Interview With John Carpenter: On The Tools Of His Trade
(Barnes & Nobel/Dec 09/2003)
a powerhouse of a director would be an
Since his early days with
on Precinct 13
(1976), the multitalented craftsman has proven himself a
cult figure, having written, directed, scored, and even acted in
20 films. His crowning achievement may be formulating the slasher
(1978), but Carpenter continues to this day to
a wide variety of cult fiction in the low-budget tradition of B-movies.
sampling of his numerous guilty-pleasure classics also includes
Big Trouble in Little China
Escape From New York
(1981), the last three of which
the filmmaker's favorite leading man, Kurt Russell, as a sneering,
hero. The release of a two-DVD special edition of
gave Barnes & Noble.com a chance to speak with Carpenter.
What is it that makes this Special Edition so
Primarily the fact that it has a brand-new transfer made
from the original negative, which was only found recently after many
None of the previous video versions were mastered from the
negative, which typically yields the best-looking transfer you can
The original negative was lost?
Well, let's say it was "misplaced." While people were searching
film elements on
it turned up somewhere in the Midwest,
an old salt mine that had been converted to a film-storage facility. How
wound up at that particular place, I have no idea. But at last the movie
really good, the way it ought to look on DVD.
And we owe it all to chance...
Actually, the negative turned up in the search for a ten-minute
I had cut from the movie just before it went into release. We've
that on the Special Edition, too.
A ten-minute sequence? What is it?
It was intended to be the beginning of the film. It shows Snake
the character played by Kurt Russell) committing a bank
and being captured after a wild subway chase. When we had a
screening of the movie, I realized that the story really doesn't get
until Snake arrives in New York. Snake's legendary tough-guy
was established in dialogue, and it didn't matter
to New York. So I just lopped off that whole opening to get into the
Have you restored that sequence to the
No, you'll see it on the Special Edition as a supplement. I still
plays better without it.
After making your name as a director of horror films,
as quite a change of pace. Did you have any idea while you were
the film that it would occupy such an important place in your
To be perfectly honest, I never believed that
I did would be
At the time I just wanted to step away from the horror genre
do something different. It was just another project to me back then.
I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it, I just didn't think of it as something as
as it's regarded today.
What inspired you? Were you trying to emulate other films or
I actually wrote
in the '70s, after I'd seen
They portrayed New York as kind of a bad place, a
place, and I figured I could write something which took that
a step further. Also, I remembered a book written by (science-fiction
author) Harry Harrison about the toughest planet in the universe, where
sends the toughest man in the universe to get something done.
that’s how the character of Snake was designed, as a really tough guy
to do a really tough job.
Was Kurt Russell your first choice for Snake? He certainly
the role his own, but it was so unlike anything he’d done previously.
Actually, my first choice was Clint Eastwood, but we couldn’t
Escape From New York
wasn't a big-budget movie. The studio
Charles Bronson, but after the
films his asking price
gone up dramatically.
I had directed Kurt previously in a TV movie about Elvis that
At the time I wasn't aware of that early "clean-cut" stuff he'd done
Disney, and he really impressed me with the way he submerged
into the character of Elvis. So I felt he could do a good job as
and as soon as the movie got green-lighted I asked for him.
How much, if anything, did Russell bring to the character of
Plissken? Was it all laid out in the script, or did he contribute
of his own?
Practically everything you see in Snake was brought to the table
For example, the eye patch was his idea. I think he got that from an
which has Kirk Douglas as this incredibly
Viking warrior with an eye patch. Most of the other stuff - the way
walked and carried himself, the pitch of his voice and his speech
pattern - most of that came from Kurt. He already had the character
which was a big help to me when we actually started shooting.
Was it a difficult shoot?
No, it was a pretty smooth shoot, actually. Although I remember
very hot in St. Louis, where we shot some exteriors. Those days
wasn't a big-budget movie. Did you have
executives looking over your shoulder every minute?
No, for the most part they left us alone. I had established a
by then, so there wasn't a lot of interference. I mean, the movie
a big scope, so we had to simplify certain things. We used the same
company that (B-movie filmmaker) Roger Corman had
so they knew how to get the most out of a low budget. We could
have spent twice as much money making it, but we were able to
up on the screen most of what I had in mind.
Did you stick closely to the script, or did you improvise on the
We stuck pretty close to the script, although I remember there
few things I changed. For example, in the scene when Snake goes over
wall, I originally had Lee Van Cleef's character kill the character
by Isaac Hayes. But while we were blocking that scene I realized
would be more effective to have Donald Pleasance do it.
There was a little ad-libbing here and there. I have no problems
as long as the actor doesn't change the meaning of the speech, as
as what he says doesn't change the narrative in any way.
So you were happy with the completed film?
Oh, yeah, I was excited about it. I mean, we went up against some
box-office movies that year, and we did pretty well.
As DVDs go, this has been a pretty good year for you, what
the release of Special Editions of both
and lesser known movies like
Yeah, I'm really amazed that people keep buying the new
of these movies. I mean, to an extent they're just carbon copies
but people keep buying them. Of course, it makes sense with
because they'll be getting a better-looking transfer than they've
on VHS, laserdisc, or the earlier DVD.
Are you a fan of DVD yourself?
Oh, absolutely. I think it's fabulous. I'm a collector myself.
You get the
versions of these films, and the extras - watching the
is like going to film school! You can really get an education
making movies from these things. Like on the
watching all those extras and thinking, Wow, I wish I'd had
like this to watch when I was starting out. Getting all the behind-the-scenes
demystify the filmmaking process, but shows
and everything on the E! Channel have taken
magic out of moviemaking anyway. So including that kind of material
the DVD is a real asset.