmaking (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who makes our nightmares.

Turns Out It Was Man

“To make Michael Myers frightening, I had him walk like a man, not a monster.”

Despite the gorgeous bit of skewering from Futurama’s show-within-a-show called The Scary Door, the idea that finding horror in something human can be more effective than searching for it beyond simple flesh is an apt one. That’s not to say that beasts and things from other planets can’t be terrifying, but there’s a fundamental unease that comes with recognizing the evil depths of our fellow man ‐ especially since we have historical examples of murder and unspeakable violence on the large scale and (most of us) have a personal awareness of the id lurking inside ourselves, creating a capacity for cruelty that we have to beat back from time to time.

Finding similarities between Michael and Laurie Strode (and even Loomis) is no accident either. They are all missing pieces of themselves, and they respond to that in different ways. They’re all very, very human.

Every Movie is a Struggle

“There’s no movie that you can dial in and order a pizza… it’s not like that. I was working… I had a two picture deal with the studio and I was working on The Philadelphia Experiment which is a famous urban legend type story and it had great potential, but I quickly realized there’s no ending. There’s no third act… I mean I can devise one, but it was The Fog! You know, where the sailors come back and get revenge. I was like ‘Well, I’ve just done that.’

So I went to the studio and I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this. I have this old movie in a drawer that I wrote in the 70s that nobody wanted to make called Escape From New York’ and they said ‘Yeah,’ so it was a movie that I had worked on years before, unsuccessfully, and so it was a little weird at first to try and get back into that, because I had completely lost interest after nobody wanted to do it. But Kurt [Russell] came aboard and… We had a great cast with really interesting cast and it worked out.”

In the same must-read interview, Carpenter speaks briefly about how the negative fan response to Halloween 3: Season of the Witch surprised and confused him to the point that the only conclusion he could come to was that karma had caught up with him. That he had been on too much of a high not to come back down. You might even expect to get burnt out at some point.

This is a bit of pessimistic (read: realistic) advice that speaks particularly to genre filmmakers who want to step outside that world once they’ve made their mark. It’s not necessarily easy to escape a pigeon hole, but even beyond that, making movies is grueling work regardless of what level you’re at.

Defy Expectations

Start with reality, then draw the audience into the fantasy.

If You Can, Brand Your Movies As Your Own

“The business has gone down a path, and it’s changed since the old days, but in a way it hasn’t. It’s a little of both; it’s always chasing after money. The truth is the old clichés: ‘You’re only as good as your last film’…all the things that you’ve heard before are still true.

But nowadays it’s harder just for media in general, because of the glut ‐ it’s harder to advertise a movie. Movies aren’t that special anymore. They’re appearing every week, we read about them and know about them on the internet. We know everything. We’re smarter than the movie.”

One of the riskiest/smartest things Carpenter did early on was to give up money in order to have “John Carpenter’s” appear before the word “Halloween.” In doing so, he ensured that he would be tied to the franchise in an inextricable way. If the movie had flopped, it would have been a fairly bad bet (even with the relatively low budget involved), but since Myers and Friends caught on, Carpenter cemented himself as the true author of the work in a serious way and had a nice bit of protection for his vision.

The Secret to Scares is Simple Silence

At least when it comes to the music. You may or may not know that Carpenter scored his own early work (coming from a musical family), so he knows a thing or two about adding atmosphere with adagio.

“First of all, I loved the Hammer scores of James Bernard, one of my musical heroes. His Quatermass and X: The Unknown scores are the greatest. His secret? He used to sing the title of the movie and that became the main melodic line. The horror element in movie scoring comes from mood over complexity. Also from silence.”

The rest of the piece goes into great detail about the role music plays in horror. It’s absolutely worth a read.

There’s No Shame in Being Pragmatic

When asked why he was producing a remake of The Fog, Carpenter got blunt:

“Why not? If everybody else is making remakes and they want to pay me money to make a remake of an old movie of mine, why not?”

What Have We Learned

There’s a strange, bitter realism that comes from a lot of horror filmmakers who hit icon status. Some are calm about it, others just have that tinge of salt to the way they see their craft and the business of it. Carpenter seems to fit that bill (in a mostly refreshing way). Not to psychoanalyze here, but perhaps it comes from the general low status that directors like Carpenter helped raise the genre from. Or perhaps it has something to do with the too-familiar pattern of cinema domination followed by fallow years.

Carpenter’s last great film was, arguably, In the Mouth of Madness from two decades ago. Even with a break, he hasn’t stopped making films, but he hasn’t been largely relevant as an artist in a long time. Horror, it would seem, might be a young man’s game.

But there’s no reason to count him out. A man with so many classics under his belt probably has another one sneaking around in the shadows of his mind. On the tip front, almost all of this can be boiled down to, “Gird your loins.”

So gird your loins.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.