My staff unanimously urged me to pick John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981) for today. Keep in mind this is the second Carpenter movie I have recommended and another one starring Kurt Russell. One of my colleagues enthusiastically proclaimed that we should permanently have Russell Fridays. As I sat revisiting last night I started to understand and savor the intoxicating pleasures of the cult classic “Escape From New York.” You might wonder how can a grimy dystopian action movie that gets delectably weird at times reward me with such comfort at a moment where I was not feeling as optimistic as I have been known to feel? The answer is escapism. John Carpenter loves movies – especially those b-movies from the 40s that were low budget but filled with rich atmosphere and delivered thrills. “Escape from New York” is taut – beautiful, funny, unpretentious and stirring – to the point that there’s palpable responsiveness coming out of the screen. Plus to add to the mix – Kurt Russell playing Snake Plissken – he’s tough, sexy and good company – and without a doubt one of the greatest movie characters.
Just like Snake, the plot is lean and mean. It’s the future (1997) and the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison. Air Force One is hijacked and crashes in the Big Apple, and the president is taken hostage by the inmates. Snake Plissken – a convict who was about to be dropped into the prison gets offered a pardon if he retrieves the hostage. Snake was a Special Forces soldier who, disappointed with the corrupt government, stole from the Federal Reserve. He has 22 hours to retrieve the president for unwillingly he’s been injected with a poison that will kill him unless he returns in time to get a serum. This premise is established in the first few minutes, and we’re off to the races. It’s a classical paradigm. You have the quest for our main protagonist and a deadline. The 22 hours will add urgency to the mission. Snake has a wristwatch with the counter keeping track.
Carpenter wrote the script in 1976 as a response to the Watergate scandal – and his cynicism towards the president permeates “Escape from New York” including Snake’s attitude – and is one of the reasons why this film feels crackles and pops even more right now. He’s also paying homage to Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns – where the hero entered a town ruled by outlaw gangs and where socials relations were non-existent. Pay attention to Kurt Russell’s voice as Snake – he does a great Clint Eastwood. Carpenter cast Lee Van Cleef – the legendary villain from “From A Few Dollars More” as the antagonistic commander – Bob Hauk – who enlists Snake. Their banter is one of the many highlights in this film. It’s just simply entertainting to be in the presence of the rest of the cast – Ernest Borgnine as “Cabbie,” Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain,” Isaac Hayes as “The Duke,” Donald Pleasence as “The President” – and Adrienne Barbeau as “Maggie.” The latter brings a definite B-movie siren attitude to this fun ride.
There’s one extraordinarily wild scene in the best possible way – when Snake attends a post-apocalyptic vaudeville – and the song that they sing made me do a rewind. “No more Yankees / Strike the word from your ears / Spin the roulette / There’s no more opera at the Met / This is hell / This is fate.” Carpenter is one of few directors who scores his own films – and his synthesizer driven music for “Escape for New York” is splendid.
Bob Hauk: “Remember, once you’re inside you’re on your own.”
Snake Plissken: “Oh, you mean, I can’t count on you?”
Bob Hauk: “No.”
Snake Plissken: “Good!”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Amazon and Microsoft.
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau
Production Designer Joe Alves on “Escape from New York”
“What I really wanted to do in ESCAPE is something convincing enough for the audience to really believe they are witnessing a possible future,” Alves reveals. “In a time of financial excess and money just being flaunted indiscriminately, I’d like to see us make a film for this budget, which I consider very medium (around $8 million) and just have the audience sit back and say: ‘Wow! How did you do it?’ If you had all the backing you possibly needed – like some pictures nowadays do – it wouldn’t be that difficult. But when money is a little tighter you have to be more creative.” Part of Alves’ creativity came in the form of a decision to shoot much of the film on location. The designer dissected Carpenter’s script carefully, weighing the types of locations and sets necessary, and began a cross-country search to find just the right locales. While the film is indeed titled ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the cities of Atlanta and St. Louis “doubled” for the Big Apple. “Around the turn of the century New York City and St. Louis were very much the same architecturally,” Alves says explaining his choice of the location. “New York began to change radically in the 1930s, but St. Louis has kept many of the old qualities. What we were really looking for was an old bridge that we could take over and use for our shooting, so we went the usual route of sending out feelers to state film commissioners.
“John and I eventually came here [St. Louis] to inspect a bridge and started walking the streets; we looked around at the old buildings and thought they were fantastic. These were structures that exist in NY now, and have that seedy, run-dow quality that we’re looking for.” With all of this care for detail and verisimilitude, why didn’t the cast and crew simply go to New York in the first place? “Our main concern was cooperation and accessibility. St. Louis is going through a transition period, which leaves a lot of areas that aren’t being used too much; naturally that allows us to close off an area and control the flow of traffic much easier. Besides that, the city officials bent over backwards to help us in every way.” The bizarre on-location shooting schedule called for three weeks of night lensing; these were grueling 9 p.m. – 6 a.m. sessions in the high-crime ghettos of the Gateway City. The film company was free to explode airplanes, run commando raids through the streets and perform other assorted mayhem. “The combination of look and convenience was great,” Alves says. “I hope everything comes together so well that no one knows we shot here.” And what did they do in Atlanta…? “We really wanted their rapid transit system,” Alves admits. “BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco was considered first, but they weren’t too crazy about some of the plans we had in mind.” The crew actually did make it to New York for a couple of weeks of shooting, later finishing the picture in the safe confines of a Hollywood sound stage. This studio work consisted mainly of what are called “interiors” – shots usually dealing with events that take place inside offices, homes, etc. “We’re going to build a large set that’s normally built inside. It’s going to be a New York street designed to fit the action in the movie like a glove. This way we can follow John’s script to the letter and do the situation exactly as he intended. Another set will be the exterior of a very modern government complex.” “For the most part, we’ll be shooting out on locations that will be redesigned and adapted to us. The way to make a very inexpensive film look expensive is re-do existing things, building only what you need, and tie into them – that’s how a designer really confuses the audience as to what’s real and what’s not.” “I think my biggest help to John and Derba Hill in this department is to give them more scope. They’ve been very successful doing so much for so little, so I have to present something bigger and decide the best place to put the money visually.” Alves says that the youthful enthusiasm of Carpenter, Hill and the rest of the crew reminded him of his NIGHT GALLERY days. It’s a quality he’s rarely found since his early work with Spielberg.” (web.archive.org)
Alan Howarth on Scoring the Film with Carpenter
Howarth: “I moved to LA in the 70s to work with Weather Report, a jazz band I’d been touring with. An old biker buddy of mine was working in the sound department of a film studio making copies of tapes and he overheard two sound editors talking about how they needed someone who knew about synthesisers for this movie they were makng. So my buddy says, “Hey man, you have to talk to my buddy Alan, man he works for Weather Report” – like that’s going to mean something to them – and they look at him and go, ‘Weather Report? Is that the one at 7 o’clock or 11 o’clock?’ Anyway they took my number and gave me a call so I went down and it turned out they were making “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” It was my work on that (as a sound FX specialist) which brought me into John’s world (a picture editor working on the movie passed his tapes on to Carpenter).”
Carpenter: “He just came over to my house in Glendale, California. I had my own rig at home, and it worked out well because Carpenter didn’t want to know anything about the equipment, he just said, “That’s your job.” We hung out and I played him some music and he was like, “Let’s do it!” All very casual, no formal stuff, no attorneys or big-money exchange – just a bunch of guys, you know?”
Howarth: “One thing I brought to the party that John liked was the idea of using videotape. Normally when you score a film, you would literally do it to a stopwatch. You say, “I need some music that goes for a minute and 34 seconds,” then you decide on a tempo, put a click track down and play blindly along, sort of imagining what the scene was. But I put up a video so that you could watch the video and play to it, which he loved because you could really sculpt a picture that way. He referred to that as a kind of colouring book…Pretty much everything was improvised. Occasionally, John would come in with something he wanted to do that he’d figured out at home. But a lot of the time he’d just kind of look at me and say, “Alan, give me something.” One of the very first cues I did was one we called the “69th Street Bridge”, where the car chase takes place and they go across the bridge and the taxi cab blows up. John let me run with that one to see what I would do, just to kind of figure out who I was. The last thing we did was actually the opening title sequence, because originally there was this whole bank robbery scene at the beginning of the movie that was taken out, so we had scored the movie starting with that. (dazeddigital.com)
Carpenter on Meeting and Casting Kurt Russell
“I met Kurt on a TV movie that he and I did together called Elvis. He played Elvis Presley and he played him perfectly. I just realized the extent of his acting ability and his mimicry. He could mimic almost anybody. So, he comes with an enormous amount of talent that’s god-given and he doesn’t really think about it too much. He doesn’t analyze it or worry about it. He just has it…I had one meeting where I just pushed him, powdered him, and said, “He’s gonna do great for us.” They believed me. They went along with me. It was great. (cultspark.com)
About Director, Co-Writer and Composer, John Carpenter
“John Carpenter was born in Carthage, New York. His family later moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where his father was the head of the music department at Western Kentucky University. He attended Western Kentucky University followed by the USC School of Cinema in Los Angeles…While attending the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema, John Carpenter began work on DARK STAR, a science fiction comedy short that was later expanded into a feature length film and released theatrically in 1975. His second feature, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) was partially an homage to his idol, Howard Hawks, and basically reimagined that director’s RIO BRAVO in an urban setting. Carpenter’s breakthrough film was HALLOWEEN (1978), the seminal horror film; made for $300,000, it was the most profitable independent movie of its day, and to date has spawned several sequels. Following HALLOWEEN, he further established his reputation with such genre hits as THE FOG, THEY LIVE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the psychological horror film, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, CHRISTINE and THE WARD. His rank as an action director on a wider scale is also evident in such productions as ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, VAMPIRES, THE THING, GHOSTS OF MARS, ESCAPE FROM L.A. and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. His motion picture credits also include the comedy-thriller, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, the sci-fi love story, STARMAN, which earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, the terrifying remake of the classic 1950s horror story.
For the small screen, Carpenter directed the thriller SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME, the acclaimed biographical mini-series, ELVIS, and the Showtime horror trilogy JOHN CARPENTER PRESENTS BODY BAGS. He also directed two episodes of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR series. He won the Cable Ace Award for writing the HBO movie, EL DIABLO. In the gaming world, he co-wrote the video game FEAR 3 for Warner Bros. Interactive. In the world of comics, Carpenter is the co-creator of the award-winning bi-monthly series, “John Carpenter’s Asylum” and the acclaimed annual anthology collection, “John Carpenter’s Tales for a HalloweeNight”. On Halloween 2014, the director and composer introduced the world to the next phase of his career with “Vortex,” the first single from Lost Themes, his first album of non-soundtrack material. Carpenter’s primacy and lasting influence on genre score work was both rediscovered and reaffirmed. Lost Themes achieved numerous international milestones, including NPR First Listen; features in dozens of press outlets including the “Los Angeles Times,” “Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Guardian; three magazine covers; and Top 200 chart success in the U.S. and the U.K. Western Kentucky University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2007. He lives in Hollywood, California with his wife, Sandy King, his frequent collaborator.” (theofficialjohncarpenter.com)