The Ward, horror master John Carpenter’s first feature film in about 10 years, is a psychological thriller about a young woman locked in a mental institution in the 1960s. Unsure of who she is and what has happened to her, Kristen (Amber Heard) finds herself held against her will in a remote ward of a psychiatric hospital that is inhabited by four other equally disturbed young women. As Kristen quickly realizes that things are not what they seem, she learns that the hospital has dark secrets that will lead to a truth more horrifying than she ever could have imagined.
At the film’s press day, filmmaker John Carpenter did this exclusive interview with Collider, in which he talked about why he was burned out on the movie business, the appeal of working with a female ensemble, how much he loves collaborating with actors, the challenge of shooting such a self-contained story, being open to directing again, and how he feels about remakes of his previous films like They Live and Escape From New York. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN CARPENTER: The story was the appeal. And, the fact that it was a story about these girls. The thought of working with a female ensemble cast was fun. I haven’t done that. Basically, the thrust of the movie is female, with the exception of Jared Harris playing the psychiatrist. I thought, “Well, that’s kind of neat.” It was a movie that was not too ambitious, physically. It was a claustrophobic little film in dark hallways with these things going on there, and that was perfect for me, at the time. That was the real issue.
What burned you out? Was there something specific about Ghost of Mars that burned you out?
CARPENTER: The movie business, dude. I’ve been doing this for 40-some odd years, and I’ve been doing it back-to-back-to-back. Not only sometimes writing it, but directing it and doing the music. What you give up is your private life. You have no life. I just thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” It doesn’t help that Ghost of Mars tanked like the Titanic.
Because you had been away from filmmaking for so long, did you think that would be it for you, or had you always thought you would return to it, at some point?
CARPENTER: I thought I’d come back, if I fell back in love. It’s like when you break up with your wife or girlfriend. It’s just tragedy. I broke up with cinema for a little while, but she came back and I got back with her. It’s all good now.
Were you surprised that it was something you started to not want to do, after having been a filmmaker for so long?
CARPENTER: It was horrible. It was awful. There were some tough times there. But, it was necessary to stop and not walk through a film. I had to get back to what it was that made me want to do this, in the first place.
In returning to it, were there things that you rediscovered that you had a love for, that you didn’t even necessarily remember?
CARPENTER: I loved working with actors, much more than I ever had before. When I got into the movie business, that was the one thing I was really weak at. I didn’t know what to say to actors. They scared me and intimidated me. The actors that I’ve worked with who have had a lot of experience, or who I’ve even grown up watching as a kid, were really scary. I was like, “What am I going to say to this person?” But, I’ve matured. It’s fun. I understand what actors do now. I’m not talking about movie star personalities, who can be very difficult. I’ve worked with a couple, and they can be tough on you, as far as getting them to do what you want. They can be divas. But, this was just terrific.
How quickly did you find your groove, once you had started filming?
CARPENTER: About 10 minutes after we started. You get into a routine and you get the day going. Once you get the first rehearsal under your belt, you know the actors and everything is going to be fine. You light it and shoot it, and you can sit down and have a cup of coffee and think about it because it’s all going to be good.
CARPENTER: We didn’t have any money for new equipment and techniques. We barely had any money for the make-up and hair. We had a lot of struggles on this film because it was a tiny movie with a lot of very beautiful and talented actresses. There’s nothing better than being in an asylum, if you’re going to have a bunch of crazy people in an asylum, and they’re all beautiful Hollywood actresses. Directing is all about storytelling. It’s not about equipment, or anything else.
Are there things that you enjoy about shooting with a lower budget?
CARPENTER: The fun part is that it goes quick. There isn’t really freedom because I have to plan every day. I have this amount of work to do, and I have to get it in, on that day. How am I going to do that? What are the important parts of this? What’s not so important? How do I do this efficiently, but elegantly? Those kinds of questions are fun to play with.
Was it challenging to shoot something that was so self-contained?
CARPENTER: It’s challenging because you have to make this one set interesting, over and over again, which is hard to do. It was a tiny set, really, and there were only a few rooms that scenes took place in. So, I was like, “How can I make this visual? I have a momentum to it, but there’s a lot of talking.” That was all a challenge.
Was it intentional to change the textures and colors in each of the rooms and floors that you went to?
CARPENTER: Yeah, everything is intentional. It was all planned out with a lot of really, really good people, like the Director of Photography and the Production Designer. We talked about just those things. Some of the expression of the location is an expression of the character’s state of mind. You don’t do it heavy-handed, of course, but you do it subtley. She’s always at a window, if you notice. That’s the freedom out there. The other characters don’t care about that so much, but she’s looking to get out.
Knowing that your films have a certain expectation from audiences, do you feel like that’s something you have to live up to, or do you just not think about those things at all?
CARPENTER: You can’t worry about that crap. That has nothing to do with making the movie. I learned, very early on when I was making films, especially when I started making films for bigger and bigger studios, that all these things that have nothing to do with the movie become incredibly important to people. I remember when this movie I made, called The Fog, was being released in 1980. We finished it and it was a tough slog, but it was coming out. And, the company that was releasing it was talking about, “Oh my god, we’re going up against American Gigolo with Richard Gere.” I said, “What does that have to do with anything? We didn’t make a movie to compete with that.” Suddenly, I realized that that’s what they’re worried about. That’s what they think about. You can’t think about any of that. Whether the audience expects you to do something, or if they’re looking for you do to something, I can’t help you.
CARPENTER: We have some grizzly scenes. As a matter of fact, Amber objected to a couple of my grizzly scenes. She thought that they went too far. Look, it’s just a storytelling device. This is a different story than those. A movie like either Saw or Hostel, or other films in that genre, are about a different kind of story. Their punch and power as a movie is the, “Oh my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” This movie is entirely different. This is a character study. There’s really not that much room to go in that direction. It’s not about carrying a bunch of rules along with you. I could give a shit what the audience thinks. I just want to make a good movie.
What was it about Jared Harris that made him the right actor for this? Was it your idea to have him come off as a bit sinister, so that you couldn’t ever really tell if he was good or bad?
CARPENTER: Well, we both got that, from the beginning. This guy is a therapist, so he has to treat what this girl is presenting with some reality, to find out what’s going on. First of all, British accent means expert. People will take him seriously. He just hit that area of ambiguity in his performance. He couldn’t look like he was overly concerned or too sinister. It’s a terrific performance. He’s got great eyes to watch, too. He’s a terrific actor.
How important was the casting of this group of girls? Did you start with Amber Heard, and then cast the other girls around her?
CARPENTER: Amber was first. I quickly caught up on her career, which I thought was interesting. She plays all these off-beat characters that are strong, very conflicted women, some of whom have big problems. There was something interesting about that. And then, I met her and she’s a very intelligent actress. She’s very attractive, but I didn’t care anymore. She knew what was going on and understood it and was willing to take a risk. This was a risky part to do, in many ways, and she had to go through a lot of emotions ‘cause it’s wrenching. She went along for the adventure, so I was all set. And then, with the other actresses, each one brought something different and new to it. They were fabulous.
CARPENTER: The characters told me. One was a little girl, who’s never grown up. I had a bunch of tapes to look at and there was Laura-Leigh. Wow, she nailed it! She’s a Juilliard-trained actress. And then, Mamie Gummer is just a terrific actress. I met with her and she said, “I understand this character. She says anything she wants to about anybody.” And then, there was Danielle [Panabaker] and Lyndsy [Fonseca]. Lyndsy has this fabulous comic timing, which I didn’t necessarily have to use, but it applies. They were just fabulous. I loved them! They brought it, every day. I was like, “Oh great, what’s next?”
When you do a film like this that leads up to a big reveal, do you have to always think about that reveal and whether everything in the film leading up to that will fall into place?
CARPENTER: You have to treat it as if it’s happening right in front of the eyes of the audience and not worry about it. There are a couple of places in the editing that were very subtle, where we tried a couple of things with personality, but it’s in the inner life that comes out. Then, you can look at it and see the performances. I just realized that you can’t deal with that. You have to deal with it straightforwardly and seriously.
Do you have special features and extras that you’re planning for the DVD/Blu-ray release?
CARPENTER: I did a commentary with Jared Harris. He and I sat in a room and talked about acting and directing. That was fun. And, there are a couple scenes we didn’t use.
Is being such an efficient filmmaker something that you’ve always been, or is that something that you’ve learned as you’ve gone along?
CARPENTER: My biggest shock was moving from a student film situation to a feature film situation. With student films, you can go out on a weekend and shoot a couple of scenes, and then get the equipment again the next weekend and go out and shoot again. My shock was that, on a feature, it’s every day at 7 am. That’s hard! That’s when I developed my directing schematics, figured out how to stage things in the time that I have, and learned how to find the important moments. That’s where it came from.
How did you come out of this experience? Are you ready to do more films?
CARPENTER: Well, I had a good time. I enjoyed it, sure. You get the right story, you get the right budget, and I’ll do it again. It depends on the story. If you have an ambitious project with a lot of ambition, you need a bunch of money for it. It’s one thing to do a movie on a low budget. I love doing low budget films. They’re a lot of fun to do, but you have to have realistic expectations of what you’re going to get back. Right now, there’s a big vogue in Hollywood for things like The Blair Witch Project. People are like, “Let’s make a movie for nothing, and then we’ll market it and make a bunch of money,” but I’m not interested in doing that.
CARPENTER: I’m developing a couple of projects. What that development means is that I’m working on a script, or it’s in the hands of producers who are raising money, or it’s being worked on. But, I’m in no rush. I’m in the twilight of my years. I’m closer to the end than the beginning, so nothing bothers me now.
You have a lot of Western influences in your films. Would you ever want to direct a Western, if the story was right?
CARPENTER: Well, I don’t know. [Howard] Hawks directed a Western at 70 years old, so it’s still possible. I’m working on a little gothic Western, but I don’t know if you can make epic Westerns anymore. Those days are long gone, dude.
Would you like to write something again yourself?
CARPENTER: That’s real hard work, sitting down and writing. I’m not sure that I’m ready for that.
What’s your opinion on Video on Demand, and how do you think it will effect this film?
CARPENTER: I don’t know. I know the exhibitors don’t like it at all. That’s all I know about it. You have to make a movie for an audience to watch, no matter how they watch it. You don’t think about that.
How do you feel about the fact that the big screen experience is diminishing with these new platforms to watch movies on?
CARPENTER: There’s nothing I can do about it. Everything is changing. It constantly changes. It doesn’t matter. It’s the quality of the storytelling that counts. If the storytelling is great, it will work on your little phone.
Do you continue to be surprised by the impact that so many of your films have on so many different people?
CARPENTER: It’s wonderful. It’s great. This is a childhood dream come true. When I was eight years old, I saw a movie in the theater, called Forbidden Planet. To me, that was amazing. I thought, “I want to have a career as a movie director.” And, I’m 63 and I got my wish. What more can you ask for, aside form eternal life?
What did you think of them going back to the source material for They Live, as opposed to just remaking it?
CARPENTER: Well, they are paying me. There are two kinds of remakes of my films – the good kind, and the bad kind. They just did a prequel to The Thing. That’s the bad kind because I don’t have any rights in it, so they don’t pay me. If they do Escape from New York or They Live, or any of the other movies that I wrote and have a more primal position in, I get a check. Something that I’ve wanted to do all my life is to make money doing nothing.