John Carpenter Looks Back at ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Escape From LA’

John Carpenter Escape From New York photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” continued with the exploits of Snake Plissken in the double feature of “Escape From New York” and “Escape from LA” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. These films featured some of the collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who first worked together on “Elvis.” They quickly became great friends and went on to work together on several other films including these two and “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The emcee warned us that the print of “Escape From New York” was pretty faded as it was an original print and the only one American Cinematheque could get their hands on. This was being generous as it looked like it had been slaughtered by countless film projectors, and the color was faded to where everything looked pink. It is astonishing it didn’t break apart in the projector. Still, the fans still enjoyed watching the film, one which they have seen hundreds of times before. They laughed when “1997 NOW” came up and when Lee Van Cleef speaks into this enormous cell phone no one would have today, let alone in 1997.

After “Escape From New York” ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was greeted with another thunderous standing ovation. Carpenter quickly acknowledged the crowd by saying, “Thank you for coming out to see the movie tonight, but I got to tell you this is the worst fucking print. My fucking God! There’s no color in it!” The audience laughed loudly as they were in complete agreement.

Escape from New York poster

The discussion started off with a question about the genesis of the project. Carpenter talked about writing the script back in the early 1970’s when there was a great sense of cynicism in America about our President and in response to the hostage crisis in Iran. He also admitted he was inspired by two of his favorite movies back then, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Those two movies involved men driven to the brink emotionally and who took it upon themselves to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them. Like those characters, Snake Plissken gets the job done, and this brought a lot of satisfaction to audiences as nobody in the real world seemed to be accomplishing anything.

Carpenter said he initially wanted Clint Eastwood to play Snake Plissken. For one reason or another, it did not work out. He also said he had shopped this screenplay around to several studios which rejected it outright, but fortunately he had a multiple picture deal with Avco Embassy which had produced “The Fog.” Ironically, they wanted Charles Bronson for the title role. Somehow, everything came together when Russell got cast as Snake Plissken, and he portrayed the character as an asexual human being who cares about nothing more than staying alive. In the process, he created one of the most memorable anti-heroes ever seen in a movie.

Carpenter also talked about Lee Van Cleef, a favorite actor of his from Sergio Leone westerns, who played Police Commissioner Bob Hauk. Lee had seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making “Escape from New York.”

With a budget of only $5 million dollars, “Escape From New York” needed to be filmed as quickly as possible. Carpenter said the rule of low budget filmmaking was to shoot as little film as possible and to make it as long as you can. In fact, there is actually only one real shot of New York in the entire movie which features the Statue of Liberty, and it pans from there and dissolves into a set in Los Angeles. A lot of what you see of New York in the movie are actually models and matte paintings done by artists from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, among them James Cameron. Much of the movie was filmed in downtown St. Louis which had had a huge fire that destroyed several city blocks. The city let Carpenter and his crew film there in triple digit temperatures, and they even shut the power down for them when they filmed at night.

Escape from LA movie poster

When it came to making “Escape from LA,” Carpenter had a budget of around $50 million to work with. But while he and Russell had more time and money, Carpenter said he had the hardest time writing the screenplay for it because he felt that everything he was writing was “bullshit.” What got him to revisit Snake Plissken was that Russell was so keen on playing the character again, and they solved their script problem by moving the action to Los Angeles which was in a constant state of denial with all the earthquakes and natural disasters occurring there. They simply took the same scenario of the original movie and updated it to reflect the current state of the city while filming.

“Escape From New York” may have had only one real New York shot in the entire movie, but all of “Escape from LA” was filmed in Los Angeles. The sequel was shot over a period of one hundred and three nights, and Carpenter said he found filming at night to be very “soul draining” as it changes the way you see things and the darkness infects you in a very unhealthy way.

One audience member brought up how at one point it looked like Carpenter and Russell might do a third movie called, “Escape from Earth.” This never panned out because “Escape from LA” unfortunately bombed at the box office. There was also supposed to be a video game based on the movies, but the company involved with it ended up going back to the past by resurrecting Pac-Man. There was even talk of a television series which would act as a prequel to the movies and even an anime movie chronicling the further adventures of Snake Plissken, but neither of those projects became a reality. Despite the box office failure of “Escape from LA,” there are still many people out there who are intent on continuing the exploits of their favorite antihero.

These days, Carpenter said he is content to sit at home and watch the NBA Finals or play video games. He told the audience he had just finished playing “Ninja Gaiden 2” and would be moving on to “Metal Gear Solid 4” next. It doesn’t seem like he is in a big hurry to make another movie, but this could change if the studios pay him a lot of money. Carpenter feels the movie business keeps changing on him, and he does not appear to be as enthusiastic about making films as he once was.

Carpenter closed out the evening by saying he had to go meet with his drug dealer. Before he left, the moderator gave him a gift saying Carpenter had given so much to us that he wanted to give something back. This something was the “Escape from New York” board game which is, apparently, the most complicated board game ever.

After the discussion ended, he did take some time outside the theater to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans who still see him as a big inspiration. If you look at movies of recent years, you will see Carpenter’s influence over many of them both in their visuals and the music. To this day, he remains one of the important directors of the sci-fi and horror genre, and his cult following remains as strong as ever.

As the evening wore on, many came back inside to watch “Escape from LA.” The print was in much better condition, but this didn’t stop it from breaking down during the movie’s last seconds. For those who know how this sequel ends, it only seemed comically appropriate as Snake shut down… Well, you know.

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Sandy King Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘Body Bags’ at Cinefamily

Body Bags Blu-ray cover

Remember John Carpenter’s “Body Bags?” It was a horror anthology containing three stories: “The Gas Station” which has a female college student working a graveyard shift and getting terrorized by a serial killer, “Hair” about a hair transplant which goes horribly wrong, and “The Eye” where a baseball player loses an eye and gets a new one from a recently executed murderer. Many see it as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” as it featured Carpenter as a creepy-looking and deranged coroner who introduces the three stories while drinking formaldehyde as if it were a martini, and it looked like the start of a wickedly demented series. Was it meant to become a series, or was it simply intended to be a single movie? These questions were answered by Sandy King, the producer of “Body Bags” and Carpenter’s wife, when she dropped by Cinefamily which showed 1993 horror anthology as part of its Friday Night Frights series.

King told the audience Showtime originally wanted a 3-story movie and that it was supposed to be a one-shot movie for her and Carpenter. As soon as they were done, they would be off and running to their next project. King remarked how anthology movies were very hard to finance as they were typically not successful at the box office, so bringing one to a cable channel like Showtime made more sense. When it was finished, Showtime then decided they wanted to turn it into a series, but King explained why she and Carpenter decided against it.

“We shot it in California, mostly in Los Angeles, which allowed us to get a lot of the great cameos with Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman,” King said. “Showtime, however, wanted to lower the budget and shoot the series in Canada, and we felt the amount of money they were putting into was not going to be enough to get it right. Plus, shooting in Canada would have made it enormously difficult to get the cameos we got. So, we basically told Showtime thanks, but no thanks.”

“Body Bags” was in many ways a family affair as it involved King and Carpenter working with people they worked with in the past. King had previously worked with Bobby Carradine and Stacey Keach on the Walter Hill western “The Long Riders,” and she had worked with Mark Hamill as well. Peter Jason has appeared in many of Carpenter’s films, and he even used his own car for his appearance in “The Gas Station.” As for the cameos from Craven, Raimi and Corman, she reminded the audience that the horror community is a small and tightly-knit one as everyone knows each other in it.

Carpenter has never seen himself as much of an actor for those who have listened to his various commentary tracks on the movies he has done. After making a Hitchcockian cameo at the beginning of “The Fog,” felt he would be better off behind the camera instead of in front of it. Still, King said she wanted him to play the Coroner in “Body Bags” and that it actually didn’t take much to convince him. She also described Carpenter as an “inner looney” to where he allowed himself to let loose, with the help of Rick Baker’s makeup, on set. Also, Carpenter did not direct himself as the Coroner as King said a friend was brought in to handle his performance and to make sure he hit all his marks. Truth be told, casting him as the Coroner was very inspired.

King said she and Carpenter worked on “Body Bags,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Village of the Damned” all in a row. It was originally planned that Carpenter would direct all three stories in “Body Bags,” but as he was already in post-production on “In the Mouth of Madness,” she said Carpenter told her he couldn’t direct all three. To this, she replied, “Okay, we’ll get Tobe.”

The Tobe she was referring to was Tobe Hooper, director of the horror classics “Poltergeist” and the infinitely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Getting Hooper to direct “The Eye” was a bit tricky as he was very disturbed by the material which had a husband attempting to kill his pregnant wife, but King told him it would be fun and that he could make it work. She also said it was fun to watch Hooper do comedy as he had a cameo at the end with Tom Arnold in which they play two morgue workers who perhaps enjoy their jobs a little too much.

It was great fun to watch “Body Bags” on the big screen and with an audience at Cinefamily, and it was especially nice to see Sandy King drop by and talk about its making and development. She even brought some Shout Factory Blu-rays of Carpenter’s movies to give away, and this writer was lucky enough to win a copy of the one for “Body Bags.” For Carpenter fans, the Blu-ray is a must as it features a great commentary track, a wonderful making-of documentary, and a trailer for the movie as well. It had been out of print for years, and the previous DVD released by Artisan Entertainment gave us a severely edited version which took out a lot of things like Craven’s inspired cameo and some especially gruesome moments. “Body Bags” may not be epic filmmaking, but it sure is a lot of fun for horror fans.

Poster and trailer courtesy of Shout Factory.

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‘Rachel Getting Married’ is one of Jonathan Demme’s Best Films

Rachel Getting Married movie poster

One of the many things I have discovered about life is it is really easy to hate someone or be angry at them. As negative an emotion as it is, there is an unmistakable power from it which really makes you feel alive. At the same time, it is much harder to forgive that person for what they have done to you. You get so sick of someone getting the best of you to where you desperately don’t want to look like the fool. But eventually, it should become clear that the one person you really need to forgive most is yourself. This can be much harder than forgiving someone else, but it is necessary as it keeps you from sinking into the hideous swamp of bitterness which can eat you up. But can you forgive yourself when you have done something horrible and can’t you wipe away the cloud hanging over your existence because of what you have done? I would like to believe the answer is yes, but others may disagree.

Rachel Getting Married” is a movie about forgiveness, and the rough road people travel to get to it. It is also a movie about family and togetherness, and the joy of life. It almost moved me to tears the same way “Lars and the Real Girl” did as it deals with the saddest of things while surrounding itself in an atmosphere of love and much-needed togetherness. This is one of Jonathan Demme’s best movies as well as one of the very best of 2008. I really loved “Rachel Getting Married” and found myself wanting to hug all the characters in it. It is a movie of raw emotions, and I love seeing movies with this kind of power more often than not.

Anne Hathaway gives a phenomenal performance as Kym, the wild child of a Connecticut family who gets a vacation break from her current rehabilitation facility to go home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. It doesn’t take long to get an idea of how much of a “bad egg” she appears to be to everyone around her. As she goes into a convenience store to get a Pepsi, the female cashier behind the counter says, “Didn’t I see you on ‘Cops?’”

Kym is a full-blown drug addict and has been for several years, and while her family is happy to have her home, there are also raw emotions simmering just below the surface and waiting to come out into the open. We feel this tension from the very start, and it is illustrated in Hathaway’s face as we see her feeling like the wallflower at a party. While everyone is happy for the bride and groom, she is sullen and lost in a moment she cannot escape from. As the movie goes on, we come to see the reason for her self-destructive behavior and why she acts the way she does. I will not mention what it is here as it might take away from the emotional impact you will experience watching this movie.

This movie feels a lot different from others Demme has made in the past. He filmed the movie with high definition cameras to capture the movie on a more intimate level, and it feels like he really let the actors loose from start to finish. It is handheld camerawork going on here, so this will probably drive those who couldn’t stand all the shaky camerawork in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Cloverfield” crazy. While some people may experience motion sickness from this, I had no problem with it as the camerawork helped illustrate the emotionally fragile ground the characters are walking over, and how easily everything could come tumbling down.

What is so great about Demme’s direction is how he makes us feel like we really are attending the wedding along with these characters and sharing in the joys and sorrows of everyone involved. These characters feel so real, and it is so great to see no Hollywood artifice on display here. There have been so many big Hollywood movies dealing with families and marriage, and I find myself increasingly avoiding them. But the actions in “Rachel Getting Married” never felt staged for a second, and I loved that. Everyone in this movie feels like people we know from our own lives, and it connects us all the more strongly to what they go through.

“Rachel Getting Married” also, like all of Demme’s movies, has a very eclectic mix of music in it from the offbeat to the international. His movies don’t just have their own signature look, but their own significant sound. One character makes beautiful use of a Neil Young song as he sings it to another person. The audience I saw this with at Landmark Theaters in West Los Angeles were as silent as the characters onscreen during this moment, and I’ll never forget that.

I also loved how the soon to be married couple is an interracial couple, and no one ever brings this up at all. I guess none of the characters see it as an issue worth addressing. Hallelujah!

The script was by Jenny Lumet, and she gives her characters a vibrancy which elevates it from the couples we usually expect to see in movies like these. Her screenplay does tread familiar scenarios and storylines of the addict trying to go straight, but it finds its own voice and way of saying things to where everything feels fresh and new.

Demme always brings out the best in all the actors he has ever worked. There are many great performances to be had here, not just Hathaway’s. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Rachel, and she is a wonderful and real presence to be had in this movie. She goes from being so happy to seeing her sister Kym to being utterly exasperated and strung out that she is at home. It is clear that Rachel wants Kym to be well, but she constantly worries Kym will ruin the wedding in one way or another. Both Hathaway and DeWitt work really well off of each other as two sisters desperate to connect with one another despite the emotional damage between them. There’s a touching moment where Kym comes back from a rough night, and Rachel washes her clean in the shower as if she is washing her sins down the drain.

I also really liked Bill Irwin as Paul, Kym and Rachel’s dad, who is so happy to see his daughters under one roof, while at the same time harboring scars which will never fully heal. We also have Debra Winger, an actress we don’t see much of these days as the girls’ mother, Abby. She has great scenes with both daughters as she allows us to see beneath her seemingly calm exterior to the distrust she has had for Kym after all this time. The big scene between Hathaway and Wagner where the truth comes to a head is riveting and painfully raw as they each try to come to grips with the tragedy they both had a part in but are hesitant to take full responsibility for.

“Rachel Getting Married” is not just a triumph of acting, but also of writing and direction. All three elements come together to create a powerfully moving film about the flawed and fragile nature of humanity, and of the struggle for forgiveness. The movie has a very improvisatory feel to it and, despite the serious nature of the film, you cannot help but feel everyone had such a great time making it. You feel like you are with these families every step of the way, and you revel in their celebration of two families coming together as one. The reception near the end of the movie is one of ecstatic joy and happiness, even while some have wounds which take them out of the present.

But the person who carries this movie from beginning to end is Hathaway. Many see this as her escape from those “Princess Diaries” movies as she rids herself of the ever so clean image we have had of her. Truth be told, she has been doing this already with “Brokeback Mountain” and “Havoc,” but this should fully complete her transition to becoming an adult actress. All the Oscar talk she has been getting is justified. Kym is not an easily likable character, but Hathaway gives her a heart and soul and makes you care deeply about Kym all the way through. The moments where Hathaway does not say a word, her face does the acting and reveals a very uncomfortable soul trying to fit into a place which was once her home. She does brave and amazing work here, and she proves to be a dramatic force to be reckoned with.

“Rachel Getting Married” further shows how brilliant Demme is in getting to the wounded humanity of all the characters he observes. There is not one moment which feels faked in this movie, and it never really falls victim to any clichés that could easily tear it apart. This is another movie you don’t watch as much as experience, and I am always on the lookout for those. It also kept reminding me of the song “To Forgive” by The Smashing Pumpkins which kept playing in my head throughout:

“Holding back the fool again
Holding back the fool pretends
I forget to forget nothing is important
Holding back the fool again.”

Funny, I thought Billy Corgan was saying “forgive” instead of “forget.”

* * * * out of * * * *