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

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
© 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
© 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.