John Carpenter, with frequent musical collaborator Alan Howarth, at the synthesizer in 1980 | Photo by Phil d’Angelo
[Editor’s note: this interview was conducted in October 2018]
John Carpenter has the distinction of being one of very few successful film directors who also compose their own scores. He did it out of necessity in the beginning, starting with his debut, Dark Star, in 1974. Not enough time or money to hire a composer or an orchestra, so he whipped up some quick-and-easy music on synthesizers.
But something quickly became apparent: he was very good at it. Carpenter was a musically-inclined piano player growing up in Kentucky, and he played in several rock bands beginning in college. In fact, he was in a rock band, The Coupe De Villes, when he was making Halloween in 1978… and one of his bandmates was none other than Nick Castle, The Shape himself.
He kept scoring most of his own films, with the help of some talented collaborators… and in the past few years he’s actually stopped directing altogether and has gone full-fledged musician. He’s put out two albums of mesmerizing, horror-flavored music with his son, Cody, and godson Daniel Davies, and they play concerts around the globe.
One of the hit tracks on Carpenter’s set list is the hypnotic, grooving piano and synth theme from the little indie film that jump-started his career—Halloween, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. There’s also, as you may have heard, a sequel out right now—stabbing up the box office. [Ed. note: There is another sequel, Halloween Kills, currently stabbing at the box office.]
That film, directed by David Gordon Green, features a score that pumps new blood into the retro classic. Composed by—who else?—John Carpenter. I called the 70-year-old composer a few days before the film came out. He was in Spain, on tour in this new rock ‘n roll career of his.
Tim Greiving: I’m envious. You’re living that rock star life.
John Carpenter: [Laughs] Is that it? Is that what I’m doing?
TG: Yeah, I don’t know too many celebrated film directors that are out there shredding it in a rock band to adoring fans. You’re a unique species in that regard.
JC: Oh, thank you. Well, right now—speaking of shredding it—I’m sitting in a room with a dead bug stuck to the wall. And it’s got bars on the windows. So I’m not feeling very rock star-ish.
TG: I was curious if you actually rewatched the original Halloween in preparation for scoring the new one.
JC: Oh, God no. No, no, no, no. I don’t want to see that thing again. I actually have seen it in the past four or five years. Jamie Lee and I, we did a commentary on it, and I watched it then. But I didn’t watch it in preparation for the new movie, because the new movie is totally nothing to do with me. It’s David Gordon Green’s movie, and I’m there to score it and make him happy.
TG: I think that’s slightly underplaying your role, but I get it. So, if you watched it within the last few years, what struck you about the music or the way you used music in the film? Because that was one of the first times you scored one of your movies.
JC: It was. Well, you know, I only had three days to do the music to Halloween. So I went to this studio in mid-L.A., Sound Arts, and I recorded five or six themes. And this wasn’t scoring to picture—this was just scoring blind. Then I would cut the themes into the movie. So I had to guess at various moods. I did five or six pieces—and what surprised me is, they actually fit pretty well into the movie. It’s a cheap but effective way of scoring. It takes a lot less time than going through the whole thing.
TG: But it obviously serves the film so well that we’re still talking about it 40 years later. You were 30 at the time, and kind of starting out. Is there anything you shake your head at, as far as the music, or wish you’d done differently? Or are you mostly pretty impressed with what you came up with at the time?
JC: I’m not ever impressed. I got by alright with it. You know, it’s not [laughs] high-fidelity recording. It’s really low-rent sounds. We did the best we could. Everything was cheap back then, because it was a low-budget movie. So we had a very quick mix, and everything was on the down-low. So I wouldn’t say it’s a hi-fi score. It’s a low-fi sound.
TG: Which is part of its charm, I think.
JC: Oh God, I guess so. I don’t know.
TG: You were used to directing actors and editors and crewmembers, trying to get the best out of whoever you were directing. Did you have a directorial relationship with yourself as the composer?
JC: Well, yeah, I guess you could say that. It was a very practical relationship. It was, Come on stupid, let’s get this done, so he can cut it in the movie. I look at it as a very practical thing to do. When I made Halloween, I needed music—we couldn’t afford a composer. We couldn’t afford a real orchestra. So it had to be me on a synthesizer. I did the best I could. I had limited chops. When you consider all that, I did alright.
TG: Were you consciously trying to write something that would give you goosebumps, or make you feel tense?
JC: No, no, no, no. You can’t work if you’re getting goosebumps [laughs]. No, I just wanted to write something that I thought was effective. You just depend on your instincts, that’s all.
TG: But “effective” in this context does mean scary, right? Or anxiety-inducing.
JC: Yeah, it induces a suspense of the audience—that’s what you’re looking to do. Get them a little jacked up.
TG: So for it to be effective, it had to jack you up somewhat, right?
JC: No, that’s wrong deal. It doesn’t ever jack me up. It doesn’t ever affect me. It’s something I do that I hope maybe it’ll give a little chill to the audience. But it doesn’t give a chill to me.
TG: I guess that makes sense. But how would you know if it’s actually working?
JC: Well, you put it together with the movie, and then sit and watch it with an audience, and see how they respond. That’s when you really know.
TG: I remember last year when we talked, you told me that the film without the score was pretty dry. Because so often the music is the tension in Halloween. It’s giving you this sense that something is terribly wrong. Just a scene of a neighborhood street or something, that may be innocuous otherwise, would really be ratcheted up because of the music.
JC: Sometimes that’s absolutely true. That’s where I used music in Halloween. But then there were some times when you just used silence, and that could be as spooky as music. So you just have to use everything in the right places, for the right timing. It is a little tricky, but not bad. Horror is closer to comedy—you’ve got to deal with timings and rhythms.
TG: It strikes me there’s two major rhythmic “modes.” You have the main theme for The Shape, and it’s a very high BPM, rapid heartbeat theme, with this relentless simplicity. How did you decide which moments needed that kind of intense, rapid heartbeat, and which ones needed the more slow, creeping mood?
JC: I don’t remember now. I remember starting the movie with the main theme, over the pumpkin, and then using that main theme sparingly throughout the film—only at certain times that I wanted to reset the entire thing. As I remember, we’re going down a street and it’s become night, and then to reset the movie, then I used it. And I used it in the end. But you just have to use it sparingly. It’ll get boring if you use it too much.
TG: I noticed last night as I was rewatching the film that the BPM matches the flicker of a candle, which I had going in my living room, which was a cool effect.
JC: That’s neat. Well, I planned that in 1978, my friend.
TG: On top of it ratcheting up tension, the theme is just so catchy. So much of even your scary film music also has a great groove—which I’m sure you know, because you’re performing it live with an audience. And I think one of the reasons people love your film music so much is because it’s either often a meditative mood piece that really plays well as music, or it’s got this infectious groove or hook that’s very trancelike, even danceable. You’re usually not Mickey-Mousing or hitting all the beats of the action onscreen. The music has its own groove and logic.
JC: Oh, well thank you. That’s very kind of you to say that.
TG: What inspired that approach?
JC: Rock ‘n roll. I’m just a real big rock ‘n roll fan. So I think half of the music that I make really is kind of rock ‘n roll inspired. It’s riff-driven, often. That’s just the way I approach music. The quieter pieces, the eerier pieces, are not that. They’re a little bit different.
TG: But even those, I find often… if they’re not dance or rock-flavored, they have their own kind of musicality. The way your music lays up against the images and continues through scenes, just has a much more meditative effect on the audience.
JC: I would agree with you. It’s a different rhythmic concoction. And it isn’t Mickey-Mouse. It isn’t telling you every single thing you’re supposed to feel. It’s kind of washing you with this feeling, and it builds and builds and builds, often. But I totally agree—it’s just a style of music I like a lot.
TG: One of the other musical elements in the original Halloween is, you’ve got that great little synth stinger.
JC: [Laughs] Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
TG: We first hear it in the opening, when Michael sees his light go on upstairs. And you use it as kind of a jumpscare in the score a couple times. Did you ever feel like that was cheating in a way, or how did you decide when to pull that out and when not to?
JC: I do think it’s cheating. It’s cheap. And I love using it. It’s a three-note deal [hums it]. I used it in many places, just when I thought I wanted to draw attention to something. Draw attention to this action, or this moment. And I used it maybe too much, huh? I should be ashamed of myself.
TG: Did you have any hesitation jumping back into the world of Michael Myers and all this?
JC: I did at first, but then I was talked into it by Jason Blum, who’s a real successful producer. He said, “They’re gonna make the sequel anyway, so why don’t we jump aboard and just try to make it good?” That was a good, interesting challenge, so I said “yeah.”
TG: Has Halloween ever been a burden for you in any way, or has it overshadowed other things that you’ve done that you wished people appreciated more than Halloween?
JC: No, that’s okay. I love what Halloween has done for me, and I love the movie itself. And every time a sequel is made, I get paid. So I can’t dislike it. Even if I don’t like the movies, I like the paycheck.
TG: So on this new one, did David give you a lot of freedom to score the film as you saw fit?
JC: Well, he did, but it was a real great collaboration. David and I had several spotting sessions—and I’m working with my son and godson on this, so the three of us would listen to David, and he would describe where he wanted the music, and what emotional effect, what kind of a drive he wanted the music to have. We just took copious notes and started in, and started to work. Then we played it for him, and he made slight adjustments. But pretty much we gave him exactly what he wanted.
TG: Do you think he was intimidated to give you directions?
JC: No. God, no. He’s a good director. He knows what he wants. And he’s not a horror director—that’s what I love about him. I love him. He’s coming to this, you know, as a director who’s done comedy and dramas.
TG: It’s just such an interesting dynamic, because you’re not just a film composer—you’re a director, and Halloween is your baby. It’s almost like you directing a sequel to Psycho, and hiring Alfred Hitchcock to write the score.
JC: [Laughs] Jesus. Yeah, but you know what? That’s just fine. That’s what I would do. If I was hired to direct a sequel to Psycho, I’d tell him what to do. It’d be my movie.
TG: Even if it’s Hitchcock?
JC: Hell yes. And especially if it’s him. It’s David Gordon Green’s movie—it’s not mine. I’m just the composer and a helper.
TG: How was it co-composing with your son and godson? I know you’ve worked with others in the past, like Alan Howarth. How was this different?
JC: Well, it’s joyous. You know, we’ve done three albums together—the Lost Themes album and the Anthology album. So we know each other pretty well. We know what each of us brings to the table. So that made it really easy. And then we experimented with some brand new sounds—bowed guitar and things like that. It was fun.
TG: Yeah, I was curious how you decided you wanted to “update” the music for 2018, or what you wanted to leave alone and pure.
JC: Well, we brought with us the old themes, and we made them more mature, shall I say, with the new sounds and technology that’s available to us now. So, sonically, the tonality of the new stuff is just miles above what I could do back in the day in 1978. But then we did some new material, new music, which is also a lot of fun.
TG: Did you use any of the original analogue synthesizers or any of the actual recordings from the original score?
JC: None. We redid everything.
TG: But it does feature the classic sounds at times, so you were just able to recreate that with modern technology?
JC: That’s right. We used modern sounds on the old stuff. If you compare it, you can tell the difference. But maybe when you’re sitting in a theater, you don’t notice.
TG: I think it’s really cool that you’re making music and performing music with your sons. That’s an amazing bonding experience.
JC: Oh, it’s incredible. At my age, are you kidding? It’s unbelievable. I never thought I’d do it.
TG: I wish my dad played music.
JC: Well, there you go [laughs].
TG: We can do accounting together.
TG: How has performing this music in concert changed your relationship to it, or how did that affect the writing process on the new film?
JC: Well, it helped a little bit, because we were real familiar with it. If anything, we up-tempoed the old stuff and made it fly a little bit faster. Just because I think we play it faster in concert. It helps us.
TG: What, for you, makes this film and this score more than just a nostalgia trip?
JC: The story makes it stand on its own, and the performance of Jamie Lee Curtis makes it stand on its own. She’s spectacular in this, and the story is really compelling. That’s what we’re all in service of. We’re not in service of a wink for an old movie that people may or may not remember. We’re in service of a brand new film, that happens to be in a line of Halloween movies.
TG: Do you feel like this is the right sort of cap for the Halloween storyline, or is there room for more?
JC: There will never be a cap, my friend. If it makes money, it will go on forever. With or without me, that’s what will happen.
John Carpenter’s original score, co-written with his son and godson, is available on CD and streaming online.