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John Carpenter on “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death”

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Feb 10, 2021 Photography by Sophie Gransard Web Exclusive
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John Carpenter wants us all to get lost. But hold on: this isn’t the curmudgeonly gramps sitting on the back porch-equivalent of telling you to get lost. Nowadays, you can take those words verbatim from the film legend and composer. Like the previous installments of Carpenter’s Lost Themes albums, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death exists to help you let your imagination run rampant.

Talking on the phone from his home in Hollywood Hills, Carpenter is quick to remind you whenever he catches you doing just that. The frantic synth squall of “Cemetery” evokes static-filtered visuals of undead creatures surfacing from the soil, whereas the propulsive “Vampire’s Touch” takes us to a smoky dungeon club with leather-clad fiends and eerie strobe lights. “You see,” he interrupts. “You’re already fantasizing and seeing… I love it! That’s my purpose.” Indeed, asking him about how he comes up with his sinister-sounding compositions is a fool’s errand. Because John Carpenter, even after decades of doing it, still hasn’t figured it out either. “It just happens. You’re asking me: how does creation take place? I can’t answer that question. I just can’t.”

At this stage of his life, Carpenter seems rather content picking the fruits of his legacy and cashing in a couple of checks along the way. He no longer feels bothered to elaborate on the particulars of his craft in length, or how prescient and relevant movies like They Live and The Thing remain in “these crazy damn times.” He’s too busy “having the time of his life,” as he frequently underscores. It’s hard to blame a man who has traveled such an iconoclastic path into a million dollar industry for the better part of his existence. At 73, John Carpenter understands this interview tug-of-war all too well: the first whiff of bullshit causes him to recoil and act accordingly. But 11 years after making his last film, 2010’s The Ward, he has noticeably mellowed out. These days, he isn’t as taciturn on interviewers once they start stumbling in the dark—now he simply puts up with you like a mall Santa receiving an assembly line of needy kids, taking everything in jest.

At one point, I ask him about if his decision to work with musicians and wrestlers—namely Isaac Hayes and Roddy Piper—lit a creative flame under him in some way, because they’d approach their role slightly differently than maybe a trained actor would. “I’ve noticed that with everybody… they fall right into acting immediately,” Carpenter quips matter-of-factly. “It’s not that hard for anyone. [Marlon] Brando once said ‘the oldest profession is acting.’ That may be… but everybody acts. Maybe not great, but they fall right into it. It’s about just starting and knowing what you want to do… so that’s what I would say. Everybody is ready to go.”

When I got the green light to interview the horror icon, that’s what I thought as well. But as cordial as it felt talking about yesterday’s Nets-Clippers game, the quandary of open-world video games, the late Hal Holbrook (“a very kind gentleman and very easy to work with”), or whatever other mundane small talk we partake in, I soon found myself as lost as many of his film’s protagonists. To bring a basketball metaphor: Carpenter is a savvy interviewee who won’t hesitate to head fake you out of your socks if you come at him a little too zealously. I guess there’s a moral to this tale. Even in the face of existential dread, one must try hard to act alive as much as you can. “You have to choose what you like, and some days are not as much fun. But that’s part of life”

By now, Carpenter likely knows a thing or two about getting lost: frankly, he more or less carved out a trail-blazing film career around the act of getting lost. As a giddy film student in the ’60s and ’70s, he set out to pursue his craft in an era when mavericks and outlaws became well, somewhat outlawed in cinema. Sure, classic westerns like Rio Bravo—one of Carpenter’s formative films—got out of fashion by the time he crowbarred his way into the movie business. But the lawlessness and backbone of those films seemed to have transferred to a generation of directors determined to stretch the frontiers of cinema to new thrill-seeking heights regardless of the genre they operated in. Whatever logistical or financial limitations were presented, the idea was always compelling enough to power through all the hassle it took to make them. In the same era as the famously tortured production Jaws, considered by many the first blockbuster, the scrappy Carpenter made his first full-length film Dark Star, a claustrophobic space movie that—in hindsight—became recognized as the prototype for Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Throughout his creative life, Carpenter has had a knack for ambling in situations that never fully accommodated his core sensibilities. When he did power through, though, it usually ended up becoming one of his landmark culture-shaping films. All of his best work symbolizes a part of him in some way. In Halloween, a force of evil invades a sleepy municipal community: a trope that’s now a cliché, but at the time, a truly believable terrifying thing. Michael Myers wasn’t some cartoonishly proportioned rubber suit monster or paper marché movie prop; the fear he instilled within you came from Myers’ human attributes. Always elusive to both his fans and critics, Carpenter raged out to the thrill of being lost in most of his critically acclaimed pictures. He illustrated the cocksure meathead who is perpetually in over his head. The reserved, self-capable drifter who stumbles upon an evil invasion. The surly helicopter pilot desperately reckoning with an unseen menace in the middle of nowhere. The aloof lone wolf who is forced against his will by a higher authority to go on a rescue mission. None have them asked for their predicament, but they acted nevertheless.

Indeed, a filmmaker’s instincts and inquisitive nature once were considered this artform’s biggest special effect. Even in today’s more complicated world, Carpenter keeps chasing his own curiosity relentlessly into other art forms and disciplines. After all the mileage, the role of fish out of water fits him like a glove. Way back in his salad days as a city kid who moved to the bible belt of Bowling Green Kentucky, his father Howard, a session player who recorded with the likes of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline, taught him to learn the violin—something he didn’t have the talent for—it was an omen that he would someday ruse his way into the role of composer. In 2021, Carpenter has never stopped embracing his role as dilettante, reinventing himself as a musician and as a comic book writer. “I mean, that’s the whole point, it’s just creativity expressed in a different way,” he says. “That’s what my parents got me to do when I was young, and that’s what I decided to do as an adult. Create something.

Carpenter’s wife, producer Sandy King Carpenter, applies the same independent-thinking ethos as her husband in running her comic book publication Storm King Comics, commissioning burgeoning artists and writers to carry out their artistic vision without compromise from bigger institutions. “I’m really enjoying what Sandy is doing with the comic books. I write one of them a year. It’s a whole different art form, and that’s why I love it. Hey, I’m having a great time in my life, what can I tell you? It’s a lot easier than directing a movie. Directing movies is hard.” In 2019, for DC Comics Carpenter co-wrote a comic with Anthony Burch about The Joker, entitled The Joker: Year of the Villain. Like Michael Myers, this is a character that acts a force of nature, an agent of chaos and fear. It’s the perfect stage for Carpenter to throw his weight around again with gusto. “The Joker is a fun character to write. And it’s fun to fully commit to him being a real bad guy.”

Composing music these days seems to occupy most of Carpenter’s time and concurrently, it seems to be what he enjoys the most by a significant margin. As of right now, he has one leg lodged in the past and another marching the present. He’s doing the scores for David Gordon Green’s Halloween reboot series and working on the Lost Themes simultaneously. When asked whether these two projects are in any way mutually beneficial, he once again lets out a warm self-effacing chuckle. “In the end, it’s all just making music. And that’s the fun part of it. But the process is slightly different. Making music for a movie—doing a soundtrack—is different from doing the Lost Themes albums. Because you’re dealing with an image. A soundtrack is there to support the image, and support the thematic material that you collected. Lost Themes is simply a instinctual vibration that we as artists are creating.”

Unlike with movie soundtracks, music made for the sake of just that has an ambiguity to it that allows it to stand on its own merits. Primordial romps like “Dead Walk” and “Weeping Ghost” blindside you much like the night terrors that prowl movies such as The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness. This isn’t music that panders to the human tendency to picture themselves as the hero or messiah of their own story: this music swallows you whole and leaves your head scrambling in an adrenaline-fuelled fright. It’s the type of thrill that seems rather quaint in the era of pandemics, impending natural disasters and assaults on Capitol Hill. But many of John Carpenter’s films—notably the highly memeable They Live—remain rewarding, potent Trojan Horses to process them. As for Carpenter himself, suspense has become a warm cesspool to placidly sink into. Jamming and producing with his son, synth virtuoso Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies (guitarist and son of The Kinks’ Dave Davies), they together embrace that feeling of being a little out of their depth, using today’s bleeding edge technologies and tools to summon very familiar-sounding haunts back to life. Hence the acerbic subtitle Alive After Death.

“It’s just amazing how far the technology has come,” Carpenter marvels. “And where it is right now. I couldn’t ask for more. The chances… the opportunities to find sounds are almost endless now I feel. It’s just astonishing! So I’m in love with it now. There will always be sounds I gravitate towards. The bass sounds you can get out of an Oberheim. We have some machines and synths that we go to that we prefer. But the three of us enjoy love exploring and coming up with stuff we haven’t used before. It’s really fun. So we do it in a variety of ways.”

Much like a quintessential John Carpenter movie character, Lost Themes III is about embracing your “unsuspecting wanderer in a dark”-self, the unlucky soul who drifts into the wrong place at the wrong time. In a way, that’s life in a nutshell. There is no exposition to hold your hand, no sentiment that lulls you into false pretence. You’re forced to bring your own wits about you to hopefully live to see another sunrise. When asked about the notion of too much exposition, Carpenter once again needs few words to allude to an even bigger overarching notion. “Everyone struggles with exposition: how much do you use, how little do you use. I’ve struggled with this all my life. How much do the artists need to know to follow the story. How much do they need the story, how much can I take away? But first you have to figure out the entire story, and then remove exposition as much as you can. But you gotta figure it all out as an artist. Everything.”

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Anar Rub Tech Pvt. Ltd.
February 11th 2021
3:20am

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