John Carpenter on Halloween and the Long Con of His Legendary Career

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John Carpenter is a silver-screen legend and something of a god in the horror industry. Together with his fellow horsemen of the cinematic apocalypse — Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and George Romero — he wrote the playbook for the modern horror film and set the slasher archetype in stone with his 1978 film, Halloween. (A movie which sits in contention with another one of his films, The Thing, as an arguable pick for greatest horror movie of all time.) His score work, with those haunting synths, defined the sound of the genre for a generation.

But if you actually talk to John Carpenter about any of this, he will only delve into the scope of his legacy because he’s kind enough to answer questions about it. During our second conversation, he described a recent press day as a “soul-stealing experience” that just wore him out. “I thought, what am I doing here?” recalls Carpenter. “This is ridiculous. I’m too old, and I have nothing to say to anybody.” I assure him he only ever came off as warm and accommodating, but he still apologizes and says he was just feeling sorry for himself.

So he doesn’t like musical-chair-style interview days, but does he ever enjoy watching and reminiscing over his old work? “Oh, God no!” What does he think about the theme from one of his classics, Escape From New York? He likes it, but musically it’s still “third rate.” How about the Halloween score, which, to children of the 1980s at least, is the sound of horror made manifest? It was a rush job that he did himself because they didn’t have the money to pay anyone else. In other words, the iconic director has no regrets about his career, but he’s also the last person you’ll hear talking about the impact of their own work.

Carpenter, whose father was a university music professor, grew up in a house filled with the art form. So even though he wasn’t especially good at any of the instruments he pursued — piano, violin — he says the experience of creating it was still “second nature” to him. And somehow, this man who claims only a bare minimum of musical skill distilled the sonic essence of horror by just feeling his way through the scoring process. Now, for the first time since his 2001 film Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter has made motion-picture music again for the sequel to his 1978 classic with his son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies. The new Halloween sounds like the original did, but sharper, meaner — and more in tune. In the lead-up to the film’s theatrical release this weekend, Vulture talked to Carpenter for two (very nice, not soul-sucking) conversations about the music that impacted him most, the joys of scoring someone else’s work for the first time in his career, and what it’s like to be John Carpenter.

So in your return to Haddonfield, how did you adjust the sound of Halloween for a contemporary film, especially since you worked on it with Cody and Daniel?
They bring different things. My son is a consummate musician. He can play like nobody’s business, especially on the keyboards and the piano. But Daniel, my godson, his dad is in a rock-and-roll band, the Kinks, and he brings this raw energy and a rock-and-rollishness. He’s also just a great engineer. The three of us, you know, we’ve done a whole bunch of albums. So, it’s pretty quick thinking, and the music is effortless. All we had to do was get the original themes, put them in the computer, and we spruced them up with some new sounds, bring a little technology into it because the first score was really crude. Let me tell you, I had tube synths in those days.

Then we did a spotting session with David Gordon Green. This is from the old days; directors used to have spotting sessions with composers. They sit down and watch and ask the director, “What do you think about this scene? What was your idea here?” And David is very literate in music. He can talk about it, and what I want to get from him is the emotion. “What do you want to feel in this scene and how can we best achieve it?” He was specific in certain areas, and sometimes we gave him more music than he asked for just to have it. He knows what he wants, so off we went. It was fun to do. It’s improvised, pretty much. My son did a couple of pieces on his own. He did the music when their family is in the restaurant and they play the muzak in the background. Really proud of him.

Was it more important for this sequel to make a score that sounded the same as Halloween or to make it distinct with a newer sonic palette?That’s what we did. Daniel brought a palette that he thought was appropriate, and I chose some things that I thought were appropriate. I love the piano. It just works in this movie, but we brought it into modern sensibilities, because everything’s changed since then. I’ve really changed since then.

It seems like you don’t hold your earlier work as so sacred that it can’t be touched. You seem like you’ve stayed curious.
You have to be open to the new. You have to, or you’re dead.

What’s your favorite thing that has changed since then that you can get to play with now?
Oh, just the whole process is so much easier. I had three days to do the score to Halloween in the old days. It was these tube synthesizers that a teacher from USC, Dan Wyman — a really nice guy — owned, so I went over to his studio and started recording, and you had to tune these babies up every time. Some of the earlier stuff that I did is out of tune actually in the movie, but it just takes forever and the sounds are limited. Nowadays, are you kidding? It’s endless sounds. It’s heaven, but there’s certain sounds that you can’t get. It just doesn’t sound so real, so that we do live.

Laurie Strode has been living in your head for a long time now, and she is very different from her debut in 1978. How did her development, and the way we see her onscreen in the new movie, affect the way you scored her?
Well first of all, I just feel enormous pride for Jamie Lee. She did such a great job in this movie. She kicks ass! She’s great, isn’t she? And Laurie, she has PTSD. She’s a survivor of just amazing abuse. I love her character, and we’d be real careful with early scenes with her to sort of set her up, and I wanted her to have some of the music just reflect the pain in her. But she’s great.

A few of my favorite genre films from this year have had these massive scores that cover almost the entire run time of the movie, like 90 minutes of music for 100 minutes of screen time.
What?! Ahhhhh!!

And I know that’s not how you prefer to work. What’s your approach to fitting music in a film?
Wow. That’s a lot of music. I don’t know what the movie is so it’s impossible to tell, but I think you can overdo it. Sometimes if you let a scene play in silence it’s more effective, but it’s all choice. It’s all instinct, “This feels good here.” Plus, I don’t want to work that hard. Ninety minutes? Wow!

You’ve describe your music as “carpet” within a movie.
It’s carpet. Yes. See, there’s no carpet in this room, and as you hear us talk, you hear the sound bouncing around. Well, I put carpet down so it’s nice and smooth. You don’t have to think about anything. Everything is beautiful and wonderful. I provide that for the scene. I support the emotion in the scenes without getting in the way.

So do you think of it more as a background element?
A lot of music in modern and movies is we call Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse goes back to that Walt Disney movie with Stravinsky, Fantasia. Take a step and BUM BUM BUM tell you how to feel! Everything tells you how to feel. A lot of movies are like that, especially at certain moments of heroic music — stop it! Or dead-baby music starts and you’re supposed to get all emotional! That’s a little rough, you know? So, another way to do it is not to do that [laughs], to play against that kind of style, and there are good examples on both sides. I think some of the best Mickey Mouse music today is done by Hans Zimmer, who is brilliant. Think about the Captain Jack theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s awesome! You have to have it. You have to have that Mickey Mouse stuff going on, but we try to do a little more carpet music. There’s one scene where Laurie is searching for Michael in the house. She’s got the shotgun, and she’s got a flashlight. No music. Let it be quiet, because you get more and more nervous. There’s nothing, just sound effects. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Something’s going to come. It’s that anticipation made it even scarier.

The last feature you directed was The Ward, but the last score you composed was for your movie Ghosts of Mars. You have been making a lot of original music with your son and godson, so were you ready to get back to film scoring, or did you commit to this specifically because it was Halloween?
That was why I wanted to do it. My son and godson and I, we’ve done three or four albums together, and along came Halloween and we thought this would be great to do. It’s unbelievable. I might’ve done it otherwise, but that’s what made it extra special.

Is there a different kind of satisfaction that comes from film work?
It’s just a different job, because of all the years I directed movies and then scored them, I just have this key that you could turn in my head and it would go “score this scene” like a robot. And I don’t think about anything else. “What does this need? What’s the tempo?” And I improvise it. So it just comes out. Doing original music where there’s no movie, that’s a whole different ball game.

So was music always at the forefront of the creative process when you started making movies?
It was all about practicality. I made movies in the beginning that didn’t have any money for music. I could do the synthesizer, so that’s where it started, and then I finally began to do it as another voice in my creative expression.

I’ve read you describe yourself as having limited musical ability.
That’s the truth. I have limited chops.

So how are you so good at making these really enduring film scores? Is it just knowing what people need to hear to feel a certain way?
Well, it’s hard to self-evaluate. I really wasn’t a virtuoso at anything, not the piano, not the violin, all the things that I tried. But I could channel some of the meaning of the music that was played in my house, and kind of put it out there in movie music form.

Having limited skill and also working mostly from improvisation, I wondered if you were just come kind of crazy empath who could intuit people’s feelings.
That’s exactly it. I’m crazy, and I’m empathic. No, I really honestly don’t know. I just feel my way along with music, because as an art form music is just unique. I can hear music that I heard back when I was young, and kind of experience some of the same stuff, “Wow. I remember what I was doing when I heard this!” It affects your emotions as well as everything else. I guess that’s what I tune into.

Do you intuit the music differently when it’s not the images you made onscreen?
I do. It’s fun, because it’s challenging, because it’s not mine. At the same time it’s refreshing, because all the pressure’s off me. I really love it. It’s just easier. God, is it easier.

Well, and being John Carpenter I bet there’s a lot of expectation that comes with that, too, of people just anticipating what your next thing is going to be.
That’s very true. Any director works like a dog. It’s the hours, the stress, everything. It’s killer, and after a while I just can’t do it. I get really burned out. I can’t take it. It’s physical, it’s emotional, it’s your private life. It’s everything. It takes a toll on everything. You have this mistress that’s so demanding. Jesus, lighten up! After a while I just had to stop. I could go back and do it now again. I’ve rested a while. I pick the right project. I approach it correctly. I’d do something new. I don’t want whine here, but I’m gonna whine.

You’ve earned the right to whine.
I feel like I’m whining a lot here, but that’s what I’m relieved I don’t have to reexperience. I just don’t have to go through that anymore. I’m just overjoyed by that.

You don’t like to watch your movies, either.
My films? Oh, God no. I still think about certain scenes I did and think, “Why did I do that?”

So how does it feel then when several of the works you’ve made are considered classics of cinema?
Whew! It’s a relief! Are you kidding me? I’ve pulled the wool over their eyes! [Laughs.] I’m criticizing it heavy duty, but I wouldn’t go back and do anything different. I just don’t like it.

So was it actually more joyful for you to score someone else’s film since you didn’t have to watch your movie again to do it?
Well, see, early on we didn’t have the technology to watch and do music at the same time. You had to do like seven or eight pieces separate from the movie and then cut them and recut them. Here’s the joyful thing about this project, is that David is such a talented director. He really constructed these scenes beautifully, unlike a lot of the sequels. It was a joy to score this. He’s really got a lot of talent. So it is joyful. It’s also very difficult sometimes, and that’s okay. Part of the job.

Our music editor told me that a friend of his has a radio show and he once did an entire two-hour episode where he only played hip-hop songs that sampled your music. Did you know you’re big in hip-hop?
Oh my God. Really? I’ve heard rumors about it. Here’s the thing. You have to realize one thing about my career and me: Nobody tells me anything. Ever. I have never gotten a letter. I have never been informed. I probably have never been paid.

That would be terrible. I hope that’s not true. But as far as your influence goes, it seems like you’re really not interested in delighting in your achievements, but have you ever just kind of sat and at least thought, “Wow. I’m John Carpenter, I guess. My movies are on a bunch of lists.”
[Laughs.] Oh God, that would be funny if I did that! No. The answer to that is no. I never think that way. I do know that I’m John Carpenter. I do understand that. I understand that psychologically and I understand it career-wise. I’ve got that have a reputation. People love who I am — some people. Some people don’t give a shit, and they don’t know, and that’s fine. I love it. I’m loving it. And now I can sit home and watch basketball, and I don’t worry about that.

Which composers or specific film scores have been most impactful on you?
Well, let me talk about composers first, because that’s the easy thing. I was very influenced by Bernard Herrmann and his body of work. He did science-fiction films. He did Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. He had certain chord patterns that I followed in my music. Even now I can hear them. So I stole that chord pattern from him. He has depth beyond what I can do, but for instance it shows up in Halloween and The Fog, and in the new Halloween.

Dimitri Tiomkin is one of my all-time favorites because of his versatility. He could do anything. He did spectacles and Westerns and loves stories. He’s brilliant. I can’t even get near what he was doing. It’s so complex. But the most influential score on my life was Forbidden Planet, a science-fiction movie. It’s all electronic music, and it’s still an astonishing-sounding soundtrack. I love it still. It may sound corny nowadays. It probably does. I don’t care. Then there’s a British composer, James Bernard, he composed music for the Hammer films, and all I can tell you is James Bernard’s music scared me. When I heard his music I thought, “Oh God, something bad is happening.” And I love modern guys. I love Hans Zimmer, and in the near-past, Tangerine Dream.

You don’t like watching your movies, but you tour playing your music. Are there favorites you consistently enjoy revisiting or that you’re glad you’ve had the chance to dress up with modern tools?
I enjoy the Escape From New York theme. It’s pretty simple, but it sounds okay. But this is from a guy who can barely play. It’s effective in the movie, but in terms of music, I wouldn’t want to put it up against anything. It’s second rate, third rate. Some, like when we play Assault on Precinct 13, we’d go back to nostalgia sounds like the Mellotron, because that’s what we did. I listen to Precinct 13 now and it is so stupidly simple. Oh my, God. I just didn’t realize! I guess it’s effective, but my God, it’s embarrassing. Lord!

Big Trouble in Little China is the one I go back to most often.
You know, that’s a score I’m really proud of. I agree with you. The sounds and the music were getting a little bit more complex — just a touch, not very much — and it was fun to jump into another world. It wasn’t a horror thing.

I read an interview in which you said horror was an especially enduring genre of cinema. Why do you think that is?
Well, I just look back and horror’s been with us in cinema since the beginning. People have always loved it, and every generation reinvents it anew. You look at the Universal monsters in the ’30s. They were very much a product of the Depression, and after that it’s changed and morphed into something else. It keeps doing that, and that gives me a great hope that it will be around forever. Different cultures laugh at comedies differently — not horror. A horrible-looking thing comes in the room and we all scream and run — every country, everybody. So I think it will always be with us, as it’s durable. It can stand in for various thing. Godzilla started as this radioactive monster that takes vengeance on humanity. Well, then he becomes a children’s monster in later movies. Then he becomes a defender of the environment for God’s sake. It’s all purpose. He’s there for all of it. It just shows you what you can do with this stuff.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

John Carpenter on the Long Con of His Legendary Career