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The Ward - John Carpenter interview

John Carpenter

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOHN Carpenter talks about why he decided to make The Ward, his first feature film in almost 10 years and why the horror genre is so durable and all-purpose.

He also looks back on his own career, considers some of its highlights and some of the remakes that have followed – including Assault on Precinct 13 and the forthcoming prequel of The Thing.

Q. Why was The Ward the film to lure you back to feature filmmaking?
John Carpenter: You’re right. This was my first film in several years, so I wanted something of limited scope, with a small budget and a small cast and this fit the bill.

Q. It’s also a clever story…
John Carpenter: Very clever. A little like Shutter Island.

Q. So was Sam Fuller also an influence?
John Carpenter: Sam Fuller? How?

Q. Because of Shock Corridor, which influenced Scorsese when it came to making Shutter Island…
John Carpenter: [Laughs] Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t think of that but I’m going to say it now. Everything that’s smart and good happens first in the UK! So, I’ll take that as a compliment.

Q. So, was The Ward easy to make?
John Carpenter: Well, like any film once there’s a green light, you go through the process of scouting for locations, finding the right cast and filling the creative positions. And this one came together very well. I had a lot of fun making it.

Q. Has it whet your appetite to make more? Will the comeback continue?
John Carpenter: You know what, we’ll see. I’m developing a couple of projects. I’m not opposed to it. I feel better about directing than I did when I stopped, so there’s every possibility.

Q. Why did you decide to stop directing?
John Carpenter: Because I was burned out. I’d been directing pretty solidly since 1970, or writing or working in some capacity and I thought I needed to take a rest. I’m getting older, too, and I had some family things to attend to.

Q. Did you expect to be away for so long?
John Carpenter: I didn’t know if I’d come back. I just decided to see what happens.

Q. So, when you came back did you realise how much you’d missed it?
John Carpenter: I realised how much I loved directing when I did two Masters of Horror episodes up in Canada. So, that really got me thinking about things again and then it was just about finding the right material to turn into a feature film. It’s always about the material and finding the right situation to make a film… whether it can be set up, how much it’ll cost, who is producing.

Amber Heard in John Carpenter's The Ward

Q. And finding your cast, as you’ve mentioned. What appealed to you about Amber Heard? Had you seen her in All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, her first horror?
John Carpenter: Yes, but I’ve seen a lot of her films and I really liked her work. I think she’s very smart, very driven and very talented. She was a pleasure to work with and brought a lot of energy. But then the entire cast was excellent.

Q. Was getting Jared Harris a bit of a coup? What did he bring to this in your opinion?
John Carpenter: I love Jared Harris and yes it was a coup. And what did he bring to it? His first question to me when we met was whether I wanted an American accent or a British accent. I said: “Go with British, absolutely.” Your language seems to make everything sound so serious and true, so I thought that whenever he said something you’d believe him.

Q. Did you also enjoy mixing the psychological thriller elements with the supernatural as well as referencing yourself? I mean, is it fair to say that the shower scene in which the ghost emerges from the steam is an homage to The Fog?
John Carpenter: [Laughs] That sounds good to me! I’ll go with that. But seriously, the whole thing was fun. I really enjoyed just constructing the movie around the plot we had. I thought the direction that the movie took was fun. But it still took a lot of preparation and execution.

Q. How has the movie industry changed in the time you’ve been away from it?
John Carpenter: The movie industry always changes and it never changes. It’s always been the same. Of course, it’s evolved through the years in many ways… sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. And it’s a tough climate right now for films because of the recession and the direction that Hollywood is going in. And yet there are still opportunities and some really good films being made. So, it’s still pretty much the same profession I got into years ago.

Q. And how do you see the horror genre? Is it still in a healthy state? Or are there too many remakes? And perhaps too much emphasis on gore?
John Carpenter: Horror is an all-purpose genre for motion pictures. It was around when movies began and it gets renewed with every generation, and brings the voice of that generation to horror. That’s fun to see. Right now, we have the Twilight movies with a kind of teen romance, plenty of angst, and vampires and werewolves – and yet these are films without a bit of blood! And then, on the other hand, you have the torture porn. Then there’s the things that exist in the middle and the remakes – so it’s very expandable as a genre and totally universal… meaning that every filmgoer in every country can get it. Comedy is different in various countries, drama is often very different from country to country, but never horror. All humans are afraid of the same thing.

John Carpenter

Q. Do you think people are maybe getting harder to scare?
John Carpenter: I don’t know. It’s all in the story. So, I’m not sure whether audiences are getting harder or easier to scare. I mean, we have some movies being released in this country, the phoney documentaries such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity that really are shot on cell-phones and yet they seem to scare people. So, I don’t know if it’s got harder. You watch Blair Witch and you think: “Are you kidding me? People got scared of this?” [Laughs]

Q. What scares you? I mean are there any horror films you’ve been particularly scared by recently?
John Carpenter: I’m scared by things that happen in real life. But I still get surprised and startled at feature films.

Q. Such as?
John Carpenter: I really liked the Dawn of the Dead remake that was done a few years ago.

Q. Talking of remakes… are you flattered when your films get remade? What do you think of remakes as a whole?
John Carpenter: Of course, it’s very flattering. And I understand why. Remakes have been done for years in the movie business, for financial and marketing reasons. In order to penetrate the advertising clutter that’s out there, if you’re using a title that’s well known it’s ‘pre-sold’ and that helps you.

Q. So what do you think of the quality of the remakes of your films? Are you generally impressed?
John Carpenter: Sometimes… some of them are good. They’re all the visions of other directors, so it’s interesting to see them. I don’t see all of them. But I kind of enjoyed the remake of Assault on Precinct 13. I thought they did that really well and they employed an excellent cast [led by Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke].

Q. Are you excited to see the forthcoming prequel of The Thing?
John Carpenter: Yeah, and this one has a girl in it! It has a babe, so that’ll be fun. It’s always good to have a girl.

Q. Which of your films do you look back fondest upon?
John Carpenter: Well, I’m proud of them all. And I’m just real happy with the fact they all got made and that I survived them because you just never know when you start a film if you’ll end up finishing it. It can be a funny business in that way.

Q. So, which was the most challenging?
John Carpenter: The hardest one, or the one that I worked hardest on was my very first feature, Dark Star. I was working on that for four years… and just the way we did it. It wasn’t done in the traditional way. Man oh man that was a lot of work and it was a good thing I was young when I did it!

Q. Do you continue to be surprised by how much of an impact some of your films made and continue to make?
John Carpenter: I’m delighted by it. And it’s a little bit of both. Whenever I take a project on I’m always thinking: “This is going to be great.” But they tend to have a life of their own and every one of them surprises me. It’s interesting to walk down the street and have people come up to you – if they recognise me – because they always come up with something different. There’s a general agreement that Halloween is one of the best. But occasionally somebody will come walking up, usually a homeless person, and say: “I really liked Prince of Darkness.”

In fact, I was shooting a movie in San Francisco and waiting for a lighting set up and I saw all these homeless kids, so I started talking to them. They were telling me about their life on the streets and who they were, and then they asked me who I was, so I told them what I did… that I made movies. The only thing that impressed them was Prince of Darkness [laughs]. Then I was cool. But then this is a crazy life, that’s for sure. And I’ve had the greatest time and a great career. If I stop now I wouldn’t be unhappy.

Read our review of The Ward

  1. John sounds like such a nice guy. I’d be fuming if my classic originals had been turned into some of the ‘horrors’ that Hollywood has turned them into with pointless remakes.

    Darren    Jan 28    #