Video: The Power of Padding in First Films by John Carpenter and Monte Hellman
Scenes built specifically to ‘fill time’ for theatrical release offer a surprise peek at the auteurist genius of John Carpenter and Monte Hellman.
Dark Star is the feature-directing debut of John Carpenter, who recently seems to have one of his older films remade every other year: Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing. Dark Star hasn’t been remade yet, but in a way it already was. It was originally a 45-minute student short when the film was picked up for theatrical release, but the distributor wanted the film expanded to feature length, so Carpenter and classmate Dan O’Bannon, who wrote and starred in the film, shot another 38 minutes. If you look at this timeline, you can see the original footage from the short in the bottom, and the added footage on the top, which makes up most of the middle section. Does it amount to mere padding, or does it actually flesh out Dark Star into a fully realized film?
The main additional sequence involves the astronaut Pinback, played by O’Bannon, chasing an alien that’s obviously a painted beach ball with claws stuck to it. The sequence encapsulates a lot of Dark Star’s oddball charm as a sci-fi parody with a frathouse sense of humor. It’s worth noting that O’Bannon would rework the stowaway space creature premise when he wrote the script for the first Alien movie, changing the tone from comedy to horror. The entire premise of Dark Star plays like a comic dry run for Alien: an apathetic space crew performing routine missions, suddenly faced with a life and death crisis.
In another added scene, we see one of the spacemen playing the five-finger filet game that would be featured in James Cameron’s Aliens. Here it’s part of a long sequence that captures something that’s almost always overlooked in sci-fi adventure movies: the sheer boredom of spending years traveling across galaxies. In this case, the extra footage is essential to giving Dark Star its scrappy, lived-in feeling, setting it apart from just about every other sci-fi film.
Video Essay: The Power of Padding in First Films by John Carpenter and Monte Hellman
Maybe padding a movie can work because it frees the filmmaker to explore the space around a story, and discover where their true interests and talents lie. There’s another great example in another first feature: Beast from Haunted Cave, a 1959 B production that’s an odd mashup of heist movie with monster movie. Coincidentally, it too has a connection to the Alien franchise, as the monster cocoons its victims along the walls of its dark lair. Even with its blending of sci-fi and crime movie, the film tracks pretty comfortably within the conventions of fifties B movies, thanks in part to its hard-boiled dialogue.
But when the film was sold to television, they had to shoot additional scenes to fit broadcast length. That led to this scene, a completely extraneous exchange between one of the gangsters and a girl who disappears entirely from the film after this scene. Needing to fill up time, director Monte Hellman just lets them flirt and improvise for as long as they can sustain it. The result is unlike anything else in the film, as if the 1960s counterculture crash-dived into a fifties drive-in flick. There’s an unmistakable freshness and openness in their body language and rapport, as if the screen is just a wide-open field of possibilities, freed of genre requirements. And when you look ahead to Hellman’s more famous films like The Shooting and Two Lane Blacktop you can see that this is where his vision began. All it took was a little extra room to play with.
* Update: I received word from Monte Hellman who clarifies my account of the added scene in Beast from Haunted Cave as follows:
re: the added scene for BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE. I’m glad it seemed improvised to you, but it was entirely scripted, albeit having very little to do with anything else in the movie. Blame it on good acting.
The scene from TWO-LANE, however, was improvised as an alternative to the script scene, also shot but not used.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.