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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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."