The man in the cryogenic freezer: an interview with John Carpenter

In this piece originally published in our Spring 1978 issue, John Carpenter talks about his first two features, Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, and why he would have loved to work in the old Hollywood studio system.

15 January 2021

By Tom Milne, Richard Combs

Austin Stoker as Ethan Bishop in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Dark Star is available on disc and digital download in the UK from Assault on Precinct 13 is available on disc and to stream on BFI Player.

After the 1960s, when younger American filmmakers seemed to be turning increasingly to Europe for inspiration, have come the nostalgic 70s and a return to the old Hollywood. It can be no accident that three of the decade’s most commercially successful movies – The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars – were not only genre pieces (albeit elephantised), but made by directors who had already established themselves more or less in critical esteem.

Like George Lucas, John Carpenter (born Bowling Green, Kentucky, 1948) is a graduate of the University of Southern California cinema department who has made the grade after a debut in science fiction. Unlike Lucas, Carpenter seems less concerned with updating the old Hollywood ways than with trying to prove that nothing in his best of all possible worlds need ever have changed; and the difference between their respective first features, THX 1138 and Dark Star, is very marked, notably by a rather strained quest for significance on the part of Lucas, and a steely determination in Carpenter to have no truck with messages.

This feature was first published in our Spring 1978 issue

First seen in Britain at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974 and screened last Christmas on television, Dark Star began as a 45-minute student project while Carpenter was still at USC, and was then turned into a feature costing $60,000 when several people became interested. Not exactly a parody of 2001, the film nevertheless turns Kubrick’s clock back a good many years.

“I’ve loved science fiction since I was a kid,” Carpenter says, “and some of the film was paying tribute to the old science fiction films… the beach ball alien was like the 50s rubber monsters running around. We had no money to compete with 2001, but its religious overtones insulted me so much that I just said I’m not going to do that, I’m going to make a down-to-earth movie, how do you clean your underwear when you’re on a spaceship and so on.”

Almost all done by animation camera and cartoons, the special effects in Dark Star actually look extremely elaborate and expensive, and true to his promise, Carpenter puts the skids under the one moment when mystical overtones threaten as the spaceship runs into trouble and the acting captain, as a last resort, goes to consult the dead captain preserved in a “cryogenic freezer compartment”.

Appealed to for advice, the oracle first complains that no one has visited in ages, then lapses into silence, sleepily trying to collect its wits before anticlimactically muttering, “Well, if you can’t get it to stop, talk to the bomb, teach it phenomenology.”

Characteristically, Carpenter then turns anticlimax into climax. Absurdly the acting captain approaches the recalcitrant bomb – primed by a malfunction, it has resisted blandishments from the computer (no HAL but a sexy siren) to un-prime itself – and engages it in philosophical debate, the astronaut arguing that objects are merely ideas while the bomb stoutly insists, “I think, therefore I exist.”

Interested, the bomb finally withdraws to think it over, re-emerging for a moment of strange and haunting epiphany worthy of Ray Bradbury. Now converted to the idealistic position, the bomb is back with Genesis: “I saw that there was darkness and I was alone… Let there be light!” And a blinding white flash obliterates the screen as the bomb creates its world and in empty space the two surviving astronauts float alone with their obsessions.

The UK quad poster for Dark Star (1974)

Wonderfully funny, Dark Star is flawed only by a slight self-indulgence in certain scenes where the original concept clearly (though delightfully) shows signs of having been padded out. This was a mistake Carpenter was not to repeat in his next feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (cost, $200,000). A thriller which transposes the basic situation of Rio Bravo (a police station manned by a skeleton staff and some unlikely allies is attacked kamikaze-style by a vengeful youth gang), its relaxed, assured economy of style, reminiscent of the best of 40s film noir, had the audience at the London Film Festival last December unabashedly cheering and applauding like 14-year-old film fans.

Carpenter manages to send his action up and take it absolutely seriously at the same time, keeping his audience simultaneously on the edge of their seats and on the brink of gleeful mockery. The film is a virtuoso display of old-style professionalism, shot with beautiful functionalism in the head-on camera style that marked nearly all the Hollywood greats from Ford and Hawks to Billy Wilder, who might have been talking for John Carpenter when he condemned any director who does otherwise with his camera. “He isn’t doing what he should be doing: telling the story.”

John Carpenter: Exactly. I believe in that so much. Because when you use the camera to express an emotion by an exaggerated angle or something, that is fine, but if you have to do it because what is happening on the screen is not interesting or compelling enough, then you’re in trouble. If people are talking, that’s more important than the director saying Hey, look at me, I’m a director, I can do all this. Who cares about that anyway? The audience cares about what is on the screen.

Film school allowed me to grab the camera and zoom in and out and show off. I hate show-offs and I hate pretension. My first films were very avant-garde because, as young as I was, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, so I tried everything and kind of felt my way along. I made some awful movies. I couldn’t show them, they’re just so horrible.

Sometimes of course you have to have an angle or a camera trick for a dramatic effect, and then, if it’s used right, you hope it works and the audience will respond to it emotionally. For instance, I shot the opening of Assault on Precinct 13 myself, using a hand-held camera, following the gang coming out of a doorway and walking down an alley, then they hear something but go on and are suddenly gunned down, and you look up and see the police ambush above. I knew that it would be a bit self-conscious but that people would pay attention to it right away, and then I could get on with the film and move them into it.

Do you really see yourself as belonging with the older generation of filmmakers, people like Howard Hawks?

John Carpenter

Absolutely, yes. If I had three wishes, one of them would be ‘Send me back to the 40s and the studio system and let me direct movies.’ Because I would have been happiest there. I feel I am a little bit out of time. I have much more of a kinship for older style films, and very few films that are made now interest me at all. I get up and walk out on them. And in that sense I have a tough battle.

I like genres, and regardless of what film I do, I identify for myself what genre I’m working in, so that I can relate it to others. Not necessarily that I want to say to the audience Hey, you’ve seen this before, but for myself I identify it. And I find that I make films differently, and my ideas are basically different from most directors in Hollywood because – and I may be wrong – films are getting more and more pretentious.

Even something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind… It’s a movie about flying saucers, and the potential of a big budget movie about flying saucers could be great, but the way the film was made they just… went out the window!

How do you feel about the New Wave then, Godard and Truffaut and their early attempts to extend the genres?

It’s very difficult for me to reflect on that. I have a feeling that Truffaut and Godard, a lot of European film-makers… whether it’s the system they are working under or… their movies are texturally inferior somehow, there’s something missing in them, just in terms of a visceral approach to a movie. And I can’t figure out whether it’s intentional, or whether they haven’t the technicians, or what. But there is a distance from the screen to the audience.

And my whole philosophy of movies is that movies are not intellectual, they are not ideas, that is done in literature and all sorts of other forms. Movies are emotional, an audience should cry or laugh or get scared. I think the audience should project into the film, into a character, into a situation, and react.

The great thing about some of the B movies or the film noir, say, is that the audience did just that. In The Big Sleep they wanted to know what Humphrey Bogart was going to do. These other directors don’t do that. They take the superficial aspects of it but they don’t get down to the real guts of the thing, which is that the audience has to care.

I don’t feel you can just sit and analyse the film intellectually, because then it has failed. So in terms of extending the genres, philosophical ideas, I’m not as interested in that as I am in getting the audience to react, really to project into the film, and come away having had an experience.

At the same time you are also in a sense distancing the audience, alerting them to be aware of what they are seeing in genre terms, through your humour and your movie allusions.

Because I think audiences are more sophisticated now and they’ve seen too many genre films. I’m trying to get them in all sorts of directions, but it’s not an intellectual idea. They don’t sit and think, ‘What’s he trying to say?’ They’ll laugh or chuckle their way with me, or they’ll feel their way.

You said that the humour in Dark Star was a later development. Is the same true of Assault on Precinct 13?

Exactly. I found in both films that I had constructed a situation which, the grimmer it got, the funnier it was to me. In Dark Star, these men have been in space for 20 years, there are no women, and they are kind of going crazy. I put myself in that situation and said it’s horrible, then I began to think it was funny.

Dark Star (1974)

The same goes for Assault on Precinct 13. I began with a very serious idea about people being attacked which began to become humorous to me. So it arises out of the situation rather than the decision, well, I’m going to make this funny. The first part of the picture, setting up the characters and the conflict, before they all arrive at the police station, is fairly straight, because I’ve learned that you want to take an audience up to a certain point and set them up, let them know what’s going to happen.

Then I begin dropping in the humour, like the girl wailing, “Why would anybody shoot at a police station?” From then on I can carry the absurdity. So basically, as soon as the lights go out in the station and the siege begins, I figured I had a chance to start putting some humour in, because the audience by that point is hooked.

The humour is also backed by another sense of slight dislocation that comes with the introduction of Napoleon Wilson, the killer on his way to Death Row who becomes a hero and seems to belong to another film.

Or maybe another time. Out of the Old West, I hope. I try to make him so that he doesn’t really belong with the people around him. He’s completely out of place as a prisoner. He is, in a way, removed in a heroic sense from everyone else, and I try to define his character less in terms of him being psychologically strange than through his lines, through the sort of metaphysical level on which he judges people.

He is always asking people for a smoke, for instance, and there are two people who respond to him with some sort of kindness. One is the Black police lieutenant, who says “No… sorry”, and Wilson thinks, ah, he gave me a little respect as a human being. The other is the girl, she gives him a cigarette. So through his eyes those are the two people who are worthy of his respect.

Austin Stoker as Ethan Bishop and Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

At the end, after what they have been through, Wilson and the lieutenant have established a sort of bond; I could have built up their characters and the relationship, but I thought that would have been copying Hawks right down the line, so I just didn’t want to do it. Basically it’s Wilson’s ending, and all I wanted was, through the lieutenant, to state the fact that he deserved some dignity for what he’d done. It wasn’t meant to be more… just a very simple ending, clean, heroic.

Wilson’s dialogue is very Hawksian; isn’t some of it quoted from Rio Bravo?

Not to my knowledge. Maybe unconsciously. There’s the line when Wilson says to the girl “You were good!” after her part in the shoot-out, and I thought, wait a minute, I’ve heard that before, where did that come from? And I think it’s from a lot of Hawks films. But I wasn’t consciously quoting it, it sort of came out of the character.

Apart from the unmistakable Hawksian feeling, there do seem to be replays from Rio Bravo, like the ‘No quarter’ banner that the Cholo gang throw down before the police station and the ‘No quarter’ music played throughout the wait for the attack in Rio Bravo.

I really never thought of that. The closest thing to another film that I was consciously aware of is the tossing of the shotgun, which is from Red River. The police being alerted to what is going on when blood from the dead telephone linesman starts dripping on to the roof of their patrol car… yes, I guess that’s the blood in the beer scene in Rio Bravo. And nobody seems to have noticed that the Black lieutenant’s story about being taken to a police station as a child by his father is Hitchcock’s own story.

But the tossing of the shotgun is the closest I ever got to taking something and really using it, because I don’t like to do that. I find a lot of directors, specifically somebody like De Palma, virtually copy a film as he did with Vertigo, and I hate that.

Bogdanovich copies too. He wants to make movies about old movies, to say, ‘Hey look at me, I have good taste, I love Hawks, I love Ford, I love Hitchcock, isn’t that great?’ I don’t want to copy another film, simply to get the ambience.

In the case of Assault on Precinct 13, I was approached by a backer with a certain amount of money, and he said, let’s make a picture that we can sell. And I wanted to make a western, very badly, because I love westerns. So I thought, I’m going to make a modern-day western, and I’m going to transpose the Indians attacking the fort. I’m going to use youth gangs. And I’m going to use archetypal heroes, I’m going to stylise a great deal, I’m a great Howard Hawks fan.

And it just sort of came out of that. But the point is that the film has to stand on its own, without the inferences from Hawks. That can’t be the central point of it. After all, although I also made it for people like you to get an added attraction out of it, I made the film basically for audiences who don’t know Hawks from anybody.

Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson and Tony Burton as Wells in Assault on Precinct 13

Isn’t there a slight anomaly in that, although you see yourself back in terms of the Hollywood studio system, you are practically a one-man band – not only directing, scripting and editing, but writing the music and virtually producing your films. So where’s the system?

The system back then, as I understand it from having talked with people, is that the control and the style and the point of view was basically left up to the director. Today in Hollywood the mechanics of getting a film going, the number of hands that grab on to it, is ridiculous.

When I say studio system, I would have loved to have worked with the stars they had on the roster, the technicians they had, the kind of movies they were doing where a director could move from one genre to another in succession.

I would love to give up writing films. I hate writing. I hate editing. I’m doing it only out of self-defence, because there’s no one else who can do it to my liking. And the reason I have done the music on my films is because I’m the cheapest and the best I know for the price! I would love to work with a Goldsmith or somebody like that, but I can’t afford to, so it’s me.

Do you foresee difficulties in surviving now that the studio system doesn’t exist any more and so many deals have to be made with people wanting a piece of the pie?

I know, this comes down to my present dilemma, because I don’t want to compromise that much and I see the writing on the wall to get to a position of power where I can do my own films my own way. I must compromise to a certain extent, and the least painful way is through writing. So, writing my way towards a position of power, I have to write scripts that I often wouldn’t want to direct, and I have become a good journeyman writer.

I’ve written a lot of scripts that are successful but that I wouldn’t give a damn about, although I always apply the craft and do a good job. What I’m saying is that I don’t put John Carpenter into those scripts – and in the past year I’ve written six – I write them for the machine and for an end purpose.

I want to do Assault on Precinct 13 with five million dollars and big stars: this is what I’m after, taking a low budget film like this and getting the power to be able to do it within the studios. They’re not going to let me walk in, I have to work my way up there. It’s very frustrating.

And paradoxical. Assault on Precinct 13 might reasonably be described as a surefire commercial movie. Yet the major distributors weren’t exactly falling over themselves to distribute it in Britain.


Yes, I know. I feel I’m treading on thin ice in a way. The film was distributed all wrong in America, as blood and guts, without any of the suspense or mystery. And Assault doesn’t deliver that, so it has done just fair. If I had made this film brutally realistic, without stylising it at all, it probably would have done much better in America.

I wanted the audience to have fun with the characters, laugh with them, while at the same time having the violence of the situation going on. But because the youth gang problem is so serious over there, they don’t want it to be stylised.

Although you elide the violence so that there is remarkably little of the currently fashionable bloodletting, despite the fantastic number of killings, there is still one fairly shocking moment: when the little girl – conventionally to be menaced but not killed – is shot through the ice-cream.

When I thought of that, to me it was the most absurd death I could think of, getting shot through an ice-cream cone. You don’t really see very much when she is shot; it’s the idea of it that is kind of horrifying. A simple dramatic trick: I wanted the bad guys to be bad. And if they could kill that little girl, there is no way you’ll sympathise with them, there is no way you’ll say, well, they’re poor, they have reasons.

I didn’t want any political or social messages at all, and that scene was specifically planned for that reason. An incident that really happened started me on it. A youth gang was standing round a bus stop and a bus pulled up. One of them said, the next person that gets off, I’m going to kill him. A little girl stepped out and he shot her, got in a car, and drove away.

What kind of people will do that? In broad daylight? I mean, they don’t care about anything, it’s completely senseless and psychotic. So I thought, well, I’ll make the villains that way, because to me that’s a frightening thing, utter horror, to think I’m going to walk down a street and be shot for nothing.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

I was discussing the character with the actor who plays this gang member who shoots the little girl, and he gave me the best explanation of the villain. He said, “I don’t want to play this as a man with a gun, I want to play it as a man who is a gun.” That was exactly what I wanted these people to be like, killing machines with the mechanics of the trigger.

They just don’t care, which is why this character, when he gets out of the car to confront the dead child’s father, just stands there and is shot down. Basically, to me the evil outside was totally irrational and senseless. Had I wanted the gang to be realistic, to make a social comment, it probably would have been either an all-Chicano or an all-Black gang. I deliberately made it racially mixed, not being too specific about it, keeping it a little shadowy and indistinct.

Talking about B movies, you said that one of their great qualities was in going straight from A to B, but you also said that in Dark Star you meander, giving yourself a chance to explore personality. Do you feel the same is true of Assault on Precinct 13?

Yes, very definitely. With Dark Star we had a stricter narrative at first. Then as the picture grew, I began to realise that there were variations on the basic situation, that I could go off in this direction or that, explore this guy a little bit more and then over to another, and that the audience would go along.

It was an episodic kind of thing, the closest I’ve come to improvisation; but the thing that allowed me to do this was the central concept, without it I’d have been lost. Now I’ve become a little bit more disciplined. I don’t think I would do anything that loose again.

Dark Star (1974)

In Assault on Precinct 13, Wilson has a very simple story, and all I have to do is set him up to get him to a certain point. But I like to meander around, taking in Wilson’s philosophy and how he feels about things: the scene in the bus where he talks to his police escort; the silly game whereby he and Wells decide who goes out to make the break for help; when they’re downstairs in the basement looking for a way to defend themselves, and Wilson and the girl talk, discuss really a kind of love relationship while the movie stops for a minute, just going off on a sidetrack.

Much of Wilson’s dialogue has this meandering, teasing quality, with his philosophical asides, his half-completed explanations, and the unresolved question of how he came to be named Napoleon.

I’m trying to build a certain mystery, curiosity, romance about this man, compared to the police lieutenant, who’s really a strait-laced kind of guy whom I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with. He isn’t Black because I’m saying something about Blacks. Nor did I want to say anything about policemen. I just wanted somebody, a kind of one-dimensional character who represents law and order, who accepts responsibility in that situation.

You clearly calculate everything down to the last detail. Was this why the part of the girl was cut down during editing?

Yes. Of the actresses I tested for the role, Laurie Zimmer was absolutely the best. We experimented with the role a little, but I think I failed and she failed in one specific area. There’s a line in this character between being cool and assured and strong, and being cold and bitchy. And she crossed the line several times.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

It was my fault. She was very nervous, this was her first film. So when I got it into the cutting-rooms, I realised… this was a nuance, but it had to do with how you feel about this woman. So I had to cut a great deal of her part out, a lot of good lines which, if they had been delivered correctly, would I think have added to the film, though she works pretty well now.

Most of what was cut had to do with her relationship to the other girl, Julie, the one who gets killed, who had a part that made much more sense originally. Now you perhaps wonder why I have her in the film at all, except to get killed. But originally there were tensions between the two girls, with Julie resenting Leigh for various reasons: Leigh is not only more attractive, she is an upper-middle-class girl who has come down into the ghetto, and being a cop is trying to help people. It gave a little more complexity, a little bit more shading, so that you understand why Julie fell apart before she was killed. You have to be careful of these fine lines: if you dip over, the audience is lost…

Can you envisage yourself turning to literary adaptations?

There’s a book I very much want to film by Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination. Terrific science fiction… it would cost millions and millions of dollars, I’ll never be able to do it. I also, strangely enough, would love to do Edgar Allan Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom. I think it could be a tremendous film. But that’s all in the future. I have to establish myself as a writer first, and then explore.

Further reading

Meet whiplash Wilder: Billy Wilder interviewed in 1967

In this piece from our Winter 1967 issue, Charles Higham visits Billy Wilder in Hollywood and finds the great director in a genial, relaxed mood as he looks back over his career and classic movies from People on Sunday and Double Indemnity to Sunset Boulevard and beyond.

By Charles Higham

Meet whiplash Wilder: Billy Wilder interviewed in 1967

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