Escape from New York Commentary

It’s time to round out this trifecta. We’ve already covered John Carpenter and Kurt Russell talking about their collaborations on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, and today it’s Snake Plissken’s turn. As with the other collaborations – Elvis and Escape From L.A. don’t count, since Carpenter and Russell didn’t provide commentaries for them – Escape From New York is arguably their best, creating an iconic character in Plissken and ratcheting out a gritty but intense sci-fi actioner that continued Carpenter’s trajectory as A-number one in the hearts of movie geeks all over.

Like the previous commentaries, this one is sure to be loaded with information from behind the scenes as well as what has to be one of the best examples of camaraderie between an actor and director in recent history. It’s the kind of collaboration that makes you want a third Snake Plissken movie even now, 16 years after the character surfed down a flooded Sunset Boulevard. Yeah, that was dumb, but we’ve gotten over it. Until that day comes when Plissken – The name is Snake – strapped the leg holsters back on, we’ll have to fall back on this action classic made fresh with a solid commentary running over it.

So let’s get to it, shall we? All 31 things we learned listening to the commentary for Escape From New York.

Escape From New York (1981)

commentators: John Carpenter (co-writer, director), Kurt Russell (‘Snake Plissken’), Kurt Russell’s infectious laughter

1. The screenplay for Escape From New York was written in 1974, “before Ronald Reagan was president,” as Carpenter notes. He mentions Jimmy Carter was president when the screenplay was written, and American was swept up in the news of terrorists being held in Iran. “It was a real turning point in American when we made it,” Carpenter says also noting the resonance the screenplay had for its time.

2. An early version of the film Carpenter screened for an early audience didn’t have the prologue narration about the United States’ crime rate and New York City being established as a prison city. This information came much later in the film, and the audience was checked out of the film by that point. The narration and map now seen in the beginning were added late in the game. “I think in science fiction movies, especially movies where you have to set the rules for the future, you have to do it in a very clear way right up front, so the audience says, ‘Ah ha. I understand where you’re taking me,’,” he explains.

3. The film had a budget of $5m, not much at all for a film as ambitious as Escape From New York. Carpenter points out the various matte paintings of New York City used early in the film, also mentioning it was a young James Cameron who painted them.

4. They only had two days to shoot in New York City, one of the shots they got being the underside view of a helicopter flying by the Statue of Liberty. Much of the film was in LA and downtown St. Louis, which had just had massive fire damage to buildings and streets. “There weren’t even bums on the street,” says Russell. Downtown St. Louis is always pretty ratty, though, so the fire might not have had much of a factor in that post-apocalyptic area.

5. Carpenter mentions a deleted scene, which can be viewed on this DVD, where it shows Snake Plissken robbing a bank and getting caught, leading to the events in New York City. The director notes this scene was cut, because the audience at the time was “totally confused.”

6. Donald Pleasence wrote a complete backstory for his character about how he became President of the United States. According to Carpenter, it had something to do with Margaret Thatcher taking over the world and making the United States a colony once again. “I didn’t use any of it,” says Carpenter. He mentions Pleasence got the hang of the film when he realized it was a comedy.

7. “Basically he’s going to this specially designed, Presidential pod, which I now realize as a writer doesn’t make any sense at all,” jokes Carpenter, who also mentions the technology in the film was inspired by James Bond gadgetry. Evidently they don’t have jet packs in the future world of 1997, though.

8. Russell mentions a scrapped idea for the film about a self-lighting cigarette, and idea that Carpenter notes was all Russell’s. “Unfortunately, as I recall,” says Carpenter, “you burned your fingers.” He also notes they couldn’t pull the specially effect off due to lack of budget.

9. Carpenter mentions Lee Van Cleef, the amazing actor playing Hauk, had suffered a knee injury prior to filming Escape From New York, an injury he wasn’t fully recovered from when it came time to film his scenes. His wife was on set to make sure the actor could get through his scenes, especially those that required him to walk and act at the same time. Carpenter notes Van Cleef told him the scene with Hauk and Snake Plissken walking down a hallway discussing the mission was the toughest he shot for the film.

10. While developing the Snake Plissken character and look, Russell and Carpenter decided the character had previously fought a war in Siberia, hence the black and white camouflage the character wears instead of the classic green. As if you could see Snake Plissken anyway.

11. Snake Plissken wearing an eye patch was a spur-of-the-moment idea from Kurt Russell, which worked much better than the self-lighting cigarette. According to Russell, he had two different eye patches, one with a perforation in it for action scenes.

12. “He’s got to help her,” jokes Russell during the scene where Snake completely ignores a rape. Carpenter notes the actress in the scene tried to talk him out of the scene altogether, but Russell just laughs even harder at how unphased Snake is by the whole situation.

13. Carpenter notes the obvious chemistry between Snake and the Chock Full O’Nuts Girl played by Season Hubley, who Russell was married to at the time. “Here for a moment we’re thinking maybe Snake is gonna hook up with her,” says Carpenter. Russell mentions they didn’t want Snake to kiss the girl, as it wouldn’t jive with his attitude, but they also didn’t want to make him an asexual character. “Although I think that’s pretty much what we ended up with,” says Russell, who obviously laughs afterward.

14. Carpenter mentions he was speaking with his producing partner Debra Hill “the other day,” and Isaac Hayes’ name came up. Evidently he had sent them both a message saying “I’m not dead, man.” He was referring to a potential sequel to Escape From New York and the possibility of bringing The Duke of New York back. Georges Corraface got that comparable role. Anyone remember that guy?

15. Russell points out how the film is science fiction, yet Carpenter chose to populate it with classic cars. The director explains he wanted to include a “little bit of reality and a little bit of the past in the future.” He says this gives the film resonance.

16. Dick Warlock, a John Carpenter regular on the stunt team, comes up in conversation, and Russell mentions the stuntman had been his own for 22 years, the first movie they worked on together being Disney’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Carpenter mentions they’re remaking it. A little investigating says this commentary was recorded in 1994, and thank God that remake idea still hasn’t gotten momentum.

17. Carpenter brings up a critic who panned Escape From New York, one of the reasons they didn’t like it being how it depicts New York City’s Broadway as a four-lane street, which it isn’t. “Well, I was concerned with looking cool in a ’64 station wagon,” jokes Russell.

18. “Ike has a great face, doesn’t he?” asks Carpenter rhetorically about Isaac Hayes. According to the director, the facial twitch The Duke of New York has was Hayes’ idea, and he chose to only do it when the character was around Snake Plissken.

19. During production, there were concerns that the film took place too much at night and was dark all the way throughout. Carpenter notes the scene during the day where the security helicopters in was thrown in at the last minute to get a little brightness in front of the film’s audiences. Russell notes the scene looks like something from Roots but with helicopters.

20. Russell mentions he and Carpenter bounced back and forth on ideas of why he was called “Snake.” The stomach tattoo was added as such. “I must say that after we did this I got some of my favorite fan letters from girls who saw this tattoo,” says Russell, laughing all the way through. “They thought that was wonderful.” Carpenter mentions he wouldn’t mind reading some of those letters. Russell laughs at this. The world laughs with him.

21. “Boy, this takes me back,” says Russell, who goes on to explain that it was a simpler time, this movie had a simpler story, and that they just had fun making a movie. “You were dancing on your feet,” he says to Carpenter, who mentions he was just starting his career and Russell was starting the second half of his acting career. Russell mentions Carpenter was the only one willing to take a chance on him as an action star. “Well I figured you could play Elvis, you could play anything,” says Carpenter.

22. Carpenter notes he wanted the prisoners to carry primitive weapons and that the only prisoner he wanted carrying more than crossbows or spears was The Duke. “It’s almost like a medieval film except in the future,” he says. He mentions all the actors’ investment in their individual characters gave the film a better sense of reality.

23. Slag, the prisoner who Snake has a wrestling match with, was played by actual pro wrestler Ox Baker, who, according to Carpenter, was a nice man but got carried away with his moves against Kurt Russell. Russell remembers his stuntman, Dick Warlock, rehearsing with Baker. Afterwards the only advice he could give Russell was “Good luck.” Carpenter remembers Baker cutting his leg while he was entering the ring to shoot the scene. The director asked the wrestler if it hurt, to which the wrestler responded, “Does what hurt?” “So I knew that we were dealing with a pretty rough guy,” says Carpenter.

24. As part of the President’s “humiliation” at the hands of The Duke and his men, Donald Pleasence decided to wear a long, blond wig, what Carpenter call’s “Donald’s contribution to the fun.” The director also notes there were concerns with the studio about how much they were making fun of the President of the United States. Guess the British accent didn’t clue them into how ridiculous it all is.

25. To pull of the stunt where Snake kills Slag with a baseball bat to the back of the head – nail included – Kurt Russell actually had to hit Ox Baker in the back with a real baseball bat with a real nail in it. Baker had special padding on the back of his neck to absorb the impact, but Carpenter and Russell both mention how nervous the pro wrestler was.

26. Early in the commentary, Carpenter notes a cut sequence involving a Native American tribe living in a New York City theater. These are the people who cut Snake’s plane loose and pushes it off the Twin Towers, which explains the line, “Damn Redskins!”

27. Production was unable to use the actual 69th Street Bridge for the film’s climactic chase, so a small bridge, The Chain of Rocks Bridge, about 20 minutes outside of downtown St. Louis was dressed up and made to look much bigger than it actually is.

28. According to Russell, the character of Maggie, played by Adrienne Barbeau, is the only character in the film Snake really cares about, and the scene where she dies is the only moment of true sadness in the film. They didn’t originally show her on the ground bleeding, only the Duke’s car hitting her. Carpenter wanted to get the show that tells us she is for sure dead, and the shot seen in the film was taken in Carpenter’s own garage. He was married to Barbeau at the time, so I guess it was her garage, too.

29. Carpenter explains that Donald Pleasence was a World War II pilot in the Royal Air Force who was shot down, held and tortured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. “He invested his scene with a little bit of reality,” says Carpenter over the moment where the President kills the Duke.

30. They toyed with the idea of having the government agents reveal they never put a bomb in Snake’s neck and tricked him into going on the mission, but they decided to save that stupid plot point for Escape From LA.

31. Originally, Carpenter wanted Snake to flick his cigarette at the President and hit him in the chest. Russell wasn’t comfortable with this, though he doesn’t mention if he was more nervous about flicking his cigarette at Donald Pleasence or flicking his cigarette at someone portraying POTUS. He and Carpenter compromised on Snake casually tossing the cigarette in the President’s general direction.

Best in Commentary

“He has no respect for anybody. His lines indicate that he doesn’t know who’s President, he doesn’t know what’s what, or where he’s going, and he doesn’t care, nonetheless. He’s the kind of a guy after my own heart.” – John Carpenter about Snake Plissken

“Really what we come down to here is this is a world where there are very few good guys left. There’s a lot of oppression and brutality, and the man who shines and carries out the mission and is the most dependable and the most courageous of all is the most despicable, toughest criminal.” – John Carpenter

“If you’re gonna be stuck in that situation for the rest of your life, why not put some chandeliers on your car.” – Kurt Russell, who laughs afterward

“I would like to say to the audience, rather than being pretentious, this is really the way a director and an actor talk. It’s really not a whole lot of laying on of themes and pretension. It’s really straight-forward. That’s the way we love to make films, and I think that’s the way we should.” – John Carpenter

Final Thoughts

Some would argue that John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are the greatest director/actor collaboration we’ve seen. Some would argue that. It is a much easier argument, though, to put these two at the top of the collaboration list when it comes to DVD commentaries. Right along with those done for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, this commentary for Escape From New York is chock full o’ information and fun. As Carpenter says it himself near the end, “this is really the way a director and an actor talk.” There is no denying Carpenter and Russell are good friends, and that relationship comes across in commentaries just as well as it does in their movies.

The only blip in this commentary collaboration is that they only did the three commentaries, but it’s a good enough team when it comes to divulging information about theory, technique, and stories from the set that you could listen to Russell and Carpenter chat over any movie. Where is the Escape From LA commentary? Even though that movie is a so-bad-it’s-almost-a-masterpiece rehash of Escape From New York, but commentaries for bad movies can be just as interesting as those for great ones.


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