John Carpenter: ‘They Live’ was about ‘giving the finger to Reagan’

May 11, 2013 | 1:14 p.m.

The Hero Complex Film Festival kicked off Friday evening with a 25th anniversary screening of “They Live,” a 35th anniversary screening of “Halloween” and an onstage conversation with the filmmaker behind both movies, John Carpenter.

Carpenter discussed his motivation in making “They Live,” a campy but subversive sci-fi flick that starred professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as the film’s blue-collar hero Nada, who discovers an alien conspiracy to mind-control the people of Earth using invisible messages. Carpenter called “They Live” his most political film and said it was his response to consumerism and class disparity in the 1980s.

“By the end of the ’70s there was a backlash against everything in the ’60s, and that’s what the ’80s were, and Ronald Reagan became president, and Reagonomics came in,” Carpenter told the sold-out theater at the Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood. “So a lot of the ideals that I grew up with were under assault, and something called a yuppie came into existence, and they just wanted money. And so by the late ’80s, I’d had enough, and I decided I had to make a statement, as stupid and banal as it is, but I made one, and that’s ‘They Live.’ … I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”

MORE: Behind the scenes of the famous ‘They Live’ fight scene

Carpenter said he faced relatively little pressure from Universal Studios making “They Live,” and the film came out more or less the way he intended it. A small sticking point, however, was the aliens’ motivation.

John Carpenter in 1998. (George Wilhelm / Los Angeles Times)

John Carpenter in 1998. (George Wilhelm / Los Angeles Times)

“I got resistance to the fact that it was all about money,” Carpenter said. “They wanted me to maybe make them cannibals or something, to bring it down to the lowest common denominator, but I stuck to my guns. … Some of the audience members who went to see this movie back when it was released were expecting an ’80s action movie, and I think they were a little puzzled by what it was all about. It wasn’t quite what they had in mind.”

Carpenter also reflected on his 1978 landmark horror film “Halloween,” which introduced the mask-wearing villain Michael Myers. Carpenter said he never intended for the film to have sequels and struggled writing “Halloween II.” He also talked about working with Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis.

“She was all bubbly,” he said of the actress. “Jamie’s always sweet and perfect. Her innocence and her ability to give her lines. … She had an effervescence to her that’s really attractive. She’s a good actress. She just brings it.”

Audience members were also treated to a slide show of behind-the-scenes photography by Kim Gottlieb-Walker, who is working on a coffee-table book of her still photography for a slew of Carpenter’s films. Stay tuned for more on her work.

Jame Lee Curtis plays with a prop knife on the set of "Halloween." (Kim Gottlieb-Walker /

Jame Lee Curtis plays with a prop knife on the set of “Halloween.” (Kim Gottlieb-Walker /

Hosted by Hero Complex editor Gina McIntyre, the event opened the Hero Complex Film Festival‘s fourth year. The festival continues Saturday with an afternoon screening of the 2007 Stephen King adaptation “The Mist” and a Q&A with director Frank Darabont and a Saturday evening Guillermo del Toro double-feature with screenings of “The Devil’s Backbone” and the Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as well as an onstage conversation with Del Toro.

The festival closes Sunday with a matinee showing of the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day” with director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin and, in the evening, a 20th anniversary tribute to “The X-Files” with creator Chris Carter and showings of three fan-picked episodes.

— Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark


Hero Complex Film Festival 2013

HCFF 2013: Del Toro, Darabont, Emmerich, more

Shepard Fairey on John Carpenter inspiration

Carpenter on ‘They Live’: ‘The ’80s never ended’

‘Halloween’: John Carpenter classic returns

‘Gangnam Style’ parody grabs ‘Big Trouble’ villain

‘Prince of Darkness’ John Carpenter honored

Mary Elizabeth Winstead on living up to Carpenter

Drew Struzan unveils Universal monster portraits

Universal horror: ‘Essential’ spotlights classic actors

‘Attack the Block’ turns a hoodlum into a hero


5 Responses to John Carpenter: ‘They Live’ was about ‘giving the finger to Reagan’

  1. Dean says:

    This clown really thinks he was the only guy making a statement against Reagan in that era? Talk about a pathetic attempt at self-aggrandizement. Stick to cheesey horror b-movies and leave the thinking to the rest of us.

  2. phil says:

    They Live was a great movie. The undercurrent was obvious. And hilarious!

  3. Stuart says:

    The problem is; Carpenter – whether inadvertantly or not – also had a go at Socialism, through the character of Nada. Having a go at Capitalist driven consumerism is one thing; but Socialism and the Left are no panacea here. Individualism is better than collectivism essentially – though collectivism exists on both sides of the political spectrum. Nada represents – the then – new breed of blue collar revolutionary, that certainly Margaret Thatcher here in the UK was trying to weed out from the Socilaist group mentality. It's a great movie, but if anything it proves that both sides of politics are flawed. You just go the way YOU want..

  4. Joseph says:

    I don't know what to say. I don't know if John Carpenter is a leftwing lunatic or if he is more in the Center and calls it like he sees it. He did spend a majority of his life in Kentucky which is a mostly conservative place with conservative values. I won't judge, hell I was only a baby when Reagan was in office. I enjoy Carpenters movies, tho I never seen this movie.

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