“We were so tight with budget,” says Escape From New York Production Designer, Joe Alves, “that basically, if John panned too much to the left you would see cactus; too much to the right, you’d see cactus. And he had no reverse shots.”
He’s not discussing a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, Dune, or even City Slickers. Alves is describing the Chock full o’Nuts scene in John Carpenter’s 1981 science-fiction masterwork in which the New York coffee shop was recreated in the desert for the shoot. Although he might as well have been talking about any one of the scenes Carpenter shot for the film set in the near-future (an alternate 1997), which sees Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken tasked with retrieving a kidnapped U.S. president from within the prison compound that is Manhattan.
“He was very efficient in his shooting, so I didn’t have to build a lot of stuff that they didn’t use,” says Alves.
Alves was hired because of his work on Spielberg’s Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — both of which had modest budgets that he was able to stretch to make the best of his resources: “Close Encounters was supposed to be a $4 million sci-fi movie; I ended up building the biggest set, at that time, inside.”
Without a Hitch
Similarly, Escape From New York had a $5 million budget and Alves was tasked with escalating the look. Carpenter and his producer Debra Hill, who sadly passed away in 2005 and whom Alves considered a close friend, had both previously been used to working with budgets of around $300,000 on movies like Halloween and The Fog that would, like Escape From New York, go on to become influential classics. Known for his work across science fiction and horror, sometimes blending the two, Carpenter was laidback, according to Alves, and also knew what he wanted — a trait he shared with cinema’s celebrated Master of Suspense.
“I worked with Alfred Hitchcock on a picture called Torn Curtain, and we would build half-sets,” says Alves. “He would say, ‘Well, Joe, I’m going to bring Mr [Paul] Newman down the stairs, he walks over to the registration desk and then he leaves’. And I said, ‘Fine, Mr Hitchcock, what about the reverse shot?’ ‘No reverse.’ ‘What about pan?’ ‘No, no, no. Just give me the stairs, desk, like that.’ Half-sets.
“And John Carpenter was one of the few directors [like] Hitchcock that could limit himself — have it planned and say, ‘No, that’s it, Joe; that’s all I need.’ So many directors want everything and then they get there and try and decide — ‘Let’s see what I want’ — and they don’t shoot half of what you build.”
Stretching the budget meant that great locations were all the more valuable — and Alves says they lucked out when he chanced upon St Louis where much of the film was shot, which doubled up for New York. Putting the word out to film commissions across various states, he let it be known that he was looking, in particular, for a bridge.
“I got a call from St Louis and they said, ‘We have a bridge that we’re not using, fairly good size’. So I went there with Barry [Bernardi, the location manager] and it was just perfect, and I figured I can build [the] wall [that it leads to, surrounding Manhattan]. And then I realised there was urban renewal [in progress]; they were going to do a lot of work there, and we could use streets there and also the train station — the old train station, it wasn’t being used much. I said, ‘This is great!'”
And it was — particularly since Carpenter was somewhat overawed by New York and how they might bring it to the screen. On a trip to the top of the World Trade Center, Alves recalls that Carpenter said, “Oh my gosh, New York is too big to handle… but the movie is Escape from New York.”
Just as St Louis stood in for parts of New York, so did California — and not just the desert. They built the United States Police Force headquarters in the Sepulveda Dam in the San Fernando Valley.
“I built this whole base with a very military look to it, with flags hanging down like they used to hang the swastikas; and very black and white and architecturally crisp,” says Alves. But since the base was supposed to be on New York’s Liberty Island, they made use of the considerable skills of frequent Carpenter collaborator and Jurassic Park and Back to the Future cinematographer, Dean Cundey, to cheat it.
“The entrance to the military HQ was this very simple shaped building, and we collapsed it and put it on a truck and drove it all the way to New York. We got the last ferry out [to Liberty Island], so we didn’t have to spend any money, and we set up this little building, this sort of A-frame kind of thing. John did the shot of Tommy Atkins [as USPF officer, Rehme] walking down, we see the Statue of Liberty and he comes down and he walks through and he checks in. Dean Cundey starts this dolly shot across and we see United States Police Force, and we just see this area of black, and he cuts.
“They put the set back on the truck, drive it to LA, set it up, he puts the camera same distance, same exposure, and continues the shot with Tommy Atkins walking out, and now we’re in Los Angeles. So it was a perfect transition from one shot to the other so it looked like a continuous shot.”
James Cameron Came Cheap
It’s perhaps not surprising that the film has endured when you look at the staggering talent that worked on the film. And that’s aside from its cast, which includes Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton. Alves tells the story of how a young James Cameron came to be involved.
“When we needed to do visual effects for post-production, all that stuff had to be animated,” says Alves. “So I took Debra immediately to the various people that I knew that did visual effects — John Dykstra, who did the effects for Star Wars, and people like that. John was very good, but he gave us a price on it, and [Debra] said, ‘We can’t afford that. We’re not a big movie’. And so, I’m at a party with a friend of mine who is trying to make small movies, and he had this illustrator there that had done a bunch of illustrations for this freaky sci-fi movie he was going to do.
“I was having a conversation with this young guy and I said, ‘You know, we’ve got to get these effects done’. And he said, ‘We could do it’. I said, ‘What do you mean we could do it?’ He said, ‘I work at Roger Corman, it’s a very small studio and we really need the work and we could do it’. And that kid happened to be Jim Cameron who became pretty successful. So we hired Jim, and he did the town and the glider going through the town. So we got that at a very reasonable price. And then Jim went on to do a number of big movies.” No s–t, Sherlock.
All these effects, builds and creative uses of locations are all well and good, but what you really want to know, like us, is whose idea it was to put the chandeliers on the Duke’s car. Alves takes the credit.
“It was just something I came up with out of the blue, and then John thought it was great. So that worked pretty well for us,” he says. Yes. Yes, it did.
Escape From New York hits UK cinemas on November 22 and is out to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 26. Check out more original storyboards from the film below.