Q&A: John Carpenter Still Wants to Kick Ass, Play Synths, and Chew Bubble Gum (and He’s All Out of Bubble Gum)

Sacred Bones

John Carpenter ranks among the finest genre filmmakers of all time. His run from the mid-’70s through the ’80s — including Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Elvis, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live — is virtually unmatched in terms of influence, sturdiness, and general awesomeness. If you’re lucky enough to catch a prime-era John Carpenter movie on cable, you’ll find that it holds up as well as ever. (Even post-peak works like Vampires and Escape From L.A. still have their pleasures.) More than 40 years after his first feature, Carpenter’s legacy is as unkillable as Michael Myers.

As a filmmaker, Carpenter was straightforward and unpretentious. His movies were strictly zero-percent body-fat propositions, though he never skimped on memorable characters or quotable dialogue. A product of low-budget independent cinema, Carpenter had to work fast and cheap, both on set and during postproduction. That extended to the music in his movies; Carpenter claimed he scored them himself so he wouldn’t have to pay a composer. But his music has proven to be as enduring as his films.

An eternal minimalist, Carpenter utilized the synthesizer arguably better than any film composer before or since, evoking a lean and mean atmosphere of menace and tension while also crafting some of the most memorable horror and action film themes ever. The title music from Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and Escape From New York, in particular, stands apart from those films as masterful goth-tinged synth pop.

In the past 15 years, Carpenter has greatly reduced his cinematic output, directing only 2001’s Ghosts of Mars and 2010’s The Ward. But he hasn’t stopped making music; in fact, he’s about to put out his first non-soundtrack album. Due out February 3, Lost Themes plays like a soundtrack to a film Carpenter never got around to making, interweaving a series of glowering, sinister instrumentals recorded with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies (the son of Kinks guitarist Dave Davies).

Carpenter describes Lost Themes as a collection of “little moments of score from movies made in our imagination.” Unfortunately, imaginary movies might be all we can expect from Carpenter at this point. When I spoke with him in early December, Carpenter was jovial but generally noncommittal about his future in cinema. “I’m too old for this shit” seems to sum up his stance on filmmaking at the moment. For now, making records seems a lot easier and more his speed.

We began our conversation — after a long digression about the state of his beloved Los Angeles Lakers — by talking about his youth in Kentucky, where he played in bands before shipping off to the West Coast to attend film school at USC.

You’ve talked about how in the late ’60s you were at this crossroads between choosing a life as a filmmaker and a life as a musician. Filmmaking obviously worked out for you, but is there any part of you that regrets not going the musician route?

Well, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity where I lived, musical opportunity. The music business is really rough. It’s rough-and-tumble. I could have played in a local band and maybe done OK. But I would’ve been an English teacher or an art teacher. It was a tough decision, but the one love in my life was movies. So I had to try and give it a chance.

Were you just doing covers back then, or were you writing songs?

The band I played in, we did covers. That’s all we did. We played popular songs for, like, fraternity parties. And we got hired a lot locally. But that doesn’t take you anywhere, you know? You don’t get to go anywhere then. The stuff I was interested in writing wasn’t stuff that played well at parties. I was interested in more complicated rock and roll, comparatively speaking.

Who were your influences?

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. You know, typical.

Were you playing guitar or keyboards?

I was playing bass guitar in the band, but I was a guitar player. I could play keyboards.

Did you come to the synthesizer as a result of scoring films, or were you playing around with that at all before?

I came to the synthesizer because I needed to. I didn’t have any money to really score a movie. So I came to the synthesizer because it offered me an opportunity to sound big — for one musician to sound bigger than he should have ever sounded. That’s why I did it. I can do stuff that was bigger than, I don’t know, playing the keyboard or playing the piano or a guitar or something like that.

When you started doing your own scores in the mid-’70s, the synthesizer hadn’t been around for very long. Were there any artists or composers that you were influenced by as it pertained specifically to that instrument?

One of the most influential electronic scores was for a movie called Forbidden Planet, back in 1956. There was no orchestral music in that movie. It was all electronic. It was really groundbreaking. And that was the movie, coincidentally, that convinced me that I needed to become a movie director. That became my dream. So I’ve always loved the score in Forbidden Planet. Kind of eerie. They were using tape loops back in those days. But then in the ’70s I fell in love with a band called Tangerine Dream. Are you familiar with them?

Oh yeah.

They scored a movie called Sorcerer.

That’s a great movie.

I loved the movie and the score. It was just profound. I loved it.

There’s also A Clockwork Orange, the Wendy Carlos stuff. Did that make an impact on you at all?

Eh, not as much. It wasn’t as rock-and-roll. There is a little rock and roll to Tangerine Dream, which I love.

It was very spare and haunting as well, which are qualities that your scores share.

There you go. Spare and haunting! I’m going to have to remember those phrases. I like that.

You once likened your film scores to carpeting.

I’m there to support the scene and not get in the way and not annoy you. I put down a nice carpet on your floor so you can walk comfortably and enjoy yourself. That’s my job.

But having this musical background, you must have felt that the music went beyond just being utilitarian, that you were expressing yourself as a musician as well as a filmmaker.

Well, I definitely felt I was expressing myself. There was no doubt about that, as I was the one playing it. Look, I can’t explain it other than to say that my scores started in necessity and then they ended up being a part of my career. They became a part of the movies I made. But they started in a very pragmatic way. They started with: We don’t have any money to get a score, to get a good score. So if we’re not going to get a good score, then I might as well do it. It was that kind of thing. I am cheap and I am fast. I could do it real quickly. And I am simple. And then it just kind of grew. It became something that I wanted to do. Up until that last decade. I just thought, I can’t work anymore on this. It’s too hard. I can’t do it.

I made this movie back in 2001, Ghosts of Mars. That had a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of it, and they showed me finishing the music up and I was destroyed. I was so wiped out and tired and burned out. I just had to stop. I can’t do this anymore, this is too hard. I was doing too much. I wrote it, I directed it, I was doing the music. Fuck that, man!

It sounds like the score was something that you always would do at the very end of the movie.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Were there ever any instances where you could hear music in your head as you were making the movie?

Rarely. Mostly it was all improvised. I could think of two themes that I had ahead of time. One was Escape From New York, and one was Halloween. The main title themes for those movies I had been playing around with on a piano. But after then I just improvised it.

How long would it usually take for you to score a movie?

Well, I did Assault on Precinct 13 in one day. I scored Halloween in three days. After then I had a little more time. I forget how long The Fog was. But, when I got to Escape From New York, I began to score each picture. That was the very first time. Then it took longer. There it went through the whole movie — it started from the top, and set the mood and then just kept going.

Ennio Morricone did the score for The Thing, but in places it sounds like he’s imitating your style. Why didn’t you just do it yourself?

OK, well, let me explain it. The only thing that sounds like me in it is the opening-scene theme. That’s the only thing. Everything else is this lush, orchestral stuff. It’s beautiful. And I couldn’t … I wouldn’t know what to do with that. People think that movie is scored with stuff that sounds like my stuff, [but it’s] only one piece at the beginning and the end.

The reason I didn’t score it is (a) Universal didn’t want me to, and (b) we could hire Ennio Morricone. Are you kidding? What the hell would you want me for? This guy’s a genius.

You must’ve loved Morricone’s work from growing up on spaghetti Westerns.

Oh, I’ve loved everything he’s done; he’s a genius. Musical genius. Really avant-garde guy if you really listen to his stuff. Yeah, one of my favorite scores of all time was for Once Upon a Time in the West. Oh my god. So I got to work with him. We don’t know each other at all, because I don’t speak Italian and he doesn’t speak English. But we spoke the language of music.

In recent years, the influence of your scores has been apparent in films like Drive and The Guest. How aware of that are you?

I’m unaware. I am completely unaware. I would watch Drive and listen to the soundtrack and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and it would not relate to me at all.

So you’ve seen Drive?

I think so, yeah. I’ve seen Drive, yeah.

Because I feel like there are at least echoes of some of your scores in that movie.

I guess so, I don’t know. It doesn’t seem that way to me, I don’t know.

This album you’ve made, Lost Themes, is very cinematic. I could see visuals in my head as I was listening to it.

There you go. That’s the secret of the album. This album is for the movie you’re playing in your head.

Did it have that effect on you when you were making it?

No. Hell no, man. Come on. I started this two, three years ago with my son, between one of his trips to Japan. He comes over, we play video games, and we go downstairs and we fool around on my Logic Pro computer. We come back and play video games, then we go back and play music. And we improvise, just like the scores. We began to improvise a sort of dark-themed music. My son said, “This is like a soundtrack sampler.” It was fun to make. Just a blast. With no expectation other than making music. That was what that was all about — “let’s make some music.”

Had you ever recorded music like that before, just for the sake of it?

I am sort of an illiterate when it comes to computer use. So I need either my son or my godson to help me. Especially now after my eye operations, I can’t see shit. “This screen is … what am I looking at here? What are all these little symbols? What do they mean?” I try not to worry about that part.

What was it like making music without having a film attached? Did you find it liberating?

Liberating? Dude! There is no pressure. Man, it’s fabulous. It was like pure creation. Wasn’t any bullshit. I loved it! Are you kidding me? Oh my god. Plus I got to work with the kids that I brought up. What better life is that? There’s nothing better.

The nice thing about making a record is that you don’t need a studio, a crew of hundreds, and millions of dollars to do it. That sounds like a big part of the appeal for you.

Huge! Look, it’s just an unbelievable experience. You just put on the NBA channel and you create. There are no assholes or no divas around you, you know? And it’s relatively cheap.

When did you feel like you were making music that could be released commercially and enjoyed by the outside world?

I never felt that way. I was looking around for a new music lawyer and I met this really good one. She said to me, “Well, you got anything I could listen to, any new stuff?” So I said, “It won’t hurt to send this over.” Next thing I know, she had a record deal. A label wanted to release this thing! I thought, Jesus, she’s a genius.

Was it a surprise that someone wanted to put this out?

Of course! Are you kidding? That’s fabulous.

Do you have any interest in playing live for an audience?

You know what, I’ve talked to Cody and Daniel, and all we need to play live is a million dollars. Then we’ll be glad to. No, we would have to put together a band to play this stuff live. This is hard. And it’s not cheap.

If you’ve got a million dollars, then I’ll play at your party.

How about $200? I’ve got $200.

No, that’s not going to cut it. I’m not going to leave California for $200.

Two hundred, a plane ticket, and I’ll get you a hotel room. That’s my final offer.

No, no, no, no. Not going to happen, sorry.

Do you feel like you want to make another record?

I’m working on it already. We’ve got other stuff coming in the pike. Maybe it will go someplace and maybe it won’t. I don’t care. Actually have a dark blues album we’ve been working on. Pretty damn cool.

A blues record?

Dark blues, yes.

What’s that like?

Well, I can’t tell you until you hear it. If you send me some money, I’ll let you listen to it.

It’s always about money with you.

Money really helps you live.

What about film projects? Is there anything that you want to make?

I have a bunch of things developing. A bunch of things. If they happen, great. If they don’t, great.

Did the relative ease of making this album change your perception of filmmaking?

Oh, you know it! You know it. That’s a great question. You know it. Why do I want to put up with that shit anymore? It’s hard, dude. And it’s for young people, because young people are resilient. They can get the shit beat out of them and not crumble. I’m an old man now; I am going to be 67. Jesus. I’ve had the shit beat out of me for 40 years. I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to have some laughs. I want to enjoy myself.

Filed Under: Music, Movies, John Carpenter, Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Ghost of Mars, Lost Themes, Grantland Q&A

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden