[Interview - John Carpenter]
Director/Writer/Editor/Composer/Actor John Carpenter has become somewhat a bit of a legend in Hollywood. His films (Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, etc.) seem to achieve a cult status, and he has a very large following of loyal fans. I recently had the opportunity to talk with John about his latest film, Vampires, which he also scored in addition to directing.

What was your approach to scoring a film such as Vampires, which seems to be a combination of both a Western and a Gothic Horror film?

It's not very gothic - it's much more an action-western picture. The company I made the movie for said that they weren't interested in vampires biting each other - they were interested in the action. Since the film was set in the Southwestern United States, it has much more of a western feel. I've described the film as The Wild Bunch meets Vlad the Impaler, with more emphasis on The Wild Bunch. When I think of Gothic, I think of castle sets, and cobwebs with candelabras - and that would terrify me!

With this being a western, what was your approach to scoring it?

There are two sides to the score - one is the kind of usual orchestral motifs you would find in these types of pictures. The first one is the spooky scary music - which I've done for 15 films previously. For me it's simply an exercise in improvisation, since I can't read or write music - I just make it up as I go along. I think of the orchestral stuff as "carpet" music - I lay a "carpet" under the scenes - it doesn't get in the way, and you're watching the scene and the music won't intrude on you. I describe my style as "anti-John Williams". His style goes back to Max Steiner, where you might emphasize every action and flourish - and I came from the minimalist school.

The other side to this score is Roadhouse Blues. I got a band put together. Bruce Robb (my producer - also one of the legendary Robb Brothers) helped me put this band together - including Steve Cropper, Donald V. "Duck" Dunn, Rick Shlosser, E. "Bucket" Baker, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and of course the Robb Brothers. These are all legendary Rock and Roll guys, and we started playing some muscle shoals blues for the film - that was the most fun.

How would you score the sessions?

I would write the blues stuff down (we did a temp track), and we would just follow the track. I played a rhythm guitar, a bass track, and a drum machine and the band just played along with that.

What is your native instrument?

Keyboards, but it's also guitars and bass.

How much does the music affect your editing?

We do the music when the editing is completed - we don't go back to cut anything to the film. It's a separate process, and I don't even think of the music until afterwards. It's a utilitarian approach. We have temp music from other films which might give me an idea, or might tell me what's wrong. If it's wrong we might just remove the music and decide to leave that section un-scored.

Do you have a lot of input in the temp track?

I let the editor do it - I tell him to go out and put something on it that are his ideas. The first cut is the "editor's" rough-cut , it's his version- and then we go to work. I'll consider everything on the temp track as an interesting approach , but I won't necessarily use it.

That way it's not always your "take" on it.

Oh god no! <laughs>

So Vampires is a western- but does it have the stereotypical "Western" feel to it?

It has a lot of Spanish guitar, since the picture takes place in New Mexico, which is heavily influenced by Native Americans and Mexicans, and at one point I was trying to come up with a little theme. There was a John Wayne picture called Rio Bravo where Dimitri Tiomkin wrote a piece called "De Guello", a valorous theme, and I wanted something like that - so I wrote an overly heroic Spanish guitar theme. Jeff Baxter played pedal-steel guitar - and in conjunction with the Spanish guitar it was great. I was very nervous about it at first because it's so out front - but it works amazingly well.

Halloween is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this month, and the score was just re-released, and they had that "other" film come out earlier this year. What are your thoughts on the apparent success of the franchise? Did you ever expect it to have such a following all these years?

You can't beat it! I get a check every time they make one of those movies. I get paid a lump sum of money every time they make a sequel. Debra Hill and the partners and I made an agreement to go ahead and have a mechanism for making sequels, since that's apparently what people wanted. They would use my music, since that's part of the film - and I would stay out of it. It's good for them - they go off and make the movie they want and they don't have me bitching at them. <laughs>

Have you seen the new Halloween film?

No, not yet. I will see it when it comes out on DVD. I'm not a big fan of going out to the movies - I screen them in my house for various reasons.

So you distanced yourself from the whole thing?

Well, back around 1981 we did Halloween 2. I got involved out of guilt, and wrote the screenplay to try to keep the quality up. As I was writing it, I realized there was no story here. It was pretty bad! In the middle of the night I got a six pack of beer wondering what the hell I was going to do with this! So I made up some silly business about Jamie Lee being the Shape's sister - I couldn't think of anything else to do since there wasn't anything there! It was basically a clone of the first film! All of them have been a clone - except the third one. Little details may change, but it's always the same story and it's nothing I wanted to do - which is why I bailed out. With Halloween 3 we tried to go in a different direction, but the audience wanted to see The Shape. There is a new movement in Hollywood - some people say, "Don't tell me what I should like, give me what I want." Especially over Godzilla - they were really up in arms over that movie. I read that quote, and was just... wow... But that's just modern life!

You seem to have been able to distance yourself from that.

I make my own movies, but sometimes they don't work , some audiences don't like them.

Recently Universal Home Video released a Collector's Edition of The Thing.

The special edition came out really well - it's a great production on their part, in terms of the presentation and supplements.

One of the interesting thing about The Thing was that it was one of the few films you didn't score yourself - and Morricone's score seemed to be close to your style. Why did Morricone score it?

Because I wanted to work with him! In some cases I told him not to do so many notes - make it simpler and spookier. In some places he did compose full orchestral pieces, but in some places he used a very simple electronic idea, which I thought was great. I think he did an amazing job with the film.

Tell me a little about your relationship with Shirley Walker - why didn't you score Memoirs of an Invisible Man?

Shirley and I met for the first time on Memoirs of an Invisible Man. She was brought in by Chevy Chase and his partner (who produced the film) at the request of Warner Brothers because there was another composer on the movie where they didn't like what he was doing, and they brought her in. It was an unfortunate situation, but that's life in the big city! She came in, and she had worked with Danny Elfman a great deal, and I loved her approach. So I worked with her again on Escape From LA where we didn't have any time - we had to throw it together and get it out. I would do sketches at home, and give it to her and she would flush them out with the musicians. It was very collaborative. She's a wonderful person - I would definitely work with her again.

If you could film a sequel to any of your movies, which one would it be?

It might be nice to do one for The Thing or They Live - I don't know. It would be fun to do another Jack Burton adventure, but Big Trouble in Little China didn't make any money - it was a bomb! So that one would be hard to justify a sequel for.

Do you encounter battles with the studios often?

It depends on the money thing. If the budget is low enough, they would leave me alone. But if the budget is big, they'll keep a short leash on you.

Did that happen on Escape from LA?

No - I actually had a great relationship with Paramount - they were terrific. We unfortunately decided to make the picture with insufficient post-production time. But I took the assignment on regardless.

Do you think the film would have come out better if you had more post-production time?

Oh, definitely.

Is it something you would consider doing for a Special Edition?

I don't think so - no one's asked me. But I would consider anything if someone asked me.

You have done a bit of the Criterion stuff.

Well, they started coming to me. I don't like sitting and talking for two hours about my movies - I just did one for Vampires, though. So you're going to get it without any of the editorials about how it did at the box office.

Vampires already came out overseas in Europe and Asia.

In Hong Kong it was number one at the box office - until it got beaten out by Saving Private Ryan.

Do you think that is an indication of how it might do in the United States?

You never know - it's a weird world these days.

On Assault on Precinct 13, you wrote, directed, edited and composed for the film. What are your thoughts on wearing 'multiple hats" for a film?

It's a lot of work , very exhausting! I had made one feature film (Dark Star) over a four-year period - so Assault was my first real shoot - and it was a shock to discover how difficult it was. I had two days to write and record the music on that film. So I didn't write it to the image - I just composed and played 3-4 pieces, and cut it into the film. I did a version of the main title and used it a couple of times. That was a very low budget movie - $100,000 and you could do that in those days.

Both tasks, directing and composing, are unique unto themselves and both involve different worlds. The director's world involves a little of everything - visuals, sound, acting, storytelling, choices of music, everything is in the director's domain. But the composer has sonic issues - melody, theme - he's got to provide a musical feel for the movie. The composer is concentrating on one very difficult issue - what is the sound that is going to be associated with the film. It can be very simple - like John Williams's Jaws, or Bernard Herrmann's Psycho. Every composer wishes for something to jump out , but there's a lot of music out there.

Do you think you accomplished that with the Halloween Theme?

That was a pretty cheesy little theme.. My dad had taught me how to play bongos (which he gave me for Christmas) in 5/4 time - and I just played it on the piano with half-octaves, and went up a half step in the last go round. But that's it.

Perhaps the simplest themes are the most recognizable, because you don't have to think too hard to remember them.

You've always said how much you love Westerns and how most of your movies are basically Westerns even though they're horror movies. Do you think you'll ever get a chance to make a real Western?

Well there are two reasons why I probably would not. One, Westerns are not a gigantically popular genre. They went out of favor in the 50's and 60's. Whether it was television or the Spaghetti-Westerns that did them in , probably television because you could see it for free. It's nothing that people were interested in. I'm primarily typecast as a suspense/Sci-Fi/horror director, and I go where I'm pushed. I would be pretty nervous about making a Western - a lot of my favorite movies are Westerns.

What do you think you'll be working on next?

I've got a couple of things going - but nothing finished yet.

Do you plan to collaborate with Kurt Russell again?

If the appropriate project comes along, I'm sure I will.

What can you tell me about Meltdown?

Well, here's the story. Back in 1977 I was a writer, and took an assignment called the "Prometheus Crisis" - about a nuclear plant meltdown. It's kind of Halloween in a nuclear power plant. It's been 20 years since they were trying to set it up - and at one point it was supposed to go with Dolph Lungren. But I haven't heard anything about it. I don't have any attachment to it anymore, but we'll see what happens with it.

Thanks again - good luck with Vampires!

John Carpenter's Vampires will be released in theaters nationwide on October 30th. The soundtrack album will be released by Milan Records on October 27th. The 20th Anniversary release of the score to Halloween has been released by Varese Sarabande Records, and is available in stores. The Collectors Edition of The Thing is available on DVD and Laserdisc by Universal Home Video , and as a bonus it includes Ennio Morricone's score as an isolated-track during the 83 minute long documentary! Meltdown seems to be moving forward, with John Dahl (Rounders) writing the script, apparently based on Carpenter's story.