John Carpenter is a softly spoken 29-year-old Kentuckian who wrote, directed and edited ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 which opens at the Screen on the Green, Islington, tomorrow. He also composed the score. His only previous film, DARK STAR, was a wittily inventive science fiction which brightened holiday viewing when it was shown on British television at Christmas. He began DARK STAR while still a film student at the University of Southern California.
For ASSAULT, Carpenter made the "pragmatic commercial decision" to move into exploitation. This is a category of films which get by without stars or expensive sets and can be promoted with sensational publicity calculated to draw teenagers into the drive-ins. ASSAULT describes a hectic night during which an isolated police station is beleaguered by a band of homicidal young crazies. It superficially yet sucessfully meets the requirements of the genre but Carpenter remains scornful of most exploitation movies: "Action and violence don't mean anything without a directorial point of view." He has steadfastly rejected all blandishments to return to exploitation. His aim is now to work for the major studios.
The personal significance of ASSAULT for Carpenter is quite separate from its ostensible effect. He describes the film as a modern western - his ideal casting would have been John Wayne and Charles Bronson - and as a homage to vintage Hollywood in general and to Howard Hawks's great 1959 western RIO BRAVO in particular. Some critics, he says, have objected to the apparent flippancy of the movie's later sequences, claiming that the problems posed by youth gangs are too real and pressing to be resolved so lightly.
"But the change in style," says Carpenter, "is what the movie's about. The first part of the picture, out on the streets, shows social chaos realistically. But once we go inside the precinct house everything becomes more stylised. To me the movie lore inside provides a positive obverse to the breakdown outside."
Movie buffs can have a field day picking up on the allusions and cross-references: the hero is named Ethan after the character played by John Wayne in Ford's THE SEARCHERS; the heroine is named Leigh in honour of Leigh Brackett, the veteran screenwriter of many of Hawks's films. Carpenter's editing credit is under the pseudonym John T. Chance, who was the monumentally unflappable lawman incarnated by Wayne in RIO BRAVO (Carpenter's second favourite movie after FORBIDDEN PLANET).
Naturally this added fillip is denied the average spectator. But Carpenter finds it encouraging that general audiences can respond enthusiastically to the ambience of Hollywood conventions.
He cherishes the comitment to the great American genres that he finds in the work of such middle generation compatriots as Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY) and Robert Aldrich (THE MEAN MACHINE) but finds the efforts of some of the younger directorial super stars self-servingly pretentious. He's reluctant to name names but admits to particular dubiety about the films of Brian De Palma (CARRIE, OBSESSION). "Those pictures aren't making creative use of the lessons Hitchcock has taught us. They're just trying to be copies of Hitchcock originals."
Carpenter believes his own future work will be less self-conscious in its indebtedness to earlier movies. "I guess that in making ASSAULT I was exorcising some of the demons I've been carrying around with me." Nevertheless, he intends to stick with established genres and would particularly like to set up a horror film - "not a spoof, a really scary one."
The project he is currently working on - as a complete break from any lingering traces of exploitation - is a light comedy, though he admits there is one insuperable barrier to realizing his dream in that department. "There just weren't any new Jimmy Stewarts or Katherine Hepburns around."
Meanwhile, he has sold a couple of screenplays. EYES, a suspense thriller, was bought by Barbara Streisand's company and there was the prospect of Carpenter directing it, until La Streisand decided that the role she was to play might harm her image. Now the project is going ahead with another star and another director. BLOOD RIVER is a western script which John Wayne's company has bought. Production, however, is in abeyance while the Grand Old Duke deliberates on whether to emerge from self-imposed retirement to play the lead.