“Halloween”. “The Thing”. “They Live”. “Village of the Damned”…Ok fine, forget about that last one. Doesn’t matter. After dropping out of the feature-directing game for nearly ten years, the man who brought us some of the greatest celluloid nightmares in horror history is back with The Ward, starring Amber Heard as an amnesiac who is indefinitely committed to a mental asylum and must soon fend off a murderous evil force that stalks the hallways.
B-D’s Chris Eggertsen recently spoke to the filmmaking legend (who, it should be noted, has also helmed some pretty terrific non-horror movies) about the psychological fright flick, hitting VOD on June 8th before going on to a limited theatrical run exactly one month later. Check out the full interview inside.
Full disclosure: I was incredibly nervous to interview John Carpenter; more nervous than I’ve ever been in the course of my time at Bloody Disgusting. Not only am I a huge fan of many of his films, but he’s freaking John Carpenter, Master of Horror (a fact not even “Ghost of Mars” can diminish). I’ve also heard countless stories about what a difficult interview he can be, which only further added to my jitters.
In truth, my experience with him was so incredibly brief (I was given a mere ten minutes over the phone) that it was hard to form much of an opinion one way or the other. For the most part, though, I found him to be very pleasant – almost friendly – but also rather guarded and to-the-point in the course of answering my questions.
There’s also an underlying gruffness to him that managed to surface only once, when he failed to understand one of my questions (speaker-phone isn’t great for conducting an interview, I’m afraid) for the second time in a row. “Now you have to speak a little clearer, my friend, I’m not picking up what you’re saying,” he uttered, the slightest hint of annoyance running through his words. “You’re at the other end of a tunnel. Now speak to me very clearly here.” (Gulp.)
In any case – and regardless of my opinions on his latest film – it’s nice to have him back after a near-decade-long-absence from the feature-directing game.
Bloody Disgusting: So what appealed to you about “The Ward”, story-wise?
John Carpenter: The story came along at the right time for me, and it lured me back into directing because it’s a small film in a single location. It has claustrophobic, dark, shadowy hallways. An ensemble cast. And that was exactly what I wanted to do when I came back to directing features.
BD: A lot of my favorite films of yours do take place in a more contained location. What about those sorts of films do you specifically enjoy?
JC: Well, I think on a thematic level it’s probably the story of every human being on Earth. You can look at it that way.
BD: You didn’t write the script for this, as you have with many films you’ve directed in the past, so I’m wondering how much tinkering you did with the screenplay prior to and during production?
JC: Well, we worked on it a bit, to get it to the right spot…and then I just, you know, when the actors arrived and they put their input into it, we began to tinker with this and that. But I didn’t write the original idea. It wasn’t my idea.
BD: I read that there was some improvisation between the central actresses in the film, and I’m wondering if that’s something you encouraged initially, or if that was something that arose through their natural chemistry?
JC: Well, there was a chemistry between the girls. You know, we had the screenplay, which tells you what’s going to happen, and where you’re going, and what you’re saying. The girls really befriended each other, and they just committed to the story. And each brought a whole different…set of talents to what I was doing. They were incredible! I love my cast.
BD: I really like the scene where the music comes on and they start dancing around a bit. That’s such a great unexpected moment, and it definitely showcases the chemistry between the girls.
JC: It’s the one time where you get to see them having a good time.
BD: As far as Amber goes, you needed an actress who could showcase her vulnerability but at the same time show a deep inner strength. How familiar were you with her before she came in?
JC: When we were casting the movie, she was suggested, and they sent me her films, and I watched. And I go, ‘there she is’! She’s…really talented. So I met her, we talked…we had a great time. I really enjoyed working with her. I think she’s got a lot of talent.
BD: She’s obviously a gorgeous woman, but she was glammed down quite a bit for this role.
JC: There’s no way, my friend, that you can make Amber look anything but gorgeous…[but] people need to take her more seriously, I think. Cause she’s really got some chops.
BD: This was shot at a working mental hospital. And I’m wondering if that affected the production at all or added an extra dimension to what we ultimately see on the screen.
JC: Well you know, a lot of the actors will tell you that they were spooked by being there, but let me just tell you the truth: they built a fence around us!…The crew was fenced in to protect the inmates from us!…The toughest thing about shooting there was the drive in the morning, man, from the hotel to the set. It was half an hour, 30, 45 minutes. That’s my coffee time!
BD: It’s also gotta be depressing to drive into a mental hospital every day for work.
JC: You know, it’s got several sections to it, and most of the campus is very beautiful. It’s just got…frankly, a bunch of young people wandering around, going from class to class. The seriously mentally ill folks are behind razor wire there. They’re criminally insane. And then the truly…the people who can’t take care of themselves are in the hospital.
The whole idea of mental illness is a tragedy anyway, okay? It’s just a tragedy. It’s always something that people are afraid of. For human beings, it’s a huge problem. A massive, massive problem. So I didn’t look at it as anything weird or spooky, but kind of sad, you know?
BD: Well, the film takes place in a literal prison of sorts in addition to the prison of the mind, which is what mental illness is essentially.
JC: That was what we tried to do [in the film]. That was the story.
BD: As far as it being a period piece, we don’t see much of that in the horror genre anymore. What do you think the period setting added to the story?
JC: Well, there’s one big reason that we did it, and that’s because in the ’70s they changed law, so that before the ’70s a doctor could put someone into a mental institution for an indefinite period of time. But after the ’70s, it’s only 72 hours. So it wasn’t realistic that they put Amber’s character into this place and kept her locked up unless it was before the ’70s. So we played around with the ’50s, and then the ’60s seemed to be good.
[Though I feel I’ve only been on the phone with him for a minute-and-a-half, I’m informed this is my last question.]
BD: So do you have any idea what your next project might be, or do you have anything you’re working on that you’re excited about?
JC: I’m working on several interesting things. I’m working on a movie version of a comic book called ‘Darkchylde’, which I’m excited about. There’s a little Gothic Western I may do. There’s a high-gloss psychological thriller I may do. We’ll see. But right now, I’m concentrating all my energies on the NBA playoffs.