Walking Tall: An Interview with Sandy King Carpenter

Sandy King Carpenter has been in the picture business since the 1970s. She’s worked on everything from television to film to animation and comic books. She met John Carpenter on the set of Starman when she was a script supervisor and began producing his movies four years later with They Live. They got married in 1990 and she’s produced almost everything for him since, except for his Masters of Horror flicks and The Ward. This lady truly knows her way around show business.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Sandy on the phone and it was a terrific experience. She radiates confidence and positivity and it was a genuine pleasure to talk to her about her career and life before and after she started working with John Carpenter.

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SARA FREEMAN: How do you think John’s movies changed once you started producing them? Do you see a big difference between his ‘70s/80s work and his ‘90s/00s flicks?

SANDY KING CARPENTER: I don’t think any audience person can tell who produced John’s movies. I think that’s the beauty of producing for him – he makes our lives very easy. He’s a problem solver as a director, so he’s really choosing the stories he tells. In the John Carpenter sphere, we’ve all been producers of the old school where the producer’s job is to implement the director’s vision. The difference between how each of us works would be more what our relationships with crew people were, or how we got the job done. I don’t think it necessarily affected what was happening on the screen.
Perhaps, politically, John’s and my mindsets are more alike so maybe the films got more overtly political. Because, as a personal team and a working team, we’re more inline that way, but I don’t think that’s paramount in how the producer works with John as a director.

FREEMAN: How do you feel about the politics in John’s movies?

SKC: I would say that the way politics are shown in John’s movies is really subtle. You know with subtle forms, like interracial casting, integration behind the camera. There’s movies like They Live, which is political satire. There’s subtle things. John’s movies are more about the nature of evil and what form that takes. You can have what you call conservative horror, which would say it’s “the others” that are frightening and you can have, say, liberal horror, where the evil is within us. John’s always felt it – what is it that makes us human. That’s a theme that’s always been in him. I don’t think he sets out to make political movies, but I think you can affect change by how you live and that’s how we make our movies. 


FREEMAN: What was the idea behind the matriarchal society in Ghosts of Mars?
SKC: Oh, it’s just an interesting thing to do. A neat exploration. Again, notions like that don’t scare John. I think you can see that he’s always had a lot of women on his crews, two female producers. And when he did The Ward, that was John’s version of a chick-flick. I think the idea of a matriarchy and having strong characters that way was just an interesting notion.

FREEMAN:  It’s not an idea that’s often explored in contemporary sci-fi movies.
SKC: Yeah, and when you have people like Pam Grier around, why not.
FREEMAN: Oh, I love Pam Grier.
SKC: She’s awesome.
FREEMAN: I love her in Jack Hill’s movies.
SKC: Yeah!
FREEMAN: Do you love Howard Hawks movies as much as John does? Who is a bigger movie fan?
SKC: Well, I don’t think we compete for that title! [laughs]
I love Howard Hawks movies, but I didn’t know I loved Howard Hawks movies until I met John. He taught me what I loved were Howard Hawks movies. I came at movies from an art background, so I tended to be really visually-oriented. I would say “Well, I loved this Vilmos Zsigmond movie or James Wong Howe movie.” I was following the cinematographers. I didn’t realize that the movies that gave me female role models happened to be Howard Hawks films. He always had really strong women. I grew up largely raised by men who never taught me there was anything I couldn’t be. They just taught me to keep up and take bigger steps if I was falling behind. Howard Hawks had largely that point of view of women. When I got with John, I found that the common theme in all of these women that I thought were hip in movies was that they were all Howard Hawks characters. And often written by Leigh Brackett, a woman! 

FREEMAN: Who is your favorite Howard Hawks heroine?

SKC: Well, I’ve got to say I’m a Rosalind fan. I’ve always loved His Girl Friday. I thought she was a lot of fun. She always fell for Cary Grant even though she was really smart and all the guys looked up to her because she was the best writer. I liked Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings… you know, I liked all of them. They were all hip and all had these different things that made them cool.   

FREEMAN: What’s your history with cinema? What’s the movie that made you love movies?
SKC: I didn’t grow up near any movie theaters for the most part. I grew up half in LA and half in Colorado. When I was little, I was only allowed to see Disney films. I remember seeing The Thing From Another World when I snuck over to somebody’s house and it scaring the hell out of me. I would go over to my friend’s house and camp out in the backyard with binoculars and watch the drive-in movie down in the valley.

It just fascinated me, but I came into movies through art and animation. I just thought it was another great art form and another great way of telling stories. I came in through the crew side. It was never my intention to necessarily be a producer, I was just one of those who sat there and asked “why don’t producers do it this way?” and “why don’t they understand how this works?” I tried to carry that sensibility into movies.

FREEMAN: Did you go into animation because of those Disney movies you watched when you were little?
SKC: Partly, but I was also going to starve as an artist!

[Sara laughs]

I’d done animation at UCLA and my teacher was friends with Chuck Jones and then I had a contact at Disney and was originally hired at Disney doing character sketch. I worked on an animated film,Anti-Matter, that got the Academy award. Three guys got the Academy award because they actually produced it. I was an intern. It seemed natural for me to go into animation, but I had to make a choice between live action and animation because when you go to work at Disney you really had to commit. I was scared because of my personality that I would become one of those people in the dark talking to myself. At the same time, there was something about live action that I found really vital and another way to tell stories that I hadn’t thought of because I’d always been an artist. I leapt out of what had seemed to be my path and instead my knowledge of animation informed the choices I make now as a producer and as a comic book maker.

FREEMAN:  Is working on comic books the best of both worlds?

SKC: Yeah, I like comic books. It’s, again, another way to tell stories. Another way to reach ouraudience. Our audience plays video games, reads comic books, goes to the movies. Not all stories make great movies, not all stories make great comic books, not all comics make great movies, not all movies make great comic books, but people had come to John for years wanting to put his name on comics and they were usually substandard books that needed his name if they wanted it to sell and we didn’t think that was a good idea.
This [John Carpenter’s Asylum] was an idea that we’d been doing artwork for and thinking about as a TV series. It just kept looking more and more like a great graphic novel or comic book. One day we just said “Look, it’s a comic book.” Then we said, “Why don’t we do it in-house like we do our movies?” So we did it.
FREEMAN: Had you read many comic books before?
SKC: Oh yeah. Again, I grew up with mostly boys and I wasn’t really a Little Lulu fan. I grew up with lots of comics and then, after I was with John and our sons were growing up, there were comics all the time. We went to the comic book store every week. I love them. Again, I relate to the art in them. In recent years, there’s better stories and storytelling. I think there’s been a parallel in great stories in comics the same way there has been in great television now.
FREEMAN: I’m sorry to say that the only comic book I’ve really kept up with is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic.
SKC: [laughing] Shame on you!
FREEMAN: I know, I know. It’s something I’m interested in and want to get into, but there are just so many great comics out there that I don’t really know where to start. Other than with Wonder Woman and all the classic DC and Marvel stuff.
SKC: They’re doing neat things with Birds of Prey now and Gail Simone has been doing neat things with Red Sonja. Jimmy Palmiotti has got Jonah Hex doing wild stuff. I mean, really, follow the writers. When you’ve got Warren Ellis and Dirk Benedict, all those guys are great writers and you should buy their comics.
There was a great project I worked on called Womanthology where 150 women – writers, artists, editors – put together a great anthology called Heroes. I came in on Womanthology: Space, it was nominated for a Harvey and raised $150,000 for women’s charities. They’ve also really raised awareness of women in comics and that little girls can aspire to go into comics and can read comics. They’ve kind of made comic book stores perk up that girls read comics. That might be a good starting place for you!
FREEMAN: I’ll put it on my Christmas list!      

FREEMAN: How do you feel about being an influence for other women in the film industry?

SKC: I don’t know that they know I exist! [laughs]
FREEMAN: Oh, I know you exist! I know that Debra Hill existed and it’s important to me…
SKC: Well, that’s good!
I just think that women have to be careful not to isolate themselves in a niche. As a longtime feminist, both in the art movement and in movies and every place else, I think it’s dangerous to segregate yourself. I think you have to be part of everything else or you are in danger of becoming a sewing circle. I remember back in my painting days when there was Judy Chicago and the California Girls and they had the Women’s Building and stuff. They thought they were bringing attention to themselves as women artists, but what they managed to do was knock a lot of women out of mainstream art shows at a time when women were finally being shown with mainstream artists! I think that when you start getting labeled “woman comic book publisher” or “woman producer,”  “woman this or that,” it’s a double-edged sword. What you want to be is just Producer, Director, Publisher, Writer, and stand on equal footing wherever you go. I think it’s great that more women need to give a hand-up to everybody, but more girls need to not use being a girl as an excuse.
FREEMAN: Do you think it’s becoming more difficult to produce genre cinema? Is it more difficult now than it was when you started producing?
SKC: I don’t think so. I just think it’s more difficult to produce, period, and get things made. Money’s tighter, there’s less of a gambler mentality. Studios used to essentially be run by gamblers. There was a risk-taker mentality to anyone who ran a studio and they used to balance the portfolio between tent-poles, what the studio was known for, what real risks they were willing to take that year. Now, nobody wants to take any risks or stick their neck out for fear of being fired over anything. I’d say that we’re all as producers at equal risk of not getting our films made. In the genre film, I think there’s a lot of really lazy people that just do what’s been done before. They don’t investigate what works or how to entertain an audience as opposed to how you make money off of them. I don’t see a lot of films that scare me now.
FREEMAN: Me either. The last one I saw that really scared me was probably [REC], a Spanish movie from a few years ago. Have you seen that?
SKC: Haven’t seen that. But, I’ll tell you, I did scream during World War Z! World War Z rocks. The zombies were reinvented and scared me and feel that I couldn’t escape them. I know that everyone will want to think that’s uncool because it was an expensive movie, but I happen to think that they [the filmmakers] were hard on themselves and tried hard. It’s scary!
FREEMAN: Not to be salacious, but can you talk about your working relationship with John as a producer? How is a John Carpenter set different than another filmmaker’s set?
SKC: Well, we don’t like drama. We’re very low key. We have a lot of prep because mistakes and rethinking things cost money. We like to put the money on the screen. John, like I said, makes a producer’s job easy. You try and plan everything out in advance, but something is always going to go wrong. When something does go wrong, you go to him and you’ve got the $5, $10 and $25 solution and let him choose from that. If it’s the $25 solution, you have to figure out where you’re going to save that, and find out what the next solution is.
I’ve always had a really strong unit production manager, Kim Kurumada, who, unfortunately, passed away in the last couple of years, and a great production coordinator, Cheryl Miller. Anything I do is largely them and I just pretend I’m producing.
The key is all in the pre-production, pre-planning, rehearsing, and getting into John’s head and seeing what his vision is for the film. That’s really a matter of giving the heads of the different departments enough time with John so that we’re all swimming in the same direction. My job is to support all of those departments so they can get the job done. We’re all supposed to be implementing the same vision and keeping the heat off everybody. Just make it as smooth as possible. You know, you’re not supposed to be miserable doing this. This is your life twenty-four hours day a day and you’re supposed to enjoy it.

FREEMAN: Have you noticed more tension and less fun on other filmmaker’s sets?

SKC: Oh yeah! I’ve worked for everybody from Francis Ford Coppola to Michael Mann, Walter Hill, John Cassavetes. There’s all different levels of drama and some people really thrive on drama. I find that a really uncomfortable way to live. I’m much more comfortable and John’s much more comfortable if you can show up, enjoy what you’re doing, and everybody’s happier if they know it’s going to be a decent workday. There’s always the unexpected, but try and take care of what you know. If you’re on location, try and take care of everybody the best you can, try and take care of their families the best you can, and make it nice. Some people thrive on anxiety and that doesn’t interest me.
Debra Hill asked me to take over a film for her with Barbra Streisand and I said no.
[Sara laughs]
SKC: I don’t want to do it! It doesn’t interest me to be around someone screaming all day. Enough of that happens, you can’t get a psychiatric sheet on everyone, but if you see it coming, it doesn’t interest me. I take it for the team. If there is someone with a problem, that’s my job. I clean up after the elephants. That’s my only function in life. You know, student filmmakers make films without producers all the time, or whatever they like to call themselves, but my job is to take that stress away from the cast, crew and director. If I see a problem coming, I’m going to try and short circuit that.    
FREEMAN: Is there a special reason why you didn’t produce The Ward?
SKC: Yeah, it wasn’t my movie! [laughs] I don’t just butt in on other people’s stuff.
That one was brought to John by his managers and I thought it would be funny to stand back and watch.
FREEMAN: Was it?
SKC: None of my business. [laughs]
FREEMAN: So you were the support at home that time around?
SKC: At that point in time, I had to move us back into our house because our house been undergoing construction. I took care of the house and stood by supportively while he was in Washington.
FREEMAN: So you were directing one thing while he was directing another.
SKC: Yeah, I dealt with the home front.   

FREEMAN: Can you talk about the differences and similarities between working on movies and working on comic books? Which do you prefer working on these days?
SKC: Well, believe it or not, there’s a certain amount of the same kind of cheerleading of the artists that goes on. You have to be supportive, there’s an artist’s vulnerability to the people working. You have to make some of the same story decisions, make sure you have good story arcs, good character arcs, good structure. There’s more than I thought there would be in terms of releasing and promoting [comic books]. Certain things we decide in terms of marketing posters, social media, that kind of stuff.
In terms of actually putting things together, it’s much more like animation. Trying to make sure the first line art work, which are the pencils and inks, get to the colorist and get to the letterer on time and then coming back to the printer on time. The technical stuff that goes through the graphics process.
I remember when we had the whole thing put together and I suddenly realized I had no idea how to deliver it to the printer. There was a big gap in my knowledge. I had no idea how it becomes a book! Oops.
[Sandy and Sara laugh]

FREEMAN: How does it become a book?
SKC: I call up my daughter-in-law who is a graphic artist and say “I don’t understand the printer’s delivery instructions!” [laughs] She said “No problem” and I turned it over to her. Her name is Sophie, she’s Belgian and she’s now our online delivery graphic artist. I finally realized there are some things I just don’t need to know.
FREEMAN: So it’s like a big family project?
SKC: You know, it’s a lot more fun that way. I like it when everything’s all together. Sophie is a great addition to the comic book family. We just did a trailer, a two-minute animated trailer for the comic book that Leonardo Manco put together and Thomas Ian Griffith did the voice of Beckett and John scored it. Daniel, our God son, did the sound mix on it. It’s fun because it’s like our in-house trailer that’s going to premiere at Long Beach Comic Con [and since has–s.f.].
FREEMAN: How is producing a movie now different than producing one twenty years ago?

SKC: It changes about every two years, of how you raise your money, and where you go. At one point it was to get most of your money foreign and then you get your domestic distribution set-up. Now I think you’re a fool if you don’t get your domestic distribution first because foreign caught on… there’s always somebody that wrecks it. People find out and you get screwed on it. You want to be a responsible person. You’re not just getting your money to self-aggrandize, you want to be responsible to the people who give you money to make a film.

I might be the highest priced hooker on sunset, but I want to show him a good time.
FREEMAN: Good one. 

FREEMAN: What are you guys working on right now?

SKC: We’re developing a film called Darkchylde and it’s based on a ‘90s comic book by Randy Queen. The big difference nowadays [in studio filmmaking] is you have to go in with all the questions answered: they’re going to want to see what your visual effects will look like, how they’re going to work, what the monsters are going to look like, which means you’re spending a lot more in what used to be the development phase that was paid for by a studio. You carry those costs yourself. It’s been a long period of development, and, essentially, pre-production being done by us before it ever goes to the studio.
FREEMAN: Well, I guess you’ll be really ready by the time you actually start making the movie!
SKC: You are. It answers questions for us, too. It’s okay. It’s just what it is, but it puts the risk on the filmmaker’s shoulders.
FREEMAN: I also saw on your website that there’s a television series being developed?
SKC: Yeah, there’s one called Hellgate. It still has story arcs being worked out and that kind of thing.
FREEMAN: Can you say a little bit about what it will be about?

SKC: It’s a ghost story. A ghost epic!

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Major thanks to Sandy and the Storm King company for setting up this interview.

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