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The Soft-Spoken John Carpenter on How He Chooses Projects and His Box-Office Failures

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

In 2001, horror legend John Carpenter released Ghost of Mars to critical slaughter. Ten years later, he’s back with his first movie since, The Ward, which stars Amber Heard and Jared Harris as inmates in a haunted psychiatric facility. We spoke with the director, who has such seminal horror movies as Halloween and The Fog to his credit, about how he chooses his projects, why a Let the Right One In remake wasn’t right for him, and the odds he’ll do a Western.

When picking your projects, are you looking for something different now than you were earlier in your career?
Well, I’m older now. There are different kinds of issues. There are some movies that are assignments, certain films people ask you to make. And then there are the movies that you create yourself or write. Either one is fine with me.

Do you get less pleasure from making assignment films?
No. I love making movies. It just has to feel right. If I like the story and it’s a reasonable shooting schedule …

There’s almost a decade between your last movie, Ghost of Mars, and The Ward. Had you been looking for something specific between now and then?
Just a good story. One I’m able to handle. Something I think I can do, that’s a really big part of it.

How would you define your limitations as a filmmaker?
I think there are certain subjects I don’t want to tackle, that I don’t think I could do a good job with. I don’t think I’d be good with … broad comedy? I don’t know. Maybe I would. A Jackass movie: Something like that I think I’d be very bad at.

I’m sure you looked at any number of potential horror projects before The Ward. Were there any you felt you wouldn’t want?
There are a lot of movies that I don’t care about, especially not remakes. There was a foreign film [from Sweden] called Let the Right One In — not the American remake [Let Me In], the foreign version. I wouldn’t want anything to do with that. That’s not for me. I think every director depends primarily on his instincts. That’s what’s got him where he is, what’s going to carry him through the good times and the bad. I generally go with what I instinctually think I can do well.

Many fans think you’d have made a period Western by now. Does that hold any appeal for you?
If the right project came along, yeah. Everyone keeps saying that the Western’s coming back. I don’t know.

The Ward’s an interesting project for you because the film’s main antagonist is internalized, whereas in many of your previous films, the villains are simply there.
It’s a different story, one that I really enjoyed making. It’s a little bit more challenging. There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don’t understand. Internal is the human heart. The Ward is the latter [kind of] story. That kind of story is much more challenging and harder to tell.

How do you react to works of your peers? You’ve all gone in various different directions … do you ever compare your films to theirs?
Some of it’s just the reality of the movie business — Wes Craven is worth a lot, I’ll tell you that. He’s probably richer than anybody in Hollywood; [he’s] an old friend of mine. David Cronenberg, who now is making — I don’t know, he’s sort of moved away from horror. But do I look at them and compare? No. Everybody’s different in what they care about.

Is there a particular project you’ve done that didn’t catch with audience but that you’re nevertheless proud of?
Several, I guess [laughs]. That’s the story of my career. The Thing was a big bomb and I think that’s one of my best films. I’m really not passionate about Village of the Damned. I was getting rid of a contractual assignment, although I will say that it has a very good performance from Christopher Reeve, so there’s some value in it.

How much of an impact did that movie’s box-office failure have on the way you make films now?
None. It didn’t have any effect whatsoever.

The Soft-Spoken John Carpenter on How He Chooses Projects and His Box-Office Failures