A Young John Carpenter on Success and Failure in Hollywood

Originally Published in November 1985 in Starlog magazine. This brilliant chat with a then 37-year old John Carpenter is well worth reading for any fan of the man himself or his excellent filmography.  This was written when he had just finished filming Starman in 1984, but was still hurting by the negative reception that The Thing had received less than two years earlier. 

Nothing deflates a director’s ego more decisively than a box office disaster. Two years ago, John Carpenter’s high-powered, blood-soaked remake of The Thing fell victim to that dismal fate. 

“I was called a ‘pornographer of violence,’” Carpenter laments. “I had no idea it would be received that way. I knew what a great film I had made. I thought: ‘Wow! this is it, man. This is something to deal with here.’ I guess I was wrong.” 

Shocked by the onslaught of critical outrage, Carpenter retreated from his detractors and privately suffered a painful period of self-doubt. Only now, after completing his poignant 

Latest movie Starman, does he feel comfortable in candidly discussing that unhappy experience, and the impact it had on his career. 

starman poster

“It was a rough go,” the 37-year-old filmmaker admits. “I was very embittered. I had to re-evaluate myself, and what I was doing. You make a movie for people to see. If they don’t want to see it, you have to ask yourself why. I came up with an explanation, but it didn’t make me feel better. 

“The Thing was just too strong for that time. I knew it was going to be strong, but I didn’t think it would be too strong. I made it as strong as I thought it should be. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the public’s taste. I felt the picture had many important things to say about life, but perhaps that isn’t as entertaining to some people as it is to others.” 

Although deeply disappointed by the resounding rejection of his work, Carpenter consoled himself with plans for his screen version of Stephen King’s bestselling Firestarter, from a screenplay by The Thing collaborator Bill Lancaster, However, shortly before shooting was scheduled to commence, Universal abruptly cancelled the project.

“They wouldn’t allow me to make it for the budget I had prepared,” Carpenter explains. ‘They wanted it made very cheaply. I told them I couldn’t make it that cheaply. They cancelled the picture— but they paid for that decision. I had a ‘play-or-pay deal, so they still had to pay me my full salary. It was the first time I received my entire fee for a movie I never made. Immediately afterwards, I began to seriously question what I was doing.’

His self-confidence as a filmmaker shaken by this double debacle, Carpenter insulated himself from the industry, and carefully reassessed his career options. “Let me tell you the truth— it was a growth period,” he acknowledges. “I questioned my abilities, my perceptions, and what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue directing, because it hurt so much. There are other things I care about. I knew I could just as easily do something else for a living.”

As time passed, though, Carpenter’s desire to direct grew too strong to resist, and he eventually emerged from his introspection with a renewed commitment to filmmaking. “I realized that, regardless of whether my film was a success or a failure, or whether it was a happy or a painful experience, I still loved making movies,” he announces. “That is what I am here for. So as long as someone will hire me to do it, I might as well do it.” 

Once he was ready to resume his career, Carpenter was surprised to discover that his services were still in great demand. “I was offered many pictures to direct, which was very encouraging,” he says. “It was the one thing that kept me going. 

“I learned something about failure. It doesn’t mean it’s the end for you. I don’t think that people won’t necessarily hire you again because you’ve had a failure. It depends on your entire body of work. My only job is to make the best film I can. The public can go and see it, or not. There is nothing I can do about that. The public didn’t go to see Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. They did go to see Deep Throat and E. T. So what the public goes to see doesn’t really say anything about the sort of movie you should make. You shouldn’t try to second guess the public. You should only try to make the best film you can, and hope they get it. They’re not always going to get it — and that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made a bad film or a great film. There are simply no rules.” 

The Thing 1982 Poster

Trusting his instinct to guide him, Carpenter reunited with producer Richard (Salem’s Lot) Kobritz, who had produced the director’s 1978 TV movie Someone is Watching Me, to helm a feature version of Stephen King’s haunted car thriller Christine, for Columbia Pictures.

“The reason I made Christine was that it had a lot of humour in it,” he states. “It was a ‘high school movie,’ and I like that genre. I’m a real fan of be-bop movies like High School Confidential. Also, it was a chance for me to do a rock ‘n’ roll film. And I really liked the look of the car. I thought: ‘Hell, I can have a good time with this damn thing’ — so off I went.”

Wary of targeting himself for another barrage of brickbats, Carpenter deliberately declined all press interviews when Christine opened in December 1983. “Doing publicity isn’t part of my job,” he maintains. “I was burned out after my experience with The Thing. The critics got me once, and I knew they were laying in wait for me again. I didn’t want to put myself through that twice.” 

Mad slashers & Fans 

Uncomfortable in the glare of public scrutiny, John Carpenter prefers to let his work speak for him. Capturing the attention of fantasy film fans with his first low-budget feature, the 1974 space opera spoof Dark Star, he later earned a European cult following for his stylish film noir Assault on Precinct 13.

John Carpenter on the Set of Halloween 1978

In 1978, he received major media recognition for that relentless exercise in terror, Halloween. Produced on a budget of only $300,000, it went on to become the highest-grossing independent film ever released, providing Carpenter with a rapid entry to Hollywood respectability. 

“Halloween was an unusual film at the time,” Carpenter observes. “It wasn’t original, because the ‘maniac-on-the-loose’ genre started with Psycho. But I was able to make it special. My dad once told me: ‘The opportunity will come along. Make sure you’re ready for it.’ So, I took the job because I wanted to direct a movie, but I also wanted to make a great horror film. Whatever movie you make, you have to make it incredibly special. That’s the secret. You must make a unique film.” 

Unfortunately, in the wake of Halloween, innumerable exploitation directors have attempted to duplicate what they perceived as Carpenter’s formula for success, by slavishly churning out a monotonous array of brutally sexist mad slasher exercises. For his part, Carpenter has mixed feelings about the trend he unwittingly initiated. 

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery, so, in a way, I’m very flattered,” he remarks. “But I don’t think the motives of the people who imitate Halloween are such that I should be flattered. They just want to make big bucks. That’s not why you make a film. You should make a film because you want to make a good film

“I don’t think slasher movies started out to put down women, but after a while, they become numbing. If you see enough of them, you get a certain message. I haven’t seen that many, but I know what they do. They try to make creative murders. They use a formula, and the best victims in that situation are women. Audiences accept the fact that women on screen are seemingly helpless, and can be easily terrorized. 

“I just think they’re bad movies. The characters in Psycho, for example, were treated like human beings. But the characters in slasher films are murder objects. They’re deliberately inane, and are set up just to be killed.” 

Carpenter vehemently denies any responsibility for the proliferation of slasher flicks. “I’m not the ‘godfather of gore,’ “he protests. “Those movies have nothing to do with Halloween.”

“On the other hand, I can understand how a producer or a director would see Halloween and think: ‘This thing was made for only $300,000. Look how much money it made. There’s nothing to this stuff. I can do it better. I’ll give them spewing eyeballs.’

“That’s the allure. But the guys who make slasher films don’t have any true feeling for horror movies, no sense of mood, or of creating suspense. They don’t even understand suspense. It has become a total formula, and there are no real people populating the formula. That is the true horror.” 

Time Trippers & cowboys 

Philadelphia Experiment

Emerging from the exploitation underground with a distinctive mastery of his craft, Carpenter found himself enthusiastically courted by studios and producers eager to utilize his abilities as writer and director. However, given the uncertain nature of big-budget deal-making, many of the projects he laboured on never reached the screen. 

In 1980, after co-writing and directing The Fog for Avco Embassy Pictures, Carpenter was unable to adequately dramatize an eerie tale of World War II sailors displaced in time. Four years later, the movie was released by New World Pictures as The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), directed by Stewart (The Ice Pirates) Raffill, with Carpenter receiving story credit, as well as prominent “executive producer” billing. 

“I tried to write a screenplay for it, but I failed,” he concedes. “Instead of doing The Philadelphia Experiment, I went and made Escape From New York instead, I gave Philadelphia back to Embassy. They tried to get it made, but they couldn’t lick the script either.”

“Finally, a producer named Douglas Curtis came to me. He wanted to go back to my original idea and asked for my help. I agreed because I was still interested in the material, but I just couldn’t solve the story problems. Curtis hired a very talented writer, Michael Janover, who wrote a screenplay for a time travel movie. It wasn’t my original idea or what the film should have been, but it was a good time travel movie.”

“Curtis set up the project at New World, and he asked me to be the executive producer. I said: ‘Fine, as long as you pay me a lot of money— which he did. I guided Janover’s time travel script slightly, but not very much. Then, they brought in William Gray to do a rewrite. By that point, I was busy on another project, so I had no further involvement. They just used me to exploit my name. That’s why I made them pay me so much money”

Pragmatically aware of the financial value of his name, Carpenter was powerless to prevent its exploitation. “My name was tied to the script originally, so I couldn’t get it off,” he notes. “I figured if they were going to use me anyway, I might as well get paid for it.”

“After the experience of co-writing and co-producing Halloween II, which turned out to be an awful film, I realized there is nothing I can do about my other scripts unless I direct them. All I can do is hope for the best. I give my best support, but, ultimately, it’s the director’s film. I have to let him make his movie.” 

Ironically, Douglas Curtis subsequently inherited another Carpenter screenplay, Black Moon Rising, which he has produced for New World. Directing is Harley Cokliss, the man originally slated to helm The Philadelphia Experiment. 

“I wrote Black Moon Rising in 1975,” Carpenter recalls. “It was one of my first jobs in the film industry. It’s about a guy whose car is stolen by a very sophisticated hot car ring operating in a giant skyscraper, and his efforts to get it back. It’s meant to be a real slam-bang action picture.” 

Once again, Carpenter will receive screen credit as executive producer, though his input will be minimal. 

Black Moon Rising

“I will be doing exactly what I did on Philadelphia Experiment,” he reveals. “I will read their shooting script, and give them my comments. And for this, they are again paying me a lot of money.”

One Carpenter script perpetually in limbo is El Diablo, a large-scale Western originally intended to star Kurt Russell. Stalled in development at EMI Films, it was nearly rescued by Dino De Laurentiis. 

“I don’t know if El Diablo will ever be made,” Carpenter complains. “It has many complicated problems. Dino and I could never agree on the version I wanted to make. Kurt is getting a little too old for it now. EMI wants to shoot it inexpensively in Mexico. They have a distribution deal with Universal, but there’s no guarantee of how much money Universal will put in the advertising.”

“It’s also a very violent script. It may need a rewrite, to soften it for a broad audience. I would still love to do a Western, though. I just have to find the right project. Maybe it’s not El Diablo.” 
(It did finally get made and was released as a TV movie in 1990, based on Carpenters script, but with no further input from Carpenter)

Ninjas & chicken Hawks 

The Ninja by eric van lustbader

Carpenter had high hopes when he signed with 20th Century Fox to write and direct an adaptation of Eric Van Lustbader’s best-selling martial arts adventure novel The Ninja, for Jaws producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown. A previous version, scripted by W.D. (Buckaroo Banzai) Richter for director Irvin Kershner, was rejected by the studio. Even so, an unexpected change in executives also torpedoed Carpenter’s efforts. 

“The Ninja didn’t get made because Joe Wizan came into Fox just as I finished the screenplay,” the director claims. “Wizan said: ‘I don’t want to make this picture.’ He didn’t think a Ninja movie would be successful. 

“I changed the material a lot from the Richter/Kershner version and made it an entirely different film. Most of it would have been shot in New York, but The Ninja would still have been the most expensive martial arts movie ever made. Wizan didn’t want to commit that kind of money for what he felt was a limited market.” 

Intrigued by the challenge of visualizing Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Stars My Destination, Carpenter entered into a development deal with independent producer Jack Schwartzman, to direct a script by Schwartzman’s Never Say Never Again screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. After several months of dissatisfying consultations, Carpenter left the project. 

“I didn’t think I could do a good job with Lorenzo’s screenplay,” he discloses. “I felt it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go. Schwartzman was very impressed with the script, and I couldn’t change his mind, so I decided not to do it. Stars would have been a giant special-effects movie, requiring a huge time commitment on my part.”

“It wouldn’t have been an intimate film, and I was longing to do a picture with people in it. Schwartzman wanted to make it The Count of Monte Cristo in Outer Space. He had some ideas about how to do it cheaply, by making the world of the future look like the world of today. I thought that would destroy the book. We also couldn’t hash out the ending. I liked the book’s ending, but they wanted to change it.”

Now, Carpenter is cautiously deciding what his next project will be. While he hopes to direct one of several pictures he and his actress wife Adrienne Barbeau are developing through their company, Hye Whitebread Productions, he is also evaluating other recent offers. 

“I’ve been offered Tai-Pan,” Carpenter reports, referring to the James Clavell adventure novel, which, in two previous incarnations, was planned as a starring vehicle for Patrick McGoohan and then the late Steve McQueen.

“I’m not sure if I want to do it, though, because I would have to spend the better part of a year working in the Orient, and that would be tough. New World also sent me Chicken Hawk, a book about helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War. I really responded to that, but I don’t think they can come up with enough money to make it. There are other projects which interest me as well, but, at this point, nothing is firm.” 

As he patiently awaits his next assignment, Carpenter joyfully occupies his time raising his infant son, John Cody. The obligations of fatherhood have clearly had a profound impact on his personality.

“I have a new life on my hands here, one who responds to me with unconditional love,” he marvels. “It’s one of the biggest surprises of my life. It’s so wonderful. I see things a lot differently now. Of course, my son isn’t 13 years old yet and giving me a load of shit. Check back with me then, and we’ll see if I feel the same way. But right now, I feel great.” 

In less than a decade, John Carpenter has risen from the depths of exploitation obscurity to become one of Hollywood’s foremost young filmmakers. Along the way, he has learned to survive failure and to persevere through major studio politics. Now, he feels ready to reach for new depth and resonance in his films, by treating traditional action and adventure elements with a more thoughtful and humanistic approach.

Contemplating his professional future, he believes his best work is before him. 

“I have always had different aspects to my personality,” Carpenter reflects. “I think I’m a long-term pessimist and a short-term optimist. I do feel great darkness about humanity. But – simultaneously and contradictorily— I also feel that life can be pretty fabulous.”

“I should also express some of that in my work; I don’t want to limit myself as a filmmaker. I want to be true to the parameters of all films. I believe films should move you — one way or another. They should create a mood, and tingle you emotionally. That is what I’m after. I want the audience to experience some feelings. I want them to know they’re alive.” 

Originally published in the November issue of Starlog in 1985 and was written by long time staff writer for Starlog, — STEVE SWIRES — 

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