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When word had it that veteran director John Carpenter, one of the greats of horror and sci-fi filmmaking, was returning to feature films with the release of his latest, The Ward, I jumped at the chance to talk with him.
Made in 2009, the sneaky shocker premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 but hadn't really settled into my fear monitor until now, as it finally gets a theatrical release.
For more than three decades, Carpenter made a career out of redefining what is scary through such signature films as Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and Prince of Darkness (1987). He added to his rich catalog later on by revising classic sub-genres of horror with the Lovecraftian In The Mouth of Madness (1994) and Vampires (1998).
While dubbed a "Master of Horror", the director also displayed his unique sci-fi vision with such movies as Dark Star (1974), Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), and Starman (1984) -- a film which won an Oscar nomination for star Jeff Bridges.
Besides the science fiction realm, he offered a distinct take on an urban crime flick -- 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 (a retelling of Howard Hawks' 1959 Western, Rio Bravo) and a bio-pic with Elvis (starring a young Kurt Russell).
For nearly a decade, the 63-year- old former New Yorker has not made a feature. He has done only Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life in 2005, and two episodes of TV's Masters of Horror. Younger audiences know him through remakes like Rob Zombie's Halloween.
Now The Ward has come along. Carpenter revisits classic fear tropes through this period thriller set in a 1960s psychiatric hospital for girls, where new inmate Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed for torching a farmhouse. While there, she is seemingly menaced by sadistic staffers and a ghoulish female ghost seemingly bent on murderous revenge by killing her fellow residents.
Q: After 10 years of not having put out a film, why is this story important to be, for lack of a better term, your comeback?
JC: It was just a movie that I wanted to make that was offered [to me]. I thought I could do a good job with it. It's really not some master plan.
Q: In taking this on, what were the challenges that you felt would make it a uniquely John Carpenter film?
JC: I was attracted to the location [in the Pacific Northwest], this kind of limited isolation, the small female cast inside of a mental institution and there may or may not be a ghost afoot.
There are a lot of interesting themes and a lot of good sequences, and I thought it was very attractive. It wasn't too big a film and I thought it would be interesting.
Q: What were you looking for when you cast this film? Going back and looking at it again, will I realize, "Ah, that's the tipoff?" What was it in this cast that brought them all together?
JC: Well, I hate to spoil the mystery -- it's all just about good actors. You find people who respond to the material, who have talent.
In the beginning of my career, I was uncertain about working with actors, but I've really come to really feel good about it now. I had a great cast. I loved my cast. I loved what they brought to the movie. So that's the honest answer: good acting.
Q: Was it your idea to set it in the 1960s or was that always part of the story?
JC: Well, we had a decision to make because there was an issue with the story in that you could involuntarily keep somebody in a mental institution back then as you can't now.
The story was that this young girl is locked up against her will. Well, that all changed in the '70s, so it had to be before the '70s. So the question was, when is it? Is it the 1950s? We decided on the '60s for a number of different reasons.
Q: Can you tell me some of the other reasons?
JC: Well, the '50s would have been fun to do. I was alive during the '60s so I remember it really clearly in terms of the outfits.
By the way, there is an enormous flaw in the costuming. Danielle Panabaker, one of my actresses who is getting electrocuted, is wearing these modern sandals, which was pointed out to me. I'm going to have to punish her.
Q: When did they come up with the element of a Multiple Personality Disorder? Didn't that get identified later, or was that in the '60s?
JC: Oh, that was around. They may have called it different names, but they were dealing with that kind of issue early on.
Q: The remakes of your films have kept you alive and going for the last 10 years. Were you frustrated in any way that you weren't making your own films, or were you glad to take a break after kicking them out for such a long time?
JC: I had to stop. It wasn't out of frustration, I just had to quit for a while. I just was burned out. It was a necessity.
I had just fallen out of love with filmmaking. I had done too many movies in a row, and was driven by this need to have a career and a lot of films under my belt.
After a while I just went, "I can't do this anymore now. It's time to stop." So I did, and it was really helpful to stop, relax, take a little time away from it.
Q: You're also known for making your own moody soundtracks. Were you still making music?
JC: I did a little bit. But I had to fall back in love with cinematic storytelling.
Q: What made you fall back in love? Has it been some of the new filmmakers that you've been looking at, rethinking your old films, or rediscovering who you were as a filmmaker?
You've come up with many signature techniques and approaches, whether it's the use of Steadicam, or the way you have false surprises, and things like that, that have influenced newer generations.
JC: It's really simpler than that. I got roped in[to] doing this cable TV series called Masters of Horror. We shot it in Vancouver [British Columbia] and they were relatively short -- it was a one hour story, so it didn't take very long to shoot. And it was a blast being back on the set.
I remembered what it was that made me so excited about being a director again, and I thought, "I could do this. This is fun." So it really was that simple.
Q: As a result of this film, is your appetite whet for more?
JC: You know what, I might do it. I might try some more stuff. I'm working on a couple projects.
Q: To many people, you've written the book in making indie films. You've been an inspiration to the whole indie film scene, and there was the good and the bad of it.
Maybe the money had its limitations, but doing the big films can put a pressure on you that might have made it more difficult. How do you feel about that whole indie experience?
JC: It's a mixed bag when you make movies. If you make a low budget film, you have limitations of budget and time. On the other hand, when you have a big budget, sometimes it's a nightmare.
It's always great to have a lot of money. I don't think there's any director who says, "I have too much money. Let me give some back." That's not how it works. So everybody wants as many tools as they can get to make a film, but you can have a great time and make a good movie on a low budget.
Q: One of the good things about working with a low budget, especially in horror, is that the limitations you have working within a claustrophobic environment ,or by the limitations of a set, so that really forces a more psychological imagining.
JC: Well, that's possible. I think it's the story that you're telling. If you're going to tell a big story, then it's not really appropriate to be intimate. But a story like The Ward was perfect for the budget that it had.
Q: One of your movies I always loved that was very under-appreciated is They Live. I always liked your science-fiction as much as your horror.
Your science-fiction movies have a whole different spin from your horror films -- okay, maybe The Thing, but not really. It still has those same sort of larger issues. Will you come back to that bizarre psychological science-fiction?
JC: I agree with you. I'm a bigger fan of science-fiction than of horror films because I grew up with them when I was young. I fell in love with science-fiction. I'd love to do science-fiction. Not necessarily big futuristic spectacle films, but some smaller, more intimate.
Q: Who do you consider a favorite science-fiction writer, or whose work would you like to film?
JC: There are a number of them. I can't think of one right off the top of my head.
Q: What would you consider the essence of the ideal horror film and the ideal science-fiction film?
JC: Good story, basically. Compellingly good story. There are no rules to either of them; they could be anything. But that's what grabs you is great story. That's what grabs you about any movie is a great story. That's a requirement.
Q: You've got to come back to New York and do some shooting.
JC: No, no, no, no.
Q: Thinking about it, you've never made a film in New York, have you?
JC: I made a movie called Escape from New York.
Q: All right, that's your real homage to New York. But I thought that wasn't really made in New York though...
JC: We shot some footage in New York, for sure.
Q: Yeah, but then didn't you build sets for the city scene and shoot in East St Louis?
JC: We shot the Statue of Liberty, we shot some city scenes. But not much, of course, because it's too difficult, too expensive.
[There was too much] crime and so forth [in the late '70s]. You're all cleaned up now; everything is clean.
Q: I can't imagine finding that dirty environment here nowadays. The corporations own Manhattan, so they're not going to give it up to the prison system.
JC: There you go. I was all wrong about it. I didn't think of the Disney-fication of New York.
Q: That's always been one of your proletarian films, sort of from the vaguely leftist side of you. We see in a movie like They Live, which suggested that aliens are behind corporate control of the media and country. You envisioned the city as becoming the ultimate prison because of that sort of corporatization of the city.
JC: There you go. You're absolutely right.
Q: Will you be in New York doing more?
JC: I may. I don't know if I'll shoot another movie in New York [though].
Q: Are there people you've been following along the way, or that you think of as somewhat heirs to the things you've done -- or maybe have taught you a trick or two?
JC: Well, I learn from everything and everybody. I'm always learning, especially when I'm shooting something. [I hire a lot of them] and admire a lot of them.
Q: Do you get out to see movies?
JC: I do.
Q: Who have you been admiring lately?
JC: I really like the work of David Fincher. I really like Guillermo del Toro. I think they're enormously talented.
Q: What your upcoming plans?
JC: I'm working on developing a couple of projects, and no rush. I'm enjoying myself. I'm enjoying not having the pressure of being younger in my career. I'm enjoying what I'm doing right now.
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