Public Q&As with actor Kurt Russell are incredibly rare. The star of films like Tombstone, Backdraft, Tango & Cash, and Death Proof makes sure to clearly separate his personal life from his work on the big screen, and if he had it his way, he’d never do any press for any of his films: he’d let his performances speak for themselves.
So when it was announced that Entertainment Weekly had scored a Q&A with Russell for their inaugural CapeTown Film Festival in Hollywood last week, I knew I had to be there. The fest featured screenings of films from various genres and filmmakers (J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek played, as did the stop-motion feature Coraline), but the early days of the festival seemed specially designed to be a sort of mini-tribute to the collaborations of Russell and director John Carpenter. Thursday night, Carpenter showed up for a Q&A for The Thing (his horror classic which Russell headlined), and the following evening, Russell showed up to discuss another of the duo’s famed projects: the renegade futuristic action flick Escape From New York.
Playing the eyepatch-wearing badass Snake Plissken, whom Russell admits is “certainly the most iconic character [he’s] ever played,” he’s a stoic rouge with a bad attitude and a wonderful screen presence. After a screening of the film, Russell recounted to the audience how he first met Carpenter and how Escape From New York came to be:
“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.'”
The actor told a story about an alternate opening to the film, which was shot but never used, in which Snake and his partner rob a credit card store. The partner is wounded during their escape, and Snake is faced with the choice of escaping or going back to save his friend. He saves his buddy and is caught in the process, which leads him to the prison on Manhattan that we see in the film. But as it turns out, the story plays much better if none of that is in the movie at all:
“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.”
Cutting that opening sequence may have been the second best move Carpenter made during this film, since casting Russell was clearly the correct pairing of actor and character. Russell himself even contributed the character’s most iconic piece of clothing:
“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!'”
And, as it turns out, one of the best tests for whether or not the costume would work came early on during shooting. The crew was filming on the streets of St. Louis at night, when the city was deserted except for some tough guys loitering in the streets. Russell ended up going on an inadvertent test run, which ended with amusing results:
“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!’
But it wasn’t just the 1981 classic that was discussed that evening. Talk also circled around to the 1996 sequel (“There’s a lot about Escape From L.A. that’s questionable…at the end of the day, it’s about a guy who wants to have a cigarette.”) and an upcoming remake of the original film, which Russell says would have a much tougher time casting the John Carpenter role than that of Snake Plissken. But he did have a few more specific thoughts on the subject of the remake:
“I know that they’re going to do a remake of Escape From New York. I think there are plenty of guys out there who could do an interesting version of Snake. I’ve always said this, though, whenever they ask me about that – they ask me who would Snake be, and they tell me who they’ve thought of – and it’s always fascinating to me that the only people I ever hear about are guys from England or Scotland. Foreigners. They’re not American. And when you see Escape From New York, there’s one thing I can tell you about Snake Plissken: he’s an American. There’s a reason that when he gets into the ring [in one of the film’s fight sequences], he gets into the ring with a baseball bat with nails in it. That’s American. It’s not a hockey stick, it’s not a curling stick. It is a baseball bat. I always felt that was an important thing. He’s a war hero. He’s an American war hero.”
Unfortunately for diehard fans, Russell stated many times that Snake Plissken was much better as a young man and not an older one, putting to rest almost all hope of him reprising the role for another sequel one day. But if the right circumstances had come along years ago, what would Russell and Carpenter have done with a third movie in this franchise?
“The only other one we wanted to do, both John and I thought Escape From Earth for Snake.”
Now there’s a movie that sounds like a truly fitting escape for one of cinema’s most iconic badasses. We expect the fanfic version will be completed within the month.
Special thanks to the folks at EW for letting us come and hang out at the CapeTown Film Festival this year. We’re already looking forward to seeing what kind of crazy guests and screenings they can get lined up for next year.
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