Press > Exclusive Interviews > Christian P. Della Penna (First Assistant Director: Escape From L.A.) (Phone Transcript)




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 reschedule that."

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 were ahead.
  
                   

Which 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 nightmare.


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.

When he 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.

We 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.


The 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?

With 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.
He 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 prepared.


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 the movie?

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.

I 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.