In this episode of The Rewatch Podcast, Cory and Nathan take on their most dangerous assignment yet as they discuss "Escape From New York."
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Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay for Escape from New York in 1976, in the aftermath of Nixon's Watergate scandal. Carpenter said, "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the president." He wrote the screenplay, but no studio wanted to make it because, according to Carpenter, "it was too violent, too scary, [and] too weird". He had been inspired by the film Death Wish, which was very popular at the time. He did not agree with this film's philosophy, but liked how it conveyed "the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make a science-fiction film along these lines".
AVCO Embassy Pictures, the film's financial backer, preferred either Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones to play the role of Snake Plissken to Carpenter's choice of Kurt Russell, who was trying to overcome the "lightweight" screen image conveyed by his roles in several Disney comedies. Carpenter refused to cast Bronson on the grounds that he was too old, and because he worried that he could lose directorial control over the picture with an experienced actor. At the time, Russell described his character as "a mercenary, and his style of fighting is a combination of Bruce Lee, The Exterminator, and Darth Vader, with Eastwood's vocal-ness." All that matters to Snake, according to the actor, is "the next 60 seconds. Living for exactly that next minute is all there is." Russell used a rigorous diet and exercise program to develop a lean and muscular build. He also endeavored to stay in character between takes and throughout the shooting, as he welcomed the opportunity to get away from the Disney comedies he had done previously. He did find it necessary to remove the eyepatch between takes, as wearing it constantly seriously affected his depth perception.
Carpenter had just made Dark Star, but no one wanted to hire him as a director, so he assumed he would make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The filmmaker went on to do other films with the intention of making Escape later. After the success of Halloween, Avco-Embassy signed producer Debra Hill and him to a two-picture deal. The first film from this contract was The Fog. Initially, the second film he was going to make to finish the contract was The Philadelphia Experiment, but because of script-writing problems, Carpenter rejected it in favor of this project. However, Carpenter felt something was missing and recalls, "This was basically a straight action film. And at one point, I realized it really doesn't have this kind of crazy humor that people from New York would expect to see." He brought in Nick Castle, a friend from his film-school days at University of Southern California, who played "The Shape" in Halloween. Castle invented the Cabbie character and came up with the film's ending.
The film's setting proved to be a potential problem for Carpenter, who needed to create a decaying, semi destroyed version of New York City on a shoe-string budget. The film's production designer Joe Alves and he rejected shooting on location in New York City because it would be too hard to make it look like a destroyed city. Carpenter suggested shooting on a movie backlot, but Alves nixed that idea "because the texture of a real street is not like a back lot." They sent Barry Bernardi, their location manager (and associate producer), "on a sort of all-expense-paid trip across the country looking for the worst city in America," producer Debra Hill remembers.
Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, Illinois, because it was filled with old buildings "that exist in New York now, and [that] have that seedy run-down quality" that the team was looking for.
East St. Louis, sitting across the Mississippi River from the more prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Hill said in an interview, "block after block was burnt-out rubble. In some places, there was absolutely nothing, so that you could see three and four blocks away." Also, Alves found an old bridge to double for the "69th St. Bridge". The filmmaker purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge for one dollar from the government and then gave it back to them, for the same amount, once production was completed, "so that they wouldn't have any liability," Hill remembers. Locations across the river in St. Louis were used, including Union Station and the Fox Theatre, both of which have since been renovated, as well as the building that would eventually become the Schlafly Tap Room microbrewery.
Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer. "I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?' It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot".
Kurt Russell has stated that this is his favorite of all his films, and Snake Plissken is his favorite of his characters. Snake Plissken's eyepatch was suggested by Russell.
The opening narration, and the computer's voice in the first prison scene, were provided by an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis.
Adrienne Barbeau and John Carpenter were married at the time the film was released, as were Kurt Russell and Season Hubley.
Sound designer Alan Howarth was introduced to John Carpenter by the picture editor of the film, Todd Ramsay, who had worked with Howarth on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Howarth used equipment including ARP and Prophet-5 synthesizers and a Linn LM-1 drum machine, as well as an acoustic piano and Fender guitars, to create the palette of sounds used in the score, while Carpenter composed the melodies on the synthesizer keyboards. As the MIDI standard had yet to be invented, Howarth manually synchronized the equipment to picture while listening to a copy of the film's dialogue. Initial inspirational directions which Carpenter shared with Howarth included albums by Tangerine Dream and The Police.
Escape from New York was released in the United States on July 10, 1981. The film received positive reviews from critics and was a commercial success, grossing more than $25 million at the box office. The film was nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Science Fiction Film and Best Direction. The film became a cult classic and was followed by a sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996), which was also directed and written by Carpenter and starred Russell, but was much less favorably received.
The original negative was considered lost, but later found by the current owner of the film: MGM. It was subsequently used to create new elements for the Special Edition DVD.
Infamous for bad movie retitling, the German dub of the movie is known as "Die Klapperschlange" (The Rattlesnake). Snake has a cobra tattooed on his abdomen.
The name "Snake Plissken" was changed to "Hyena" for the Italian release, and "Cobra" in South Korea.
In March 2017, it was announced that Robert Rodriguez would direct a remake of the film with Carpenter producing it. In February 2019, it was reported that Leigh Whannell will be writing the script after Luther creator Neil Cross completed a recent iteration of the project.
What's Up Next?
Snake returns again in "Escape from LA"