The Two Sides of John Carpenter
From Paranoia to Providence
By Michael Dare
John Carpenter has always been a fabulous technician whose images are immediately striking and to the point. Since that point was often to scare the bejesus out of you, he's often been relegated to the realm of horror-film directors, with the implication that his work is not to be taken seriously - as though paranoia were not as legitimate a subject for cinema as anything else. But anyone who has wished Carpenter would grow up and make a "real" movie should be more than pleased by his latest venture, STARMAN, a light-hearted romantic comedy posing as a science-fiction extravaganza.
Carpenter's first film, DARK STAR, was a savage send-up made on a shoestring budget that somehow managed to satirize a dozen films that hadn't even come out yet. His next, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, set RIO BRAVO in modern L.A. with admirable style and wit. But it was his third film, HALLOWEEN, that went through the roof, bringing a fresh new sense of taste and terror to the horror-film genre and inadvertently ushering in a whole new era of tacky imitations. It's still one of the most frightening movies ever made, and Carpenter became one of the new masters of suspense. THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING and CHRISTINE proved that HALLOWEEN was no fluke, and his TV special on the life of Elvis is still the finest ever done on the King.
But none of these previous ventures prepared me for the amount of heart displayed in STARMAN. I immediately wanted to find out what happened to soften Carpenter's usual paranoid stance.
We met at his offices at the Burbank Studios a couple of days before the film opened - a tense time to be sure, but Carpenter is used to strain. He's intense and intelligent, with a gentle Midwestern accent and a voice that gets quieter as he emphasizes certain words. I got the feeling this is a man who knows exactly what he's doing, and whose talent knows no bounds. Steven Spielberg, watch out.
WEEKLY: STARMAN seems such a complete about-face from everything else you've done. It's certainly the exact opposite of THE THING. What changes have you gone through to make you want to enlighten people rather than scare them?
CARPENTER: I have two sides to my personality. I'm very pessimistic about the long term: we're all born alone and we die alone, and if anything good happens in between, it's great. But I'm a short-term optimist. I gained this by making movies in which it's all going to work out.
WEEKLY: But everything doesn't always work out in your films.
CARPENTER: That's true, because I tap into my pessimism. The pessimistic side works in THE THING because it's about pessimism and egoism - it's about the end of the world, about the evil from within. It's hard to be optimistic when you're telling a story about the ultimate evil from inside. I wanted to make an allegory, a very strong film, about the fact that the diseases of not trusting and loss of personality are in fact real - at least when characterized by the Thing.
But STARMAN is a love story. It's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It's all the classic stories of star-crossed lovers, the lovers who can't really make it together but have a bond of love, like in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It really works on that level, because it touches a little thing inside of us. It was easy for me to tap into that, real easy. It's a departure, because people haven't seen something like this from me before. But now they have.
WEEKLY: I appreciated the fact that STARMAN didn't seem to be written by a scientist.
CARPENTER: We de-emphasized all the technology. That was one of the problems with the tone of it: What kind of film is this? What does this world look like? Is it like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, with a kind of friendly science where all the people who were waiting for the ships to come down, all the machinery, everything was friendly? But in this thing, forget technology, man. This is magic coming down here. We don't quite know what his mother ship looks like. It operates with these spheroids. They're non-technological, which makes it more like THE WIZARD OF OZ, you see? It takes it into fantasy.
So that was real intentional. You see a lot of technological movies... even E.T.
WEEKLY: That's right, he was a scientist. What was the Starman?
CARPENTER: An anthropologist, a map-maker. He was invited by Voyager and he's just looking around.
WEEKLY: Did the script go through a lot of changes?
CARPENTER: Totally. They had him flying at first. Well, if he can fly, why doesn't he just head straight to the meteor crater? They had him shooting down F-16s at one point. She was a schoolteacher, so she taught him like a little boy.
WEEKLY: The opening POV shot seems a strange reversal of the opening shot of HALLOWEEN. As soon as that shot started in HALLOWEEN, I was scared stiff. This shot is so similar but it's not scary. Why is that?
CARPENTER: First of all, it's broken up. It's not one long continuous shot, so we do see who's doing the looking. In HALLOWEEN, you were forced inside this person who was creeping and watching. The very act of that is covert... it's spooky. There's something menacing about the slowness of the shot - it goes on for five minutes. This one is always intercut. You see a ball of light come across the bay; you cut; you see what the ball of light sees. There's something about the energy of the cutting back and forth that tells you there's something not scary about this. It's not terrifying. He's just looking around.
WEEKLY: I guess the only thing that made me expect something bad to happen is that I've seen the rest of your movies.
CARPENTER: Well, I could have very easily made that first sequence frightening by simply staying with the alien's point of view - the ship lands next to her house, he gets out of the hatch, walks across the yard. He looks in her window. Already, that's scary. But this was a little journey of this kind-of light. When the transformation starts and the little baby looks at you, you're not quite sure what it's turning into. He doesn't look exactly friendly, and it's kind of weird, and you're thinking, "What's going to happen?" - not, "Oh God, something awful is going to happen!"
WEEKLY: I immediately wanted to see that sequence again. How did the transformation take place?
CARPENTER: There are three shots, basically - four cuts - and different men did each shot. First I talked to Dick Smith, who said, "I can do the final shot when we go from a boy who is 15 years old to Jeff Bridges at 35, and that's all I can do because it's so complicated." He took a boy who was 15, made a mold of his head and Jeff Bridges' head, then he made 150 molds in between. He sculpted each one, getting closer and closer to each other. It took him seven or eight months. Since he couldn't do the entire transformation, we got a couple of friends of his to do the rest.
Rick Baker did the baby. All the baby needed to do was turn over and look at Karen Allen and be an infant with this light in his head. We cut away to her, and when we cut back to the child he's grown to about an eight-year-old boy, lying on the floor. Stan Winston came in with a model that stretched out. Then we cut to the Dick Smith shot.
WEEKLY: What about the shot where he enters the genetic structure of the hair to clone himself?
CARPENTER: That was done by Industrial Light and Magic, and we called in the "powers of ten" shot. The issue was "how do you hide the seams?" You're taking a shot that goes from A to B and another shot that goes from B to C. How do you match them up? How do you cut from the shot of the actual hair to the bigger model they made? They made a whole series of huge hairs and molecules which we tracked the camera through, everything getting bigger and bigger.
WEEKLY: Were there any great scenes you had to cut?
CARPENTER: I'd say there's only 60 percent of what we shot left in the film. There was one scene were Starman learns to dance rock & roll. It was very painful to take out, but it didn't move the story along.
WEEKLY: Was the Starman conceived as having that mechanical jerkiness to his movements?
CARPENTER: That was only arrived at through working with Jeff. There were a hundred ways to do this part. The actors that I met with in my search all had different ideas, but Jeff was the only one who had the real courage to do it. He wasn't afraid to be foolish or take chances. He wasn't afraid to disappear, to not be there, to not do anything, to simply look. He has such a charm about him as a person... he's such an unbelievably physical actor. He trained, he learned dance and mime, and off he went. We just made it up as we went along... fill in the blanks. The part was written very neutrally. The lines were there but you could play them any number of ways. At first, he says all his lines with equal emphasis, but finally he's talking like a man and his voice becomes warm.
WEEKLY: Was there ever pressure to have more special effects?
CARPENTER: Never. I asked myself, "What do I need to tell the story?" - not what I needed to awe you, not just to have you go, "Wow, look at that!" We needed to have Voyager go by and disappear into the mother ship; we needed to see it inside the mother ship; we needed to see the observer ship. What are the images necessary to tell the story, pure and simple?
WEEKLY: You say that was the mother ship in the beginning? I assumed it was his home planet.
CARPENTER: Good enough. It's fascinating how people project into what they see. They bring their own fantasies to it.
WEEKLY: Was it a problem how remarkably similar parts of STARMAN are to other movies?
CARPENTER: We had THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, E.T., CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and 2001 to contend with. The hardest part was finding someone to bring someone new to it and not be afraid. That's what was scary from the studio's point of view. Other directors were terrified of this project, but it was great for me. I couldn't have done E.T. I would have had E.T. turn into a vampire or something and kill the kids.
WEEKLY: Did you feel trapped making the same type of movies over and over?
CARPENTER: No. CHRISTINE and HALLOWEEN are as different as night and day. CHRISTINE wasn't a particularly scary movie; it wasn't supposed to be. The book is about a kid who's haunted by the ghost of this dead man. There's a rotting corpse in the back seat of this car. If I wanted to scare you, I would have had the rotting corpse fall on the actor. But I did that in THE FOG. They're all differently intentioned films. People tend to see horror movies or ghost stories or science fiction as slightly suspect genres, not quite legit. People think I do nothing but beheadings, but there's no violence in HALLOWEEN - it's all implied. Every horror film can give you catharsis about one of two things - being the victim and being the aggressor. I let you be both, so you get to work that out within yourself, within the safe confines of a theater, and you come out feeling better.
WEEKLY: Do you always feel better?
CARPENTER: Sure, if it works. I saw THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 1976 and I never felt such peacefulness. You never saw anything; again, it was suggested. It's so perverse. You come out and you've been Leatherface, but you've been the victims too. You've gone full circle into that dark place within yourself. After you've been there for a while, you come out thinking it looks pretty good out here, you feel better... at least, I did. But when you see a bad movie - a movie where there's no feeling, a formula film - you come out and you feel... uuuullgh! FRIDAY THE 13TH just made me feel uncomfortable. I didn't care about the killer or the victims. It was like masterbating; it wasn't the real thing. People get angry at being put through that.
WEEKLY: What attracted you to THE THING?
CARPENTER: The story. I always wanted to do a big-budget monster movie. And you'll never see anything like it again, I guarantee you. No one will ever spend that amount of money on a monster. Even ALIEN was low-budget compared to THE THING. Even ALIEN turned out to be a man in a suit. They didn't go for the home run. I thought, "Let's really do a monster. Let's not fool around."
WEEKLY: Don't you feel any responsibility for putting horrifying images into people's heads?
CARPENTER: I feel a responsibility to myself and my vision.
WEEKLY: Couldn't a lunatic see one of your films and be influenced by it?
CARPENTER: A lunatic could see THE BRADY BUNCH and be influenced by it. People who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality... you can't play to them or worry about them. Whose fault was the McDonald's massacre? The media's, or the government's for sending him overseas?
WEEKLY: How would you feel if you found out he had seen one of your films the night before?
CARPENTER: I can't help it. I didn't make any of my films in order to make him kill people.
WEEKLY: Don't you think there's a danger in romanticizing violence?
CARPENTER: Sam Peckinpah did it in THE WILD BUNCH and I was mesmerized. I didn't come out and shoot somebody. I knew it was a movie and he was telling me something, expressing himself, making a ballet. But it wasn't Sam Peckinpah making a "How to..."
The only really irresponsible film was one called SNUFF, which purported to show a real killing. That I can't take; that's not an illusion; that should be banned.
WEEKLY: Can we expect any more optimistic films from you?
CARPENTER: Sure, I don't want to just make horror films or love stories. There are other kinds of movies i want to make and intend to make. I think the other level in all this is that the country and the film-going public has really changed over the past six years. It's evolved. Now we want to see optimistic things; we want to think we can win. We want to channel our energies into something that will help make us win. It's a need. It's a wish fulfillment. And I think there's a need for that, because life is really grotesque if you really examine it. I mean, look at the number of realities we've had to encounter over the past 15 or 20 years. Vietnam was the beginning of a reality that changed our thinking about ourselves. The news media is constantly changing us. They're barraging us with stories about child abuse and beatings and horrors around the world, and now all of a sudden reality is being pounded into us, so much so that, "Hey, I don't want that anymore, man, I don't want to know this. I want to know something fun, hopeful, optimistic... something that makes me feel a little bit sad and misty and a little melancholy, but basically fills me with hope."
WEEKLY: That's interesting, because when a film fills me with hope, it will tend to make me cry more than a film that's sad.
CARPENTER: I know exactly what you mean. I react the same way myself.
WEEKLY: That worked particularly well in STARMAN when Jeff Bridges tells Karen Allen that she's going to have a kid who will grow up to be a teacher. It was exactly what I wanted to hear - not just within the film, but on a whole other level.
CARPENTER: Well, she regains faith in love, you see? The Karen Allen character is like we are. She's lost her husband; he's dead; she's sitting drinking wine and going over the old days again, and she doesn't have any hope left. She gains the hope by a new feeling from this man. She falls in love with him. She allows herself to be vulnerable and humble again. Of course, he can't stay, but he gives her this gift against impossible odds. This is something we all want: to say, "Listen, it doesn't matter how many nuclear warheads there are or how we're treating the Russians. It's all going to work out." It's a nice fantasy.
WEEKLY: But only in the short run.
CARPENTER: Well, we can't get too cosmic.