John Carpenter (2021) | featured image
John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies (2021) | Photo courtesy of BZ3 Media

John Carpenter on the Pleasure of Making Horror Film Soundtracks

The hallowed B-movie director John Carpenter says making film scores with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies comes naturally. But he still craves the unnatural.

Across the years 1974-2001, John Carpenter established himself as a hallowed figure in modern B-movie cinema. In a remarkable run of productivity from 1974-1981 — while also making four made-for-TV movies — Carpenter both wrote and directed the five classic works Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From New York. While his work rate barely dropped in the ’80s and ’90s — he directed The Thing, Christine, Big Trouble In Little China, and They Live among others — it became increasingly difficult to find financing or to overcome critics’ general disparagement of his work.

Carpenter, however, had already laid the seeds of his inspiring second act. His enjoyment of making music combined with the practicalities of saving money meant it made sense to compose the soundtracks for his own works. Primarily showcasing the capabilities of early synthesizers, Carpenter’s music gained a following of its own and he received ever-burgeoning credit as a pioneer in the field of dark electronica.

Increasingly worn down by the grind involved in getting a film made (though by no means tired of the pleasure of making a film), Carpenter retired in the early 2000s. In 2015, however, he reemerged with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies to work on projects with Sacred Bones Records. Together they created a well-respected series of LPs expanding on the musical vocabulary he had originated back in the ’70s.

Now comfortably settled into this renewed spell of creative energy, Carpenter set his seal of approval on recent reboots of the Halloween film franchise when he agreed to provide the soundtracks, the most recent being 2021’s Halloween Kills. PopMatters catches up with Carpenter on a beautiful morning in the Hollywood Hills, where our charming, enigmatic host shares his delight that basketball has returned to US television screens.

It’s notable that your father was a professor of music, then you went into the creative arts but wound up becoming a musician too, and now you’re working with your son, Cody. To what extent do you associate your work with a familial or generational connection?

I grew up in a house filled with music all the time so some of it rubbed off. Although I don’t have the same talent and drive my father had, I got a bit of it, he did affect me. Beyond liking being with my son and spending time together, they [Cody and Daniel] really pull their own weight. My son is a really accomplished musician and I need his help putting the music together and Daniel Davies helps also. It’s a very functional deal we have.

Functional in what sense?

I guess I bring experience; Cody brings mastery of the keyboards; Daniel is a master of sounds, synthesizer, and guitar, the range of electronic sounds — he’s very experimental.

Did your interest in music – as something you might create not just consume – survive all the way from youth?

I was motivated first and foremost to write movies, that’s my first love. You have to start somewhere so I started writing my way in and then it went from there. But after a while, that task became so hard and so difficult it was just exhausting. I really did lose interest.

But music is effortless for me, it just arises like a spring from a mountainside. It’s no big deal to create so I’m loving the musical end of things now, the ideas are still booming around in there.

You seem to have retired from making films, is that a permanent state of affairs?

I know I miss it. I loved movie-making. But it’s changed so much now compared to when I was getting in. It’s not impossible to understand any of that, but everything has changed; the equipment; how it’s done…I do miss the process though. I may come back and direct something!

There’s a basic love of moviemaking that goes back to when I was a kid. It has always been there. I wake up every day and I want to make a movie but I don’t have the same crazy drive I did when I was younger.

You were certainly incredibly productive. What kept you moving?

I don’t know what drove me on — what drives anybody? It’s just a need to create I guess.

I guess I’m always scared that if I stop for breath, maybe the inspiration will never come back or the opportunities will disappear…

Well, that’s the creative process! Anyone who has ever written anything feels that way — I know exactly what you mean. I do want to work but I don’t want to work that hard — so I don’t wanna do it anymore. I just have ideas that I work on and develop in my head — and they’re all great in my head!

Was there a moment when you realized people were taking inspiration from your musical work?

I don’t remember a point where people were suddenly into my music. I realized my music for myself because it was part of the creation of the movie, it was another voice I could add and it was mine. I don’t necessarily remember the outside world necessarily.

Soundtracks are really fun to do and it’s fun to see the work realized on the screen and to see the cut. The reward is seeing a movie and the music being part of that movie — it’s just wonderful.

And the little matter of Halloween. Does it ever surprise you that, of all your work, it’s been resurrected so many times?

Oh sure! In the beginning, in 1978, it was just a little exploitation movie I made… Then suddenly it wasn’t. It’s lived a huge life and I’m always amazed by that. I don’t know why it happened. To this day I have no idea. I don’t get it!

With nothing else to do during the lockdown, I confess I persuaded my wife to let us watch every single Halloween film from earliest to latest…

God! I never want to see them ever again!

Well, that brings us right up to the present-day and the soundtrack to Halloween Kills. How do you set about creating film work?

I’m always working on the cut footage, scoring to the visual image, because the images are all important for a movie score. You need the timing, the atmosphere, the feel of it — that’s really all-important.

How does it differ from something like Lost Themes [2015], where you don’t have an actual film and the three of you are creating films for the mind?

The process of creating the music is pretty much the same, though there’s a bit more discovery to be done when you have no image. I mean, Halloween Kills, certainly comes from the director’s side. The whole thing is guided by the director, he says what he wants. We get the cut of the movie then we sit down with the director.

There’s a plotting session that takes place and the director says ‘I want music here and I want it to do the following here, and let’s make it kind of happy here, then get sad,’ whatever he says is what guides me. That’s the first thing – structuring the soundtrack. The second is just my experience then we’re all set.

I’m curious also about the approach to getting it recorded, in terms of how often you get together, whether it’s over a tight period or more intermittent…

We just start scoring from the logo onward and we just play and it seems to work out. Once we start we work every day, only taking weekends off here and there. We just gotta work.

It’s like being a coal miner, you put your helmet on, turn the light on, and go down into the cave and see what you can dig up. There are no rules really, there are certain moods, certain sounds, that we use but there are no rules. There are certain motifs that work, that we repeat.

Comparing Halloween Kills to the 2018 Halloween, I could hear certain cues and ideas carry over.

There are elements that we translated right over from Halloween for particular characters or actions or moods. The whole thing is based on reworking some of the older themes from the very first movie of Halloween but updating them with the latest technology and using new sounds.

Given it’s an improvised process of content development, are there many alternate takes, leftovers, or extended material that you wind up with?

No. What you hear on the soundtrack, what you hear in the film, that’s pretty much it. There’s not really much more than that although it’s all at the director’s discretion; he can choose to remove a piece of music and play a scene in silence — which sometimes works really well — or he can choose to use something else. But, you know, we don’t have a big stash of unheard music sitting around.

How are things looking for the final film, Halloween Ends? Are you getting busy again?

I’ve read the script and now we wait. We have to get the movie first because it’s all based on those images so they need to go shoot it now and then cut it and give it to us. In the meantime, the NBA season has started here in America so everything is great!

There’s a score we’re working on for a non-Halloween movie — but I can’t tell you the name of it. I’m looking around for projects and ideas. I’ve been on a serious search for eternal life for a long time but I haven’t found it yet. I keep asking people where it is but no one can help!

Beyond searching for eternity, do you feel a sense of appreciation and satisfaction that you have reached this point in life where you’re comfortable and your work has been recognized? That you’re already one of the immortals?

Oh hell yeah! God yeah.