INTERVIEW: MORIARTY and JOHN CARPENTER Get Into Some BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s actually the second time I’ve been to the recording studio during the GHOSTS OF MARS process, so it’s no hassle finding the place or parking. I stroll in, on time, and am greeted at the front desk by the always-awesome Gina, John’s assistant. She explains that everyone is sick, that there’s some evil strain going around the studio, and that I shouldn’t shake anyone’s hand while I’m there. She leads me into a large break room, set up with booths and tables, and I spot him right away, sitting sideways in a booth, smoking, enjoying a moment of rest. There’s no way I’d be able to miss him. In many ways, John Carpenter is one of the directors I directly credit for me being messed up in this business in the first place.
Y’see, he let me onto a film set at a very impressionable age. Huge tactical error on the part of him and the very cool Peter Silbermann, the film’s unit publicist, and the part of my parents, who drove me out to the location of STARMAN, where I watched them shoot special effects and explosions and I got Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen to sign the cast on my freshly-broken arm, and I met John Carpenter, the guy who had made HALLOWEEN, the film that had made me so paralyzingly afraid of my own suburban streets as a child, so terrified of my neighborhood as the evening’s shadows crept in. John Carpenter was the creator of Snake Plissken. I had snuck into ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK with the older brother of a friend, and I had dressed as Snake for Halloween in a year when everyone else was dressed as Indiana Jones. I saw THE THING the same summer I saw ET, and I knew which alien I believed would be the one we encountered first as a species. There was something so stark, so primal about Carpenter’s amazing film version of the still-brilliant “Who Goes There?” that it transcended being horror or science fiction or suspense. It was simply one of the great looks at men under pressure, WAGES OF FEAR or DAS BOOT with latex monsters. These were formative pictures for me, subversive, one step off from mainstream. CHRISTINE was a note-perfect adaptation of one of King’s pulpiest novels, featuring a great, sneering, go for broke performance from Keith Gordon.
The best of Carpenter’s post-THING films, though, was obviously BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. I was working at a theater the summer it came out. That was a good summer for genre fans. 20th Century Fox had been very, very kind to us. First, there had been ALIENS. Then they’d gifted us with THE FLY. And as the summer ended, they unleashed BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. In all three cases, we showed the films to our employees at the theater a few nights before they opened, just to test the print and let the employees see the film if they felt like it. At the start of ALIENS, I was the only one in the theater who was excited, the only one willing to admit to being a rabid TERMINATOR fan. Everyone else thought the trailer looked cheesy. By the end of the film, everyone was converted. They were cheering, totally into it, responding in all the right ways. I knew that film was going to be huge. It was obvious. The night of THE FLY, there was the same kind of disinterest before the film started, and I was jazzed to see what Cronenberg might be up to. I had no idea how personal or painful that film was going to be, and everyone who was there was shaken. It played so powerfully, and I prayed that the film was going to connect with people, that they’d be strong enough to take the ride, and the film did click, did start making money. When that screening for BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA came around, I was preaching to everyone ahead of time that John Carpenter was just as solid as Cameron and Cronenberg, and that is was meant to be. Good things come in threes, I argued. It was the third Russell-Carpenter collaboration. It was the third genre film from Fox. It was the third one directed by a guy named C. The stars were aligned. I had them ready to see a classic when they walked into the theater...
... and by halfway into the film, most of them had walked out. I didn’t notice it at the time, mind you. I was lost in the world that Carpenter and WD Richter had cooked up, the bizarre mix of tough-guy All-American macho iconography played as a joke against a serious backdrop of Chinese mysticism. I’d never seen anything like it, and at each audacious new turn the film made, I fell more in love with it. I bought Jack Burton, hook line and sinker, and I laughed my ass off at what was obviously a comedy, a bent rollercoaster, something totally outside the norm. I took shit about BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA for months afterwards. I didn’t care, though.
I’ve seen this happen before. I remember going to see BLADE RUNNER in the theater. I remember how miserable the reaction of the general public was. I remember how empty the theaters were. This was two years after EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, keep in mind, a year after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It was a science fiction film starring Harrison Fucking Ford and directed by Ridley Fucking Scott. It was a legitimate big deal... and a legitimate big bomb. People talked endless shit about the movie. I loved it the first time I saw it, though, and I knew it was a better film than people were saying. Over time, I saw the film’s reputation shift and change and swing from negative to positive. Same thing happened with the Carpenter classic I mentioned earlier, THE THING. That film vanished at the box-office the summer it came out, but over time, it’s come to be regarded as something of a masterwork. Part of that image renovation came as a result of the wonderful work Universal did in releasing THE THING on DVD. It’s a special edition that really places the film in the proper context. I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to finally pay the proper respect to BIG TROUBLE, to finally tell me I’m not crazy, that someone else loves this film the way I do, and 20th Century Fox, to their enormous credit, has finally done just exactly that.
Their new DVD release of the film is set for the end of May, and I got a peek at the first disc of the 2-disc package last week. Right away, the picture and sound made me want to dance. It’s an exceptional transfer of Dean Cundey’s breathtaking color work, and the full 2.35:1 image proves once again that there are very few working filmmakers who understand the scope frame the way Carpenter does. In fact, that’s where we start the interview after a bit of chit chat. I switch on the tape recorder, John lights another cigarette, and we begin.
”What I’d like to do here today is get your version of what happened...”
”... in other words, the truth.”
- Pinstripe Lawyer and Egg Shen, opening lines, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
MORIARTY: You’re one of the few directors to consistently and effectively use the scope frame over the course of an entire career. How did you first determine your aesthetic, and who were your widescreen role models?
JOHN CARPENTER: Well, one of them is a director who’s never mentioned much these days, John Sturges. He directed THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE, among many films. He always made particular use of widescreen. His movies are all identifiable visually. The way he composes was always just amazing to me. I really got into that when I was in film school. I think also, I was a kid when Cinemascope really hit. That was the period right after 1948, when the stranglehold was broken that the studios had over the theaters, and television was in, and movies were hurting. They tried all sorts of gimmicks like 3-D, and Cinemascope was one of ‘em. I just found it amazing, this wide beautiful image. I said, “That’s for me.”
Jack Burton is the third classic genre character you created with Kurt Russell, and your fourth collaboration in quick succession. There were less than ten years between THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD and THE THING.
Is that right?
Yeah. He’s still doing COMPUTER WHO WORE TENNIS SHOES sequels in 1975. To your credit, you saw something in Kurt no one else did. How did you two meet, and how did you see Elvis, McReady, Jack, and Snake in him?
That’s a really great question, and I think there’s probably an endless answer to it. I’m not even sure I know the whole answer. First of all, I was hired to do ELVIS (made for television in 1979 – “M”) with about two and a half or three weeks to go before shooting. Nobody in town would make it. Everybody was scared of it.
At this point on the tape, there’s this insane blast of noise from a speaker that neither of us realized was mounted directly above our table. A distorted, “RUNNERTOTHEFRONTDESK! RUNNERTOTHEFRONTDESK!” shattered one of the lenses of my glasses, but I motioned for John to continue once the sound subsided again.
It could have been a total disaster. I mean an absolute horrible disaster, and the reason is because Elvis was so iconographic and recognizable. We’d seen him in his movies. He’d only died the year before. It was going to take a great deal of courage to go and make something like this. Also, Dick Clark was involved in this. He’d been involved in, obviously, some great things regarding rock and roll. I had a great love for Elvis. He was very influential for me as a little kid. Kurt felt the same way.
Before I took the job, I took a look at his audition tape. Now, they had another kid who looked exactly like Elvis Presley. Jawdropping. Terrifying how much it looked like him. Could not act a lick. Not a bit. But he looked just like him. I could see the hunger from the executives in wanting to cast this guy because he was a dead ringer. But they had decided that Kurt was the one because he had the acting ability. After I saw his tape, I was in total agreement with them because he was unafraid. When you’re playing somebody like that, it’s a little bit like playing Christ. Everybody has a certain image in their mind about what it is. You’re going to offend somebody. You’re going to fuck it up somehow. He literally had no fear whatsoever. He studied all the tapes on Elvis, in terms of his moves. He did a fair amount of homework.
So not only did I admire his courage as an actor, but he also has this eerie ability to mimic... anything. He can do me. Nobody can do me. He can do me. Everybody he works with, male or female. He has an incredible talent there. He’s hilarious when you talk to him in person because he’ll go and imitate other actors that he’s worked with and directors. So all of this is wrapped up together, and then it’s as simple as we became friends. His work ethic is a lot like mine. He grew up on the sets of Disney movies, where if you didn’t say the dialogue as it was written in the script, they’d cut it. You had to be exact or the script supervisor would cut it. It was a whole different kind of Hollywood. Kurt has this real working actor’s, working man’s ability to put together a performance day after day after day. He’s a movie actor. He’s a true movie actor. Once he knows what his character is, and once he decides he wants to do something, he’ll give you everything he’s got.
So after ELVIS, I talked to him and said, “Hey, I’d love to work with you again.” We both decided that if we could find material that was good, and if we both liked the material, that would be great. So after ELVIS, the next thing that came up was the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK role, and I just thought he was as far away from Snake Plissken as he was from Elvis, y’know?
See, I grew up at the exact moment where I was young enough to see all of Kurt’s Disney movies, and I was just old enough to appreciate it when he moved into ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING. I grew up watching Kurt grow up, from being a goofy kid to an adult in serious films. It’s one of the most successful transitions an actor’s made, equal to what Jodie Foster pulled off.
He’s amazing. He’s able to see when he needs to make a change, and what he needs to change to. He’s fairly ruthless and realistic about the business. He doesn’t have any illusions about it. To him, it’s just a business. And, see, I didn’t watch those movies with Kurt when he was young. I just didn’t see them. I didn’t know who Kurt Russell was. I was lucky when we met. I didn’t have any preconceived notions.
Listening to the audio commentary for THE THING or especially this new one for BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, where the two of you start talking about your families and your kids and how things are going, and you seem to forget the movie’s playing for a little while, it’s obvious you are still great friends. Are we ever going to see you tackle another genre? When do we get a Carpenter/Russell western?
It always goes back to the material. If something comes along that we both like... I mean, Kurt has this big longing now to retire. He doesn’t want to do it anymore. He wants to just get out of the business and hang out. (smiles) But you never know. You never know.
Didn’t BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA start life as a western before WD Richter did the adaptation?
Carpenter takes a moment to light another cigarette, nodding as he does so.
Yeah. Rick Richter and I went to film school together. He was in my class. We began together. He’s a very talented filmmaker. He was brought in to rewrite this movie that was essentially a western. A cowboy rides into town, and it’s set against the backdrop of 1800’s Chinatown, San Francisco, and he gets involved in these adventures. Rick came in and made it a comedy and up to date. He changed some of the scenes, but it’s basically the same. And for some reason, Kurt just really went for it. He went for the character.
So this was not an original piece of material. You came onboard after it was written. In many ways, though, you were ahead of the curve here. This was 1986. Looking at the film now, through the prism of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and CHARLIE’S ANGELS and THE MATRIX, you look positively prescient. It was smack dab in the middle of Fox’s greatest genre summer. Of those three films, yours is easily the most eccentric. How big a fan were you of Chinese fantasy films before --
Big fan, eh?
Huge. I’d been a fan for years. Back in the ‘70s, I’d started seeing some of the Chinese martial arts movies. THE FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH was the first one I could remember seeing. It just looked cool. There’s nothing cooler than that. Then I saw the ONE-ARMED BANDIT movies, and they were... AMAZING... because they took dares and did things we would never ever do. The One-Armed Bandit is this guy who gets up on his fingers and he runs at you, and I mean...
At this point, the greatest thing happened. I stopped looking across the table at John Carpenter, director, influential genre craftsman, and found myself looking across the table at John Carpenter, big honking film geek, just like us. We were wearing matching smiles by this point, and he laughed.
... ohmygod, it was great. It had some of the same kind of openness and joy of filmmaking that I remembered from my youth. It was ridiculous, and you know it can never happen, but that’s what’s great.
Then some of the later things came along, like ZU WARRIORS OF THE MYSTIC MOUNTAIN. That’s like WIZARD OF OZ, man. It’s great stuff. So I’d been a fan for years, and to get a chance to do an American kung-fu movie was the opportunity of a lifetime. No one was doing it. No one. We were making this a year after RAMBO came out. The man single-handedly kills every single Asian. Our film, it’s the opposite of RAMBO. Our hero has no idea what he’s doing.
That’s something you talk about with Kurt on the audio commentary. This is a film where the roles are reversed. Jack Burton is our “hero,” but he acts like a sidekick. It’s Dennis Dun as Wang Chi who is the great fighter and who really knows his way around this world. Very subversive...
And that’s what the studio didn’t like.
You talk on the DVD about having to add a scene at the beginning that was supposed to clarify things at the behest of Barry Diller. Were you worried that the studio didn’t get the picture, and that they didn’t know how to release it?
Yeah, it was at their insistence that we write something, so we came up with that scene with Victor Wong and the lawyer [played by Jerry Hardin, famous later for his work on X-FILES as “Deep Throat” - M] talking about what happened. All they wanted to hear Victor say was, “Jack Burton is a man of courage.” (starts laughing) They thought that would explain everything to the audience.
(laughing now, too) Oh, god...
(laughing harder) I’m deadly serious.
That’s actually much funnier if you know the film.
Exactly. It’s absurd. I didn’t see any way it could hurt the film. If anything, it was going to make it funnier. Look, they had no idea what they had. They didn’t know. They didn’t want it. They didn’t want that kind of film. They wanted a... they didn’t want something that over-the-top. And it was SO over-the-top. We just pulled out all the stops on it.
Everybody in the movie seems to get it. It’s one of those cases where everybody seems to be in on the joke.
One cast member here, as I mentioned, was Dennis Dun. You worked with him a number of times. Was he someone you found through the audition process, or was Dennis someone you knew and wanted to work with?
I found everyone through the audition process on that one because I was really unaware of all the terrific Asian actors we have in this country.
Chemistry always seems to be equal parts luck and inspiration in the way you put a cast together, and you’ve been luckier than most with your ensemble pictures. The group dynamics in THE THING are amazing, and in this film, there’s all these great pairings. Jack and Wang, Jack and Gracie, Margot and Eddie, Egg and Lo-Pan.
(smiling) I know.
How do you build your casts? As you find each piece, do you bring them in to read off of each other?
I think you hit it on the head. It’s part luck and it’s part intuition. That’s all you can go on. If the actor wants to do the role, then all that’s going to happen when you get them on the set is they’re going to get better because they understand the role. It’s when you get an actor who doesn’t get it and who doesn’t have any clue what you’re doing, but they’re in your film. Then you’re in trouble. Casting these things is like a test. It’s like, “Okay, what’s your role about? Who are you in this movie? What do you see yourself as? How do you see playing it? How are you going to play it? What do you think?”
Kim Cattrall has won a fair amount of acclaim recently, and deservedly so, for her role on SEX AND THE CITY. You were one of the first people to give her a great verbal comedy role, and you put her through her paces on the film. Kim has to do it all in this movie.
I love Kim. She’s great. She’s such an underrated actress. Amazingly underrated. I can’t say enough good about her. She’s the perfect comedienne.
She’s especially good spitting out Gracie’s giant chunks of expository dialogue.
Oh, yeah. She could just whip ‘em off... (snaps fingers) Just like this. What a great actress.
Victor Wong is another actor you seem fond of. Any specific recollections of your work together?
Victor is an amazing actor, but he is that character. He’s so friendly, so eccentric. Victor is a bohemian. That’s who he is. What you see is what you get with Victor. He’s always chasing girls. He’s just a great character.
The movie’s first classic set-piece takes place in that great alley set in Chinatown, the one that’s still standing over at 20th Century Fox. It’s an exceptionally well-directed martial arts fight scene that really doesn’t look like an American director shot it. Describe your process approaching a scene like that.
That’s very kind of you. We had a lot of work to do in a limited amount of time, so, um... oh, boy, how do you describe it? Basically, I knew what the beats were in the alley. I knew what had to happen. I knew the sequence of events. I knew where it started, the middle, the end, and a fight like that needs a lot of energy. It needs a lot of cuts, a lot of inserts. Some of the guys figured out routines, and so we just started shooting it. A fight against the wall, then a fight out in the middle. What you do is kind of get everything lined up as much as possible ahead of time then just go in there and pull it off somehow.
But you didn’t board the entire fight ahead of time?
There was room to find it on the set...
There’s one gag in particular, the way you shoot head hits, where you put dummy heads in frame and let the guys just whack them...
Yep. Great, isn’t it?
It’s so effective. I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do that since.
You found my secret. These hits, a lot of them don’t work in movies because you don’t get to see them. Obviously, you can’t hit another person. You put a dummy in that looks pretty good, and you can just whack the head.
It’s very visceral.
Glad you had a reaction.
That fight starts off very realistically, and then takes an abrupt turn with the introduction of the Three Storms, Thunder, Rain, and Lightning. They are great characters. Have you ever seen a film called SHOGUN ASSASSIN?
Are you kidding me? I’ve seen all the Baby Cart movies. I love Baby Cart.
Is there any correlation --
That’s in the script, by the way. It’s in Richter’s script.
He’s got a description of The Storms. He says they should look like the three assassins in SHOGUN ASSASSIN.
It was right there on the page.
Well, there you go.
I had seen SHOGUN ASSASSIN years earlier, and I thought, “You know, he’s absolutely right. Those big giant hats.” The costume designer I brought in, April Ferry, looked at the headgear, and she got it immediately.
It’s a great film. We showed that at Butt-Numb-A-Thon this year.
Yeah. It’s actually the cutting together of two Baby Cart movies. Baby Cart is awesome.
As soon as the three assassins came onscreen in December, we all started geeking out. It’s so recognizable. Anyway, I had a number of our readers write in to prod me to ask you about Carter Wong, this world-renowned bad ass who Bruce Lee was supposedly afraid of. How was he?
Sweetest man you’d ever want to meet in your life. He has this really high voice, and he’s really sweet and nice. (laughs) He had trained the Hong Kong police department in martial arts. He’s a tough-ass. You know, he’s made of stone. He has these iron hands. If you look at his hands right across the knuckles, there’s just this calloused ridge. He’s the real deal, but he’s a sweet man.
One of the great quotes from the DVD commentary track comes early on, during Lo-Pan’s first scene when he does that freaky thing with the light. You’re talking at the time about how the Asian American community attacked you during the making of the film for perpetuating stereotypes. Kurt laughs and says, “Right, because we all know Asians shouldn’t have light coming out of their mouths.” How do you handle a criticism like that while making a film, especially in light of your exceptional track record for being colorblind and using ethnically diverse casts?
It’s the times you operate in. A movie had come out a year before called THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, a Mike Cimino film, and that had gotten a lot of criticism from the Asian community, so much so that MGM had to put a disclaimer on the front of it. They were on a roll, and they came after us because they thought that we were using stereotypes like the beautiful Asian girl and the Fu Manchu clichÃ©, which we were. That’s what we were doing. What it really came down to was that I was a white director.
The truth is, there was a lot of anti-Asian violence in this country at that time. There still is. A lot of it. Asians have a tough time being accepted. We see an Asian in America, there’s a lot of people who still see him as a foreigner.
You’re a big Howard Hawks fan.
In this film, there’s a ton of expositional dialogue. You seem to be paying homage to his films in the way the characters fire this stuff back and forth. Was that intentional?
Oh, yeah. We wanted to make it as fast as you can go. Just as fast as possible. That was in the cuts and in the dialogue. And some of that stuff, if you take it too seriously, or if you hold on it too long, you’re gonna be dead. You have to just rip through it. You just have to rip and go. Let’s go. Let’s keep moving.
I love the sheer story overload of the film.
I know. It’s so dense.
You and Kurt have a discussion on the disc about action films being a young man’s game. You’re talking about actors specifically, but how is it for you when you gear up to do something like GHOSTS OF MARS? How does it compare to when you were gearing up for BIG TROUBLE?
It’s very similar. There’s a lot similarities on those films in terms of what I do. It always takes a lot of stamina and emotional and physical strength, and it takes focus. In an action film, you’re always worried about people getting hurt because of the impact of doing various things. Falling, fighting, explosions... we set people on fire in GHOSTS OF MARS. We set people on fire in THE THING. It’s worrisome to me. I hate it. I hate that kind of pressure. Some directors don’t care, but on my watch, if someone got hurt... (shakes head) I don’t want that. It’s supposed to all be fake. We’re creating illusions, not really hurting people. The amount of stamina is why it’s a young man’s game. You bounce back quicker from a tough night of shooting. You’re ready to go the next day. Not anymore. It’s a little harder now.
James Hong gives a remarkable performance as Lo Pan in all his various incarnations...
... and he had the most demanding make-up role in the film. In many ways, he’s the spine of the film. What can you tell me about working with him?
James has been around a long time. He’s played a lot of different roles. He started as a comedian. He has comedy in his veins. He said, “People don’t realize that. They always cast me as the inscrutable Asian or the bad guy.” He longed to play comedy. He loved it. He started... in World War II, he would go around to Army bases and he would do Al Jolson in blackface. He’s got hilarious stories. He loved getting to play the bad guy. He loved that. He never got to play strong characters like that. He would play roles like the butler in CHINATOWN. Asians get cast in a lot of these furniture roles, and they’d never get to play real characters.
The FX in this film hold up beautifully, especially for an ‘80s optical show. With films like this and THE THING and MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, you’ve proven yourself adept at using all sorts of different FX techniques. How do you approach that part of the process?
It’s the last fun at all. You have to decide what effect you’re looking for, then work backwards and figure out a way to actuate it. You have to make it real.
Do you prefer practical effects?
Always. It looks real. But you just can’t do some things practical.
How did you adapt when CG started becoming such a prevalent tool?
It’s just an extension of the same thing. All it really does is make matte work perfect. It’s not easier. It’s not cheaper. It’s harder. It’s more expensive. You can create... I mean, some of the things I’ve seen...
Okay, an example of a movie that I have some problems with, but that I dearly love because it’s so outrageous is STARSHIP TROOPERS. When those bugs attack... come on, now. That’s what it’s made for, something like that. It’s amazing. You couldn’t do that any other way and have that same effect on the audience. It’s like Super-Harryhausen, but without the jerk or the pixillation. It’s incredibly smooth, but it’s also incredibly phony. Over and over again now, we get these shots that can’t be done. I remember watching ARMAGEDDON. As soon as that movie gets into outer space... it’s a jaw-dropper. The ships are going too fast. None of it looks real anymore.
You mean the space shuttles that maneuver like hummingbirds on crack?
As they’re taking off together, it’s great, and you’re thinking, “My god, look at this,” and then they get to space, and it’s like Buck Rogers silly.
It still comes down to artistry. If you’re working with an Edlund or a Dykstra or Kevin Mack, you’re going to get a certain level of work.
You can’t knock it. You really can’t. Each person brings a style along, and some guys just have a phony style. Some of it’s great, and some of the things you see are amazing because they convince you that what you’re seeing is real. That’s the whole point.
You disable your hero in BIG TROUBLE for a good portion of the final fight. Kurt does one of his big scenes in lipstick. You seem delighted by humiliating him, the same way Sam Raimi seems delighted by humiliating Bruce Campbell. How much of that is just your friendship with Kurt, and how much is in the scripts ahead of time?
It’s all mixed up together. It sort of goes back to Howard Hawks, who had a few basic stories that he would tell. There were his adventure stories about very macho, stoic men. His comedies were about how those men were constantly humliated by women. They’re just hapless. They’re at the mercy of these women. It’s his take on modern society as this sort of absurd thing. I’ve always thought in comedy that it was fun to take a Cary Grant or a Kurt Russell or a Bruce Campbell and make them look ridiculous. It’s so fun.
Last few questions for you, John...
You sing the closing credits song along with Nick “The Shape” Castle and Tommy Lee “HALLOWEEN 3” Wallace. Did the Coupe De Villes exist before that film?
Oh, yeah. We played for years together, back in film school.
Music always seems to be an important part of your process. In a lot of ways, I think of you the same way I think of Dario Argento. For both of you, music seems to be part of how you paint. It’s not just wallpaper.
Have you seen his new one yet?
I haven’t. In fact, I’ve only recently started to really get into his movies. There’s a certain period of his work that I’ve fallen mad in love with.
What do you like the best?
I’m a big fan of DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA. I got a chance to see an amazing print of that one in the theater recently [an experience you can read about here - M].
It’s amazing, isn’t it?
It’s like an assault. It’s like being shaken. I also just saw PHENOMENA for the first time.
That’s a good one.
I think of the way you use scores as very similar. You have very identifiable sounds that are yours. They can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. They seem part and parcel with the world you create.
That’s well said.
Was that always something you wanted to do? When you got into filmmaking, did you always plan to score your own films, or did it come out of your desire to find a certain sound you couldn’t describe?
I think it has to do with a number of things. I was scoring people’s movies in film school, and I was very quick, very cheap. I figured out I could do it. I could come up with little melody lines and write these little scores. And, you know, the style of scoring changes so abruptly over the years. We’re overwhelmed these days by these Mickey Mouse scores, where a few minutes of them can be really terrific, but they’re just overblown. I always try to approach it with my own feel, something that makes that world different for me.
Well, BIG TROUBLE certainly doesn’t sound like HALLOWEEN, and neither one of them sounds like THE THING.
Finally, John, thanks for embracing DVD as a filmmaker. It seems like you enjoy it as a medium for preserving your films. You seem to enjoy doing the extras. Are we going to see more of your films given this treatment?
I sure hope so. They have plans to do more. It’s always about convincing the company to put them out. It’s not about me. If they want to put them out, I will always cooperate. They’re talking about doing THEY LIVE and PRINCE OF DARKNESS finally.
That’s great. A good friend of mine found the church from PRINCE OF DARKNESS recently. We went down there.
It’s still there?
Yeah. It looks almost exactly the same.
Good. That was this old Korean church.
It’s directly across the street from a police station.
When we were there recently, it was around 10:00 at night, and we got out of the car, and right away, three homeless people came walking towards us like a scene from the film...
(laughing) How cool is that? That’s neat that it’s still there. Is the parking lot on the side like there was?
It doesn’t look like it’s as big.
Awwww... that church was such a find. It was a great find. You’ll have to give me the address. I’d like to go back down there and take a look at it.
And on that note, John got back to putting his final touches on the sound mix for GHOSTS OF MARS, which will be out at the end of the summer from Screen Gems. BIG TROUBLE will be available on May 22nd on DVD, and I can’t stress this enough... it’s a great film. If you already know that, then you’ll love the new transfer. If you aren’t familiar with the film, you owe it to yourself to take a look. And if you don’t like the film... what the hell is wrong with you?!? Thanks to Gina, Sandy, and John for helping put this together, and a big thanks to Russell at Fox DVD for giving me a look at the disc.
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April 23, 2001, 9:21 a.m. CST
What the Hell? Carpenter is a God.
April 23, 2001, 9:29 a.m. CST
helluva interview with one helluva fella. is there a decent print of 'Assault on Precinct 13' available on DVD? i rented a VHS that looked absolutely dreadful, and have been reluctant to buy a DVD if it is from that same crappy transfer. anyway, one can only hope that 'Ghosts of Mars' is JC's big return to greatness...
April 23, 2001, 9:51 a.m. CST
Moriarty, you've made my day. I'm such a huge Carpenter fan and this interview is the chat I wish I'd had with him when he signed my DVD copy of The Thing. While Little Trouble in Big China is not my favorite of his films, I still find myself compelled to watch it every now and then. One concern - it sounds like he really smokes too much. I can't wait for They Live with commentary.
April 23, 2001, 10:32 a.m. CST
by Fatal Discharge
...a time when quirky films actually got released by major studios. Now, if it isn't formula to the nth degree and test-marketed to an inch of its life then it won't get released. BIG TROUBLE does have a fond place in my heart since I paid to see it in a sparsely attended theater. It has a fun B-movie plot with some interesting effects, action and villains. The satirical action hero played by Kurt Russell didn't really do much for me. Although this film had no impact, it's good to see that Asian stars can carry a film nowadays like Jackie Chan and Jet Li instead of those cheesy 80's American versions Van Damme, Segal and Norris.
April 23, 2001, 10:49 a.m. CST
by Clark W
Is this film as hated as I seem to remember it was? Cos it's a film I watch at home every now and then, and I think it's great. I wonder how Carpenter would feel about a DVD SE release for that?
April 23, 2001, 10:49 a.m. CST
by Clark W
Is this film as hated as I seem to remember it was? Cos it's a film I watch at home every now and then, and I think it's great. I wonder how Carpenter would feel about a DVD SE release for that?
April 23, 2001, 11:26 a.m. CST
You've done well, old man. I'm so happy to hear Carpenter cite John Sturges, whose THE GREAT ESCAPE is easily one of the most expertly crafted epic entertainments, as his chief widescreen influence. And geeking out over classic Kung Fu flicks with John Carpenter? How cool are you, Moriarty? Thanks for asking all the right questions, exploring the similarities between JC and Argento's scores, and..... just for getting the guy to talk in depth on BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. That tomorrow is not May 22nd really "pisses me off to no end."
April 23, 2001, 12:03 p.m. CST
Get off of Carpenter's dick, Moriarty, you've drained him. Anyone with half a brain can tell you that Carpenter has been hacking out films for years. Sure, some of them have great geek moments, but as complete movies they blow. And as for They Live on DVD--what are you people smoking! Again, two minutes of fun geek stuff buried in a stinking pile of the worst dung you can imagine. Blah!
April 23, 2001, 12:51 p.m. CST
Getcha a case of beer for that one! The Thing DVD gets better every time I watch it. The commentary track is probably the best I've ever heard. It truly gives the experience of hanging out with these guys, and watching a great film, complete with clinking ice cubes, flowing beverages, and sparking lighters. Kurt Russel in particular has a rare ability to enjoy these films unabashedly, as a fan. Personally, I can't wait for 5/22!
April 23, 2001, 1:44 p.m. CST
April 23, 2001, 2:53 p.m. CST
dario argento.......did i mention asia argento is the hottest thing in the world
April 23, 2001, 3:17 p.m. CST
What was the deal with that movie? Was Satan in the green liquid, or what? If someone understood why the homeless people were going crazy, or what was up with the psycho Mountain Dew, please, elucidate! And BTW, good job with the interview! Did you ever see Big Trouble in Little China...ON WEED?
April 23, 2001, 3:30 p.m. CST
by Evil Mastermind
It's the movie that started all the slasher films of the 80's. The feel of impending doom throughout the movie is Carpenter's greatest accomplishment as a director. Oh, and don't forget the simple but kick-ass score. I have to go--that bunny is making me sick yet again!!!!!
April 23, 2001, 3:56 p.m. CST
I first saw BTiLC when it first came out on video, and I sat thru it twice in one afternoon. If you haven't seen it, and you're looking for a movie that has it all, this is the one to get. It's out of control and one of the best thrill rides you'll get this side of Space Mountain. Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall are hilarious, the action is top-notch, and there's even a Richard Burton connection. Check it out - you won't be sorry.
April 23, 2001, 4 p.m. CST
Great fucking interview Mori, I can almost forgive the pink slippers.
April 23, 2001, 4:37 p.m. CST
This one of my favorite John Carpenter films (next to Halloween, of course). When I saw the film for the first time, I was blown away. I've never been a big fan of the kung fu type genre -I awlays felt that I've missed part of the story, even after only five minutes. But as soon as the story began to role, I knew was in for a treat. Kurt Russell doing John Wayne was the funniest thing he has ever done and the whole movie is so wacked, I laughed and stared with wonder. My brother, who always liked this stuff, did not have the same praise as I did. He thought that it was not serious enough. I think he never really understood that tongue was placed firmly in cheek with this film. That is what is missing in most Hollywood films. A sense of humor will go farther than trying to nail a point that did not need to be nailed. And while I believe Carpenter has had a very uneven career (The Thing remake bore me to death! All that gore. It just made no sense. When you gore just for the shock value, it means your story lacks something) I do think the man is mistreated by Hollywood. He is a genius, and a man ahead of his time.
April 23, 2001, 5:20 p.m. CST
by Uber Neuman
Carpenter has always been underated... Anyhow, Morty - great interview! Keep this up and I might fall in love with you...;) And I can't wait 'till I get my dirty little hands on the BTILC DVD... Big Trouble... In little China... "What the hell..."
April 23, 2001, 5:34 p.m. CST
Obviously a lot of Carpenter fans out there (with the exception of Fred4sure). THEY LIVE is not a perfect movie, but it is immensely entertaining. The long, drawn out fight scene in the alley is so excessive that it is hilarious. While HALLOWEEN and THE THING are Carpenter's masterworks, I think any serious discussion should include mention of DARK STAR. Carpenter's student feature displays great storytelling skills and is a premonition of cinema things to come, namely ALIEN and STAR WARS.
April 23, 2001, 6:15 p.m. CST
by Bari Umenema
A mind is a terrible thing to waste isn't it. But I'm glad the poster above me mentioned Dark Star that was great fun. "Watch it!"
April 23, 2001, 7:27 p.m. CST
by old dude
I love the movie, but, at least in Chicago, Big Trouble came out before Aliens! Check Ebert's reviews; BTILC, 7-2, Aliens, 7-18. I saw the Aliens trailer before BTILC showed. I remember that because, in a particularly bizarre bit of movie screwing up, the theater played the Aliens trailer not with the proper sound, but with Don Henley's "Boys Of Summer". Lines about death head stickers on Cadillacs while landing ships drop from some huge space-ship down to a waiting planet. I Had To See That Movie. Looking back, BTILC was better.
April 23, 2001, 8:09 p.m. CST
April 23, 2001, 9:02 p.m. CST
Man I can't wait for this DVD. And I pray they do They Live and Prince of Darkness Special Editions. I have both movies on bare bones DVD, but man I need more. All they have are chapter selects. Not even a trailer. Hell, I think the copy of Prince of Darkness I rented on VHS many years ago even had the trailer at the end of it.
April 23, 2001, 9:08 p.m. CST
That's the funniest thing I've ever heard. Big Trouble's made-up stuff about 'girls with green eyes', 'lo-pan', or the 'black blood of the earth' is just that -- MADE UP. The entire thing is pulled out of someone's ass. Which is perfectly fine -- but to think that it is somehow actually derived from anything remotely resembling Chinese culture is absurd. That's probably partly why Chinese people had a problem with it.
April 23, 2001, 9:33 p.m. CST
by Bari Umenema
D'oh! Stupid lobotomy has left me with only half a brain. Here's what the imdb says about this bad b-movie from 1986 and more importantly "from the mind of John Carpenter" which raises a point: John is really an egomaniac. No other director requires his films to be named after him in such an egotistical fashion i.e. "John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness" or "John Carpenter's Village of the Damned". Anyway: From the mind of John Carpenter comes the towering adventure that thunders across Los Angeles and explodes 30 stories above it! Former burglar Quint is forced by FBI-agent Johnson to steal a tape with incriminating evidence from a suspicious company. Unfortunately he is caught in the act by guard Ringer, a ruthless ex-colleague. Running from the scene, Quint hides the tape in the "Black Moon", a prototype super car made by inventor Earl Windom. Shortly thereafter, this car is stolen by Nina, who works for top car thief Ryland. Chased by Ringer and Johnson, both thinking he still has the tape, Quint's only way out is to steal the car back. Starred Tommy Lee Jones but what I remember most about it were those stupid pretentious TV commercials with that Don Steel announcer shouting "From the Mind of John Carpenter". John please no more movies "from your mind" they don't turn out so well. But your other stuff is far out groovy. So keep up the good work and try to avoid the bad work.
April 23, 2001, 9:43 p.m. CST
by Bari Umenema
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars John Carpenter's Vampires John Carpenter's Christine John Carpenter's They Live John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness John Carpenter's The Thing John Carpenter's The Fog John Carpenter's Starman etc. and so on. This is ridiculous John. Not even Spielberg or Kubrick or Zemeckis or anyone does this. Only you do it. Yeah I know your name is a marketing tool but seriously. I mean really. Come on now. John Carpenter's Dark Star, John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, From the Mind of John Carpenter: Black Moon Rising. Did your agent insist on this way back when? Is that how it got started?
April 23, 2001, 10:28 p.m. CST
No comment on his cute phrase "baby cart movies".
April 24, 2001, 10:30 a.m. CST
by Smiling clown
I always felt that this was one of the most underrated films I've ever seen. It has beauty, action, comedy, and amazing special effects. Yet it seems to have been erased from existence. I can't understand why.
April 24, 2001, 4:12 p.m. CST
Can't say any more than that, 'cept where else would you get this type of "true fan" interview than AICN. Way to go, Moriarty - brilliant questions about one of my all-time fave movies by one of the great directors. May 22nd ain't long to wait for this gem. I gotta know, though - just how much deleted footage is included in this special edition?
April 24, 2001, 4:31 p.m. CST
In world where things are badly done, and people take themselves either tooo seriously or take world to lightly. I keep coming back to this film. Nice medium of silliness, action, Chinese Mystism and down right fun. Where bad guys are not idots, hero is invincible and not nessarily have to be polite or have to change into something they didn't start of as. I like this movie, for 3 reasons. 1 its original, Nothing before or after has been made like it. 2 It has so many surprises in it, you'll have hard time seeing where its going. 3 I keep finding more and more that the original Mortal Combat Arcade game was based on this Movie :) *chuckles* Well, i don't think this movie should get alot flak. None at all.
April 25, 2001, 7 p.m. CST
Bari Umenema thinks J.C.'s name at the front of all his movies is too egotistical... The reason is because the distributors want the buying puplic to instantly know it's a John Carpenter movie, pure and simple. Carpenters movies, like Woody Allens, have a specific fan base that the distributors target. Those movies are rarely blockbusters but the fan base is large enough to support their work. Also, horror is not a sure thing, but having John's name up front assures a certain box office. We go see Carpenter films because he made them. Without his name, the buying audience might overlook those films... .. but of course you already knew that. Hey Guitarman555, the "Baby Cart" movies John C. refers to are actually "Lone Wolf and Cub" movies - A series of seven or so Japanese films about a wandering Samurai who pushes his son around the country in a wooden stroller while slicing and dicing almost everyone he encounters. He is the ultimate single father and I highly recommend the films to everyone who like cinematic violent action.
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