When it comes to cult classics, nobody has a resume like director John Carpenter.
“Dark Star,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog,” “The Thing,” “Christine,” “Starman,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “They Live,” “Village of the Damned” – these movies didn’t break box office records or win Academy Awards, but they are still inspiring generations of sci-fi and horror filmmakers today.
At age 66, Carpenter is now in semi-retirement, but interest in his films – particularly his biggest hits, “Halloween” and “Escape from New York” – lives on. In fact, the filmmaker recently collaborated with BOOM! Studios on a comic book sequel to his Kurt Russell action-comedy “Big Trouble in Little China.”
This weekend (June 20-22), Carpenter will appear before legions of film and comic book fans at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. In addition to signing autographs and posing for photos, the director will join Philadelphia’s Awesome Fest for a highly anticipated career retrospective conversation on Saturday, June 21st at 4 p.m. in convention room 108.
Ahead of his appearance, I caught up with Carpenter to talk about his beloved movies, his thoughts on the horror genre today and his life as a Hollywood “bum.”
David Onda: You’re appearing at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con this weekend. What is it that you enjoy about these types of events?
John Carpenter: First and foremost, the only reason to do it is that the horror fans are incredibly loyal and incredibly nice. They’re very kind people, and they’re very loyal and I just love meeting them. That’s the most fun.
David Onda: When you encounter fans, what are some of the questions you get asked the most?
Carpenter: You know, it’s all different. People pick a different movie to like, people wanna know different things, but it’s just mainly talking and shaking hands and reaching out to the fans who are there. I appreciate anybody who supports horror directors, because we don’t get a lot of love.
Onda: The comic book sequel to “Big Trouble in Little China” hit stands on June 4. Can you tell me a little bit about the comic?
Carpenter: I talked with BOOM! comics and [writer] Eric Powell. They wanted to do some more adventures with Jack Burton and “Big Trouble in Little China.” And so, we discussed what the essence of that would be. And we all agreed – it’s really Jack Burton and The Pork-Chop Express moving on in life, bringing his stupidity to new adventures. We all agreed and off they went. There’s a lot of love for the original being put into the comic book, and complete understanding of the tonality of “Big Trouble in Little China” and Jack Burton. So, it’s just fun.
Onda: What were some of the movies you watched as a child or young man that got you interested in filmmaking?
Carpenter: All during the ’50s, I was a child of the movies. The first movie I ever saw was “The African Queen.” I was all of 3 years old. I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand that this was a screen and images were being projected. So, my father explained it to me. He pointed to the back to the projection booth, to the beam of light coming out, and he said, “That’s where it’s coming from.” “Oh, I see.” There were various movies that influenced me. I fell in love with science-fiction and horror movies as a kid. I just loved them.
Onda: And you’ve composed the scores for nearly all of your movies, including the iconic theme for “Halloween.” Where did that skill come from?
Carpenter: My dad had a Ph.D. in music from Eastman School of Music. He was a teacher. I grew up with music. We listened to music all the time. It was second nature. Unfortunately, my father tried to teach me, when I was 8, how to play the violin. I had no talent. That was the unfortunate part. But I just got better instruments – the keyboard, piano, guitar, bass guitar, things like that.
Onda: The alleyway fight in “They Live” is one of the greatest slugfests in movie history. Do you have a favorite moment from that sequence?
Carpenter: The fight in “They Live” was great, and you have to realize that Keith David was a Juilliard trained actor. He’s not a fighter. And Roddy Piper knew how to fight, that’s second nature to him. So, they worked the fight out over about a month and half in the back yard of our office. They had pads out there and they worked out the whole thing. A fight is an emotional thing, and that’s what the fight was about – about two friends fighting each other over the issue of looking through a pair of glasses. It was a ridiculous fight, but it turned out well.
Onda: Is there a movie you passed on that you wish you had done?
Carpenter: Aw, hell no.
Onda: When you look at your filmography, which movie stands out to you as the gem of the bunch?
Carpenter: [laughing] None of them. None of them are gems. I can’t look at my movies, because I start looking at them and I think to myself, “Why did I do that? That’s the dumbest scene I’ve ever staged. What is going on?” I’m too hard on it. I can’t watch my own films.
Onda: Do you have any projects that you’re working on now that we may see in the near future?
Carpenter: There’s a couple things I noodle with occasionally. I’m noodling with a couple right now. You know, you get to be my age… I’m now on Medicare, Social Security, so what the hell am I thinking? Time to relax.
Onda: Realistically, I know how hard it is to get a movie made. But as a film fan, I think – you’re John Carpenter. You should be able to get a film made if you want one.
Carpenter: People don’t think of me like you do. They hear “John Carpenter,” they think “bum.”
Onda: No! They don’t think that.
Carpenter: That’s what the business thinks. “Oh, that bum. We don’t want him around. Throw him out!”
Onda: Many of your films feature characters who are anti-heroes or loners. What is it about these types of characters that you’re drawn to?
Carpenter: That’s because I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always wanted to be a hero and never was.
Onda: Back to the “bum” thing again?
Carpenter: Exactly! It’s exactly true.
Onda: Are there any common misconceptions about you or your career?
Carpenter: No. Everybody has me pegged… as a bum.
Onda: What are your thoughts on the horror genre today?
Carpenter: The horror genre is as old as cinema. It was around at the beginning, and I think it’s gonna live forever. I think it’s a universal genre. Comedy sometimes doesn’t travel to other countries. Stars don’t travel. Horror does. And what I love about horror is each generation redefines it. And it’s absolutely elastic in that sense. So, I’m very happy with horror.
Onda: Looking back at your years in the business, what is the single greatest experience your success as a filmmaker has afforded you?
Carpenter: It’s a hell of a life. I had a dream when I was little, when I was 8 years old, that I wanted to be a movie director. And I got to live it. And not a lot of people get to live their dream. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
John Carpenter is appearing at the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con this weekend, June 20-22 (Friday-Sunday), at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Catch his Awesome Fest Q&A on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. For more info, visit: Wizard World │Awesome Fest
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.