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Q&A with J.C.
© Jason Myers
February 19, 2003

Many people worship him. Others scoff at him. His dad was a carpenter, and so is he. And his initials are J.C. That's right, we're talking about John Carpenter, director of The Thing, Escape From New York, and The Fog. Before a screening of Carpenter's Halloween at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre, J.C. took a few minutes to talk to the audience about his landmark horror flick.

What was the genesis of Halloween?

John Carpenter: Halloween began as a kind of a response to an idea that the distributor had. The distributor came to me and said, 'We have enough money to make a $250,000 low budget horror film.' Exploitation movie. Back in the days when exploitation meant something. And he said, 'Look, I want to make a movie about these babysitters, because every teenager in America can relate to babysitters, and we'll have this guy stalking them. And we'll call it The Babysitter Murders.' That was our title. So I said, 'Well, okay, I'll do it, if I can have final cut, and I can have my name above the title.' And he said, 'Okay, fine.'

Well, we started writing, and I had this idea at the time. This is before I got involved with the studio system and deep into Hollywood. I had the idea of making the evil character in the movie have no specific backstory. In other words, you don't really know why they're doing what they're doing. Very very few details. If you'll notice in this film, there's a lot of confusion about who Michael Myers, this killer, is. You have some bare bones, but why is he almost supernatural? We never find out why. And it was my idea at the time to try to keep him almost like a force of nature. Something that you can't explain.

Halfway through writing the script, Irwin called me up and said, 'Why don't we set it on Halloween night? And why don't we call it Halloween?' Well, it sounded great to me. So we did. And the early comments on the script before we started shooting were like 'Why does he not die?' Just exactly the kind of questions you might ask if you were involved in development at a Hollywood studio. 'Why doesn't he die?' 'Well he doesn't, you know, because he's the boogeyman.' 'Yeah, but why?' 'Well, I don't know, but let's make it anyway.' So actually that's what happened.
It was a 22-day shoot. We had Donald Pleasance for like four or five days, I think. This was early on in my career. I had had experience with several films before this. But I finally got to work with one of my heroes. Donald was one of my heroes from when I was a kid. I got to meet with him finally. I think we met at Hamburger Hamlet way up on Sunset. I was terrified. And I met with him, and we sat down, and he said, 'Why am I doing this? Who is this character?' And my heart froze. I didn't know what to say. I was terrified. 'I don't know.'

And finally he said 'Look, the only reason that I'm making this movie is that I owe a lot of alimony. And, secondly, because my daughter in England, who's in a rock and roll band, says that the music in your last film was pretty good.' Well, it turns out that he'd torment me on every film, to make me beg him to be in the movie which he wanted to be in in the first place. Just to make sure he was loved enough. Once I got the trick, I understood Donald, and we became fast friends.

This was a movie that a lot of what you see on the screen, a lot of the dialogue scenesÖ were doneÖ sometimes in one shot, sometimes in a couple of shots, because we literally had no time.

We were working with Panavision anamorphic lenses at night. Several locations, interior, exterior. And I tried to design the movieÖ because we had to shoot it in twenty-some-odd days. And that's very little time. Nowadays you can't even shoot a commercial in that time.

If you want to know where the Halloween street isÖ I'll tell you where the Halloween street is. Go down Sunset Boulevard, head out toward La Cienega, and one block before La Cienega, hang a right on Orange Grove avenue by the Blockbuster. Drive a couple houses down, and there it is.

Tell us about the visual look of Michael Myers.

JC: It was written in the scriptÖ 'the guy wears a blank mask.' It's blank, with human features on it, which I thought was kind of eerie. I don't know why I thought that, but I did. It comes time to make the film, and Tommy Lee Wallace is my production designer. And he went up to a magic store up here on Hollywood, and he bought a couple of masks. And one of them was this clown mask, which is kind of the most obvious killer mask. Okay, he wears it, the face of a clown, walks around killing people. [Tommy] said 'Okay, this is one choice. And I've got this other choice.' He bought this William Shatner Star Trek mask, and he spray-painted it, and fooled around with the hair a little bit. And he said, 'This is the other choice. This is more like it was written.' And that's the mask for Halloween. So I owe the entire success of Halloween to Shatner.

Carpenter on Jamie Lee Curtis:

JC: I initially wanted another actress, who turned us down. We got turned down by a lot of people in this film, and Jamie came in and read for us. She was a contract actress at Universal. She had been in TV series called Operation Petticoat. That's about all the work she'd done. And she came in. It was producer Debra Hill's idea. Debra was pushing me on Jamie Lee. She said, 'Well, look, she's really cute. She's really good. And it doesn't hurt that her mom is Janet Leigh.' From Psycho. And I said, 'Well, let's read her.' And she was terrific. I mean, all the qualities that you see on the screen, that's Jamie. And off we went.

I think she was 19 at the time. It was her first film. We were really only trying toÖ we were trying to make a film, trying to make a movie. We were just a bunch of kids running around. And I was actually 30 years old. I had hair back then. And we used the Panaglide, which is a kind of gyroscopic camera for P.O.V. situations. And, what you see is what you can do with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.

Carpenter on the opening shot:

JC: In the script phase, I was thinking of the opening shot to Touch of Evil. I don't know if you're familiar with that. It's an Orson Welles movie. There's a big long tracking shot. But he had a dolly and a crane and moved through town. I put on this gyroscopic camera. You could turn corners and go up and down stairs, because you'd wear it. You were wearing it like you're wearing a suit.

It's really heavy. And we designed the shot to go all the way through the house. Up the stairs, to the murder, and come down. And the crazy thing about it was, when you're going one direction, the lights are all set, and then, as soon as we're inside, they've got to turn them around. So, you're moving though the house, shooting the sceneÖ you here all this wild screaming and commotion just beyond the next doorway, and then it gets quiet just as we move in. The crew has turned the lights around. Same thing when we go upstairs, and it was a great shot.

I must tell you, by that time in the shooting, I didn't want it to go on. You know, I was ready for the damn thing to be over. Besides that, shooting movies is hard. It was the good old days though, I have to admit. It was a great time, and I think everybody involved in the film had a great time. You could see that spirit.

Carpenter on the ending of the movie:

JC: The big question people ask me is 'Did you design the ending for a sequel?' Oh, hell, no. Are you kidding? This is an old-fashioned kind of Twilight Zone, Weird ScienceÖ if you ever read comic books in the way-old days. Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt, they always had a twist ending. And that's what it was. And it's become cynical now, because many people have done sequels from it.

Did you have any idea that Halloween would become as big as it did?

JC: No. It came outÖ and it's a regional release. You gotta realizeÖ. This is a release system pioneered by American International in the 50s, which isÖ you take the print [of the movie] and move it from town to town. You start in L.A. and San Diego, and move it around the country. And we had gotten stinko reviews. I mean, people were writing 'This is a piece of s%#@. This thing isn't scary. It's just awful.'

But all of the sudden, in one particular area, the audience started going, and started growing, and growing, and all of the sudden, every area it would go into, the grosses would get bigger. And finallyÖ We all thought we had a bomb, because of the reviewsÖ and it really wasn't catching fireÖ but then it started, and it was a word of mouth movie. One of the early ones. And finally, a couple of months after we released it, there was a positive review of it in the Village Voice, and all of the sudden, people were like 'It might be good.' And then they began to re-review it.

It's a very strange experience. We had no idea that it was going to become what it became. And I had no idea that it would influence other horror films as much as it did. And I had no idea that my business partners would inflict upon the world sequel after f#@$ing sequel. To all of you, I apologize from the bottom of my heart. But I don't want to apologize too much, because they pay me every damn time.

RevSF Film/DVD Editor Jason Myers heartily recommends that anyone whoís in the L.A. area check http://egyptiantheatre.com/, to see what groovy things are going on there.

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