John Carpenter Looks Back on ‘They Live': 'It's Not Science Fiction. It's a Documentary'

Jordan Zakarin
·Writer
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It’s been over 25 years since John Carpenter’s sci-fi social satire They Live hit theaters, but the film is more relevant than ever. A movie about a blue collar worker who discovers that there are aliens living as rich people on earth, it focuses on extreme economic inequality and corporate media control, topics that are still very much in the news. Fans are also rediscovering They Live, as they look back on the life and career of the film’s star, WWF brawler Roddy Piper, who died in July.

Yahoo Movies called Carpenter earlier this week to look back on They Live and discuss several of his other iconic movies like Halloween and The Thing, along with his career as a movie score composer. The director, now 67, was delightfully irascible, showing all the wit that helped him become one of the ‘70s and '80s most pioneering filmmakers.

They Live was a reaction to the Reagan years, but the income inequality, corporate ownership of the media — all of that is more extreme now than ever.
Yeah, it is. You have to understand something: It’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction.

Do you feel like it’s gotten worse since then?
It’s morphed into something really bizarre. The same problem — unrestrained capitalism — still exists. Listen, I’m a very happy capitalist. I love my country. I love the system that we’re in, but not without some restraints on it. The last recession we had is an example. The ‘80s never ended. The mentality that the ‘80s bred is really alive and well — that’s the part that’s so bad. Nothing is to built to last. Everything is built to make profit. But I don’t want to whine about it.

In the Blu-ray commentary for They Live, the late Roddy Piper says you worked closely with him on his acting. How did you help him?
Roddy had a lot of natural talent, but he didn’t have a lot of experience in movie acting. [For the WWF], he played Rowdy Roddy Piper and that wasn’t what we were doing. He was from a different world. So I just guided him. He was playing a different character, a guy named John Nada. We had to go through who that was, figure out what that was all about.

So is there a backstory to John Nada?
Yeah, and I had [Roddy] work out some of his own and never tell me. I didn’t need to know, as long as he knew.

What’d you work out together?
I believe his wife was killed by unintentional acceleration, which is something that happens with cars. But I won’t tell you what else we talked about, what the hell? [laughs] Those are secrets of the trade.

That’s a hallmark of your films in general. We don’t know what they’re researching in The Thing, and we don’t know much about the cops or murderers in Assault on Precinct 13. Did you leave that out on purpose?
It wasn’t that I wanted to leave it out; I just didn’t think it was necessary. You know what the police are doing in society: They’re trying to keep order. And you know what the guys are trying to do in the Antarctic: They’re doing experiments. You don’t need to know what exact job it is. It doesn’t matter. No one cares.

Similarly, we don’t know much about the aliens in They Live, or where they’re from. I’m wondering where the design for their grotesque masks came from.
Well, we had a drawing. My then-girlfriend, wife-to-be, made a drawing of them and said “Here.” They’re kind of metallic skulls. It had to be humanoid, but not human.

Maybe the most lasting element of that movie is the “Obey” poster, especially after artist Shepard Fairey used it. Who designed it for you originally?
Oh, I don’t remember. I have no clue.

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Did Fairey ever get in touch with you?
No, no. He didn’t ask me, either. The s—. He owes me money. No, it’s fine. I don’t care.

If you could remake any of your movies, which would you?
God, I wouldn’t remake anything. I don’t want to watch them again, I don’t want to know about them.

You don’t watch your own movies?
No, God! Do you think I sit around and watch my own movies and say, “Wow, look at that!”

What movies have you seen in the last few years that you’ve liked?
Several years ago there was a great Swedish film called Let the Right One In that completely redefined the vampire genre. And I thought that was exceptional. Don’t even talk to me about the remake.

Halloween changed the game for horror films, and now horror is a booming business. Do you watch any of the newer films?
They’re making a lot of cheap films. Really, really cheap. It depends on if I’m interested in the subject. If I think I can learn from them, I’ll watch them.

Do you plan on making more of your own movies?
Sure, why not? Do you have a lot of money? I’ll make a movie! But right now I’m in the middle of a music career. You know about it?

Of course I do.
You better know about it!

The remix album [in which electronic music stars remixed his album of film scores, Lost Themes].
No, hell no! A new album, two of them! Dude, please!

Well Lost Themes came out this year…

And then there was a remix album, which I had nothing to do with. And then there’s a Lost Themes II that’s coming out next year.

Those compositions aren’t set to actual movie scenes, but do you have visions of scenes in your head when you write them?
No, they’re for the movies in your head, not for me. But I will say when you watch the ad for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed game, you’re going to hear “Vortex.”

Dwayne “The Rock Johnson” says he wants to remake your 1986 adventure film Big Trouble in Little China. Have you spoken to him?
I have not spoken to The Rock. Look, this is the era of just mammoth corporations. And so maybe a sequel or a remake of Big Trouble will come along with Dwayne Johnson in it. Maybe, but we’re not there yet. But I’ll talk to him if they want to talk, sure.

That movie really found its audience later on. I was very young when it came out.
How old were you? It was in 1986.

Well, I had just been born.
What?! Holy f—ing s—! Why am I talking to you? You’re a child!

So what’d you think of The Thing prequel?
Oh let’s not talk about that. You know, they tried. It’s just a different film.

Is there another movie you’ve always wanted to make that you haven’t made yet?
Well, there are a lot of movies that I’ve wanted to make, but haven’t made and maybe probably won’t make them. But I’ll make another movie if it’s right. If the script is right and the time is right and the budget is right.

Wes Craven died earlier this year, and your Facebook tribute to him was quoted by just about every news outlet. You were the two leading horror directors of your time. Did you ever feel any sort of rivalry?
There was no rivalry. I knew Wes for years. He was a very nice man. The most fun we had together was he acted me in a TV thing I did [1993’s Body Bags]. He knew exactly what to do, so I didn’t have to tell him anything. It was a lot of fun. So listen, I have to go meet my drug dealer, what other questions do you have?

Well! I don’t want to get in the way of that…
I’m joking, I’m joking.

OK, last question: Escape From New York. Is that going to be remade?
You never know. I can’t say. Just keep one thing in mind: No one tells me anything.