Why he never sold his soul

`Whoring out' is not what John Carpenter does. He lies low until the smoke clears and then makes another movie - that's all his own. By Nick Hasted
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Carpenter has been making movies for half his 48 years, and it shows. He moves slowly around his hotel room, as if conserving his energy. He looks frail. Under a thinning cloud of white hair, his face and neck could be that of a 60-year-old. It isn't surprising. From his earliest days as one of the Seventies' hottest directors (Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween) up to today's chore, promoting his latest film, Escape from LA, a ramshackle science fiction adventure and his first moderate hit in many years, Carpenter has always suffered the stress of being a man out of time. In the Seventies, he hated the pretensions of the movies around him and defiantly made genre movies against the tide like the streamlined action classic Assault on Precinct 13. But in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when half of Hollywood's output looked like Precinct 13 on steroids, Carpenter's position steadily worsened. Digging his heels in against the money-men who seized the industry just as his hit-making power ran dry, Carpenter struggled to survive. His filmography in the last decade is studded with returns to his beginnings in low-budget horror. But through it all, though not able to recover his early form, Carpenter has never made a bad film. It's a consistency achieved through a rare strength of purpose in an industry designed to sap such qualities. "You can whore out," Carpenter observes in his even, unbothered voice. "People do it all the time. But that wasn't how I was trained. It doesn't mean my movies are great, it doesn't mean my movies are profound. But they are mine."

Carpenter's life since he moved to Hollywood in the Seventies has been one that pivots on the choice of whether to sell his self or be true to it. Two moments stick out when he could have lost it all. The first was the year of what most look back on as his pinnacle - 1978, when he made Halloween. The story of three teenage girls ruthlessly hunted by a silent bogeyman in a small American town, made on a tiny budget and independently distributed, it is still one of the most profitable films ever made. But while those around him were crazed with delight, Carpenter was as scared as his heroines. "That was a period of giant danger," he remembers. "Great success is the most difficult thing to deal with. It was an emotional feeling I had, a complicated thing. But all of a sudden you say to yourself, `This success, there's something wrong with it. It's based on something ephemeral.' If you buy into it too deeply, you'll be shattered. It's destroyed a lot of people that I know. One of my best friends, who's in rock 'n' roll, just lost himself. He's gone, all gone."

Carpenter's interviews at the time show him dealing with success's minefield by talking about failure, as if he wanted to be ready when it came. When it did come, of course, he wasn't ready enough. The Thing (1982), a remake of his idol Howard Hawks's monster movie from the Fifties, was the director's major-studio debut, intended to cap a decade of uninterrupted promise and profit. Today its insistence on an unflinching depiction of its shape- shifting alien (who turns a dog inside-out and sprouts spider-legs from a human head) mark it out as a classic. But at the box-office that year, ET was the alien of choice. Carpenter had already made enemies with a studio boss, "a notorious human being". The Thing's failure signalled payback. "Nobody prepares you for what it's like," he says. "I was branded a failure, uncool. I was treated with contempt. It was puzzling and devastating. But hey," he interrupts himself, with hollow equanimity, "they just didn't want to go see it that summer. What are you gonna do?"

In the aftermath of The Thing, the good offers stopped. Carpenter had reached his second pivotal moment. His most likely, almost his only choice was to take what he could get, a decision made by most directors in crisis. Scripts for "silly action movies" piled high on his desk. The money offered was good, the temptation, in the director's mind, biblical. "I think if I'd taken what was offered I'd have sold my soul. I'd not be who I am. That was a frightening proposition." Did he feel his soul was on the line at the time? "Oh yeah," Carpenter says in a serious, matter-of-fact voice. "I knew it." He responded by abandoning the studios and making horror movies that were so low-budget they had to make a profit. It seemed suicidally risky. "I thought just the opposite. I thought, this is my salvation. Hitchcock said you have to run for cover till the bullets stop. I was waiting till the smoke cleared." It worked, to an extent. Between budgetless shockers, Carpenter was trusted to make the Chevy Chase vehicle Memoirs of an Invisible Man. And this year he's made Escape from LA with a studio, Paramount, who wanted him. Still, many observers compare these interesting genre movies to the promise of his heyday and wonder, "What happened?" Does that bother him? "Oh listen," Carpenter snorts, "that time is long gone. I'm John Carpenter. I've gotta be happy being John Carpenter. I gave up those worries a long time ago."

As Carpenter talks, evenly discussing his highs and lows, open without ever being intimate, he seems almost like one of the Western heroes he idolised as a child. Does he admire these characters' qualities, their self-containment, their unwillingness to seek pity? Carpenter barks with laughter at the last word. "No, no. Can't do that. Might as well be a snail." Are there particular Western characters he identifies with? "I can respond a great deal to the John Wayne character in The Searchers, where there's no place for him in the end and he walks away. I know that my own films have a theme of isolation." It's a theme he explored in real life during his Hollywood buffeting. Is it the Western part of his head that allowed him to survive? "I had great parents, who gave me a real clear sense of who I am. That's what saved me in the end, my upbringing. I'm not confused about myself."

It may be this clear-sightedness that is making Carpenter think, just as Escape from LA has given him his first success in years, about stopping altogether before it's too late. "I should face the inevitability of the end of it. The problem with movie-making is not on a career level, it's on a personal level, physically and emotionally. On Escape from LA I was up all night, for 90 nights. Every movie you get tired, and then you bounce back. But for every one, a little bit comes off. It's a law of physics, dissipation over time. If I didn't have to worry about physics, I would just keep making movies. It's not the joy of being a gunfighter that leaves you, it's the reality of being a gunfighter at 48. One of the saddest stories I ever heard was Hitchcock, who could barely walk around, being told he couldn't do it any more. One wants to go out on one's own. Choose the time. Do it smart." Carpenter is already making plans for a less strenuous career in the visual arts, which he won't reveal. When will he switch? "When the joy is still up above the bullshit, then you keep working. When it isn't, you know you shouldn't do it."

n `Escape from LA' is on general release from tomorrow. See Adam Mars- Jones's review overleaf