The Capitol Riot Was Too Dystopian for Even John Carpenter
The filmmaking legend behind “Halloween” and “The Thing” opens up to Marlow Stern about his new album, why he turned down “Top Gun,” Fox News poison, and the attack on the Capitol.
Few filmmakers have experienced a hot streak like John Carpenter’s. Over the course of a decade, the Kentucky native gave us the shoot-‘em-up Assault on Precinct 13; the horror-classic Halloween; the supernatural stunner The Fog; the sci-fi monster mayhem of The Thing; the killer-car flick Christine; the otherworldly romance Starman; and whatever the hell Big Trouble in Little China is. But it’s been over a decade since Carpenter’s directed a feature film.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing,” he tells me.
What the 73-year-old has been doing—when he’s not playing his new PS5, that is—is recording music at an in-home studio in Los Angeles with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies. Because you see, in addition to being one of the all-time-great genre filmmakers, Carpenter is also a prolific composer, having provided spooky, synth-heavy, atmospheric scores to all of his feature films (including Halloween’s menacing arpeggios). His fourth studio album, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death (out Feb. 5), the third installment in his Lost Themes trilogy, is an impressively foreboding collection of songs meant to unlock “the imaginary movies in your mind.”
In other words, the perfect soundtrack to our current hellscape.
“Maybe I’ll do Broadway hits next,” jokes the playful filmmaker/musician. “Carpenter does Broadway! No thank you!”
In a wide-ranging conversation, The Daily Beast spoke to Carpenter about everything from his filmmaking career and the Capitol riot to Fox News’ poison and his infectious synthwave tunes.
Where are you holed up?
In a cold Los Angeles.
I read that Gavin Newsom just lifted the stay-at-home order.
Oh, did he? We don’t know about that. We just stay at home.
Seems like the safest bet. You’re from Bowling Green, Kentucky, so I take it you’ve heard of the Bowling Green Massacre?
Which one? Oh yeah, that’s right. [Laughs] Where is Kellyanne Conway now? Where is she now?
She’ll probably be getting a cable-news gig any minute now. I read that you’re a big NBA fan?
Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, you guys [Brooklyn Nets] have a new team—kind of. Three ball hogs, but we’ll see. It’s weird.
You’ve got three of the bigger weirdos in the NBA on the Nets now, with Kevin Durant who’s got the burner Twitter accounts, Kyrie Irving who’s been sort of M.I.A., and James Harden who visited a strip club during the pandemic.
Well, we all need to go there occasionally! But Jesus, what a bunch of crazy guys. They’re all in love with themselves. We’ll see what happens! You know, I fell in love with—by watching them—the Golden State Warriors, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. That’s the way basketball should be played. Oh my lord! But I have to admit: I do live in L.A., and I don’t care for the Lakers and the Clippers, but they’re both great. Right now, they’re the kings of the world.
As a Knicks’ fan, I think you’re all spoiled out in California.
Oh, come on now!
OK, I’m just bitter. Let’s talk Lost Themes III: Alive After Death. What inspired you to craft this aural trilogy?
I have a home studio, and my son Cody and I for a long time would improvise and just play music, all kinds. We’d play music, play video games, play music, play video games. It’s a nice way to spend the time! We had compiled a few hours of music, and it was just something fun. So, I got a new music attorney and he said to me, “Do you got any music?” I sent her this stuff, and in about two weeks I had a record deal! What the hell? Really?! This was great! That’s how it came about.
When it comes to creating these synth-y, electronic soundscapes, like many of your films, you were ahead of your time. Do you have a Cassandra complex?
[Laughs] You know those Greeks! I don’t know, man. Maybe! Maybe we predict, but I don’t know. As far as making music with my son and godson, it just happened that way, and we’re delighted by it.
And the music is quite macabre and feels almost tailored to what we’re going through right now as the pandemic still surges.
I hate to see that—but it’s true. It’s tough times. This music is meant to evoke not misery as much as movies. Imaginary movies in your mind. You may have something rattling around in there, and if you listen to my music, you can fantasize about one of your own movies. Maybe it involves COVID-19, or maybe it involves something else, but I don’t mean for it to be a miserable experience listening to my music!
Oh no, your music is a lot of fun to listen to. By the way, during this lockdown period, what movies or TV shows have you been enjoying?
Oh, I really loved the Borat movie. I also liked The Trial of the Chicago 7. But the Borat movie was unbelievable. Just unbelievable. And Maria Bakalova is just brilliant. I mean, wow. What a find!
It’s funny, because everyone was like, “Wow, I can’t believe he got Rudy Giuliani that bad!” and then Rudy proceeded to do about a dozen other completely insane things over the next six or eight weeks. And now he’s being sued by Dominion.
Yeah, what happened to him? And for $1.3 billion! What?!
It really is a spectacular self-implosion the likes of which we may never see again. I mean, when you go from the Borat prank in late-October to Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the loud fart in court, the leaking of the head in a press conference…
I know! Did he have any reason for it? It really is nuts.
It is. But back to the music—what drew you to synths? You have a way with them.
It’s an ancient thing with me. I saw a movie in 1956 that changed my life in many ways. It changed my life because it made me want to be a director, and it changed my life because it had the first synthesized musical score, and it was Forbidden Planet—a big space opera. I still love that score. It was just mind-blowing and life-changing for me. I think that’s where it all comes from, and from my desire as a little kid to go, “I want to do that!” And I did. It’s also a keyboard situation where you can sound big, and that’s what you’re trying to do when you’re making a movie and have no money. And they’re creepy!
Do you find it more fun to make music versus direct?
Oh god yes. Oh, man. I mean, directing is just so unbelievably hard. It’s stressful, it’s physically difficult, it’s tough, and you have to be a certain kind of human being to love it—and I’m not certain I am. I love it but not in an ego way. Music is a lot more gratifying, in a way, because there it is. It’s right in front of you, and you don’t have to wait until it’s cut together and deal with an armory of people making movies.
With your music, have you ever been inspired by drugs?
[Laughs] Taking drugs? No. But listen, I’m a child of the ‘60s. Marijuana was really fun—fun to smoke. But I haven’t done that in a while.
You’re responsible for one of the more iconic film scores ever in Halloween. What was the genesis of that?
My father was the genesis of that. He was a music professor, and he taught me 5/4 time on a pair of bongos I got for Christmas. If you tap out 5/4 time, it’s the Halloween theme—but you’d play it on a keyboard. So, I was noodling with that forever. It seemed like the right piece of music to put on this movie, and it happened. It’s just that simple.
And look at what Halloween has become now.
It’s great, man! It’s great. It’s great to be me—the Cassandra! [Laughs]
Another of your films I really love is Assault on Precinct 13. Back in 1976, the idea of a white convict and Black cop joining forces was pretty subversive. Those were roles that were traditionally assigned the other way at the time, and you turned it on its head.
I couldn’t believe—and I still can’t believe—that the country was that way. I can now. I see it now. But it wasn’t in my family. What was I trying to achieve? Equality. See, I grew up in the South, and as you said, not only was the Bowling Green Massacre there, but Jim Crow was there when I grew up. And my god, that was awful. Really awful. But I thought the movie was a step forward into the modern age. And I guess I was wrong! White supremacists are running around still. I can’t believe it!
The recent siege of the Capitol frankly seems like something right out of one of your movies. Just a crazy thing to see.
It was. It was. The first thing I was thinking was, “Where’s the police? Why are they allowed to do this? Why are these people running up there like this? What the hell is going on?” And then it got worse, and worse, and they started breaking the windows to get inside. It was like, are you kidding? Are you kidding? It’s the big lie. That’s what it is: the big lie. God, it’s horrible. What terrible things we’re talking about here!
[Laughs] These are pretty insane times. It looked almost like an image out of a comic book, all those nuts surrounding and taking over the Capitol.
And they had these Trump banners and MAGA hats? Holy shit, man! Well, there it is. There it is.
You really created one of cinema’s first great modern antiheroes in Snake Plissken. He’s such a cool creation.
I guess you could say he’s the teenager in all of us, rebelling against authority and saying, “Fuck you!” in a cool way—which is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do, but I couldn’t do it because first of all, I wasn’t cool. But he’s just one of my favorite characters.
He’s a fantasy of how you wanted to be as a teenager?
Oh, hell yes. Hell yes.
I had read that you based the character of Michael Myers on a young boy you visited at a mental institution while on a class field trip. Is that true?
It’s not quite right. I did visit a young boy on a school trip in a mental institution, but I didn’t base Michael Myers on it. Michael Myers came out of my imagination and was based on several things, although that was a component of it—the look that I saw in the eyes of this kid—but it wasn’t the whole character. The others are a secret that I can’t tell you.
I really love They Live, which I think becomes more and more prescient by the day. What about the Reagan years compelled you to make that film?
I hated the Reagan years. I hated them. He destroyed unions, for one thing, and they’ve never come back like they were. I’m not saying unions are perfect but they’re necessary. And the idea of unrestrained capitalism is just bullshit—and that was his thing. Just take off the restraints and the invisible hand will guide us! No it won’t! It just won’t happen that way because it doesn’t work that way, you old piece of shit!
And the critique of the media in They Live is pretty prophetic, given the way platforms like Facebook are poisoning people’s minds.
I know, what’s up with that? I don’t get it! And there’s nothing to stop it?!
It’s troubling, the amount of power that the tech titans have.
And they keep having those meetings at the Capitol where they all sit around and talk, and nothing ever happens. Nothing changes. I don’t know what that means. I don’t get it. But I watch a lot of news, and most of the news is OK—except for Fox. They’re horrible. They’re worse than they ever have been. It’s unbelievable!
OK, here’s a more fun question: I read that you turned down Top Gun. Did that happen?
Yeah, in a way I did. I read it, and I thought, “I wouldn’t do that thing for a million bucks.” I don’t know if they were seriously considering me for the role of director on that, so I can’t say that I officially turned it down, but I read it. I thought, “What is this garbage? He fights the Russians? Come on! Stop it. If he goes off and fights the Russians, this is a huge deal!”
It’s funny how that’s a total afterthought in the film.
Aw, yeah! There were some bad movies made in the ‘80s. Real bad ones. What was that dance movie that was made?
There was that, and that was horrible. But the one where the woman gets water dumped on her in the chair.
There ya go! Oh my god! Come on, guys. Come on, now! Anyway, never mind. It’s all good. Why have you led me into this? I’m going to blame you.
I’ll take the blame. [Laughs] Do you have a favorite remake of one of your films?
Oh, I don’t know… Oh wait, of course I do! The new Halloween—not just because I’m involved, but it’s fantastic. The director [David Gordon Green] is great. Oh my god, is it brilliant. And I get to be involved in it, which is fun.
OK, so I’m not sure you have seen this show at all, but is it weird and surreal for you to see Kim and Kyle Richards on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, fighting and throwing drinks at people on TV? Because you directed them as kids and now they’re these big reality stars.
I know this! And Kyle’s a friend, so it’s hard to say. They’re both sweeties. I remember them as young kids, but I don’t watch that crap. They fight with each other?
Yeah, those shows sort of trade in wine and arguments.
[Laughs] Look, it’s all great. It’s all showbusiness. Everything is wonderful.
Are we going to see you in the director’s chair again?
You might! I’m working on a couple of things. But I’m not doing anything for a while, until the world comes back and rights itself. It’s insane now. It’s nuts! I’m not going to go out there and get sick.
You must be getting the vaccine soon?
Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. If somebody comes up to me with it, I’ll put it in my arm.
Which of your films do you feel is not appreciated enough? Thankfully the culture has caught up to The Thing, because critics were vicious toward it when it first came out.
Woo! Yes, they were! They were rough! They had me in cuffs, which is pretty rough. That was a hated movie. Hated.
That must have been maddening for you. You’ve made this film, you know it’s good, and people just don’t seem to get it.
Yeah. It was pretty stunning. What was really stunning was the fans hated it so much—the horror and science-fiction fans. It was like I’d raped the Madonna or something! Because the original was so great, and it was, but I don’t know. Hey, man. It’s a different time.
I’m going to take it back to the album for my final question: What is the ideal setting in pandemic times to listen to Lost Themes III: Alive After Death?
OK, ideally you’re in your house or domicile with your significant other, it’s at night, you turn off the lights to listen to this music, and you listen very quietly, and it begins to work a spell on you, and you begin to fantasize a movie that’s unspooling in your own mind. That’s the best way to listen to it.