Hollywood’s Best Film Directors

S1 E3 | FULL EPISODE

John Carpenter

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: April 06, 2020 | 0:25:59
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: This great Hollywood director

won an Academy Award in 1970 for Best Short Subject

with "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy."

in 1978, he directed Jamie Lee Curtis' first film --

a cult classic that was one of the highest-grossing

independents of all time -- "Halloween."

Since then, this provocative Master of Horror

has directed "Prince of Darkness,"

"The Thing," "They Live," "Christine."

And when he teamed up with Kurt Russell,

he gave him his most famous role

as Snake Plissken in "Escape From New York."

Hi. I'm John Carpenter,

and welcome to "Hollywood's Best film Directors."

♪♪

I was born in. upstate New York

in Carthage, New York,

which is right near Lake Ontario.

It's very close to Canada.

It's very -- It was a village I was born in.

And my father got a job in the '50's,

and we moved down south to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

So, we were a Yankees,

and we were transplanted to the South,

in this small town in the Bible Belt.

And I spent my entire youth, and my teenage years,

going to one school in Bowling Green.

And that's kind of where I learned everything

I needed to know about life, about evil, about people.

And I fell in love with the movies there.

My mother was a big movie fan,

so I'd go to the movies a lot with her.

And we had to downtown theaters,

and two drive-ins.

And I just -- I suppose it was because my family

was so out of place in the South.

It was the Jim Crow South.

And my father was a PhD in music,

and had come from Eastern sensibilities.

We came from Plymouth Rock background type folks.

So, then, to go down to the Jim Crow South,

where there is just a religion in racism,

was just a shock.

It was a shock to my parents. It was a shock to me.

I felt really out of place there.

So, I think the movies were an escape --

an escape from the place that I lives,

and I think, probably, it was also an escape from

various problems in my household.

My father was a PhD in music and he specialized in.

Composition in the violin.

So, I grew up with music all constantly playing

Either my dad was playing, or on the stereo,

he was playing classical music.

I think the first movie I ever saw

I believe was "The African Queen."

And I was a little confused about what I was seeing,

'cause I was very young.

And that was '51 or '52.

And I was born in 1948, so I would have been very young.

I wasn't sure what was real, or not real,

or whether the actors were behind behind the curtain,

or whether they were -- is it really happening in front of me.

The movie that influenced me the most, I think,

was a film called "It Came from Outer Space."

It was a 3D film in 1952.

Again, I was very young.

I sort of fell in love with fantasy

and science fiction in that film.

My father had an 8 millimeter movie camera,

and he finally gave it to me because he hated making movies,

because I think what he was interested in was still shots.

of people, and family get-togethers, and whatever.

And so, he gave me the movie camera.

He didn't care for it anymore.

So, I inherited a movie camera, and a projector,

and a screen, and splicer --

a real primitive glue splice to splice pieces of film together.

So, I started making little fragments of films,

including my classmates as stars,

and little crude special effects.

and they're basically unwatchable.

And I don't think they exist anymore.

I hope not.

I remember, I was on a USO tour -- a musical group.

We would tour the bases in Germany in 1968.

And we were playing for all the soldiers

that were stationed there.

And part of our job as the band

was to go and talk to the soldiers.

I went to this one kind of rec room they had.

And they were nice guys.

They just wanted to talk to people back home.

I picked up this magazine that was sitting there,

and it talked about film schools --

going to schools of cinema at USC and UCLA.

And I thought, "Wow. You could study this?

That's interesting."

It sort of got me thinking

So, I looked up --

I did research on all the film schools,

applied to several of them, and USC accepted me.

I don't know why, actually, because I wrote this terrible --

You had to write a paper to get in, and I wrote it.

It was awful, what I wrote, but they accepted me.

So, off I went.

I didn't know what I wanted to do.

I had majored in English,

and had broken up with my girlfriend at the time.

I was heartbroken. I didn't care about English.

I didn't want to be a teacher.

I wanted to get out of the South.

And I wanted to come to Los Angeles.

And USC had a reputation for being close to Hollywood.

It was it was connected with the film industry,

and classic filmmaking, classic directors.

and that's what I wanted to learn.

♪♪

When I was at film school, I started making

a senior project, and it evolved into a feature.

It was a science fiction movie I made with a classmate of mine,

Dan O'Bannon, who went on to be

a very talented guy -- writer and director in his own right.

We made this little 60 millimeter movie,

and it was eventually -- we got into feature length, eventually.

And it was blown up, and released in theaters.

So, that was my first movie.

And "Dark Star" was released...

1975, I think.

We worked on it for about four years.

And I can't watch it anymore. It's an amateur film.

But I'm very grateful.

when it was released, I was hopeful that it would be

my showcase as a director, and I would get hired.

"Dark Star" comes out, and nothing happens.

Don't get hired.

No one wants me to direct.

But I do get an agent out of the job -- the deal --

and the agent says,

"You have to write your way into the movie business."

So, I began writing scripts.

Unfortunately, I hate writing scripts -- hate it.

But I wrote some stuff.

One was bought by Columbia, became "Eyes of Laura Mars."

A couple of them -- It was a good living at the time,

because you could write a screenplay

and make a whole lot of money,

once you joined the Writers Guild.

And even if the movie didn't get made, you can live.

And it was only -- my second film came about,

"Assault on Precinct 13,"

because a private investor wanted to make a film,

and I was in the right place at the right time.

And we shot that in 1976.

That was released.

Nobody cared.

I was determined to make it in the movies.

I wanted to make a living at being a director.

That was my goal.

So, the third time I did it --

well, I did it a couple of TV movies.

I learned the ropes by that.

And I made, in 1978 --

again, another small investor who had a distribution company/

So, I made "Halloween."

and that one was the one that worked.

[ Indistinct talking ]

Cut. Good.

Cameraman: Hey, John.

Hey, dude. How you doing?

-Okay. -How are you?

♪♪

♪♪

"Halloween" was a slow success, when it came out.

It was not immediately successful

because it was a small distribution company.

They would show it.

They would move prints around the country.

So, they'd open in Los Angeles with a few prints,

move those prints to the next city, and open there.

So, it was not an immediate success.

It began to build.

So, I was on other projects, and I thought,

once again -- Let me back up.

The reviews for "Halloween" were not all that positive.

And so, I thought, "Well, it's the same old story," you know?

But at that point, I just I wanted to direct.

And that was my life.

I just kept working at it.

The distributor of "Assault on Precinct 13"

came to me -- Irwin Yablans --

and he had a deal with a man who was financing films.

And he said, "I want to make a horror film

about this serial killer

who's stalking and killing babysitters."

And that was it.

"So, what can you do with that," he said to me.

And I made a deal to do it,

to have creative control over it.

And so, I wrote it.

And I wrote it as a -- It was a reaction against

a lot of the horror films that I had seen.

the modern horror film began in 1960, with "Psycho."

So, it changed from this romantic fatalism

and romanticism, gothic horror, cobwebs,

and Frankenstein, Dracula type thing into the modern age.

So, how are you going to do something

with a concept as feeble as babysitters

being stalked by a killer?

So, I tried to kick it into another level,

meaning that the killer himself would not be, really, human,

in some ways -- although he was.

So, I thought of the hook.

This is an old urban legend where the teenagers are parking,

and there is a hook in -- anyway -- hook in the car.

And just sort of took that to a --

extended that a little bit, in terms of the story.

It was just an exercise in style,

which was fun for me to do.

Well, after "Halloween," I made "The Fog."

I had written that,

And I was not really happy with the movie,

but that doesn't matter.

Along came an opportunity to direct

a remake of "The Thing" at universal.

It would be my first studio feature.

We won't have that situation over there.

I think we'll be okay.

I had mixed feelings about "The Thing"

because of my love of Howard Hawks' film.

Did it.

We went in a different direction,

in terms of what it was.

It was a very overt creature,

as opposed to a creature who was in shadows.

♪♪

Every movie I've directed --

whether it's a script by me or by someone else --

there's always a point where the writer --

Whether it's me or someone else --

has written something that cannot be done.

That it's ineffective. That is stupid.

It reads well, but once you've come to execute it,

you say, "Who wrote this crap?"

So, there's always something in the script that,

for me, personally, my taste, is ridiculous.

And I found it to be true in my own films.

I'll look at the work for the morning

that I've written something, and was gonna shoot it.

And I go, "Why did I write that?

It's a ridiculous idea."

Because you're not on the floor on the set.

You're not dealing with people.

You're not dealing with real space.

So, A lot of -- of what I've experienced

is pretty much the same, whether I've written it or not.

Shooting any movie on location is -- It has its challenges.

For instance, there's a there's a sequence in "Starman"

where our leads are are going through Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is in Utah --

Arizona, Utah -- John Ford country.

So, you imagine these beautiful vistas.

The day we shot it was this cold, overcast day.

So, you had to adapt to what the weather was.

So, it wasn't beautiful vistas, necessarily.

They were in the background,

but they were against leaden gray skies.

It's hard to work on locations.

However, the results are often just fabulous,

because you're working with -- The best light possible

is natural light, available light.

Some of the effects, in terms of special visual effects --

like "The Thing," take, for instance.

I'm glad we didn't have the modern technology

when we did that.

That was all done in live, in a room, in space,

with inertia, with real stuff moving.

Because a lot of movies nowadays,

they don't -- they look fake, like cartoons.

They're just cartoon stuff.

I tend not to respond to that as much.

But a lot of audiences love it, so I don't know.

What are you gonna do?

Every movie has difficulties in the shooting.

So, you can mention anything, and there'll be problems.

They always come up.

"Escape From New York"

was the second movie in a two-movie commitment

to this company called "Avco Embassy."

They made a two-picture deal with me.

The first one was "The Fog."

The second one was supposed to be based on a book.

called "The Philadelphia Experiment,"

which was about this urban legend

about an experiment that took place in World War II --

invisible battleship type thing.

and I was fascinated by it.

I started writing the script,

until I realized there was no third act.

There's no ending to it, because it was a --

It's like flying saucers.

The minute you try to explain them,

and you get -- you go to -- it's boring.

There's no ending.

It's always better if they're a mystery.

So, I went to the head of the company,

and I said "I don't want to do this," you know,

"I don't know how to do it."

But I had this other script that I wrote in the '70's

called "Escape From New York."

So, I handed it to him, and that's what we did.

It was a combination of "Death Wish,"

which was the view of New York as being this pit of horror,

and Clint Eastwood movies -- who I admire a great deal --

and this novel called "Planet Of The Damned" --

"Planet of No Return" --

I can't remember the exact title

It was by Harry Harrison.

It was about this planet in outer space

was the most dangerous place in the world.

So, who do you send? The most dangerous man.

A very basic plot. so...

We didn't have that much money to make "Escape from New York."

We only had about $4 million to $5 million at the time.

And it was a fantasy -- future fantasy.

But we got very lucky shooting it.

I had a terrific production designer --

Joe Alves.

Dean Cundey was a cameraman.

And we shot it in St. Louis -- stood in for New York.

St. Louis had had this big fire.

It had burned out big parts of the city.

So, they were destroyed.

And it was a futuristic, dystopian type of thing.

There a couple of them that had been done in movies.

I think it was supposed to take place in 1997.

Things didn't turn out that way, Did they?

Woman: Take three. Marker.

Man: Action.

♪♪

Both Kurt Russell and Donald Pozner and Sam Neill

I worked with twice.

I understand what their needs are,

and what they're doing, and their approach to a part.

And they understand mine.

So, there's a lot of kind of --

The courtship doesn't have to quite be so long

before we get to the real thing.

We can dive right into it.

And all those -- Those are my kind of actors.

They're all about the work.

They're not really about themselves.

They're not really about what's going on right now in --

around us, the cameras.

They're about what the story is.

And I love how they come across on screen.

That's really the big thing.

I met Kurt Russell on "Elvis,"

when he does this three-hour TV movie.

He was really good at it as an actor.

He had a lot of experience.

He's my kind of actor. He shows up.

He knows his lines.

He's not -- He...

He's ready to work.

He never gives you a problem.

Understands the part.

Understands how to play a scene.

Understands how to play for the camera.

You'd be surprised how many actors

don't know how to do that nowadays.

And he was Disney-trained, meaning that he was trained...

I mean, in those days if you didn't say the line exactly,

the script supervisor would cut the camera.

It wasn't even the director.

Kurt Russell and I just became friends.

I respected his professionalism and his ability.

And somehow, he kept coming up for parts

in movies that I was making --

"Elvis," "Escape from New York," "The Thing,"

"Big Trouble In Little China," "Escape from L.A."

Partially -- A part of it was due to the fact that

my first assistant director, and later producer,

was his brother-in-law.

So, every movie that I worked on, the brother-in-law --

unbeknownst to me -- would give Kurt the script.

So, he would already have read it,

and want to do it, or not want to do it.

So...

I kept wondering Why is he always around?"

And I really enjoyed working with him.

♪♪

♪♪

I'm hesitant to talk too much about some of the things

that happened on the set of movies

because a lot of people that made the films are still alive,

and a lot of the hijinks were involving things

that we none of us should be doing --

none of us.

And probably the most dangerous location

that I worked in was in Stewart, British Columbia,

when we shot "The Thing."

We were up on a glacier.

At the bottom of the glacier was this small town of Stewart.

And it was in Alaska,

essentially right next to a place called Hyder, Alaska.

Hyder, Alaska used to have a police department.

The residents burned it down, and ran the police out of town.

So there's no law in Stewart.

So, here we were, these Hollywood people

descending on this little town.

And there was nothing to do there.

So, what did everybody do? They drank.

And there was some adventures in that town

that I'm sworn to secrecy. I can't tell you.

But they're pretty -- pretty incredible stuff.

Man: Very quiet, please.

Mark.

Action.

[ Yells ]

[ All yelling ]

John: Cut.

Check the gate.

♪♪

"Starman" was a lucky...

incident in my life, in terms of a project.

It came along because I was working at Columbia.

I had done "Christine' for them.

And "Starman" was a script that had been around a while.

It was a romantic comedy between alien and human.

And "E.T.' had kind of taken the thunder out of the movie,

but they still wanted to make it.

And for me, it was real opportunity.

It was a road movie,

so it took place across the country.

It was great -- if one could find the right lead.

So, Jeff Bridges finally came along, and he just --

Jeff is one of our great actors.

He's just one of our greatest actors.

And he was brilliant in it.

Karen Allen was terrific.

And Charlie Martin Smith was in it.

We had a great time making it.

It was -- I enjoyed it because I didn't have to

work with the tropes of horror.

I could do something entirely different.

And it was a lot of fun to do.

♪♪

I have several favorites of my own films.

I like "The Thing" a lot.

I mean, I think that's pretty good.

I like "Halloween."

But to go through -- to go through various films,

it's hard to separate the experience from the movie.

Some of the experiences were great, some were awful.

It doesn't really have anything to do with

whether the movie was good.

And sometimes, you try out a subject, or a film,

and it doesn't work out.

Sometimes, you love those more than the ones that do.

So, I don't really have one favorite overall.

♪♪

My father was definitely

one of the biggest influences in my life.

He gave me a gift Of creativity.

And he said, "No matter what you do in life,

do something creative.

Write. Paint. Music. Whatever you want to do."

My mother, on the other hand, gave me the gift of fantasy.

And so, those combined

has served me well throughout my career.

I became happy with being John Carpenter.

Put it that way.

I think I would have loved to,

like I told you, direct a Western.

I got a chance to do kind of a romantic comedy with "Starman,"

which was someone else's screenplay,

which was, for me, a very different type of film.

I've shot some comedies, but...

I came to see that I was seen --

others saw me a certain way -- and that --

that I needed to embrace it.

It's funny. It's like people are going to lose control,

and you've got to somehow keep the top on.

These passionate people, running around making movies.

My biggest goal in life was to be a working director --

a guy who made his living directing movies.

That was my goal when I was younger.

After a certain number of fantasy films, thrillers,

science fiction, horror --

whatever you want to call them --

I realized, "Well, you know. that's okay."

I enjoy doing this."

And I became known for that.

I would start at right.

And as he comes in to hit him, I would pull back, like this.

-Got it. -Okay. -Yeah.

one of the great things about scary movies, and horror,

is that we're all afraid of the same things --

every human being is.

We're all afraid of death.

All the fears that our societies

and individuals have, we share it.

So, we may not share comedy across cultural lines,

but boy, are we scared.

We are sc-- The fear is exactly the same.

That's why I think horror films are more classical.

They're more universal.

They last with a lot of audiences.

They resonate.

♪♪

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