Look, John Carpenter Just Wants to Make Music, OK?
John Carpenter can hardly be bothered with an interview today. The Brett Kavanaugh hearing is on TV, and his dog is barking at whoever’s ringing the doorbell. “I may get distracted,” he warns. “But I’ll come back.” His demeanor is somehow both friendly and curt, regardless of whether the questions are about his filmmaking or composing career. He’s someone who won’t suffer fools gladly, but when the topic of the new Halloween movie comes up, he perks up.
After decades of disavowing sequels to the slasher franchise he kickstarted four decades ago (“The original is mine,” he says, “I don’t endorse any of the others”), he’s put his stamp of approval on the new film, also titled Halloween, opening this week. He was so taken by its plot when filmmaker David Gordon Green presented it to him that he signed on as both an executive producer and its composer. The movie renounces all the developments in the sequels to Carpenter’s Halloween (masked killer Michael Myers isn’t the brother of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, nor is he controlled by the evil Cult of Thorn) and presents Strode, 40 years later, ready to take on the killer when he’s released from prison. “I just thought the story was really inventive and fresh,” Carpenter says. So together with his son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies, he gave the chilling, suspenseful score he dreamt up in 1978 a facelift.
The original soundtrack was a rush job by design. Carpenter had presented the movie — without music — to a studio exec who told him she didn’t find it scary. So he got together with a synth professor at the University of Southern California, Dan Wyman, and banged out a score in three days. “We used tube synthesizers, a piano and a recorder,” he recalls. “I’d tell Dan, ‘Give me something that sounds like strings,’ and he would tune up the synths and make it sound sort of like strings. It was a crude process.” For its eerie, off-kilter main theme, he referred back to a lesson his father, a music teacher, had given him as a teenager on the bongos. “It was in 5/4 time, and I don’t know, I just liked the feel of it and decided to use it as the main title,” he says. Then he turns self-effacing: “Kind of a weak-ass answer. Sorry, I apologize.” Carpenter laughs.
Although the music is comparable to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” in The Exorcist, Carpenter points to composer Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock movies such as Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest as inspiration. “His stuff was brilliant,” Carpenter says. “It did build suspense. I can’t even imagine having those kinds of chops. That’s how backward I am. I just did my version, which was pretty simple and pretty basic.”
He also variously praises Suspiria soundtrack artists Goblin, Hans Zimmer, Dimitri Tiomkin (who composed for Westerns) and the German electronic group Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer, Risky Business) as inspirations over the years. But it was Bebe and Louis Barron’s ambient, warbling electronic music for the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet that set Carpenter on his path. “That was a big, giant influence, oh, hell yeah,” he says. “It’s the first electronic soundtrack in movies. It just blew my mind. It’s still great.”
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Once the music was added to the original Halloween, and credited to the Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra, he got the reaction he wanted from audiences: fear. Its banging piano theme has since become a horror-movie classic. Even though he would distance himself from its sequels, he composed new music for 1981’s Halloween II (and he also wrote its script with his original Halloween cowriter Debra Hill) and 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which was a departure from the Michael Myers franchise. Each of the subsequent installments in the franchise would use variations of his original theme.
For Green’s Halloween film, Carpenter dreamt up a new twist. The main theme has a heavier beat than the original (“Disco, baby, bring it back!” Carpenter jokes) and is more atmospheric and moodier than the original. Since 2014, Carpenter and his son and godson have made two albums of original, eerie music (Lost Themes and Lost Themes II) and have toured the world, and the new soundtrack sounds like an extension of those works – morose, measured and electrifying. Cues like “Michael Kills Again” start quiet and then hit you over the head with heavy-metal bombast and others, like “Ray’s Goodbye,” just hit you right out of the cemetery gate.
But the filmmaker doesn’t think of the music by the names on the soundtrack. “I don’t know which one you mean,” he bristles, “I didn’t … ” You didn’t title them? “No, hell no.” He does however recognize “The Shape Hunts Allyson,” which mixes sparkly, ghostlike synths with woozy atmospherics. “I love that song,” he says. “That’s my favorite.”
I push him for more details, but the answers come bluntly. How did it come together? “We just created it,” he says. “I told my son what to do and he just started playing this keyboard part and we started adding stuff to it.”
So Cody came up with the ostinato that opens it? “‘Ostinato,’ that’s a Rolling Stone type of word,” he says, referring to the musical term for repeating a phrase. “I don’t understand what that means but it sounds great.” He mumbles it again under his breath, “Ostinato, great, wow.”
Asked what his collaborators brought to the table, Carpenter gives a typically pat answer. “It’s my son and my godson, it can’t be better,” he says. “It’s fabulous.” But after some prodding, he explains, “Cody’s a virtuoso keyboard player and Daniel has a rock & roll feel to him but also brought a lot of instruments and synthesizers to the party,” Carpenter says. “We have bowed guitar in the score, so it’s different stuff.”
In some ways, it’s the more sophisticated score Carpenter wished he had the time and resources to make for the original. “It’s better sonically in every way I could think of,” he says. “I wish I had this kind of technology back in the old days but when you’re a low-budget filmmaker, you have to go in there and get it done.”
But, he says, the point was to be in service to Green, a filmmaker Carpenter says is “really good” and “did just a tremendous job.” “The issue really was to please David Gordon Green,” he says matter-of-factly. “That was my job and I enjoyed it.” Carpenter and his collaborators took part in spotting sessions with the filmmaker, where he would tell them what he was looking for emotionally and they took notes. “He’d say, ‘Could we lighten this up?’ Or, ‘Can we darken this? I want people to be afraid in this part,’ that kind of thing,” Carpenter says. “It was a great collaboration.”
Although Carpenter consulted on the script, which was written by Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, he says he never felt tempted to swerve out of his lane as the film’s composer and weigh in on the story. “No, oh, God, no. No, no, no,” he says. “It’s his movie. I respect that. I respect the director. Director is king.” Then he acquiesces and says he gave comments, and that “they took some, ignored most.” Most? “No, I’m kidding,” he says. “Rolling Stone has to develop a sense of humor here.”
John Carpenter on the set of “Halloween.” Photo credit: Jamie Lee Curtis
One day, during shooting, Carpenter visited the set in Charleston, South Carolina to say hello to the cast and crew. He was impressed by Green’s directing. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, he’s not moving very fast – he’s taking his time and making it good,’” he says. “It’s great.”
He was also happy to see his old cast there. “Oh, it was great seeing Jamie Lee again,” he says. “I’ve kept in touch with her, but it’s great to see her on the set and working again. And there was Nick Castle [who played Michael Myers in the original] on the set working again. It was a reunion.
“Jamie’s a kick, have you ever interviewed her?” he asks. “She’s having a good time in life now and she just loves this film. She’s got a good part in the movie, so she’s pretty happy.”
Days later, Curtis smiles at the prospect of interviewing Carpenter. “He’s tough to talk to, because he’s just not gonna go there,” she says. She also shares the photo — seen above — of him the day he visited. “It was the first press day and there was John walking down this tree-lined street, and I saw Nick for the first time that day. It was beautiful to have him there.”
These days, Carpenter is content with where his career is at now. His main gig at the moment is his music. “If we have to score something, I start making music at about noon,” he says. “Otherwise, I play some video games, watch the news, watch basketball, play some more video games, maybe make some more music.” (He’s currently playing games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the old Fallout and is looking forward to the upcoming Fallout 76 video game.)
He still keeps up with horror and sci-fi movies, but he hasn’t taken the time to check out things like this year’s horror flick to beat, Hereditary, or the TV show Stranger Things, which owes a debt to his works. (“Maybe I’ll check it out,” he says, followed by “probably won’t.”) The last one that blew him away was Let the Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire film. “I thought, ‘This is a movie to reinvent the vampire myth,’” he says. “It’s the first time I’d seen a reinvention like that in a long time.”
His last movie, The Ward, came out in 2010, and he’s evasive on the topic of making another movie. “I might,” he says. “I don’t know yet. I have nothing to announce to you now.” So he’s not retired? “Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know,” he says. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now, which is taking it very easy.” (Another topic he’s noncommittal about is the idea of performing a live score: “It’s great if you don’t make any mistakes or get lost. I don’t think I’ll do it but I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Maybe?”) All he has planned for the future is a mini tour and a gig at the Palladium. “I don’t know after that,” he says. “Hopefully, I can relax and enjoy the NBA season.”
Carpenter offers that his involvement in the 2018 Halloween – producing, writing the music, reading the script over – is exactly the sort of thing he wants to be doing right now. “Let me tell you,” he says, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole career.”
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