John Carpenter On Life In Show Business: ‘I Survived!’

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Listen to the audio version of our interview with John Carpenter

By Sean Cannon

“Stop it. Would you stop it?! Oh no, don’t do that. Please don’t do that.” This is the kind of thing I heard over and over during a recent phone conversation with John Carpenter. Devoid of context, you might think he was angrily yelling at me. In reality, he was merely protesting every morsel of praise I heaped on him.

Carpenter might be one of the most influential horror directors of all time, but he doesn’t want to hear any of that. He’s too busy having a good time to care. These days he’s keen to talk basketball, video games, and his second career as a musician — although he’ll only discuss that last topic if you seriously stop it with all the compliments.

What some folks don’t know is that Carpenter scored most of his own movies, so he’s been at the music thing for a bit. And if you ask the right electronic artists, his scores are as influential as his movies. Over the last few years, he leaned heavily on that side of things, releasing four records. The latest of those is a soundtrack for director David Gordon Green’s new Halloween sequel.

One interesting thing about these twin obsessions, music and movies, is that they’ve always been intertwined, beginning with two records Carpenter got as a youngster. “One was [Themes From Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy And Horror]. I listened to that and was like, ‘Wow! What’s this?’” Carpenter vividly reminisced. “I also remember listening to an album of The Wizard Of Oz. It was the movie soundtrack with the dialog and everything going. I was mesmerized by it. I actually got to study the mix and how things were blended together. It was fascinating.”

From there, movies and music diverged a little in Carpenter’s life, mainly thanks to his portable radio. “I started listening to rock and roll at night, and then I fell in love with it,” he remembered. “I didn’t really get into it until I could listen late at night, when everything was dark and quiet. Then I kind of understood rock and roll. I got the soul of it. It made sense to me.”

Around the same time a young John Carpenter was finding himself in rock and roll, he dove even further into film to help deal with a big life change. “My family moved to a little town in the Jim Crow south. My father got a job teaching at a university there. I was out of place.”

It also didn’t help that his classically-trained father pushed tiny John into music at an early age — and not cool music. “I had to carry my violin case to school. He turned me into a bully magnet,” he bemoaned while discussing the emotional torment, still fresh in his mind. “You have no idea! You have no idea what it was like getting bullied as a kid because I played the violin.”

“Oh my god,” his voice faltered, full of pre-pubescent dread. “I felt like an outsider. That is exactly my story. I’ve always felt that way, because like I said, I was a stranger in a strange land.”

You can probably guess how he dealt with that. “I escaped into the movies, and I saw everything I could,” he said, as his toned changed from deflated to empowered. “I did love the science fiction and horror films. I loved Roger Corman’s cheese bag films. I even loved Westerns.”

But then something big happened. Something that would bring Carpenter’s two big interests back together — and change the course of his life. “I saw a movie in 1956, Forbidden Planet. It had this electronic score. I think that did it for me. That blew my mind. That was like taking an acid trip. I never was the same after that movie. I told myself, ‘I gotta make movies now.’” he said, almost as if he was reasoning with his younger self in real time. “That did it. ‘I have to make movies, and I would love to make soundtracks that sound like that.’”

So he did. Eventually. There was Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, They Live, and on and on. Looking at the story that way, John Carpenter’s career seems pretty triumphant, right? Not exactly. Definitely not in a linear sense, anyway.

“Reviewers have crapped on my work ever since the beginning. I’ve been told what a piece of shit I am for so long. They kept doing it, and they kept doing it. So I go, ‘Well OK, fine,’” Carpenter crowed. “That’s when the real test of what kind of human being you are comes into play. When everyone else is telling you that you’re a piece of crap, you need to be able to stand up straight and say, ‘You’re wrong.’ But that’s hard to do.”

Even though he was resigned to take that critical punishment, and perfectly perfectly fine with thumbing his nose at it, there was ultimately more to the story. His work was reappraised. It became important. Celebrated filmmakers were name checking him.

While that is certainly encouraging for him, Carpenter’s perpetually chipper mood throughout our conversation — and just about any interview with him I’ve watched, heard, or read — was due to something much simpler. “I survived man!” he said. “I feel great. I made it!”

Another big factor in that late-career joy is that he survived long enough to accidentally start making music just for the hell of it. His wife got him a computer with an assortment of musical tools. He started jamming with his son, Cody (with eventual help from Daniel Davies, Carpenter’s godson and the actual son of Kinks guitarist Dave Davies). Before he knew it, there was “kind of an album.”

“I got a new music attorney, and she said, ‘What have you got that’s new?’ So I sent her this album, and all of a sudden I have a record deal. What the hell?! How did that happen?!” Carpenter wondered aloud. “It dropped out of nowhere, and I couldn’t believe it.”

The result was Lost Themes, which was followed by Lost Themes II, Anthology, and his score for David Gordon Green’s new Halloween sequel. Album four was particularly unique, because it marked the first time in 40 years that Carpenter scored someone else’s film.

You might wonder, working on something that’s sort of your baby — except you have no control over it — what kind of experience would that be? “I enjoyed scoring David’s movie. It’s his intuition and feeling on what he wanted. It was fun. First of all, I don’t have to direct. So that’s the biggest plus” he admitted. “All the stress, anxiety, and bullshit is not there. All I have to do is make music. The process is easier. David is very musically literate, so he could talk about what he wanted.”

But you know, even though John Carpenter has graduated to rockstar status (he told me to hush when I jokingly used that word to describe him), he might still be up for the slog of directing a movie. “I might, if it’s right,” he shrugged. “I’m old now. I did this music video last year and shot it at night. It almost killed me. Good god, it was hard!”

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