How John Carpenter's "Escape From New York" Made Kurt Russell A Star
June 24, 2022
1981’s “Escape From New York” helmed by iconic director/writer John Carpenter transformed Kurt Russell from “Jungle Boy” on Gilligan’s Island into a bonafide action star. The film also gave life to a string of sci-fi flicks like “Blade Runner”, which actually borrowed various set pieces from “Escape From New York.”
While the film ranks as an all-time cult classic without Carpenter's legendary “Halloween” success in 1978, “Escape From New York” might never have been made. These are the behind-the-scenes stories that made “Escape From New York” an unforgettable film.
The Fight For “Escape From New York”
When Carpenter originally pitched “Escape From New York” to the studios, everyone passed. Executives felt it was too dark and violent. Ironically their criticisms were exactly what made the film great but back then no one wanted to bet on an unproven director with an unproven script. However, when Carpenter struck gold with “Halloween,” banking $47 million against a paltry budget of just $325,000, executives had a change of heart.
Even with the massive success of “Halloween” on his resumé, Carpenter still had to fight for the casting of Kurt Russell. The actor, for his part, desperately wanted to play Snake Plissken:
“So I read it and 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.'”
After shooting down suggestions like Chuck Norris and Tommy Lee Jones, Carpenter thankfully got his way. His faith in Russell immediately paid off when the actor came to work with a crucial suggestion. As he remembered, “I said to John, ‘I think it’d be cool to wear an eyepatch.’ I think a lot of guys would have gone, ‘Well, I don’t know …’ but John immediately went, ‘That’s great! I don’t think anybody’s worn an eyepatch since John Wayne in True Grit!’”
Finding The Manhattan Max Security Prison
Undoubtedly, much of the success of “Halloween” came about thanks to the visceral fear stemming from palpable realism. Carpenter went back to that well with “Escape From New York'' on a much larger scale. To find a setting worthy of portraying Manhattan as a maximum-security prison, Carpenter sent a scouting team across the country to find the most rundown part of the country. Surprisingly, they struck gold in St. Louis.
Thanks to a horrific fire that had ripped through a huge part of the city, the crew found their futuristic city prison. According to producer Debra Hill, “You would have these huge blocks of burned-out buildings that just went on forever and ever and ever, as far as you could see.” The city of St. Louis further helped out by turning off large grids of electricity, allowing them to shoot in the decrepit, darkened streets. To set the scene of a disastrous NYC, the production filled several garbage trucks from the local dump and spread the trash throughout the streets to complete the look.
Becoming Snake Plissken
During the filming in the rundown parts of St Louis, Russell found the character thanks to a late-night stroll in full regalia:
“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. 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!’
Perhaps that same swagger led Russell to cup-check actual pro wrestler Ox Baker in the crotch while filming the gladiator scene. Apparently, Baker took his role a little too seriously, leading the star actor to tell him, “You gotta ease up.” According to Carpenter in that scene, “If you look at the film, you’ll see a couple of shots in there where Kurt is fighting for his life.”
You’d imagine that Baker listened since Plissken takes a nail-studded baseball bat to his head at the end of the scene. No word on if we’ll ever get Russell’s and Carpenter’s idea for a Plissken trilogy: “Escape From Earth.”