His low-budget films have a punch
Not quite overnight, John Carpenter has become one of the ottest moviemakers in the world. His films are inexpensive. They aim at nothing more than sheer entertainment. And they pack a punch with audiences -- especially young audiences -- that few other pictures can equal.Skip to next paragraph
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"My favorite director of all time is Howard Hawks," Carpenter said over lunch recently, expressing admiration for the maker of "Red River," "Bringing Up Baby, " "The Big Sleep," and other classics. "Movies are an entertainment medium, and that's the way I like to treat them. I want to affect the audience emotionally, because that's what I believe films can do best."
Carpenter is a young, good-looking man from Kentucky, who still carries more than a trace of a Southern accent. He began his first feature film in 1970; it began as a student project and "just grew" into a movie called "Dark Star." He now has six productions to his credit. He met his wife, actress Adrienne Barbeau, while directing a TV movie called "Someone's Watching Me." She stars in his latest picture, a fantasy called "The Fog."
Just now, Carpenter is watching "The Fog" rack up gigantic figures at the box office and is planning his next picture. He won't talk much about the new one because the story is in the public domain, and someone might steal it from under his nose. But it appears to be a western called "El Diablo." After that, he 's expected to do a remake of Howard Hawks's "The Thing," this time sticking closer to the original John W. Campbell sci-fi story (which is not nearly as powerful as the old Hawks film).
Conversing with Carpenter, you soon notice a certain intensify -- he calls it "single-mindedness" -- lurking behind even the most casual movie talk. Though he shares this quality with many other young directors, he seems unusually conscious that major American filmmakers occupy a privileged and perhaps precarious position. Like a Howard Hawks hero, he relies on alertness and professionalism to bring him through.
"Lately, people have suddenly started asking me about money," he laments. "People wonder if I'm in this business largely to make big bucks.The truth is, I've never made big bucks. I've hardly even thought of that.
"It's so hard and risky to make a film! And the chances are that you'll never make any money. I've done lots of them for free. Money has only entered my mind since 'Halloween' did so well," he concludes, referring to his next-to-last film -- a thriller that has become the most successful independent production of all time, with United States returns of $20 million on a $300,000 investment.
On the other hand, he acknowledges that "movies and money are associated in everybody's mind. And that image is often fostered by people who haven't made any money at all. The point is that moviemaking is my job. And in our culture, you're defined largely by what you do. You are what you produce."
Carpenter sounds more Hawksian than ever as he continues, noting that "Filmmaking is ratified. There aren't many of us, and there aren't many of us working. As a profession it's tough, competitive, and high-tension, with a lot of pressure and visibility. The guys I'm always reminded of are the air-traffic controllers -- though they have a tougher time of it, because it's really life or death. . . ."
Even when money is scarce and pressure is high, however, Carpenter loves his work. HE learned the trade in film school. "I directed, wrote, edited, and everything else," he recalls. "But it wasn't the real world. You didn't have to keep on a schedule or anything. When I did my first full-length film, it was very different -- a real shock."