Carpenter Keeps Same Focus Regardless Of Film Budget (The Plain Dealer/Aug 11/1996/US) By Sheila Simmons


Director John Carpenter offered up a bit of wisdom shortly before Friday's release of Escape From L.A., his 18th feature film.

"I realized, over the years, they're all the same," Carpenter said. "My job is always the same. It doesn't matter whether you have 10 cents or $100 million."

That's a surprising statement, considering Carpenter seemed to produce better work when his budgets were closer to 10 cents.

In his earlier filmwork, Carpenter won praise for the driving pace of his horror, science fiction and action films. He had the ability to keep you perched on your seat, unsure and uncomfortable with what was to come next. His visual style and cinematic touches made even the most innocent scenes seem dark and untrustworthy.

It was most obvious in Halloween, a 1978 independent horror movie Carpenter fashioned with just $300,000. It grossed $60 million, to become the most successful independent release of its time. It paved Carpenter's way to Hollywood, to bigger productions and bigger budgets.

Halloween may well be Carpenter's most memorable movie.

But he is back in the director's chair because of perhaps his most memorable character.

As played by Kurt Russell, Snake Plissken, from 1981's Escape from New York, was tough and cool - an antihero in a world of fake heroes.

"Kurt and I had been talking about doing a sequel, because we love the character of Snake," Carpenter says. "But we never really had a story."

A series of real-life tragedies in Los Angeles sparked ideas - the Northridge earthquake, looting, rioting and flaming hillsides. Those factors opened Los Angeles up to the same kind of urban nightmare vision forseen in an imprisoned, decaying Manhattan to come.

"We're a desert perched on the edge of apocalypse," Carpenter said, sounding more scientific than dramatic. "We're also the future of America. We're overpopulated, ethnically diverse and struggling to get along. If you want to know what America will look like, look at us."

So the dry-humored character who saved the president of the United States in 1997 from captors in the nation's maximum security prison - New York - is sent into a similar state of chaos 16 years later in Los Angeles.

In 2013, the City of Angeles is the land of deportation for every moral degenerate in a now morally superior country. From it, Snake must retrieve a doomsday device, as well as kill its thief, the president's daughter, Utopia. He goes up against a South American revolutionary and other colorful challenges.

Certainly, this sequel seems, well, sunnier than the original.

In New York, angry prisoners scrapped for gas, safety and sex. In Los Angeles sassy prostitutes stroll a ravaged Beverly Hills Hotel. Plastic surgery victims steal fresh body parts. A roadside shop sells $50,000 computerized maps to homes of the stars. The Los Angeles Coliseum is a seedy, sick-humored place where defeat in basketball means death.

It's sort of fun.

And with a high-powered submarine zipping through the San Fernando Lake (the San Fernando Valley is underwater in the film) and Snake single-handedly battling a naive gang of motorcycle riders, the film strikes one as another splashy, 1990s action-adventure flick.

"It's a western," Carpenter corrected. "I call it futuristic, cowboy noir."

And ticking off such earlier movie titles as The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter said major commercial projects (Paramount Pictures has declined to release budget figures for the Escape from L.A.) is hardly new territory.

Still, he does not sound fond of modern-day blockbuster movies. He reserves praise for a number of independent releases. His favorite? The dark-humored Fargo.

Blockbusters tend to be depersonalized, he said, "because of the amount riding on it. You make a movie for a certain amount of money and you can't personalize it anymore. It's very difficult."

That same criticism pops up in biographical profiles of Carpenter.

"Unfortunately," lamented Barry Grant in 1991's The Encyclopedia of Film, "since moving into the bigger-budget productions, Carpenter's thematic interests have been smothered by an excess of production values."

Ephraim Katz's The Film Encyclopedia noted Carpenter's "thematic interests are sometimes overshadowed by their own expensive special effects and the conventional demands of the genres in which they are placed."

And the intriguing theme to Escape From L.A. is as well lost under special effects, heavy focus on familiar L.A. landmarks and various gags.

But Carpenter has at times been weary of the expectation to repeat his earlier successes, particularly Halloween.

"I was a kid when that came out," Carpenter said. "I'm an old man now. In the beginning, when you're trying to get your foot in an industry as treacherous as this, you're thankful for anything that puts you on the map. That put me some place. Then you struggle with it."

Finally, he said, age teaches appreciation.

Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, Ky., where his violinist father taught music at Western Kentucky University. He said he was 4 when he saw It Came From Outer Space and was 8 when he saw Forbidden Planet. Both movies inspired him to shoot sequences with his father's movie camera.

Carpenter later attend the University of Southern California's film school. His college project won an Academy Award.

Despite the upbeat tone of his voice, Carpenter does not sound as if he enjoys his work.

"There are fun parts," he said, concerning the making of Escape From L.A. "But they're not what you might think. It's dog work. You work like coal miners. You're out in the worst weather imaginable. Unfortunately, I thought it was going to be glamorous. But it isn't at all. Yet somehow I keep doing it."

These days, Carpenter said he daydreams of work other than directing, perhaps writing full time. He seeks simple pleasures of a predictable life, like a season of cheering on the L.A. Lakers, who have acquired Shaquille O'Neal for next season, to Carpenter's delight.

"Now I'm happy," he said. "Oh my God, we have a shot. Finally, we've got some cool things happening."