Interview: John Carpenter on Reviving “They Live”
by Luke Y. Thompson on November 6, 2012
You probably haven’t been able to turn on your TV lately without seeing a barrage of ads telling you how to vote today, or suggesting what you should buy. In the world of John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic They Live, being released on Blu-ray today by Shout! Factory, these messages aren’t confined to the screen in your living room but exist everywhere, masterminding your consumption habits. (We, on the other hand, don’t have to persuade you to buy anything, as we’re giving away five copies of said Blu-ray absolutely free; get bonus entries at our Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages) The interview we also got with John Carpenter? Free to read as well. So check it out at your leisure below, if you so choose. And don’t forget to vote today.
Nerdist: It occurs to us that if you were doing They Live today, the aliens are actually too subtle. Nowadays, they’d have their own network and their own pundits blatantly advocating for what they were doing.
John Carpenter: You might be right about that. You might be right. It is true.
N: If you were making a movie of this sort again, do you think there would be a lot of changes to their approach?
JC: If I were going to make that movie today, and it hadn’t been made, I would update it – I would bring it into the new century and change some of the tenor of it, but no – the basic narrative would remain exactly the same.
N: Has Shepard Fairey [the guerilla artist known for his "Obey" images of Andre the Giant and Obama "Hope" poster] ever thanked you for basically inspiring his entire career with this movie?
JC: No, not really, but that’s okay. That’s all right.
N: It’s interesting that with the “Hope” image, he was using the imagery but giving it an opposite meaning.
JC: A touch, yeah. But that’s okay; that’s really good. I like it.
N: I remember when I first saw this movie, thinking that this was the sort of role John Carpenter would normally cast Kurt Russell in. Was there ever any thought of that, or was it always Roddy Piper?
JC: No, you see, in this particular case, what I really needed was an everyman. I needed a working-poor guy who was not upper-middle class, he was not middle class; he was somebody almost down and out. And Roddy was perfect for that; just absolutely perfect, so I never thought of anybody else, really.
JC: I just met him there. I went as a fan; a wrestling fan. His manager at the time, David Wolfe, got a hold of me and said, “You wanna meet Roddy and think about this movie?” I said, well, sure. So I met him, and he was a really nice guy. We hit it off well, you know, I had been a wrestling fan since I was a kid, so we had much to talk about, and Roddy was trying to make a move out of wrestling, trying to get into acting. So I agreed to meet him and he was very nice, and we just went from there.
N: Are you still a big wrestling fan?
JC: Not so much anymore. They gave up one of the key elements of wrestling, at least from the days that I knew it, was something called “kayfabe” [the pretense that everything in pro-wrestling is real], which is essentially… well, if you know the word, you know what it is.
JC: It’s really a lifestyle, as Roddy described it to me; it’s a way of living. Since then — I needed that, to enjoy it, to really enjoy it, I needed that 10%. That was kind of taken away.
N: It’s interesting, there’s almost a parallel there with the plot of this movie. Nowadays, everyone has the sunglasses, and they see that it’s a show.
JC: Yeah, but it’s an awesome show! When I was young, I figured out what was going on, but I really loved it anyway. So there was no disillusionment or shock about it. Whereas with They Live, it would be a big f***ing deal to find all this out!
N: I think like everyone else, I went through that shock as a kid at about the age of 7 and then I got back to enjoying it again.
JC: You just have to recognize and applaud it for what it is, not for what it isn’t.
N: Would you ever have seen the day where a guy like The Rock would be a major mainstream movie star, and do you think you deserve some of the credit for showing that these guys can actually put in really good performances that translate to cinema?
JC: I don’t know if I deserve credit for it, but The Rock is very talented, so he deserves the career he has.
N: Would you ever work with Roddy again? It seems like you guys have such great chemistry on the commentary track that it sort of makes me wonder why you haven’t gotten together and done more.
N: The fight scene in this movie is pretty epic between him and Keith David; did his wrestling training come into play? Did he ever tell Keith to really hit him a little bit and do a little bit more full contact, or were there still rules about that, that you couldn’t incorporate anything of that sort?
JC: He sure came in handy! It’s an obvious asset for Roddy, and they rehearsed that fight for essentially a month and a half – roughly a month and a half. By the end, they were so conversant in the fight, they knew it inside and out, they were making contact with each other, like you said. They were hitting each other. But since they knew the fight, there was no injury whatsoever. Yeah, I’m proud of the fight. I like the fight a lot.
N: That’s certainly one of the things that people talk about the most. One of the others would of course be the bubblegum line. How did that one come about? Was that in the original script?
JC: It was in the original script, but it all belongs to Roddy, I have to give him complete credit for it. He had a notebook with him in which he would think up one-liners for his matches. And you know part of wrestling is the interview.
JC: So his character, his “Rowdy Piper” character, would taunt and insult and so forth, so he’d take a notebook with him, and he’d write the things he would think up. One of them was “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” There were others in there too, but that was the one that really jumped out. I believe that one was for, if I remember right, Playboy Buddy Rose.
JC: I think so. Not that I was particularly aware of at the time, mind you, but I’ve looked at this one prop that these two policemen who were supposedly creatures had, and thought, wait a minute. That looks REAL familiar to me. So yeah, I believe there were.
N: Was it the same special effects house?
JC: Naw, it was low-budget, dude! I’d just rent it out. We couldn’t afford to make ‘em.
N: You wouldn’t be able to shoot downtown on a low budget nowadays.
JC: Well, we had a few tricks up our sleeves; we were able to pull it off. That was all legit.
N: Tell me a little bit about the source material for the movie.
JC: This was back in the ’80s, and I’d embarked on this making-low-budget-films again situation. I had scoured some comic books – I’d always loved comics – and there was, I can’t remember the name of the comic title now, but I read this comic based on [the short story] “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson; this kinda came before I had fully figured out my story, and I was still in the beginning stages, figuring it out, and it was a really neat little hidden-reality story, essentially. In his version, humanity was hypnotized, almost as if you go up on stage and see a stage hypnotist, and I thought, ehh, that’s kinda corny, so I changed it to a radio frequency to disguise real reality. But I thought, well, this is close enough – I’m gonna use his story.
N: And you used a Lovecraft-inspired pseudonym [Frank Armitage, a character from The Dunwich Horror].
JC: Oh yeah, just because I love Lovecraft. No reason.
N: We’ve seen a whole lot of properties of yours get remakes/reboots in recent years. Has there been talk of anything with this one?
N: Can we ask what you though of some of the remakes?
JC: I shouldn’t comment on that stuff. I didn’t direct them. I don’t know; I wasn’t in charge of them. Nobody asked me about ‘em, so I won’t comment.
N: We’re guessing you may not want to comment on this either, but on the They Live commentary track, you said there are some of your own films that you don’t like… can you reveal any?
JC: I cannot do that for you. Sorry.
N: I had to try.
JC: I’m sworn to secrecy.
N: Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
JC: I’ve got a couple of ideas stewing around. I’m working on this comic-book property, Darkchylde…
JC: We’ll see if it gets to fruition. These days sometimes it’s difficult to get movies made, but you never know… A couple of TV show maybes; it’s all maybes at this point. What I’m really excited about – TRULY excited – is that last night, my Los Angeles Lakers won their first game, and they look great this year. I’m excited about the NBA. If you know anything about me, you know I’m an addict for basketball and I’m a big-time gamer.
N: What games are you excited by right now?
JC: Well, I will tell you I was horribly disappointed by Assassin’s Creed III. My God! Really? There’s a whole section where you go hunting? I dunno. I’m playing Dishonored, which I like a lot. I think it’s a really cool game.
N: Do you have any interest in maybe creating video games?
JC: Sure! If somebody pays me to do it, I’ll be glad to.
N: Let’s hope someone reads this who can make that happen. Well, thank you, John, and I really look forward to maybe a big bells-and-whistles Blu-ray of In the Mouth of Madness.
JC: In the Mouth of Madness, really? Well, sure, if they wanna make it, they can make it. I don’t think they will, though. That movie was not a big hit.
N: It’s not just my favorite of yours; quite a few writers I know say it’s their favorite too.
JC: Well, see, there ya go.
N: I’d love to hear a new commentary track, because the DVD one focused so much on just the lighting.
JC: Well, okay, but I had a cameraman with me, so you understand why!
They Live is out on Blu-ray today; enter to win one of five copies at our contest page, then bolster your odds with extra shots at our Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages. Nothing subliminal here; enter by November 12th, 2012, or you’ll get shut out when the contest ends. If you enjoyed this article, consider signing up for Nerdist News to get more like it first thing every weekday morning.