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GHOST OF MARS: John Carpenter

The director discusses his upcoming science-fiction film, currently in production.

By John Thonen     September 07, 2000

The Internet has become an amazing source of information on past, current and upcoming films, but, the net's very nature has also made it a breeding ground for gossip and misinformation, particularly for actors and filmmakers with strong cult followings. One such director, John Carpenter, took time from the busy tasks of his upcoming film, Ghosts of Mars, which began production in August, to share some straight-from-the-source facts with Fandom denizens about his latest project.

One inaccuracy that recently surfaced about Carpenter's upcoming science fiction-action-horror hybrid regards the film's title. While long reported in the plural form, some Internet postings have suggested that parent studio Sony/Columbia (through their newly revived Screen Gems division) had changed the title to a singular supernatural entity. 'Nope,' says the always laid-back Carpenter. 'Many, many ghosts. They're pretty much all over the place.'

Carpenter also shares the names of key cast members, laying rest to reports of Whoopi Goldberg's involvement. 'Whoppi was approached, and she was interested,' Carpenter tells us. 'But it just didn't come together.' The director declines to share what Goldberg's role might have been, explaining that 'I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings by letting them know they were the second choice for the part.'

The rest of the cast is largely made up of performers on the cusp of major stardom. Rapper turned actor Ice Cube tackles Desolation Williams, whose very name conjures up such past Carpenter anti-heroes as Snake Plissken. Coming on the heels of Cube's critical success in Three Kings and commercial success in Next Friday, GOM might just be a star-making vehicle for the performer.

The film's female lead held similar breakthrough potential for another musician-turned-actor, Courtney Love, at least until late July. Love was set to play Melanie Ballard, a Martian cop in pursuit of the notorious Desolation Williams. Unfortunately, the actress injured her ankle during training for the rigorous fight scenes, and for a short time the film's start, scheduled for early August, seemed threatened by Love's sudden departure. Thankfully, Carpenter managed to sign Natasha Henstridge (Species) and the production is back on track.

Carpenter's story (co-written with Larry Sulkis) presents Melanie as something of a rebel within the matriarchal society that dominates the Martian colony. Despite her position of authority, Melanie's willingness to sleep with men, and even bear their children, makes her nearly as much of a social outsider as Williams.

The third lead character is Jericho Butler, played by British actor Jason Statham, from the sleeper hit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Carpenter described Jericho as 'a seasoned cop on his first escort squad assignment.' He adds that the character is an expert at lock-picking and fixing machinery, skills that will likely come into use in the film's adventure tale.

Also featured are Blade Runner femme fatale Joanna Cassidy, as science officer Darlene Whitlock and Clea Duvall as Bashira Kincaid. The busy young actress (whom Fandom readers may best recall as Stokely, the morose outsider in Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty) joins GOM's cast as a rookie cop on her first Mars assignment. Carpenter says that Duvall generally plays 'geek girls,' but she will be opening some eyes through her character. 'None of that in this film,' he states. 'She's a lioness in this one.'

Carpenter is notably excited about his cast, admitting that Jason Statham had been his original choice for the Desolation Williams character and that he was briefly 'a little unsure at first' when Screen Gem's urged him to give the part to Cube. 'When he came in and we started talking about the character, he had some great ideas. He's a very interesting and smart man. Very focused on what he's doing. I'm very happy to have him.'

Carpenter also feels that the change benefited the story. 'Originally it was Desolation and Melanie, and we did a rewrite and expanded the Jericho character for Jason, and that really changed the dynamic. I think it's better than what it was originally.' Carpenter had also been pleased by Courtney Love's involvement, describing her as 'a fascinating person.' Her replacement by Hentsridge, likely demanded some minimal rewrites, but long time screenwriter Carpenter is more than up to the job.

For his crew, the director has rounded up such common Carpenter collaborators as actors Pam Grier and Peter Jason, co-producers Debra Hill and Sandy King (Mrs. Carpenter in real life), cinematographer Gary Kibbee, makeup effects house K.N.B., and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, who will likely be kept busy considering Carpenter's description of his movie. 'There's a lot of action in this film. A lot of action. There's a siege on a jail, fights on a train, battle sequences. Lots of physical training for everyone. Jeff has them all out there right now, learning how to kick ass.'

Carpenter says that no decision had yet been made on who would be handling the film's visual effects, sharing only that 'There'll be effects, but the effects have to serve the story. Not the other way around.' When asked how he expected to achieve the effects for the zeppelins that some web sites have talked of as a mode of transportation for the Martian colonists, Carpenter only laughs.

'There's a zeppelin in my film? No. There's a weather balloon. Joanna Cassidy's character makes an escape in a modified weather balloon and travels across the Martian landscape in it. But no zeppelins. No cheesy spaceships. None of that stuff.'

With a major rapper in his cast, it was only a matter of time before the subject of Ice Cube contributing to the soundtrack came up, earning only a noncommittal response. 'Who knows? At this point, things like that aren't decided. I'll be scoring it, but I certainly wouldn't be negative to [him] contributing. I'm negative to nothing really. I'm a very positive kind of guy.'

One notable difference between GOM and most sci-fi offerings is a lack of emphasis on high tech, futuristic aspects. The man behind classics like Halloween, Escape From New York, and The Thing, as well as 1998's Vampires, says that 'most of it takes place in this little outpost, a frontier type town on Mars that's near a mine. There's no trace on the surface that there was any past civilization on the planet, but the mines have uncovered this... well, basically a trap.'

It's Carpenter's intention to present, not just The Angry Red Planet, but one that's seriously pissed-off. 'It's a Land-of-the-Pharaohs [a 1956 film about the building of Egypt's Great Pyramid) kind of situation where these doors open and out comes this almost unkillable evil that sweeps across the planet. That's our dilemma. It takes us over. You're not human anymore. You become an ancient Martian warrior and you gather together and start attacking. Wiping out anything on the planet that you perceive as an invader.'

Another variation in Carpenter's approach to his tale is that the long deceased Martians aren't the typical highly advanced culture found in most aliens-meet-humans tales. 'They're a barbaric tribal society. Their race developed no high technology,' the director explains of his long extinct antagonists. 'What they developed was of the supernatural, and this trap is their sentinel. Something left behind to make sure their world is never claimed by others.'

Followers of Carpenter's past work and influences have already drawn parallels to concepts in GOM, noting that the film's leadstwo cops and one convictare identical to that of Assault on Precinct 13, a film that also deals with a small band of people barricaded in a jail and battling hordes of attackers. Even the gender and racial mix is the same: two men, one of whom is black, and one woman. Carpenter himself downplays the similarities.

'Well, there's a jail, a prisoner, a barricade and an attack. So yeah. There are some superficial similarities. But that 'people barricaded somewhere' is something I've visited a lot. It's there in The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Every film has it's antecedents, but this one is really closer to Zulu [a stirring, reality-based British action film about a handful of soldiers who successfully repelled thousands of Zulu tribesmen] which was also a major influence on Assault.

'Zulu is a favorite of mine,' Carpenter continues. 'There's just something about a small group and overwhelming odds. I like what it brings to a story and the characters.'

Another link drawn by many is that GOM's storyline bears some similarities to Quatermass and The Pit (a 1958 BBC TV serial and 1967 Hammer film, titled 5 Million Years To Earth in the U.S). Carpenter has never concealed his admiration for that film's writer, Nigel Kneale, but he doesn't see a strong link between the films. 'All that stuff is always in the back of my mind from childhood, but there's a thing he [Kneale] did for British TV called The Stone Tapes, which has much more influence here. I read his script for it, and it's really creepy. It's about this cathedral, and the stones in it hold these, spirits and images, of things that happened within its walls in the past. It's a fabulous idea. So I think that probably echoed more than anything else.'

When asked if the time spent in New Mexico shooting Vampires was part of the inspiration for GOM, Carpenter downplays the connection. 'No, not really. I had the idea about a year and a half ago. New Mexico certainly plays an important part in it because there's these Indian pueblos [the Zia Pueblo] we saw there, and the Indians are very cooperative about letting us use them, letting us do just about anything: stage fights, gun battles, blow stuff up, even paint everything red. This is Mars, so everything has to be red, you know.'

When asked how the red planet effect will be achieved, the director is uncommonly reticent: 'If I told you what we're using you'd be amazed. So I'm not going to tell you. But I was stunned when I saw the test footage. My jaw dropped. I could believe how great it looked and how it had been done.'

Asked about the rehearsal process, Carpenter says, 'It's very important. And there's a lot of benefits to it.' Like many directors, Carpenter's method is to do a read-through of the script first. 'It lets you hear your lines and hear the ones that just thud and lie there. We do nightly rewrites during the first week of rehearsals to adjust for that and for the input the actors bring to the table. Making a film is constant adjusting. It's Darwinian. You drop what doesn't work, and something better develops out of the process.'

Pressed for examples, Carpenter shares that 'I told Cube this new idea I had been kicking around for the ending, and the next day he came in and he'd written the whole thing and it was just great. So we incorporated that. It also let's you individualize the lines. For example, Jason is British, has a Cockney accent. Now that wasn't the original character, so Larry and I had to do rewrites so the dialogue worked for him, and we did a lot of that with Jason's involvement. That's just being smart. But you have to get as much of that done before you are out there shooting. Because you have to hit the ground running.'

Pressed as to how flexible he is with actor contributions, Carpenter tells us, 'I'm always open to ideas, to changes. Nothing is precious about a screenplay or about a cut. An actor can say what they want as long as they don't change my narrative or suddenly become a different character. But in terms of individualizing who that character isif it's better than what's on the page, I want to hear it.' (That very flexibility will likely help the director weather the strains of adapting Hentsridge to what had been Courtney Love's role, with little preparation time.)

The action scenes in Carpenter's recent Vampires, which he credited as being influenced by western movie masters like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, reflected some changes in the director's standard techniques, which he says would likely continue on GOM. 'Yeah. Probably more of things in that vein. A lot of that depends on the characters and how they play against each other. There's a lot of action in this movie, and that will require a different cutting style than some of my older movies. It's an evolving thing.'

When asked if his GOM editing style would be closer to the rapid fire, and at times near subliminal, editing of young directors like Armageddon's Michael Bay, Carpenter is at first hesitant. 'I don't know how to comment, really. I think that sometimes it's fast just for the sake of being fast. I didn't care much for The Rock [an earlier Bay film], but there were things in Armageddon that I thought were really fun and stirring. At least until the shuttles took off and started zipping and zooming around like some cheesy space opera thing. Then they lost me. The stuff at the space station? I thought a lot of it was just silly. And that asteroid? It was like something out of Planet of the Vampires [a 1965 Italian sci-fi film, often cited as one of the inspirations for Alien). I'm like, 'What the hell is this and how much did it cost?' But it worked for the audience, I guess.'

Carpenter does share with us that not all the web rumors reports about his latest film are inaccurate. Such as the one about the near collapse of the GOM project a few months ago 'Now that one's true. It's a hard one to tell you about, though. This is the first film for a new company, Screen Gems, which I guess is to sort of be the Dimension-type branch for Sony. Their mandate was that they were supposed to make films under 15-million. So, along comes this film, and it's twice that. So there were problems right out of the gate. There was a struggle going on over it, and I just thought, 'Eh, I don't want to do this.' So I withdrew for a while. But it got back on track, and now we're doing it. At least this week. Next week. Who knows?'

One of the more interesting results of Carpenter's GOM down time, were some comments he made at the South by Southwest Film Festival 'Yeah, I had a discussion with Robert Rodriguez and Harry Knowles about my plans to revolutionize Hollywood, and how to go about doing it.' Citing the incredible strides made in digital filmmaking and electronic post-production, an enthusiastic Carpenter says that 'we can own the business. No middle men. No money men. It can be done, and I know how. All we have to do is go out and do it. But I don't know how many filmmakers really want to do it. How many will embrace it.'

Carpenter suggested at the time of the festival that he might soon be starting a self-funded, digital project, and the idea hasn't lost its appeal to him. 'I come from low-budget filmmaking and have gone back and forth throughout my career making real low ones, big onesanything. It would be very easy for me just because I'm a brand name. If I made a genre film, it would sell.'

The appeal to an independent filmmaker such as Carpenter is obvious. 'You'd control the production, and you'd own the copyright. You'd own everything. That intrigues me because, there's a business side to me as well. I'm not just purely a liberal hippie. I'm a big fan of capitalism. So controlling the copyright is a very tantalizing idea. I'm still interested. It's something to think about.'

Meanwhile, we'll have to contend ourselves thinking about Ghosts of Mars.

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