A Great Escape (The Morning Call/Aug 09/1996/US) By Paul Willistein


They're back:

Actor Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter with Escape From L.A.

Russell and Carpenter first worked together on Escape From New York. This time, Russell, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill (who also produced Escape From New York) wrote the script for Escape From L.A.

In the science fiction thriller, which opens today, "The Big One" - an earthquake, has split the Los Angeles basin from mainland United States. The president (Cliff Robertson) has been appointed for life because of his prophetic accuracy in predicting the quake.

Los Angeles has become a penal colony for the likes of "Snake" Plissken (Russell, reprising his role from 1981's Escape from New York); "Map to the Stars" Eddie (Steve Buscemi), a displaced former Hollywood talent agent, and Cuervo Jones (George Corraface), a Che Guevara-styled political leader.

It took more than a decade for Escape to go transcontinental. "We were coming back on an airplane from New York (to Los Angeles) when we thought we'd like to do the feature (Escape From L.A.). This was back in '85," recalled Carpenter.

The idea sat on the shelf until the 1992 Los Angeles riots (following the Rodney King verdict), the January 1994 Northridge earthquake and the mudslides, fires and drive-by shootings gave Carpenter and Russell the sense that the time was right to film their take on post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.

"It was after all these disasters that we started thinking about it again," said Carpenter. "Let's get to the real nature (of Los Angeles). And we also started thinking about the America of the future. Maybe it's more like Russia was in the '50s where they shut themselves from the rest of the world."

While Escape From L.A. isn't a sequel to Escape From New York, Carpenter said it was the semblance of a sequel that he thinks appealed to executives at Paramount Pictures, which is distributing the movie:

"When we went to Paramount with the project, they said, 'You know, with sequels, audiences want the same thing but different.'... They also said the majority of the audience does not know the original film.

"What we started out to do was to make a movie that stood on its own but for a new audience, (one) that would, for the fans of the old one, still not let them down. So, that was the kind of balance we were looking for."

Another factor was the box-office performance of Escape From New York. The $7-million budgeted movie grossed about $52 million. And Russell recently proved his appeal in Stargate (1994) the pre-Independence Day surprise hit from director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin, which grossed about $200 million. Observed Hill: "He (Russell) has the ability to open a film." Russell was paid a reported $10 million to star in Escape From L.A., which he produced along with Hill.

Escape From L.A. has a tongue-in-cheek tone - a "cheesiness factor" - similar to that of Escape From New York." Carpenter wouldn't have chosen the word "cheesy." Brie, yes, but cheesy, no.

"There's a certain type of style that goes along with the original (Escape) film... bringing in this sort of absurdist humor," Carpenter explained.

Hill said Escape From L.A. has "a post-apocalyptic appeal." Russell called Los Angeles a "modern-day Pompeii."

Carpenter said, "That's how Los Angeles is now. We all live in this enormous denial. We are told, it is inevitable, (that Los Angeles) will be leveled by an earthquake. Do we believe it? We're sitting by the pool. We can drive down the freeway and get killed. It's dark paradise."

Escape From L.A. has a political subtext, one near and dear to Carpenter's views: "Drive-by shootings are an inevitable factor. Violence. A lot of things are inevitable when you give freedom of choice.

"One of the things that seems to be happening in America is that we have been moving for years toward this typical American fascism. ...It seems to me that we're so willing now to give up as much freedom as possible immediately to have some sort of order. ... That's what Snake represents. He represents the guy who says, 'Don't tell me what to do.'

"Everybody's frightened of the millennium. We're paralyzed by fear," continued Carpenter. "We assume that everything about our system is collapsing around us. ... I don't think we see how well off we are, and how well we are doing."

Though Cliff Robertson portrays a Pat Buchanan/Pat Robertson-styled right-wing president, Carpenter downplays parallels to this year's presidential election. "It's so totally exaggerated and make-believe and fantasy island."

Carpenter, who has directed Halloween, The Fog, Christine, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, In the Mouth of Madness and Starman, doesn't expect audiences to take his movies seriously:

"You can't preach to them. They're only interested in the fun of it. And the attitude. So, we sell attitude. Attitude is the main character."

Filming for the $30-million budgeted Escape From L.A. began on Dec. 11, 1995, at landmark locations in and around Los Angeles, including the Queen Mary, Biltmore Hotel, Griffith Park and the L.A. Coliseum, which served as backdrops to the 9.6-magnitude quake.

A three-quarter-mile-long set was constructed to represent destroyed Sunset Boulevard. A deserted landfill in Carson, Calf., with 200 trashed vehicles, provided a "city of cars" where people lived. The San Fernando Valley became the San Fernando Sea. Snake and ho-dad surfer Pipeline (Peter Fonda) surf Wilshire Boulevard. There's even an earthquake damaged "Happy Kingdom" (standing in for Disneyland; Walt Disney Co. wouldn't give the producers the rights to depict The Magic Kingdom").

Had it not been for Carpenter, Russell might not have gotten the opportunity to be in the first Escape, much less the second. Embassy Pictures, which distributed the first, wanted Charles Bronson for the role of Snake. Carpenter insisted he wanted someone younger.

Russell admitted he plays the role based on a minimalist Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef (who was in For a Few Dollars More and other Eastwood spaghetti westerns) acting styles. In describing Snake, Russell said, "There's not a lot of humanity there. This guy is socially unredeemed."

Russell called Carpenter "the most important director in my career." Russell credits him with getting him the role in the biopic Elvis, which Carpenter directed. Russell also teamed with director Carpenter on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter, Russell and Hill wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Said Carpenter, "Back in the old days, Kurt was a writer when I met him. ... What he does best is scenes. His dialogue is fantastic. This time, we got to have that kind of creative process. ... This time, we started bouncing ideas off each other. It was a lot of fun."

Agreed Russell: "It was a blast. We just had a good time. Some of it was difficult. ... It was a good experience."

Carpenter, who counts Metallica as one of his favorite rock groups, is one of the few directors who scores his own films: "I don't think about themes or anything until I see the film.

"I don't really think of it musically. Making a movie is such a strange process. It's really difficult to get a rhythm going in the shooting process that anywhere approximates what music is. Setting up a shot is like watching paint dry on a wall. It's not musical at all.

"You work like a dog (making a film). You walk from 12 to 15 miles a day. You're on your feet all the time. All you want to do is sit down. It's an incredible, physical ordeal."

Is the movie director's best friend, then, Dr. Scholl's?

"If you don't have good shoes, you're dead." Carpenter's favorite shoe brand: Mephisto.