Flavorwire Interview: Kim Gottlieb-Walker on Capturing John Carpenter’s Landmark Horror Classics

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Her work has taken her from the Free Speech Movement in California and the underground press to the golden age of reggae (capturing Bob Marley) and a Jimi Hendrix interview in 1967 (her candid portraits of the singer are featured in the Hendrix “bible,” Classic Hendrix). But photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker’s encounters with celebrity weren’t limited to music. She became the set photographer for filmmaker John Carpenter, capturing stills of his iconic genre films — including Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, Halloween II, and Christine. Her behind-the-scenes images offer insight into one of cinema’s masters of horror — a maverick artist who has thrilled and chilled us since 1974. The Carpenter photographs are the subject of a newly released book from Titan Books, On Set with John Carpenter. We recently spoke with Gottlieb-Walker about the making of Halloween, being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and the greatest Carpenter film faces.

© 2014 Kim Gottlieb-Walker. Halloween and Halloween II © 1978 Falcon International Productions, Inc., and © 2014 Compass International Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Flavorwire: In your Halloween photos, there’s truly the sense that this film was made possible by many hands, right down to the fact that several different people were stand-ins for Michael Myers’ hands and body [hidden by the iconic “Shape” mask that production designer and editor Tommy Wallace created]. The environment couldn’t have been better for one of your first professional film shoots. Can you set the scene for us and describe the vibe on set?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: The director sets the tone of any set—and because John loved his cast and crew and respected what each person was contributing to his movie, the atmosphere was energetic and truly fun. It was like working on a high school project with all of your best friends. Never any short tempers or negativity. John appreciated the value of the stills to help promote the movies and establish its mood for the public. He always made sure I was able to get the shots I needed. It kind of spoiled me for working with other directors!

Halloween was crafted on a low budget. Your photos reflect the scrappy nature of the production. I loved seeing people working out of vans and reading stories about your lack of a sound blimp [which masks the shutter sound during principal photography]. It was a small crew, making for an intimate setting. But you really captured the professionalism and intensity of the actors and John. What did you strive for to capture that balance? How did your view of the shoot change as the film moved along?

Although the budget was ridiculously low ($300,000 total), because we had a terrific producer in Debra Hill and a director who knew exactly what he wanted, shot by shot, the whole process was incredibly smooth and efficient.

I saw myself as the set historian, so I not only shot the key action of each scene, but everything that was going on behind the camera. I was working every second and loving every minute of it.

Due to the lack of blimp, you explained that John would restage scenes for you after shooting his takes for Halloween. But it sounded like you were in charge of the direction for those shots? What was it like seeing those climactic moments repeated? Did John ever reshoot something based on your direction during the still shooting?

John always shot exactly what he needed and knew exactly how it would cut together. When I directed something after he was done, it was just to make an effective still of what he had done as an effective movie scene. When “Annie” dies in the car, I had to wait until the scene was done shooting so I could then squeeze through the car window and get her death recorded. My direction consisted of saying, “Tilt the knife a bit to catch the light and lean to the left”—not exactly “direction” in the movie sense.

© 2014 Kim Gottlieb-Walker

You shot a few rolls of film each day during Halloween (you estimated around 3,000 to 5,000 frames for every film you worked on). And you said you tried to make every shot count, which sounds similar to John’s economical approach. As the production went on, did you find yourself being influenced by John’s shooting style at all?

I was used to being economical with film. It was expensive and we were poor. I never shot more than was needed to get “the shot” — rarely more than a few frames. It drives me crazy to see young photographers with digital cameras shooting hundreds of photos hoping one will be good. I always waited for that decisive moment — and always had, dating back to my career shooting rock and roll and pop culture figures for the underground press.

I thought your story about helping Jamie Lee Curtis warm up to the camera during the Halloween shoot [she was 19 years old at the time] by sharing your rock and roll portfolio in her Winnebago was really sweet. What was your relationship with her like on set?

She was so enthusiastic — young, intelligent, carefree — as we all were. To this day, she is one of the sweetest ladies on the face of the earth and never fails to greet me with a hug on the rare occasions that we see each other. She was always willing to pose when I needed her to, or if the light was good and we were between scenes. A sweetheart. She was feeling a bit insecure after the first day of shooting and was so relieved when John called her that night to praise her—she thought he was calling to fire her.

Tommy Wallace expressed how crucial it is to have humor in a horror movie for variety and contrast. Your photos capture that dichotomy in Halloween, especially in the shots between takes. Are there any fun stories from the set that you can share?

We were constantly enjoying ourselves! My memory is actually pretty terrible, which is why I sat down with so many people who participated in these films to record their memories. My camera is my memory. The best stories are in the book — particularly the practical joke John pulled on executive producer Richard Kobritz on Christine. I had forgotten about that until Malcolm Denare reminded me!

Barry Bernardi [Halloween production assistant and Halloween II associate producer] said that Donald Pleasence believed in John during the making of Halloween. Everyone seemed to have the utmost faith in him, which might not have been the case as he had only made a handful of films by that time. What was it about John that drew people into his circle early on?

I think the fact that John had such a clear vision of what he wanted to do — a suspense film in the Hitchcock tradition — and knew exactly how to accomplish it. He inspired great confidence and loyalty in us all.

The Fog had a much bigger budget than all of his previous films [estimated around $1 million]. He shot the film in anamorphic widescreen Panavision to create a more impressive scale. But how did it show on set? Or was it just more of the same for him?

The Fog was a bit more of a challenge because it was shot on location in the second foggiest place in the USA — and “Fog” is not a very cooperative actor. It was more of a challenge to shoot and to cut together. But the good humor and respect for us all was the same. Although John vowed never to shoot on a boat again after a major bout of seasickness.

© 2014 Kim Gottlieb-Walker

Escape from New York was a pivotal moment in your career. It helped get you into the Camera Guild. But the experience sounds grueling. You were injured and you worked unpaid during a mix-up with the union — which Debra Hill fought on your behalf in court. Was it simply the work that kept you going?

Love of the job and love for John and Debra kept me going. I had every confidence in Debra that she would win the fight to get me into the union — and she did. I needed 30 days on the film to get into the Camera Guild — and broke all three bones in my wrist at the roller skating wrap party we held on the 29th day. I needed up shooting the required 30th day with my arm in a cast and on pain pills. After that, as a member of the Guild, I ran for office and have served as an elected representative for unit still photographers for over 25 years. It was worth the struggle to get in (and now it is much easier), and I am enjoying retirement with my union pension and healthcare. I was also able to work on Cheers for nine years and Family Ties for % (as well as many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Spielberg’s Amazing Stories once I was a union member. I don’t remember Escape as grueling, even though it was almost all night shoots. Even with broken bones, it was fun.

You said Debra came to your aid after breaking your arm during Escape from New York. She spent the night with you in the “silent, shadowy hospital.” And you believe that’s where she got the idea for Halloween II’s setting. What was that night like exactly?

The hospital was dark, shadowy and deserted at night — and Debra stayed with me all night while they set my wrist. John may not think it was the inspiration for H-2, but I’m convinced of it!

The tone on set sounds entirely different for Halloween II: noisy, tense due to script differences, the scenes were more graphic, and there was a different director at the helm. How was it different working with Rick Rosenthal?

Because this book is about happy times, I’d rather not get into Rick’s difference in directing style. Let’s just say it had a different tone than John’s sets. I don’t think he realized the value of the stills as much as John did and had a stricter “pecking order.” And let’s leave it at that.

What recipe for fake blood photographs the best?

I mostly shot in black and white — and there was no blood in Halloween!

© 2014 Kim Gottlieb-Walker

Was it hard trying to capture emotion from a man wearing an eyepatch [Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York]?

The character of Snake Plissken was not one who exhibited a lot of emotion. Kurt was doing his Clint Eastwood whisper and demeanor when in character, but he was his gregarious, boisterous self the second the camera cut.

You were pregnant during the shooting of Christine, but that didn’t stop you from perching on ladders to capture the perfect shot. And the crew was protective of you. Did you change how you worked at all during that time?

There is a certain “machismo” to getting your shot — all photographers are familiar with this. Pregnancy has no bearing on it at all. I just used my belly to help anchor me between the ladder rungs! Yes, the crew was very protective, building barricades to protect me from flying car parts and explosions, but my work practices were the same—even at seven month pregnant.

© 2014 Kim Gottlieb-Walker

What was the goal when shooting Christine since a car, not a person, was the main antagonist?

Arnie (Keith Gordon) was the main protagonist with Christine as the villain. Capturing both the nerdy Arnie and the transformed wicked Arnie was great fun — and Keith was interested in the whole process of making the movie and watched what John did very closely. It is the reason he is a terrific director himself today [Homicide, The Killing, Dexter, Homeland]. There were Plymouth Furies imported from all over the country to play various stages of Christine.

You wrote that Ernest Borgnine had an amazing face. Who are your top three Carpenter film faces?

Ernie, Donald Pleasence, and the character actors like Roberts Blossom (who sells Christine to Arnie) all had great expressive faces that would come right into focus easily and were tremendously fun to shoot.

Your framing of John working behind the scenes is really striking. How do you capture such a focused person’s personality while he’s deep into his work?

John was so used to me being there and shooting everything that my presence was simply accepted. He knew the value of the photos and would even point at things while talking to people to give me better action shots. A pure pleasure to document.

You said that a fan sent you some lost negatives of Halloween that went up for sale on eBay. That’s amazing. How do you think Carpenter fans are different from other horror fans? I feel like John has never been pigeonholed in a genre, really.

John’s fans are incredibly loyal and really appreciate his talent. They’ve been waiting patiently for this book for a long time and many have sent me press kits, stills, and strips of negative they’ve come across on eBay to help me do it. They appreciate that he does not make bloody gore fests, but crafts truly suspenseful movies.

You dedicated the book to John’s writing and producing collaborator — the late, great Debra Hill. Based on your interactions with her, how would you characterize her place on the different sets? Was there a sense that people responded to her (or to you) differently than the men? Did she offer any advice about being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

Debra was one of the most efficient, effective producers I ever met. She made sure everyone had what they needed to do their jobs. She was a little dynamo, not more than 4’11” and nothing fazed her. She once asked me if I was interested in producing, and I (perhaps foolishly) said: “No, I love shooting stills.” But she would have made me a producer if that’s what I had wanted. She gave so many people their start in the business, production assistants who went on to become major producers and directors—so many people owe their careers to her. I have no idea how she did it, but she was a powerful women who got things done and recognized the talent and potential in everyone she hired.

What were your own experiences like being a woman and trying to enter this field?

I was one of the first women to enter the Guild as a unit photographer. And occasionally there would be a crew person (not on John’s projects) who would look at my camera and say incredulously, “You know how to use that thing?” or make a comment about my figure. But it never really bothered me or stopped me from doing the job.

I am grateful for the time I got to spend working with John. The book is my love letter to him.