From the Vault: John Carpenter

In 1997, Total Film magazine commissioned me to interview John Carpenter about Escape from L.A. Here is the result . . . 

You’ve resisted doing sequels in the past. What changed your mind? 

"I used to think that doing sequels showed a lack of originality. Then I heard that Francis Coppola had initially refused requests to make a Godfather sequel for the same reason, but that, after thinking about it, had concluded it could be a great creative challenge. The idea intrigued me; and it got me thinking that maybe a follow-up to Escape From New York wouldn’t be such a bad move after all. The rest, as they say, is history."  

Yet a lot of people regard Escape From LA as more of a big budget remake than a sequel... 

"Paramount said that, with sequels, audiences want the same thing but somehow different. So we took the structure of the first movie and inverted everything. LA’s not just a prison; it’s also the only real “free” place. Snake Plissken is not a rescuer; he’s an assassin. I looked at in the same way Howard Hawks approached El Dorado after he’d made Rio Bravo. He made the same movie structurally but changed the details.”

But Hawks didn’t wait 15 years...

“The problem was, we had no LA story until this tremendous earthquake devastated our city. It brought LA to a standstill; brought us to our knees. We had the biggest riot in American history and all the natural disasters of living in a reclaimed desert starting to happen. We’re living in a dreamland there; we think we’ve got a city, but really it’s just a savage desert. We’ve got these houses made of all this expensive stuff, and one day they’re going to come tumbling down. Because of everything that was happening, we finally got a vibe we could work with.”

Some people have suggested you made this film as a way to re-enter the mainstream, following the disappointment of In The Mouth Of Madness and Village Of The Damned...

“For certain historical reasons which don’t really matter, I’ll never be able to get back into the mainstream, and I’ve accepted that. I’m not a mainstream director anyway, because I don’t, won’t and can’t follow a formula. That’s not what I’m here for, I’m here to be John Carpenter. But sometimes I wish my movies were better received when they’re released, rather than in retrospect.”

I can understand you wanting to remake The Thing, but why Village Of The Damned?

“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! Plus, I think the book [The Midwich Cuckoos] by John Wyndham is beautiful, and I like the old movie a lot. I’ve always been fascinated by it because of the profound question at its core: what happens when you find out your kids are evil? I’m a parent now myself, so I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore. I actually love the movie I made and don’t feel the need to defend it. I think it’s brilliant and wouldn’t change a thing in it.”

The Escape films are pretty difficult to categorize, because they’re very much genre hybrids. How would you describe them?

“They’re science fiction on the surface, but really they’re dark comedy westerns, or “cowboy noirs”. Like all my films, they have a little bit of this and little bit of that in them. Man, if I had to define exactly what I was doing, I would never have made it this far. I operate on instinct a lot; if it feels right I do it. I try to get in touch with pure creation, and my most successful films have come out that way. It’s not something I can analyse.”

Escape From New York cost just $7 million. Would you have contemplated making Escape From LA for the equivalent amount today.

“No. In the 1990s you’ve got to do films big, because you’re competing against other huge movies, and audiences these days expect so much more. As it is, we didn’t have enough money - we really needed to spend $75 million not $50 million.”

The screenplay is credited to you, Kurt Russell and your producer, Debra Hill. How did that work?

“I hammered out the first draft with help from Debra; she came up with some scenes that I didn’t have time to do because I was directing and scoring another film. Then we worked on each section separately. Kurt came in at this point and helped make the dialogue scenes play for actors. That’s his strength. And the ending is his. I had a similar ending but he’s actually the one who made it clear what was going on. We worked hard together on the McGuffin, the thing that shuts off the lights, and on all the rules governing the hologram.”

The last line of the movie, “Welcome to the human race”, suggests that out of the chaos will come something better...

“Exactly. The funny thing about that line is that it originally took place in the scene where Snake’s told that he’ll be killed if he tries to come out of LA. But it didn’t work there, so I cut it out and the editor stuck it at the end of the movie. The editing process is effectively re-writing; it’s where we invent new things.”

The cast is eclectic - Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Steve Buscemi... Did you have an idea of who you wanted when you were writing the script?

“Not until we really got into it. We took each character and looked at what they had to do and then decided. We wanted it be like Escape From New York, where we took actors who, at the time, weren’t necessarily big - like Lee Van Cleef and Ernest Borgnine - and cast them in our film. We did things then because they were fun, and I still love seeing people in those roles. The way we’ve cast this film was really interesting too.”

In your films there’s often a tension between the ideas you’ve come up with for the set-up - which are usually very imaginative - and the imperatives of the action genre, which maybe aren’t. In Escape From LA you have your satirical elements and your critique of the right...

“... and of the left! There are a lot of attacks on political correctness in this movie; we’re attacking both extremes of the political spectrum. For me, the whole point of making movies is to make people think. But the audiences aren’t as curious as they were when I was starting to make films, so I sometimes feel like a guy out of his time.”

Are you disturbed by the continuing drift to the right in America?

“Yeah, I’m disturbed. But it’s nothing new - it’s been happening since the ‘80s and Reagan. I’m disturbed by a lot of things happening in the world. We’re living in a dangerous time, and I’m concerned about the future. In the long term I’m an optimist, but right now I’m a pessimist. The last line in the movie says it all.”

Was it strange re-entering Snake Plissken’s world after such a long absence?

“Yeah. At first I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to get into it, because I made Escape From New York when I was a punk kid, and now I’m an old man. But as soon as I got on the set a thought suddenly came into my head - 'Shoot the man with the eye-patch' - and all my fears dissolved.”

Have you and Kurt changed much in the intervening years?

“We’re no longer boys, and these days we’re always talking about our aches and pains. We also have families now. Yet I think there’s a part of us that will never change: we still bitch about the business and threaten to retire, but it’s all fake. Movies are still a giant love for both of us, and when we’re shooting a film its like two pros working together. The fact that we both come from sports backgrounds helps too. He used to play baseball and I play basketball, so we know what it takes to win a game as part of a team.”

In your mind, who is Snake Plissken?

“He’s a guy I knew at high school who went to ‘Nam and came back and had changed. He was Snake. He’s also an archetypal Western character; he’s a bad guy from the Old West, a hired gun. He’s also a part of me that’s distrustful and dislikes authority. He’s also part of Kurt; Kurt’s a tough guy. Snake is a sociopath and doesn’t give a shit about anyone. All he cares about is living for the next 60 seconds. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but don’t screw with him. He’ll get you back.”

Has your own anti-authoritarianism ever got you into trouble?

“Of course. It still does. I’m sure my career would have been different if I’d been a more malleable person. I don’t play the political game well. If I’d done that better - been more of a con artist - I'd be in better shape. But I can’t change now, I’m too old.”

How easy was it to adapt to working with digital effects for LA?

“People forget I made Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, which invented the computer graphics used in Forrest Gump. OK, my film wasn’t a big hit and Gump was the sweetest, greatest movie ever. But how do you think they made that guy’s legs disappear? ILM broke new ground on Invisible Man. No-one saw it, that’s all.”

You score most of your own movies. Why don't you let someone else do it?

“I can say it really simply: I’m cheap and I’m fast. Or I can say it broadly: I used to be in a rock’n’roll band, I love music, my dad was a musician, and I’ve always wanted to keep music with me in my career. This is a way to do it.”

Finally, is it true that you’re planning to make another Escape Film, Escape From Earth? And what about Mutant Chronicles - another big SF project you’ve been connected with?

Escape From Earth is just and idea, really, but I doubt we’ll do it. I think we’ll put Plissken to bed at this point - unless someone makes us an offer we can’t refuse. And as for Mutant Chronicles - well that’s a cool new movie I’ve been kicking around for a while, and looks like it’s going ahead. It’s a sci-fi adventure, set in the Dark Ages of the future. If all goes to plan, I’ll be making it here in England. But of course, only time will tell.”

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