Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter heads off Earth for John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.
My favorite film of all time may be James Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987), but John Carpenter remains my favorite director. He’s made more “perfect”movies in my eyes than any other filmmaker thanks to a ten-film streak of brilliance from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to They Live (1988), and then he delivered one last gem with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Eleven fantastic and highly memorable films is eleven more than most directors manage… and then he went out on top and stopped making movies all together.
Okay, he didn’t actually stop.
Ghosts of Mars (2001) is his second last film — the last being The Ward (2010) — and it’s something of a sci-fi/horror riff on two of his earlier classics, Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York (1981). The script actually started as a second sequel to the latter, but after the understandable failure of Escape from L.A. (1996) he couldn’t get Paramount interested. Rather than trash the script he just changed Snake Plissken to Desolation Williams… and Escape from Mars to Ghosts of Mars.
It’s new (again) to Blu-ray, and a re-watch confirms that I still don’t like it. I am, however, a sucker for a Carpenter commentary. So keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Commentators: John Carpenter (director/co-writer), Natasha Henstridge (actor)
1. Henstridge joined the production just one week before filming began. Courtney Love had dropped out over a broken ankle… or as Carpenter says, “She just didn’t work out.”
2. The opening features a model train they “tried to make look less like a model but it still looks just like a model.” It apparently fooled Henstridge though.
3. Liam Waite co-stars in the film and is the one who first suggested Henstridge for the role. They were engaged at the time, married six years later, and separated eight years after that.
4. The two banter and trade insults, but Carpenter begrudgingly acknowledges that “it’s impossible to find a bad angle” on Henstridge. “I tried.”
5. The film teases an attraction between Ballard (Henstridge) and Braddock (Pam Grier) but does nothing with it. “We didn’t make too much of this… but the idea was that in the future, the future society is perhaps,” starts Carpenter. “Matriarchal,” finishes Henstridge, “so therefore there’d be a lot more homosexuality.” “There you go,” adds Carpenter. “What?” says Rob. Grier apparently wasn’t very excited about that.
6. She recalls being “out of shape and out of breath” during production, and Carpenter adds that he was told she refused to work out with the stunt coordinator.
7. Henstridge describes herself as an “intuitive-based” actor, and Carpenter agrees adding that Kurt Russell is the same way.
8. They had to shut down production for a week when Henstridge fell ill from exhaustion. Carpenter suggests it might have been due to filming in a gypsum mine, but she thinks having filmed two movies back to back and then joining this one with no break was the culprit.
9. Carpenter’s original script had the action play out in a more traditional linear fashion, but he thought it felt too familiar and changed it around via flashbacks.
10. Carpenter hopes someday that Henstridge directs a film and casts him in it. “I would love to get a little revenge for what you put me though,” he says.
11. He says she downplayed some of the flashback framing sequences, and she replies that he should have directed her better. “There was a basketball game on television and I wanted to get out of there,” he explains.
12. Carpenter points out her “cab door ears,” but she refuses to let him make her feel bad about her appearance.
13. One of the reasons he wanted to set the film in a matriarchy was because he didn’t want to have his female action heroes have to prove themselves before people took them seriously. It’s just understood that they’re bad-ass.
14. The possessed miners who’ve shifted from blue-collar workers to leather-clad and pierced Hot Topic shoppers were played by extras in New Mexico, and Carpenter says “they’re not the most stable people” before adding that they were great. “We cut out all the scenes where they were laughing.”
15. A microphone dipped into the shot at 38:41 of Ballard and Whitlock (Joanna Cassidy) talking, and they had to remove it digitally.
16. They had a single argument turned fight during filming. Carpenter recalls she was being stubborn about some aspect of her performance during the train scene, “and for some reason that irritated me at that moment, and then… you walked off.”
17. She recalls that the cast hated filming the scene at 53:50 where they all run up to the train platform because he made them do it dozens of times. “Did you curse me behind my back?” asks Carpenter. “Basically,” replies Henstridge.
18. “The beautiful people! The beautiful people!” sings Henstridge as Big Daddy Mars (Richard Cetrone) approaches the jail at 58:24. She’s referencing Marilyn Manson, and while neither of them say his name Carpenter says “You think so? People are mentioning it seems to look like him. I suppose he does.”
19. Henstridge is no fan of exposition scenes including the ones she was saddled with here, and Carpenter wonders how else to get the information across. “You just hope that the director and the writer come up with ways of doing that without you having to do it with the supporting cast in particular,” she replies.
20. The film shot almost exclusively at night — even when they were back in L.A. filming on sets — and she asks him why. “I’m a night human being, and one of the things I’ve always hated is getting up in the morning.” He fought to stick to the night schedule in L.A. and had to eventually find a middle ground with the cast.
21. She still doesn’t understand why her character had to kiss Butler (Jason Statham). “Why not?” replies Carpenter.
22. Henstridge is crying at 1:04:55 when her character shouldn’t be, and it’s the shot where Carpenter and producer Sandy King realized she was sick or having a breakdown of some kind. That’s when they shut down the film for a week.
23. She asks what he was trying to say with the film by having Ballard cured of the possession by way of drugs. “I think probably you could say there’s an ambivalence and a duality in my feelings about drugs.”
24. Carpenter has enjoyed marijuana since the 60s, but he’s never done acid or mushrooms. Henstridge assumes it’s because he’s a control freak.
25. He wishes they could share the first-take audio from the POV shot at 1:16:12 of them driving through town while everything explodes and the extras are rushing at their rover. The left-side window broke when one of the extras thrust their weapon in, and Henstridge let loose a string of expletives.
26. Henstridge recalls that Carpenter would come to set every day and say that this was the biggest piece of shit he’d ever made. “It was really inspiring for all of us actors, John.” He claims it was a way to relax his cast and crew.
27. Carpenter loves how both Ice Cube and Henstridge add a small touch to their final frame — Cube looks directly into the camera as he passes, and Henstridge jerks her head while cocking her gun.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“I’m sitting here today with the very beautiful, very talented, and the very annoying Natasha Henstridge.”
“If the women like you, you know you’re hot.”
“You’re just kind of a mess basically.”
“There’s the Cubester.”
“I was the only one taking serious drugs on the movie.”
“Why did you write us all so dumb, John?”
“You know what’s interesting about you? You write all this supernatural stuff and you don’t believe in a damn thing.”
“I don’t usually make movies with blondes.”
Buy Ghosts of Mars on Blu-ray from Amazon.
Ghosts of Mars is an odd commentary track. The best Carpenter commentaries are the ones that see him paired with Kurt Russell as the two get along extremely well and feed off of each other’s enthusiasm. His tracks with crew members aren’t nearly as much fun as they typically run a bit dry. This one sits somewhere in the middle for no other reason than the awkward banter between Carpenter and Henstridge. I assume it’s wholly playful and free of malice, but I also wouldn’t bet money on that. Either way, the commentary is still more entertaining than the movie. Yeah I said it!
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.