Zen and the Art of John Carpenter Interviews

John Carpenter’s movies are great, but his interviews might be even better.
John Carpenter
By  · Published on October 17th, 2018

If you’re a longtime reader of Film School Rejects, then you’ve probably read one or two of our ongoing series of filmmaking tips. In them, our writers dig deep into interviews with filmmakers to isolate key concepts that help explain their craft as feature filmmakers. And whenever a new entry in the series pops up in my personal feed, I find myself pondering the same question: what would this same approach look like if applied to the notoriously gruff interviews of John Carpenter?

What makes Carpenter so difficult to interview isn’t his hostility to film journalists, but rather, his disregard for anything beyond the filmmaking process. In his eyes, he made some movies, they were pretty OK, and whatever happened after that was out of his control, so why bother losing sleep over it? This pragmatic approach to an industry otherwise built on ego makes any new Carpenter interview a must-read affair in my household, which led me to pull together some of my favorite Carpenter quotes for your reading pleasure (let’s call it in an anti-filmmaking tips article).

“You have to understand one thing about my career: no one tells me anything.” (Vice, 7/2014)

Start digging through old interviews with Carpenter and one thing becomes obvious pretty quickly: he’s not particularly in the loop when it comes to his own work. This particular answer – which was in response to a question about vinyl rereleases of his soundtracks – pops up more than once throughout his interviews, particularly when an interviewer asks him about rumored remakes or sequels to his previous work. Ask Carpenter what he thinks about the latest Hollywood rumor that this studio is looking to reboot that film, and half the time he has no clue what you’re talking about. This would be a tragedy if Carpenter was inclined to take any of that personally.

“I played parts of it. I was actually a character in it. The doctor, later on. They killed me off though, so fuck ‘em. I wasn’t the hero.” (Den of Geek!, 6/2008)

If you follow Carpenter on Twitter, one thing you might’ve noticed over the past decade was the filmmaker’s love of survival horror video games. From Borderlands to Dead Space, Carpenter has often expressed his love for the various video games that keep him entertained in his quasi-retirement; much like Clive Barker, who used his talents as a horror icon to help create video games like Undying and Jericho, Carpenter also helped script F.E.A.R. 3, the third installment in the popular horror first-person shooter series. And what happened when the filmmaker was asked to voice his own character in the 2002 video game sequel to The Thing? Well, he wasn’t the hero, so fuck ’em, I guess.

“It’s pretty much like it always has been. Most of the movies are bad, a number of them are fair, and a few are good.” (Mandatory, 7/2011)

Given the influence of Halloween on an entire generation of filmmakers, there’s always a desire by filmmakers to have Carpenter speak as one of the genre’s founding fathers. It’s the cinematic equivalent of book blurbs; people want to hear which filmmakers Carpenter himself admires, which trends he views favorably, and which trends he views with disdain. The only problem? His complete disinterest in being a voice for anything other than his own work. Press Carpenter on the state of contemporary cinema and he’s likely to give you quotes like the one above. A lot of this is tied to his own perspective on the horror as something primordial and unchanging. The specific fears may change, but their underlying causes remain the same.

“I love it, if they are going to pay me money. If they pay me, it’s wonderful. If they don’t pay me, I don’t care. I think it’s unfair if they don’t pay me. I think everyone should pay me. Why not? I’m an old guy now and I need money. Send me money.” (The Guardian, 10/2017)

Gun to my head, my favorite thing about John Carpenter is his apathy towards the franchises he helped create. We’ve come to expect filmmakers to have a strong sense of ownership over their movies; so many icons spend interviews lambasting the quality of Hollywood remakes that it’s become the norm for everyone to act like James Cameron when the microphone is on. Not Carpenter. He may be one of the least sentimental directors to ever walk the planet, completely disinterested in the quality or volume of Halloween and Escape From New York sequels as long as the check from the studio clears. His movies were his movies and he did his best; anything else is someone else’s problem.

“It’s great. It’s better than people calling me a piece of shit all the time.” (Filmmaker Magazine, 10/2015)

One thread that comes up in multiple interviews with Carpenter is the frustration he felt when movies like The Thing bombed at the box office. There’s a bitterness in the way he talks about those earlier releases, a frustration that he clearly still feels today, but a frustration that he also does not take out on the audiences and film critics he felt missed the boat. Instead, Carpenter has become a Hollywood nihilist, embracing the fact that celebrity and posterity are both fleeting and rather arbitrary. Even as movies like They Live and Prince of Darkness find second life with genre audiences, Carpenter refuses to buy into the narrative that he was misunderstood in his own time. As he says above when asked about the evolving appreciation of his work? It’s better than being called a piece of shit.

“In terms of the ultimate reward, listen, man, when I was a kid, when I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a movie director, and I got to be a movie director. I lived my fucking dream, you can’t get better than that. That’s the ultimate. I don’t need anything.” (Interview Magazine, 2/2015)

And here it is, the quote that puts an entire career in perspective. There have been so many different phases to the career of Carpenter: he’s been an auteur, a bust, an icon, and a musician, and it’s only natural that this kind of up-and-down career would lead to a little bit of bitterness on his part. But read through a bunch of Carpenter interviews and you pick up on a thread not unlike the one above. He views himself as lucky; lucky to be a recognized filmmaker, lucky to spend his 60s making music with his son for audiences around the world, lucky to still be pulling in some paychecks from a handful of movies he doesn’t entirely hate. Carpenter the director may inspire countless generations of filmmakers, but Carpenter the person might just be my own personal life coach.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)