Combustible Celluloid

Interview with John Carpenter

Lifting the Fog

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Note: I interviewed John Carpenter twice, by phone, once in 2002 and again in 2003. Despite, or perhaps because of, my admiration for him and his work, the interviews did not go particularly well. He answered my questions, but only very briefly. Try as I may, I could not get a conversation going and could not get him to elaborate on his answers. So I have combined the two interviews into one long article, in the hopes that together they may yield something interesting for fans to read.

In elite film circles John Carpenter's name usually elicits weary eye-rolls. Or, from the most devoted fans, "didn't he once do something good a couple of decades ago?" But look closer and Carpenter is one of the few old-school filmmakers working today. Having studied the great directors of the studio system like Howard Hawks and John Ford, Carpenter has more or less based his entire career on their model. He has worked for all different studios, jumping from independent films to larger films. And yet he has always stayed true to his own singular vision. Each and every film Carpetner has made sports his signature style. Watching the excellent MGM DVDs The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York: Special Edition (1981) helps prove this point.

Carpenter's The Fog is one of the only films in his long career that I hadn't seen, and I'm glad I waited for MGM's impressive new widescreen DVD ($19.98) to do it. It's a beautifully-made, atmospheric chiller with a top-notch performances by an amazing cast. Back in 1980, Carpenter and his co-producer Debra Hill had scored the highest-grossing independent film of all time with Halloween, a record that was held until 1999's The Blair Witch Project. Most directors would have gone on to make something "serious" to prove that they could do it, but Carpenter and Hill were still interested in scaring people.

Their first attempt at The Fog was more along the lines of a Val Lewton production -- meant to scare through suggestion rather than graphic violence. But it soon became apparent that the film wasn't working in that form and re-shoots became necessary. Director Carpenter looks favorably at the experience. "I've had many learning experiences in my career," he said recently from his Los Angeles office. "You've got these ethereal ghosts who are after somebody, but you need something that the audience can see." And so, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook and Tom Atkins had gorier ghosts to deal with in this tale of pirates who return to a small California town 100 years later to avenge their deaths and recover a stolen cache of gold.

Better still, John Houseman appears in the film's prologue narrating the tale over a campfire! "He intimidated everyone, all the crew," Carpenter says. "He was really sweet with me. I really enjoyed working with him." Barbeau steals the film though, as the throaty-sexy late-night DJ Stevie Wayne, who does her best to warn the citizens of Antonio Bay from the evil beasties. Janet Leigh's presence clearly references Carpenter's love for Hitchcock, but she manages a couple of very good scenes, proving that she's more than the sum of Psycho.

Carpenter's excellent use of widescreen comes in handy here, perfectly capturing the empty spaces of small town life. When the fog, backlit in an eerie green, enters the frame, you see the way it moves, filling the scene from back to front. "I was probably most influenced by John Sturges and Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven," he says. "I've always loved widescreen, and it just appeals to me."

And, as usual, Carpenter provides creepy score for The Fog, similar to his classic "Halloween" music. "I've been playing music all my life," he says. "My dad was a classically trained musician. I'm not. He physically tried to teach me violin. I rebelled against that." Instead Carpenter learned guitar and synthesizer. "I needed somebody cheap and fast to do the music. And it was practical. I began to realize that by doing the music myself I could make the films have a uniqueness to them."

The almost forgotten Escape from New York reveals a near-visionary workmanship, a low-budget film heavy on atmosphere and playful of character. Its $6 million budget bought what looks like a $50 million film. "A lot of that goes to pay people. There wasn't much money on the screen," Carpenter says. One of the people who worked on the film was none other than James Cameron, who went on to international success with Titanic. Cameron painted "mattes" for the film, or glass backgrounds. At one point, Carpenter says, Cameron was finishing up just minutes before the scene was shot; the paint was still wet.

The film's futuristic hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is about as bad as can be. Caught during a robbery, he's given a certain number of hours to fly into New York City -- now a gang-run war zone -- and rescue the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence). Wherever he goes, his reputation precedes him: "I thought you were dead!" goes the refrain. "I had worked with Kurt in Elvis. He pulled off that role, and it was completely convincing," says Carpenter. "He told me he wanted to do another movie with me but just don't make him a nice guy." Snake meets up with an oddball cast of characters and, as in Howard Hawks films, the bad guys team up against greater bad guys.

Carpenter uses Cinemascope framing to help establish physical relationships between characters, and always tells stories within a "genre" (sci-fi or horror) format to help get his point across with less soapbox grandstanding.

The director seems proud of his two films, but he tends to downplay his entire career, and his status as an auteur, in general. "I don't know. I think there's a couple of movies I didn't do a really good job with. I feel like I've made my own films, for better or worse.

August 23, 2002 and November 6, 2003

Partial John Carpenter Filmography:
Dark Star (1974)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Halloween (1978)
Elvis (1979) (TV)
The Fog (1980)
Escape from New York (1981)
The Thing (1982)
Christine (1983)
Starman (1984)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Prince of Darkness (1987)
They Live (1988)
Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Village of the Damned (1995)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Vampires (1998)
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Cigarette Burns (2005) (TV)

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