Apocalypse 2013 (Los Angeles Times/Feb 04/1996) By Patrick Goldstein


It's cold and damp, just the sort of night where most movie stars would stay cozied up in their trailers. But tonight one of the stuntmen is doing a daredevil motorcycle jump and Kurt Russell - something of a cycle nut himself - wouldn't miss it for the world.

"This guy's really a hot rod," says Russell, pointing to the cyclist. "He knows his bikes. You can bet this gag's going to be really good."

In movie parlance, gags are stunts and there are plenty in
John Carpenter's Escape From L.A., the action-packed sequel to his 1981 cult film Escape From New York. Set in the year 2013, the film portrays an earthquake-ravaged city that is now an island. Surf's up on Wilshire Boulevard, and the Fernando Valley is buried under a vast sea: Racing along the ocean floor one day, a submarine runs smack into the King Kong ride from Universal Studios tour.

When an L.A.-based gangster named Cuervo Jones turns up with the president's daughter and a lethal secret weapon she stole from a space defense lab, the government turns to its own secret weapon: Snake Plissken, an imprisoned sociopath who is injected with a designer virus and given 10 hours to retrieve the weapon. If he does, he'll receive a pardon - and an antidote.

Pumped up after months of pre-production workouts, the 44-year-old Russell plays Plissken, reprising the role from
Escape From New York that launched him as an action hero. It's pretty much the same character this time. Dressed in Harley black leather, wearing a patch over one eye, Snake is simply an Old West gunfighter who does what it takes to survive.

"He represents my ultimate hatred of authority," Carpenter says dryly. "You really don't want him to change. It's like saying, 'How is Clint Eastwood different in
Fistful of Dollars from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?'"

In the midst of a 70-day shoot that ends on March 20, Carpenter is filming tonight on a deserted landfill in Carson. The area has been transformed into a squalid mile-long strip of lean-tos and scrap-metal shanties where a narrow road has been carved between huge mounds of boulders and rubble. It's L.A.'s future, with a nasty hangover.

"This is Sunset Boulevard after a 9.6 earthquake," says
Carpenter, taking a stroll past a row of shacks illuminated by torches and barrels of oil. "We researched what happened after the massive earthquakes in China and India, where something like 600,000 people died, and this is what the streets would look like - all rubble, with people living from hand to mouth."

In tonight's scene, after being discovered infiltrating a carnival parade, Russell is dodging bullets from one of Cuervo Jones' thugs, who is riding in the parade on horseback. As originally written, the scene had Russell wrestling the thug off his horse. But Carpenter has made a last-minute change, improvising a stunt in which Russell vaults over the horse on his Harley, then turns and shoots the thug. (Russell will do the stunt later on wires and will be inserted into the shot in post-production.)

As the stuntman rehearses his approach, Russell starts razzing his stunt double, John Casino, who had a minor crash earlier in the evening.

"When I get in trouble I gas it," says Russell, who does some cycle riding in the film - within reason. "You want to have power all the time. If you start to lose it, give it some gas. Worry about slowing down later!"

Russell has a healthy regard for the rigors of motorcycle stunts, especially after taking a few tricky turns wearing a patch over one eye. "You have no depth perception," he explains. "You can't imagine what it's like to go roaring through all these huts and shacks, turning left here and right there, with no idea at all where the turns are.

"I was riding down some alley the other night and I saw this blur in front of me, like I was about to run over some guy, and I'm thinking, 'I don't remember seeing him in rehearsal. Is he supposed to be there? Did I drive down the wrong alley?'"

After Carpenter calls for action, the stuntman comes blasting through a thicket of shacks, vaults up a hidden ramp and soars through the air, landing on a flatbed truck, bouncing down a ramp on the other end and skidding to a stop.

The neatly executed stunt earns a hearty round of applause from the crew. Russell gives the stuntman a pat on the back as the young hot rod rides away. Now it's Casino's turn to raz him.

"You look great up there, boss," he says. "Really good form."

"Don't worry," Russell replies. "The next one will be even better."

Released in 1981,
Escape From New York cost $7 million, cheap even for that era. It made money, got good reviews, helped make Russell (once a Disney boy hero) a legitimate star and established Carpenter (who'd already had a low budget hit with
Halloween) as a major director.

Having become friends, Carpenter and Russell made several more films together, including
The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. The films did not succeed at the box office and Russell went off to do bigger Hollywood fare, like Tango & Cash and Backdraft. Soured on the studio system, Carpenter made small, independent films, without much commercial success.

Not too long after the Northridge quake, Carpenter and Russell got together with producer
Debra Hill, who made the original Escape and many of Carpenter's early pictures. Eager to work with his old friends, Russell had been doing some informal market research. While in Europe promoting a film, he started asking people if they'd be interested in an Escape sequel.

"The response was overwhelming," he says. "Everyone said, 'I'd love it! What are you waiting for?'"

Buoyed by the reaction, Russell prodded Carpenter into working on a new script, which ended up as a collaboration between Russell, Carpenter and Hill. The screenplay depicts L.A. as an island of the damned, populated with a gallery of Angelino archetypes, including Pipeline the surfer dude (played by
Peter Fonda), double-crossing Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi), Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) and the sexy transvestite Hershe Las Palmas (Pam Grier), formerly known as Carjack Malone from Cleveland. Hill also set about acquiring the sequel rights, which had passed through several hands since the film's original owners, Avco-Embassy, sold off it's catalog.

Once Hill optioned the rights, she took the material out as a spec script, where, despite its bleak, apocalyptic tone, it was quickly purchased by Paramount. "Sherry Lansing was our biggest fan," Hill recalls. "She pursued us for six months to get the script. She said if you can do it for $50 million, and not a penny more, let's do it."

Five years ago, $50 million was a lot of money for a movie. Today, it's about average, even below average, for a special-effects laden action film. So why is Paramount paying Russell $10 million to star in the film (due for release this August)? And why would a studio make such a big investment in a film piloted by a director who, though critically respected, hasn't had a hit in more than a decade?

The answer: $190 million. That's the worldwide box-office gross for
Stargate, the 1995 surprise hit that starred Russell. Having shown he can open a sci-fi action film, both here and overseas, he's a justifiable bet in a similar role, especially with action films dominating the international market. Given Russell's star presence and the production team's passion for the material, Paramount clearly believes that Escape might be the film that spurs Carpenter's return to form at the box office.

"John isn't a shooter, he's a filmmaker," says Hill, referring to action directors who shoot miles of film but have few narrative skills. "I think Paramount sees him as someone that knows how to make a movie bigger than life without going overboard on the budget."

Bam! Bam! Bambam!

Twenty feet ahead, Cuervo Jones' horseback-riding henchman is firing a volley of submachine-gun fire at Carpenter and his crew, who are riding in a camera truck filming the scene. Skinny, chain-smoking, wearing a jacket and scruffy sneakers, his long gray hair tucked under a Las Vegas Police baseball cap, Carpenter has the gruff, no-nonsense charm of one of his old-style studio director idols. Give him a roll of chips and he'd be right at home in a poker game with Howard Hawks or John Ford.

Ask him about the media's preoccupation with budget excesses and star salaries and he gives it to you straight: "When the media goes on about Kurt getting $10 million for this picture, as if he didn't deserve it, you know what I have to say?'

Carpenter barks out a pungent obscenity.

He's just as blunt giving direction. As the camera truck returns to its starting point, Carpenter turns to his assistant director and says, "For this next take, tell [the bad guy] to really unload. Get that gun going. Not just 'Bam! Bam!' I want 'Bambambambambam!!!'"

It's the special talent of an action director - knowing how much bam-bam you want.

Carpenter is just as frank discussing his recent flops at the box office, which include
In The Mouth of Madness and Village of The Damned
.

"It's easier to deal with failure when you're older," he says. "When you're young, failure is devastating. You punish yourself. But as you get older, you learn that a whole lot of what happens is out of your control."

For a film director, soul searching often involves examining your cinematic predecessors' missteps. "I was thinking about Howard Hawks and what he went through after the failure of
Land of the Pharaohs
," Carpenter says. "And I realized that maybe I've mellowed. Who knows, maybe I've just grown up. After you've seen everything that can happen to you once or twice, you get a perspective on yourself."

Carpenter, 48, is a throwback. He once told an interviewer, "If I had three wishes, one of them would be: 'Send me back to the '40s and the studio system and let me direct movies.'"

Asked to elaborate, he says: "In those days, everything was geared to moviemaking, not all the (hassles) we have today. I would have loved to have been under contract to a studio where you could be doing a Bogart picture one minute, a western the next. They were genre movies and those are the kind of movies I love. They're the ones that last."

Carpenter is enjoying his reunion with Russell, whom he describes as "an irresistible human being." The feeling is mutual. Russell likes to say that he and Carpenter can watch a basketball game for three hours, not say 10 words to each other and have a great time.

"John's like that older brother that you know is smarter than you, but he lets you do the things you do well without making you feel he knows how to do them better," says Russell, walking over to the set one night. "I like the way John's brain works. He has a unique, askew way of looking at a story."

When he reaches the set, Russell studies the ruble-strewn road that serves as the film's vision of 2013-era Sunset Boulevard. There's no Whiskey A-Go-Go, no Duke's coffee shop, just mounds of debris. "You know, everything that's in the movie we already have in Los Angeles," Russell says. "Mudslides, fire, floods, earthquakes, drive-by shootings. The movie's sort of a black comedy because it's all already happened - we're just in denial about it."

Russell recalls that when he was a boy he was fascinated with the story of Pompeii. He could never figure out why, despite the many warnings of impending disaster, no one ever left. Only when he went to see the city's ruins did he understand why people stayed.

"It's a beautiful place," he says. "And the walls of the homes have these gorgeous mosaics and this graphic pornography and I realized, 'Hey, they had a great party going on!' It's such an American attitude - why leave if you're having fun?"

At one point in the movie, Plissken asks a woman living in squalid post-quake Los Angeles why she has stayed. She tells Snake it's still the coolest spot around: "Once you figure this place out, it's really not so bad."

As soon as the words are out of her mouth, she's shot by a carload of 13-year-old gangbangers. "Bam!" Kurt Russell says with a boyish grin, pretending to put a gun to his head. "I guess she was in denial too."