Don't ask John Carpenter to pick his favorite movies from his own back catalog. If he had to make a playlist for a festival, he said, "I'd program Howard Hawks movies or pornography."
Fortunately for the director of such classics as Halloween, In the Mouth of Madness, and They Live, Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network is on hand to provide that retrospective. May 10 sees the launch of The Director's Chair series, as Rodriguez interviews Carpenter on a legendary career in film making.
The pair sat down in Los Angeles last week, and Rodriguez seems to be aiming for a show that will do for directors what Inside the Actors Studio does for performers. Announcing the series, he called it "an intimate forum for the wildly unexpected conversation that ensues when passionate people discuss their fascination with this art form and can share what they have learned about the industry they love. This is an opportunity to do a deep dive into what makes some of these great minds tick."
The show kicks off a mini-marathon of Carpenter films, with The Fog (1980) Assault on Precinct 13 (1975) and Escape from New York (19981). But don't expect Carpenter to stay glued to the tube for the whole thing. "I don't watch my own movies," he said. "I can't stand it. Are you kidding me? Why should I do that? It's pain, man. The instant they start, I see everything I did wrong" "
According to Carpenter, he's not that interested in living in the past. In fact, he's only kept one prop (the tentacle-riddled Miss Pickman from In the Mouth of Madness) from his entire career. He said, "I got offered one of the Christine cars, and I stupidly turned it down. Those things were cherry."
There's a hint of a workaholic about Carpenter. Not only a prolific director. he's also scripted many of those films, and composed some of the most memorable soundtracks (no Carpenter, no Halloween "du-du-du-du-du-du-Doo!') That said, he admits that he'd rather have someone else do the scripting for him. "Writing and directing is too hard work," he said. "You guys actually write for a living. I don't know how you do it."
But sometimes turning a script his way could be a tough challenge. Take 1981's The Thing, his first feature for a major studio. Initially, he didn't even want to take the project on, because Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World was actually one of his favorite movies. Moreover, he was afraid that an update would just feel outdated. "In 1980, you couldn't make a 1950s movie," he said. "There was nothing in the old film that we could really use and modernize it." So he turned to Hawks' source material, John W. Campbell, Jr.'s book Who Goes There? "I came up with the idea of going back to the novella, which is the imitation business, a creature that can perfectly imitate other life forms, and (scriptwriter) Bill Lancaster took that and ran with it and came up with some great ideas."
Even after it was completed, he still had troubles. Studio executive Sid Sheinberg didn't like the nihilist ending, with MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) set to freeze to death in the Polar snows. Carpenter recalled, "[Sidney] said, 'Think about how the audience will react if we see the thing die with a giant orchestra playing. I said, well, gosh, it's the end of the world. There's no way out." Carpenter suggested a compromise: Cut off the final scene of the two men, and show preview audiences that version and the fuller cut. He said, "It didn't test any different, so I said, 'Nah, we're going to keep the ending we've got.'"
After 2010's The Ward, he's still been working on a series of projects but "they'll all have to wait until the MBA playoffs are over. That's the most important thing in my life right now."
There are dream projects out there, such as a big screen adaptation of survival horror game Dead Space, and he'd recently pitched a film to Blumhouse, but they turned him down. "So I guess I won't be working for them." He's always wanted to make a Western, but as he noted, there's no financing for them. "Plus," he said, "at my age, you don't want to deal with all that horse shit."
That's one of the oddities of Carpenter's career: That the man that made Kurt Russell into Elvis and saw Jeff Bridges as an intergalactic romantic lead, who scripted seminal thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars is often seen as 'just' a horror guy. But he's OK with that. He said, "I grew up with science fiction and horror, I love it, and I wouldn't trade that for the world. I got to be John Carpenter. What the hell?"
El Rey Network Presents: The Director's Chair and Carpen-Terror mini-marathon starting 12pm Central, May 10. The show and marathon repeats at 7pm.
Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.