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SYFY WIRE Escape from New York

John Carpenter talks tsunami surfing, West Coast sci-fi, and 'Escape From L.A.'

The horror master knows a thing or two about sci-fi, too.

By Adam Pockross
Kurt Russell And Pam Grier In 'Escape From L.A.'

There just aren’t a lot of characters as tough as Kurt Russell’s Lieutenant S.D. Bob "Snake" Plissken, as the world found out in John Carpenter’s 1981 classic, Escape From New York. But, fans would have to wait another 15 years before they’d learn that Snake isn’t just tough, but he’s also got game... and he can surf! And not just casually surf, but surf tsunamis, as he does in 1996's highly underrated sequel, Escape From L.A.

While it might seem like a stretch, Snake surfing and shooting hoops were two of the typical L.A. things that writer/director John Carpenter (Halloween) first thought of in order to bring Snake west, as the horror master told SYFY WIRE while promoting Escape From L.A.’s new 4K Ultra release.

“There’s several things that are identifiable with L.A. and the environs and locale [of] what happens in L.A. There’s surfing, there’s basketball, there’s all sorts of stuff like that here… pretty girls,” Carpenter says, while noting that he was “always” trying to tap into that L.A. kind of feel… all with an outrageous sci-fi bent.
Escape From L.A. takes place in an earthquake-ravaged, torn-from-the-mainland Los Angeles. The newly created island serves as a last stop for all the deportees who dare to express themselves and defy the theocratic totalitarian president (Cliff Robertson) and his new "Moral America.” Amidst this debauchery is Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), a Peruvian revolutionary who, with the help of the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), steals the remote control to the "Sword of Damocles" doomsday weapon — and only reluctant Snake can save the day.

Along the way, there’s a whole host of wacky characters, played by savvy vets like Stacy Keach (Commander Mac Malloy), Steve Buscemi (Map to The Stars Eddie), Pam Grier (Jack "Carjack" Malone / Hershe Las Palmas), Bruce Campbell (the plastic-faced Surgeon General of Beverly Hills) and Peter Fonda (Pipeline).

Of course, before Snake ever dreamed about escaping from L.A., he had to make his bones (and bury a few) on the East Coast. Carpenter says the idea for Snake's original escape came from classic pulpy sci-fi. 

Escape From New York was kind of based in a way on a novel by Harry Harrison [Planet Of The Damned] … it’s a science fiction novel where they send a bad man into a bad place, a bad planet,” Carpenter says. “So I just took that and started working with it. But this was back in the ‘70s, I was a young child, and I wrote it [as] bad guy, Snake Plisken; bad world: New York prison.”

Although it took 15 years, making Snake bi-coastal wasn’t all that much of a stretch from that original premise.

“Well, that was easy, it’s just a different city, but it’s my beloved city. We had some things that we could do immediately, which is to get Snake surfing, which is just something I wanted to do, and hit some high points here and there… locations, villains, so forth,” Carpenter says.

Appropriately, it’s Fonda’s character that sets Snake up with a stick to ride out the impending tsunami. And while Fonda and Carpenter became great friends thanks to the film, the writer/director says the tsunami came before the casting. “Surfing came first, the idea came first. then Peter.”

Either way though, it’s just a perfectly bonkers example of the fun Carpenter and company had with this film.

“Just a ridiculous idea. Why would he do it?” Carpenter laughs. “Well, anyway… it got to introduce Peter Fonda’s character, which I’m very fond of, having worked with Peter. Really became friends with him.”

Granted, surfing and hoops (Carpenter says that Russell really did make that last full-court shot!) weren’t the only reason he wanted to do the film. Carpenter also wanted to explore some real issues of the day, in a way that only sci-fi can allow for.

“No, [the surfing scene is] not the whole reason, it was one of the reasons,” Carpenter says. “The whole issue of deportation of immigrants was interesting to me, and L.A. being a place that would kick them out. Right wing government, that was all interesting exploration.”

Presciently enough, a lot of those very issues are still worth exploring.

“Well the right wing government came true, the deportations came true, the earthquake didn’t come true, I guess that’s not going to happen… the devastating earthquake, I don’t know. We’ll see, always time for it,” Carpenter says with a grin.

Beyond the exploration of social themes and surfing, Carpenter was also excited to work with Russell again, following on the success of their prior adventures together, not just in Escape From New York, but in 1979’s TV biopic Elvis, 1982’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece The Thing, and 1986’s totally ‘80s kung-fu/sci-fi thriller/comedy Big Trouble in Little China. But while Snake, Elvis, R.J. MacReady, and Jack Burton are all very different from each other, there are obvious similarities.

“Each one is very different. Very different. Elvis is very different, although he does share some similarities to Snake I guess. But MacReady is a straight version of Snake. Kind of they’re all these tough guys, in a way they’re tough guys,” Carpenter says.

Such range takes obvious “talent,” as Carpenter says, which was readily apparent to the director upon working with Russell on Elvis. “I said, ‘This is a guy I want to work with. He can play anything.’”

Escape From L.A. 4K art PRESS

Just the same, even with such a memorable character as Snake and all the talent in the film, Carpenter wasn’t really expecting to be discussing Escape From L.A. all these years later.

“Delighted. Yeah, I’m surprised,” Carpenter says. “Unexpected. I never think anybody’s gonna like what I do. I always hope they do, but I don’t think they will.”

Even so, Carpenter says he’s always thinking about his audience. “They’re foremost in my mind, always. But they don’t always agree with me.”

Alas, as far as box office went, the audience apparently disagreed with Carpenter back in ‘96. Just don’t ask him why that is.

“Well, I don’t know. Man, you’re asking the wrong dude here. I don’t know, I have no idea,” Carpenter says. “Look, it was released up against Independence Day. Escape From L.A. is a dark, nighlistic movie, okay? Independence Day is fun. Which one do you think is gonna work at the box office?”  

Maybe, but if you re-watch Escape From L.A., we’re pretty sure you’re gonna have a good time doing so.

You’ll have your chance too, as Escape From L.A. makes its 4K Ultra HD debut Tuesday, Feb. 22.