Street fighting men
BAM celebrates John Carpenter's sci-fi-inflected rage against the machine.
Thu Aug 28 2008
He doesn't know the band Portishead. And his involvement in Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween was "minimal" at best (a polite euphemism for cashing the check). But the influence of director John Carpenter is huger than ever, with fawning nods in films as recent as Grindhouse and Doomsday. After supercharging the slasher genre in 1978, Carpenter spent much of the 1980s pursuing a politically daring brand of sci-fi satire, to be celebrated in a well-chosen mini retro at BAM. The four movies—the instant classic Escape from New York (1981), a paranoid remake of The Thing (1982), the cross-genre romp Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Carpenter's yuppie-invasion nightmare They Live (1988)—are all to be screened in 35mm anamorphic prints. TONY let the 60-year-old Kentucky-born director, thrilled to not discuss Michael Myers's mask, weigh in on these movies' deceptively serious themes.
Hail to the thief
You have to realize that part of my personality is my utter horror at the Reagan revolution. I couldn't believe it was happening. And yet, the flip side to all my disgust is that the left wing is lunatic—a bunch of idiots who don't know what they're doing. So I'm not in love with either. I sometimes despair about it. That's why my movies are so cynical. No one seems to mention that the President of the United States in Escape from New York is British! [Laughs] We made up some story about him being the love child of Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. That didn't make it into the movie because Kurt Russell is to the right of Attila the Hun. He actually doesn't think we should have to pay for roads—unbelievable. But we're friends because we respect each other's work ethic. He's a wonderful guy; I love him.
Summer of Spielberg
I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don't think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that's what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane. Even the original movie's director, Christian Nyby, was dissing me. But 1982 was the summer of E.T.—you don't realize what a big deal that was. Spielberg had this uncanny knack of knowing what the audience wanted. And he thought they wanted a big cry. He was absolutely right. We came out two weeks later.
My kingdom for a horse
Westerns are why I got in the business, but they kind of died out just as I was getting started. I would have given my eyeteeth to work with Clint Eastwood, because you need a big hero to do those kinds of movies. I even wrote a script for John Wayne in the '70s. He never made it. In fact, the original script for Big Trouble in Little China was a Western. A cowboy rides into Chinatown, and the same basic thing happens: He goes underground, the railroad coolies hide down there, whatever. My screenwriter, W.D. Richter, did a rewrite on it, and you couldn't put it down. Insane. I said, "Rick, this is just brilliant." And he said, "John, this is a selling script. You can't actually shoot this." People now come up to me somewhat guiltily: "[Whispering] Oh, I love that movie!" You try to make a studio picture your own, but in the end, it's their film. And they're going to get what they want. After that experience, I had to stop playing for the studios for a while and go independent again.
A thousand points of fright
I don't think anybody realized we were releasing They Live so close to Election Day in 1988. It just shows you how dumb I am. But we did intentionally show that underclass in East L.A., living on the streets. That area's all Disneyfied now, with rich yuppies living down there. These days, the homeless end up in hospitals, and when they can't pay, they get dumped elsewhere. I can't believe this happens in America. This is my country. How dare they? So my movie is about a working man raging against the darkness. And there's no winning. Do I believe everything could be fixed if we had metaphorical sunglasses showing the yuppies to be aliens? It's not about fixing it. It's about revealing it. I don't know if we'll ever fix the problems. However I do have a long-term optimism. I hope we survive, because we're worth it.
The big sleep
I got into movies because of a passion for cinema. But after finishing my last film [2001's Ghosts of Mars], I found myself as having no passion whatsoever: total burnout. By the time I got to the scoring stage, I looked like a zombie. Who knows why? I didn't take enough of a rest. Also, the country was attacked—and I watched. My eyes were opened; I hadn't observed anything for years. I needed to get away from the moviemaking process for a while. I'm slowly putting my feet in the water again, with a new perspective. Is there room for more movies like Escape from New York? I don't know. You have to be subtle about that stuff, because people don't like to be preached to. But there may be. We'll see.