Smoke Magazine:
Fall 1996

Escape with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter

By Dennis Hunt

You don’t smoke it, you sort of make love to it,” coos actor
Kurt Russell, leaning back in his chair, his eyes caressing his hefty Havana cigar, watching the tufts of smoke curl into assorted shapes. Sitting in a smaller chair not far away, film director John Carpenter gets the message. “I like how you think, buddy,” he replies, puffing ever so gently on his own Havana, which has a little less heft. Then he places it about an inch from his nose and savors the fragrance.

When I caught up with them in L.A., they were so deep into relaxing you’d think they were soaking up rays on some beach in Tahiti, rather than holed up in a brightly lit Hollywood photo studio, taking a break between setups. “Remember your first cigar?” asks Carpenter, who’s tall and gaunt with longish gray hair that flows rather wildly and a rumbling voice that sounds like it comes from someone twice as beefy. Russell smirks, flicking an ash into a nearby ashtray, replying “I have trouble remembering what I did this morning.” “You and me both,” Carpenter shoos back.

The two are very different. Carpenter is more reserved and seems to absorb every little thing around him. Russell is more outgoing, more of a people person. The breezy buddy banter rolls on, flowing as smoothly as smoke from the cigars. Quiet for a moment, they’re deep into smoke-savoring time. The cigar and the banter are all that stand between them and utter boredom. Russell and Carpenter are spending most of their Saturday afternoon posing for photographs to promote Paramount’s summer action movie,
JOHN CARPENTER'S ESCAPE FROM L.A., directed by Carpenter and starring Russell. They’re reunited in the long-awaited sequel to their 1981 hit, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

Getting primped and patted for photo shots is low on their list of fun things to do. But, on the plus side, it’s a chance for them to spend some more time together. At the time, ESCAPE FROM L.A. was in the editing stages. Russell, whose most recent movie is the late-winter action thriller, EXECUTIVE DECISION, had already started his next movie, BREAKDOWN, which was shooting outside L.A. So he was just in town for a day or two. Carpenter and Russell are great pals but, with conflicting film schedules, are usually too busy to see much of each other. For them, the bonus of making ESCAPE FROM L.A., their fifth film collaboration, was being able to hang out together.

In this sequel, Russell again plays Snake Plissken, the grungy, sociopathic prisoner who rampaged through ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, which is set in the future, 1997, when Manhattan is a prison. In the sequel, also set in the future, 2013, Los Angeles is in even worse shape than New York. After a 9.6 earthquake, L.A. has splintered off from the San Fernando Valley, which is under water. Now an island, L.A. is in chaos, a haven for decadence and anarchy. Still a prisoner 15 years later, Plissken is transported to L.A. to retrieve a stolen doomsday weapon. The catch is that he’s injected with a lethal virus. His reward for a mission accomplished is the antidote, as well as a pardon. Roaming through the ruins of L.A., Snake battles a villain, Cuervo Jones (
George Corraface) and slithers through a cross-section of colorful degenerates, like a lusty transvestite (Pam Grier), a crusty old surfer (Peter Fonda) and the slimy Map To The Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi). It’ll be required viewing for all those people who loathe L.A. and get off on the idea of this den of violence and phoniness crumbling.

That afternoon in the photo studio, Russell and Carpenter, cigars in hand, with little else to do, spend a lot of time strolling down memory lane, reliving some of the fun of shooting this movie. “I sure do miss playing Snake,” admits Russell, looking over at Carpenter, who’s idly puffing his cigar and about to launch into a story about a scene that, he recalls, was hell to shoot.

Snake would appear to be a perfect Russell alter ego. A friendly kind of guy who seems very comfortable with strangers, Russell is certainly nothing like this character; a selfish, violent, surly loner who wears a patch over one eye. And despite his sex-symbol image, everybody knows Russell is dedicated to his family, actress Goldie Hawn and four children. His relationship with his live-in love is nearly 14 years old, one of Hollywood’s longest running movie-star unions.

Given this, Snake may represent the kind of independence and spontaneity foreign to someone so locked into family life. “There’s something attractive about a guy who’s reckless, who has no responsibility and is not tied to anyone,” says Russell. “He’s a fantasy figure. Guys can sure relate to him. A lot of them want to be like him.” Russell, who’s compactly built and about average height, (a bit shorter than he appears on screen), is positioned perfectly to watch the people who’re wandering in and out of the studio all afternoon. Most of them stop in the nearby buffet room to sample the elaborate spread.

Included in this stream of people are young women who can’t take their eyes off Russell, who’s 45 but doesn’t show the mileage. He’s like a magnet to women, so charming it’s scary. His enormous affability makes him very easy to approach. His gaze is warm and inviting. He’s very good at chit-chat and is doing quite a bit of it on this afternoon.

A young brunette in jeans and a T-shirt walks by with a pastry in one hand and a cigarette in the other. After they exchange pleasantries, Russell, blowing a stream of smoke in her direction, joshingly inquires, “Ever try a cigar?” I’m working up to it,” cracks the woman, blowing a thin stream of smoke back at Russell. She seems to like banter as much as Russell and Carpenter. “You think Snake could get into smoking a big fancy cigar like that?” she asks. Before Russell can answer, Carpenter chimes in: “Snake wouldn’t care about how fancy a cigar is. He could get off on smoking a five-cent cigar.” Putting out her cigarette in the ashtray, she walks away, delivering a nifty exit line. “Snake is my kind of guy,” No argument from Russell.

It’s certainly the role of his career, the one character he’s played that, above all the others, people still identify him with, even after all these years. It’s surprising that such an old role would have that impact, considering he’s had some big hits since he blossomed into a major action star in the ate ‘80s, starting with TEQUILA SUNRISE (1988), costarring Mel Gibson and TANGO AND CASH (1989), featuring Sylvester Stallone.

Russell’s characters in the ‘90s have been memorable, in hits like BACKDRAFT (1991), TOMBSTONE (1993) and STARGATE, the 1994 sci-fi blockbuster which really boosted his action-hero status, setting up his role in EXECUTIVE DECISION.

So why is he still so linked with Snake?
Debra Hill, who produced both ESCAPE movies, provided an answer as she’s about to go through wardrobe to find something suitable to wear with Russell and Carpenter. “Snake is such a unique character, like no other character, that whoever plays him is stuck with him,” she explains. “So a lot of it has to do with Snake being such a great character. When you see ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, Kurt as Snake is sort of branded in your mind. You see Kurt, you think Snake. It’s as simple as that. Nobody else could play Snake.”

Cut to a few weeks earlier, when ESCAPE FROM L.A. was still being shot. One night near the entrance to the set, with hardly anybody around, I overheard two crewmembers chatting. It’s the final days of a grueling 70-day shoot, in a giant warehouse about 20 miles outside of L.A. “That sonofabitch Carpenter does great work, but he can be a real pain in the ass,” gripes a scroungy-looking young man as he lights a cigar stub. “Yeah, he can be a tough bastard,” agrees his buddy, a tall man about the same age. He’s chomping on a big, fresh-looking cigar. Adds the younger man: “But he’s not jumping on everybody. He’s sure not on Kurt. Carpenter is like his goddam brother. Kurt has it made.” Speak of the devil. That second, Russell walks through the door a few feet away, startling the pair. Apparently, though, he hasn’t overheard them. Wearing a black, sinister-looking Snake Plissken outfit that fits him like a second skin, he’s intently tugging at it in several places, trying to loosen it up. “Hi guys, nice night for shooting,” Russell says, offhandedly, as he heads toward the main set. When Russell is out of earshot, the tall man sneers, “Every night is a nice night when the director thinks you’re goddam Jesus.” Jealousy? Envy? Absolutely.

But, filter out the sour grapes and these guys are right on target about the industrial-strength Russell-Carpenter bond, which is clearly no secret to their co-workers. Just ask producer Debra Hill, who’s on the set that night. She knows these guys as well as anybody. “They complement each other so well in a way you don’t see often in this business,” she says. “You deal with so many people who are fighting each other, sniping at each other, trying to screw each other over. The negativity can be ugly. So it’s a pleasure when you see two guys who mesh well, who are devoted to each other and who don’t let business ruin their friendship. They’ve been like this since the ‘70s. In this business, that kind of long-term dedication is remarkable.” The Russell-Carpenter bond is reminiscent of the classic director-star relationship, John Wayne-John Ford, Robert De Niro-Martin Scorsese – pals who also work together incredibly well.

Ford once said that he and Wayne had a relationship he had with no other actor, that he didn’t really have to direct Wayne most of the time because Wayne intuitively knew what he wanted. That sounds like Carpenter talking about Russell. “Sometimes Kurt knows what I want before I say it,” says Carpenter. “It’s sort of spooky.”

This is a light shooting night. Carpenter, who’s sitting on a perch a few yards in front of a platform where Russell and Peter Fonda, who plays Pipeline, the weather-beaten surfer, are working on a scene. They’re about to race down a flooded section of the city. But Russell and Fonda aren’t really plunging into water. Actually, they’re doing a short dive onto a platform against a blank background. The only water is sprayed on by technicians. The scene requires take after take, not because it’s particularly difficult, but partly because Russell and Fonda are in one of those giddy, slap-happy moods that typically infect cast and crew in the last days of a shoot. It’s a blend of relief that a long, tough project is over and gloom that you won’t be in regular contact with most of the people you’ve spent the last few months with.

Carpenter, surrounded by TV screens that show what’s happening on the platform, is in a jovial mood, cracking jokes with the crew, trading macho barbs with the actors. “You guys are good,” Carpenter notes sarcastically. “Just you wait,” Russell says, squinting as a crew man spritzes him with water. “It’ll get worse.” The director chuckles and is virtually beaming good will. Is this the real Carpenter, the SOB those crewmen were grousing about? With one eye on the monitor, Carpenter replies “I can be a nasty SOB when I have to be. I’m very demanding, because I have to be to get the job done. And don’t try and step on me because I’ll fight you. You can’t be a director and be a wimp. You’d be eaten alive. People will always complain about the director, but that goes with the territory. Try and be everybody’s friend all the time and see how long you last.” Looking at Russell and Fonda on the platform, Carpenter yells, “Action!” The actors grab their surfboards and plunge onto the platform. It looks smooth. But Carpenter, peering at the monitors, spots flaws. “Not quite there,” he says.

While they’re setting up another take, Carpenter explains why he likes working with Russell: “Friendship aside, and aside from the fact he’s so damned agreeable, he’s trained, the kind of training a lot of actors never get. To him, being in front of a camera is second nature. Instinctively, he knows where they camera is and how to play to it. Directors love actors like that. “Some movie stars have been around for years and don’t know how to react in front of a camera as well as he does. The average film fan, or even some people who work in the business, can’t appreciate what Kurt can do in front of a camera. Directors who have to pull things out of actors – and often it’s like pulling teeth – know what I’m talking about.” Carpenter has had to deal with more than his share of marginally competent prima donna actors. Those unpleasant memories can still unnerve him. You can see him tense up as he recounts some horror stories. “A lot of these actors are egotistical, selfish bastards who want to do things their own way,” he says. “They have ideas that are totally against the grain of the movie. All they care about is what’s good for them.” Carpenter has had nasty battles with some of these prima donnas and, he’s not happy to admit, has lost a few. “Sometimes those run-ins are lethal,” he grumbles. “There was one with an actor who’ll remain nameless. If the bastard rotted in hell, I wouldn’t shed a tear. I hated what happened to that picture. When a director makes a picture that doesn’t turn out, it haunts the director long after it’s over because the end result is always out there, in movie houses and on video. You can’t escape it. It eats away at you like a slow dripping acid.” It’s the kind of grisly imagery you’d expect from a director who made his reputation in horror movies.
HALLOWEEN (1978) put Carpenter on the map. This low-budget movie still generates chills and ranks with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and another Carpenter movie, THE FOG (1980) among the scariest movies ever made.

A native of Carthage, N.Y., the 48-year old Carpenter, a genuine film history buff, is a disciple of the great director Howard Hawks, whose career spanned nearly 40 years. “I’d like to have a run like that,” he laughs. But Carpenter, who often writes and scores his movies, did have a nice run from the late ‘70s up through the mid “80s, with movies like
ECAPE FROM NEW YORK, CHRISTINE (1983), STARMAN (1984) and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), which also stars Russell. In the last decade, though, Carpenter, who’s outspoken and often intolerant of cumbersome major studio bureaucracy, has done more small movies. Some, like IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED – both from last year – have been deservedly acclaimed. But he hasn’t had a major hit since the ‘80s. ESCAPE FROM L.A., however, should change that. “Almost there, almost there,” snickers Carpenter, staring approvingly at the monitors as Russell and Fonda do the umpteenth take of the scene. “You guys are good, damn, good.”

A few hours before he came to the set to shoot the scene with Fonda, Russell has been relaxing in his trailer, which is parked outside the warehouse. It’s a posh setup, like a classy hotel suite. Dressed in a sweatshirt and pants, he’s knee-deep in movie-star luxury, stretched out on a couch so plush it envelops half his body. Movie stars like to think they’re regular guys, but most of them aren’t. Russell, though, really is. It’s easy to spot a genuine beer–and-peanut kind of guy. “I can take luxury or leave it,” he says, turning off the hockey game he’d been watching on his fancy home theater. “It’s OK if it’s there, but it gets old and routine. Simple is better, easier for me to deal with.” Russell, who’d been glued to the hockey game, is a sports nut, which is no surprise, considering he’s an ex-athlete. Back in the ‘70s, a shoulder injury while playing second base in the minors, in the Texas league, cut short a promising baseball career. “I have a lifetime average of .293,” Russell announces proudly. “I played baseball as a kid and I had such incredible passion for baseball. I played in the minors for three years. I was a pretty good player too. I could turn a double play real well. I was leading the Texas League when I got hurt. It was a bad break, kind of devastating to me. I’d been acting since I was a kid, but my career was going to be in baseball. Acting was nice, but I had more passion for playing baseball. I did that better than anything else, better than acting. But when baseball wasn’t there anymore, I decided to get into acting full-time.”

So, after the baseball hiatus, Russell, who’s from Springfield, Massachusetts, really started to focus on his acting career. It was his second time around as an actor. He had to reinvent himself this time, to overcome what he’d done from the mid ‘60s through the mid ‘70s, when he was a youngster locked into inane Disney family comedies like THE HORSE IN A GRAY FLANNEL SUIT (1968) and THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES (1970). But no one took him seriously as an actor until he did his first film with Carpenter, playing the title role in the 1979 TV movie
ELVIS. “That was the turning point for me,” Russell recalls. “I showed audiences something I knew I had but they hadn’t really seen before. Before that, I didn’t have any real challenges as an actor. But John pulled things out of me, guided me so well and helped me show everybody I wasn’t just some blank who’d gotten by because studio executives thought he had sex appeal.” Still, many thought he was too “white bread” to convincingly play a nasty tough guy like Plissken in Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in 1981.

But, when the movie scored with fans, Russell had those doubters eating crow by the plateful. His starring role in the brutal horror movie
THE THING (1982), also directed by Carpenter (and a remake of a Howard Hawks’ film), was another blow to the goody-goody image. Hollywood looked at Russell differently after his Carpenter movies, which also include BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986). He was no longer all looks and little talent. That Disney monkey finally off his back, he blossomed into a multi-faceted leading man, costarring in SILKWOOD (1983) with Cher and Meryl Streep, THE MEAN SEASON (1985) with Mariel Hemingway and THE BEST OF TIMES (1986) with Robin Williams. Arguably the most important role of Russell’s career had nothing to do with Carpenter. While working on the World War II comedy-drama SWING SHIFT (1984), he became romantically involved with co-star Goldie Hawn and he’s been with her ever since. Don’t get him started talking about the joys of family life with Hawn and their four children. He’ll really bend your ear. “My family keeps me centered and helps me put all this other stuff in perspective,” Russell says “I worked out ways to be with my family, even when I’m on location for a long time. There’ve been times I’ve turned down work because it would drastically conflict with the time I spend with the family. That’s the way I am. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it?”

Fast forward to a few weeks later, back at the Hollywood photo studio. Russell and Carpenter dressed up like dapper dudes and puffing on cigars, have already posed for many pictures together. The theme of the photos is that these guys are good buddies. They even did some shots with producer Debra Hill, who got into the jovial spirit of the afternoon, dressing up sort of like a guy, brandishing a cigar, acting like one of the boys. Both men are still fairly chipper, even after roasting under hot lights all afternoon. And they’re still gently needling each other. “Spending hours in front of a camera isn’t that easy, is it?” Russell asks Carpenter, who seems to be growing impatient. “Now you see what I go through all the time.” “I don’t know how you movie stars do it,” Carpenter deadpans.

The photographer orders them to walk onto the set. They stand next to each other and puff casually on the cigars. “C’mon guys, look like you’re having a good time,” the photographer says. “I’m not that good of an actor,” Russell laughs. But they knuckle down and look happy, just about polishing off those cigars, as the photographer keeps shooting. “Great, guys, you’re all done,” the photographer yells across the studio. Taking a final puff from his cigar, Carpenter, looking relieved, scurries off the set, announcing: “What you’re going to see now is, escape from a photo studio.”

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