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Director John Carpenter On The Sound Of A Terrifying Film

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Director John Carpenter On The Sound Of A Terrifying Film

Music Interviews

Director John Carpenter On The Sound Of A Terrifying Film

Director John Carpenter On The Sound Of A Terrifying Film

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

John Carpenter, famous for his cult-classic films (Halloween), is also behind soundtracks. Robert Siegel talks to him about how to scare an audience. His solo horror album, Lost Themes, is out Feb. 3.


All this week, we're hearing about the music behind the movies.


SIEGEL: We've been hearing from composers across the genres. And today, we add screams.


JAMIE LEE CURTIS: (Screaming).

SIEGEL: The glorious vocal cords of Jamie Lee Curtis in the 1978 cult horror classic "Halloween." Michael Myers, the Masked Killer, was scaring her out of her wits, accompanied by the music of our next guest, John Carpenter, who also wrote and directed "Halloween." After "Halloween" came "Halloween II," "Halloween III," "Halloween 4," and Carpenter made many non-"Halloween," but still scary movies. His music has struck fear into the hearts of millions of moviegoers.


SIEGEL: OK, so you have this gift for creating tension. What are the secrets of doing that?

JOHN CARPENTER: Well, the secret to composing and performing "Halloween" was my father. He was a music professor. He taught me 5-4 time when I was 13 on a pair of bongos of all things. And 5-4 time is bop, bop, bop. Bop, bop, bop. Bop, bop. Bop, bop. Bop, bop, bop. Bop, bop. Bop, bop, bop. Bop, bop. So I simply sat at the piano and I rolled octaves, so that's how it came about. It was simple, repetitive and, like you said, causes tension in the audience. They're waiting for something to change.

SIEGEL: So the fact that it isn't changing is disturbing?

CARPENTER: That's correct. It puts you in a little bit of discomfort emotionally. Why is this not evolving and changing? It's repeating over and over and over again.


SIEGEL: You know, it's interesting the other people we've spoken for this series of interviews are music people who, you know, discovered the movies and made music for movies. You're a filmmaker, and you're the rare triple-threat guy who can write, direct the movie and also make the music for it, too. This is something you bring to moviemaking?

CARPENTER: Well, it started - as a defense - it started from low-budget student filmmaking when I was at USC. Nobody ever had any money to buy a score or higher a composer to write a score and an orchestra to perform it for your student films, so you had to beg, borrow and steal. So I provided some very simple scores for student films. And as I moved into feature filmmaking, I brought that along because once again, we didn't have any money, so I was cheap and I was fast.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) I see. Did you throw in I'll do costumes and hair also, if you'd like? I can make it cheaper still.

CARPENTER: I can do that too.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).


SIEGEL: This is from another film from some years ago, from '79-'80, "The Fog." But first of all, you play an organ like that one in the beginning, I'm scared already. It's Frankenstein.

CARPENTER: Actually, that's all Bernard Herrmann. That's inspired by the kind of work that he did in the movies is one of my early inspirations.

SIEGEL: Yeah, talk about the influence of Bernard Herrmann on you.

CARPENTER: He had achieved great emotional heights in movies using simple means. And by that I mean, if you take the score from "Psycho" for example...


CARPENTER: He just simply used strings to achieve the mood that he wanted. And if you listen to his score for "Journey To The Center Of The Earth," he has every instrument playing the lowest possible notes, so it's deep and rumbling.


CARPENTER: And he was a brilliant classical composer and conductor. And I just love his work.

SIEGEL: Do you find that what you have to do to scare people - if that happens to be the feature of the film - that that's changed much since the 1970s? Are audiences - is there some different bar you have to clear to make a good scary movie today?

CARPENTER: Well, the fear factor in a movie comes out of its story. It doesn't come out of tricks that you pull on the set or a preset recipe.

SIEGEL: Can the presence of music ever dilute that feeling? - that is, the unaccompanied movie? Can that sometimes be scarier than anything with music attached to it?

CARPENTER: Absolutely. The audience is always afraid of what you're going to show them. Can I trust you that you won't really upset me? So you want to play with that expectation. Silence can be very terrifying.

SIEGEL: I was wondering when you said earlier how the music that doesn't change is unnerving to the audience and disturbing because we're waiting for something to change and the repetition can build up suspense. I was wondering whether the rise of minimalist music over the decades has lowered the expectation of change. Are people still perfectly accustomed to hearing the same thing happening for a minute in music and oh, that's just music?

CARPENTER: Well, but if you look at film scores, they evolve over the years. They have evolved. And early film scores were all Mickey Mousing. By that I mean you think of Max Steiner and "King Kong," he scored the footsteps - bum, bum, bum.


CARPENTER: And we've gone from there to - in the '60s and '70s, minimalism came into fashion. But then it's now gone back to Mickey Mousing. Almost all scores these days are scoring every feeling, scoring every movement. They've gone back and forth and back and forth, so it all depends on who's directing the film, what the story is and who you hire to compose for you.

SIEGEL: I understand that you were a film student at USC when you first began making movies with music. Why horror movies? Why scary movies? Where did that come from?

CARPENTER: Well, that came from a movie that I made. See, I got in the movie business to make Westerns, but Westerns died. And I made "Halloween," and everybody thought well, this guy makes scary movies, so I did. Ever since the beginning of cinema, horror has been a genre that has thrived. And I don't think it'll ever go away.

SIEGEL: Making the horror movies, is it fun at least? Is it enjoyable?

CARPENTER: When you visit a horror set or you're in a horror movie, it is the most fun you will ever have because it's all make-believe and it's all funny. Doing a drama or a comedy, that's hard work. Plus, the horror directors are the nicest guys you ever want to meet.

SIEGEL: So far you have not disappointed us on that score, so...

CARPENTER: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: John Carpenter, thanks very much for talking with us.

CARPENTER: Thank you.


SIEGEL: And tomorrow, we'll hear from Rachel Portman, an Academy Award-winning composer who has scored the period film "Belle."

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