John Carpenter on Noir, Working With His Family, Video Games, Oppenheimer, and Being Kept in the Dark

John Carpenter on Noir, Working With His Family, Video Games, Oppenheimer, and Being Kept in the Dark
Photos by Sophie Gransard

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I had the privilege of interviewing the legendary filmmaker and musician John Carpenter for GQ a few years ago around his last proper album with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death from 2021. John is an extremely economical and surprising interview subject, which is certainly part of why I wanted to have him on the newsletter again ahead of his new record, Lost Themes IV: Noir, which is out this week.

I've quite enjoyed his music and score work over the last several years, and it was very fun to get such an impressive and iconic figure on the phone again to throw around a laundry list of subjects. At one point, he put the phone down for a minute to explain to someone how to install the toilet, which I found extremely endearing—and hopefully you'll feel the same about this interview.

How's it going today, John?
Going good.

This is the second time we've spoken. I interviewed you for GQ a few years ago.
Oh, God.

It was actually 2021. How've the last couple of years been for you?
Well, I'm getting older.

How do you feel about getting older? What's that experience been like for you?
How old are you?

I'm 36. I'm pretty young.
You're a child. That pisses me off. How do I feel about it? Well, you know, none of the health challenges you have when you get older are fun. None of them. But you take that in stride. It's okay.

Tell me about the noir book that your wife Sandy gave you that was the inspiration for this new record.
It's a book of photographs from famous noir films. It brought up a lot of fond memories of great noir. Noir is an American genre, post-World War II—disillusionment and so forth—and it really came into its own. It's terrific. The book is very shadowy. Very famous noir films are included. It got us thinking about doing an album, and we became inspired by some of the titles, and off we went.

Tell me about the visual aspect of noir. It's cool to me that something so visual—a photo book—could inspire an album.
Noir can be very dark. There's lots of shadows. The quintessential noir film is Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. That's an incredible movie. But there are others, and they're wide films. Sunset Boulevard is one. That's a dark movie. But it's dark in theme! Not just visually.

Noir is also constantly being referenced in popular culture. Any recent examples of that you've enjoyed?
I can't think of any—maybe because they shoot them in color. So if they shoot them in California with color, it's not noir-ish. Noir, you assume, is like night—darkness, rain, Venetian blinds. Color doesn't do very well with that.

Sandy gave you the book for Christmas, right?
I don't remember.

That's what the press materials said. Sometimes it's hard to buy gifts for people. How do you feel about buying gifts for people?
I hate it. I don't know what to get! I know what I like personally, but I don't know how to figure out what other people like.

Some people don't even know what they want!

Photos by Sophie Gransard

Tell me about your working relationship with Daniel, your godson—your collaborative and personal relationship.
Daniel came to the United States when he was 12. He grew up in our household and eventually lived with us. He and Cody were best friends, and still are. He's like another son. He has his own family now, and they're flourishing. It's just great. This is the great thing about aging: You've got children around you. They can maybe take care of me when you're real old! Nah, they're not gonna take care of me. They're gonna abandon me.

Sometimes, in relationships with other people, you learn things about yourself. Has working with Cody and Daniel caused you to reflect inward?
[Laughs] I naturally reflect inward. I don't have a clue about myself. I don't know. I really don't. I can see why people don't tell me anything and keep me in the dark! It's less dangerous that way.

Have you ever seen a therapist?
Way back when.

Did you like it?
Yeah. It helped.

One quote from the press materials that stood out to me was saying that Cody "rejects" movies.
I was being a little ridiculous there. He rejects new movies! He loves old movies. We all grew up watching movies. I showed them all these old films that were pretty harmless, so they could grow into more challenging things. But new films...[Laughs] irritate him. I continue to suggest films that I know he'll hate. He flies back and forth from Japan, so I said, "On the flight, be sure to watch Barbie!" He made it 15 minutes in.

Did you like Barbie?
Did I like it? No comment.

What's some other recent movies you have or haven't enjoyed?
I don't want to talk about things that I haven't enjoyed. I liked Maestro a great deal. I thought that was terrific. Oppenheimer was OK. It was alright. Everyone's praising it as the movie of the century—I don't know about that.

Do you like Christopher Nolan's movies in general?
Yeah, I guess, sure.

You mentioned showing Cody old movies. Tell me about early experiences watching movies with your family. Showing other people art, especially when you are an artist, can be something personal and formative for you and the people who are experiencing it.
We watched all the Godzilla and James Bond movies. I would show them '50s science-fiction movies that were harmless and fun. Earth vs. the Flying Saucer, things like that.

Did you see Godzilla Minus One?
I haven't yet, but I can't wait.

Photos by Sophie Gransard

I saw a picture of you directing an episode of John Carpenter's Suburban Screams from your living room.
That's correct.

How was that experience?
Fabulous. Just fabulous. I didn't have to get up and leave the house. I could get coffee any time I wanted. I had a chair to sit in. It went great.

How was it to communicate with everyone on set?
It was easy, because the computer was right next to me.

How do you feel about doing video calls with people at this point? Some people are really tired of it.
It's fine.

Are you watching basketball?
You know it, dude!

How's that been?
I'm really interested in the girls' basketball games. My team, the Golden State Warriors, had a tough year—but now they're coming on strong, so I'm hopeful. I won't be surprised if they...[Trails off in silence]

Do you have NBA League Pass?
Yes I do.

Do you enjoy it? What's the ups and downs?
It's only ups. I get to see all these basketball games!

I've seen people complain about the gambling ads on League Pass. How do you feel about that?
I haven't seen any, so I don't know.

Sports gambling ads are everywhere at this point, though. How do you feel about the increase in sports gambling these days?
I'm immune to it. I don't even notice it, because I'm a non-gambler.

We talked about Horizon Zero Dawn last time we spoke. Did you play Horizon Forbidden West?
I sure did.

What did you think?
I loved it.

See, I didn't like the story as much this time around. The gameplay was still incredible, but the third act...
It was fine. I liked it.

Did you play God of War?

What did you think?
It's OK. It's fun. There are very few video games I dislike.

What about Diablo IV?
Oh, no no no. I can', no, no.

Why not?
I can't even get on that horse.

Well, we talked about Borderlands last time, which is a very loot-focused game. So is Diablo IV!
[Long pause] Well, that's good.

Did you see the trailer for the Borderlands movie? We talked about that last time too.
Yes, I did. It looks...I know [Borderlands voice actor] Anthony Burch, he's a friend. He says he's seen it! [Laughs] So I don't need to see it.

Do you have a Steam Deck?
I don't know what that is.

It's like a Nintendo Switch, but it's a personal computer.
I don't have that.

Are you a "Nintendo guy" in general?
I don't know, man! I don't think so.

You've talked a lot about Sonic the Hedgehog in the past, but not so much with Nintendo.
Name two Nintendo games.

Zelda I can't take. I wouldn't get near that.

Super Mario Bros.
I've played that.

I watched In the Mouth of Madness recently. Tell me about horror storytellers. What makes a good storyteller in the genre?
Talent. That's what makes them good! Talent.

How are you feeling politically these days? Back in 2014 you mentioned hovering in the libertarian lane. Where do you land now?
In the same place, but I'm just depressed about everything out there. It's a mess. The country's in bad shape. I don't want to get into it, but things are horrible.

Do you think things are worse than when you were younger?
I don't know about that. There was a weekend where we heard the air raid sirens and my father told me to get in the shelter because of an atomic attack. It was pretty scary. This is slightly different. I think our union is falling away. I don't want to talk about that though.

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Jamie Larson