From 'Forbidden Planet' to 'Escape From New York'
A candid conversation with SFX & Production Designer Joe Alves
By Samuel J. Maronie
He is the creative genius behind CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, JAWS and TV's NIGHT GALLERY. No, he's not Steven Spielberg, but a close associate of the famous director who has contributed to his greatest triumphs - Joe Alves.
Alves served as Production Designer for these blockbuster productions - a duty he also performs in John Carpenter's futuristic adventure story, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. STARLOG caught up with the artist during lensing of the film in St. Louis and persuaded him to talk about his SF film exploits.
"I guess I knew at 15 which direction I wanted my career to go," says the short, darkly-bearded Alves about his desire to make movies. "I had my sights set, but a few strange things happened along the way."
"During the 1950s I managed to wrangle a summer job at Disney Studios as a special effects animator. I really didn't want to get in that kind of work, but it was a foothold into the business and helped me make contacts. As it turned out, after something like two months I was running the entire department at age 19."
While the draftsman's labors were basically limited to Disney features, he did manage to carve himself a niche in SF-cinema history.
"I worked on a very famous movie - one that blew John's [Carpenter] mind when I told him - FORBIDDEN PLANET; I animated the monster - the ID creature scenes."
Alves only smile modestly when pressed for more details about the landmark sequence. "It was ordered from Disney by MGM [which made FP]. I don't like to talk about it much because it happened so long ago..." He pauses, and then adds, "Is this article going to be my life story, or what?"
The artist evades other queries about his early work, although he does reveal that after his tour of duty at Disney he returned to design, laboring in various theatrical productions.
Eventually he worked his way back into the studio gates by way of the small screen. Alves takes special pride in his three-year stint with the NIGHT GALLERY fantasy series, ranking the show among his most challenging assignments.
"NIGHT GALLERY was one of the toughest things I've ever done. It was week-in and week-out responsibility, averaging something like 25 different sets for each segment."
"I had a lot of fun, though; it was a very exciting time. I loved Rod Serling, and I especially enjoyed all the creative young directors. Do you know who we had on that program?" he asks, warming up to the subject. "There were fresh people like Jeannot Szwarc (JAWS II, SOMEWHERE IN TIME), John Badham (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, DRACULA) and, of course, Steven Spielberg."
Steven Spielberg. Moviegoers immediately recognize the director's name from his hugely popular films, JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Alves first became acquainted with Spielberg while working with him on the NIGHT GALLERY TV-movie pilot. (Spielberg's first professional outing); it was a meeting that would begin a close personal and professional relationship.
"I go back a long way with Steven," Alves says. "I was on his first theatrical feature, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, and we also did JAWS together. As CLOSE ENCOUNTERS came along he wanted me to join up - which I was only more than happy to do."
"When the picture started off the ground it was slated only as a $4 million film [later ballooning to almost five times that amount]. I looked at the script, then I looked at the budget and finally said: 'Steven, I don't think you want to make the picture this way!' At this time JAWS had only been released four days and - bam! - he was tied up with this big success. So I began scouting for locations and developing some concepts of my own."
Alves admits that his work with the young director was, at times, tempestuous; often egos collided. But their mutual respect for each other's talents prevented any long-lasting troubles.
"I was visually very happy with the picture," Alves states, "but not very pleased with the 'Roy Neary' (Richard Dreyfuss) character. I loved the part originally conceived in the script - that of a child/man; that's why the extraterrestrials are calling him to go with them. This idea really never came across in the final product. There were some beautiful things shot that were eventually cut. I haven't seen the Special Edition version, so I can't say if any of those concepts were ever picked up.
"I think somewhere in the process of the film Steven changed his mind about where he wanted to go. Now, I have a great deal of respect for him as a director - I'm not trying to second guess him - but I would have chosen to do other things."
The designer generally feels less than thrilled with the crush of media hype accompanying the film's release. While the lion's share of coverage centered on director Spielberg and SFX wizard Douglas Trumbull, Alves' contributions were almost totally ignored.
"I was a little irritated when the picture first came out. There was a lot of publicity focused on Trumbull and Steven being an 'auteur' director. We [Alves and Trumbull] were given a 'special design' credit - although I don't know where that came from or what exactly it meant."
"Models - clay models that I did with my own two hands - I saw in publications that were giving Carlo Rambaldi [creator of mechanical effects] credit for them! I found myself lost in the press - just as I was with JAWS."
"So designers get pushed aside someplace in the shuffle," Alves remarks without any apparent hard feelings. "The audience tends to think only of special effects. These effects have to be designed, and this is generally done by the Production Designer."
Alves certainly had his work cut out for him in CE3K. The film's epic scale and majestic SFX work gave him plenty of room to flex his creative muscles. And on the subject of SFX and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, Alves has some definite ideas.
"When you're filming something that's 'real,' you want to do it large enough, so that when you do the cheats - the SFX shots - the audience believes it." Reflecting on the somewhat confusing statement, Alves offers an example:
"Say you focus the camera on a huge wall; you can move, you can pan, you can do anything you want - the wall is real and big. Now, when you switch to the matte shots and the miniatures, the viewers say: 'That's got to be real because the wall was real.'"
"That's the philosophy I had about ENCOUNTERS. I felt I had to build THE set, the arrival of the alien mothership. They wanted me to do it on a sound-stage - even though i knew there wasn't a stage large enough to house everything. I made a model of the set and everyone felt it really wasn't so impressive... then I went out and built one four times that size. In my mind this event is as important, if not more so, than the coming of Christ, so I went all-out for an 'event' look."
The scene was ultimately laid out by Alves ("...from ideas that came to me at the weirdes times.") and lensed by Spielberg. It remains one of the most emotional and awesome moments the cinema has ever experienced.
After the picture, Alves pursued his desire, to branch out into directing. He was pencilled in for a multi-million dollar opus to be called WEATHERMAN, but the project fizzled. Now he finds himself in the Production Designer's chair again - working with another young director.
"I had not done any film design for a while after CLOSE ENCOUNTERS," he explains, "but my agent - who is also John Carpenter's - approached me with this project. I really wanted to do it because it has two distinctly different appearances: one is a very medieval, depressed look - it's like New York as bad as it could be, but even ten times worse; the other look is slick and futuristic. These are two dramatic extremes that present a real challenge."
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK deals with a futuristic USA that has taken all its criminals and penned them on the island of Manhattan. The drama revolves around the President, who has crash-landed into the prison and is taken hostage by the convicts.
"ESCAPE" - A NEW CHALLENGE
"What I really wanted to do in ESCAPE is something convincing enough for the audience to really believe they are witnessing a possible future," Alves reveals. "In a time of financial excess and money just being flaunted indescriminately, I'd like to see us make a film for this budget, which I consider very medium (around $8 million) and just have the audience sit back and say: 'Wow! How did you do it?' If you had all the backing you possibly needed - like some pictures nowadays do - it wouldn't be that difficult. But when money is a little tighter you have to be more creative."
Part of Alves' creativity came in the form of a decision to shoot much of the film on location. The designer dissected Carpenter's script carefully, weighing the types of locations and sets necessary, and began a cross-country search to find just the right locales. While the film is indeed titled ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, the cities of Atlanta and St. Louis "doubled" for the Big Apple.
"Around the turn of the century New York City and St. Louis were very much the same architecturally," Alves says explaining his choice of the location. "New York began to change radically in the 1930s, but St. Louis has kept many of the old qualities. What we were really looking for was an old bridge that we could take over and use for our shooting, so we went the usual route of sending out feelers to state film commisioners.
"John and I eventually came here [St. Louis] to inspect a bridge and started walking the streets; we looked around at the old buildings and thought they were fantastic. These were structures that exist in NY now, and have that seedy, run-dow quality that we're looking for."
With all of this care for detail and verisimilitude, why didn't the cast and crew simply go to New York in the first place?
"Our main concern was cooperation and accessibility. St. Louis is going through a transition period, which leaves a lot of areas that aren't being used too much; naturally that allows us to close off an area and control the flow of traffic much easier. Besides that, the city officials bent over backwards to help us in every way."
The bizarre on-location shooting schedule called for three weeks of night lensing; these were grueling 9 p.m. - 6 a.m. sessions in the high-crime ghettos of the Gateway City. The film company was free to explode airplanes, run commando raids through the streets and perform other assorted mayhem.
"The combination of look and convenience was great," Alves says. "I hope everything comes together so well that no one knows we shot here."
And what did they do in Atlanta...?
"We really wanted their rapid transit system," Alves admits. "BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in San Francisco was considered first, but they weren't too crazy about some of the plans we had in mind."
The crew actually did make it to New York for a couple of weeks of shooting, later finishing the picture in the safe confines of a Hollywood sound stage. This studio work consisted mainly of what are called "interiors" - shots usually dealing with events that take place inside offices, homes, etc.
"We're going to build a large set that's normally built inside. It's going to be a New York street designed to fit the action in the movie like a glove. This way we can follow John's script to the letter and do the situation exactly as he intended. Another set will be the exterior of a very modern government complex."
"For the most part, we'll be shooting out on locations that will be redesigned and adapted to us. The way to make a very inexpensive film look expensive is re-do existing things, building only what you need, and tie into them - that's how a designer really confuses the audience as to what's real and what's not."
"I think my biggest help to John and Derba Hill in this department is to give them more scope. They've been very successful doing so much for so little, so I have to present something bigger and decide the best place to put the money visually."
Alves says that the youthful enthusiasm of Carpenter, Hill and the rest of the crew reminded him of his NIGHT GALLERY days. It's a quality he's rarely found since his early work with Spielberg.
The designer enjoys the current crop of SF films, but finds it hard to get too enthusiastic with what's being offered.
"My favorite films run into the category of pictures like Woody Allen's MANHATTAN. I get bored with the things that I do because I know how I did them. The work I did on JAWS II was much better in many ways than the designs for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, because you didn't know what was there."
"If you saw JAWS II, you know there was an island everyone was trying to get to.That was not a real island; we had to construct it from scratch and it was one of the most difficult sets ever made, costing over $250,000. Now consider, this was an actual island; I don't think too many people build islands."
Alves was personally satisfied with his labors, but he is slightly miffed that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences declined to nominate him for a coveted Oscar Award.
"We built the lighthouse... the whole town... we built a lot of things and never even made the top ten (nominees). So many people don't even know what subtle work the designer does; they only look at STAR WARS and see all the flash. I don't think anyone who saw JAWS II knew that the island was a set - which meant I did my job well."
Joe Alves always does his job - not merely "well," but in most cases, superlatively. And he feels that ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK will be a picture to be proud of.
"I've tried to do my best and be a little bit different - this is definitely not a 'hardware' picture like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. John's story is a good one, and I think together we can give the audience something they will enjoy."