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Production Notes

The age old advertising trick of subliminal seduction transcends to hypnotic mind control in JOHN CARPENTER’s science-fiction thriller, They Live. Here, Carpenter gives us a cold, hard reality, then strips it away to reveal a grimmer reality within ourselves and our society. Where face value takes on a completely new meaning; where reality is not what one creates, but what one takes.

With the approaching close to another decade, progress on one end of society’s spectrum continues to escalate as the other end tailspins into a depression which rivals that of the 30’s. With approximately one-half of one percent of our country’s population holding 50 percent of our country’s wealth, it is all too evident that the gap between different socioeconomic classes continues to widen.

On a larger scale, first world nations continue to exploit the people and natural resources of third world countries, deepening the chasm between economic classes worldwide, creating entire nations of "have nots."

With They Live, Carpenter takes this societal problem to an even larger, more encompassing level – that of galaxy-wide exploitation of third world planets by aliens who gain control over inhabitants via the mass media.

Taking over the guise of successful humans, Carpenter’s aliens show us a bit too much of our own real world. As they corrupt those they can into aiding their mission and hypnotize the rest of the population with subliminal messages hidden in television broadcasts and print mediums, they continue to deplete all of the earth’s natural and human resources available.

Carpenter has combined his masterful touch of science-fiction with a strong social commentary, delivering a thriller of a political satire which reflects shades of our society today: a society where monetary gain is the only game in town, and where one’s soul may be easily exchanged for power and prestige. They Live asks us to take another look at the world we are creating and drives home the point of what the future may hold for all of us.

Principal photography for They Live began on March 7th, 1988 on location in Los Angeles. The film addresses the issues of the homeless in our country, social irresponsibility, mass consumption, environmental destruction, corruption, the attractiveness of our capitalistic society and the incredibly strong influence of the communications media. By combining these issues with exploitive alien forces, Carpenter has welded a powerful film – an action packed political satire that maintains an intriguing, exciting edge of science fiction.

One of the most sinister aspects of They Live is the cooperation of certain humans in aiding the alien forces, for monetary gains, with no regard to the fate of their fellow man. Even without an alien invasion, this type of exploitation is all too real, since this type of corruptive behavior has always been part of our society.

KEITH DAVID, who plays Frank in the movie, says "We as men live by the assumption that what you have is who you are. We’re responsible to confront that belief personally and deal with it. This movie says a lot about the consequences of trying to avoid our responsibility."

RODDY PIPER, who, as John Nada, has to learn to live by his wits on the street, was a homeless teenager in reality and knows the danger of the streets intimately. "Some of the things in this story actually happened to me," recounts Piper. "I know how hard it is to hold on to your self-direction and sense of worth when you don’t have enough food or privacy or shelter from the elements. A society that forgets about it’s poor has some real problems."

Carpenter is able to obtain this level of intimacy with his production team because he routinely works with an established core of cast and crew members who share his enthusiasm for the filmmaking process. They Live is the second in a package of four films that John Carpenter, SHEP GORDON and ANDRE BLAY have signed to executive produce, each film to be directed by Carpenter. With producer and first assistant director LARRY FRANCO, Carpenter is able to produce compelling films on a relatively low budget without sacrificing quality or visual texture. The collaborative process allows Carpenter to bring to each story a personal feel that has become his artistic trademark.

They Live was shot on locations that bore the closest possible resemblances to the settings in the film; no studio set was used to create Justiceville or the old church or the flophouse on Skid Row. In a cosmopolitan city in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, the disparity between economic classes is so distinct and widespread. There is more than a little irony in the fact that these places were so easily located in natural surroundings and this brings particular relevance to the story itself.

John Carpenter worked closely with his crew to create an air of grim reality around They Live. Standing on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles at the Justiceville location, it is easy to imagine how shut out the real homeless must feel: the dramatic backdrop of high-rise office towers, freeway lights and air traffic contrast sharply with the shadowy hovels on the set. Much of the film was shot at night, which required GARY KIBBE, director of photography, to highlight that drama of each scene while working with a limited supply of light.

Make-up artist FRANK CARISSOSA was responsible for implementing John Carpenter’s concept of the alien ghouls. Carissosa, who also worked on the Carpenter thriller Prince of Darkness, strove to create decomposition and menace in the ghouls, whose faces were made from latex cases and painted to resemble the last remaining remnants of human form.

All of the stunts in They Live required careful preparation with the actors in close-up scenes. Stunt coordinator JEFF IMADA, who has previously worked with Carpenter on Big Trouble In Little China and Prince of Darkness, took special pains to utilize the unusual resource he had at his disposal: Roddy Piper’s fighting skill. Piper, a former World Federation pro wrestler and boxer, must fight for his life several times in the story; by using Piper’s many varied maneuvers, Imada was able to create confrontations that reach far beyond the standard film clichés. "Everyone in stunt work has specialties," says Imada. "Because of my own background in martial arts, my strengths are in the area of fights and high falls. I used both of these in They Live. It was especially interesting to work with a talented athlete like Roddy, because he brings his own mark to each of the stunt scenes and I know he’s capable of doing what’s needed to make the movie look great."

Special care was taken in casting the parts of the inhabitants of Justiceville. Continuing to strive for realism, Carpenter included all types of actors, with a variety of ethnic and handicapped characters. "Homelessness and poverty aren’t just happening to one kind of person these days," he explained.

The most intriguing special effect in the movie is the transformation of the "normal" world as we currently perceive it into the black and white images of a society dominated through mass hypnosis. Signs of all types and sizes were created to reveal the subliminal messages on products, advertisements, notices, newspapers, magazines and even money.

"This story is a fantasy, but it shouldn’t look like one," explains Frank Carissosa. "It’s power lies in it’s ability to warn us this could be happening even now. We want to shock people, but not to be too fantastic. I think John would want people to leave the movie theater looking a little strangely at each other and just wondering…"
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