Starting after his 1974 post-graduate film, Dark Star, John Carpenter had an unprecedented streak of highly entertaining to flat-out classic films ‐ Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble In Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live and (after a studio misstep involving Chevy Chase) In the Mouth of Madness. That’s an insane accomplishment and deserves far more recognition than it gets.
Equally memorable, but for a completely different field, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was a wrestler who dabbled in acting without ever really leaving the ring behind. He died recently at too young of an age, but thankfully he sat down a few years back with Carpenter to record a commentary track for Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of They Live documenting their shared appreciation for each other and the process of making the film.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for They Live.
They Live (1988)
Commentators: John Carpenter (director/writer), Roddy Piper (ass-kicker/bubblegum-chewer/actor)
1. It cost $12k to have the train roll by for the opening shot. A technical snafu required them to do it a second time.
2. The film was released in Europe as Invasion Los Angeles.
3. Carpenter mentions the various bumps and troubles they had while filming in downtown Los Angeles, and Piper adds “like paying the gangs off.” The director agrees but adds no details.
4. The two met for the first time at Wrestlemania III in Pontiac, MI on March 29, 1987.
5. Carpenter brought real “homeless folks” into the production for several scenes and smaller characters and gave them food as well as paychecks. “I thought that was a pretty classy thing to do,” says Piper.
6. Carpenter is still fascinated that the film opened at #1 at the box office. Suck it U2.
7. Piper recalls it being uncomfortably easy getting into the mindset of a homeless person. “I lived on the street myself,” he says, “so it didn’t take long to kind of get the feeling of what’s going on. Everybody’s got their own little life and they think that’s it, and nobody’s helping nobody.”
8. Piper’s shirtless scene leads raises a conspiracy theory that no one but Piper was aware of. “The rumor was that you had taken my head and put it on someone else’s body,” says the actor, “and people don’t believe that’s my body.” “What are you talking about?” asks Carpenter incredulously. Apparently Piper was dogged at subsequent wrestling events by fans claiming the film had used computers to falsify his physique. “That’s ridiculous,” says Carpenter.
9. Carpenter points out that Piper has made more movies than he has. “I’ve only made 20,” says the director. “Yeah, but you made 20 good ones,” replies Piper.
10. The abandoned, overgrown locale where the homeless camp sits is still undeveloped (as of the the commentary recording).
11. Carpenter sent Piper and Keith David off to lunch one day and instructed them to remain in character. The goal was camaraderie, not alien hunting, and it seemed to work. “You came back and I said ‘Well what happened?’ and you said ‘We didn’t have to say much, there we were together.’” Piper adds they were just comfortable with each other.
12. “That’s my pitiful harmonica playing there,” says Piper as his character appears onscreen playing the harmonica pitifully. “That song, Jay the Alaskan York made up called ‘La Brea Tar Pit Blues’.” “Jay Alaskan what?” asks Carpenter. “He was 320lbs, whip around his neck,” says Piper.
13. The movie cost “about $4 million to make.”
14. Piper comments on the first scene showing hidden messages in the TV broadcast by adding that it has a historical precedent in The Brunswick Affair. It refers to a company that manufactured a special television designed to feature subliminal messages for the purposes of advertising suggestion. “All of a sudden a housewife would come home with 50lbs of dog food, and she didn’t even own a dog!” “Very truthful!” he adds after Carpenter scoffs a bit. The Brunswick Affair is actually a mockumentary made in the ’70s about manufactured consumerism.
15. Piper points out the shot of his character, John Nada, walking by himself. “Lonely guy, always walking by himself, which is pretty much the character and pretty much the truth,” he says. “Kind of a little bit of an introvert.”
16. The scene where the police attack and destroy the homeless encampment was difficult for Piper to shoot as it reminded him of similar events he witnessed in his own life. “It was a painful scene for me,” he says.
17. Carpenter compliments the film’s matte painting work featured in the scene where Nada first looks through the sunglasses and points out that it was done by “one of the unheralded geniuses in our business, Jim Danforth.”
18. Unsurprisingly, both men have a problem with authority. “I have this adolescent hatred of authority,” says Carpenter. “I’ve never gotten over it since I was a kid.” Piper adds “Ask me for my short off my back I’ll give it to you, tell me? Not a chance.”
19. Carpenter says that stunt coordinator Jeff Imada played every ghoul, both male and female, but IMDB lists a female ghoul as played by Michelle Costello and obviously there are a few scenes with multiple ghouls onscreen. I think what he meant was that Imada played the ghouls who had close-ups/speaking parts. “He could fit into the costumes,” says Carpenter before Piper adds “and he didn’t mind the pumps. When you have 14 black belts you can wear pumps!”
20. Piper recalls the scene in the grocery store where Nada falls down as being a rare moment when Carpenter second-guessed his decision after the fact. “At the time you said ‘do it,’ but then you thought maybe it made our hero look clumsy.” “I must have been taking some drugs,” explains Carpenter as he thinks it’s perfectly fine now.
21. The film features at least two iconic moments, the first of which is Nada’s classic line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Piper had previously written the line in his notebook of potential verbal bits during his wrestling career. He shared the notebook with Carpenter, and they agreed that this particular line fit the character and the film perfectly. Piper went on to use it at a wrestling match.
22. After Nada kills several ghouls and exits into a side street he comes face to face with a human cop who he disarms and tells to leave. The actual phrase he uses is “Beat your feet,” but according to Piper the actor apparently misinterpreted it on the first take and began running in place. “God bless him,” he says, “his heart was into it big time.”
23. The two spend some time discussing the less goofy and glamorous side of professional wrestling including Piper’s record for having fought the most matches at 7000. “Closest to me is [Ric] Flair with 5000,” he says. “To get in there one time now is a strain, where I’d just jump in there before.” He also points out a depressing fact on the topic saying “My sport, professional wrestling, has the highest suicide rate of any sport in the world. We just lost another one two or three days ago.”
24. Carpenter points out the wide shot showing cop cars heading towards Holly’s (Meg Foster) house saying “That’s coming down my street, I live over there.” Piper seems to think that’s too much information citing a recent issue with a stalker. “Two years stalking my family,” he says, “gun runner.” They agree to discuss that in more detail once they stop recording.
25. “Now we’re about to start one of the great fight scenes in movie history,” says Carpenter, and he’s not wrong. “It’s a real fight. It’s not a flashy fight in terms of you guys don’t have kung-fu going, you don’t have martial arts, you’re not flying through the air. You’re just going at it.” Piper and David rehearsed the fight in Carpenter’s back yard for over two months.
26. Carpenter told Piper during production that he wanted to include a suplex in the fight, to which Piper replied “Which one?” before attempting to demonstrate a few on the director himself. Carpenter managed to avoid falling victim to those, but he did consent to letting Piper subject him to a sleeper hold and vouches for its authenticity.
27. “Life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat” is Randy ‘The Macho Man’ Savage’s favorite line in the film.
28. Piper is no fan of his performance during the scene where Nada and Frank talk post-fight in the motel room. Carpenter tells him he was proud of him though for opening up and delivering an authentic, “real” performance. Piper wishes he had pushed himself harder, but Carpenter tells him that he still watches his old films thinking he could have done this or that better.
29. Carpenter has been a wrestling fan since he was a kid. “I even wrote a column for The Ring magazine.”
30. Carpenter recalls an early screening at Los Angeles’ City Walk where a young kid exited the film seemingly confused with what he had seen. “He had been brought up with Rambo films,” he says. “He was expecting it to be jingoistic and rah-rah, and it bothered him a little” that the point of the film was instead the idea of class divide.
31. Piper credits Carpenter and They Live with jump-starting the wrestler turned actor migration. “I was the first wrestler ever in the history of wrestling to star in a major motion studio picture that became #1 box office of the weekend, and that gave the itch to I don’t know how many wrestlers. And not one of them to this day has put out a quality picture like this, and not one of them has had a #1 hit like this.” He’s conveniently forgetting Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson…
32. Vince McMahon didn’t want Piper to do the film. “Yeah, I figured,” says Carpenter. McMahon told Piper that he would find him a different film at the same pay rate within four weeks, but Piper passed and ended up splitting with the WWF. Carpenter asks why, and Piper states plainly that McMahon is a control freak. “When I came back to wrestling I was twice as important as when I left,” he says and credits Carpenter and the success of the film. “The politics of that business is something I don’t get,” says Carpenter.
33. Piper regrets his performance in the final scene ‐ flipping the bird to the bad guys ‐ and thinks it “should have been straight and strong” instead of weak and slightly bent.
Best in Commentary
- Piper: “It’s been twelve years since John and I watched this movie, and we’re going to be so truthful with you.”
- Piper: “I kept the glasses, and I take them to every Hooters I can. No, no, no, I’m a grandfather. Just teasing.”
- Piper: “I like choir music. I sincerely do!”
- Carpenter: “You had some nice hair in those days my friend.”
- Piper: “Never fight with a woman. You can never win.”
Piper never really became much of an actor despite his numerous acting credits, but he was never less than an energetic and charismatic presence onscreen. He’s right that They Live, his first legitimate film, is still his best and most memorable feature, and hopefully he knew that he was a major part of the film’s success over the years. He gets the final word on the commentary, so we’ll let it be the final, fitting word on this Commentary Commentary too. “May you be half an hour in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead.”