In 'Escape', Carpenter Sets His Rebellious Nature Free (USA Today/Aug 12/1996/US) By Elizabeth Snead


Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most unexpected sources.

At 4:32 a.m. Jan. 17, 1994, director John Carpenter woke up to feel his Hollywood Hills abode shuddering.

"I stopped a giant mirror from falling over. Then I went back to sleep," says the director of such films as
The Fog, Halloween and Village of the Damned.

"I've been through a bunch of earthquakes. They don't bother me."

Come morning, he started off for work, unaware of the quake's devastation. "My wife said, 'You can't go to work.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' She said, 'There is no work. There is no city.' That was when I knew."

And so the seed for the futuristic
Escape From L.A., a sequel to Carpenter's 1981 cult fave Escape From New York, was planted.

"It was the culmination of coping with several disasters, mudslides, floods, fires in the hills, the biggest riot over the Rodney King verdict. Over my balcony you could see the flames. It was like watching Beirut," he recalls.

A few days after the quake, Carpenter,
Kurt Russell, who played the leather-clad outlaw Snake Plissken in the original Escape, and producer Deborah Hill spent hours at her house talking about the quake and wondering what L.A. will be like after the inevitable apocalypse.

In the new film, the big one has hit and left the city broken off from the United States, which is now ruled by a rightwing despoi (
Cliff Robertson). The island of Los Angeles becomes a dumping ground for anybody - from criminals to political malcontents - deemed unfit for the USA.

Then there's Snake, a hissing, turn-of-the-millennium gunfighter captured and forced by the government to go into L.A. to find a device stolen by the president's daughter that can turn off the world's power forever. As in the original, Snake is injected with a deadly poison and has a limited amount of time to successfully complete the mission in order to receive the antidote.

"He's such an interesting character with such a great attitude," Carpenter says. "He hasn't changed a bit since the first film. He doesn't believe in anything, doesn't care about anything, doesn't want to hurt you or make love to you. All he cares about is the next 60 seconds. If you step on him? Don't do it. But if you leave him alone, you'll be all right."

Sounds like there's a little bit of Snake inside Carpenter. "The character is a combination of my hatred of authority and a guy I knew in high school who went to Vietnam and came back completely changed. He became Snake. He had this inner strength, like now he knows what life is about."

Carpenter made sure that Snake's perilous sojourn, he'd come across familiar landmarks. In his travels, Snake passes a crumbled Mann's Chinese Theater and a Hollywood Boulevard that's a mass of night markets and huts, and he rides a tsunami down Wilshire Boulevard. Production designer
Lawrence G. Paull (Blade Runner), an Academy Award nominee, made the quake-ravaged city seem frighteningly possible.

Universal Studios became Happy Kingdom (Disney said no thanks), a thinly disguised Magic Kingdom. Snake also stops over in Beverly Hills, where an underground colony of mutant surgical mistakes survive by harvesting fresh body parts from unlucky passers-by.

Some of the mutants with cheek implants, collagen-puffed lips and oozing fresh facelift scars actually look like people you see on Rodeo Drive today.

"Yeah. Well, we exaggerated it a bit," Carpenter says "
Rick Baker (Academy Award-winning makeup expert of Ed Wood, American Werewolf in London, Harry and the Hendersons) says he based the surgeon general of Beverly Hills on Michael Jackson and Siegfried and Roy. And they truly are exaggerated people."

Speaking of exaggeration,
Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown) certainly is. "I've never a woman play this before; a woman playing a man, playing a woman. She swings emotionally from the very feminine side to masculine and back again and exaggerates the female side because that’s what this guy would do."

And her deepened voice? "We have the technology now to drop her voice by an octave and a half but it stays in sync."

Carpenter says he loved working with the cast that included
Peter Fonda, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golino
and Robertson.

But it's Snake who holds it all together. "Another character or another actor, the film wouldn't have the same appeal. He brings the humor, the coolness, the attitude. In a way, Snake is an innocent. He's forced into a mission that doesn't really cause anything bad to happen. Except at the end when he strikes a little blow for his own beliefs."

Carpenter chuckles, "Yeah, it's a little dark. It's one of those strange movies, like
Dr. Strangelove and Clockwork Orange, where the lead character completely changes the Earth in a way you're not expecting and the audience is cheering him on to do it."

So if there was another, a final
Escape
, where would it be and escape from?

"Escape from Earth. And that's it."