7 Low-Budget Filmmaking Lessons from John Carpenter's The Fog

On the film's 40th anniversary, we look back at how the celebrated horror director turned a tiny budget into a big, terrifying nightmare that endures to this day.

by | February 8, 2020 | Comments

© AVCO Embassy Pictures courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©AVCO Embassy Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1978, director John Carpenter released the seminal horror film Halloween and… it flopped. Or at least he thought it had. The truth was, it opened in such limited release that it took a long time for word of mouth to build momentum. Once it had, he found himself with a $47 million gross (on a $325,000 budget — making it the highest grossing indie film ever until The Blair Witch Project in 1999) and mounting expectations for a killer follow-up.

“We didn’t want to make another knife picture,” explained producer Debra Hill in the DVD documentary Tales from the Mist: Inside the Fog. While on vacation in England, she and Carpenter visited Stonehenge and took note of an eerie fog bank surrounding the mystical structure. “What do you think is in that fog?” asked Carpenter. And just like that, they had their follow-up.

The Fog was released on February 8, 1980, and although Carpenter would have slightly more money than he did on Halloween, it was still paltry even by early ’80s standards. He and Hill set out to craft an old-fashioned ghost story about the fictional seaside California town of Antonio Bay, and how its 100-year anniversary is marred by the arrival of a mysterious rolling fog masking dark and deadly secrets. To get it done, they’d have to get crafty.

To honor the 40th birthday of The Fog, let’s take a peak inside the Carpenter-Hill playbook to learn how to make million dollar scares out of a “coupons and a dream” budget.

Lesson 1: Set Yourself Up For Success

©Embassy courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by ©Embassy courtesy Everett Collection)

No one wants to tell an artist to “dream smaller,” but there is something to be said for keeping your vision manageable. The conceit of hidden ghosts in a dense fog gave Carpenter a huge break on his FX budget right from the get-go. The killers are mostly seen in silhouette (if they’re seen at all), which nicely works both thematically and as a cost-saving measure. No need to blow your wad on CGI ghouls when you can suggest more than you show.

Lesson 2: Location, Location, Location

(Photo by Lionsgate)

Similar to the “unseen threat” idea, Carpenter wisely kept Antonio Bay nicely — and cheaply — small town. He secured two main locations, an actual lighthouse (located in Point Reyes Beach, California) and an old church (the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, California), and made the most of them. The movie didn’t require sprawling locales or elaborate sets, because the sense of isolation and claustrophobia served the overall story so well.

Lesson 3: If You Shoot Big, It’ll Look Big

(Photo by Lionsgate)

Carpenter and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Dean Cundey, understood that the best way to mask The Fog‘s lack of budget muscle was to shoot its small ideas in the biggest way possible. The duo chose to shoot in widescreen Panavision, which made the most of the vast seaside locations — witness the scene when the son of local radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) discovers the driftwood on the beach, or when Elizabeth and Nick (Jamie Lee Curtis and Tom Atkins) take a stroll along a dock. These scenes give you big, spacious backgrounds and a real sense of scale, even though there isn’t any real action taking place in them. It’s subtle, but it works. A lot of cheap movies involve tight close-ups in nondescript cafes and they feel cheap. The Fog, meanwhile, feels more expansive than that. Shooting in wide-open Panavision, according to Hill, made it “look like you have a bigger-than-life movie.”

Lesson 4: Multitask and Call In Favors

(Photo by Lionsgate)

Low budget filmmaking means you make the most of what you have within figurative arm’s length. Father Malone’s (Hal Holbrook) assistant Bennet doesn’t have a lot of screen time and even fewer lines, so Carpenter himself stepped in to play the role (he would admit in the audio commentary that his own performance was “terrible” and that he’d never act again except as “helicopter pilots and walk-ons”). Not only did the “shadowy figures in dense fog” help the FX budget, it also helped with keeping the “stunt” department lean. Whenever you see a ghost arm smashing through doors and windows, it was usually the same arm (even though it was often edited to seem like dozens) — that of Carpenter’s childhood  friend Tommy Lee Wallace, who also served as the movie’s editor and production designer. Carpenter cast his then-wife, Barbeau, in the lead — much to the chagrin of Hill, his ex-girlfriend — and called in a favor to get his Halloween star Curtis into the mix. Including Curtis also helped convince her mom, screen legend Janet Leigh, to sign on as Antonio Bay’s mayor. This had unexpected benefits, too: Carpenter wasn’t shy when forced to use the Psycho actress’ star power to convince a local restaurant owner to stay open later so they could finish shooting.

Lesson 5: Suggestive, Not Bombastic

(Photo by Lionsgate)

“It didn’t rely on the usual scares” was how Cundey described The Fog in the Tales from the Mist doc, which is a euphemistic way of admitting they were under pretty tight constraints. But he and Carpenter built a sense of mounting dread and creeping unease through careful and inexpensive means. First, there was the score (done by Carpenter himself — see Lesson 4), and then there were a series of simple but dramatic little moments like rattling bottles, honking car horns, dripping salt water, and sliding furniture that startled and creeped out the audience without having to rely on big, elaborate scares. There’s also very little blood in the movie; the deaths are quick, brutal, and often off-screen. But the impact remains.

Lesson 6: Pad If You Have To

(Photo by Lionsgate)

Carpenter’s original cut of The Fog was a less-than-cinematic 85 minutes, so while keeping it lean and tight was good for the budget, it didn’t help the finished product as much. He realized he needed to beef things up ever so slightly without stretching his already thin resources, so at the 11th hour he added the opening sequence of venerable actor John Houseman recounting the legend of Spivey Point over a campfire. The “beach” was faked on a soundstage, and the expository dialogue-disguised-as-local legend not only helped nudge the movie to a more respectable running time (alongside some additional shots of stabbings and a new sequence where a dead character appears to awaken in a hospital morgue to address concerns the producers had that the original cut wasn’t scary enough), but it helped reinforce the overall ghost story feel without having to add much more than a simple fireside chat.

Lesson 7: Compromise When You Must

(Photo by Lionsgate)

The character of KAB Radio DJ Stevie Wayne was modeled after legendary ’60s and ’70s DJ Alison Steele, known as “The Nightbird.” But where Steele played progressive counterculture rock and became a groundbreaking legend, Wayne rocks Antonio Bay with… lounge music? Carpenter no doubt would have liked to have peppered his movie with cool rock tracks like Quentin Tarantino, but he had to program KAB with generic smooth jazz because, well, it was much, much cheaper. The only “band” Stevie mentions directly — while giving an on-air shoutout to the crew of the Seagrass — is The Coupe De Villes, which is Carpenter’s side band (they performed the title track — and even made a music video! — for Big Trouble in Little China).

The Fog first opened in wide release on February 8, 1980.


The Fog (1980)

Adjusted Score: 79.968%
Critics Consensus: A well-crafted return to horror for genre giant John Carpenter, The Fog rolls in and wraps viewers in suitably slow-building chills.
Synopsis: A weather-beaten old fisherman tells an ancient tale of betrayal and death to fascinated children as they huddle together by... [More]
Directed By: John Carpenter

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