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Escape From New York: 15 Facts For The Most Hardcore John Carpenter Fans

When John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" first hit theaters in 1981, its dark, moody mix of sci-fi and action not only ranked among Carpenter's highest-grossing films, but attained a loyal fanbase that remains to this day. A sequel followed 15 years later, although in the minds of some, the less said about "Escape from L.A.," the better.

"New York" takes place in the (at the time) futuristic setting of 1997. A sharp rise in violent crime has led to mass incarceration, and the entirety of New York City has been converted into a massive prison. When his custom egg-shaped Air Force One escape pod crash-lands in NYC, the President of the United States is put in jeopardy. There is only one man tough enough to infiltrate the prison city, locate him and then, as the title suggests, "Escape from New York." 

Kurt Russell stars in one of his most iconic roles as Snake Plissken, the impossibly cool, eyepatch wearing misanthrope forced to carry out this mission or be blown up by an explosive planted in his blood stream. The eclectic supporting cast is packed with names like Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, and Ernest Borgnine, as well as Carpenter regulars Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau and Donald Pleasence.

With a new "Escape from New York" sequel or reboot reportedly in the works, it's a good time to look at some facts for only the hardest of hardcore John Carpenter fans.

The eyepatch was Russell's idea

A large part of what makes the Snake Plissken character so memorable is his distinctive wardrobe. His overall look is designed to be as cool and intimidating as possible, with the most striking individual component being his eyepatch. It is hard to imagine Plissken without his iconic eyepatch, but it wasn't in the original script. The eyepatch was a contribution that came straight from Kurt Russell.

When speaking to Esquire in 2015 for the western "Bone Tomahawk," Russell said that he often contributes ideas to the hair and wardrobe departments on his films. He used "Escape from New York" as an example, saying "When I read Snake Plissken, I said to John "Oh, I know what I want to do! I want to wear an eye-patch!"" Russell invented a whole backstory for why Snake needed an eyepatch as well. At some point in his past, Snake got nuclear dust caught in his eye, and the constant pain from that informed Russell's brooding performance. He also mentioned a little detail that could reframe how an audience perceives Snake throughout the film, "Maybe he can still see out of it? Maybe he can see through that eye-patch."

During a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Russell confirmed that he had a hand in designing the rest of Snake's look as well. This included choosing the location of his cobra tattoo and attaching golf cleats onto the toes of his boots.

The project started out as a book adaptation

"New York" was an original screenplay with no prior source material, but the project originated in an unusual way. Carpenter's previous film, "The Fog," had been made for AVCO Embassy Pictures, but it was only the first in a multi-picture deal.

As explained by Carpenter himself in a making-of featurette for "Escape from New York," he was first approached by Robert Rehme, the president of AVCO Embassy Pictures, to make a film adaptation of the book "The Philadelphia Experiment." The book claims to be a work of non-fiction, but delves deep into paranormal phenomena and conspiracy theories. Carpenter started working on adapting the book, but came to the conclusion that it had no third act and would not make a satisfying film. Instead, he went back to Rehme and asked to alter their deal to be for the production of one of his original scripts instead. Carpenter presented Rehme with his ready-to-go script for "Escape from New York," which had been collecting dust in a drawer for nearly a decade, and Rehme said, "Sure, let's do it."

The resulting film was a major financial success, bringing in more than quadruple its meager budget. After this win, Rehme left AVCO behind to become the president of marketing and distribution at Universal. "Escape from New York" wound up being one of the final films produced by AVCO.

The NYC cityscape was made out of cardboard

"Escape from New York" was an extremely ambitious film considering its sparse budget. Shots involving the macro view of the city skyline were a particular challenge, requiring complex miniatures. Special effects head Robert Skotak detailed the entire creation process in the 2022 documentary "Sense of Scale."

The professional-grade materials that would typically be used to create a miniature of this scale and complexity were too expensive, so Skotak and company resorted to using cardboard to construct the various buildings and city features. "This was the least expensive way we thought we could make this thing," he explained. With 10 days and four or five pairs of hands working on it, they pulled off the film's incredibly impressive miniature shots using mostly cardboard and Xerox copies.

To create the detailing on the buildings, the team went outside and took photographs of the buildings that looked the most like New York architecture around their Los Angeles studio. Those photos were then blown up, printed, and stuck onto the cardboard surfaces of the buildings. The final step was the tedious process of coloring the photos in by hand; colored pencils were used, because the budget was too low to print in color. "We didn't even have the option of color photographs," recalled Skotak. 

Anything that wasn't facing the camera was left blank, and assorted odds and ends were glued on to look like air conditioners or architectural features to give a sense of dimension to the flat buildings.

The movie was inspired by Death Wish

On face value, the dark sci-fi thrills of "Escape from New York" have very little in common with the 1974 Charles Bronson vigilante flick "Death Wish." But in an interview with David Weiner, Carpenter cited the Bronson hit as his biggest inspiration when writing the script.

"Something about the movie struck a chord with me," he said. "It wasn't a great film, but it was a fun movie." 

Carpenter also said he pulled influences from many science-fiction books. "A Harry Harrison story — there was this planet, the toughest, most evil place in the universe," Carpenter recalled, citing the 1925 – 2012 American author. "So, who're you going to choose to go in there and do something with some mission? The most evil guy in the universe. That idea stuck with me." 

"Death Wish" is a violent action film with an NYC setting and a level of crime that makes the city feel nearly dystopian or borderline apocalyptic. When looking at it in those terms, it becomes easier to see its influence on "Escape from New York." In a different interview with The Ultimate Rabbit, Carpenter named "Dirty Harry" alongside "Death Wish" as the two primary movie inspirations behind his film. Fittingly, Bronson and Clint Eastwood were both considered for the Plissken role.

The Snake Plissken role was written for Clint Eastwood

"Escape from New York" was produced by Debra Hill, who also co-wrote and produced "Halloween," "Halloween II," "The Fog," and later "Escape from L.A." with Carpenter. As she explained in a behind-the-scenes bonus feature, Carpenter wrote the Snake Plissken character with Clint Eastwood in mind. The first draft of the script was written by Carpenter when he was still in film school; it was subsequently shelved for several years.

By the time "Escape from New York" was ready to be made, Carpenter's ideal casting had changed. He had just worked with Kurt Russell for the first time on the made-for-TV movie "Elvis," and the two formed a lasting bond. Carpenter and Russell would end up collaborating as director and star on five films total, creating many of the highlights of both their filmographies with movies like "The Thing" and "Big Trouble in Little China." While shades of the initial Eastwood inspiration can still be seen in the Snake character, both in how he is written and in how Russell performs him with a gruff voice and apathetic disposition, Russell made Snake his own.

The Film wasn't shot in New York

Given that New York is in the title of the film, it might come as a surprise to find out that only a single shot in the entire film actually features the real New York City. 

Some of the interior scenes of "Escape from New York" were shot on soundstages in Los Angeles, but the majority of the film was shot in St. Louis. This was much cheaper than shooting on location in NYC and had the added benefit of it being a far less busy area. The production couldn't afford crowd control, and St. Louis happened to be quiet and mostly vacant after sundown, whereas NYC is active 24/7. As Kurt Russell explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2014, "There was nothing there at night time. It was just completely empty." The crew had free reign of the place, which let them shoot fast and cheaply.

There was another factor that went into choosing St. Louis, of all places. A large part of the city had recently been destroyed in a fire, and the cleanup efforts hadn't yet been undertaken when "Escape from New York" was made. Much of the post-apocalyptic looking rubble, debris, and crumbling buildings seen on screen were simply the aftermath of that fire. The film made use of that destruction for free production design, per The Ultimate Rabbit.

Lee Van Cleef was in agony on set

The prolific Lee Van Cleef was best known for his western roles, most famously opposite (ironically enough) Clint Eastwood in "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly." While "Escape from New York" isn't quite a western, it does bring a slight western flavor to certain elements. 

Carpenter, a fan of westerns and directors like Howard Hawks and (sometimes) John Ford, was strongly influenced by them despite never directing a through-and-through western himself. Of Van Cleef in particular, Carpenter called him a favorite actor.

In "Escape from New York," Van Cleef plays the role of Hauk, the man who enlists Plissken into the rescue mission by threat of deadly force. If Van Cleef's performance seems more ornery than usual, it might be because he was suffering from an untreated injury while shooting. In the same interview, Carpenter spoke about Van Cleef's difficulties, saying he had, "Seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making "Escape from New York."" As a consummate professional, Van Cleef toughed it out and got the job done. "Escape from New York" arrived in the final phase of Van Cleef's career, as he passed away a few years later of a heart attack.

James Cameron worked on the special effects

The filmmaker behind some of the highest-grossing, most beloved films ever made ("Titanic," "Aliens," the "Terminator" and "Avatar" franchises) took an early job on "Escape from New York." Before he was a big-name director, James Cameron got his start by working in special effects. His first credits include working as an uncredited production assistant on the Roger Corman Ramones flick "Rock 'n' Roll High School," serving as the art director and working on the special effects of Corman's "Battle Beyond the Stars," and then helping out on "Escape from New York."

In the first stage of his career, Cameron worked for Corman's company New World Pictures. As special effects head Robert Skotak explained, Carpenter had seen "Battle Beyond the Stars" and was impressed by the low-budget SPFX work on display. He made the decision to hire the same team to handle the effects for "Escape from New York." Cameron worked on the film's matte paintings and also served as the specialized director of photography for the miniature sequences. Later that same year, Cameron made his feature-length directorial debut with "Piranha II: The Spawning," a sequel to the Roger Corman-produced, Joe Dante-directed "Piranha" from 1978.

The score was made by a first time composer

Carpenter's musical abilities have always been a source of amplified strength in his films. After composing the soundtracks to his films "Dark Star," "Assault on Precinct 13," "Halloween," and "The Fog" singlehandedly, he decided to bring in a second musician to create the score to "Escape from New York."

Carpenter still composed the soundtrack himself but, for the first time, he was aided by Alan Howarth. Carpenter and Howarth would go on to collaborate on numerous musical endeavors over the years, including movie soundtracks like "Christine," "They Live," and most of the "Halloween" sequels. 

Before "New York," Howarth had never composed a soundtrack before. He was, however, involved in the film industry previously. His focus was in the world of sound effects, and he had a reputation as a synthesizer specialist. As an SFX creator, he worked on movies like "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "Battle Beyond the Stars," "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "Poltergeist" amongst dozens of other major titles. Carpenter, meanwhile, would eventually lead a successful late-stage career as a musician outside of the film industry.

The distributor didn't think Russell was tough enough

It may be difficult to imagine anyone other than Kurt Russell playing Snake, and his reputation these days is as a tough, macho guy known for handling action hero roles in movies like "Tombstone," "The Hateful Eight," "Big Trouble in Little China," "Bone Tomahawk" and more. When "Escape from New York" was being made, however, Russell was seen in a different light.

Before taking on the too-cool-for-school Snake Plissken character, Russell was best known for family-friendly Disney comedies like "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" and "The Barefoot Executive," the latter of which featured him acting opposite a chimpanzee. When Carpenter told the AVCO Embassy Pictures executives that he wanted to cast Russell, AVCO shot him down. Carpenter recounted the casting troubles in an interview with David Weiner, saying, "They were uncertain about Kurt as a hero. They said, "Well, he's just this Disney kid.""

As covered by Cinephilia & Beyond, instead of Russell, "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." Given the "Death Wish" inspiration, Bronson made sense, but Carpenter was dead set on Russell. He fought AVCO on the casting, and they eventually gave in.

The first draft was 100% serious

John Carpenter first wrote "Escape from New York" while he was still a student at USC, but the final film was quite different from that initial draft. His original vision for the film was darker and more tonally consistent all the way through, without any levity. As Debra Hill explained in a making-of featurette, when AVCO Embassy Pictures greenlit the production, the first thing they said was, "Let's do a re-write to make it funnier, to make it hipper."

Instead of handling this re-write solo, Carpenter brought in his friend Nick Castle. Carpenter and Castle had already been working together since their film school days when they co-wrote the short film "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy" and collaborated on Carpenter's debut feature "Dark Star." Castle is best known as one of the main actors to play Michael Myers in the original "Halloween" and later on he would direct the '80s classic "The Last Starfighter." 

In the same featurette, Carpenter credits Castle with making "Escape from New York" funny, saying, "He brought all the humor. He brought the whole idea of the American Bandstand piece... all the kind of humorous exchanges, Nick and I worked on together. He brought that kind of spark to it." Carpenter also says Castle helped flesh out some of the key supporting characters and added in some of Snake's most iconic lines.

Kurt Russell had an in-character showdown with four tough civilians

While shooting on location in St. Louis, Kurt Russell got a little too close for comfort with some of the locals. The budget was too low to properly block off the area or employ crowd control, leading to one significant incident that threatened the film's leading man.

During a scene shot in the middle of the night, Russell (dressed as Snake) rounded a corner and moved out of sight of the rest of the cast and crew. Unbeknownst to him, there were four men gathered there that he would later describe to Entertainment Weekly as "pretty rough characters." Russell came face-to-face with the men, and was soon engaged in a stare down. 

He stayed in character as Snake and, with his eyepatch, prop guns, and sci-fi gadgets, made for an intimidating enough figure to scare off the four men. He describes how he flashed the light on the end of the gun, "And they went, 'Hey, man, easy, easy,' and they just kind of turned and very quietly walked away." Russell said the encounter confirmed to him that the intimidating look they had designed for Snake would work.

A prop from the film wound up in Mork and Mindy

As is sometimes the case in the film industry, props created for one film can wind up being recycled for different productions. Attempting to track the path a prop takes after its original film can sometimes be fruitless, but that is exactly what author John Walsh did. In his 2021 book "Escape from New York: The Official Story of the Film," Walsh looks back on the creation and legacy of the movie.

One highlight from the book is the inclusion of some of the film's original storyboards, drawn by the legendary Joe Alves, who was Steven Spielberg's storyboard artist and production designer on "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." One of Walsh's most interesting findings is that a prop custom made for "Escape from New York" was later repurposed and used in the Robin Williams sitcom "Mork and Mindy." The prop in question was the escape pod used by Donald Pleasence as the President. The fourth and final season of "Mork and Mindy" incorporated the prop and used it in promotional stills, using it as Mork's updated egg ship.

In 2018, the prop was included in an auction lot of props used on "Mork and Mindy," alongside the likes of signed contracts and costume pieces. The lot was a part of the TV Treasures Live Auction and had an estimated value of $20,000 – $30,000. By the time the auction was closed, it ship was unsold.

The film inspired a multi-billion-dollar video game franchise

The connection between "Escape from New York" and the gaming industry is surprisingly complicated. No official video game was ever made out of the property, of course, but it has come closer than you might think. 

An "Escape from New York" video game was far into development in the mid 2000s for the Playstation 2 and Xbox, and plenty of gameplay footage and promotional materials were released, but the game was never finished. The passing of Debra Hill was thought to be partially responsible for the game getting shelved, according to Screen Crush

Though not a video game, there is an official "Escape from New York" game. It was a crowdfunded board game that raised more than six times its initial goal.

In place of an official video game, fans of the movie can still get their kicks from Hideo Kojima's "Metal Gear Solid" video game franchise. Kojima is a diehard cinephile and packs his games with copious movie references and homages. One movie homage that is impossible to miss in the "Metal Gear Solid" series is found in the games' main character and is a tribute to "Escape from New York." Just like Carpenter's classic film, the protagonist of the "Metal Gear Solid" series is a gravelly-voiced badass named Snake, and he even wears an eyepatch in some of the games. "Metal Gear Solid 2" made the connection even clearer, with Snake use the last name "Plissken" when going undercover.

A New Escape From New York is in the works without John Carpenter

For years, there have been rumors about a remake, reboot, sequel, prequel, spinoff, or even an anime adaptation of "Escape from New York." All of those potential projects have more or less fallen apart. The only direct cinematic follow-up to date was 1996's "Escape from L.A.," and that didn't exactly set the world on fire when it only earned back half its production budget at the box office.

Nevertheless, rumors about another installment in the "Escape from..." series persist, and it looks like momentum could be gathering. The reboot is in the hands of Radio Silence, the production team behind the two new "Scream" movies, as first reported in Deadline in 2022; the outlet reported that Carpenter was involved in the project and serving as an executive producer, but that might not have been 100% accurate. 

During a 2023 retrospective interview with Variety, Carpenter said he had no involvement in the reboot. "No one told me about it. This is the thing about my career in Hollywood — no one tells me anything." The interview seems to have been the first time Carpenter had heard Radio Silence was making an "Escape from New York" reboot. He went on to add, "No, I haven't heard about this latest thing. No one wants me around, and they don't tell me anything to keep me in the dark. It's safer for them."