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November 2014
Issue: May 1, 2011

Director's Chair: John Carpenter - 'The Ward'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — Over the past four decades, director/producer/ writer/actor/editor/composer John Carpenter has thrilled, chilled and scared the pants off audiences worldwide with such films as the Halloween franchise, The Fog and Escape From New York. 

Over the past few years, Carpenter has been largely MIA on the big screen. But now he’s back with a new film, the period ghost-thriller The Ward, which stars Amber Heard (soon to be seen in The Rum Diary opposite Johnny Depp) as a beautiful but troubled young woman who awakes to find herself a prisoner in a mysterious hospital ward.

Here, Carpenter, whose credits also include Ghosts of Mars, Village of the Damned, Christine and The Thing, talks about making the film, his love of post, why he stopped directing for a while, and how Hollywood’s changed since he directed his first feature film, Dark Star, back in 1974.

POST: You haven’t directed a movie since Ghosts of Mars, back in 2001. What happened?

JOHN CARPENTER: “I was involved in several projects but I stopped directing for several years because I just got burned out doing movies, and I didn’t want to work anymore. Then along came these two one-hour Showtime movies, Masters of Horror, five or six years ago. I had such a good time directing them that I started thinking, maybe if the right project comes along, I’ll get back into it.”

POST: How do you go about deciding what your next project will be, and what made you choose this? 

CARPENTER: “I chose this because it was a great script and it fits the right criteria for what I wanted to do — something small with a small cast and limited locations... a simple story and something I can play around with, with the actors. So when this came along and seemed to fit the bill, I decided to go ahead.”

POST: You usually multi-task, often writing, producing and composing, as well as directing. Why not this time?

CARPENTER: “Because I’m older now and I found a lot of people who can do the job better at this point in my life. The big issue for me is always the music and composing, and on this I found Mark Killian, who did the music for Tsotsi, which won the Oscar. He did an amazing job for me. I didn’t have to do it, which was one less thing to worry about.”

POST: Where did you shoot the film?

CARPENTER: “It was a low-budget quick shoot — 30 days in Spokane, Washington, which is a great, very beautiful city. We shot just 20 minutes outside, inside a mental institution, and the part we were in was closed down; it fit our needs perfectly.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?

CARPENTER: “It’s always the same — time and money. You never have enough of either. As for the creative issues, we didn’t have any because the cast was so good. You have these beautiful Hollywood actresses in a mental institution — what could be better? It’s awesome!”

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

CARPENTER: “We shot on 35mm and then brought all the footage back to LA to edit. We went from film to digital for the edit, which was the first time for me. We used Final Cut Pro, and I loved it. In the past we’ve always gone to dailies, but there were no dailies this time except digital material, which was different and interesting. 

“In the end, we spent about six months on post and did all of it at Modern Digital in Seattle and North by Northwest Entertainment in Spokane.”

POST: Do you like the post process?

CARPENTER: “I do, but it’s so different from the shoot. The shoot’s a lot of fun for me because you’re running around the set with the actors and creating the scenes. Then in post, it’s an entirely different process of filmmaking — equally difficult and time-consuming and intensive, but fun in a different way. It’s exciting as you can do so many different things. You can work dramatically, structurally, and it’s a time of great promise. But post can also be very frustrating, trying to make your footage work out better than it should. 

“There’s that great old saying, ‘If you have a bad film, with enough time in post you can make it fair, and with a fair film, with enough time you can make it good,’ and so on. So it’s down to the time you have to refine and edit your raw footage. One of the big problems with moviemaking is that you’re always having to meet a schedule, and rushing post is never good.”

POST: This was edited by Patrick McMahon, who worked with you on Masters of Horror. How does that relationship work?

CARPENTER: “I had a great time working with him on Masters. He didn’t come on the set for this. He’s very experienced and very talented, and after he’d done his assembly and cut we began playing around with structure and flashbacks a lot, and gradually began working on each section. It’s a lot of work, but fun. We edited at a couple of places in Hollywood — starting off in a rented suite and then ending up at The Post Group.”

POST: You used to also edit, true?

CARPENTER: “Yes, I used to do nearly everything myself when I started, because there was no real budget to hire people. I learned editing at film school at USC, so it was partly out of necessity but it was also a lot of fun.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there? Who did them?

CARPENTER: “There are quite a lot — about 155 I think. But they’re all very subtle — not huge, obvious effects shots. We’d darken a frame here, highlight something else there, and there’s also a ghost that appears in the story. 

“All the visual effects shots were done in After Effects by North by Northwest. The [post production] supervisor was Jason Payne at North by Northwest. We’d be cutting down in LA and they would send down the shots as they did them, and we’d get on the phone and discuss them as we went. “

POST: Do you like visual effects?

CARPENTER: “I do. They’re a great storytelling device, and they can do great wonders for you. But they can also be a real pain in the ass, especially when they take too long to do and you’re waiting on everything in post and running out of time and money. But this experience was great, and it all went very smoothly.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

CARPENTER: “It’s really hard to overestimate how much they affect all visuals in any movie, and especially in a low-budget film where you want the soundtrack to be really effective. You can maybe cheat a bit with the visuals, but if the sound and music aren’t good, it all falls apart. So I always spend as much time as I can on the mix — or as much as we can afford. It’s the budget that always tells you when it’s time to stop (laughs). We did it all at Wildfire Studios in Hollywood.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

CARPENTER: “Yes, the DI was at Modern Digital in Seattle, and the colorist was Tim Maffia. It’s the first time I’d ever done a DI, and it was pretty amazing to me how you can tweak even a single frame if you want.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

CARPENTER: “Pretty much. It’s never exactly the way you first picture it in your head because things change constantly and you’re always having to adapt and compromise, but I made the film I wanted to make.”

POST: How’s filmmaking changed since you began directing?

CARPENTER: “So much in some ways, and not at all in other ways. Take lighting, for instance. It’s barely changed over the years. You still have to sit around waiting while the cameraman lights a scene, and it’s no faster today than it was decades ago. 

“I keep begging DPs to come up with a way to get beautiful lighting faster, but it’ll never happen (laughs). But other areas like sound and editing have gone through this huge digital revolution in the past decade. That’s all become much faster and better, I think.”

POST: Is film dead? 

CARPENTER: “That’s a very interesting question, but I just don’t know. There are a lot of aspects to digital that are very groundbreaking, but even if filmmakers are using the latest tools and technology, it seems that theaters and exhibition are still lagging far behind. I saw a comparison screening between digital and film, and it was a real eye-opener to me. The color and shaking and all the flaws of film that you never used to notice were all there, and I was really amazed. I would definitely shoot a film digitally if it was the right project, with the right DP and so on.”

POST: Hollywood’s gone 3D crazy it seems. Any interest in doing a 3D film?

CARPENTER: “Absolutely none! 3D was a craze when I was a kid, and I just don’t care that much about it. If it’s used for the right movie, it works great, but I don’t want to do it. I don’t think 3D’s going to take over, despite all the talk.”

POST: What’s your take on the current state of Hollywood?

CARPENTER: “Hollywood’s always the same. They’re always crying the blues, there’s never enough money, ‘We don’t make enough money’ — of course they do! They just don’t tell you about it.”

POST: What’s your take on the current state of indie film?

CARPENTER: “That’s a whole different story. There is no real independent film anymore. All the distributors are pretty much owned by the studios, and these are tough economic times because of the recession and world events. The world seems to be going to hell, and it’s harder than ever to raise money.”

POST: Over the years you’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Do you feel you’ve been unfairly pigeonholed for the most part as a horror director? 

CARPENTER: (Laughs) “I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, and it doesn’t bother me much now. I’ve done horror, I’ve done suspense, I’ve done sci-fi — it’s all filmmaking.”

POST: What are the best and worst aspects of being a director?

CARPENTER: “The best is that you get to imagine and then create these films. That’s a pretty amazing thing. The worst is that the actual job itself is very tough, especially as you get older. It’s all-consuming when you’re on a film. You have no other life at all. That’s why I stopped for a while. I needed a break.”

POST: What’s next?

CARPENTER: “I’m working on developing a couple of scripts. They’re both very interesting, but it’s always down to the same thing: Can you raise the money successfully? And can you get enough to make it worthwhile? We’ll see, but I’m optimistic.”