John Carpenter Indulges Himself With A Great 'Escape' (The
Buffalo News/Aug 11/1996/US) By Jeff Simon
Who says moviemaking is all work?
Yeah, admits director John Carpenter. Co-writing the riotous sci-fi fantasy
Escape From L.A. with his longtime partner Debra Hill and his star Kurt
Russell was "a blast."
You can tell from the movie. It looks it. And then some.
"It wasn't like, 'Oh, how clever are we.' We all wrote things that we wanted to
see. It was a chance to put things in a movie that I would enjoy - as opposed to
saying, 'Oh, isn't that a rib tickler?' The idea that Peter Fonda and Kurt
Russell surf down Wilshire Canyon and there's Steve Buscemi driving alongside -
and Kurt leaps on the back of the car - is an amazing idea. I wanted to see that
in a movie once. Just once. I don't have to see it again."
Escape From L.A. is the sequel to the fondly remembered apocalyptic
fantasy Escape From New York, the first film in which Kurt Russell played
Snake Plisskin, the long-haired, monotone, leather-clad
troublemaker/troubleshooter with a buccaneer's eye patch and the pirate's
attitude to match.
Carpenter is one of the few directors in Hollywood history (Hitchcock and
Spielberg are the most famous examples) who has enough of a public identity that
his name can be used in the title of cable TV shows (John Carpenter's Body
The Carpenter/Russell partnership is a beauty. They've made three films together
since Carpenter, to all intents and purposes, helped completely reinvent Russell
for the TV movie Elvis. Just as he once turned Jamie Lee Curtis from
Hollywood brat and sitcom washout into the Scream Queen of All She Surveyed in a
little film called Halloween (from there, real stardom was a very short
step), he helped turn Kurt Russell from Cute Disney Kid to Serious Adult Actor
and Sex Star.
Elvis - that all-time great TV movie - dates from the period when
Carpenter could do almost no wrong, when everything he did shocked people into
realizing that a new moviemaking natural had been found.
"No director in town would touch that project," he said on the phone from his
beloved Los Angeles "They were afraid of it. I was just a young punk in those
days. They offered this TV movie to every director who had done a miniseries,
who had done a movie of the week, who had done a big, long film like this. And
no one wanted it. They thought no one could play Elvis and that it would be a
piece of crap. I looked at it completely differently - wow, a chance to make a
movie about Elvis, a kind of loving film. I was a giant Elvis fan. I didn't
think twice about it."
The producers told him that "there were two choices out of all the people they
read. One was Kurt Russell. One was an Elvis look-alike. I watched tape on both
of them. The Elvis look-alike was eerily like Elvis. He couldn't act, though. He
was stiff as a plank. Here's Kurt, though, being Elvis. So there was no choice.
We go with the actor."
There was a lot of talk about Russell, future action star and consort of Goldie
Hawn, being nothing but an icky-sweet Disney urchin, "but his performance as
Elvis was so riveting. He put so much into it. I never worried about it.
"All I worried about was that we had a 30-day shooting schedule for a three-hour
TV movie. I mean, that was my baptism of fire as a director. I didn't believe
you could do that... At the end, I said: 'So that's what you have to do to get
that on film. You have to kill yourself.' "
That was the beginning of the unofficial movie production firm of Russell and
Carpenter Inc. Since then, they've made Escape From New York, Big
Trouble in Little China, The Thing and now Escape From L.A. -
all of them B-movies in spirit, but made with terrific panache and no small
giddiness. Every one of them is unpretentious and full of vim.
Just as he helped reinvent Kurt Russell and Jamie Lee Curtis, Carpenter knows
movie critics helped reinvent him with the 1975 release of Halloween.
"The movie was released. It got bad reviews all over the country. They called it
a turkey. They said it wasn't scary. But what was happening out there with the
audience was different. All of a sudden the Village Voice had this review that
turned everything around. So it was re-reviewed.
"It was confusing. On one hand, you start off with a bomb. I remember I was in
Nashville, Tenn., shooting Elvis. And (producer/partner) Debra Hill
called me and said, 'Well, the reviews aren't good.' (Laughs.) Then six months
later, 'You've made a classic.' So I took it to mean this is bull.... It doesn't
mean anything. They call you a bum or a genius, depending on which way the wind
Halloween made him an industry "genius" because it was made for a tiny
budget and grossed an enormous amount of money. It is one of the most-imitated
films in the history of movies. (But then, so, in its way, was Escape From
New York, even though it clearly derived a little from Mad Max, made
two years earlier.)
I asked Carpenter in 1985 if Halloween had left him so well-fixed that he
never had to work another day in his life. He said yes.
"In 1985 it was true," he says now. "My life circumstances have changed. (Note:
He is divorced from his longtime wife Adrienne Barbeau). Do I have to work? If I
changed my life a little bit, moved out of the house I'm living in, downgraded
slightly, lived in a smaller place, sure, I could live the rest of my life
without working. Could I live in the style to which I'm accustomed? No.
"I never feel my career is optional. I guess it's because of my father, my
training about the work ethic. It was just pounded into me when I was young.
It's just a natural drive that I've never gotten rid of - to make films. I often
daydream about doing other things, like writing, just writing for a living. When
it gets down to work, I say, 'No, I think I'll direct another movie.' "
Longtime Carpenter watchers have seen his work grow steadily more political, to
the point where his movies have some of the jauntiest political satire now
coming out of Hollywood. They Live was a delightfully droll zombie satire
on Reagan's America.
"I started noticing more back in the early '80s," he says now, by way of
explanation. "I started noticing things in the country that I hadn't been aware
of. I hadn't been paying much attention. I was getting my film career started.
In the early '80s, I looked around and said: 'What's going on here? There's
something weird happening.'
"Then I began to explore the beliefs a lot of folks had. I was rather horrified.
Before that I was completely apolitical - up until my mid-30s. The giant right
turn of the country is what got me - the love of money, worship of consumerism,
unrestrained capitalism going nuts. Look back to the Watts riots that happened
in 1965 in Los Angeles. We completely forgot about everything that they said had
caused it. We had it again in 1992 here. It's like every 30 years we have to
visit the same ground. Are we dumb?"
Escape From L.A. has a kind of dark, beach-party satire way of spoofing
it all, especially the ending, which is hilarious by implication. (The right to
smoke is counterposed against the future course of Western civilization - and
"It's the ultimate statement of personal freedom. What all of America wants to
do is give up its freedom, as fast as possible, for order. Your hear it under
the guise of morality. People are just wigged out. Not that I blame them for
being wigged out. I don't think that's the way to do it, though. You don't give
up your freedom. We fought too long to have it."
Carpenter, a specialist in the cinema of horror, terror and ultra-yuck, has no
qualms about his 12-year-old son seeing any of his films.
"I think he's seen everything I've done already. He knows my movies are fake.
He's been around sets. He's been around the movie business for a long time. He
doesn't care. (Laughs.) He watches the movies and says: 'Oh, yeah, fine. When
can we listen to more rock 'n' roll?' He's into music and basketball. He always
knows it's fake. That's been the saving grace.
"I did that early on in his life. I told him what I did, showed him what I did
and showed him that movies are phony. You can enjoy a movie and forget that. But
all this violence stuff, that's just cowboys and Indians having fun. It's just
scares in the dark on Halloween night. It isn't anything serious."
As with so many directors, he refuses to name his favorite among his films
("Every film is a kid. They've all turned 18. They're all out there just trying
to make a living"), but he's immediate when asked his biggest disappointment.
"The Thing was my biggest disappointment. I thought I'd done everything
right and it didn't work for the audience. It was the summer of E.T.
There was a savage monster in The Thing and people didn't want to see it.
They wanted to see happy-happy-joy-joy."
He won't name the actors who gave him terminal grief, but he's quick to name the
actors he'd work with again any time, any place. "Kurt, Jeff Bridges, Sam Neill.
I'd be happy to work with them any time they wanted to work. Those three right
off the top of my head. They're a lot like I am. They're real pros. They're
ready to go when they come to work. You don't have to play around with them, get
'em to do a role. They're just real pros."
Escape From L.A. is a real pro's movie - in this case, pros having "a