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.
"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."
His first "real movie" was "Dark Star," a tiny-budget science-fiction film that has become a cult favorite, and is currently being re-released in the United States, for the benefit of fans who missed it the first time around. (Actually, almost everybody missed it the first time around.) It's the whimsical tale of a beat-up old rocketship, carrying a crew that's bored stiff with outer space. One major character is an "alien" that looks like a beachball with two huge feet. Another character is a computerized bomb that wants to explode in the wrong place. The captain's solution to the dilemma? "Teach it phenomenology," he suggests -- whereupon a spaceman engages the computer in a long and zany philosophical discourse.
In some of its ideas, "Dark Star" is like a dry run for Ridley Scott's successful movie "Alien," which was also scripted by Dan O'Bannon. Yet "Dark Star" totally avoids the violence of "Alien," going for goofy humor instead. Carpenter calls it a "weird and strange" movie. It's also hilariously funny.
After "Dark Star," Carpenter continued to cut his teeth by making "Assault on Precinct 13," "Halloween," and a couple of TV movies including "Elvis," which he remembers as the only one of his works that isn't "personal." Except for that one, he says, "they were all basically crafted by me and are pretty much the way I wanted them."
Carpenter is proud of the movies he has assembled for extremely small amounts of money. Even today -- when $1 million is considered a dangerously low budget -- he feels a good film can be made for $100,000 or so. "There's still that possibility," he says, "if you have a camera and a recorder and a couple of actors willing to work for you.
In fact, I kind of yearn for those days sometimes."
When he talks like this, Carpenter conjures up images of the old Hollywood days, when fascinating work was sometimes done by the directors with the lowest budgets and the most obscure projects -- simply because little risk was involved and they were free to experiment. Today, "independent" filmmaking is flourishing. Is this a continuation of an "underground" wave of low-budget creativity?
"That's exactly what it is," says Carpenter. "And I think it's real healthy. I hope it'll always stay, because it reminds us that you can do it realm cheap.
"The trouble is, it's hard to do a film of any visual complexity this way. And it's hard to go back, once you've moved on. Once I made my first film in Panavision and Metrocolor, with a big crew and dollies and sound stages, I didn't want to return to the other way."
Still, Carpenter's latest film bears traces of those bygone days. The title sequence of "The Fog" -- "where the town falls apart" -- was shot "on the run." As Carpenter describes it, "It was just me and a camera and a couple of people. No lights. We had great fun. You can do amazing things that way. . . ."
Does Carpenter feel he will change one day to more openly "serious" films? Perhaps not. "I take what I do very seriously," he says, "and I'm proud of it, whether it's a fantasy or whatever. I'm interested in these subjects. I have a certain feeling for them, and they express certain things in me.
"I don't want to be anybody else except who I am, or make any films but the ones I make. I have certain ideas about movies. Most of this is subconscious. What matters is whether I connect with the material emotionally. I don't try to analyze it too carefully."
So Carpenter would never do what Woody Allen did, for example, and make a film in the overtly serious style of an Ingmar Bergman."To me, that's a very self-conscious and pretentious style of moviemaking," he says. "It doesn't do what I want to do. I want to affect the audience emotionally. To do an Ingmar Bergman-type film would be dishonest and phony for me."
Summing it up, Carpenter refers to an example of the movie style he doesm respect. "There's a picture called 'Magnun Force' where Clint Eastwood walks around and says one of the truest things anyone could say: 'A man has to know his limitations.' That's a great strength. Once you know your limitations, you know who you are. And I think I know my limitations. . . ."