Carpenter Gets Much From
Little (The Los Angeles Times/Nov 16/1980/US) By Donald Chase
As movie directors go, John Carpenter is something of
an alchemist. Both Halloween and The Fog not only looked many
times more expensive than they were, (he said Halloween cost
$300.000, The Fog $1 million), they went to make their investors and
distributors pots of money. Now Carpenter is putting the finishing touches on
Escape From New York, a $7-million futuristic action-adventure saga from
Avco Embassy that he, producer Debra Hill, and production designer Joe Alves
have tried to make look like $20 million worth of film.
The most fundamental of their cost-saving, production-value-enhancing decisions
was not to come to the title city except for two shots on the very last day of
"Fully half the story takes place in New York and we scouted New York as a
potential location for all those scenes," lanky, 32-year-old Carpenter said a
few hours before setting out to get his minimal Gotham footage. His jeans and
sneakers and his soft Kentucky drawl were rather at odds with the formality of
his St. Regis Hotel suite, and he didn't seem quite comfortable in it. Gulping
down an orange-juice-and-coffee breakfast, he explained why it wasn't feasible
to shoot more of his film in the city.
"Escape is set in 1997, when Manhattan is a maximum-security penal
colony, along the lines of Devil's Island. The bridges leading away from the
city are mined; the outlying boroughs and New Jersey are surrounded by
impenetrable protective walls. Inside the penal colony, the environment is
trashed beyond belief. Electricity is limited, so prisoners carry torches as
they roam the streets scavenging for food and clothing. The prisoners have
broken into factions or castes, the lowest of which live underground in sewers.
It's a grim world.
"Now, I wanted to show blocks and blocks of dark streets filled with burning
cars," Carpenter continued, "streets into which we could crash airplanes and
land helicopters, because the plot of the film involved the efforts of a master
criminal/soldier of fortune (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President of the United
States (Donald Pleasence), who is taken hostage by the prisoners after his plane
goes down in their midst. Difficult at any price; impossible on our budget. We
had to create a New York from elements in other places."
The elements include Los Angeles' Wiltern Theater, which stands in for a
gone-to-seed Broadway house, a Chock Full o'Nuts coffee shop and the roof of the
World Trade Center, both constructed from scratch on the desert at Indian Dunes,
and perhaps most significantly, a number of exteriors shot in St. Louis.
"It's absolutely incredible how similar the pre-high-rise-explosion, pre-Art
Deco architecture of New York is to the architecture of St. Louis dating from
the same period," designer Alves said over a drink in the St. Regis bar. "Union
Station, the old railroad terminal there, is almost a replica of Grand Central,
But the real draws of St. Louis were the degree of control the film makers could
exercise over the vast areas of virtually dark cityscape, and the fact that
there was available an obsolete, worn looking bridge over the Mississippi that
could serve as one of the bridges leading from New York to New Jersey - and its
Alves' method of executing that wall was one example of how the Escape From
New York unit has tried to weigh corner-cutting against audience
satisfaction. "The first step with a film like this," he explained, "is deciding
what you're going to do live and what you're going to do with special visual
effects - miniatures, mattes and so on. With the wall, we ended up building a
200-foot-wide, 35-foot-high wall at the end of the bridge in St. Louis. Shot
with wide-angle lenses, it looks sufficiently impressive so that when you see
the matte shot of the same wall supposedly extending for miles, you don't
question its reality. The point is, you can't cheat the audience all the way;
they won't believe the matte unless you spend enough money to make them believe
it. But no more than you need to."
Put in producer Hill. "Joe's Chock Full o'Nuts set at Indian Dunes is
tremendously authentic. There's an aged sidewalk out in front of it that makes
you think you're at Lexington Avenue and 34th Street. Yet if you pan an inch too
far in any direction you're likely to run into a tree or a cactus-plant -
instead of the alley that's supposed to be there and which was actually shot in
St. Louis. The set, which cost
was totally designed for the action and there's virtually no corner of it that
wasn't used. Built more completely on a back lot, it could have run
Hill readily admitted that she tends to drive people crazy with her strictness
about holding down costs and that she encouraged her assistant to cast her in a
role of pinch-penny ogre when negotiating contracts.
Nick Castle, who co-wrote Escape with
Carpenter, went to USC Film School with him, worked as assistant cameraman on
Dark Star, his pre-Halloween sci-fi cult film, and played
Halloween's killer. He feels that his contributions to the script, which
Carpenter had tried in 1974 as a solo effort, were "humor, new characters and
situations with which to confront the hero and a note of remorse when certain
Castle maintained, however, that the film's possibly pessimistic view is
Carpenter's and he's essentially echoing Carpenter when he speaks of the film's
"entertainment violence" - that is to say, a pleasurable frightening communal
cathartic as opposed to a meditation on man's inhumanity to man. The writer was
asked to defend Carpenter's designation of New York as his penal colony: "It's
an island, after all; and I don't know that John's New York of the future will
be any more negative than New York today presented in Warriors."
If Carpenter seemed to wish that "serious" thematic questions about his films
would never come up, he was voluble about the technique and provenance of what
he was about to shoot at Liberty Island in New York Harbor that midnight.
"Outside the penal colony is another world of 1997, architecturally a
streamlining or modification of 1980, and probably no more different from 1980
than 1980 is from 1963. Politically, it's something of a police state, and
Liberty Island is a gigantic outpost. At one end is the Statue of Liberty. We'll
shoot (actor) Tommy Atkins as he comes down the stairs directly behind the
statue, panning with him as he walks over to this little black bunker we've
brought here from L.A.
"Tommy walks into the bunker," Carpenter went on, "and we continue panning past
him framed in the bunker window and into the far wall of the bunker - and then
we'll keep going and see this incredible complex of bunkers with security and
air traffic controls and computers and hundreds of people that was built at
Sepulveda Dam and shot with the same lens, lighting and panning speed as we're
using tonight. The New York and L.A. components of the shot will be married
optically, with that bit of black at the far end of the small Liberty Island
bunker serving as the link.
"It's all a variation on the shot in Citizen Kane where you start on Dorothy
Comingore singing on the stage of the new opera house, and go up, up, up into
black and then up again into the rafters to see two stagehands making
disparaging faces. That was an optical blending of separate components, too."
Carpenter rehearsed Atkins, a dozen helmeted, black-clad SWAT extras and his
camera crew in the shot. He was busy once again at transforming relatively
little into a whole lot, bathed by the amber-glowing torch of Bartholdi's
formidable Lady and by his own movie light.