John Carpenter is a living legend. He will always be one of the icons of the horror genre for the work he’s given us in a career that spans over forty years. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Escape from New York, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China—these are already legendary titles that will remain beloved for decades to come. The man has had an amazing career.
But for every great movie he’s done, there are even more films that he’s turned down. And some of them went on to be incredibly successful. Carpenter has few regrets with the decisions he’s made in his career, with it mostly being the way he was perceived as a “genre filmmaker” that cost him a great deal of work. There’s even one entry on this list that Carpenter was fired from, rather than turning it down, simply because of the poor critical response to another movie he had made at the time.
A few of the projects below are titles the director hasn’t spoken of in great detail, but even in a quick aside, he notes that he doesn’t really regret turning these directing jobs down. Carpenter’s animosity often seems to be with the business as a whole, not with any individual person or project. That’s something I’ve always admired about him.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at six major motion pictures that Carpenter was offered the chance to direct, but didn’t take.
This might be the most famous one. Carpenter was hired to direct this movie in the early ‘80s and it actually came very close to happening. But after The Thing was completely torn apart by audiences and critics, the studio got nervous and fired Carpenter from the film. They wound up hiring Mark L. Lester to direct instead. You can see when you watch Firestarter that it clearly was designed to be a John Carpenter flick and, as a result, almost comes off as a pale imitation. Coincidentally, Carpenter’s next movie would be an adaptation of another Stephen King book, Christine.
Before William Peter Blatty ultimately decided to direct his own brainchild rather than entrusting it to someone else, Exorcist III was shopped around to a few different directors. Carpenter actually sounded interested in directing this one, but it was clear from the moment he got the script that Blatty already had his heart set on directing the film himself. Ultimately Carpenter backed off so that Blatty could helm the project.
There’s not much to go on other than an interview in the late ‘90s in which Carpenter very casually mentions that he almost directed this film. But it raises some interesting questions. Carpenter has said many times that he got into movies to make Westerns, which he was never ultimately able to do in a straightforward context. This must have been a project he courted for a while, because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing he’d turn down, especially when the final product wound up starring his friend and frequent collaborator Kurt Russell.
One of the bigger hits of its time, launching a whole slew of psychosexual thrillers, Fatal Attraction was a big, A-list project… that John Carpenter just wasn’t interested in at all. He’s famously mentioned turning this down by saying that he read the script and basically told them that he’d already seen this movie when it was called Play Misty for Me. The two are very similar, of course, so Carpenter walked away thinking the movie was going to tank at the box office. Of course, it became very successful, but it doesn’t sound like he regrets the decision.
A lot of directors turned down Zombieland when it was making its way around Hollywood. There was something about the way it was written on the page that they just couldn’t visualize, that they couldn’t see the way Ruben Fleischer ultimately saw in order to turn that project into the enormous success it became. So many different directors, from up-and-comers to seasoned vets went out for that one. Carpenter was one of the first people to be attached to it, back when it was still envisioned as a TV pilot. He had been tapped to helm the pilot, seemed excited to do it, then faded away from the project when it transitioned into becoming a feature film.
A few different directors met on Top Gun before it went to Tony Scott. Carpenter was offered the chance to direct this one and quickly turned it down. He didn’t see it being much of a success at all and thought that fighting the Russians in the third act wouldn’t do any favors for already hostile international relations. Even in recent years, he’s noted that there was nothing he could think of that he could have done with that movie. It just wasn’t for him.