John Carpenter Speaks: Directing Legend on Secrets of 'Halloween,' Plagiarism Case Against Luc Besson
In a rare one-on-one, the horror/sci-fi auteur shares new details about Michael Myers, reminisces about the late 'They Live' star Roddy Piper and reveals why he sued the 'Lockout' director — and won.
One of the greatest horror films of all time — many consider it to be the greatest — is slashing its way back to the big screen. And that, according to its director, is the only way it was meant to be seen. The film is John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween, in which a masked bogeyman named Michael Myers stalks the streets of suburban Illinois (actually South Pasadena) to terrorize a bookish babysitter named Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role that made her a star). Made for $300,000, the film went on to gross more than $70 million and launched the 1980s slasher craze. It also has spawned nine sequels of varying quality, which together have earned more than $362 million. None, however, comes close to the original. Fathom Events is behind the one-night run, which bows Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. and which includes a special introduction from the 67-year-old Carpenter himself. (Theater info and tickets available here.) In anticipation, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Carpenter, the oft-imitated director — and composer — of not just Halloween, but such genre-film giants as Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and They Live (1988).
I will never forget my first glimpse of Halloween. I was six, and Roger Ebert was praising it on PBS' Sneak Previews. Did Ebert's support help the movie at all?
I remember that he was very nice, which confused me. I found it very strange. Halloween was released regionally. It moved city to city, just a few prints, and the reviews were horrible. I remember one memorable review: "Carpenter does not work well with actors." And I thought, "Oh my God, I'm being put down across the country." But then it kind of got rereviewed. This was all over a long period of time, and it was a word-of-mouth movie, so I didn’t really feel the success of it for quite a while. I was on the sidelines.
Thanks to Halloween, you are frequently credited with creating the slasher genre. What were you actually trying to create?
Just a little horror movie. We had very little money and a very young cast except for Donald Pleasence, who was great as a psychiatrist — with a gun, which is fun. But it was a movie where the main character, the guy in the mask, really isn’t altogether human. He has no characteristics. He's, uh, almost like a machine. He was just pure evil. That was what I intended to do. It's evil out of nothing, evil from no background, which completely creeps me out as a human being, that evil could arrive at my doorstep without a purpose, without a past, without an origin. So that's the idea behind it. It was put together to scare you. That’s all.
What is the real story behind the mask? You often hear it's a William Shatner mask, but it doesn’t look like William Shatner to me.
Not at all, no. There was a choice we had to make, because we didn’t have any money to make a mask. So the art director went up to Bert Wheeler’s magic shop on Hollywood Boulevard, which was right up the street from our offices, and he got two masks. One was a clown mask, and one was a Captain Kirk mask. It was supposed to be Captain Kirk. It looked nothing like William Shatner, nothing like anybody, really. It was just a strange mask, which was perfect for us. So we spray-painted it, altered the eye holes and just did a couple things with the hair — and there you had it. I like to think it’s Shatner, but it’s not really.
So you see Captain Kirk up there when the rest of us see Michael Myers?
Oh, yeah. But I don’t watch the film anymore. I can’t handle it! I see all the mistakes. I watch a little bit and say, "What was I thinking? Why did I do that?!" I just as soon not watch it.
Are there any of your films where you think, "Wow, I nailed it. I wouldn't change a frame."
(Laughs loudly) No! Are you kidding? They’re all unwatchable to me. I can’t see them anymore. God! I can’t stand it. I cannot take it.
What drew you to Jamie Lee Curtis to play Laurie Strode? Was it a particular scream, a look on her face?
I wasn’t aware of her as an actress at all. She came into the offices, very pretty girl, very nice. She just nailed the part in terms of the hard part, which is the dialogue sounding real. I thought, she could do this. She was just great. And everything came easy to her: the tension, the screams, all that. Fun. Fun and easy for her, so I made the right choice. I had a great cast. She’s had a great career, and Jamie and I have remained friends. We made an appearance at the Egyptian Theatre together for a screening of Halloween.
Have you caught her new show, Scream Queens, at all?
Come on, please. I’m too busy watching basketball.
What's the story behind 1982's Halloween III: Season of the Witch?
It started with an idea to do a different story. See I thought, stupidly — this shows you how dumb I am — I thought that we were done with telling stories about Michael Myers and the guy in the mask. I thought there's not much more to say. So we thought we'd come up with a new story every year. We could call it Halloween, but it didn’t have to do anything with Michael Myers. We approached Nigel Kneale, a British science-fiction writer who did some great stuff, to see if he had any ideas, and he did. He had the central idea for Halloween III. So we went from there.
I watched it recently. It's a pretty weird film. What do you make of it?
I haven't seen it in a long time. I like the movie a lot. It's kind of a subversive movie but very interesting. I provided a score for it. I hadn’t really done that before, provide a score for a movie I didn't direct. I can't even remember writing it! I just know it exists.
Speaking of your scores, the original Halloween score has to be the scariest piece of music ever written.
Thank you! It’s pretty simple, goddamnit — I have to tell you, it’s pretty simple stuff. I’m a pretty simple musician.
How did you come up with it?
My father taught me 5/4 time on the bongos. He gave me a set of bongos for Christmas one year. I must have been maybe 13 or 14. And he taught me the 5/4 time: BA ba pa BA ba pa BA pa BA ba pa.… And so I just took that and used some octaves on the piano and came up with it.
What about those deep, dreadful notes?
That’s just synth stuff, you know. Old-time tube synthesizers you used to have tune up. It’s unbelievable when you see the technology today. I just had an album out called Lost Themes, and the technology we used for that compared to what we used for Halloween, I mean, man.
What came first: the film or the score?
I’m just a guy that sits down and has a job to do. In the case of Halloween, I had to score a movie. And I had three days to do it. Which was an improvement on Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) — I had one day to score that movie. It’s all practical on my part, because nobody could afford a composer or an orchestra. This was a way to sound somewhat big with limited resources.
What’s your single favorite shot in Halloween?
That’s a great question. You know, frankly, it’s a shot near the beginning of the movie of an empty street and some leaves just sort of dropping in the foreground, and I think it says “Haddonfield, Illinois” or something like that. I love that shot. There’s nothing to it.
The opening scene still traumatizes me. How did you decide to shoot it through the eyes of the young Michael Myers’ mask?
If you think about it, the opening was one complicated single shot. That’s what we did. We shot in one direction, went through the house and came out the other direction. We had to change all the lights while the shot was going on. We came up the stairs, murdered the sister, came back downstairs. So it was just complicated to do. We added the mask in postproduction.
What about young Michael’s hand?
Yeah, it was actually [Halloween producer] Debra Hill’s hand, opening the drawer, holding the knife.
I’d like to jump over to Escape From New York, as that’s been in the headlines lately. I see the remake has landed upon a writer.
Well, I had nothing to do with that. (Laughs) No one told me about it. No one ever tells me anything. You have to understand that. It’s the story of my career. The producers are very nice people. They actually came to me and said, “Well, we want you to be involved.” That was six months ago, and I haven’t heard anything since. That’s my story.
Who in a perfect world would play Snake Plissken?
There is nobody. I don’t know. I don’t think there is anybody who could play that part besides Kurt [Russell]. Better you don’t ask me.
In other Escape From New York news, you sued Luc Besson in French court recently for copyright infringement.
(Laughs) They didn’t give us much money.
I think it was something like an €80,000 settlement, 20,000 of which went to you? How much did you want?
I have no idea. Look, CanalPlus is the company that, with me, owns Escape From New York. They came to me and said, "Luc Besson ripped you off on Lockout." Or Lockdown, whatever the hell that was. And they sent me the movie, and yes, he did. It’s the same story. (Laughs) I mean, you can’t do that, can you? You have to change a couple things. He’s after the president’s daughter? Come on. So I took him to French court.
The great thing is, I didn’t have to do anything, really. That's the kind of the job I’ve always wanted — where you don’t have to show up, and something happens. And we won! But any great dreams of retiring wealthy were shattered because they didn’t give us as much money as CanalPlus wanted. They wanted to get Luc Besson. They didn’t like it. [CanalPlus sought €3 million in the lawsuit.]
CanalPlus has some problem with Luc Besson?
Yes! Oh, yes. He has another company. But I think they’re actually doing some business with him, too. [CanalPlus] wanted to also go after the video game Metal Gear Solid, which is kind of a rip-off of Escape From New York, too, but I told them not to do that. I know the director of those games, and he’s a nice guy, or at least he’s nice to me.
Have you heard from Besson?
Oh, hell no! I don’t hear from anybody. You’re not listening to me. No one tells me anything.
We lost Roddy Piper this year. They Live is another of your classic films that Hollywood is always threatening to remake. How did Roddy’s legendary bubblegum line end up in the script?
That’s his line. Wrestling is an unbelievable business, but the big thing to sell a match in the medium is television. They do these interviews, so the thing to do is to come up with a memorable line about an upcoming match. So he had a bunch of lines that he’d written down over the years that he’d maybe used or not used. And one of them was, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” I think it was from a match with “Playboy” Buddy Rose. And so I liked the line, so I just used it. He gave me a sheet of his wrestling quotes. He was a really inventive guy.
What about the epic, six-minute fight scene. Did you at any point consider cutting it down?
Why would I want to do that?! Why would I want to shorten it? Oh, hell no! Any way to stretch it longer?
Are you familiar with the artist Shepard Fairey, who based his OBEY street-art campaign on the signs in They Live?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Have you ever met him?
No, I haven’t. They didn’t talk to me, either. You see what I’m saying to you? People do things, but they don’t talk to me about it.
And by that you mean, don’t pay you for it.
That’s exactly right! They don’t ask me. They don’t nicely say, “I’m going to do this.” They don’t even talk to me. It’s just silence.
So you’ve never seen a penny from any Shepard Fairey art sales.
Oh, fuck no! Are you kidding? Why would I see anything? (Laughs)
What about Halloween? People assume it would have made you millions, is that not the case?
No, I’ve made some money on that. Hell, yeah. I’m doing fine. I’m living a great life and get to watch NBA basketball and get to play video games, so there’s nothing I can complain about.
What about another film?
Maybe. Working on a couple things. And have a new album coming out next year — we’re going to do another Lost Themes.
Can you tell me what the movies are about?
No. I'm not going to tell you anything about what my projects are about! If we get the money, and everything's cool, I'll tell you then.