A screening of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood brought out a number of guests such as Austin Stoker who played Lieutenant Ethan Bishop and Douglas Knapp who was the film’s director of photography. But the one guest I was really interested to hear from was Alan Howarth, the composer and sound designer who collaborated with Carpenter on a number of his film scores from “Escape From New York” to “They Live.” Howarth even took the time to do a live performance of his and Carpenter’s music, something I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.
During the Q&A, Howarth talked about how he came to work with Carpenter, their process for scoring his films and his favorite film scores of the ones they worked on together. Howarth wasn’t actually on board for the original “Assault on Precinct 13” though he did work on a remastered version of the soundtrack for it and “Dark Star” for BuySoundtrax.com. It wasn’t until he worked on his first big film when he became inadvertently acquainted with Carpenter.
“I came on board at ‘Escape from New York,’ and that was kind of happenstance because my very first movie, less than a year earlier, was ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’” Howarth said. “I had come on as the sound designer and created the sounds of the Enterprise like the warp drive and the transporters and stuff like that. The picture editor from that movie, Todd Ramsay, his next assignment was ‘Escape from New York,’ so I had slipped him some cassettes and he knew I was a musician. John had worked with another fellow on ‘Halloween,’ Dan Wyman, and there was some change up there, and so literally the guy comes over to my little, rented house in Glendale and set up in my dining room. It was nothing formal. I sat down and I played him a few things and he goes, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ That was it.”
“John always wanted somebody who knew about the technology,” Howarth continued. “In fact, a couple of times I tried to explain to him how it worked and he was all, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s your job to make it work, make it in tune, and when I push down the note the red light is on.’ So that’s where I started, but he’s a collaborative person. I love working with people. I’m from the bands and rock & roll. I was one of those people. So, it was really great and my first film score was ‘Escape from New York.’”
From there, the two of them worked on several projects all the way to “They Live.” As he continued discussing the work he did with Carpenter, we came to discover he played a larger part in Carpenter’s film scores than we ever realized.
“Next, he went off to do ‘The Thing’ and they wanted to make ‘Halloween II,’ so again John said, ‘I’m going to be busy. You’re going to have to do Halloween.’ Same thing, so I did ‘Halloween II’ and I used his original ‘Halloween’ music, overdubbed it and created new stuff.”
After “They Live,” they seemed to part ways for reasons Howarth never explained, but it gave him the confidence to start scoring films on his own. Of course, he was still eager to get Carpenter’s blessing when it came to a franchise the director never planned to start.
“I found out they were going to do ‘Halloween 4’ and I said to John, ‘they asked me to do this and you’re my buddy and I want to do something with this.’ He said sure, so I wound up doing ‘Halloween 4, 5 and 6’ and that really launched me as a composer which is what I love to do the most, and as we are in a world of economic stasis, I had to do it all by myself. As you see, this is my studio right here. It’s all down to a laptop and a guitar and some recorders when it used to be a million dollars’ worth of stuff. Not that that stuff isn’t valuable, but you can do without it now,” Howarth said.
One audience member asked which of the scores he did with Carpenter is his favorite, and the answer was a little bit of a surprise.
“I think ‘Halloween III’ because it was really an artistic departure for both of us, and ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the most produced and has the widest range,” said Howarth. “We had rock and roll and scary things and chases and this whole Asian influence, so it was really a broad scope of things. That’s one of my favorites.”
Like many in the audience, I was eager to hear how Howarth and Carpenter would go about working on a score. Did they start working on it before shooting began? Did they work on it after shooting was finished? Did they think about the music while making the film? We hear how composers spend so much time preparing the perfect score for a movie, but Howarth made his process with Carpenter sound quite simple.
“It’s all one big jam. It’s improvised,” Howarth said. “Sometimes he would come in with a theme in mind. I’d set up the piano before he came over and started something. A lot of it we just made up on the spot. In fact, I introduced him, because I’m a technical person, to the synchronization between a videotape and a tape recorder. It almost seems like we were the first to do it. Before that, everything was done with a stopwatch. So, you would make a cue that was three minutes long and kind of set a tempo, and then you would go back and literally copy it on a Moviola and fool around with the scene.”
“This was the first time you could watch the movie and play at the same time, so he referred to that as the electronic coloring book which made it even easier to improvise,” Howarth continued. “Through that whole period we also benefited from the evolution of electronic music instruments, so from analog synthesizers and a 24-track machine to midi and digital sequencers, these scores had a new installation in the progress of musical instruments, so it’s almost a chronology or a music lesson in the gear.”
Another audience member asked Howarth how long he and Carpenter would jam until they found something they really liked. His answer illustrates how fast these two worked on their music.
“We did a cue a day,” Howarth said. “One quote I always get from John, and it’s just really true, he said, ‘Alan if you want to be a director you only need two important words, yes and no. Just be very decisive. Even if you say no today or yes today and tomorrow, you change your mind. You got twenty or thirty people that are taking direction, and you don’t want to leave them in a lurch, so it’s better to just be decisive.’ So, it was a couple of times we did something and came back and said that wasn’t working, but it wasn’t very often.”
Having worked in movies and music all these years, Howarth clearly has a wide knowledge of musical instruments and electronics. When asked what he would consider as the go to synthesizer, Howarth’s answer shed some light on how far musical technology has come over the years.
“I chose all the gear and I arrived at being a fan of the Prophet 5,” Howarth said. “It sounded good, but the other reason was that it was the first programmable synthesizer. Prior to that, you had to literally make little diagrams of where all the knobs and switches were to get back to the same sound, so this was the first time you could do something and save it. That really moved things forward a lot, and I brought in the programmables and the sequencers.”
One big question many had about the music Carpenter and Howarth worked on was the score to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.” This was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, and it allowed him to work with his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. However, when you listen to the score, some it sounds like it was done by Carpenter and Howarth, and this is especially the case with the movie’s main theme. Howarth went into detail about who really composed the score to “The Thing.”
“They (Carpenter and Morricone) took a meeting, and he (Morricone) saw a little bit of the footage and he scored his score,” Howarth said. “He comes back and, of course, how does John talk to his hero about what just went down and where he wants to go? And there’s a translation issue between English and Italian and all this other stuff. So John played the stuff we did for ‘Escape from New York’ and he says, ‘Can you do something like this?’ Ennio goes back for a second pass now with keyboards, and that’s where ‘The Thing’s’ theme came from. So it’s Ennio Morricone doing John Carpenter really. At the very end after all that, there was one more pass on about four or five cues where John came over for just an afternoon and we did some cues that kind of sound like ‘Christine’ that you can tell is basically our synth stuff. So basically, it took three scoring passes on the show to get it.”
It was a real treat to have Alan Howarth talk about his musical collaboration with John Carpenter. The film scores they worked on are among my favorites of all time, and I never get sick of listening to them. Howarth continues to work as a film composer, and his more recent credits include scores for “Backstabbed,” “The Dentist” and “House at the End of the Drive.” Here’s hoping we get to hear more scores from him in the near future.