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Escape From New York: New book details the making of John Carpenter's dystopian classic (Exclusive)

Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film goes on sale from Titan Books Tuesday, Dec. 14.

By Josh Weiss
Kurt Russell Escape From New York GETTY

It's the film that gave the world Snake Plissken and kicked off John Carpenter's multi-project collaboration with Kurt Russell. We are, of course, referring to Escape From New York, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. To ring in that commendable milestone, Titan Books and StudioCanal will release an in-depth look at the making of the dystopian classic with never-before-seen images and interviews. On sale next month, Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film hails from author John Walsh, who spoke with SYFY WIRE last year about his publication chronicling the ill-fated production of Flash Gordon.

Recently hopping on another Zoom call with SYFY WIRE, Mr. Walsh discussed his exciting foray into the CarpenterVerse and provided us with several exclusive stills from the new book — one of which shows a pre-Terminator James Cameron working on a matte painting for Escape From New York on behalf of Roger Corman's New World Pictures (the famed low-budget company was brought aboard to handle visual effects after Star Wars vet John Dykstra proved to be too expensive).

"I knew that James Cameron had worked on the picture, but I didn't know to what extent," Walsh explained. "He was much more involved than [just] assisting people. He created shots. We have lovely photos of Jim Cameron in the book, working on matte paintings. I just think how much Roger Corman and his work made the film a success and a real possibility and the springboard for people like Jim Cameron and others from that. That was really pleasing to find those connections and see that they all started in this book."

James Cameron Lining Up A Glass Matte Shot

Written by Carpenter and Nick Castle (the man who played Michael Myers in the original Halloween), Escape From New York takes place in an alternate version of 1997 where Manhattan has been sealed off from the rest of the country as a maximum-security prison. When the President of the United States (played by another Halloween vet, Donald Pleasance) accidentally crashes in the city, the eyepatch-wearing antihero Snake Plissken (Russell) is brought in to rescue the commander-in-chief from the clutches of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).

"The film was written as a result or as a reaction to the Watergate scandal," Walsh said. "So when President Richard Nixon resigned ahead of being impeached, John Carpenter wrote this ... It’s all about how democracy has fallen apart and how our leaders have let us down ... The whole film’s social breakdown is based on things being rotten at the very top."

In terms of interviews, Walsh spoke with "everyone who’s alive who worked on the film." That included Carpenter, Russell, Adrienne Barbeau (Maggie), producer Debra Hill, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and more. One of the many things you'll learn from these discussions is that Snake would have been played by Charles Bronson, had Carpenter not put his foot down.

"John was like, ‘That ain’t happening.’ He was worried the thing would happen to him that happened to the director of Spartacus. When you have an actor who's much more significant and more powerful than the director, often the director can get kicked off the picture by the leading man. Kirk Douglas famously had the director of Spartacus fired and he brought in his own man, Stanley Kubrick, thinking that Kubrick would give him an easier time. Of course, that wasn’t the case at all. Even then, John was having to be the political and push for what he wanted."

When it came to cast members who have sadly since passed away (Pleasance, Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton among them), Walsh drew from unpublished interviews. In addition, he wanted to get into the minutiae of how the production team pulled off the groundbreaking visual effects that — for the most part — still hold up to this day.

"How did they do them? Why did they do them like that? Where did they do them like that? And are there any photos of them doing it like that? That’s what I wanted! That’s the real geek-head fanboy part of me," the author added. "I want to see how they did it and I want to see pictures of them doing it. It’s really hard to find that stuff because you can find so many shots of actors looking this way and looking that way and shirt on, shirt off. It’s like, ‘That’s nice…but I want real behind-the-scenes stuff.’"

Dean Cundey John Carpenter At The Prison Wall
Cast Harry Dean Stanton Adrienne Barbeau Kurt Russell and Donald Pleasence
John Carpenter On The Air Force One Set

Made on a modest budget of $6 million, Escape From New York went on to make just over $25 million at the global box office.

"This was probably, in my view, his career peak because after this film, he didn’t really have a commercial success with the exception of maybe Christine," Walsh said. "But that didn’t do quite as well as Columbia Pictures was hoping. People say, Oh, what about The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China?’ No. They were on, every level, considered to be a failure at the time."

Escape From New York now enjoys a cult classic status and a creative influence over filmmakers. For example, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves looked to the film's iconic theatrical poster (which depicts the Statue of Liberty's head lying in the middle of Manhattan) while crafting memorable visuals for their 2008 found footage monster flick, Cloverfield. Moreover, the character of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game series was directly based on Plissken — both in name and look.

And while there haven't been any updates on the project for more than a year, The Invisible Man's Leigh Whannell is supposedly working on a modern remake for the Disney-owned 20th Century Studios. For all intents and purposes, Escape From New York is a bona fide cultural touchstone.

"We look back now, 40 years [later] it’s one of the classics from 1981, but the other films that were around in 1981 — like Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, and Raiders of the Lost Ark — most of those haven’t been remastered in 4K. Even Raiders has only just been done this year and yet, this was done two or three years ago," Walsh concluded. "Carpenter’s films are regularly 4K scanned, they’re regularly resold to us, we keep buying them with new sleeves and with extra bits and bobs. He has become a little mini-industry."

Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film goes on sale from Titan Books Tuesday, Dec. 14.

Harry Dean Stanton Adrienne Barbeau Kurt Russell and Donald Pleasence