Criticized on its initial release in 1996, the director John Carpenter Escape from LA has earned a growing cult following.
After a decade in development, Kurt Russell returned to the iconic role of Snake Plissken in the post-apocalyptic sequel. After the success of his mission in New York, the government sends him to the West Coast to retrieve a potential doomsday device that is somewhere in the city, now an island and home to an army of nefarious characters.
Thanks to Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment, the director’s vision gets its sharpest release yet as it comes to 4K UHD for the first time.
I caught up with the iconic director to discuss the $50 million budget film, a part of his work he has always considered underrated.
Simon Thompson: Escape from LA has continued to garner a following over the years, and it’s been one of your favorites since its release. Is the film gaining popularity a validation of your love for this film? It looks like people are finally seeing what you saw there.
John Charpentier: I don’t know if that’s it or not. I’m just glad it’s gaining popularity. i really dig Escape from LA, and I always have. I love hang gliding and I love Peter Fonda as Pipeline. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Thompson: This is a 4K version. Escape from LA has been released in various formats over the years, but this is going to be the sharpest release you’ll ever see. Have you ever been tempted to go back and tweak it, improve it, or tweak it over the years?
Carpenter: No, not for a second.
Thompson: Why is that? George Lucas left with the star wars movies and things added or updated. Do you want to keep your work pure?
Carpenter: He’s a perfectionist, and I’m not. I am very lazy. I’m done with this movie, and I don’t want to go back to it. I finished it, thank God.
Thompson: It made $25 million. What do you remember from the opening weekend of Escape from LA? Did you go to theaters and watch it with an audience?
Carpenter: No, I didn’t do that. I just remember getting calls about Sherry Lansing’s numbers at the studio. In a way, they agreed because it was proportional to the first. I don’t remember what Escape from New York opened with, but this one opened around the same number, so that was fine. I just thought, ‘Whatever he does, he does.’
Thompson: Now we have social media to instantly gauge audience reaction to a movie. How and when did you find out if it worked for the public at the time? Did they see what you wanted them to see?
Carpenter: We only had test screenings with the public. We would sit and watch with them and see what they would take away. We had a length problem with Escape from LA, and we never solved that. It probably should have been scaled down a bit.
Thompson: What came out pretty early on in terms of the things that the audience engaged with? Did it meet your expectations?
Carpenter: Everyone liked surfing, which I thought they would like. They loved the hang glider which I was hoping for. These things are crowd pleasers.
Thompson: Was there a lot of stuff you shot that you didn’t get right?
Carpenter: There were things, yes, but not a lot.
Thompson: Is there anything that comes to mind that you would have liked to include? Do you have these images somewhere in the archives? Are you an archivist?
Carpenter: No and no.
Thompson: I often ask directors what they wanted to do in a film, but it wasn’t possible either because of budget or time constraints, or because the technology wasn’t available. You had 50 million dollars to do this. Was there something you wanted to try and achieve that didn’t happen?
Carpenter: Well, several things didn’t go as I would have liked. Even though we had a larger budget than Escape from New York, we did not have a sufficient budget. We could have used a little more money.
Thompson: Where would you spend that? Would it have been about the effects?
Thompson: Kurt really wanted it to be very involved. Escape from LA remains his only writing credit. What do you think he brought with his increased involvement that wasn’t already on the table with the first one?
Carpenter: It was his passion for the character and his love for the world we had created. It’s a world I left behind, but he rekindled it, and he rekindled my own love for him.
Thompson: What did he see in Snake that you didn’t see in character, that he missed or didn’t develop and saw the opportunity?
Carpenter: I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think he just wanted to see it again and relive it. I don’t know if he wanted to change anything, but he loved playing this character, and I think that was the most important thing.
Thompson: How well were you able to film on location in and around LA? I know a lot of it was on various soundstages and backlots, including the Universal Studios spot used in Back to the future for a large scene set in an abandoned theme park.
Carpenter: A lot of things happened on the streets of Los Angeles. We had an earthquake in 1994 so we used some of these areas. There was a street in the valley that we were using that had been destroyed. Oh, man. We didn’t even try to film Disneyland. They weren’t going to let us, so we used Universal’s backlot for that.
Thompson: You didn’t even bother to call Disney.
Carpenter: (Laughter) Oh, no, no, no, they weren’t going to let us get near them.
Thompson: When was the last time you and Kurt discussed doing another Snake Plissken movie? Do you still have discussions about more Getaways? There was a plan for a third, but it became Ghosts of Mars.
Thompson: You laugh. Is not it true?
Carpenter: Well, I accept it. No, that’s true enough. Kurt and I don’t talk about it anymore. Kurt feels he’s too old for the role now.
Thompson: If there was, would there ever be the prospect of Snake’s son taking over? Escape coat ?
Carpenter: I don’t know but maybe. You never know in this business.
Thompson: Who would you trust to pick it up and run with it? You felt comfortable with Blumhouse and Halloween. Would you like to direct it yourself?
Carpenter: No. I would like to be involved in music. It would be fun to do. It’s not a matter of trust. There are probably a lot of directors I trust, but I would like someone who is passionate about them.
Thompson: Does that mean you’re open to introductions?
Carpenter: Well, they’re doing something at 20th Century Studios. I believe they are working on a reboot of Escape from New York, but I don’t know what it is. That’s what I hear, anyway.
Thompson: Something I’ve always wanted to ask you Escape from LA is something that happens with the end of the film. Snake looks at the camera and delivers a line. Is Kurt breaking the fourth wall, or is Snake watching and talking to someone?
Carpenter: It breaks the fourth wall. He does what you’re not supposed to do as an actor; it is a transgression.
Thompson: Is this something you wanted or asked Kurt to do?
Carpenter: No (Laughs). It was Kurt. It was something he desperately wanted to do. He did it in that Tarantino movie too, Proof of death.
Thompson: Did you shoot different versions, some with him breaking the fourth wall and some with Kurt not?
Carpenter: No, he was engaged. He had so much fun with it. He loved doing it.
Thompson: If you don’t want to do another Escape film, would you return to directing or are you done?
Carpenter: I’m open to achieving, but I don’t want to work as hard as I’ve worked Escape from LA. and Ghosts of Mars. I worked very hard in these films. I almost killed myself and I didn’t want to work so hard anymore. I love this music business stuff. It’s awesome, and it’s a lot of fun.
Thompson: It’s almost become a second career for you.
Carpenter: It’s a second career, absolutely. I feel fabulous. There’s no stress, and there’s no bulls**t of the movie industry. It’s a whole different matter. That’s wonderful.
John Carpenter’s Los Angeles Escape arrives on 4K UHD for the first time on Tuesday, February 22, 2022.