I mean — what do we expect to get from reading an interview with an artist? Haven’t they, with their body of work, given us the answers and even asked of us some questions of their own? I’d argue that the work says more about the author than the author can say about the work; there are elements of the work that speak of the artist’s unconscious.
John Carpenter has a whole career behind him. He’s an auteur whose work embodies a certain late 20th century, American outsider ethos: an ambivalent, bewildered nostalgia and disillusionment with the American dream; a skepticism regarding the illusions crafted on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood; a fascination with the extremities of our society’s cities and suburbs. He’s also produced some of the most terrifying ideas set to celluloid, from The Thing to Halloween. His body of work is probably the best window into his vision and his identity that we could hope to have. Even then, it’s foolish to assume you can know someone through their work.
Carpenter has also done a lot of interviews and is a notorious interviewee. I read a lot of his prior interviews before taking my shot with him and his partner/collaborator, Sandy King. I liked John’s unromantic, material answers to questions about his films and Hollywood. He expresses an apathy towards the sequels, he just wants to get paid for them. And really, shouldn’t someone who’s given so much to the culture get rewarded for their contribution? Even though I was careful not to cover things I’d read elsewhere in other interviews, I still didn’t manage to coax much out of an email exchange with Mr. Carpenter. Sandy was more accommodating. I gave up after the first round and Josh valiantly took up the cause. What can I say, if you want more, watch his films — he’s said plenty in them.
Interview by Ronald Wimberly and Josh O’Neill.
Ronald Wimberly: First out the gate, Sandy, pardon me if you get this all the time, but is Sandy King a nom du plume? If so, did you take your name from the notorious outlaw Sandy King? If not, were you named after or are you related to him?
Sandy King: Actually, no one has ever asked me that before. I’d love to be considered that dangerous but it’s just my given name.
RW: John, where’d you grow up in the South? You’ve mentioned before it was the Jim Crow south. Do you think that influenced your creative development? How?
John Carpenter: Bowling Green, Kentucky. Yes it influenced me. I saw how thoughtlessly and cruelly human beings could treat each other.
RW: Do you believe in an arc of history? Do you think we’re in a better place than when you were a child in the Jim Crow south?
RW: Were you deliberate about the political quality of your work? When you were trying to get funding for your films, were you honest with producers (Sandy) about any political aspects of your work?
JC: Absolutely. Horror is a great allegorical form of story-telling. The best horror and sci-fi is always multi-layered and tells a deeper truth while at the same time being entertaining. By producers I assume you mean the studios. In the case of a movie like They Live, the head of the studio was not a stupid man. Of course he knew it was political satire and we worked with the studio marketing department to position it with journalists ahead of release to be sure that it was received at least critically as such. It’s not really good business practice to try to put one over on your partners.
RW: Sandy, as a producer, was it difficult getting studios on board with John’s ideas?
SK: I don’t think it’s ever been a secret who either of us is. John is hired for his vision. I’m hired to facilitate that vision. Ultimately, John is innovative, entertaining and popular. If he weren’t, the studios wouldn’t call on him. Fights happen over other dumb stuff like budgets and schedules.
RW: I read you say something in an interview once that reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous answer to “what scares you”. Hitchcock said, “the police”; Sandy, you said, “the news.” Did this inform your approach to films/comics?
SK: Sure. It’s just my opinion but I think you have to be grounded in reality to make fantasy take off. I want to feel my feet on the ground before I fall into the abyss. Good fantasy/horror makes me take a second look at everything around me as I walk down that perfect tree-lined street or turn into a dark alley. If turning on the news at night horrifies me, how do I as a creator twist your guts in the same way as reality can wrench mine?
RW: To take it a step further, John’s films, like the best films, make the mundane fantastic. I think this applies across genre but I’m thinking particularly about the horror in this case. For example, the monster in the The Thing confronts us with the face of our comrades; in They Live, what appear to be ordinary shades reveal an extraterrestrial conspiracy; the average American suburb produces a prolific, eccentric serial killer in Halloween. Is this deliberate; did you cultivate this method? Were you deliberate about story structure at all?
JC: Yes, absolutely.
RW: So, speaking of making the mundane fantastic, let’s talk about Big Trouble in Little China. I have to admit that, growing up, Big Trouble in Little China was one of my favorite films. In the eighties I feel like it was played on TV often. I read somewhere that you wanted to make a martial arts film. Is that true? Were you a big martial arts cinema guy? Was there anything you learned from martial arts cinema?
JC: I’d wanted to make a kung fu movie since I saw 5 Fingers of Death. In general, martial arts movies had an incredible amount of violence combined with a narrative naive charm.
RW: Have either of you ever seen/read The Good Person of Sezuan? If so, what did you think of it?
JC: Brecht, right? Kind of annoying to me. Seems to either blame the woman’s dilemma on the gods or throw it to the audience to solve instead of having the lead character find any enlightenment herself.
RW: You’ve mentioned you liked comic books when you were young. Which comics do you remember? What about the medium grabbed you?
JC: My favorite comic books were Disney’s Uncle Scrooge.
RW: You’ve mentioned that film (in relation to music) is a 20th century art form. Have we left it in the 20th century? What do you think is the art form of the 21st century? Did music have a century?
JC: Cinema is a 20th century art form that survives into this century.
RW: John, you’ve mentioned that you intend to make a mood with your music. Is your approach to music different than your approach to film in this way?
JC: The only difference is that in movies I have a visual image to play to.
RW: Your work means a lot to a lot of people, and many people draw many different types of meaning from your work. How do you feel about the variety of takes on your work, and when people like myself ask you about them?
JC: I feel flattered when anyone discusses my work favorably.
Josh O’Neill: John, I know you’re very interested in video games. What is it that excites you about games as a medium for art and storytelling?
JC: Games are just lots of fun to play. My son got me into games back in the 90’s. My hand/eye coordination was weak. I had to work at gameplay.
JO: How does the user input and player agency of video games affect their expressive and inventive capacities? What can video games do that films can’t, and vice versa?
JC: Obviously the game player experiences dying more directly than the cinema viewer.
JO: How do you think the political themes that informed a lot of your work have filtered into video games, especially politicized horror like Borderlands, Fallout, Bioshock, etc?
JC: I’m not certain that any political themes have filtered into games.
JO: A lot of your work has strong political themes. Do the concepts and stories ever arise out of political conviction, or are your initial impulses aesthetic? Do you think your work — or art in general — has a role in educating or informing people? How do you view the purpose of your work?
JC: The idea of political themes in my movie has been overused. Political themes are certainly in They Live. Not so much the others.
JO: Are there young or new storytellers (filmmakers, writers, cartoonists, game developers, etc) who you find particularly exciting? What do you like about their work?
JC: I think Anthony Burch is an amazing talent in game writing and comic writing. Also his sister Ashley Burch gave an amazing vocal performance in Horizon Zero Dawn.
JO: Do you have any strong regrets about storytelling choices you’ve made? Are there any elements of your films that were interpreted by your audience in ways that ran counter to your intentions?
JC: No regrets.
JO: How has your vision and aesthetic philosophy evolved over the years? If you could give a piece of advice or critique to yourself early in your career, what would you say?
JC: Yes. Piece of advice for myself: relax.
JO: What is it that keeps you motivated when you’re in the midst of a project? Is it your engagement in the process? The desire to see your ideas realized? The collaborative aspect? When you face challenges,what resources do you draw on to push through them and finish a film or comic without compromising your vision?
JC: The work ethic my father taught me keeps me engaged.
This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #4: This Was Your Life!, published by Beehive Books, 2019.