John Carpenter has just received a special British Film Institute Award for "the originality and achievement of his first two films, DARK STAR and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13". So formal a citation hardly does justice to the saga of the making of DARK STAR, now at the Screen on Islington Green.
Born in 1948 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Carpenter was hooked from infancy on both movies and science fiction. "I was only eight years old when i first saw FORBIDDEN PLANET, but... the young eyes that watched the invisible Id creature make its huge footprints in the sand of Altair 4 and finally saw the thing fully illuminated in the flowing laser beams would never be the same...". His fate was decreed: "I convinced my parents to send me off to film school, a sort of academic justification for the unnatural motivation".
He had a striking and surprising triumph at the University of Southern California when his THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY won the Academy Award for the best live action short of 1970. The same year he began DARK STAR, which started life as a 37 minute, 16mm short about the Cartesian dialogues between the crew of a twenty-second-century space craft and their malevolently malfunctioning bombs. The film played around the West Coast campus circuit, and acquired a small reputation for its young director.
Eventually it was seen by an East Coast entrepreneur named Jack H. Harris, whose other film involvements included THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES and DEEP THROAT. Harris persuaded Carpenter to blow up his film to 35mm and extend it to feature length, with the collaboration of a fellow-student from USC, Dan O'Bannon.
DARK STAR re-emerged as an 83-minute colour feature. It had cost a total of $60,000 - "what it costs a major studio to sneeze". Such economy was not achieved easily: "We shot with barely adequate, poorly functioning equipment because we could afford nothing better. Our cameras would rattle and purr like cocktail shakers full of glass. The Coke bottles rammed on the front of the camera were posing as lenses. They wouldn't focus..." (from an interview in Photon No 6, 1975).
Carpenter and O'Bannon won through not by cutting corners but by intelligence and fanatical dedication. O'Bannon spent 11 months on the special effects, mostly accomplished in kitchen sinks and bath tubs; and also acted in a leading role and worked as editor. Carpenter, as director-writer-producer, also wrote the music and the theme song because he could not afford to pay anyone else to do it. They ended up with a film which has rather fewer special effects than STAR WARS (O'Bannon also did special effects for George Lucas's film, which betrays distinct debts to DARK STAR), but is for many tastes funnier, wittier and certainly wiser in its speculations on our technological future.
After all that, the end of the fairy tale ought to be that everyone lived happily ever after on their millions; but Hollywood, where "nothing venture, nothing gain" has a rather special meaning, does not work like that.
A mere two weeks after the film was finished, one of Jack H. Harris's other film interests seems to have run into difficulties. The Supreme Court ordered a number of arrests and Harris's company foundered. DARK STAR ended up the property of the Supreme Court's Official Receiver.
Government departments tend to be tougher to deal with than the stoniest of Californian tycoons; and for a couple of years it looked very much as if DARK STAR had been swallowed up for good by the great legal whale. That it has finally made it to the screen in this country is due in large part to the imaginative efforts of the BBC's film purchasing department, who not only bought it for television transmission (it went out at Christmas) but also made it available to the London producer-distributor David Hamilton-Grant.
It is still unlikely that John Carpenter will ever see back his tiny investment; but at least DARK STAR has definitively established his international reputation. For a film-maker like Carpenter it is the next picture that matters, anyway, not the last. "Someone from my home town asked me, 'Why do you want to direct movies? It's so hard'. I think I need to create an illusion that lives on a screen for an hour and a half. I can create worlds of fantasy and love and horror and adventure and I hope make people feel them along with me.
"But my answer was simpler. What else is there to do?"