‘Escape From New York’: My Interview with John Carpenter

By David Weiner

New York, 1997. Manhattan Island is a maximum federal penitentiary, and the president’s plane has crashed in the middle of it. Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell), a battle-hardened hero-turned-convict, is tasked by the government with extracting the president within 24 hours in exchange for a full pardon. Adding to the ticking clock is a mini-explosive in his bloodstream timed to detonate in 24 hours. Oh yeah, and the human race depends on Snake’s success, because the U.S. is at war and the president was on his way to a summit meeting to avert a nuclear crisis with China and the Soviet Union. If Snake fails, we all fail.

That’s the hook that made all of us want to go for a thrill ride with Kurt in John Carpenter’s newest adventure in 1981, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, a radically different film from his previous big-screen entries, 1978’s game-changing indie film HALLOWEEN and his 1980 horror follow-up, THE FOG.

Thirty-five years after its summer 1981 release, I got to chat with Carpenter about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK exclusively for Famous Monsters magazine, and it was a thrill to hear new tales and insights.

I’d love to have your CliffsNotes version of the making of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK from your perspective 35 years later. What sparked the idea for the film?

John Carpenter: Well, there were a bunch of different things that propelled me to work on this movie and make this movie. One was a movie called DEATH WISH, which was out in the ’70s. New York was having some big, giant problems at the time — I’m thinking bankruptcy and a crime problem. And this Charles Bronson movie, DEATH WISH, came along and he was a vigilante architect, of all things. And something about the movie struck a chord with me. It wasn’t a great film, but it was a fun movie. And I read a lot of science fiction. I read a Harry Harrison story — there was this planet, the toughest, most evil place in the universe. So who’re you going to choose to go in there and do something with some mission? The most evil guy in the universe. That idea stuck with me, and I thought of writing this kind of dystopian future story about New York as a prison and a guy has to go in to rescue the president. I thought about Charles Bronson playing the part, a tough guy at the time. … [But] the project came along in ’80 and I cast Kurt Russell. I’d just worked with him in ELVIS and I really loved working with him. Here’s this Disney kid and he’s tough as nails, and he created a real memorable character [out of Snake Plissken].

Did you have carte blanche after HALLOWEEN in terms of your casting choices? Or was there any pressure from your distributor, AVCO Embassy Pictures, to go with a more established star?

JC: Well, we had discussions about it. They were uncertain about Kurt as a hero. They said, “Well, he’s just this Disney kid.” I said, “No, no, no. He can play this. He can play anything. Believe me, he can play anything. He played Elvis, he can play Snake Plissken.” So they relented. I mean, they wanted to talk about it and they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t say, “We have concerns about this. I’m not sure that he can do the part.” That’s fine with me. I went ahead and defended him. I’m glad I did.

Well, we’re all glad you did! How collaborative was Kurt at that stage with developing his character? Or was he like, “This is what’s on the page, let’s just dive in?”

JC: Well, Kurt as an actor, you have to understand he was Disney trained. So he doesn’t come in with a lot of line changes at that time. As he became a big movie star later, he worked a little bit more behind the scenes. But then it was just, “Say the lines that are there.” His main contribution was as soon as he found out that Lee Van Cleef was in the movie, he said, “I know what I’m doing. Imitate Clint Eastwood!”

You’ve got a wonderful rogues’ gallery of actors in this film. I know you love working with the same people over and over. What went into some of the casting choices for ESCAPE? Was Jamie Lee Curtis ever considered?

JC: There wasn’t really a part for Jamie Lee in this. She was in a TV series as I remember. We had various parts written so we had to fill them up with actors who were good. Ernest Borgnine is just an amazing character actor. I mean, it’s amazing! God bless him, you couldn’t get better than Ernie. There’s Harry Dean Stanton, who’s still an awesome guy. I care for him very much. I mean, on and on. Everybody in the movie was great.

Were there any doubts this project might not get the green light because you didn’t quite have the budget to build a rundown urban environment like you imagined in the script?

JC: We knew it was going to go because it had a green light, so we were going to shoot the movie no matter what. The question was how big a spectacle could we afford to make. That was always the question. So we found St. Louis had had a fire in mid ’70s and their downtown area was just ruined. And it was desolate. They were great. They let us come in there and shut everything down, shut the lights off — it was unbelievable cooperation. They had a lot of decrepit stuff around, so we found a location that worked that let us get the spectacle that we needed. So therefore, the movie didn’t suffer a small look. It had a big look, which made me very happy.

Do you remember any specific surprises on the shoot or things you were unable to get due to budget or location constraints?

JC: Every day we shot [at] night, because most of these [scenes] were at night — that was a new surprise. Sometimes good, sometimes very, very bad, and we had to punt. Every production is that way, unless you have all the money in the world. We didn’t. Just to make the schedule is the big thing. Nothing big surprised me. Nothing big hurt the story. We didn’t have to do anything to change the narrative, which is the thing you want to protect as a director — right to the very end is the narrative. If you start changing that, you’re lost.

You’re well-known for scoring your own films. Do you have a certain approach when you’re doing a score? Do you take thematics into account, or is it more about tone and creating suspense?

JC: I think it’s everything that what you just mentioned. It’s thematic but it’s also tone. Most of the music that I’ve done for movies is improvised at the moment with that footage. The main theme from ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, parts of that I had in my head before we recorded it. Just little snatches here and there. I stuck it together. These things come out of instinct — at least they do for me. I’m not a kind of a guy who can write music. So I don’t write music, I improvise it, just play it to the image. And luckily, the music from ESCAPE worked out.

How do you think ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK holds up decades years later? Are you critical when you look back at your work? Or do you allow it to live in a time capsule from the era?

JC: I can’t watch it because I’m too critical of the things I’ve done. Once the movie’s cut together and I’ve seen the print, that’s it. I don’t want to look at it again. Because it’s over. Kurt’s character, Snake Plissken, has lived in memory, and in the culture, and is extremely strong. And the cast and the acting in the movie is extremely strong. And the fun of it — the movie is just a silly adventure in the future, but it’s fun. It’s dark and fun. And that’s lived on, so I’m really proud of the film. I’m really happy about it.

Was there ever any discussion of reuniting with Kurt as Snake Plissken after you did ESCAPE FROM L.A.? Or was that the definitive end?

JC: That was sort of the end of talking about it. We had discussions about other kinds of projects, but no. And then now they’re trying to do a remake of it, and they probably will go for a younger guy to play Snake Plissken. But that’s the way it goes.

They’ve been talking about this remake for years and years.

JC: They have. It has been years and years, you’re absolutely right.

I remember after 300, Gerard Butler was lined up to do it.

JC: That’s right, then he dropped out, and then they moved on, and then [FAST & FURIOUS producer] Neil Moritz took on the producing reins, and he couldn’t get it set up. And now it’s over at FOX and they’re trying to get it done. I’m just sitting back relaxing, because I don’t have to worry. I worried back in 1980 when we were shooting the film. I worried a lot back then. But now I don’t worry at all!

I talked to Kurt about it a couple of years ago, and it was very important to him that whoever plays Snake is 100% American. What’s your take on that?

JC: [laughs] Well, you have to understand. Kurt is kind of a Tea Party guy. He’s really right wing and nationalistic. So anything he plays, I think he would feel very proud of the fact that Snake Plissken is an American and has American values, and that’s fine with me. As long as he’s a tough-ass, I don’t care.

Well it’s a great, beloved film, and like Kurt said, regardless of where they remake it or not, the original is out there. If people want it, there it is.

JC: That’s right. It’s not going anywhere!

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(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #287 for the film’s 35th anniversary)

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