Harry plays fly on the wall while John Carpenter composes and performs music for GHOSTS OF MARS!!!
Published at: Feb. 20, 2001, 2:05 a.m. CST by staff
There are moments throughout my overly lucky life where I am sitting in a place watching a thing going on where suddenly I realize…. "Holy shit, I’m really here watching this!"
I constantly had that feeling in New Zealand while watching the various actors embody and become the characters of Middle Earth. I would look around and just realize… "What the hell am I doing here?!?!"
There was the first time I walked onto the set of Ebert & The Movies and took the seat opposite Roger and looked at the miniature set before me and just realized…. "Oh my God, I’m doing this!!!"
Those are a pair of the more… unbelievably cool moments I’ve lived. Flashes of time and of experiences where I became so self-aware of my sheer luck and unbelievable good fortune to be in a place and time. Today was another.
Today, I woke up in Los Angeles… I’ve been there this weekend working on the TV show with my producer and working on a pretty cool business deal and while I was there my father called to tell me that my 16mm print of FIEND WITHOUT A FACE arrived back at Geek Headquarters in Austin.
I love that film. I love that movie like you wouldn’t believe. And at that moment I thought of only one pair of people I know in the world that share an unadulterated love for the classic B-horror sci-fi flicks of the period. The Carpenters. John Carpenter and his wonderful wife and producer Sandy King.
Since GHOSTS OF MARS started I have been notably out of contact with them. Trying not to be a nuisance. I hadn’t spoken with Sandy in about 5-6 months. Turns out she’s just had knee surgery and is suffering the joy of being immobile. I love immobility (sarcasm spread like jam on morning toast). When I told Sandy that the first person I thought of when I got the news that my print of FIEND WITHOUT A FACE arrived was her… she giggled with delight. You see, Sandy and John have a pure love for films like IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, INVASION OF THE SAUCERMEN, Howard Hawks’ THE THING… well if you’re cool you know the rest.
We chatted for a bit, when suddenly she asked me how long I’d be in town. I told her till late Monday (President’s Day) and that is when she told me that John was scoring GHOSTS OF MARS and that I should check it out.
At this point… My tongue enlarged about 5 sizes in my mouth… It just laid there… unmoving producing gobs of saliva dripping from the red chin hairs…
Sandy said, "I’ll see if John’s ok with it and get back to you ok?"
This was the point where I was supposed to answer. My jaw closed and opened while I gutturally muttered… "Yeaahhh"
As I left the phone conversation I just sort of sat there in my hotel room looking out my window just gob-struck.
The next day, Sandy calls me back confirming that I was on for Monday at 2pm. I was given the address and I really had no idea what to expect. How many musicians would there be? Would I be sitting in some sort of soundproof room staring in wonder at what was going on? I had no idea.
I thought about it briefly, went in my bathroom and flushed a plastic bag covered note that read, "Moriarty… Call Me On The Cell" and watched it spin down the drain to the evil one’s domain.
32 minutes later, the good professor called saying, "What’s up Harold," See… that’s how powerful Carpenter’s influence is… James even calls me Harold, on the account that subconsciously he knows I’m the BRAIN!
I mention to the M-man that I was going to need a ride to a thing on Monday… and if he was busy that I’m sure I could find someone else to fill in.
He asked what I would be doing and I said, "Well… I don’t know if it is up your alley, but… I am going to check out John Carpenter scoring GHOSTS OF MARS."
The next thing I know I hear a clunk… about twenty seconds later I hear the heavy panting of Mongo followed by… ummm… It sounded a bit like slurping… I’m not insinuating anything, but it was slurping sounds… kinda gross slurping sounds. Moriarty returned to the phone in a dazed voice saying, "The Cops took away my license for driving 5mph on the Freeway" Heh… Old people… And he suggested that Harry Lime be the get-away driver on this adventure.
He swore that Lime would leave his zither at home and wouldn’t begin launching into elegant monologues about cuckoo clocks and long periods of peace and the stifling of creativity that peace brings. Well…. I agreed.
That brings us to today. We arrive at the small little recording studio in an unassuming building somewhere in West Hollywood (I don’t know this town). We walk in, I give my name at the desk and they lead us into this small small small room where I’m greeted by some of the sound guys that help master this music for John. And I turn to see a single director’s chair and a large keyboard. Against the far wall was a couch and against the back wall was a nice black leather chair.
OH MY GOD. It’s just John. He’s the only musician that’ll be playing. Oh My God!
So… I make my way over to the couch, John hadn’t arrived yet and as I sit there I take in the atmosphere of this damn cool room. There is a monitor playing scenes from GHOSTS OF MARS… stuff from the first 15-20 minutes of the film. Scenes with Pam Grier, Jason Stratham, Clea DuVall, Natasha Henstridge and Liam Waite… This isn’t the crux of the film… this is set up… There was one scene of bodies hanging upside down with no heads… And the camera motion all of it felt very Carpenter-esque but we couldn’t hear sound. So we sat and watched.
My eyes danced around the room… Looking at the long tube of purple/blue lightning dancing about… A flashing siren like pig head with a cigar (must be seen to understand), a beer sign… STROH'S… there’s a table with pretzels and roasted peanuts… a music stand with books on beats and program notes for the monster of a synthesizer that John plays. To my right was a tiny brown fridge with drinks… Pepsi and bottled water I believe. Moriarty and I grab a water.
After about 5 or so minutes, John arrives and comes over to greet us. Asks us about whether or not any of us had ever watched any scoring before. The professor trying to exhibit his blasted superiority to me says, "But of course I have! You think me a knave from Texas? I was once privy to the scoring of MYSTERY MEN by Stephen Warbeck."
John looked at the feebled wrinkled mass of prunish skin (aka Moriarty) and said, "Oh, well that was a big set up… they had the music all written out, a big professional gig." And the entire time he said this you could see this smile in his eye. This, ‘boys sit back and watch cause I’m hot’, sort of vibe. Not cockiness… just confidence.
The track he was creating was going to be called… WILLIAMS BREAKS OUT and involves a hostage situation between Desolation Williams (Ice Cube) and Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall)… as well as Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge) and Descanso (Liam Waite) who are trying to negotiate her release.
The scene played without score ok. Not great not bad… just a sort of neutral vibe. And it also didn’t feel completely Carpentery yet.
John begins to lay down the first track of the piece… a percussion rhythm… a bit cool and groovy… He knew where to come in, but was trying to figure out where he wanted the percussion to come out… to go away. He watched with it twice and ended the rhythm just as Cube grabs Natasha.
Next he began laying down the real Carpenter sound… that Synth-vibe… echos and pops… Heavy bass work… and over the next 20 or so layers he begins laying in the pieces.
Like in the 1 in the 22.214.171.124. count, he’d lay a quarter note of mid-range foreboding synth sound. Then on the next track, he’d be laying in the bass… which was at first just on the synth, but then with a real electric bass which he also played. The bass part came on the 2 & 3 with a quarter note followed by a lower Half note bass riff that came every other 4 count.
As I watched the screen as John played I began to completely feel that Carpenter feeling creeping into the scene. At this point I began smiling like a complete idiot. Moriarty began covering up the bottom half of his face to hide the drool that was constantly flowing down his chest and Lime? He was in a strange Hindu chant mode… Somewhat distanced from the world about him.
As John played he’d be smoking and getting into the music behind the keyboard… his face while playing reminded me a bit of Bruce Lee after he delivered the leaping death blow where he breaks a neck (Think ENTER THE DRAGON)... John would react emotionally to the music while always watching the screen.
Around this time, John introduces us to the ORGASMOTRON! His secret weapon. It is a electrical sound reactive red light drip like device that moves to the music. If the Orgasmotron isn’t moving, John is not happy. But if the Orgasmotron is happy… then the world is happy.
After the initial 5 tracks I was happy with the piece…. Thinking, well this works great, but John continued to add layers that just textured the piece all the way out. Adding cues to motions and actions that took place on screen… like the big timpani boom at a key grab moment… followed by the big reverse cymbal crash as a knife is drawn to a throat.
Those sound cues that only live in Carpenter movies… the high squeal as Snake throws a knife followed by a grooving beat…
After about 2 hours I noticed that my foot had subconsciously began tapping along… I found myself counting and noticing where things came in and went away. When he put in what sounded to my untrained ear to be a reverse chromatic scale that came down 5 notes before going 2 notes back… and I actually got a cold chill… the Professor and I just smiled like a pair of geeks in heaven.
The amazing thing for me was that John came in with nothing… not even sure what was going to be scored this day. As he watched the scene… then watched it again as it was about half composed… then two-thirds… then done it was amazing to see him being both conductor/composer and director. Every now and again, I’d hear him say under his breath, "Keep it simple stupid!" and that would usually be followed with a "Alright Time Out, I think I want to try something… and for the next 2 minutes he’d scroll through sound and menu options while one hand danced across the keys playing various Carpenter-y bits… till he’d finally find the right sound and emotional chord to add.
Ever since I left the recording studio today, I’ve had Carpenter themes in my head… just dancing. I am still in a bit of a shock that I got to do what I did today. I mean… Christ Almighty, I’m a Carpenter Music NUT! I can’t even count the number of hours I’ve driven the streets of Austin to his themes. There is nothing like driving in Austin in the fall down residential neighborhoods after school has left out while listening to HALLOWEEN! Or driving downtown to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK! Or driving cross-country with VAMPIRES! Or hanging in San Francisco to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.
But remember… when you hear "WILLIAMS BREAKS OUT"… I was there watching it come together… layer after layer. Watching John intuitively place the tracks. Way Cool. Watching John in his sweatpants and sweater… dancing in his pure white socks to the music he was creating instantly… Heh… BLISS! A great great fun time. Watching him play with the keyboard and discovering what he could make it do and his delight at each discovery. That was what it was about.
The ride from the studio to the airport was non-stop… OH MY GODs… Moriarty’s first film set experience was STARMAN, right after he first fled to America to escape British justice…. So for him, John symbolizes the direction he took with his life at that point. For me… John has scored entire sections of my life with his music. Played with my heartbeat and is one of the few guys that can make a synthesizer be really really cool.
I can’t wait to hear what the score beneath my HEAD ON PIKE scene will sound like. I can’t wait. I can’t… really I can’t!