An interview with John Carpenter: “I want to turn everyone crazy!”

The director on his debut album, classic films and more...

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To coincide with yesterday’s momentous news that Carpenter is to make his live debut at ATP next year, I thought I’d post the full transcript of my interview with Carpenter from our February 2015 issue. Ostensibly, we were due to talk about Carpenter’s debut album, Lost Themes, which was about to be released – but the conversation also covered Carpenter’s great movies (and their soundtracks), his early failure at the violin and the possible return of Snake Plissken.

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Why have you decided to make an album now?
In the way it was done, there’s no ‘why’ to it. A couple of years ago, my son and I, he would come over to my house and we’d play video games and then we’d go downstairs to my Logic Pro computer set up and we’d improvise some music. Then we’d come back to the video games and then go back to the music and that just kept going and then we had about 60 minutes worth of music done. I was searching for a new music internee, and she asked me, ‘Do you have anything new?’. So, I sent over what my son and I had done and then a month or two later we had a record deal. But yeah, why now? I don’t know. I have no clue.

Do you feel like this is a continuation of the work that you’ve been doing for the last 40 years?
Yeah, it is in a sense. This is the first music that I’ve done that has nothing to do with image – it has to do simply with the music and the joy of playing and improvising – so that’s the difference. It reflects all the years that I’ve been doing this and it also affects my son’s abilities and my Godson’s abilities – Daniel Davies, he also worked on it. So, it’s a family affair! I’ve taken the two young guys and exploited them and tried to make myself rich.

It seems of a part with those great soundtracks like Assault On Precinct 13…
Well, the music is in you. That’s what it is all about. It’s either there or it’s not and it’s in me.


Those records were made on old analog synths weren’t they?
Yeah! And this one was to, but just on a modern synth.

Do you remember the first synth that you bought?
I think I got one as a gift once, but I don’t know if I have ever bought one. I still have a synth that my wife bought me a Korg Tribe and I love that thing. It’s unbelievable – I used it for the last two movies that I scored. I’ve had it for over ten years.

When did you first start making music?
My father was a music professor, he graduated from Eastman School Of Music and was a virtuoso violinist. When I was young, he decided that maybe it was time for me to learn to play the violin. Unfortunately, I had no talent, but we struggled through some lessons anyway and I picked up some basics. I played the violin for a while, but unfortunately that made me a mark for any of the bullies in high-school. Like, carrying your violin case to school is not a good idea, but those were the old days. So I went from there to keyboards to guitars and such.

As film maker, your influences are Hawks and Ford. What about your musical influences?
Classical music, generally. That’s what I first grew up with. But then movie scores, rock and roll, all influences.

Which movie scores were particularly influential on you?
I loved Bernard Hermann, Dimitri Tiomkin and some of the low-budget, science fiction and horror scores. But there are a number of composers but especially Bernard Hermann because of his hardcore progressions and his use of simplicity to get across a mood and I really responded to that – because simple music is all I can basically do. So the idea was, in film school, I started to score student films because nobody has any money to hire somebody to score a film for you and with the low budgets movies that I started with it’s still the same model – there’s no money. But I was cheap and I was fast and that just kind of kept going and then that just became another part of my directing – it became another voice and creative process.

When you’re writing or directing a scene in a film, are you also thinking about the music? Do you ever work a scene and think ‘I’ve got this good riff that will work with that…’?
No, nothing quite as romantic as that. It’s after the movie is cut together. I take the movie and synchronise it with a keyboard and then I begin improvising, right from the first image. I just provide whatever the scene needs and it’s all an after thought. It’s all done afterwards and it’s a process of discovery, but then I’ll suddenly find I’m playing something that I like and I’ll be like, “Wow, where did that come from?” I have no idea, probably from another movie.

Do you have a favourite score of your own?
I don’t think I have ever thought that, but the more complicated ones that came later in my career – I really thought I did a pretty good job with Big Trouble In Little China. That score was pretty good. It was the complexity of it and it had different kinds of sounds.

How did Ennio Morricone come to score The Thing?
Because he is a genius! First of all though, the studio didn’t even consider me for it, but then I got to have him! And it’s the same thing with Starman and Jack Nitzsche – God he is a genius. He was unbelievable – what a composer!

There are some great titles on this album – “Vortex”, “Abyss”, “Purgatory”…
Well, the thinking behind the titles was, “Gee, we need some titles for these – let me make up some dark words…” This album is for the movie that’s playing in your head because most people have a movie in their head or an image of something or and actor or a place or a thing. So, my album is to score that for you. So turn down the lights, put the album on and let that movie in your head go and I’ll be the music for it. I want to turn everybody crazy!

Are you aware of the significance of your soundtrack work?
Well okay, I know it because you are telling me this – but do I know it? No. Directors, when they are done with their work just want to be alone and they want to get away from people – especially actors. So no one tells me these things, I know a fan or two here and there but I don’t have any idea what influences and I don’t know why. Why would I be an influence? I can barely play.

But you must of seen something like Drive, heard the soundtrack and thought, ‘Hang on a minute, that’s a bit familiar…’
No I don’t think I have seen that! Nor would I know the influence but I have some favourite composers now though – not because they remind me of anything, but because they are great! I love Hans Zimmer and I think Trent Reznor is doing some great stuff! His stuff is just really interesting.

So what’s the plan after this album?
I’ll continue to live my life, hopefully or I’ll keep watching basketball. It’s fun and it’s awesome and it’s really something that I never dreamed would happen – making music like this. But I am still making music as we speak, with the same group we’re still working on stuff. And we’ll see – maybe another album or two or maybe not.

What about films?
If something comes along that I love, I’ll do it! But I am an old man now, what do you want from me? I’m 67 in January and that’s old!

Do you still see Kurt Russell at all?
I do occasionally, yeah.

Is there any chance of a third outing for Snake Plissken?
You never know. We have talked about a couple of things, but you never know. The business has changed a lot since then and I don’t know if modern Hollywood has any fans of the movie. They are more pre-occupied with cartoon characters and super heroes – Marvel comic book heroes. He is a little tougher than they are!

I keep hearing rumours of remakes…
You know how it goes in the movie business. Most of the movies that I have made are co-owned with companies and a big company is Canal Plus. And they keep trying to resuscitate these corpses and remake them and get life in them – so they go out there and bang the bushes but it’s not me doing it. So maybe they’ll get something up and I’ll get a pay cheque or maybe not.

How do you spend your days?
What, when I’m not talking to journalists like you? I tend to play video games. I’ll probably go play them a few minutes after talking to you. I watch NBA Basketball. I play music and we have some projects under development – which means we are trying to raise some money. But my days are spent not getting up at in the morning. Not walking around on set and not having the stress of movie making which profound.

What games are you enjoying at the moment?
I’m playing Far Cry 4 right now – it’s an awesome game.

Do you ever see the influence of your films on computer games?
No. I’m not that egocentric, I’m just not. I don’t sit around and think, ‘Oh boy, I influenced that.’ That’s just full of insanity, I think.


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