‘Escape from New York’: John Carpenter’s Thrilling, Pumped-Up Ride through the Streets of a Dystopian New York City

John Carpenter getting a shot of the New York skyline on the set of Escape from New York. Production still photographer: Kim Gottlieb © Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Goldcrest Films International

By Sven Mikulec

In the post-Watergate period of America struggling with insecurity, distrust and national embarrassment, USC-educated filmmaker John Carpenter wrote a script for a dystopian futuristic action film entitled Escape from New York, but despite his active campaigning, none of the studios wanted to back the project, calling it “too violent, too scary, too weird.” The shocking success of Carpenter’s low-budget slasher classic Halloween, however, turned the situation around, as AVCO Embassy Pictures, logically impressed by what the director managed to do in such wanting circumstances, soon offered Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill a two-picture deal. After making The Fog and then abandoning the planned adaptation of Charles Berlitz and William F. Moore’s 1979 novel ‘The Philadelphia Story: Project Invisibility,’ Carpenter allegedly uttered the famous sentence “I have this script in my trunk” and Escape from New York suddenly became a green-lighted film with a solid 6-million-dollar budget. Having twenty times as much money as on the production of Halloween was a big leap for the promising filmmaker, but at the same time it still presented a huge challenge. The script expected Carpenter to create the dystopian vision of a ruined, burnt, derelict New York City. Luckily for the film crew, and extremely unluckily for the city’s residents, production designer Joe Alves and location manager Barry Bernardi stumbled upon East St. Louis, a city filled with old buildings that barely survived a devastating 1976 fire that left the town with a visual quality desperately needed for Escape from New York. After demanding five months of night-time filming, the movie was finished in November, 1980, and premiered to critical acclaim and good box office results in July, 1981. Most of the critics were charmed by the dark, grubby visuality of the picture, by a convincingly murky atmosphere, Carpenter’s virtuosity in filming action, as well as the movie’s humor and acting performances of its stars.

Written by Carpenter himself, who later brought on his friend Nick Castle, who previously played The Shape in the filmmaker’s break-out film Halloween, to do last-minute rewrites and add humor to the story, Escape from New York is one of the best sci-fi action films of the eighties and a film that steadily grew large cult following. Even though the studio preferred more experienced and reputable Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris or Tommy Lee Jones to jump in the shoes of the lead hero Snake Plissken, Carpenter stuck with his original choice, allowing Kurt Russell to break away from the image he created by starring in several light Disney comedies. In Russell’s interpretation, Plissken became one of the most famous action film characters of all time. It’s the same kind of bravery on Carpenter’s part that allowed him to cast Donald Pleasence both in Escape from New York and in Halloween. Carpenter took a risk and it paid off brilliantly. Besides Russell and Pleasence, quality actors such as Ernest Borgnine, Lee van Cleef, Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Stanton joined the project. Carpenter also provided the score, with the help of American composer and sound engineer Alan Howarth. Cinematography was handled by Carpenter’s frequent associate Dean Cundey, while it’s certainly interesting to note that young James Cameron worked on the film as borrowed help from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. Cameron produced several matte paintings to simulate the New York skyline.

Escape from New York is a highly enjoyable, expertly directed thrilling ride that helped establish Carpenter’s reputation as one of the most skilled filmmakers of his generation. 35 years since its release, the film is still a visually strong exhibition of the talent of a man so knowledgeable in his field, so inspired and ahead of its time and at the same time so modest and down-to-earth, it’s a shame he doesn’t get the right opportunities anymore.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: John Carpenter & Nick Castle’s screenplay for Escape from New York [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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“I first wrote the screenplay in the mid-70’s, during the time of Watergate, the whole feeling in the country was one of real cynicism about our president… No studio wanted to make it. They all said: We can’t have this kind of dark view. When I first wrote the script, I set it in 1982. But I’ve since realized I was being premature, so I moved it ahead 17 years from today. Go back 17 years to 1963 and think how the world has changed. It’s been subtle but significant.” —John Carpenter, High Adventure in the Future, Starlog Issue 41, Dec, 1980



“I have to say that every once in a while you get the opportunity to do something you really want to do. I didn’t feel that way about Elvis [the movie on which he first met director John Carpenter], 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.”

“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!’” —Kurt Russell Talks ‘Escape From New York’










After starting his career working on Roger Corman pictures, James Cameron served as special visual effects director of photography in addition to doing matte paintings for Escape from New York. The future Terminator director was just 26 when Kim Gottlieb-Walker snapped this pics. Courtesy of Deep Fried Movies. Purchase On Set with John Carpenter: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker (Titan Books) here.

John Carpenter discussing the making of Escape from New York (Special Edition VHS and Collector’s Edition Laserdisc Interview). Also shows cut footage of Snake robbing a bank at the beginning of the film.

Interview with director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill on their film Escape from New York.

Also recommended viewing: Mick Garris interviews John Carpenter.

Below: The art of Christopher Shy; John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. See also: tons of fantastic materials, hours of reading and watching.



In France, I’m an auteur; in Germany, a filmmaker; in Britain, a genre film director; and in the USA, a bum. These are the famous words of John Carpenter, one of the most influential horror film directors of all time, whose works such as Halloween, The Thing, The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness remain an inescapable part of every horror film encyclopedia. A talented filmmaker, a modest, humble and practical man, and, for this occasion equally important, a disarmingly, refreshingly honest interviewee. It was from France, to go back to the quote we started with, that the idea for this rare documentary came to life. In 2006 filmmaker Julien Dunand made a documentary film simply called Big John, a 75-minute exploration of Carpenter’s career, character and American film industry in general. The film lacks clips from Carpenter’s movies, most likely due to budgetary issues, but more than makes up for it with a series of enlightening interviews with both Carpenter himself (mostly filmed behind the wheel while driving around L.A.) and a whole gallery of his frequent collaborators, such as producing partner Debra Hill, the Assault on Precinct 13 star Austin Stoker, actress and ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau, the Christine protagonist Keith Gordon, Carpenter’s composing collaborator Alan Howarth, who also did the music for the documentary, and many others. The central value of this film, which is obviously made with a lot of love and respect both for Carpenter and the craft, lies in the one-on-one conversations between Dunand and Carpenter, which give insight into the life and work of a filmmaker whose golden days may be long gone, but whose significance for the art of film can’t be diminished. As on many other occasions, Carpenter leaves the impression of a sympathetic, straightforward fellow who feels he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. “Many of my film school colleagues were more talented than me,” he told us a couple of years back, “so you mustn’t underestimate the importance of sheer luck.” That may be the case, but through a career spanning four decades and eighteen movies, obvious talent and hard work was what kept him at the top.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Photographed by Jim Coe & Kim Gottlieb © Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors, Goldcrest Films International. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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