Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Call Me Snake

Greetings readers. I've been away from Cinema Raiders lately, but fear not. I'm happy to report that everything is going well. Here's a little treat for you John Carpenter fans out there... an article from the November 1981 issue of Fantastic Films all about Escape From New York (which also turns 31 this year).

Escape From New York
by Blake Mitchell and Jim Ferguson
Poor New York, as if time and inflation haven't already taken their toll. Added to her list of woes are filmmakers who have for years been taking cinematic slaps at the 'grande ole dame.' Giant apes have swung from her tallest buildings. Tidal waves have devastated her streets and parks. People in red and blue suits have clogged up her airways, leaping tall buildings, and etc. Hostile invaders from semi-earthly werewolves and vampires to dyed-in-the-wool extraterrestrials, have nibbled on it's inhabitants. Now, John Carpenter, after having warmed up by wreaking havoc on northern California with The Fog has added his name to the long list of filmmakers who have taken their  bite from the "big apple." And John's teeth just may have left the biggest mark to date.
It is 1997. A nearly destroyed New York City has become a walled-in prison for over three million convicted criminals who have lost, but survived. a brutal Civil War against the United States Police Force. In this maximum security prison-city, escape has been made impossible. Every bridge is mined and walled. The Statue of Liberty has become just another guard tower from which officers in infrared goggles blast, on sight, any prisoners desperate enough to attempt escape. Radar scanners revolve and helicopters circle the island of Manhattan endlessly. Other than the monthly food drops made by air into Central Park, these outcasts are left completely on their own, to prey on one another.
Into this living hell, a master criminal, Snake Plissken - played by Kurt Russell, is sent alone on a mission as dangerous as the inmates within its walls. Snake must rescue the President of the United States, whose plane has crashed inside New York City on it's way to a world summit conference. The President, played by Donald Pleasence, is carrying papers that are crucial to the survival of world peace and it is up to Snake to safely return both the President and the tape cassette within twenty-tour hours. As a deadly incentive, two microscopic explosives are implanted in his main arteries which could kill the famous crook in an instant, should he abandon his rescue mission.
Once inside New York, Snake is pitted against roving street gangs of violent criminals and the "crazies," the criminally insane, who live in the subway systems and at night pour out of the manholes like sewer rats to attack and kill whomever they can. It is the most powerful of these New York street gangs, the "gypsies," and their leader "The Duke," played by Isaac Hayes, who hold the President hostage, demanding immediate amnesty for all inhabitants of New York City in exchange for his safe release.
When Snake manages to track down "The Duke," he is immediately stripped of the guns given him for the mission, shot with an arrow in the leg and savagely beaten. In spite of his weakened condition, Duke's gang sends Snake into a blood-stained boxing ring - instantly recognizable as a debased Madison Square Garden - to fight a Roman gladiator type contest, using nail filled baseball bats as weapons. Although his opponent Slag, played by Ox Baker, is a sadistic mountain of a man, Snake manages to kill him after a terrible battle, much to the delight of thousands of blood thirsty spectators.
Snake then manages to Slip away from Duke and his gypsies and proceeds to carry out a spectacular rescue attempt of the President on the 69th Street Bridge, amid exploding mines and bloody fights. But just as the President and Snake are hauled over the edge of the wall, Snake is pulled back down by the Duke, who is intent on retrieving the  President and killing Snake. The two powerful criminals fight a fierce battle to the death, but even if Snake wins the struggle, he still may lose his race against time to have the detonating devices neutralized.
The genesis of Escape From New York began with Carpenter's first visit to New York City. ''I'd heard all the show biz cliches about the place: the white lights of Broadway, the city of cities, etc. In actuality, parts of the city were pretty bad," said Carpenter. Taking the basic idea of a completely ruined New York, and expanding it to its limit, Carpenter wrote the first draft for the film in 1974. He then shelved the resulting script until early 1980, when Avco Embassy gave him the go ahead. Bringing in Nick Castle to help rewrite and finalize the script in Spring 1980 with production to begin in late summer of that year. If the name Nick Castle sounds familiar, Nick worked with Carpenter on his first feature Dark Star, as assistant cameraman and a brief performance in the film operating the extraterrestrial "beach ball" monster. In 1978, Nick re-teamed with Carpenter starring as the "shape" in Halloween.
As he had done on The Fog, Carpenter wrote certain characters for specific actors. Snake Plissken was written with Kurt Russell in mind, while Cabbie, the Yellow Cab driving inmate, was written with veteran actor Ernest Borgnine in mind. The same is true of Maggie, played by Adrienne Barbeau (Mrs. Carpenter) and Maureen, played by Season Hubley (Mrs. Kurt Russell).
Escape From New York, Carpenter's largest budget production to date, will come to a total budget of seven million dollars. The enormous scope of the movie also resulted in Carpenter's longest shooting schedule to date - a demanding, logistically complex, three month shoot. Quite a difference from Halloween which was shot in just 20 days and came in costing under $400,000.
Finding locations to simulate a ravaged and devastated New York city, circa 1997, was no mean feat. Location coordinator Barry Bernardi had his hands full attempting to find suitable stand-ins for such New York sights as Madison Square Garden, the 69th Street Bridge, and the World Trade Center, because the actual locations could not realistically have been used for the purposes required.
The city of St. Louis, Missouri proved to be of invaluable help by providing some of the needed "doubles." Because the city's architecture was similar to that of a major east coast city, and was within close proximity to a big, accessible, yet closed bridge - the Chain of Rocks Bridge - which doubles for the 69th Street Bridge, and especially because of the fine cooperation and assistance from the city itself, St. Louis filled the bill. It was the city's old Union Train Station that stood in for Madison Square Garden. Carpenter had littered the downtown section of St. Louis with dozens of junked cars and hundreds of pounds of trash. It became the city streets of the corrupted, futuristic Manhattan.
Four different locations in Los Angeles alone helped to visualize the site of the World Trade Center, while in Atlanta, Georgia, the MARTA system - Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority - became a futuristic trans-continental train used in an early sequence in the film. Some location shooting was done in the city of New York, the most stunning segment being shot on Liberty Island, at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Responsible for the extraordinary sets and various designs used in the film was production designer Joe Alves. Alves, whose previous credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jaws I and II, had his work cut out for him in creating the complex designs needed throughout the film. The demands of the script called for a series of dichotomous sets: the austere, stark United States Police Force world, with its clean lines and colorless backgrounds, versus the inside of Manhattan with its medieval, reverted landscape. Each has its own special look, textured and consistent throughout, which lends a distinctive tone to the film. 
Some designs were decidedly more demanding than others, particularly the crash site of Air Force One, the central control center for the United States Police Force with its dazzling display of flashing computers, video monitors and light-emitting diodes, the exterior portion of the U.S.P.F. offices leading to the underground headquarters, and a portion of the wall that contains New York City. This section of the wall plays a vital role in the end of the film, and it was Alves who designed the 33-feet-high, 200 feet-long monolith, which took over one month to build. He also had a hand in the creation of a small robot used in one sequence, as well as the design for the Presidential escape pod, with which the President makes good his safe fall to earth from the crashing Air Force One.
Escape From New York brings to the screen a number of technical firsts, particularly in the area of cinematography. Director of Cinematography, Dean Cundey, utilizes new (special) lenses called Ultra Speed Panatars, from Panavision, whish are being used for the first time throughout an entire feature film on Escape. Because of different kinds of glass and better coatings, these lenses are extremely fast, meaning the film could be shot at the necessary low light levels, with the resulting footage exceptionally sharp.
Another first is the use of a "computerized light modulator," invented and built by Cundey and Joy Brown. One of its many functions is that of controlling a number of lights, blinking them on and off, either in unison or at random rates. But perhaps the most amazing of its abilities is the machine's talent for flickering lights to simulate firelight. In layman's terms, it is an electronic-eye photo-cell which, when aimed at a real fire, will cause the cell to register back to the light modulator, which in turn flickers all lights plugged into it, precisely as the firelight flickers. The end result is a totally realistic and extremely dramatic lighting effect. Cundey says, "There is simply nothing else like it around today."
While not a first, it is interesting to note that approximately 25% of the film was shot using Panaglide, a version of the special Academy Award-winning camera termed the Steadicam. The Panaglide allows the freedom of movement that comes with using a hand-held camera, yet is extraordinarily smoother. The resulting coverage lends an almost dreamlike quality to the film, quite appropriate for the nightmare situation inside New York City.
A large number of special effects people have had their hands in the film too. The entire special effects division at New World Pictures is responsible for all of the film's visual effects, models and miniatures. According to Mary Ann Fisher, who is the head of production at New World, a number of different optical effects are utilized throughout the picture, including matte paintings, glass paintings, models, time-lapse photography, and model animation.
One of the special models built for the film was a ten by ten foot scale miniature of New York City where one-half inch on the model equals ten feet of Manhattan. The miniature includes the water surrounding the city and even the sight of the Brooklyn bridge in the distance.
The responsibility for all the "live" special effects in the film, from explosions to mechanical devices such as the Presidential escape pod, fell into the capable hands of special effects pro, Roy Arbogast. Editing for Escape was done by Todd Ramsay who's impressive credits include Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Steve Loomis, costume designer for Escape From New York, found his work on the film to be one of the most challenging jobs yet. With a long list of noteworthy credits, from such features as The Fog, Valentine, and Family Dream, to designing clothes for such rock stars as Elton John, The Jacksons, and Stevie Wonder, he still found his imagination taxed trying to design clothes for a 1997 Manhattan. It was up to Loomis to design futuristic "trash'" clothes for the inmates inside New York, whose only clothes were the ones left on their backs, or ones they had salvaged from the waste of the city. In fact. Loomis actually ended up doing some of his costume shopping at city dumps, for a truly "authentic" look.
One of the more difficult aspects of the job was designing the star's outfits, which had to be special, yet at the same time blend in and be plausible. The resulting costumes have extraordinary detail and design, making them decidedly individualistic, yet not too attention-grabbing. Kurt Russell's outfit was designed to be 1997 camouflage fatigues, meaning instead of blending with tropical terrain they blend in with a burnt-out, decaying prison city.
Writer-director John Carpenter has long been a fan of the horror movie, so his successful shockers Halloween and The Fog came as no surprise. Though Escape From New York, his new futuristic action-thriller is not a horror film, it contains a tribute to two of the director's favorite fright-film makers. Doctor Cronenberg played by John Strobel was inspired by Scanners writer-director David Cronenberg, while the zombie-like Romero played by Frank Doubleday is drawn from Night of the Living Dead creator, George A. Romero.
It is just possible that Carpenter's dismal views of New York City's future may give that city's Chamber of Commerce a case of cardiac arrest. But it also will provide his fans with a hard hitting action adventure thriller, just the type of entertainment they have come to expect from this young director.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Great find! I love this movie so much. The overview of all the contributions the crew made was eye-opening to me. It takes a lot of work to make a movie look this good. Carpenter's direction is what makes the movie so dreamlike and involving though.