True confession #1: I’m going to dress up as Laurie Strode on “Halloween.” Let’s just say Jamie Lee Curtis and I are of an age. Grey hair? Check. Glasses? Check. Jeans, boots and jacket? No problem. And I’ve got a good-size kitchen cleaver, if not a rack of semi-automatics. That’s Strode’s new weapons arsenal, stacked and ready to wreak revenge on Michael Myers after he escapes from a mental hospital after 40 years.
Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, first made her name with John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978, when she was 19, followed by Rick Rosenthal’s “Halloween 2,” also written and produced by Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill. True confession #2: I worked on that film as a young press agent at Maslansky/Koenigsberg, followed by Carpenter’s “The Fog” and “Escape from New York” (also co-written by Hill).
I booked rounds of interviews, listening to Kentuckian Carpenter talk about SteadiCam moves and the influence of Howard Hawks on “Assault on Precinct 13.” I vividly recall photographers shooting Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin posing under the Statue of Liberty. My last go-round with Carpenter and Hill was as the unit publicist on Carpenter crony Tommy Lee Wallace’s “Halloween 3: Season of the Witch.”
True Confession #3: That was the first time I realized how much hard work can go into a terrible movie.
So when I showed up on the Universal back lot’s Wisteria Lane for the “Halloween” junket, I hadn’t seen Curtis and Carpenter in decades. “I remember you,” said Carpenter, smiling. “I follow you on Twitter.” As for all those awful “Halloween” sequels, he said: “I want to apologize now for those movies.”
The Original Phenomenon
Many people forget that Carpenter wrote the “Halloween” script with the late producer Debra Hill, who supplied the first draft. “She brought a lot of her own high-school experiences to it,” Carpenter said. “I took her draft, rewrote and polished it. That was our shooting draft. She did great things: she came up with the sheet over Bob, one of the funniest things I ever read, so unique.”
“Hill didn’t get enough credit for ‘Halloween,'” said Curtis, who credits her with creating the character of Laurie Strode — and for making her career. “She wrote that character. John Carpenter is a talented man, but he couldn’t write three 17-year-old girls as effectively as Debra did. Without John and ‘Halloween’ and Laurie Strode, I have no career: absolutely true. As a young actress, I wasn’t that pretty. I wasn’t known for my looks. The movie gave me definition at a time when I was undefined. Being the daughter [of “Psycho” star Janet Leigh] is useless. It did not get me any work. By giving me this job, John was recognizing my gift of vulnerability. He was recognizing something I didn’t understand. I was 19. He said, ‘I want you to be so vulnerable people want to take care of you.'”
When Curtis saw “Halloween” at a crowded late-night screening on Hollywood Boulevard, she remembers that when Strode leaves the house with the kid asleep and walks slowly across the street, “halfway across the street, as Laurie is looking at the house, an African-American woman stood up and screamed, ‘Do not go in there!’ I understood at that moment what he was going for: we established this sweet girl who was everybody’s daughter and friend, a braniac, a repressed dreamer, that girl who was introduced into this horrific world made you want to protect her.”
Carpenter remembers planning that killer point-of-view opening tracking shot around and through the house and upstairs. “I hadn’t seen that in movies, certainly not low-budget horror,” he said. “And Panavision wide-screen wasn’t used for low-budget horror. It was usually too expensive.”
The movie was structured around making the audience anxious about what was lurking out of the frame. It was usually The Shape (Nick Castle). “We didn’t know where he was,” said Carpenter. “He could be anywhere, in the shadows outside or inside, or he might be right next to you and you don’t know it.”
While the $325,000 indie release was a sleeper hit (topping out at $183 million domestic, adjusted), critics were all over the place. Tom Allen in The Village Voice compared Carpenter’s shock techniques to Hitchcock and George Romero, while Roger Ebert raved: “If you don’t want to have a really terrifying experience, don’t see ‘Halloween.'” However, The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael argued that “Carpenter doesn’t seem to have had any life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to directors such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and to the Val Lewton productions.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum and Robin Wood suggested that the killer only goes after sexually promiscuous victims, while the virgin survives: thus, “the monster becomes, in the tradition of all those beach party-monster movies of the late ’50s and early ’60s, simply the instrument of puritan vengeance and repression, rather than the embodiment of what puritanism repressed,” wrote Wood. “I thought the opposite,” Carpenter said.
Horror producer Jason Blum picked up the “Halloween” rights when they reverted to Miramax, and lured Carpenter back into the fold as composer and executive producer. “Jason Blum is a master salesman,” said Carpenter, who’s now going on a European tour with his band. “He came over and sat in my office. ‘They’re going to make it whether we do it or not. Why don’t we get together?’ He wanted to shepherd it through, make it as good as it could be, make it better. ‘Why not? Nothing wrong with that, plus I get paid. I’ll do it.’ And he beat the bushes to find a great director, David Gordon Green, who is not a horror director. That’s what I love about him. It worked out.”
Green (“Super Bad”) was another film nerd who grew up in the South: “Halloween?” Blum emailed. Green instantly responded: “I’m in!” He wrote a script with frequent collaborator Danny McBride. It shares DNA with the original and is set 40 years later, when The Shape is on the loose again. But this time, the senior Strode has prepared obsessively for his return and is ready to blast him to smithereens — along with her well-trained daughter and granddaughter.
“That is Jason Blum’s gift,” said Curtis. “The Blum company methodology is to allow filmmakers to make movies on small budgets so the outlay is not exorbitant. At the Blumhouse offices, the only lobby pictures are of directors, as well as a mirror with a frame around it that says:’ ‘Imagine yourself here.’ That’s the idea. It’s David’s movie, 100 percent.”
While Carpenter liked an early “Halloween” draft, he counseled Green to forget about literally taking up where the other left off. “Just start now,” he told him. And they did, letting the media fill the audience in on the back story of a horrific serial killer imprisoned in a psychiatric institution for 40 years. (And skipping all those forgettable sequels.) “They were the Greek chorus,” said Curtis. “They told the history we didn’t have to tell, you got all that out of the way. I thought it was inventive and clever.”
The other thing Blum and Green convinced Carpenter to do was compose the score. “I had a blast doing it,” said Carpenter. “David was great, I did a spotting session with him, he was very specific about where he wanted music — ‘The main theme goes here, the sting is here.’ He had a grasp of what he wanted, so I let him direct me and he did. It was a combination of the old themes in places and brand-new music. He knew when not to use music and use silence.”
When Curtis started to read the script, she was struck by a scene when Strode’s granddaughter arrives home from a run and walks into her sliding louvered closet. “She pulled a bare bulb,” she said. “Right away, I understood what the writers and David had done, jumping 40 years to this girl in Haddonfield. It was a perfect homage to the first movie, but a whole new story, a beautiful reference.”
It all came flooding back to Curtis as she took on Strode again, who is a “strong fighter,” she said. “But she’s a wounded warrior.” Curtis leaned into her own lonely isolation away from her Los Angeles family, driving long distances alone to sets on location in Charleston, S.C., “where I didn’t know where the fuck I was,” she said.
“From the moment I walked onto the first set until I flew home a month later with a cracked rib, I was beaten up physically and emotionally,” she said. “I couldn’t stop crying from all the trauma Laurie stored up for when he’d come back after all those years. It all came out in the movie, without her being weak.”
No way. Strode has become an obsessively protective mother and grandmother. “She is flawed as a mother from all that original trauma,” said Curtis. “It’s about generational trauma and its effects.” The movie is contemporary, with a similar DNA to the original, opening this time on the mental asylum housing Myers. “Things are more exaggerated,” said Curtis, “because we live in a more exaggerated world in 2018 than 1978, the violence is more graphic. David was wildly inventive and fun and different. This is not just standard filmmaking. He’s an artist.”
The experience was “gratifying” for Curtis, who feels resonance with the #MeToo movement today. “The whole idea of our evolution as women is that we’re all in this together,” she said. “It’s generational: You see these women linking up in the last shot, three women on the truck with the knife.”
The actress always asks crew members to wear name tags for the first few days so she can learn their names. For the last shot of the movie, Strode sits in a truck watching Myers leave “as 40 years of trauma come crashing down,” Curtis said. When she arrived on the set, the entire crew stood in silence wearing name tags reading, “We are Laurie Strode.”
“She’s a force of nature, Jamie Lee Curtis,” said Carpenter. “I’m so proud of her. She’s fabulous. It is elemental. You know what happens to actresses when they hit 30. You don’t have a young ingenue playing this role, you have an older actress kicking ass on the screen and playing the hell out of this role. It’s totally unusual. I understand the ‘Terminator’ sequel will star Linda Hamilton; she’s going to be able to kick ass. So maybe it’s a trend. It’s about time.”
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Carpenter’s Rocky Road
True confession #4: Some years back, I had a memorable interview with Carpenter in which he said working for the studios meant bending over to get fucked in the ass. “I may have been in a cranky, distrustful mood back in those days,” he said.
He went through some rough times after “The Thing” did not perform for Universal. “I had final cut,” he said. “It had the ending you see, but we don’t know which one of our two characters is The Thing. It’s ambiguous, which audiences hate. And it was a down ending; it marked the end of mankind, essentially. We had previews, and the 19-year-olds were not happy about that. Universal asked me to try a new ending where you believe Kurt Russell blew up The Thing.”
Carpenter tried it: In testing, it didn’t make a difference. So the film went out with his ending. “I found out I was Sheinberged. [Universal chief] Sid Sheinberg’s wife hated the movie and she said to him, ‘This movie will destroy you.'”
While Carpenter earned accolades for “Halloween,” and loved “The Thing,” “it got buried,” he said. “I crawled away with my tail between my legs and hid. I was kicked out of Universal, tossed out on my ass. I got no ‘Firestarter,’ because ‘The Thing’ was so hated by reviewers and didn’t make enough money at the box office. It was not ‘E.T.'”
Stephen King’s “Christine” and Jeff Bridges vehicle “Starman” saved Carpenter’s studio cred, but finally many of Carpenter’s best films were made independently. “I was not able to smoothly and constantly maintain my final cut position in movies,” he said. “And that was what I valued the most, from the very beginning, to just have control over making my movie as opposed to somebody else. I had to fight. I got tired of fighting. The business just wears you down. I had to stop: ‘I can’t do this anymore, too much stress, too much fighting.’ Everybody is nice and happy when you start a project, but it just always ends up that way. People want you to change this and that. It bugged me then. I’m better now.”
Would he want to go back and re-edit his movies into the versions he wished them to be? “I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “No, I don’t want to change anything now. It’s all finished, and I’m happy it was finished at the time. No, I don’t want to revisit anything. I’ve mellowed out over the years. All is well, although I had a pretty serious illness a few years ago that nobody knew about. I’m just happy to be here. I’m good.” He caught himself. “Maybe not psychologically,” he said. “There’s always a problem there.”