2003-09-10 11:48:58 UTC
Argento interviews Carpenter!!! Carpenter interviews Argento!!!
This interview took place at the 17th Turin Film Festival (19-27
Originally published in Nocturno Cinema ( www.nocturno.it ), year V,
No. 12, February-March 2000. Re-published by kind permission of the
Nocturno guys. Thanks to Manlio Gomarasca & Davide Pulici!
ARGENTO: This is a very important occasion, because it is the first
time that you and I have a public meeting and I wonder what you think
is going to happen. I don't know: we could kiss each other, we could
say "fuck off" to each other, we may fight too. Or we could get
married and shoot a movie right now, right here, at the end of the
evening. Why not?
Ghezzi (an Italian critic and filmmaker) can help us, as he is already
shooting. Anyway, we have here an enormous book on you, it weighs 50
pounds. There is written everything on you, nothing to add: Carpenter
from his birth, his first love, pictures of all the people in his
crew, everything. Therefore I think that the only thing I have to ask
is something I'm not personally interested in.
Frankly, of him as a director I don't care to know how he realised a
certain shoot, how he had to fight for making that film, etc... I want
to know where and how he was born, what his family was and how he got
to make movies. For me this is a mystery: how on a certain day a
person begins to make movies and becomes a famous director, among
millions of people. How can you do that? And, thereafter, why did
Carpenter deal with the human fear and restlessness among all the
topics? This is what I want to ask John.
CARPENTER: I was born in 1948, in January, in NYC. When I was five I
moved with my family to a little town in the South of the United
States. I owe those locals everything I learned and knew about people.
I became a director first because I fell in love with the movies and
When I was four I saw 'IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE' (by Jack Arnold,
1952) and I began to make movies when I was eight. My father bought me
a camcorder and from the very beginning I tried to reproduce into the
images the feeling of evil I had from this little town, trying to
convey that to the people who would eventually saw it.
ARGENTO: It seems that that present, the camcorder your father bought,
was of fundamental importance.
CARPENTER: Not just important: besides the camcorder, my father gave
me the love for music - he was a teacher of music and he transmitted
me his joy - and I grew up listening to him. He was the soundtrack of
my life. My mother, instead, gifted me with a great imagination. These
two things and the camera pushed me in this direction. I began to
study cinema and a bit by chance I became a director, for being in the
right place at the right time.
ARGENTO: You studied in Los Angeles, but you attended the right
university, for usually who studies in LA goes to the UCLA, while you
were at the USC, a place where you seriously study cinema, a real
university, not that of Spielberg and Lucas. A place where you hit it
hard. And everybody who love cinema is aware of that.
CARPENTER: You are right. At the USC you have to learn everything
about cinema: shooting, sound, lighting, editing, acting, writing,
directing, everything. There I learnt everything. But now, let's talk
a bit about you...
ARGENTO: Well, I come from a family where they made cinema, and I've
been very close to this world since I was a child. My mother was a
photographer and my father worked as a producer. When I was eighteen I
finished to go to school and I began to work in a newspaper writing
about cinema, writing reviews, making interviews. I would be very good
at writing an interview for a newspaper, but this is exactly what I
want to avoid, because I am interested to know something deeper. But
you have to know that I was very good at writing very light
interviews, as the newspapers want.
About me and how I got close to the cinema, I always think of a series
of casual facts, but also to an almost unconscious need. I thought I
was happy in writing about cinema, it was something that fitted me,
and when I began to write as a pro - stories and script that at the
beginning, they did not even realise - I thought it was the best work
in the world, alone with my typewriter.
After I became a director too, and that was less funny. I know John's
opinion is different, because he considers the writing as the worst
part of his job, while the shooting is the most exciting. For me it is
the opposite: I get excited when I write, while when I shoot, with all
the technicians around, the confusion... You wrote a lot of films, not
just for you, also for others, using different noms de plume. You are,
therefore, a very productive person, from this point of view. Why,
indeed, do you state that you don't love this phase?
CARPENTER: Because it is painful. Directing a film means to be on the
set with the actors, the lights, the operator, and that is what I do
love. The writing process is very different, intellectual, analytic,
you choose to use certain words and certain images instead of others.
On the contrary, when I am on the set I talk to the actors, the
technicians, I feel at home. I drink a lot of coffee and I smoke lots
of cigarettes and I think: "This is the place where I always wanted to
be, the set".
Where do your fears come from?
ARGENTO: This is the deadliest question I have to answer to, so I ask
him the same, so he gets the lesson.
I have to admit that I don't know where the fear comes from it is a
matter of instinct. To be sincere -as I tell a lot of lies, because
the people want to know about this fear and I am forced to answer - I
do not know where it comes from. From the deep, I think, from
something dealing with my childhood. Perhaps the hallway I had in my
childhood house, too long? Maybe it is that...
He talked about the first film he saw and I also remember that the
first horror movie of my life, 'THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA' (the 1943
version, starring Claude Rains, directed by Arthur Lubin) did change
my life, helping me discover a world to me unknown. I didn't know of a
world where there were ghosts, such obscure passions, people living
underground. I couldn't even imagine it, and I think it fascinated me
a lot. Then, when I was a boy, I had a long illness that forced me to
stay in bed for months without being able to move - I had a rheumatic
fever - and in that period I read the books from my Father's library.
I read everything that was there, essays, Shakespeare... One day I
happened to read a collection of Poe's stories: another mad falling in
All this led me to the discovery of that famous door behind which,
once opened, you find an unknown scenario, completely different. Many
people ask me - and I am going to ask you too - why I don't make
movies of another genre, but for me it is impossible. Once you've
found this door and you have passed the sill, feeling such intense and
destructive sensations, to the limits of the impossible, how can you
go back and tell about the everyday facts, the normal life, you who
are used to fantasies, to monsters coming out from the clefts, to a
girl who enters a college and discovers that all the teachers are
witches... How can you go back?
CARPENTER: I think this is a very good answer. Mine, to the same
question, is going to be simpler and more direct, maybe more boring.
My family was a family from the North that moved to the South, in
times of segregation and heavy racism. We were outsiders, strangers in
a strange land, characterized by a hate I couldn't understand, to me
senseless. I was growing up in a sort of heaven made by our home and
the family, but outside there were people with a different culture,
with religious and racial prejudices that wounded me and made me feel
And I found the only way out from all this in the movies: watching
fantastic films I began to identify myself with the dark side, the
evil, the vampires, the monsters gripped on the skyscrapers, the
ghosts... They were isolated creatures too, as I was, and in my films
I often told of persons entrapped in a certain ambient or under siege
from the outside. I think it fundamentally was a way to go back and
fight this negative culture that surrounded me. I'd like my answer to
be as poetical as yours...
ARGENTO: Mine was not a poetical answer but almost a drug-addict
answer, because I am addicted to these films. Instead, your story is
very beautiful... But I wanted to know something more about your team.
You created and put together a group of collaborators and you went on
with them for a long time. Besides, I've known one of them, Dan
O'Bannon, who is an exquisite and very intelligent person. Can you
tell me something about this?
CARPENTER: I remember the first time I went to LA - we are talking
about 1968 - I had to go from the airport to the University. I bought
a city map and the distance seemed enormous to me, but it was a
beautiful day, so I began walking with my two suitcases. An hour after
I was still in of the airport! Two hours later I was practically
lost... Until I met someone who very kindly came with me to the
After this first hard period I began to make many friends at the
University, they were all people who loved cinema and wanted to make
movies as I did. In the first year we were 99, all sure to become
directors, one day or the other, until our teacher said: "Maybe only
one of you will succeed". Everybody thought they would be that one - I
myself did - and the strangest thing is that the best ones, the ones I
admired most, never arrived in Hollywood, others did not even realise
a single film.
I think there is an essential quality that allow you to go on in the
film making, a sort of unnatural obsession... The group around me
shared this obsession beginning to make low budget films. My first
film cost $60,000 and screened on my birthday. It was great, I would
have never thought to have a chance of that kind. One day, I used to
say to myself, a big limousine will come to my house and a man will
say: "Mr. Carpenter, come with us to the Studios, we want you to
direct a movie for us". But such a thing did not happened. Nobody
seemed to be interested in us. So I decided to write scripts: in
Hollywood you can earn a lot writing scripts that maybe would never be
realised. I thought it was simple but I wanted to direct a film
anyway. So my friends and I, with the same unnatural obsession, ground
our teeth and little by little the film began to come...
ARGENTO: I want to say something more about this topic of the school
and the team. Indeed, when I was younger I also had my group, people
with whom I only talked of cinema and everybody wanted to make films,
but I felt the less gifted, maybe also the less clever, the less
enthusiastic. Of those 20-30 persons I thought I was the last, the one
who had least chance of all. Instead I've been the only one who made
films for real and sometimes I meet those people that didn't succeed -
they have become lawyers, teachers. I meet them and I almost want to
ask them: "How did it happen, if you did not succeed, how did I?".
Maybe because I was the most stubborn fellow, you don't need to be
genial to make movies, you need to be very precise, maybe. Anyway I
wanted to ask Carpenter something else, something a bit alarming.
We make this terrible movies, we move so many of these energies, of
these forces: didn't you ever think - as I did - one day, to break
unintentionally this sort of Pandora's vase where there is all your
madness, and that all those horrible things, all those scaring
thoughts invade you, and make you end like Poe or Van Gogh?
CARPENTER: No, I realised that since I've begun to make a horror or a
science fiction film I've always slept well. I transmitted this
restlessness to other people, not to myself. It's not that I am scared
by my own films, because I stay always on the human being side, I do
not identify myself with the evil, the murderer or the monster, I stay
with those who try to defend themselves from all this. I think this
allows me to have a good sleep, to have a calm life, to watch
basketball and wrestling matches. What else do I need?
ARGENTO: well, that is a good hope for me, because I am obsessed with
the fact that, one day, while I am shaving, I hit this crystal vase
and boom it breaks and lets out all the evil, these frightening
things, until I feel a sort of reject for the humanity and I cannot
live anymore. I thank John for telling me this story because I also
want to sleep as well. There is one thing that everybody may ask
themselves. Mr. Carpenter, do you believe in magic, in these
CARPENTER: Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I do not believe in any
kind of supernatural phenomenon, demons, ghosts, UFO's, witchcraft...
We are here, we live only one life, we must try to make it the best
possible. I do believe, indeed, in the supernatural of the screen
where it lives, there are our fears, our dreams, our hopes. It is the
screen only where we deal with these fantastic worlds. I believe in
the real life, in the things that stand before me, in the nature,
but... If tonight someone saw a UFO in the sky, I would certainly be
pleased to see it.
ARGENTO: I've never seen a single UFO in my life, and I've never known
a witch, but, from a cultural point of view, to me that is a very
interesting thing, and you cannot state they don't exist. I had this
kind of experiences only in my mind, in my long nights, in my
nightmares, many times. Then I did try to meet a witch, for a film I
had to make, I travelled around Europe, I met a lot of them, I spent a
lot of money, but I never saw anything, apart from coincidences,
synchronicities... Anyway, as Carpenter, I do not believe in the
supernatural either. I want now to ask Carpenter his opinion about a
debate still in progress, i.e.: is John Carpenter a man of the Left or
of the Right wing?
CARPENTER: Left or Right? What do you think?
ARGENTO: I think John Carpenter is a saint, so he's not a leftist nor
a member of the Right wing.
CARPENTER: Listen, I want to tell you something. I do love the country
where I live, but I'm not afraid to criticize it for the things that
don't work. we have too many McDonald's, we give too much importance
to the celebrities, there is a whole series of bad things.
But I am a capitalist too, I earn money, I'm attracted by money. If
there's someone in this room who wants to give me some money to make a
film, I will do it, if I am well paid. It will be a film of mine,
anyway, because this is what I want to do: it can be a bad movie, that
does not come out as I wanted to, anyway it is my film.
My parents were of the Democratic party, my grannies went through the
Great Depression, and we learnt to appreciate values as the social
security. On the other side in my father's family there was a famous
patriot, he was one of the revolutionaries that chased the English and
French away. We have never chased away the Italian, they are
welcome... So I am not interested to think in Right or Left terms, but
in humanity, in relationship terms.
I'd like one day if we could take all the prejudices and the hatred
that existed to throw them away and start from the beginning. It can
sound silly, maybe it is a bit pretentious, I apologize.
ARGENTO: Now I want to ask a less challenging question, I know that
one would have embarrassed you. You consider yourself as a great
pilot, you often reach the set by your helicopter. Is it true that
piloting a helicopter is one of the thing that most fascinates you?
CARPENTER: Piloting a helicopter is an absolutely different
experience. In the 80s I made the film 'THE THING' (1982) and we had
lots of helicopters, I could see them taking-off and landing... The
helicopter can go up and down, go aside, backward, it is like when you
dream to fly. I saw these people piloting them and I thought: "It must
be easy, I want to try it too". I also thought that if I wanted to
make movies about brave men, I should have tested my braveness too.
The first time was not at all good - there are quite complicated
commands on a helicopter - my teacher showed me what to do in case of
an emergency landing. He turned off the engine and we began to fall
like a stone from the sky, until in the very last moment, he made a
wild manoeuvre and we finally touched the ground. He said: "Now you
know what an emergency landing looks like". I replied: "Didn't we
Some time after that it was a thing I used to do every day: turning
off the engine - like going on the rollercoaster - and down you go. I
love the helicopters because they are very different from planes. The
plane is forced to go forward, it needs speed, when an helicopter can
stand still, can go backward. Of course it can be more dangerous, but
I always touch wood...
ARGENTO: Yes, we Italians touch other things, we are a bit more
trivial. Anyway I want to ask Carpenter another question: '1997:
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK' is a very beautiful film, that had enormous
success too. It is a bizarre work in your filmography. What did you
want to say with that film?
CARPENTER: '1997' was strongly influenced by a novel called 'PLANET OF
THE DAMNED', in which a sort of criminal is sent to a planet that is
the worst place in the universe, where he has to accomplish a certain
mission. I thought it was a good plot for a film. So I said: "Let's
say that someone is sent to the worst place on Earth. What is this
place? New York City, of course".
The character played by Ken Russel is a recurring character in my
movies, he is the last one left in America, the last man, all the
others are corrupted. I loved to make that movie, but we didn't shoot
it in New York. Anyway, is it true that here in Turin there is a
square named after you?
ARGENTO: Yes, a cab driver told me that there is a Dario Argento
square... There is something I really want to know: did Carpenter, who
always reached the visual borderlines of what can be told, undergo a
lot of censorship?
CARPENTER: In the USA, when you finish your film you show it to the
censorship committee, formed by critics, but also teachers,
housewife's... They are the ones who state what is acceptable and what
is not, then it's up to you to make some changes, to modify something.
Every year is different, you cannot say for sure that some thing is
good, some times they are very conservative, other times they are more
liberal. I had a hard experience with the censorship for one of my
first movies, 'ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13' (1976).
There is a sequence in which a child is killed by revolver-shots, and
the committee rated the film with an X. So I cut the shot, I showed
them again, and they said it was ok, that it was good in that way.
Then I succeeded and managed with the distribution, so the film showed
in the theatres with its original length. Now they are smarter, it is
more difficult to cheat on them.
I had troubles with my last film too, as they told me: "We do not have
problems with the violence if it is motivated, but we cannot allow
this chaotic and unmotivated violence", so we had to cut out several
In a way, sex and violence are the two things people don't want to
see, but, at the same time, they are attracted and they want to see
them. What do you think about it?
ARGENTO: I had troubles with the censorship of all my movies, because
the Italian committees are terrible. But now there is a new law, here
like in France or Spain, for what you cannot completely forbid the
film, but just forbid it to people under 14 or 18 years old. That is a
positive thing, at least better then what happened in the past, when
you could not go out with certain films.
Indeed, I think there is a subtler and nastier censorship, not the
national one, the one John has talked about, but the majors' one. They
force you to cut, they are the biggest censors of the world, they tell
you that you must cut a certain scene, even before showing before the
committee. In any case I do hate the censors.
Once I wrote a story for an English newspaper, 'THE INDEPENDENT'. It
was about a boy and a girl, she is at the end of her pregnancy, and in
the evening they are both excited as there's on Tv the first
broadcasting of 'OPERA' by Dario Argento. They begin to watch the
film, and after thirty minutes the girl feels bad, she throws up, is
carried to the hospital and there she has an abortion. Why? because
the censor cut out so many sequences of the movie as to make it
unrecognisable. So the boy kills the censors one by one, in the same
way as of the scenes they cut.
I want to add something: recently I did a trip around different
European countries, and now I have a new campaign to fight for: "Put
the censors in jail". We must condemn them! You prosecute someone who
enters a museum and rips a painting, so why does not the censor go to
jail, as he does the same thing? I want that to be retroactive too,
i.e. I want to see in jail also those who now are 70 or 80 and
slaughtered my movies, and also the Orion functionary that cut out 25
minutes out of 'OPERA'. Twenty-five minutes!
CARPENTER: In this new 'politically correct' environment in America
your extraordinary films would be banned, thus I totally agree and I
join your campaign against censorship.
ARGENTO: Anyway, the 'politically correct' changes day by day. I want
to recall an episode regarding my first meeting with the public, after
my first or second film. I am very shy, and after the film, in a
terrible anxiety, I said some scrambled words to the public then I
asked them if there were questions and they began to insult me.
The sort of well dressed people, who came to the cinema with their
good ties and so on, they told me I sucked: "Aren't you ashamed to
show all that blood, all that violence, do you know that you can be
arrested?". I tried to defend myself without knowing what to do, when
a furious girl suddenly sprang up and said: "You are a bastard
fascist, a crook, you show all these killed women, I hope some
feminist will smack your face". I didn't know what to say, so I
replied: "I hope to kick her ass".
This was my first hallucinating experience, all the hall was against
me, I had no one on my side, I was desperate, unable to defend myself,
I was the accused one. There was a great French writer and film
critic, who tells a freezing thing in his autobiography. His readers
accused him of being a fascist, but he was not, he used to look at
himself in the mirror and said: "This is not a fascist face".
At the end, looking at himself he discovered a little feature on his
face that looked fascist, indeed. I do not know, the eyes too deep,
the eyebrows too marked, so he tried to make up, to hide this feature,
but at the end he admitted to being a fascist.
CARPENTER: Don't you think that being in the films, a part of the
business, of a trade, the critics too are a part of them? Protecting
the community, certain values?
ARGENTO: What values? I do protect values, the censor doesn't, he does
not protect any value, nothing. I remember once the chief of one of
these censorship committees, a judge, said to me:
"I have never experienced fear in my whole life". I replied: "How is
that possible, never? A thunder, slipping form the stairs, your wife
And he said: "Never, never, I've always been dominating".
Then I said: "You are mad, you just dominate your madness, nothing
You can see that this censorship issue anguished me all my life long.
I want to tell you about a common friend, George Romero, with whom I
co-produced 'DAWN OF THE DEAD' (1979) that had its world premiere
right in this cinema, many years ago. I still remember it was crowded
and everybody clapped their hands. I partially wrote the script too
and I worked on the music too, because, like the master Carpenter,
sometimes I enjoy to write some music.
We shared the world in halves. I said to George: "I will deal with
Europe, the contacts with the critics, I will manage to have the best
possible screening, and so on". In Italy the film was forbidden to
people under 18, quite a hard thing. In the following month we
presented the film in France and it was wholly rejected. I asked to be
heard for adding some more cuts, because George told me to do that,
for the film to go out. No way, in France there was this law that you
could not present the movie immediately after, but 18 months after and
after changing the film.
After one year and a half I was there again and all my changing was to
put two sequences in different places. The film was rejected again. I
phoned George and I said, very ashamed, that the film did not pass
that time either.
He went mad with the French and said to me: "What do we do now?". And
I said: "I don't know, let's try again in a year and a half".
So I cut little things to show my good will: rejected again.
After six years there's a new government. I call George and I said:
"good news, in France the old government fell and there is a new one,
that is supposed to be more liberal. Let's try again, but presenting
them the original version of the film, without any cuts, and let's see
how the story ends".
The film was accepted.
CARPENTER: In the USA it works in a different way and I never had to
face such a situation. Basically, every film that is a bit disturbing
is doomed to be censored, and I say not just by the special
commission, but also by the press, by the Tv and generally by the
media. For some reason they think that disturbing images can be bad
for the beholder.
There's a debate in progress now in the USA: everybody complains of
the violence in the movies for a slaughter happened in a high school,
where two boys armed to the teeth killed a lot of people of the same
age. In this way they try to find some guilty parties and it is easy
for the films to be accused.
For many Americans the films we make are just above pornography, just
a bit. A film that came out recently in the United States, 'FIGHT
CLUB' - I suggest everybody watches it - has been unanimously
condemned. I don't think that the situation is going to change, on the
contrary, I think it never changed.
When I was a boy, a psychologist told us that keeping on reading
comics and watching movies like 'GODZILLA' would eventually make us
idiots. It is always the same story. It is common to think that a
particularly violent film can stimulate one to do the same things he
saw in it. They talked of this, for instance, about 'NATURAL BORN
KILLERS', thought guilty of having pushed several people to murder.
The only time when someone copied a film for real was in 1904, when,
after having seen 'THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY', some people assaulted and
robbed a train in Ohio. As you can see, that is a very old story.
ARGENTO: At the beginning of this meeting I said it could have ended
with a fight, and maybe that is going to be the way it ends, as I
completely disagree about this issue. It is not us who are responsible
for what society creates, we show the facts that happen.
I want to tell John how the Italian painters in the Renaissance used
to paint really terrible and frightening images, Devil's images,
saints tortured, but nobody thought they were criminals to be put in a
jail. In his times, Caravaggio was not persecuted for the themes in
his paintings, but because he gambled, he was a brawling man.
About 'NATURAL BORN KILLERS', there's been an all Italian version, far
more ridiculous. Sergio Leone, whom I worked with, told me that many
years ago there was out in Italy a film with Clint Eastwood, 'HANG'EM
HIGH'. It was a light film, maybe a little stupid, but someone, in
Genova, hung himself after seeing the film. There was an enormous
campaign against the movie, that, compared to Leone's films, was a
film for kids.
This is to say that I don't believe that people rob or go on racist
punishment missions because they saw that in the films. They do such
things because they are on the street and they take their examples
from there. The films have nothing to do with that, they are just
Of course, in this book Carpenter himself talks about some American
directors who are not real directors, they are taken to make some film
as they were robots, and obviously they make harmless films, because
they do those for the majors, and the majors want them to be made in
Anyway it is never the director who changes the world. There are
concrete historical events, then the director can retell them. When we
portray the horrors and the fears of society, we document existing
things, we tell the truth. I don't believe in a militant cinema,
acting on reality, at least not up to this point.
I have to say that, in my boyhood, I grew up inside a kind of Italian
militant cinema and this pushed me to do the opposite.
CARPENTER: Don't you think that cinema transformed the world, in a
way? Don't you think that it brought us places never seen before,
although just by imagination? Don't you think that the cinema has been
the art of this century? And even though it does not change the world,
don't you think that it moves us, frightens us, changes us as people?
Don't you think that the movies are such an important thing, such a
part of our humanity that we must not forget their power, their
ability to make us dream? How would the world be without cinema?
That's why I think that, although the cinema does not change the
world, it does transform me, my life, and I'd hope my films did the
same to other people. The cinema allows you to talk the same language
with other people, to reach them. This is the power I am talking
about, the power of the art that goes beyond everything.
Having said that, I suggest we get drunk together and watch a match on
ARGENTO: Of course, but, put in this way, it seems that Carpenter is
absolutely right and I am absolutely wrong, but it's not. I was
talking of another aspect: the cinema did change my life. As I told
you, when I saw 'THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA' for the first time in an
outdoor cinema, my life changed.
The only reality that exists for me is that of the cinema. Once I read
an interview with Stanley Kubrick, in which he talked about the beauty
of Greece, of the Parthenon, of some streets in Athens, and the
journalist said to him: "Gosh! You do know Greece so well! How many
times have you been there?". And he replied: "Never, not a single
time, but I saw a lot of movies and documentaries".
What the cinema reflects is something deeper than the reality.
Translation from the Italian by Francesco Locane