Release date: January 21st 2011
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 88 minutes
Director: John Carpenter
In his three decades as a filmmaker, John Carpenter has made a career out of scaring us witless with films such as Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In The Mouth of Madness (1993).
While he’s been dubbed the “Master of Horror”, the director has also shown versatility and insight when it comes to storytelling. Movies such as Dark Star (1974) and Escape From New York (1981) took us into the realm of science fiction and unknown worlds while Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) retold Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) in an urban setting.
For the past 10 years Carpenter has not made a feature film, only in 2005 he directed 2 episodes of Masters of Horror; Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life, while his films have been remade for a new generation of fans. He’s been for the most part absent from the director’s chair until The Ward came along.
STATIC MASS: What brought you back to directing?
JOHN CARPENTER: Well, I hadn’t directed in…my God… a long time! After 2001 I had to stop, I was just burnt out, unhappy and tired. I needed to get away from the movie business for a while. I had been working steadily since 1970. That’s a long, long time without a break… so I took some time off and refreshed myself and I’m really glad that I did. I was hoodwinked into this TV series we had over here called Masters of Horror by Mick Garris. It was a very short shoot up in Vancouver and I enjoyed myself. I had a great time and I loved being back on a set again… it was really fun so I thought maybe I’ll try this again.
So The Ward came along and it was the perfect vehicle for me at the time; a low budget film, a contained film, with a small cast in an isolated location so I thought why not, lets give it a try.
STATIC MASS: What’s the most important thing when you’re considering directing a film?
JOHN CARPENTER: I have to be interested in it… something unusual about it. This was a story about these young girls in a mental ward in the 1960’s and it was the opportunity to work with a young cast and do something different to the things I’d done.
Amber Heard plays Kristen in the movie. She’s a young woman who finds herself committed after burning down an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere but she can’t remember why. Once in the ward, Kristen meets four other girls but she seems to be the only one intent on getting out. Things get stranger and darker as the girls begin to disappear one by one and there’s an angry presence stalking them.
STATIC MASS: How much did Kristen change from page to screen?
JOHN CARPENTER: Well I think in every case you don’t quite visualise or imagine the actress. When you’re reading a script you just see the character and I thought that Amber brought a real intelligence to the role, she’s very, very smart and a very, very talented young actress. She just seemed to fit, she got it, she understood the project and was enthusiastic, and that’s about all you can ask for.
STATIC MASS: There are some very tense scenes, but there’s also a fun moment when the girls put a record on and dance. Were there moments like that as well when you weren’t shooting?
JOHN CARPENTER: When you’re making a horror film especially, you have a lot of fun on set, it’s not that bad! It’s not everybody tense all the time, it’s mostly a lot of laughter and really enjoying oneself! The night we shot that particular scene was a lot of fun. The girls went online and looked up dances from the 60’s. They had their own little versions of it, it was really fun to do, plus I remembered that particular song when I was young!
STATIC MASS: What’s the song called?
JOHN CARPENTER: It’s Run Baby Run by the Newbeats!
The Ward was shot on location at Eastern Washington State Mental Hospital for the Insane in the summer of 2009. Built in 1891, its a labyrinth of buildings both abandoned and in use with hundreds of windows looking out into the never-ending wheat fields.
STATIC MASS: Were there some real ghosts knocking around in there too?
JOHN CARPENTER: No ghosts…but right across from where we were shooting was the area for the dangerously disturbed people. They had razor wire around it so we got to look out at that all day but no ghosts just a movie company having a lot of fun!
STATIC MASS: The 1960’s was a time when you could be involuntarily committed. Were there other reasons as well to set the story in this time period?
JOHN CARPENTER: That was our primary reason. Originally the script was written in present day and it just didn’t work because it wasn’t true. You can’t throw somebody in the ward for that long against their will and you can only keep them for 72 hours I believe…if I’m not mistaken, I could be wrong but I believe that’s it. We started off with the 50’s and then somebody suggested ’66 and I was around in ’66 so I thought that’s fun, let’s do that!
The son of a Western Kentucky University music professor, Carpenter has composed the music for many of his own films, but for this one, he handed over those duties to someone else.
STATIC MASS: How involved were you in the soundtrack?
JOHN CARPENTER: In this case I wasn’t going to do the music. I hired a really, really talented composer called Mark Kilian and boy he brought it – he was just terrific! He brought another layer to the film that I hadn’t imagined. I was very happy with his work. He had a few pieces written before he had seen the film, just based on reading the script so he brought those and we integrated them. It was a really fine collaboration.
The Ward, along with Halloween and In The Mouth of Madness, share something in common; Kristen, Michael Myers and John Trent at one point or another are patients in psychiatric care. Their sanity is always in question, actually, in the case of Michael, there’s no question at all!
JOHN CARPENTER: Well, it’s fascinating; the whole area of drama and reality, sure I have an interest in it but not anything too serious… but it’s the human mind and all that strangeness …
Carpenter has long been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. His work as a filmmaker has been inspired by what these past legends have brought to the screen, but probably more so with Howard Hawks.
STATIC MASS: You’re quite a fan of Howard Hawks, what is it about his movies you enjoy?
JOHN CARPENTER: He brought this really specific world view to movies. He worked in commercial film but made every film his own. His dealing with characters, mannerisms, use of props…his repetitive themes of men and women, heroes and comedy…he had a lot of depth and he was a very modern director so I was very attracted.
STATIC MASS: Hawks famously said a good movie is “Three good scenes, no bad ones”. Do you agree?
JOHN CARPENTER: That’s a pretty good definition, don’t you think? I think it’s really specific, and like he told John Wayne, just don’t annoy the audience!
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .