John Carpenter Talks About Composing the Terrifying Scores for His Films
As well as writing and directing movies Carpenter is also a massive synth nerd who composed a shit-ton of film scores.
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth.
Filmmaker John Carpenter doesn’t take any shit. He didn’t take it from Michael Myers in Halloween, an alien beachball in space, or the alien overlords who control our lives. Because John Carpenter is a man who just gets on with it. From steering student film Dark Star into a cult sci-fi classic, to letting Jon Bon Jovi fight vampires, he’s spent a career fighting monsters and throwing his assembled casts into near-unwinnable situations.
He likes to hurl himself in at the deep end too, variously being the go-to guy to produce, direct, edit, and soundtrack a movie, barely leaving enough time to think. We caught up with him to find out about why he scores most of his own movies, what gear he uses, and why digital is best.
Noisey: I’d like to talk to you about scoring your films.
John Carpenter: I will tell you everything I remember.
Do you remember any of the equipment you used on Dark Star (1974)?
Oh boy. I don’t remember the exact name of the equipment, but I remember that you had to stick these pins in the thing, like wooden pins that made a sound. You changed the frequency or something like that. I don’t remember the name of it.
The dark ages of synth technology.
[Laughs.] Very crude.
Were there many people you knew who had access to those machines?
There was one guy who lived in the San Fernando Valley who owned one. So I went out to his apartment and basically recorded the score on this… it was very, very primitive. We did the whole thing in about four hours.
I guess cost and time were major factors…
That’s right. It was an ability for one person—me—who’s cheap, to sound bigger than he actually is. To double, triple, and quadruple track these sounds. So that’s why I did it.
But was there also a feeling that it was the right kind of noise for a sci-fi movie?
Well, you know, I’ve always loved the scores to both The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, which is a pure electronic score. That was the most groundbreaking.
Sure. I guess they were using things like theremins?
Theremin was used on Day The Earth Stood Still, but on Forbidden Planet, that was all just crazy loops and electronic stuff going on.
Day The Earth Stood Still – Bernard Herrman.
It’s amazing how emotional these electronics can sound, a sort of machine yearning.
And on the human side, on Dark Star you wrote country song “Benson, Arizona.” [Listen to it here.]
Yeah, I co-wrote that with the guy who did the special effects, who blew the film up from 16mm to 35mm, Bill Taylor. He wrote the lyrics, I wrote the music.
And did you prefer working alone with a synthesizer or live musicians?
Well synth is better because I can always get angry at myself when I screw up. No, it was fun working with live musicians, that was a lot of fun.
Big Trouble In Little China.
Did you form The Coupe Devilles just for the Big Trouble In Little China soundtrack?
No, we were an informal band. Three of us went to film school together, we all loved rock and roll so we started getting together and playing and singing acoustic guitars, we just did it for fun. And basically our claim to fame was Big Trouble.
[Laughs.] I knew the right people, that’s right.
To get back to the synths, I read a study that said that places that make us feel uneasy produce a natural ultrasound that makes us feel that the place is haunted.
And I wondered whether you found that synthesizers give us the range to hit all those points within us.
I hadn’t thought of that, but it sounds reasonable to me. Synthesizers are so… well, they’re transcendent, you know that you’re listening to an electronic sound, you know that. But if you can make it musical, if you can arrange it like orchestrally, then it adds a different layer. And there is a bit of unease in it, yeah. I would agree with that.
Was there a particular synthesizer that you enjoyed using most?
Well for years I used the Korg, the Triton, I believe. I loved that because it had so many good sounds in it. Easy to use. Now I’m on the computer using Logic Pro, which I love. Big library, it’s a lot of fun.
The instruments on The Thing soundtrack…
Well, now, I didn’t officially compose or perform the music on The Thing, I did little interstitial work. By that I mean these little tonal things. Very few.
And apart from that, was it orchestration or was it synthesizers?
It was synthesizer, but there was a couple of tones in the very opening and here and there I just dropped in a couple things. Ennio had composed the music separate from the movie, and it was fabulous but I felt it just needed a little… there was a little work that needed to be done here and there. Very small.
What score was most fun?
Most fun. Wow. I really enjoyed working on the score for Big Trouble In Little China—that was a lot of fun. Additionally I enjoyed the Prince of Darkness score, some of the later scores I did were really fun. When you have everything all hooked up, you have the film in front of you and the synths and you have a choice of sounds. That’s the most fun.
Prince of Darkness.
So even as your time and budgets increased, you still chose to work electronically.
I did. I chose synthesizers for the most part, occasionally I had a little orchestral business in there. Mostly it was synths, I don’t know why. It got really hard to do and time-consuming and stressful so I kind of stopped and looked to others to score.
It’s a lot of extra work to take on top of the whole directing-writing-producing gig.
[laughs.] Phew! Goddamn.
Presumably, though, because it’s such a powerful part of the movie…
You get to have another creative voice in it, in addition to just the directing or the writing or whatever else I’ve done. It’s a whole different kind of voice, a whole different kind of layer that you can add. So I enjoyed doing it, I really did.
I’ve read directors talking about being drawn to film because you get to have an interest in so many different things.
That’s right. So many different areas of expression, you know. Real tactile areas, I’d say. Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Was the technical aspect of synthesizers appealing to you?
No. Not at all. I hate that, hated it! So I had others do it. On Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 I worked with Dan Wyman. He was a professor at USC, taught electronic music. He had his own equipment and they were modular, they were tubes. Tube amps. You had to tune ‘em up, but god, I don’t want anything to do with that. I just wanna push a button. That I can do. Push a button and I’d have it.
Back in the 70s, it must have been like pulling teeth making sure these were in tune.
God! And we didn’t succeed all the time. Some of ‘em were a semitone out of tune.
Maybe that added to the atmosphere.
That’s what I tell myself.
I always think that in a really effective horror movie, you should be able to close your eyes and still enjoy it - we hear fear. Has that been your experience?
Absolutely. Absolutely. And, oftentimes, you subtract music from a scene that doesn’t need it. Sometimes you add it. The pieces of music that inspire fear or dread in an audience, we all know them. The Jaws theme being one major one. Psycho.
It’s amazing how often the Halloween theme gets licensed. It seems to have a life of its own.
It took off. And I’m delighted. You can’t get much simpler than that thing.
Do you listen to any electronic music for pleasure?
I have… I listen to some techno music, which I find interesting, very interesting.
Can you tell me any of the artists?
Well… no. I can’t really. I know of a band in France that does some of my stuff, called Zombie Zombie. They’re a techno band, I think. And there was another band I listened to back in the late 90s… god, I can’t remember their names now. Basically just a couple guys and some equipment. It escapes my mind now. All the details, flown away, unfortunately.
I’m sure all the important ones are still there.
Well, some of them.
Do you have any musical plans on the horizon?
Yeah. I’m contributing to a Jean Michel-Jarré album. He has several other people doing music, so I have a little thing to do remotely. I’m doing it on Logic Pro, starting this weekend.
Great, thank you so much for your time.
Absolutely, my friend, it was wonderful talking to you.
Davo can be found pestering legendary movie directors like @TheHorrorMaster on Twitter. Follow him - @battery_licker.