August 2001
John Carpenter : “Master of Terror” finds Horror on the Red Planet

Interviewed by Midas

Scene from Ghosts of Mars

John Carpenter : “Master of Terror” finds Horror on the Red Planet had an opportunity to listen to John Carpenter discuss his newest film, Ghosts of Mars. The director embodies an artist who has seen it all and is now comfortable making films he is proud to present to the public. One might interpret him as a bitter individual who is so cynical and callous to the industry, but in truth, this straight shooter is a refreshing and unique personality. He definitely has an idea about what he is trying to accomplish in his films and if you comprehend, great. If you don’t, he probably could care less. In this interview, Carpenter demonstrates the confidence of being an industry mainstay and a successful director. Carpenter, “the master of terror,” also talks about fusing multiple film genres, industry executives who know nothing, the “perfect drug”, and the overuse of hip-hop music in films today.

M: With this film is this something that we liken to a Rio Bravo on Mars?

JC: You could look at it that way. My favorite western is Rio Bravo. I could remake that over and over.

M: Can you talk a little bit about the fusion of multiple genres in this film. The film has components of science fiction, western, and horror films talk a little bit about the fusion of these genres.

Scene from Ghosts of Mars

JC: The science fiction part is the setting. That is because of the color. If you look at the footage of the Viking Lander, Mars is pink. Of course, we were not going to use pink, so we stylized Mars. It gave me a chance to have a frontier, an industrial age frontier. So we had an iron train going through a dust storm. That’s the science fiction piece. The horror aspect is the spirit that inhabits the planet. We looked at cultures that are deemed “primitive” and found characteristics we deemed similar and that is where we came up with the makeup. It also accounts for the decapitations and the pierced body parts. Then the film has an element of a western or better yet a war movie.

M: Colonization and imperialism are a component of this film. Are you cognizant of actual events from history?

JC: That’s what science fiction is. It becomes pretty dull if you try to create a future that doesn’t resonate with us. We need to recognize something in the film and attach ourselves to it.

M: How did you come up with the cast?

JC: Well, I had ideas about whom I wanted to cast. But the studio has an idea about whom they want to cast. And then there are people who are just not available and you just can’t get them. There are also people who are just too expensive. Somehow you come together with a cast that everyone is happy with. I am delighted with this cast.

M: What fueled the decision to incorporate flashbacks into the movie?

JC: We went with a linear format and the movie was flat. The script started with the wall and the spirits coming out of the wall, but that revealed the outcome to the audience. It was familiar territory for the audience, so we moved everything around.

M: You wrote your own score.

JC: Actually, that’s wrong. I perform my own score. I can’t write music, I can’t read music. I just sit down at the synthesizer and improvise.

M: What influence did Ice Cube have in the development of that score?

JC: He did not have much. We felt that every scene has a musical counterpart. The music was almost visual. He was great and he very funny. He came to me with a mask from Halloween and I was like, What’s up with this guy?

M: Did he suggest using rap?

JC: The movie does not lend itself to rap. I think rap is overused. Every soundtrack uses rap. It’s overkill. Do you notice that? And rap has nothing to do with the movie. What’s that all about?

M: There is a scene in the movie where the heroine skirts death through the use of an illegal drug. Are you concerned about this?

JC: First of all in the movie the drug is clear. It doesn’t really exist. In the movie, if you take the drug it has no side effects and there is no hangovers. All you do is have great thoughts. Now I want a drug like that. (Laughter) It’s important to have a drug like that. I don’t think there will be any problems. I don’t think so. Actually, I don’t care. I don’t care if they like it or not.

M: You’ve been around this business for a while. How do you deal with the new breed of young studio executives who are only interested in the bottom line and do not understand the vision?

JC: The mentality of the studio has never really changed Scene from Ghosts of Mars from the old days. The bottom line is to make money. They want to invest as little as possible and make as much as possible. That has not changed. They are interested in the audience take. A lot of the executives today come from the field of law, and business schools. They look at the catalogue of movies and of the successful ones they ask, “Why haven’t we made a sequel?” For them it is a no-brainer. The young guys back then didn’t know anything then and they still don’t know anything today. They don’t understand the audiences and probably will never understand them. So why worry about it? Make the film you want to make and if the audience doesn’t watch it hey.

M: How have you endured in this business?

JC: Seriously, if you boil the business down to its simplest and you don’t take it too seriously. That is the success as well as the failures. And somehow convince people you can still make movies, you will be all right.