Alan Howarth Discusses Working on Film Scores with John Carpenter

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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.

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“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.’”

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Tommy Lee Wallace Talks about ‘Halloween III’ at New Beverly Cinema

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PLEASE NOTE: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE MOVIE.

Tommy Lee Wallace dropped by New Beverly Cinema on October 30, 2010 to talk about his directorial debut, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” This is the Michael Myers-less sequel of the long running franchise and it played as a double feature with “Trick ‘r Treat.” All the “Halloween” movie fans were in for a special treat as Wallace gave us more trivia about the making of it than we ever could have ever expected.

When Wallace was brought up after the movie ended, he admitted his reaction to watching it after so many years was that it resembled one of the strangest and most bizarre movies he had ever seen. The original plan for “Halloween III” was to work from an original screenplay by Nigel Kneale, best known for his work on the “Quatermass” series. What Kneale ended up writing was, as Wallace put it, “brilliant and deeply, darkly grim” and more of a cerebral, intellectual horror movie than your typical slasher fare. But it turned out everyone thought the overall story needed work, and Wallace said he and Carpenter wanted to make it more commercial and scarier for audiences. As a result, Kneale took his name off the movie as he felt the filmmakers would simply butcher all he came up with. Wallace did say that he really liked Kneale’s script and hopes to put it online someday in its entirety for all to see.

While making the movie, Wallace described himself and the crew as being under the gun as it was a low budget affair like most horror movies. Understanding how to do work on the cheap, he said all the “el cheapo” special effects taught him a lot about simplicity which turned out to be a great virtue.

As for Carpenter’s participation, Wallace said Carpenter gave him full autonomy as he himself always expected to have it on all his movies. Joe Dante, the director of “Gremlins” and “Innerspace,” was originally set to helm “Halloween III,” but he later turned it down when something else came up. Having worked on many of Carpenter’s movies, Wallace was originally offered the gig of directing “Halloween II,” but he turned it down as he saw no way to top the original. But upon being offered “Halloween III,” Carpenter and the late Debra Hill told him neither of them wanted to do a direct sequel as Carpenter hated “Halloween II.” With that in mind, Wallace jumped at the chance to direct it.

The only real barrier Wallace had to deal with before accepting the job was getting the blessing of Dino De Laurentis. Wallace had previously written the script for a movie De Laurentis produced called “Amityville II: The Possession,” and he said the one rule everyone needed to remember was “you do not fuck with Dino.” In response to Wallace’s request, De Laurentis begged him not do the film, but Wallace said he was determined to get De Laurentis’ blessing because he would have directed it anyway.

With “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” Carpenter and Hill wanted to turn the franchise into an anthology of movies about the occasion of Halloween. Looking back, the original was really not about Halloween at all (the original title was “The Babysitter Murders”). But when it came to releasing this particular “Halloween” movie, Wallace said Universal Pictures did not do enough to prepare audiences for it. Sadly, audiences did not want something new. They wanted Michael Myers back and breathing heavy while slashing over stimulated teenagers.

One of the biggest influences on “Halloween III” was the 1956 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” directed by Don Siegel. Like that one, this sequel was meant to be a pod movie and could not be mistaken as something nice. Wallace even wanted to shoot it in Sierra Madre where Siegel’s classic was filmed, but it didn’t look good enough. The production team had driven all over Northern California looking for the perfect small town to film in, and it took forever to find it. Wallace said they were never as lucky as they were with Carpenter’s The Fog.” Also, the town’s name, Santa Mira, is the same as the one used in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

But the big difference between “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Halloween III” is in the way each movie ended. Siegel wanted his film to close on a highway with star Kevin McCarthy screaming frantically, “THEY’RE ALREADY HERE! YOU’RE NEXT! YOU’RE NEXT!” Instead, “Invasion” ended the same way it began, in a police station. All this did was indicate to the audience everything was going to be alright. Wallace said the ending of “Halloween III” was dedicated to Siegel for what he tried to pull off, and it leaves the fate of the world up in the air which makes things far scarier as your mind was forced to imagine what could have happened. Universal Pictures, however, put pressure on Carpenter to change the ending to something more upbeat. When Carpenter asked Wallace if he wanted to change the film’s ambiguous climax, Wallace said he refused to do so and Carpenter defended Wallace’s decision to the studio.

Tom Atkins’ name in the credits as well as his first appearance onscreen generated a huge applause from the audience. When it came to casting “Halloween III,” Wallace said Atkins was already a part of Carpenter’s company of actors, and his performance in “The Fog” served as his audition for the role of Dr. Daniel Challis. Wallace then went on to explain how horror movies can easily be ruined by “pretty boy casting,” and he felt this didn’t need to be the case here. Atkins naturalistic performance is commendable considering much of what he has to deal with is utterly ridiculous. You also have to give him credit for wasting no time in bedding the main female character, Ellie Grimbridge, played by Stacey Nelkin.

Another actor who got a lot of applause was the late Dan O’Herlihy who portrayed the movie’s chief villain, Conal Cochran. Wallace described O’Herlihy as being perfect for the part, and he was always prepared and ready to go. He also said O’Herlihy was a man from the British Isle, Irish and was someone who was never afraid of getting sentimental. O’Herlihy’s performance was a fiendish mix of a friendly persona which is a cover for his grisly nature.

As for Nelkin, the first question from the audience was whether or not her character was a robot throughout the entire movie. Wallace said he honestly didn’t know and figured Cochran’s company was really good at making robots in the first place. Nelkin was a very appealing presence in “Halloween III,” and perhaps Roget Ebert put it best in his one-and-a-half-star review of the movie: “Too bad she plays her last scene without a head.”

Then there’s the movie’s commercial for the Silver Shamrock masks which features one of those annoying jingles which, like any other commercial, you cannot get out of your head. Alan Howarth, who composed the score along with Carpenter, was given credit for doing the jingle and putting it to the tune of “London Bridge” from “My Fair Lady,” but Wallace said it was his idea more than anyone else’s.

As for the voice on the jingle, it is Wallace’s. They were originally going to hire someone else, but when they found out the guy wanted $550, it was quickly determined they couldn’t afford him. Wallace got the job soon after and said he got into the mood by doing the smooth tone of a “stupid radio voice from the 50’s.”

Another audience member asked Wallace if there were any product placements in “Halloween III,” and he said there were not. Truth be told, this wasn’t really the kind of movie which would allow for that, and it was also clarified how no one was ever asked to move the can of Miller Lite closer to the camera.

“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” was designed to be a diatribe against consumerism, and it didn’t turn out to be a very elegant one. The movie cost $2.5 million to make and grossed about $14 million at the box office. While it did make a tiny profit, the sequel was considered a critical and commercial disappointment. Wallace said he fell into an abject depression for months afterwards as he felt he did a shitty job on the sequel and figured he would be consigned to movie hell.

Years later, however, Wallace discovered “Halloween III” had developed a cult following and a new generation of fans. He was stunned to hear a lot of people telling him they watch it every single year, and he said people continue to invite him to speak at annual horror conventions about it. Having been originally released in 1982, audiences have had plenty of time to reflect on the kind of movie it was and reevaluate it critically. While still not a great film by any stretch, it’s much better than its reputation suggests.

Certainly, there are other “Halloween” sequels that are far worse (“Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers” is the pits), and the moderator put it best when comparing the third movie to “Halloween: Resurrection:”

“Do you prefer this or Busta Rhymes?”

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