How did Escape From New York become one of the greatest cult movies of all time? It was sheer luck that this film even got made — and a similar amount of luck was involved in Kurt Russell surviving the filming. Here are all the weirdest secrets, and wildest adventures, from the making of John Carpenter's classic film.
John Carpenter saw the movie Planet of the Damned in 1974. The movie was about sending a gruff anti-hero into a not-so-hospitable place. Carpenter took this idea and ran with it. He took two of the roughest places one could think of — 1970s era New York and well, prison — and came up with the setting for one of the biggest cult classics of the 80s.
The screenplay, which had been shopped around for a while, was eventually made because of the failure to come up with a third act for a movie titled "The Philadelphia Experiment" while Carpenter was working with AVCO Embassy. Carpenter had to bail, but luckily he had the script for Escape from New York to offer in its place.
The movie, famous for its gritty 1997 setting, was set in a future wasteland for financial reasons: New York of the early 1980s was just too expensive to shoot in. So instead, the film crew capitalized on a major fire that had happened in downtown St. Louis, a much cheaper city to film in. St. Louis was also extremely cooperative when it came to shooting according to Carpenter:
"St. Louis - unbelievable!" says Carpenter. "We went there because, well, there were certain sequences we just couldn't do in New York; they would have tied up the whole city too much. And St. Louis, due to a major fire they had there in 1977, now has just the right amount of emptiness in the downtown area. Also the right architecture. So much of the city looks vacant and dead; perfect for our needs since we couldn't use anything looking new or fresh. The city officials literally turned over the city to us. They'd shut down 10 blocks at a time to help us. I was told they hadn't hosted a major film for 15 years; they don't even have a real film commission, just a Department of Tourism. They let us trash it up, and do anything we needed." A major coup was finding, in St Louis, an exact replica - deserted, desolate, unused - of New York's Grand Central Station, complete with a train engine. Says Carpenter, "I was told it's the biggest roofed-in area in the world. We walked in and said, 'My Lord! We don't even have to dress it!'"
They were allowed two days of shooting on New York City's Liberty Island. From the same 1980 interview: "The city officials not only gave permission, but were very helpful. We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty, at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission."
And apparently the night shoots were a real grind, as Carpenter claims to not have seen the sun for a good part of the duration of filming. "The film has two distinct looks. One is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a United States dominated by underground computers — that was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences, which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England."
Chuck Norris and Tommy Lee Jones were considered for the Role of Snake Plissken. The studio actually preferred both Norris and Jones over Kurt Russell, as they deemed Russell to be way too well known. According to AMC, Chuck Norris was passed over because Carpenter felt he was too old. Jones was perfect, because at the time he hadn't really been in anything of note — but Russell was eventually selected, because of his work with with Carpenter on the 1979 Elvis biopic aptly named Elvis.
Other people that were considered for the role were Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. Russell talked a bit about his casting at last year's Cape Town Film Fest:
"I have to say that very once in a while you get the opportunity to do something you really want to do. I didn't feel that way about Elvis, but I knew it was a wonderful opportunity and I knew I could do it. I was cast in that project before John was brought on board. That's where we met. We learned a language very quickly with each other. I went away to Australia and came back, and we did say, 'Let's do this again, but with something that's completely ours.' I came back from Australia and I said, 'I know what I'd like to do with you.' And he said, 'I got that. It's really cool. It's slightly futuristic.' So I read it, and I said, 'This is exactly what I want to do. It's something that I know I can do that I know nobody is going to think of me for except for you, John.' They wanted Charlie Bronson to do it, and John fought for me. A couple of times in my life, I've gotten to read something –Tombstone was like that – and I just said, 'I'd love to do this.'"
Donald Pleasence, who played the president, was also a Carpenter alum. In an interview with Marc Shapiro, Pleasence had this to say about John Carpenter, "John Carpenter is the best director I've ever worked with,"..."One of the main reasons is his bravery in the way he's cast me in his films. By casting me as the president in Escape From New York and as the essentially good Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween, he gave me the opportunities that might have been missed had I stayed a stereotypical madman."
Pleasence also took it upon himself to write a back story for his character. His story included a Margaret Thatcher dominated world in which the United States had reverted to being a colony of England. None of which Carpenter used.
Lee Van Cleef was suffering from a rather painful leg injury during his scenes. On the DVD commentary Carpenter says,
"Lee 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."
Jamie Lee Curtis (uncredited) was the voice of the computer and the narrator while fellow Halloween cast member Nick Castle ("The Shape") played Cabbie.
Behind the Scenes
Working behind the scenes was a young man that would go on to make a bit of name for himself. James Cameron worked backstage as the director of special effects photography as well as the matte painter. Cameron tried to make the practical effects in the glider scene look as much like the then-new field of CGI as possible.
Creating Snake Plissken's character was definitely a collaborative process. In the DVD commentary Carpenter mentions that Snake, "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."
Originally a scene was filmed that would have painted Snake in a more sympathetic light. He was going to have to choose between saving himself and saving one of his friends. But it was cut, and that was okay with Russell.
"And then John cut that part out of the movie. And for the first time ever, really – I thought it was really fascinating – the guy walks on the screen, walks off a bus, and he's just like, 'F*ck you.' Doesn't care about anybody or anything. He's a bad boy. It's never explained where it came from."
The famous eye patch was in fact Russell's idea. To which Carpenter replied according to Russell," 'That's great! I don't think anybody's worn an eye patch since John Wayne in True Grit!" Russell actually wore two different patches for filming, one that was opaque and one that was see-through—- to make the action scenes a bit easier to film.
Another piece of costume that was thought up by Carpenter and Russell was the black and white camouflage that he wears. In the DVD commentary, Carpenter talks about the fact that they decided that he had fought in a war that took place in Siberia, hence the black and white instead of the more familiar green.
One amazing antidote Russell tells about his time dressed as Snake in downtown East St. Louis,
"One night I had to go down about three blocks, and we didn't have anybody to go down there with me, so I just geared up with all my guns and everything – Snake's coming in to wreak some havoc – and I came around the corner and there are these four guys there. We're around the corner now, and none of my guys can see me. I just looked at these guys and they looked at me. And this is how different this was at that time: when you saw that guy, with a serious machine gun and a knife and a bunch of stuff you didn't know what it was, even. I just flashed the light a little bit on the gun, and these guys looked at me, and they were pretty rough characters, and they just went, 'Hey man, easy, easy.' And they turned and walked away. I couldn't wait to get back and tell John, 'I think this guy's going to work!'"
Originally the opening scene showed Snake robbing a bank. But this was cut after test audiences found it to be totally confusing:
Aside from shooting at night there were just a few problems during the shoot worthy of mention. The man who played Slag was pro-wrestler Ox Baker, who, according to Russell, didn't know how to pull a punch. Ox practiced with Russell's stunt double, who got beat up pretty bad. His face was black and blue at the end of rehearsal. Baker even threw a trash can at Russell's head while he was wielding a bat with a spike in it.
Russell got the last laugh when it was time to complete the fight. The script called for Russell to hit Slag in the back of the neck with the spiked baseball bat. All Ox had for protection was a little bit of padding and Russell had to hit his mark perfectly. Ox was visibly nervous, but luckily Russell nailed it (figuratively, of course). Russell admits that this was one of the worst days he has ever spent on set.
Another problem came when they crew were getting set to film the iconic chase scene. They were unable to secure the use of the 69th st. bridge near downtown, so the used the Chain of the Rocks Bridge which was located about 20 minutes away.
There was also a scene, which Carpenter mentions in the commentary, where Snake is supposed to light a self-lighting cigarette, but they just couldn't get the effect, due to the burns on Russell's hands and the lack of a budget.
Another pseudo problem they had on set was the sexual dynamic between Snake and the Chock Full O' Nuts Girl (Played by Russell's then-wife). They weren't quite sure how to address any sort of sexual tension, as it wouldn't be in Snake's character to kiss her. However, they didn't want Snake to be asexual. They ended up killing her, so go ahead and interpret that however you'd like.
According to Russell, Maggie was the only character Snake had any feelings for. She was played by Carpenter's wife at the time, Adrienne Barbeau. Maggie's final scene was actually filmed in Carpenter's garage, where the character was hit by a car and dies. Origianlly this wasn't shown, but the director wanted the audience to know she was assuredly dead. Again, interpret that however you like.
A scene that showed a group of Native Americans living in an abandoned theater was cut, according to the DVD commentary, which explains the otherwise non sequitur line of "Damn Redskins!" as Snake's glider is cut loose from the roof of the twin towers.
Pleasence's performance was informed by his own actual experience as a prisoner of war during World War II. This was especially apparent when the President kills the Duke. He also thought up the idea of wearing a blonde wig during the scene where the Duke humiliates the POTUS.
Russell, as patriotic as always, refused to flick his cigarette directly into the chest of the fictionalized President. Compromising with Carpenter, he just sort of tosses it in his general direction.