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 Bags).

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 blows."

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 wins.)

"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 blast."