Imagine this (and shudder): Manhattan, cica 1997, New York City has become a maximum security prison-city, completely surrounded by walls and containing over three million convicted criminals. Except for food drops from the air into Central Park each month, the inmates are left entirely on their own to survive - the elements, as well as one another. Psychotic inmates live in the sewers, and creep out at night to hunt food. Chaos and killing are rampant. Escape is impossible. In addition to the walls, all bridges leading into Manhattan have been mined, and the surrounding waters are filled with killer electrical currents. The Statue of Liberty is a guard tower, wrapped in barbed wire. Radar scanners and police helicopters circle the island relentlessly. It's Dante's Inferno updated; it's Hades on the Hudson. It's also the brain child of director-writer John (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG) Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle, and the basis for the next Carpenter lulu, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, coproduced by Debra Hill and Larry Franco, which just finished location filming in New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles.
Did New York's officials get a gander at that script before giving Carpenter and Company an okay to film? "Oh, sure," says John. "They read it and apparently didn't find anything wrong - although they may regret it when they see it. But I hope not. It really isn't a slam, although it does portray New York City as having become a violently inhumane place." Onward and upward; first things first. "The city officials not only gave permission but were very helpful. We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty, at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier, and were worried about trouble. But we were good tennants. We were extremely careful, and cleaned up our messes afterward." Biggest overall problem for Carpenter was "creating another world with such low light levels, and switching day sooting to night. The film has two distinct looks. One is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a Uninted States dominated by underground computers; that was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences, which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England. After a while, the night shoot really began grinding us down. But, basically, it was more fun to do than it was tough. Listen, I love making movies."
"St. Louis - unbelievable!" says Carpenter. "We went there because, well, there were certain sequences we just couldn't do in New York; they would have tied up the whole city too much. And St. Louis, due to a major fire they had there in 1977, now has just the right amount of emptiness in the downtown area. Also the right architecture. So much of the city looks vacant and dead; perfect for our needs since we couldn't use anything looking new or fresh. The city officials literally turned over the city to us. They'd shut down 10 blocks at a time to help us. I was told they hadn't hosted a major film for 15 years; they don't even have a real film commission, just a Department of Tourism. They let us trash it up, and do anything we needed." A major coup was finding, in St Louis, an exact replica - deserted, desolate, unused - of New York's Grand Central Station, complete with a train engine. Says Carpenter, "I was told it's the biggest roofed-in area in the world. We walked in and said, 'My Lord! We don't even have to dress it!'"
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK marks John Carpenter's biggest budget to date ($7 million, compared to $1 million on THE FOG) and came in on the penny ("That's one thing I always intend to do as a filmmaker; I want that reputation") and sashays him from the horror genre into so-called futuristic drama. "But it does have elements of horror," he says. "It's not a total switch. I'm terribly attracted to doing 'dark' films; films taking place at night with some danger going on. That's really what I'm all about." The newest Carpenter caper stars Kurt Russell (who starred in his ELVIS on TV), Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, for starters, and is due next July via AVCO. With shudders.