TIFF ’10: A Difficult Interview with John Carpenter on ‘The Ward’!

John Carpenter’s The Ward, the first feature the celebrated director has helmed since 2001′s Ghosts of Mars, is premiering later this month at the Midnight Madness portion of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). This week Mr. Disgusting had the chance to chat with Carpenter about why The Ward was the project to break his nine-year feature-film dry spell, what it was like working with a heavily female cast, and if there are any films in his directing canon that he would never want to see remade. Read inside for the skinny.
It’s always difficult when an interview subject is less than forthcoming, and that was exactly my experience when speaking with John Carpenter earlier this week about ‘The Ward’, his first time behind the camera in nine years. Frustrating, since we haven’t heard all that much from him since 2001′s disappointing ‘Ghost of Mars’ flopped at the box-office. Of course, it would be perfectly reasonable to assume that Carpenter’s reticence is the result of becoming slightly jaded following ‘Mars” reportedly tumultuous production process, poor critical reviews and lukewarm audience response.

After ['Ghosts of Mars'] I thought, `I don’t want to do this. It’s too hard, it’s too fucked up’“, he said in a frank tone of voice. “But I had done a couple of `Masters of Horror’ [episodes] a few years ago and I enjoyed them. They were short, they were contained, and I thought, `well, let’s try this.’

By ‘this’ he of course means ‘The Ward’, his highly-anticipated return that is debuting later this month in the Midnight Madness portion of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). As opposed to his last feature, which was an effects-driven action film, Carpenter said ‘The Ward”s much simpler, more unadorned nature was what drew him to it.

The whole project was a movie that was contained“, he said. “And it promised to have a real interesting cast…kinda get away from an effects-driven movie. So this was up my alley. It also wasn’t too long a shoot.

Starlet Amber Heard (‘All the Boys Love Mandy Lane’, ‘The Stepfather’) anchors the mostly-female cast (“I’d much rather direct girls than boys, especially at my age“, Carpenter said) as a runaway who is committed to a mental institution after setting fire to a farmhouse and then, while, imprisoned, terrorized by a malicious and deadly ghost. The movie is a low-budget, independent production, a completely different type of picture than the $28 million, studio-backed ‘Mars’. It was also the first project Carpenter edited digitally (though it was shot on good ol’-fashioned film).

I learned a bunch of things on this movie“, he said. “The editing and the finishing of the movie is all done digitally. A lot of the effects are [also] done digitally, which is really interesting.

Like most other “old guard” horror directors, Carpenter seems to welcome digital technology in the filmmaking process, despite spending a good portion of his career doing everything practically.

Most of the effects [in `The Ward' were] done on set, but there are some things we did digitally“, he told me. “It’s just another tool. [It's] a great tool to use…there are a lot of choices.

Since Carpenter’s first big hit with ‘Halloween’, and even since ‘Ghosts of Mars’, the horror landscape has changed considerably, but Carpenter – perhaps due to his age (he’s 62), perhaps due to the fact that he’s struggled since his early hits to make a box-office impact – doesn’t seem to care too much anymore whether his work is embraced by mainstream audiences…or, really, anyone. Not only did he seem unwilling to go into any great detail on his latest film during our interview, he also gave off a “devil may care” attitude that was apparent in several of his answers, including this response to my question about what type of scares audiences can expect in his latest offering.

There are a lot of jump scares in this, which some people may not like“, he answered. “But tough shit.

Carpenter seems to have a similarly defeated attitude when it comes to studio remakes of his classic films, although you can’t necessarily blame him for that. In an industry as brutal as Hollywood, the path of least resistance is usually the most practical to follow.

I have no real control over [remakes of my films]“, he said. “That’s what I learned early on. When the producers wanted to remake `Halloween’, to do sequels…I thought, `this is a big mistake.’ But in California I cannot stand in the way of them making the sequel. All I can do is share in it. So I crossed that bridge way back in the early `80s and I thought, `well, what am I gonna do? Am I gonna sit and cry or am I just gonna sit and go along with it?’

Of course, in Hollywood there’s also often a monetary reward for directors who throw up their hands and allow the studios to remake their earlier films. I reminded Carpenter that the last time I’d talked to him – on the set of the disastrous 2005 remake of his 1980 classic ‘The Fog’ – he’d similarly indicated that he was open to Hollywood updating his films for modern audiences.

As long as they pay me“, he replied. “That’s a very important component.

As for ‘The Ward’, we’ll soon find out whether it was worth the near-decade-long wait – not to mention whether Carpenter can still carve out a legitimate niche for himself in the horror world of the 21st century. Although, while admitting that he ‘did’ enjoy the experience of getting behind the camera again (“I think [the set is] the place where I’m probably the happiest as a director…it’s just unbelievably wonderful“), it remained unclear just whether or not he gives a toss how audiences feel about it.

I worked very, very hard with everybody [on `The Ward'] to make as many people happy as possible. I’ve decided later in my life now that that’s all I care about, is making others happy“, he said, before adding, “I’m being facetious.