How Director John Carpenter Found His Second Career

Legendary filmmaker John Carpenter has reinvented himself as a musician with his nightmarish soundscapes.

Daniel Davies (L), John Carpenter (C), Cody Carpenter (R)
Photo: Sophie Gransard

John Carpenter launched his career as a filmmaker in 1974 with the micro-budget sci-fi parody, Dark Star, and completed it, for all intents and purposes, in 2010 with his last full-length directorial effort to date, The Ward. But in between, the New York-born Carpenter created some of the most legendary cult classics of all time, including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987), and They Live (1988).

In addition to directing and writing, Carpenter—the son of a music professor—has composed or co-composed the scores for nearly all his films. The filmmaker revealed a natural instinct for music which resulted in classic cues like the theme from Halloween or the lesser-known but still recognizable stingers from Prince of Darkness or The Fog.  

Although Carpenter has remained involved in filmmaking to some degree—most recently as an executive producer and co-composer on David Gordon Green’s excellent Halloween sequel and the next two installments in the series—he has, in recent years, turned his attention full-time to music.

Assembling a musical unit with his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, Carpenter has released four albums in six years: three volumes of original music called Lost Themes and Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, featuring new recordings of his classic film scores.

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The latest album, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, features titles like “Weeping Ghosts,” “Vampire’s Touch,” and “The Dead Walk” that combine blazing synthesizer/guitar/electronic dynamics in evocative, memorable, and intensely cinematic instrumental passages. Carpenter called the first Lost Themes album “a soundtrack for the movies in your mind,” and that holds true for this third edition as well.

Carpenter, Cody, and Daniel also toured behind Lost Themes II a few years back, bringing Carpenter’s original music and iconic cues—as well as a new appreciation of the films that spawned them—to delighted Carpenter diehards and a fresh generation of fans.

While Carpenter awaits the pandemic-delayed release of Halloween Kills later this year, and hopes to play live again, Den of Geekhad the opportunity to get on the phone with the legendary director to discuss his new album, how his music-making process differs from filmmaking, and more, including some key anniversaries in his filmography.

How was this recent album [Lost Themes III: Alive After Death] done? Was it a rush of creativity, or did you and the guys work on it piece by piece over the last few years?

John Carpenter: Piece by piece over the last two years. We played some music, then we’d stop, then we’d play some more music, and we’d stop. We did the score to Halloween Kills and then we finished Lost Themes III, but it was a constant finishing business. So here we are.

Do you think the three of you, you and Cody and Daniel, have coalesced more as a musical unit over that course of time, and did playing live as an actual band help the new music along?

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We each bring our strengths to the program. And we all know what we do the best, and we cover each other in that sense. I’m the experienced guy. I’m more experienced in this than they are, but Daniel is a virtuoso on guitar, and Cody is a virtuoso on keyboard. So it’s all different stuff, and we just have a blast, too. It’s all fun.

Was it fun to get out and do that tour?

Ah, man, are you kidding? It’s a dream come true.

So there’s always been a touring musician hidden away all these years in John Carpenter?

Oh yeah, and I never knew it either, but he’s there. He’s there.

Obviously, with everything that’s going on now, there’s no live music happening, but when we return to normalcy would you like to take this back out on the road again?

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You know, we’ve talked about it. We’ll see. I’d like to if the opportunity is there, and things are right again in the world because they’re not right now. It’s crazy so there’s no chance of doing it now.

How about doing a performance via livestream?

We’ve talked about that, too, but it’s all a question of timing, and there’s a variety of things to take into consideration, but sure, we might do stuff like that.

When you write music, do you visualize scenes and storylines the way you would when writing a screenplay or is it a different type of muscle entirely?

Well, the purpose of the music is to do exactly what you said it does, which is to allow you to fantasize a movie of your own. That’s the whole purpose. And for us, for me especially, it’s just doing music. That’s a process of its own. It’s not foolproof. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and start working on something, and it’s crap, and you have to abandon it later. But sometimes it works out. So it’s all good. It’s all good.

Are there stories behind any of these songs?

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Yeah, but that’s up to you to provide, not me. I’m just there to do the music. I’m the soundtrack to your imagination.

Was all this material created from scratch, or was there anything that you had in the archives either from scores, or material that didn’t make the previous albums?

It’s pretty much from scratch. All made up for this particular record.

What’s the difference to you between the energy of working in the studio and playing the music live, and did you try to get more of that live feel to this record?

Oh, they’re just very different. Compiling in the studio, we can perfect something. You can go back over it and over it, but when you’re playing live if you make a mistake that’s it. Nothing you can do about it. Plus the energy, the buzz from the crowd, is incredible. It just gets you going. It makes you want to take over Russia. But they both have their strengths, and it’s also fun just to do it in the studio.

Who were your influences, musically, when you started out scoring your own films?

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When I was doing movie music, it was usually guys like Bernard Hermann, or Dimitri Tiomkin. Their scores for movies, that was my youth. That was what I went to see in the movies, their sounds. But the more modern stuff would be Tangerine Dream, stuff like that. I guess you could say I learned from these classical masters of movie themes. That’s where I got my training. I listened a lot to them.

You did the music for most of your movies going all the way back to Dark Star. When did it become apparent that this would be the case?

It was pretty natural. I don’t know when exactly it was that this was the way it was going to be. I was just doing it all of a sudden… in the beginning, mostly it was because I could do it cheap and fast. And I knew I could do it, and it would be there. That wouldn’t work with anybody else. That was the way it was. Some of my stuff wasn’t particularly sophisticated, and it wasn’t particularly advanced. It was just synthesizing music. Some of it was really simple depending on what the movie required. But I was pretty good at judging that, so I guess that’s my strength.

The music you’re doing now has truly become a second career for you. Do you think that directing is firmly in the rearview mirror at this point?

I don’t think it’s firmly in the rearview mirror, but come on. Supposedly the rap is that Americans don’t have a second career, and man, I got to have one, I fell into it, and here it is. It’s the greatest. I’m blessed. I don’t question it.

In a strange way, it’s also helping people appreciate what you did as a filmmaker as well.

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That’s what happened, and it’s the greatest. And plus I’m doing scores to the new Halloween movies which is really, really fun. We just finished up Halloween Kills and it’s great.

What are your thoughts on the debate over whether the studios should wait until they can theatrically release films or stream them?

Well, the studio’s going to do what’s in their best interest. But for a while the theaters are dead, so you’ve just got to put the movies where they can be seen. So streaming is one way, but we’ll see. We’ll see how it evolves. They’ll make the decision that’s right for them. Thank God I don’t have to make that decision. I don’t want that responsibility.

What else can you tell me about Halloween Kills?

The movie’s done. The score, and everything. Halloween Kills is the ultimate slasher film. It is a slasher film on steroids. It will literally blow you away. It’s incredible, and I love it. I’m loving it.

What do you know about the third one, Halloween Ends?

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I’ve read the script. I can’t wait to see it. It’s great also. It’s really interesting.

You have some anniversaries this year coming up as well that I want to ask you about. One I think of which is really relevant. This year’s the 40th anniversary of Escape from New York.

Really, wow.

I was just doing some background reading on the movie because I actually hadn’t watched it in a while. You wrote it out of cynicism about the President, right after Watergate.

Yeah, that and the decay of New York in the ’70s was pronounced then. It was really bad.

Do you think it’s just as relevant now particularly with the situation we’re just getting ourselves out of with Trump?

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It’s different now. That movie is very much of its time. Now is a new story, and it’s pretty grim. I think we all agree on Trump and there’s a huge section of the country that doesn’t. They think he’s the greatest. It’s unreal. And they think the election was stolen, and they have this fantasy world they’re living in. It’s unbelievable to me. I don’t even know what to make of it.

I’m just noodling that around my head. What would I do with this in a movie? Because it’s very different. It’s different than They Live. They Live is Reaganomics from outer space, or whatever. But this is something else, I don’t know what. The closest I can come to it is that series of movies, The Purge.

The studio pushed back on using Kurt Russell for Escape, but you knew what he was capable of, and that he was trying reinvent himself at the time.

Yeah, he was, and I knew he could do it. The studio was just not sure because he hadn’t done anything like this. People are scared if you’re starting something that hasn’t been done before. They want to make sure that it’s been done so they know what they’re getting. They weren’t sure about Kurt. He proved himself so that was great.

What was it like shooting the film in East St. Louis?

It was amazing, unbelievable. We were there in the summer when it’s blistering hot. They had this big fire there in the ’70s. It burned out the place. But they were very cooperative. They turned off all the streetlights, and let us move stuff, and that was great, just great.

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This year is also the 35th anniversary of Big Trouble in Little China, which was a troublesome movie for you and sent you out of Hollywood for a while.

Yeah, it was the way I was treated at the studio. I loved making the movie. Making the movie was great.

I think maybe it was a little misunderstood at the time. Would you agree?

Well I don’t know. I think that’s a director’s way of excusing himself not having a hit. I don’t know. But some people like it, and that makes me very happy…It was great to make. It was fun to make.

Do you know what’s happening with the remake that Dwayne Johnson was talking about?

I have no idea. Nobody tells me anything so that’s fine.

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One of my favorite films of yours is Prince of Darkness. It really hits the sweet spot between science fiction and horror. You’ve said you were reading a lot about quantum physics at the time. How did that blend with your thoughts about the devil, and religion, and what made that all work together for you?

Well I don’t know if it worked but that’s why I made that movie, was just all the thoughts that I had. Quantum mechanics was the thing I wanted to do. No one had ever made a movie about it. So I did, and I really enjoyed that movie. That movie was fun, and it was freeing to work outside the studio.

I know you’re a big gamer. What have you been playing in lockdown?

Well I’ve played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The new Assassin’s Creed game. Great. I’m finishing up on Fallout 76. I love that game. And I’m playing some old games like Dead Space, and generally looking around for any new games.

Is your son Cody a gamer too?

Oh huge. He was the one who got me into games. He’s great at it. Although I’m pretty good now. It’s just taken me a long time.

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What do you like most about playing video games?

Everything. You just go to a different world for quite a while, and have fun, and shoot people, which is great, or whatever you’re doing to solve various problems. It’s great fun.

John Carpenter’s new album, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death, is out now.