Wacko President Hails From Virginia In 'Escape From L.A.' (The Virginian-Pilot/Aug 08/1996/US) By Mal Vincent


THE LIST OF American presidents born in Virginia is about to be expanded - at least to millions of moviegoers.

You remember. There was George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Woodrow Wilson and, now, (drum roll) Cliff Robertson.

A new president from Virginia?

The year is 2013 and the new president of the United States, who looks just like Cliff Robertson, is a former TV evangelist who has moved the capital from Washington, D.C., to Lynchburg, his hometown. No smoking and no red meat are allowed in America. There is lots of religion, but no freedom of religion. There are no unapproved marriages. Immoral people, as well as hardened criminals, are shipped to the island penal colony that is now Los Angeles - an island created by a devastating earthquake.

And unfortunately, the new Virginia-bred president is totally insane.

It could only happen in the darkly mischievous mind of director-writer John Carpenter, who has churned out John Carpenter's Escape From L.A., opening Friday. It is a sequel to his 1981 cult film Escape From New York and it may well have our state's tourism officials writhing with rage.

So much for the "Virginia is for lovers'' image.

Robertson, who was once chosen by President John F. Kennedy to portray him in the movie P.T. 109, is a prez with a problem. His daughter, Utopia, has rebelled and escaped from the Lynchburg White House. She's headed to join up with South American revolutionary Cuervo Jones, who is poised to attack the United States. Only Snake, the leather-clad antihero serving a life sentence, can retrieve her.

Kurt Russell, coming off a career rebirth with hits in Executive Decision, Tombstone and Stargate, again plays Snake.

"Snake is socially irredeemable,'' Russell said, "and he's the only character I ever wanted to play again. Science fiction is the greatest genre because you can do anything with it. You can ask, for example, 'What if the president were crazy?' It's a simple proposition, but you couldn't tackle it in other movies. In a sci-fi movie, you can play it.''

Russell, who co-wrote the new script with Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, reasons that "there have probably been worse guys in the White House than the president we portray in this movie. Anyway, a president like this is just a heartbeat away.''

Robertson, who won an Academy Award for Charly in 1968, says that he didn't model the character after anyone specifically. "He had to be a good speaker because he was a former TV preacher, but I didn't have anyone specifically in mind.''

Sure, Cliff. And the Lynchburg setting is just a coincidence, right?

"I don't know anything about Lynchburg,'' the actor said. "The script is very vague.''

It is John Carpenter who is behind all this mischief. Puffing the last remnants of a cigarette, Carpenter pointed out that the entire budget for the first film ($8 million) is less than Russell's salary for the second one ($10 million).

Sitting in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the director is anxious to answer questions about his new film:

Why did you wait so long to make this sequel? It has been 15 years since Escape From New York.

"We wanted a good script. At one time, we were going to have everyone in Los Angeles in an insane asylum, but it would have been too limited. Kurt came up with the idea for the sequel as a result of the January 1994 earthquake. He felt it was time. I mean the people of this city have been through fires, earthquakes, gang killings, the worst riots in U.S. history, and still we refuse to get out. We are in deep, serious denial here.''

You worked with Kurt Russell in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, Escape From New York and, for television, Elvis. What is it that you like about him?

"I say 'Walk over there' and he doesn't say 'Why?' He believes in getting the picture made. When I first worked with Kurt on Elvis, he had left the business. He didn't want to act anymore. The success of Elvis brought him back. Then, before Escape From New York, no one would have cast him in an action movie. He just wanted to prove he could do it.''

What is it that you think is the attraction of the character Snake?

"He's a highly corruptible antihero. He's basically a psychopath. I think of him more as an old-fashioned Western gunfighter. I got into moviemaking, in the first place, because I wanted to make Westerns. Snake is cool. He has a really heavy attitude.''

Why is it that you have been somewhat typecast in making dark movies? It seems that in your movies the forces of evil are always organized but the forces of good are disorganized.

"I got typecast with Halloween. For a long time, I didn't get offered movies that didn't have zombies. But I did get to do other things. I got to do a romantic drama, Starman, among others.

What political statement are you making with Escape From L.A. Is this film attacking the religious right directly, or indirectly, or what?

Neither directly or indirectly. Make of it what you will. My political affiliation is as a Capitalist. Kurt was a conservative once, but, now, I think, he officially votes the Libertarian party, although he changes with the issue, like most people should. The movie makes fun of extremes - extremes on both sides. We have the fur coat thing in there, and the red meat restriction. That's extremes on the other side. Personally, I think the movie is saying that Americans are afraid of too much freedom. We want to give up every single freedom we have in favor of order. We are so afraid of disorder, and freedom, that we'd even legislate life away. People are really scared.''