Press > Exclusive Interviews > Christian P. Della Penna
(First Assistant Director: Escape From L.A.)
How did you end up being
a First Assistant Director and Second Assistant Director?
I wanted to be an actor and I was on a show
called Perfect which was a John Travolta thing years and years ago in
nineteen eighty-three or four. Something like that. I kind of helped out the
production people, checking the background and I kind of got to see what
everybody did. I was a stand-in so I got to you know be right there by camera
and I watched the production assistants and assistant directors working. After
that I got a job of one of the guys named Artist Robinson and he got me as a
production assistant and I worked my way into being an assistant director
through the director's guild to get my pay days. For the long with Artist
Robinson, he hooked into John Carpenter and I was like a PA (Production
Assistant) on a show called They Live. Then I was the second AD
(Assistant Director) on Village of the Damned and then a first AD on you
know Escape From L.A. and then a first AD on Vampires. I had a
chance to do Ghosts of Mars but I just wanted to kind of do something
else. At that moment I was directing television. Larry Franco was John
Carpenter's first AD and he moved up and I moved up.
How did you get
the assignment to be the First AD for Escape From L.A.?
I don't think I was John's first choice.
There was some big time assistant directors that applied for the job but they
were saying John couldn't do it in seventy days or something and John didn't
like that. I went in there and John liked me as a second but he didn't really.
You know, I was kind of quiet around John. He kind of scared me a little bit.
He's kind of intimidating. We had a sit down and I just said, "This will be
cool. I believe in whatever days you think it's gonna take." so he gave me the
opportunity. It was an odd thing. I mean, I had some directors to call that I
had worked with to talk to him and the studio wasn't really sure. It was my
first real go at it you know. It was a big thing for me.
It was a pretty big show at the
time. Fifty million dollars or so.
What exactly did
you do as the First AD on the movie?
Well, you know. As a first you schedule the
motion picture with your production designer knowing that certain things have to
be built. You have to put those towards the end of your schedule and certain
things are easier to get to so you want to put those in front and you have actor
restrictions and such. I scheduled the movie, break it down into elements and
have meetings with different departments with John. We have a prop meeting,
wardrobe meeting and an effects meeting and a special effects meeting. We chat
about the show and get their input. I put that kind of altogether and makes a
master schedule, my shooting schedule and such. You know, that was my first
real. I first did a couple of movies on weeks but I never did anything that big
in my life. That was like, it was huge for me. The show was so big at time, it
was. On a set that was like Sunset Boulevard and when he kind of walks along and
there was all the people out there and street food and stuff like that before he
runs into Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie). That set was probably like a
good quarter mile long the whole thing. I mean, it was crazy huge. They had to
make electric cable to accommodate our show. There wasn't enough to rent at the
time. For me to talk to everybody and give like my safety meetings at the
beginning of the day they gave me a microphone and they had speakers and I could
just talk to everybody calmly because we never yell on a John Carpenter set
ever. I would talk calmly about the days events. Whatever, I prep the show with
John and then I make sure that you know everything is ready for each scene.
That's what I do on the set and that's my job. For instance, I start my day
whatever scene sixty-three is and its got you know, Snake Plissken on the bike
or whatever or walking through a certain area I make sure that all of that is
ready and for rehearsal and stuff like that and make it sure it's all safe. I
make sure everything is safe on the set. We do cues and we make sure it's all
safe and then we put everything back until we want to do it again. I had my
staff with my second second and an additional second so I had a big staff. We
had seven, eight, ten guys to help me manage the set everyday for John.
Did you encounter any problems making the shooting schedule and were there any
significant changes made before or during the production?
The submarine sequence you know when he
lands on shore and Peter Fonda (Pipeline) greets him. Part of that was in
Griffith Park and I think part of that was at Castaic Lake I think or something.
John did not like the submarine when we first saw it. He was like, "What the
frick is this?" because Larry (Lawrence G. Paull), our production designer had
it kind of like retro you know. It was cool but John wanted it really bithin'
modern. Somehow John didn't buy into it by the time we got there. He didn't like
that so we didn't shoot much there. That was the only thing that I can say that
really like messed up one of my nights because we didn't have the submarine.
Then we went back and did some stuff on stage with him like falling off this
little cliff, the submarine falls off and we had to reshoot that a little bit so
that cost us a little time. Otherwise we were right on schedule. I mean, we had
a lot of days that were shorter than we thought. Talking about that submarine
sequence. We did the interior on stage I believe. I think it was on stage. I
can't remember but the two guys that are down below there that help him into the
sub that's Mark (Thompson) and Brian (Phelps). Those are two DJ's and radio
hosts from L.A. that are really popular. They were really cool. We treated them
really good too so that was fun. That submarine turned out to be like a bullet,
beautiful and sleek and we just did it all CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) from there. That was the only
thing that I think really tripped me up you know like, "Ah fuck. I got to
There were some times that. Oh, oh, yeah, here's one. We're down in Carson where
he comes across Sunset Boulevard and he comes out and there's all the people and
stuff there. We got fogged in one night and we stood there. We had one of those
huge lights in the air. You couldn't even see that light. It was so foggy. John
was kind of putting pressure on me as a first AD, "What are you gonna do, Chris?
Are you gonna pull the plug? Are we gonna go home? Are we gonna wait out the
fog? We can't film in this" so we waited for about an hour and half. It was
about two, three in the morning and I finally said, "Ok. I'm gonna send you home
because we're not being able to get it." and I personally sat there for another
two hours just to make sure I made the right decision but we had to shut down
that night. I had like five or six nights or maybe more for that sequence and we
scenes/locations/tasks were the most fun, hardest or problematic to work on?
Here's one that was kind of funky that was
the hardest but it didn't turn out very well. It was the mud sequence where he
slides down the mud. It was a big fricking muddy mess up there. We had like
these trucks dumping us water over this hill. We're trying to make it real you
know. Then you try to do it. It was like ninety ninety-six and we had to make a
mudslide and it was just a big mess all night. That was another night that
didn't turn out very well for anybody. I just remember me and Jeff Imada, the
stunt coordinator. It was just him and me on the hill with shovels just trying
to dig a path that was safe, that wasn't a mess you know. It was like a
When Kurt's standing there and
he's got those guys. Bangkok Rules, right. That was my line right there, Bankok
Rules, yeah. I love that scene. Particular that scene, in one direction the wind
was blowing so fucking hard we couldn't keep the flames going. It was really
hard that one. I don't know if it was over two nights but the wind picked up on
us but that location was hard for us. It gave me a lot of trouble. For me being
the first time and all I just remember all the vehicles and the set was so big.
I would get in a golf cart and I wouldn't look at everything because I would get
anxiety about how big things were and then I would just get to that little set
that was lit up at the time. I would just kind of own that moment and not worry
about everything else that was happening all around me. Fifty, hundred
background getting ready whatever at the time and sets are being dressed and
things and craziness. The make-up and all that stuff. It was crazy some of those
scenes that we did and get them ready took a long time. I had a really good
staff that managed that for me that really put them through the cooker quick.
runs out and they're like running down the street and get into the manhole and
all of those shadowy figures are chasing after them. All those guys with the
hoods and stuff. Two of those guys are my assistant directors running in that
scene. Jason (Roberts) (Second Second Assistant Director) and Martin (Jedlicka)
(Second Assistant Director) are both in that scene running. That was their
little fun time. There was a lot of crew members in those hoodies making some
extra money you know.
I remember that it was very
exciting to get the coliseum into your show. The threat of like, how do we make
all the background. At first we thought we'll fill the coliseum of ninety
thousand people but that's impossible. Then we thought, maybe we could do like
some tie-in, have a bunch of background, keep shooting them in all the positions
and then you put all that in. We didn't want to do that either so John came to
conclusion that there's not that many people. I can't remember how many we put
up there. Two, three hundred. I don't know how many, just to fill the end there
a little bit and I think that kind of worked. It was quite amazing to film in
there. We had the basketball court at the bottom and there's never a basketball
court at the coliseum you know. I'd get there early. I'd get there a couple of
hours beforehand and just play pick-up games with the production assistants in
the coliseum on a basketball court. Who does that you know. Who gets an
opportunity to have that. One of the nights we were filming there. John
Carpenter is a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan of course. He's a big basketball fan.
He's very knowledgeable about basketball. Magic Johnson was playing his first
game back from being HIV positive and so he had it rigged so it was on the big
screen. When we'd roll camera we turned it off and when we were lighting we had
the Lakers game on the coliseum's huge screen for us to watch. John pulled that
off. In that coliseum scene when Kurt's being taken out and he's walking you
know and he's got those guys kind of on him and there's guns on him and they're
walking him out to those cages to do that whole basketball event. Kurt is like,
"These guys are too easy on me." One take he just like totally kicked all their
butts real quick. Bam, bam, bam. Took them down. That wasn't in the movie but it
was his point saying, "You guys better fricking keep on me because I'm Snake
Plissken." After that those guys were scared shit. You could see they're walking
like they're really got him the next time you know. Kurt would do that every now
and then. The coliseum was a tough one for sure but it was cool filming there.
It's so big when there's so little of you.
didn't like the treadmill moment because Kurt could anytime just stop walking on
the treadmill. He would just do it. He's like, "I don't want to keep walking on
this thing. I can just step up to the side." and just like put up his feet up to
the sides a bit. He's like, "This is bullshit." He didn't like that. That was
like dumb. That got cut way down that treadmill. That wasn't the smartest idea
really in that respect. I know that.
I remember the night. It was actually the night that we were out at that horse
ranch doing the ending where the helicopter lands and he walks away from the
helicopter. What Kurt did what was cool. He got it from some other movie. I
can't remember the name of the movie but he goes, "Pour me down with a bunch of
water!" and we got his jacket all wet. Then he got by that fire and it started
smoking and then he walked away. That was Kurt that did that. He was like a kid
in a candy shop when he got that jacket smoking, "Check it out now! It's like I
walked out of this thing!" He was really excited about that. He's fun to film
with that stuff. He's funny. Now when we're talking about it, it was a lot of
shit that happened to be bad. When we got there it was like a cutout kind of
bullshit thing. It was like. We wanted like helicopter parts there and stuff and
it wasn't really that so they scrambled to put some shit together but when we
got there it was like a wood they were gonna burn or something. It was bullshit,
man. I know that John was upset about that once again with Larry, the production
designer a little bit about that. It wasn't a big enough hull. They should have
done it more of a helicopter. I don't remember how we fixed it that night. They
brought a bunch of shit more or something. We were doing some other stuff and we
blew it up at the last moment. They had to keep working on making the crash
sequence a little more real looking. We couldn't afford to put in a bunch of CGI
helicopter stuff in there. I remember it was a big thing.
When we got to the square at Universal nobody had really kind of. We took the
tree out and stuff. I mean, Back to the Future was known for that square
then we went in there you know, lined up all our Latina cars with all those
wonderful paint jobs and all those guys. I must have had over more than fifty or
so people with m-sixteenths and to reload that it would takes us forty-five
minutes, almost an hour to reload everybody for take two because it took so long
to reload everyone's weapon. Back then you really used weapons, you used you
know blanks and stuff. Rick Dees was a big DJ in L.A. at the time and he lived
close to the Universal and he would try to shut us down after ten-o-clock. He
was all mad about us because we'd fire fifty, sixty m-sixteenths at once you
know. John would have seven, eight cameras on that and I had two big
walky-talkies. I was talking to everybody on the ground and I was talking to the
helicopter in the air which was being shot at the same time. It was very
coordinated for us to manage all that. I have to say we did all that very well
my team and I. We manage the whole sequence really, really well. That was really
cool for me to do. At the time it was such a big thing. I mean Seinfeld,
all those actors would come up to meet John and watch the set. It was a big
event at Warner Brothers. It was the set to go and see at the moment.
Once we got on stage and did the green and blue-screen which at one time. The
green-screen was one of the biggest they had put together and it got us fricking
sick. We had to put these yellow glasses on. We were all getting nauseous
because of the screen was so much green and once we put the glasses on we
weren't sick. That doesn't happen anymore but it was a really big fricking
green-screen and we stayed in. We still had two or three-o-clock afternoon
calls. John didn't want to turn around. He's purely a vampire, man. He eats
breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast. He's a vampire. We could've all
go back to seven am calls in the morning but he's like, "No way, we're staying
on nights." For another twenty days or whatever on stage we stayed on afternoon
call which is so rare. You would never do that but of course we did it for John.
helicopter sequence was funny because when we got him inside that thing the guy
was really particular, that guy who was renting it to us. It was kind of like a
high-tech helicopter, body that we could use. Kurt is like, "What do you mean I
can't touch this shit?" and he started touching all sorts of shit. He's like,
"Fuck that, man. Keep that guy away from me." "Yes, sir." We didn't damage
anything but Kurt was like, "What do you mean we can't touch anything dammit.
This is bullshit. I'm driving this thing."
That was a long time sitting there by that green-screen and stuff. We spent days
on that. You learned a lot. It was still like the breaking age of it all back
then. They've done a little bit of it but we really were trying to still figure
out what we could afford and do. Especially like the surfboard sequence. They
had to jump on those boards to kind of lift them up. We had little devices for
that but when we put water on them and the boards and you look at it on the
screen it would disappear because of the green. It was out of sync so everything
had to be dried. Then we did it again and then we put all the water in later
which we weren't expecting to do.
How was the experience working with the cast and crew and
what went on behind the scenes?
Escape it was all nights. We lost a good twenty five, thirty percent of our
crew the first two weeks of work because they couldn't handle all the nights we
had. They had children at home that wouldn't let them sleep or they had
construction by their house or something. Once we settled into that. I mean, we
went seventy days or something. We went a long time, weeks in just nights. You
stay in nights over the weekend. I couldn't call my friends. You shop at the
middle of the night at grocery stores. It was an odd thing. It was like the
earth was a lot less crowded for all of us. We all kind of got used to it
actually I have to say.
John and Kurt and Peter. Those guys were
cool. Peter was really great. I worked with Peter before so it was nice to see
him again. He's awesome.
likes the set real quiet. When you work with Peter it's real quiet, man. John's
sets are always quiet. John's real quiet anyways on the set. There's never any
yelling or any kind of talking loud on the set with John ever. He's really
great. I kind of like that too.
Kurt is just one special person.
At least for us he was. I've never heard a bad story about him anyways. Since
he's been a kid he's been acting and he was really great. The relationship that
Kurt and John have is really special so to be around that was really a neat
moment for us you know. It was funny, at one time. I don't know if you've heard
this story before but we're in a production meeting. It's me and John and Gary
Kibbe (Gary B. Kibbe), the DP (Director of Photography) and Larry the production
designer and some of their assistant are taking notes. We're just kind of going
through the script. John had a very specific way how Kurt travels to Los Angeles
in that moment so we're kind of tracking that at the time. Kurt bust in and he's
wearing Snake Plissken's original stuff from Escape From New York and
he's like, "Look at, look at this! It fits me still!" We were like laughing you
know because it still fit him. He was so proud. He was really special and I saw
him later, years later at Warner Brothers when he was doing Poseidon and
he remembered me and we had a big chat. He's really a cool guy. I remember one
time, it was late and we were down in that street in Carson. He had to do that
sequence where he jumps on all those cars and gets on the motorcycle and he
takes off and does this wheeling you know. It was like probably four in the
morning. Four, five and he had kind of gone back to sleep a little bit. He was
always out. You know, Kurt is ready and comes out and hangs on the set all the
time. He's out there the whole time hanging out just like an old time actor. He
had gone back to sleep and were all set up, "Let's get this shot." I got it all
set up and we had all those people on the background so I said, "I'll go get
him." so I got in a golf cart and cruised down and I knocked on his trailer and
I kind of had to go in and wake him up and stuff. He's like, "What's up?" "I
really need you for this thing. For this shot. I'm sorry it's so late and had to
wake you up." He puts his fricking arm around me and goes, "Chris, I'm making so
much money and I love you buddy and I'll do anything you want. Let's go down and
get this shot." That was a special moment for me. He loved filmmaking. He loves
being an actor and it didn't matter. Some actors are like, "What the fuck, man!
Why are you waking me up?" He was like, "Lets go do it." He'd just done
Executive Decision and he was like, he was saying he had a a certain amount
of million that he had put away and he was going to sit on his lake and look at
his check book and have a beer and think about this moment when we're walking
down to the set right now. I said, "Kurt. You're awesome, dude."
I didn't have any trouble with any of the actors. I had worked with A.J. Langer
(Utopia) years before. I did a show called In the Heat of the Night and
she would play this girl that was distraught. She was really, really good and so
when John was thinking of her I said, "I don't know if this is the right look
but she sure can act." and I thought she did really good. He worked with her a
little bit but he spends. Doing a few movies with John, he'll like get all the
actors to come to his house and hang out with Sandy (King) and have a big meal
and they'll have a one-on-one with the actor talking about the script. Then
they'll have them all back together and they'll have a big meal altogether and
they all talk about it so when you get out there on the day there's no
conversation why we're doing this like this. None of that happens. It's already
done. He's already worked that out. That's old school directing and that's the
best way to do it. The cast is great. No complains there, man.
John shoots very efficiently and works with many cameras at once. He doesn't
really make it complicated at all. I mean if there's a complicated sequence we
talk about it way in advance. John is very organized and it's really special
working with him like that. For an AD to director relationship it was awesome.
He works with his AD and lines it up and every morning you go in there and you
just kind of talk about the day with him as he's looking through his work. You
tell him what you got for him and then he just works through it. He's all
I knew Gary Kibbe as a DP. I worked with
him before. It was hard for him. It was one of the biggest things he's ever
tried to accomplish for sure. He got mad at me one night. That was pretty tough.
He wasn't very happy with me. I was maybe goofing around or something like that
and John had to kind of. We had to have a meeting between all the three of us
and John's like, "He's my guy. He's not going anywhere." It was kind of an odd
thing. I kind of got on Kibbe's nerves and it was because he and the production
designer had different opinion about lighting and looks and things and so. That
was getting on to his nerves and I think that I maybe fueled that. I'm not sure
but Gary is a wonderful guy. I did Vampires with him after that. We had a
good ol' time. He's old school, man. He's cool.
Do you know if John got his first choices regarding actors and crew members on
I don't know if he got his first choice
with her (A.J. Langer) particular. I know that the Cuervo character, that guy
(George Corraface), they wanted him and they fought for him a little bit. I
think the studio wasn't really into him but John was but the girl was a bit of
an issue. I think Kurt had something to do with that too because Kurt produced
it too. Kurt and Debra (Hill) (Producer/Co-Writer) and John were all in cahoots
together. I don't really remember too much of that. He wanted Gary Kibbe and he
got his wardrobe people that he always use. They work together all the time. We
all did four or five movies together so he got all the people that he wanted.
What's your favorite memory or
memories of working on the movie?
I had a lot of good times on that show.
There's one moment of Kurt walking away I wish I could freeze frame the picture.
It was a green-screen shot and he's like walking into L.A. and he said, "Chris.
When I do this I'm just gonna be laughing and calling out your name so when you
see it on the show you'll know that I'll be thinking of you." and he did that. I
said, "That is super cool, buddy." That's my little secret moment with Kurt you
know that he did for me.
Just being around Kurt and Peter was my favorite moments. Hanging out with Kurt,
Peter and John when they were doing lighting and just those stories those guys
told and the personal stories that Peter Fonda would talk about his father and
stuff. You really don't get that anywhere else but on a set you know when you're
all hanging out like that. Kurt talking about his younger years at Disney. Those
are some special moments that you don't get anywhere else but right there when
you're standing right with them.
What do you think of the movie personally?
I thought it was a fun movie. I think it
was a little before its time. I wished we could do it now and really fricking
light it up with the CGI effects like surfing down, you know what I mean. Taking
that wave and stuff. I wished we could have done a few things. We just didn't
have the money that we needed to do it and we were big dreamers. At that time
Buena Vista (Visual Effects) was going out of business and we got the best out
of them but it really wasn't that great you know.
I'm not disappointed. I think it's a really fun show. Everything John does is a
western. He loves westerns. That was
a true western, man.
haven't worked with John or spoke to him in years. We're not mad at each other
or anything like that. Out of set Johnny kind of gets quiet so I never bothered
him or tried to get in touch with him. If I wanted to get in touch with him he'd
probably talk to me. I did truly love working with him and that was a really
great moment in my life to be a part of that kind of groundbreaking thing and be
part of his thing with Kurt Russell.
What are you currently doing and
what do you enjoy
doing in your spare time?
Well, I'm still you know firsting quite a bit. I'm doing this pilot right
now called Mission Control for CBS. It's kind of like that movie
Gravity but in a TV show. Mission control on the space station and stuff.
I'm kind of groundbreaking it right there and stuff. That's kind of fun. I still
enjoy doing what I do and that's first assisting directing but I plan on
retiring in a few years.
I'm a triathlet. Swim, bike and run. Meditate, yoga. Try to just survive. Most
assistant directors because of the stress we die at fifty-five to sixty years
old. I'm fifty-six. I'm trying to last it out, man. I really just stay outside.
I've got a few more years but that's about it. I mostly just do television now.
I don't do features anymore. I'm always filming for eight days at a time and I
prep for eight days when I'm filming and stuff like that.
Escape From Earth. We wanted it. We're still around, man. We can
still get it done.
Thank you for your time, Christian.