Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ask Me a Question: Escape From New York (part III)

Welcome back to Ask Me a Question (pokes finger into your chest), my look at special screenings for anniversaries, Q&A's and the like.  Tonight's feature is John Carpenter's 1981 futuristic action classic, Escape From New York (applause), presented by The Arclight Cinema's How It's Made series.  Other titles in the series include 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street and 1999's Fight Club.  On this Monday night, Director of Photography Dean Cundey (Back to the Future) and Larry Franco (Batman Begins) were scheduled to participate in a session following showings of Escape and 1982's The Thing.  Unfortunately, Mr. Cundey didn't make it due to a scheduling conflict.

If you've never seen Escape From New York but are still here, again, I applaud you.  This would actually be my third time seeing it on the big screen in as many years.  Los Angeles continues to spoil me as the first time was a double feature with it's awesomely bad sequel, 1996's Escape From L.A. with John Carpenter speaking in between.  The second was just this past summer as part of the Cape Town festival where Kurt Russell made a rare public appearance, confirming his spot as one of the coolest guys on the planet.

What has always made the movie great, still resonates; the story, atmosphere, cast, music and pace all create the perfect B-Movie masterpiece.  Kurt Russell's portrayal of former war hero turned bank robber turned President rescuer Snake Plissken is a cinematic landmark.  He's tough but not macho, quick on the draw and with the verbal barbs.  In a world where young, good looking Thundercats with no presence play superheroes, it's nice to see the classics still hold up yet sad to know we'll never have another crop of convincing big screen heroes a la Russell, Arnold, Van Damme, Bronson or Stallone.

After the movie, first assistant director and producer on Escape, Larry Franco, was introduced by a really nervous young man who delivered some of the worst moderating I have ever seen.  And I've been to a lot of these things.  This is where fandom backfires, just because you like something doesn't mean you should be the mouthpiece for it.  In this case, the moderator had no real plan of attack and there was no synergy or flow to the conversation, just a lot of Um's and awkward pauses.

But Franco is a pro, having worked in the film business since the 1970's as an assistant director, "working his ass off" to the point people trusted him to get a movie made and hired as a producer.  Since his first Producing credit on Escape, Franco has worked with Carpenter 7 times on classics like Big Trouble In Little China and They Live, with Joe Johnston on The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Jurassic Park III then Tim Burton on Batman Returns, Mars Attacks and Sleepy Hollow and now with Roland Emmerich on 2012 and White House Down among dozens more.  Even with the less than stellar moderating, he was funny and informative through the 30 minute session.

- Was a young assistant director who had just come off Apocalypse Now when then brother in law Russell told him about a TV movie he was doing called Elvis.  Franco shrugged off the tip, stating he didn't work in TV.  Russell's father came on to the movie and Kurt was insistent on making it a family affair and that's how Franco met John Carpenter.
- Making a movie is like going to camp, with crazy, like minded people who will always go beyond the call of duty.  They're all that one person who would fight back if a bank was being robbed.
- AVCO really wanted Tommy Lee Jones for the role but Carpenter went to the mat for Russell.
- St. Louis had never had a big movie film there so the locals bent over backwards to accommodate them.  Were given free reign on 4-5 blocks of fire damaged buildings and used trash from the dump to dress it.  The bridge in the final chase was an abandoned one outside the city.
- Played each of the 12 parts in The Thing for pick up shots as a hand, a foot, a shoulder, etc.
- Loved making The Thing as everything was real and employed crazy techniques like building upside down sets, running film through camera in reverse, etc.
- Can't remember reception of Escape but remembers The Thing was a huge disappointment.  Cost in the neighborhood of $24 million or maybe $15.  Escape's budget was $7.1 million.
- In those days, prepped a movie for 10 weeks, shot for 10 and had 20 weeks of post production for a total of 60 weeks then would take a few months off. 
- On Batman Begins, was in England for 19 months.
- Used real helicopters in Escape but today would be digital, build one, have built one thousand.
- Dean Cundey was a one man band, had a truck and lights and could do everything himself.  Had a
great working relationship with Carpenter and knew what he was trying to accomplish.

Looking back on it after a night of sleep, it was an enjoyable session but really a missed opportunity.  Mr. Franco has worked on some of the greatest genre films in history and has a career spanning 30 some years, working with some of cinema's most successful directors.  Hopefully he does something like this again and really gets a chance to open up.

Making Of:

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