Dark Star launched the John Carpenter orbit… but only by accident. It was the little film that shouldn’t have worked, was shot on less than a shoestring over three strenuous years (and apparently largely shot again) as a response to their cinematic heroes, their school, and the world around them. Let There Be Light looks at the origins, production and legacy of this quirky little movie.
Where does it come from:
Available on the recent Dark Star Blu-ray release, Let There Be Light is nearly 2 hours long (substantially longer than the movie it’s supplementing)
Tone of Documentary:
Informed and informative. Largely told through interviews and stills, no voice of God narration.
It’s been a long time since Dark Star was made, and one of the primary creators, Dan O’Bannon, is no longer with us. The other, John Carpenter, wasn’t interested in participating in the doc. Both are therefore represented by archival audio and footage, as is the late distributor of the film, Jack Harris. Some other folks involved in the film or in the milieu participate, including Brian Narelle who played Doolittle in the film.
It’s a good overview of both the players involved and the world they grew up in – in particular I liked the description of just how things were at USC in the beginning of the program. John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and everyone was involved in USC’s cinema school. Carpenter had even eventually won an Oscar for the Resurrection of Broncho Billy (with the rest of its production team.) Afterwards, Carpenter asked the school about remuneration, and they essentially told him to screw off – they owned the film, lock, stock, and barrel.
So Dark Star grew from a student film into a feature as a form of protest against SC’s heavy handedness. It was still largely filmed on SC facilities (including available closets here and there) and took over three years to get into some semblance where it could be shown to distributors. Jack Harris bought, but he said large swaths of the film needed to be refilmed in order to make it audience ready. That’s where the sequence with the alien beach ball came from, and some other sequences, because Dan O’Bannon was the only cast member who could reliably be available.
The doc mentions a tension between Dan and John – O’Bannon’s widow says that JC’s director’s credit was kind of nominal – that the two shared a number of duties, and had grand schemes to go off and do a lot more together after Dark Star. Then they broke up, and, she claims, Carpenter did many of their planned schemes together all by himself.
Not being there, it’s hard to credit what actually occurred nd what is biased perspective. Dan O’Bannon is creative, and irascible, and it was a common thread through everything he did that he made enemies. Watch the doc about Return of the Living Dead,
O’Bannon’s feature film debut, and you’ll see how he rubbed almost everyone in the cast and the crew the wrong way. He got a fun movie out of it, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see his sour grapes about John Carpenter based less in him being wronged rather than his self-perception as an eternal victim.
Of course, I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But understanding how creativity works, the initial discussion, the “wouldn’t it be great if we” sort of talk is simply the easiest, least intensive and noteworthy part of the creative process. It’s the day to day butt in the seat work that makes movies, not pie in the sky ideas.
Not to defend Carpenter over-much, since he’s had his own share of complete whiffs, like the screenplay for Halloween 2, or… everything he’s done since In the Mouth of Madness up to (but not including) his Lost Themes albums. Dark Star is a mix of sensibilities – C and D. It’s a shame they never mixed up again.
Film Nerd Bit:
All the SC stuff is film nerdery for me, down to discussing my alma mater’s specific class numbers. It’s worth noting that some of his imagery work on this movie got Dan O’Bannon a job on Star Wars where, according to him, he alienated George Lucas on practically the first day of work. Way to keep up with your patterns, George…
Grade: Real Documentary… for enthusiasts.