In ESCAPE, Carpenter sets his rebellious nature free.
By Elizabeth Snead
Sometimes, inspiration comes from the most unexpected sources.
At 4:32 a.m. Jan. 17, 1994, director John Carpenter woke up to feel his Hollywood Hills abode shuddering.
"I stopped a giant mirror from falling over. Then I went back to sleep," says the director of such films as THE FOG, HALLOWEEN and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
"Ive been through a bunch of earthquakes. They dont bother me."
Come morning, he started off for work, unaware of the quakes devastation. "My wife said, You cant go to work.' I said, What are you talking about? She said, There is no work. There is no city. That was when I knew."
And so the seed for the futuristic ESCAPE FROM L.A., a sequel to Carpenter's 1981 cult fave ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, was planted.
"It was the culmination of coping with several disasters, mudslides, floods, fires in the hills, the biggest riot over the Rodney King verdict. Over my balcony you could see the flames. It was like watching Beirut," he recalls.
A few days after the quake, Carpenter, Kurt Russell, who played the leather-clad outlaw Snake Plissken in the original Escape, and producer Deborah Hill spent hours at her house talking about the quake and wondering what L.A. will be like after the inevitable apocalypse.
In the new film, the big one has hit and left the city broken off from the United States, which is now ruled by a rightwing despoi (Cliff Robertson). The island of Los Angeles becomes a dumping ground for anybody -- from criminals to political malcontents -- deemed unfit for the USA.
Then theres Snake, a hissing, turn-of-the-millennium gunfighter captured and forced by the government to go into L.A. to find a device stolen by the presidents daughter that can turn off the worlds power forever. As in the original, Snake is injected with a deadly poison and has a limited amount of time to successfully complete the mission in order to receive the antidote.
"Hes such an interesting character with such a great attitude," Carpenter says. "He hasnt changed a bit since the first film. He doesnt believe in anything, doesnt care about anything, doesnt want to hurt you or make love to you. All he cares about is the next 60 seconds. If you step on him? Dont do it. But if you leave him alone, youll be all right."
Sounds like theres a little bit of Snake inside Carpenter. "The character is a combination of my hatred of authority and a guy I knew in high school who went to Vietnam and came back completely changed. He became Snake. He had this inner strength, like now he knows what life is about."
Carpenter made sure that Snakes perilous sojourn, hed come across familiar landmarks. In his travels, Snake passes a crumbled Manns Chinese Theater and a Hollywood Boulevard thats a mass of night markets and huts, and he rides a tsunami down Wilshire Boulevard. Production designer Lawrence G. Paull (BLADERUNNER), an Academy Award nominee, made the quake-ravaged city seem frighteningly possible.
Universal Studios became Happy Kingdom (Disney said no thanks), a thinly disguised Magic Kingdom. Snake also stops over in Beverly Hills, where an underground colony of mutant surgical mistakes survive by harvesting fresh body parts from unlucky passers-by.
Some of the mutants with cheek implants, collagen-puffed lips and oozing fresh facelift scars actually look like people you see on Rodeo Drive today.
"Yeah. Well, we exaggerated it a bit," Carpenter says "Rick Baker (Academy Award-winning makeup expert of ED WOOD, AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS) says he based the surgeon general of Beverly Hills on Michael Jackson and Sigfreid and Roy. And they truly are exaggerated people."
Speaking of exaggeration, Pam Grier (COFFY, FOXY BROWN) certainly is. "Ive never a woman play this before; a woman playing a man, playing a woman. She swings emotionally from the very feminine side to masculine and back again and exaggerates the female side because thats what this guy would do."
And her deepened voice? "We have the technology now to drop her voice by an octave and a half but it stays in sync."
Carpenter says he loved working with the cast that included Peter Fonda, Stacy Keach, Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golino and Robertson.
But its Snake who holds it all together. "Another character or another actor, the film wouldnt have the same appeal. He brings the humor, the coolness, the attitude. In a way, Snake is an innocent. Hes forced into a mission that doesnt really cause anything bad to happen. Except at the end when he strikes a little blow for his own beliefs."
Carpenter chuckles, "Yeah, its a little dark. Its one of those strange movies, like DR. STRANGELOVE and CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where the lead character completely changes the Earth in a way youre not expecting and the audience is cheering him on to do it."
So if there was another, a final ESCAPE, where would it be and escape from?
"Escape from Earth. And thats it."