Legendary horror filmmaker John Carpenter has ended his nine-year hiatus with his latest feature film, The Ward, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival. Set in the 1960s, the thriller follows a distraught young woman named Kristen (Amber Heard), who is taken to the North Bend Psychiatric Hospital after she sets an old farmhouse on fire. Once there, Kristen begins to have strange and unexplainable encounters with a shadowy phantom who roams the halls when the ward is locked down at night, and she quickly becomes convinced that no one ever leaves the institution alive.
In a recent exclusive phone interview, John Carpenter spoke to Collider about why The Ward lured him back to filmmaking, his enjoyment of working with younger actors like this cast, the challenge of keeping a film that’s so contained from being visually boring and how the film ended up screening at TIFF. He also shared his thoughts on Hollywood remakes and the popularity of the vampire genre, and said that he has several projects currently in development, but that he’s most focused on the start of basketball season (he’s an L.A. Laker fan/supporter). Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOHN CARPENTER: It’s a psychological thriller, in a way. It closely resembles a ghost story and a horror film. Amber Heard plays a young runaway who we discover, early in the film, setting fire to an old farmhouse. She’s taken to a mental institution and has no idea why she’s there, and the movie revolves around that question.
Why has there been such a long break for you, between directing features, and what was it that made this the story that you wanted to return to filmmaking to tell?
CARPENTER: Years ago, in 2001, I was just completely burned out on the business of directing. I had to stop. I had to relax and get away from it. I made a pledge to myself that when I stopped loving cinema and loving the job, I wouldn’t do it anymore, and I didn’t love it then. Mick Garris, who is a friend of mine, organized this Masters of Horror TV series for Showtime. I shot a couple of those and I really enjoyed myself. It was fun getting back. They were small-budget, very quick, hour-long stories, but I realized, “Oh, this is fun again.” So, The Ward came along and it fit all of my requirements. It wasn’t a big budget, it wasn’t effects driven, it was character driven and I had a chance to work with really talented actors and actresses, so I took it.
What is it about playing with the idea of sanity and the loss of it that can be so scary for audiences?
CARPENTER: We all question our sanity. Everyone has had an experience of loss of control of something. Fears are all psychological. Being afraid of death, loss of a loved one and disfigurement are all powered by your mind, and that’s very powerful stuff.
How involved were you with the casting of this film and what made Amber Heard your perfect leading lady?
CARPENTER: I’m always involved with casting my movies. I have final word on it. Early on, she was recommended to me by people who had worked with her before, and she’s a very smart, very talented actress. I met with her and I really liked her take on the material and the story, and I watched her films and thought she was a great actress. I loved her work.
Do you enjoy getting to work with younger actors, like with this cast?
CARPENTER: I love it. I love all actors, but this was especially fun. They really brought it every day. All their talent was there.
Did you purposely aim for the Toronto Film Festival to screen this film, or did things just work out that way?
CARPENTER: I just aim for basketball season to start. I don’t really care about anything else in life. This movie just finished up and we’re putting the final touches on it now. It was just the timing.
Since this film presumably relies more on scares than gore, is it more fun to scare audiences by showing them less gore and playing more on their emotions?
CARPENTER: There’s a bit of gore. There’s a touch, here and there. You play with everything you’ve got. I’m not a lover of cheap tricks. I’ve always loved playing with people, but there’s no rule about it. You try everything you can.
Was there anything particularly challenging about making a film that’s so contained?
CARPENTER: The secret of it is, how can you keep it from looking the same all the time? How can you keep it from being visually boring? That was a combination of how we shot it and the editing process, in trying to keep the movie alive visually. I’m pretty happy with what happened.
As someone who’s been a filmmaker for as long as you have, what are your thoughts on all of the current remakes, and what are your thoughts on Hollywood remaking your films?
CARPENTER: Remakes, in general, are a result of necessity being the mother of invention. They can’t open movies consistently and break through the advertising clutter that’s out there. They spend a lot of money opening movies. If you’re going to do a horror film or a suspense film and you don’t have a big star, how are you going to get the audience’s awareness in this kind of marketplace and world we live in? And, one of the ways to do it is to come up with a familiar title, so they come up with a title that perhaps the audience has heard of or has seen on DVD. It’s also been done before, so it’s not unfamiliar and unpaved ground. That’s why they make them. In terms of me and remaking my movies, I am very happy to allow a check to placed in my hand and have a movie of mine remade. The first part is the most important though. It’s all about that check.
Having had some experience in it yourself, why do you think the vampire genre is so popular right now?
CARPENTER: Oh, sex and violence. Right now, it’s probably popular because the teenage audiences are going to the Twilight films to see prepubescent vampires.
Now that you’ve returned to filmmaking, at least for the time being, what do you have coming up? Do you know what your next project will be?
CARPENTER: I have things that I’m developing, but I’m just going to take it real easy. The new basketball season starts in a couple of months and I’m going to support my Lakers. That’s a very, very important thing. I’ll take some time off. Then, we’ll see.
Do you think you’ll be doing something in sooner than nine years this next time?
CARPENTER: In this business, you never say never.
Being considered such a legendary filmmaker, is there something that you see as the landmark moment of your career, or is there anything that holds a particularly special place in your heart, when you think about your catalog of work?
CARPENTER: I’ve got to tell you the honest truth, as a filmmaker, it’s about surviving and lasting. So many talented people that I’ve known in my life – directors and writers – just haven’t made it and haven’t had a chance. Some have had a chance and that was it. They got one chance. So, to be able to have some decades of filmmaking, I can’t tell you how happy that makes me.