Q&A with John Carpenter
John Carpenter is
one of the most well-known and respected directors in the history of
cinema. His long, prolific and distinguished career spans four decades,
over which he has directed cult classics such as Dark Star, seminal,
genre-defining works such as Halloween and iconic action-thrillers such as
Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York and its sequel, Escape from LA.
Although John Carpenter's career has been
highly eclectic, with the heartbreakingly beautiful Starman and the enormously
fun oriental ride of Big Trouble in Little China providing notable examples
of the breadth of his directorial talents and vision, it is as an action/horror
film director that he is best known. His accomplishments here are
staggering: from the ominousness and brutality of The Fog, through the horror of mass-conformity
and delusion in They Live to the most horrifying things of all, the profoundly
unknown in ourselves, in the world we experience and beyond,
as explored in Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, Cigarette Burns and
The Ward. John Carpenter has earned many times over the distinction
of being 'The
Master of Horror'. And The Master of Horror's masterpiece is The Thing.
The Thing was Carpenter's first big budget,
project. Though paying homage to one of his favourite films from his
childhood, the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks classic The Thing from Another World,
John Carpenter's The Thing is not a remake of the latter. Instead, it focuses
on the authentic cinematic depiction of the setting, character dynamics and in
particular, of the pathological alien monster portrayed in John W.
Campbell's novella Who Goes There? The Thing is able to assimilate
and then imitate any living form, and when threatened or provided with an
assimilation opportunity, is able to transform itself into a gruesome, terrifying
chimera of lethal alien appendages and toothed-orifices culled from its
ever-growing repository. Mistrust,
paranoia and, ultimately, the end of everything ensue.
Though sadly under-appreciated at the time
of its release, recognition of John Carpenter's The Thing has, over subsequent years, steadily increased.
Now, at the time of its 30th
anniversary, it can be said to be one of
the most well-liked and influential science-fiction horror films ever.
Like all movies, it was the product of many talents, notably here the
production oversight of Stuart Cohen, David Foster and Lawrence Turman, Bill
Lancaster's taut and focused script, Rob Bottin and his team's arrestingly
inventive and convincing creature effects, Dean Cundey's exquisite lighting, Ennio
Morricone's atmospheric score and the acting abilities of the superbly chosen,
natural and distinct cast. However, it was Carpenter's directorial skill,
vision and coordination of the entire project that tied everything together and made The Thing, in our view, the greatest
horror movie of all time.
Thank you, John, not only for The Thing and
for all of your other movies of which we are such avid fans, but also for this
wonderful and very kind opportunity to ask you questions about them.
We would also like to express our
huge gratitude to Sandy King Carpenter, Stuart Cohen and Sean at Storm King Productions
for all of their help in making this happen.
Some additional links: John Carpenter's
Twitter feed and
Stuart Cohen asks:
Q. A pleasure as always, John -
Do you have any specific recollection of the monster described in Tobe Hooper
and Kim Henkel's script?
Stuart, I don't remember the specific monster in
the Hooper/Henkel script. All I remember is a handwritten scrawl on the title
page that read "The core is here". I never knew what that meant.
Have you ever dreamt about The Thing, before, during, or after you made it
into a movie?
Have you ever been frightened by The Thing?
Robert Sykes asks:
Q. If you had made a sequel to The Thing back
in the mid to late 80's, where would you have set it? In a city? Some other
isolated location? Would you have even bothered had the opportunity arose for
you to take up the helm and expand on the mythology? More over, what things do
you think would be cool or interesting to add to the creature? Do you think
adding to the list of peculiar things it could, would, and would not do would
make for a more interesting alien/monster, or are you more for the mystery and
leaving it ambiguous?
A. The best THE THING 2
story, I believe, was in the Dark Horse limited series comic book published in
the 80's. It began with MacReady and Childs walking over the icy landscape....
Q. My second and last question
would be in regards to Halloween 2; if you had it all to do over again, what
things would you have done differently? I apologize if that's a loaded question.
As for HALLOWEEN 2, I didn't direct that movie so I have nothing to say about
Q. There are various deleted scenes that have
not appeared on any DVD releases:
http://www.outpost31.com/movie/deletedscenes.html. Like MacReady with the
inflatable doll, Fuchs’s body in the greenhouse and the other Norwegian corpse.
Why haven't they been released on DVD's/Blurays and can we expect them in the
future? Can you shed some more light on these scenes? Were they completely
A. The deleted scenes were
cut because of running time and narrative flow. I don't know why they haven't
been released on DVD/Blueray.
Q. In particular the ending in which MacReady survives and takes a blood
test at McMurdo that was shot in case test audience didn't like the ending. Are
they any plans to release it some day? This would be a gem for us fans of The
Thing. If it won't be released, are there some good pics or stuff so we can at
least see some thing of that scene?
Second, there was never an ending shot in which MacReady takes a blood test at
McMurdo. I filmed one shot of Kurt sitting alone safe in a warm room. I just
wanted to have it in my pocket.
Q. If you had to make a sequel to the Thing, what would
the story be about? I have heard MacReady and Childs could return and explain
their age due to frostbite. But what would the story be about?
A. Third, THING 2
story would be Dark Horse limited edition comic books of the 80's.
Q. What sort of experiences did you have while
filming The Thing, was it fun, crazy, both? And did you have a good time up in
A. Filming THE THING was hard
work, very little fun. And the British Columbia location was that hardest work
Q. Since Palmer
was a pot-smoker, when he was Palmer-Thing, was he high on pot?
Palmer-Thing was definitely high all the time.
Q. In John W. Campbell's short story and Alan
Dean Foster's novelization, there is absolutely no doubt that when somebody has
been taken over by The Thing, the original person is dead and only his
personality and memories are retained by the Thing in order to create a perfect
imitation. This is the dialogue that confirms it in the original short story.
‘Kinner shuddered violently. "Hey. Hey, Mac, would I know if I was a monster?
Would I know if the monster had already got me? Oh Lord, I may be a monster
"You'd know," MacReady answered.
"But we wouldn't," Norris laughed shortly, half-hysterically.’
However, in the documentary "Terror takes shape" featured on the DVD and Blu-Ray
of John Carpenter's The Thing, Charles Hallahan says that the actors wondered if
you would know if you were a Thing. He concluded by saying that Norris didn't
know that he was infected but on a subconscious level, he was. This completely
contradicts the short story and the novelization and doesn't make sense to me,
as Blair would probably have realized that something was wrong when he was
building a UFO for instance, which was not a very "human" thing to do.
So, my question, taken directly from Outpost31's FAQ: there is no doubt about it
in the short story and in the novelization, but in the movie, does a Thing know
that they are a Thing?
Here is what Mr Cohen answered:
"I listened to the DVD commentary again recently and I was surprised that
Charles spoke of that. Our working presumption was that of the novella – and is
really the only way to dramatically proceed. I think that Charles is referring
to the sort of speculative discussion one has discussing motivation sitting
around a table with other actors examining ways to play the role, but never
intended to be put into effect… In any case, for our storytelling purposes I
know John had all the actors play things absolutely straight, including Blair…"
A. First of all, we stayed
away from explaining how the Thing imitates a person. Secondly, I don't know if
a person knows he's a Thing or not. I assume so, but it brings up complex,
existential questions that perhaps would get in the way of a simple premise.
Best not to ask
Q. When I
read the short story, I loved some of the scenes which were obviously too
expansive for the movie, like the dog-chase scene. I also loved the "lights out"
scene where the characters are in the dark because the generator has been
sabotaged as I thought that was one of the most paranoid scene I've ever seen
(well, read). How did you choose which scenes would be cut?
Second, instinct and budget.
Q. From your point of view, what
happened to Fuchs and why didn't you keep the "Fuchs stuck to the door with an
axe" effect? I guess it wasn't good enough? (it can be seen on the DVD bonus and
incorrectly mentioned as "a Norwegian stuck on a door with an axe").
A. Thirdly, I
don't know what happened to Fuchs.
Q. I've always thought the computer simulation of Blair was
incorrect as it gives the impression that when a Thing-cell attacks a normal
cell, it absorbs it and takes the normal cell's appearance but there is only one
cell, not two. If this was true, when the Thing attacked somebody, it would
become that person instead of there being two Things, one being the original
Thing and the other being the assimilated person. Is this correct?
A. Fourth, I
Q. There are a lot of people who thinks
that Norris clutches his chest in pain because he is being taken over from the
inside by the Thing and not because he has a heart attack. As I had read the
short story, it always made more sense for me that Norris had a weak heart. In
retrospect, do you think adding some more tips that Norris had a bad heart
earlier (like in the novel, where Norris has pains in the chest when the
Norwegian had shot at him and Copper at some point tells him that they'll have
to check on his condition) would have helped avoiding this confusion?
A. Fifth, maybe. I thought there was
enough of a suggestion of Norris' heart condition.
Q. I could probably ask hundreds of questions but as an end note, I would like
to tell you that you've made one hell of a film with the Thing and that I'll
never be able to understand why it was so badly received when it was released,
except for the fact that it was ahead of its time. From what I've read here and
there, the awful reception of the movie hurt your feelings and that pains me as
I think it's incredibly unfair. The good thing though is that The Thing is now
one of the most respected horror movies of all times and that it fascinated and
influenced a lot of people's works. So, well, again a big thanks and kudos to
you for making this movie!
A. Finally, Gary, my feelings were so much hurt as my
Q. You've built a distinguished career out of
scaring the pants off your audiences. But, what is it that really scares you?
A. First of all, we're all
scared of the same things, with some variations. Personally, I'm afraid of
Q. What are your favourite scary movies and why?
Secondly, my favorite horror and sci-fi movies I saw when I was young.
Q. What makes a really good scary movie scary in your
A. Thirdly, a good story.
Q. What are your views on shooting on digital and have you any views on the
recent re-emergence of 3D over the last few years?
Fourthly, I think 35mm Panavision anamorphic is the best movie system there is.
I could give a shit about 3D.
Q. Looking back on The Thing, is there anything you
weren't happy with or would have liked to have shot in a different way?
A. Five, no.
Q. Was Childs The Thing at the end or not?
A. Six, I don't know. I
believe MacReady was a Thing at the end, but Childs...? .
Q. There are rumours going about that you a) gave the producers of The Thing
Prequel your blessing and b) you were being lined up for a cameo role - is there
any truth to these rumours or are they just lies?
And the rumors are not true.
Q. Any new projects lined up for you or are you
taking a much needed vacation?
A. I have several projects
I'm developing at the present time, but I can't do anything until I fully
recover from eye surgery I just had.
Q. In terms of stage direction how did you have
the actors playing infected characters approach their characters? Was it a case
of playing it totally straight until the scene called for it otherwise i.e. the
Palmer or Norris things truly believed they were Palmer and Norris or did you
have the actors try to drop a hint or two that all was not well.
A. The actors played their
characters in THE THING absolutely straight. A THING-imitated human would
express outrage at being accused perfectly convincingly...
Q. In recent years much
has been made of CGI, my own opinion is that with hard work and plenty of time
it is a great tool, but if you had had CGI in 1982 how much difference would it
have made? Would any transformations have been significantly different and if so
A. Second, it would have been
great to have computer graphics in 1982. Many problems would have been made
Q. Did you try to
develop a backstory for the events of the Norwegian camp when filming those
scenes or was it sufficient to know that The Thing had run wild?
A. No real backstory at the
Q. Given how badly the
film was first received, how long did it take for you to realize that the Thing
was well liked and respected? Was there a particular event or was it an ongoing
thing i.e. people continually asking you about this particular film?
Do think that part of the Thing's initial failure was down to the fact the alien
creature was hard to empathize with? That it had no clear motive or ideology?
Also that its appearance was amorphous and asymmetrical?
A. And it took five to ten
years for me to realize that THE THING was appreciated more than it was in 1982.
Checkers Wizard asks:
Q. Many modern stories are completely
undermined, or seriously impaired by the availability of technology, such as
mobile phones with internet access allowing the protagonist in peril to "call
the cavalry" or Google the correct way to disarm an atomic bomb in a pinch. With
the exception of Assault on Precinct 13, none of your films would be hampered by
this problem if made today.
Was there a conscious decision on your part to always put your characters in the
sort of peril that is beyond outside help (The Thing and Prince of Darkness are
set up in such a way that if outside help could be brought in, the situation
would actually deteriorate apocalyptically) - and going in the opposite
direction, are there current technologies that enhance our lives in ways
unimagined back in the 70's and 80's that could make for interesting catalysts
for stories, rather than undermining them?
A. When the phones go out,
the characters are further isolated and trapped without help. Then the lights go
out. Alone in the dark. Evil outside all around you. Simple idea, complicated
now by cell phones. Short answer, however... yes, cell phones could be utilized
dramatically to enhance isolation. I'll work on it.
Q. I was surprised to see on Stuart Cohen's blog relating to production of
The Thing, the entry entitled "the camera that almost worked" - I loved that
effect in "Le Mans" where it really creates tension as a driver flees his
You're famous for your use of the Panaglide system, not least because you do so
in such a subliminal way. So I'm curious to know whether you intended to use
that vari-speed technique to achieve something equally subliminal, perhaps to
achieve a result that was not physically possible to do in real-time on set, or
if you were going for a stylised "Showy" shot, which might have seemed out of
place within the context of the film, let alone within your style - you are not
know for gimmicky camera moves. Can you throw some light on that one?
A. The vari-speed
camera was to be used as a monster effect. It was a suggestion of Rob Bottin.
Tentacles moving at radically different speeds. Sorry, I don't remember the shot
in LE MANS
Q. I've spoken
to Alan Howarth a few times, and he is generally quite happy, for practical
reasons, moving from analogue synths to virtual instruments. What is your home
studio set-up comprised of these days, are you still hardware based, or have you
moved over to computers, and have you kept your original synths?
A. I use Logic Pro.
Q. Speaking of synths :
a) What made you decide to use a synthesiser to score Dark Star?
b) What was the reaction of your peers/College Professors to the use of a
synthesiser over conventional instrumentation, or library music - especially
considering the musical dexterity you displayed with "Benson Arizona",
Doolittle's musical interlude, and "When Twilight falls on NGC-891"?
A. No reaction.
c) With both Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, what was the initial reaction
from Critics and Audiences to a synthesiser score, at a time when Hollywood
movies were only using Symphonic instrumentation, and Independent movies were
favouring Singer/Songwriters and Piano quartets/quintets?
A. Don't know what
reaction they had.
d) What encouraged you, or made you decide to continue down that path with your
e) What was your first synth?
f) What was your favourite synth?
When did you first read John W. Campbell's 'Who Goes There?' Was it before or after you first saw Hawks’s movie? What were your feelings about how the novella and the movie compared with each other after having experienced them both?
A. I read WHO GOES THERE
after I had seen THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. It was essentially a pulp novel
with a great premise. The Hawks movie changed many important elements, including
the imitative ability of the creature. We went back to that.
I'd like to ask you about the original plan for the main Palmer-Thing. What was it? Was it a head coming out of another head or something like that, as has been rumoured?
A. I don't recall
any extra Palmer-thing gags except for a tumbling on ceiling/wall/floor bit
involving a spinning set. We cut that out.
You mentioned to us that you believed MacReady was a Thing at the end. Do you have any specific ideas about how and when he was attacked? Some have speculated that he might have cheated the blood test as we didn't see him draw any of his own blood - do you agree?
A. I'm just bullshitting
about MacReady being a thing at the end. I have no idea. Nobody does.
Was Jim Morrison at all an inspiration for MacReady, in terms of his appearance, personality etc.?
A. Jim Morrison as inspiration for MacReady? I don't think so.
What does MacReady's RJ stand for??
A. I don't know.
If one administered LSD to The Thing in disguise, would it forget to maintain its cover and begin mutating?
My reasoning for asking this question is the presumption that the Thing is mind over matter. What it thinks, it becomes. When in disguise, it thinks only "disguise" thoughts. Imbibing LSD would change its reality, change its perceptions, so it would be reacting differently, thinking differently. Given the intense nature of LSD it seems possible that the Thing would have a "bad trip" and begin thinking "monster" thoughts instead of "disguise" thoughts.
A. What a question. Who knows? I've always thought the thing imitated other life forms in a purely physical way. But maybe with LSD it would be a thing with a higher consciousness. Maybe it would hear the Doors' greatest hits in its mind.