Interview: John Carpenter on ‘The Ward’

The legendary director John Carpenter on his first movie in ten years and his strangest earlier films.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

John Carpenter thinks I sound just like John Landis. That’s pretty darned cool. Just thought I’d share that. I’d also like to share the rest of Crave Online’s interview with filmmaking legend John Carpenter, the man behind such classic films as Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live and now The Ward, the haunted insane asylum thriller starring Drive Angry’s Amber Heard, which comes out this Friday.

Carpenter took some time out of his busy schedule to explain why The Ward brought him back to filmmaking after a ten-year hiatus, the state of horror movies today, which of the remakes of his films he likes the most, projects he never got off the ground, and shed a little light on some of his less-popular films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man and Halloween III. Ladies and gentlemen… Mister John Carpenter.


CRAVE Online: Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. It’s been ten years since your last movie (2001’s Ghosts of Mars). How did you spend your summer vacation?

John Carpenter: Oh, I enjoyed myself. Getting away from the grind of moviemaking was the best thing I ever did. Loved taking time off.


CRAVE Online: Was that intentional, taking that time off? Or did you just suddenly realize that you hadn’t made a movie in a while and realize you were enjoying yourself?

John Carpenter: I was burned out, man. I was whipped. I had fallen out of love with cinematic storytelling. I didn’t want to make any movies. I had been doing it for so many years in a row…


CRAVE Online: And you were really churning them out that whole time.

John Carpenter: I was, and I was also not only directing them but sometimes writing, and sometimes doing the music, and it just caught up with me. I realized I hadn’t backed off from it, so I had to stop for a bit.


CRAVE Online: What specifically brought you back now?

John Carpenter: What brought me back was this cable TV series that Mick Garris put together called Masters of Horror. I directed a couple of episodes. We shot them up in Canada. They were about an hour each. I had a great time.



CRAVE Online: Cigarette Burns was particularly good. A lot of people consider it one of the best episodes of that particular series.

John Carpenter: Oh thank you, I had a good time making it. It was fun again. I remembered, “Oh, I love this!” I love the flow of working with actors. It’s fun!


CRAVE Online: How did The Ward come to your attention? Did someone just send you the script?

John Carpenter: Yeah. It arrived, and I thought it had some interesting potential. A good old-fashioned ghost story with a limited location, it was a mental institution [with] long, dark corridors, and there was maybe a ghost prowling around, an ensemble cast of actresses… And it had some challenging things I hadn’t done narratively.


CRAVE Online: Like what?

John Carpenter: Well, the main character is questioning her sanity. I hadn’t really done anything quite like that…


CRAVE Online: Well, the second half of In the Mouth of Madness I suppose…

John Carpenter: (Laughs) – Well, it’s true. That’s true.


CRAVE Online: The Ward is kind of your first pure haunted house movie. Did you want to do just a straight up haunted house movie, or…?

John Carpenter: I didn’t look at it that way. It was a chance to work with the things I mentioned, especially a young female cast. I hadn’t done enough female ensemble movies quite like this.


CRAVE Online: No, I don’t think you have…

John Carpenter: Not quite like this. And I really enjoyed it. That was really, really interesting and fun.


CRAVE Online: How was that different from The Thing, which didn’t have a single female in the cast? How’s the dynamic different when you’re making a movie with almost all women?

John Carpenter: It’s much more fun, for obvious reasons.



CRAVE Online: You didn’t write The Ward. And you write a lot of your own screenplays. Do you approach other people’s screenplays differently than you would your own, as a director?

John Carpenter: No, no, no… It’s all storytelling, it’s all the same. I employ myself to tell the story the best way I know how.


CRAVE Online: Did you a take a crack at the script at all?

John Carpenter: Oh we worked on it for quite a while. I don’t know, focus it, shorten certain things, take repetition out. Make sure it’s right. You just work on something to make sure it’s right.


NEXT: John Carpenter on the state of horror movies today, why didn't compose the score for The Ward, and the newfound cult success of Halloween III: Season of the Witch…


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures

CRAVE Online: It’s a very lean movie, and that’s one of the things that I realized I’d missed of late. In the last ten years a lot of horror movies are kind of messy. They’re overstylized and overwritten, and you’ve got a no-nonsense style that I kind of liked seeing again.

John Carpenter: Oh thank you, that’s good. That’s the way I do it.


CRAVE Online: Do you watch a lot of the current horror movie cycle?

John Carpenter: Sure, sure…


CRAVE Online: What do you think of where it’s going right now?           

John Carpenter: It’s pretty much like it always has been. Most of the movies are bad, a number of them are fair, and a few are good.


CRAVE Online: But stylistically they seem to be going off in a very broad direction.

John Carpenter: Everything is. All movies are.


CRAVE Online: I guess they are.

John Carpenter: This big style change has taken place over a number of years. And now, for a number of different reasons, I mean there’s a whole long discussion about it, there’s a lot of tempo involved in all these movies now. There’s a fear of anything that’s ‘leisurely…’


CRAVE Online: They don’t give anything time to breathe.

John Carpenter: Because the audience gets bored. It’s really the audience that’s demanding it, you know? The audiences are used to it.


CRAVE Online: In Halloween you have all those great movies that the kids are watching on TV, sort of commenting on the horror. I noticed that in The Ward you had [Bert I. Gordon’s] Tormented. Obviously it had some similar themes. Was that a specific choice?

John Carpenter: (Laughs) – Oh yeah, oh yeah. We had to have them watching television, and pass the television in a tracking shot. We had so many choices, always so many choices, and Tormented was the perfect one. It’s a ridiculous scene.



CRAVE Online: “Tom Stewart killed me! Tom Stewart killed me!”

John Carpenter: Oh, it’s so fabulous and funny.


CRAVE Online: Such a great movie.

John Carpenter: And it’s a ghost story. So I suppose those were the reasons.


CRAVE Online: So you didn’t compose the score for The Ward either. Did you want to?

John Carpenter: No.


CRAVE Online: No?

John Carpenter: No, no.


CRAVE Online: Why is that?

John Carpenter: Too much work!


CRAVE Online: (Laughs) – Do you want to compose again or are you done with that?

John Carpenter: I don’t know. Never say never. Maybe.


CRAVE Online: How did you decide on [The Ward’s composer] Mark Kilian?

John Carpenter: Talent. He’s just enormously talented. I love his score. I think his score is really good.


CRAVE Online: It is, actually! Honestly, of all the movies I’ve seen of yours where you didn’t do the score, I’d say The Ward might actually have the best, most evocative one.

John Carpenter: I totally agree with you. It’s really memorable. Really unusual.


CRAVE Online: I’d like to talk to you about some of your earlier films, if I may.

John Carpenter: (Laughs) – Please do.


CRAVE Online: Halloween III: Season of the Witch is getting a big cult audience right now. It took too long.

John Carpenter: Oh, it is? I didn’t know about this.



CRAVE Online: It is, actually! They’re starting to show it at midnight screenings here in Los Angeles. My girlfriend forced me to sit down and watch it because I never had before, and it’s a blast! I was wondering what your thoughts were looking back on it today. A lot of people considered it sort of a failed experiment at the time, but it’s really interesting.

John Carpenter: I think that your girlfriend is really smart and has great taste.


CRAVE Online: She is. She does.

John Carpenter: I didn’t think there was, to show you how smart I am, I didn’t think there was any story left in the Michael Myers saga.


CRAVE Online: I think you were right, actually. (Laughs.)

John Carpenter: So I thought maybe we could shift over into a sort of series called Halloween and have different stories. And Nigel Kneale, who was a famous science fiction writer, came up with this particular story, and I thought it had a lot of potential.


CRAVE Online: Were there any other ideas of where you might have gone with that, in Halloween IV, if that had been successful?

John Carpenter: Well, but it wasn’t so…


CRAVE Online: Granted it’s just sort of a curiosity at this point, but I think a lot of people would be curious.

John Carpenter: We didn’t think any further than that. Everybody got mad at me for giving up on Michael Myers.


CRAVE Online: Well, they were stupid. 


NEXT: John Carpenter talks Memoirs of an Invisible Man – really – answers some reader questions and tells us which John Carpenter remake he actually liked…

CRAVE Online: I don’t know how much you get asked about Memoirs of an Invisible Man

John Carpenter: Not very much.


CRAVE Online: I was always fascinated by that movie because I couldn’t tell if it started as a straight up, cool “invisible man” movie and then Chevy Chase got on board and it became more of a comedy…

John Carpenter: He was a producer. He wanted to make this movie. He wanted to sort of slowly, whether this is right or wrong, to slowly move away from broad comedy and do something with a little more depth. And so he resisted the comedy all the way through it. The studio wanted a comedy.



CRAVE Online: It felt like there was a clash of what people wanted it to be.

John Carpenter: That’s correct. So it was a fine line to walk.


CRAVE Online: Several of your movies have been remade lately, and I know you’ve been pretty Zen about that, but I was wondering if you’d seen any of them.

John Carpenter: Uh, some of them.


CRAVE Online: Did any of them actually entertain you?

John Carpenter: I enjoyed the remake of Assault on Precinct 13. I thought that was okay.


CRAVE Online: I was pretty impressed with that one. I remember thinking that it was somewhat sacrilegious but they brought a reasonably new angle to it.

John Carpenter: They did, and it was a good cast.


CRAVE Online: I asked some of our readers if they had any questions they wanted to ask you, if that’s okay.

John Carpenter: Absolutely.


CRAVE Online: Our reader Matthew Smith read about your involvement in the videogame F.E.AR. 3.

John Carpenter: That’s right.



CRAVE Online: How did that come about?

John Carpenter: Steve Niles was somebody that I worked with on a project that never got made. He’s a comic book writer, and he called me up and said, “How’d you like to work on this?”


CRAVE Online: What was the extent of your involvement?

John Carpenter: They put me down as a “creative consultant.” I helped Steve right dialogue, and that’s about it. But I was very flattered.


CRAVE Online: Adam Thomas wanted me to ask you two things. He’d heard long ago about plans for a Big Trouble in Little China sequel?

John Carpenter: No, no.


CRAVE Online: Was that never thought about?

John Carpenter: No, not really.


CRAVE Online: That’s a shame.

John Carpenter: Well, there was talk about it for about fifteen minutes, but no.


CRAVE Online: That might be my favorite movie of yours.

John Carpenter: Oh, thank you!


CRAVE Online: By extension of that, were there any projects of yours that never got off the ground?

John Carpenter: Well, there’s a bunch of projects like that. There was one project that Dan O’Bannon (co-writer of Dark Star and screenwriter of the original Alien) introduced me to. It’s a science-fiction novel called The Stars My Destination, it was written by Alfred Bester. I thought that would make a great space opera. There was a script written for it but it wasn’t very good, so it never happened.


CRAVE Online: Have you caught the bug again? Are you going to keep making movies or are you going to pull back a bit more?

John Carpenter: We’ll see. If the right project comes along. You know, I’m working on a couple things.


CRAVE Online: What’s the right project for you right now? What’s your dream right now?

John Carpenter: My dream is for the NBA season to start up again. I’m tired of this summer… I want some basketball.


CRAVE Online: Your collaborations with Kurt Russell are kind of legendary. It’s like De Niro and Scorsese.

John Carpenter: (Just laughs)


CRAVE Online: I stand by that. I was just wondering, I know you guys are friends, if there was any talk of doing something together again?

John Carpenter: Sure, we talk about it occasionally. It’s always about the story, the material, the character. That’s always the basis of it.


CRAVE Online: I think I’ve gone through my set of questions. [Before we go though], when I went to film school, my first day we sat around the class and they asked us to come up with a list of the great directors.

John Carpenter: Uh-huh?


CRAVE Online: And everyone was saying the old white guys, you know, Hitchcock and Ford, and I remember I said, “John Carpenter,” and there was this certain pause where people couldn’t tell if I was entirely serious, and that’s when I started to wonder if I was in the right school.

John Carpenter: Well, you know what? I would say… that you have enormously good taste.


CRAVE Online: I do.

John Carpenter: Just like your girlfriend.


CRAVE Online: Very true.