20 Things You Didn’t Know About Escape From LA
One of the all-time great partnerships of actor and director is that of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter. After first collaborating on a TV movie about the life of rock’n’roll legend Elvis Presley, Russell and Carpenter went on to make three of the most beloved cult genre movies of the 80s: Escape from New York, The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.
Then in 1996 – 15 years after their first big screen outing – the dream team got back together for their first sequel, Escape from LA, which brought the iconic eye-patch-wearing anti-hero Snake Plissken for another race against time adventure in a bleak future dystopia. As for whether or not the results measured up to the original Escape from New York: well, that was a divisive question among fans at the time, and it remains divisive today. But even if it’s not their best work, any movie starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter is always worth watching.
Here are some fascinating facts you might not have known about Escape from LA…
20. It’s the only time Kurt Russell has co-written a script
According to director John Carpenter, the main thing that got Escape from LA made was Kurt Russell’s dogged persistence.
1981’s Escape from New York was a career turning point for Russell, a former child star who hadn’t played any action hero roles before.
The actor was pushing for them to make the sequel for over a decade, so keen was he to play Snake Plissken a second time.
Russell’s feelings on the matter were so strong that, for the first and to date only time, the actor became a screenwriter.
Russell collaborated on the Escape from LA story and script with Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill.
Carpenter had co-written the original Escape from New York with Nick Castle (who also played Michael Myers in 1978’s Halloween).
19. It’s the only sequel John Carpenter ever directed
After the success of his 1978 classic Halloween, John Carpenter co-wrote and produced the first sequel, 1981’s Halloween II.
Carpenter would also produce Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and more recently served as executive producer on 2018’s Halloween and its two forthcoming sequels.
However, Carpenter had never actually called the shots on a sequel himself until Escape from LA, nor has he directed another sequel since.
This situation looks unlikely to change, given that John Carpenter has pretty much retired from directing since 2010’s The Ward.
Sequels have also been a comparative rarity for Kurt Russell, although the actor has had a bit more experience there.
Russell had previously made three Disney comedies as teen hero Dexter Riley, and has since twice portrayed Mr Nobody in the Fast & Furious movies. He also recently played Santa Claus a second time in The Christmas Chronicles 2.
18. Original President Donald Pleasence died just before production began
The original Escape from New York saw Russell’s Snake Plissken sent on a rescue mission into a New York City repurposed as a maximum-security prison.
Plissken’s target was the kidnapped President of the United States, played by Donald Pleasence (who previously appeared in John Carpenter’s Halloween).
Part of Escape from LA’s dystopian vision of the future – now technically our past, as it’s set in 2013 – is a change in the US constitution allowing a President to serve for life.
As such, originally the filmmakers hoped Pleasance would play the role again; this would have marked his fourth collaboration with John Carpenter, the third having been 1987’s Prince of Darkness.
Unfortunately, Pleasence had to turn the part down due to his declining health, and so the role of the President instead went to Cliff Robertson.
Sadly, Donald Pleasence died in February 1995, not long before Escape from LA began production.
17. The FX team hired for the film had very little experience with CGI
If there’s one thing that immediately sets apart a 90s sci-fi movie from an 80s sci-fi movie, it’s the presence of computer-generated imagery.
Early forms of CGI can be found in some 80s movies (e.g. Tron and The Last Starfighter), but it wasn’t until the 90s, in the wake of The Abyss and Terminator 2, that the special effects format really took off.
Unfortunately, while this CGI may have seemed very exciting and state-of-the-art at the time, a lot of it looks extremely dated today.
Escape from LA is no exception there. The film was widely derided at the time, and since, for sporting thoroughly unconvincing CGI which renders a number of major set pieces a bit laughable.
It’s not too surprising, then, to learn that Buena Vista Visual Effects, the company hired to create these sequences, had never worked with CGI before.
In common with a lot of FX companies trying their hand at this new technology, they didn’t really know what they were doing.
Escape from LA actually wound up being the last film that Buena Vista Visual Effects ever worked on before disbanding.
16. A scene from the movie was played in court when a stuntman was on trial for murder
A year after Escape from LA hit screens, a stuntman who worked on the movie went on trial for murder.
Wayne Montanio was arrested and charged with the murder of his brother Dondi Montanio.
The court heard that Wayne had committed credit card fraud under his brother’s name, and that Dondi had subsequently threatened to inform the police.
Footage from Escape from LA was shown in the courtroom to help an eyewitness identify Montanio.
This proved enough for the witness to effectively place the stuntman at the scene of the crime.
Montanio was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
15. Carpenter wanted to shoot in Disneyland but was denied access
Some scenes in Escape from LA take place in what was once a theme park.
Originally, the filmmakers had hoped to set these scenes in the location that inspired them: Disneyland.
However, Disney would not give the filmmakers access to shoot there, or permission to use the name.
Because of this, they were forced to make up a fictitious theme park named Happy Kingdom (a clear play on Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom).
Bonus trivia: the set used for Happy Kingdom is Courthouse Square, an old and widely-used set on the Universal Studios lot.
This set was most famously utilised as Hill Valley town square in the Back to the Future movies.
14. Kurt Russell’s son makes a brief, uncredited appearance
There’s a brief moment in Escape from LA when Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken passes an orphaned boy in a cap.
This was the first screen appearance of Wyatt Russell, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
This was not the last time the young Russell appeared in one of his father’s films.
Later, Wyatt briefly appeared as the 11-year old version of his father’s character Todd in 1998’s Soldier.
In the years since, Wyatt Russell has gone on to become a successful actor in his own right.
His films include 22 Jump Street, Everybody Wants Some!! and Overlord. He’ll soon be seen in Disney+ Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
13. It was a critical and commercial failure
The reaction to Escape from LA was not quite what the filmmakers had been hoping for.
The sequel was met with largely negative reviews, with widespread complaints that it was too cartoonish and too much of a facsimile of Escape from New York.
Worse yet, audiences stayed away in droves; having cost $50 million to make, Escape from LA wound up earning only $25.5 million back at the box office.
This marked the start of a career downturn for both John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.
Carpenter only directed three more films – Vampires, Ghosts of Mars and The Ward – all of which were made on far lower budgets than Escape from LA.
Meanwhile, Russell’s next major film Soldier was an expensive flop, and the actor retreated from big-budget leading roles for several years.
12. A planned third film became Ghosts of Mars
Initially, there had been plans for a third Snake Plissken movie, entitled Escape from Mars.
As conceived, this film would have taken Kurt Russell’s anti-hero out of our world and on to the red planet.
However, when Escape from LA flopped hard with both audiences and critics, this idea was scrapped.
Instead, the script was reworked into what ultimately became John Carpenter’s 2001 film Ghosts of Mars.
Ice Cube’s character – trash-talking anti-hero Desolation Williams – effectively takes the place of Snake Plissken.
Alas, Ghosts of Mars was also a critical and commercial failure, and Carpenter went into semi-retirement afterwards.
11. John Carpenter still thinks it’s better than Escape from New York
Despite the negative response from fans and critics, director John Carpenter has said that he considers Escape from LA to be the superior of the two Snake Plissken movies.
Carpenter has said that he considers Escape from LA to be “ten times better” than Escape from New York.
The director and co-writer argues that the follow-up film is “more mature [and has] a lot more to it” than its predecessor.
He also suggests that “some people didn’t like it because they felt it was a remake, not a sequel.”
Carpenter dismisses the film’s critical and commercial failure as a reflection of its quality, pointing out that Escape from LA “made more money than The Thing,” the 1982 sci-fi horror which many consider his masterpiece.
The director suggested in 2015 that we should “give it a few more years” before Escape from LA will be re-assessed and revalued as his earlier films have been.
Carpenter says, “you just wait. You’ve got to give me a little while. People will say, you know, what was wrong with me?”
10. Isaac Hayes wanted to return as the son of the Duke of New York
Kurt Russell was the only actor from the original Escape from New York to return in the sequel.
The only other key surviving characters were Donald Pleasence’s President, and Lee Van Cleef’s Hauk.
However, Pleasance was (as previously mentioned) too ill to return, and Van Cleef had already passed away in 1989.
One other key actor from the original was keen to come back: Isaac Hayes, who played the villainous Duke of New York.
John Carpenter recalls that Hayes approached him: “he had this elaborate storyline concocted in which he was the son of the Duke of New York. I didn’t go for it.”
As disappointing as this must have been for Hayes, the actor and music legend would enjoy a career resurgence one year after Escape from LA, as the voice of Chef on TV’s South Park.
9. Kurt Russell wore a see-through eye patch to avoid headaches
Snake Plissken’s signature eye patch was originally the suggestion of Kurt Russell himself, back on Escape from New York.
However, the actor soon discovered the pitfalls of this piece of costume, suffering headaches after wearing the patch for a long time.
Because of this, Russell ensured that steps were taken to make things more comfortable on the sequel.
The actor would often wear a slightly transparent patch which he could comfortably see through, particularly when he wasn’t being shot in close-up.
On top of this, Russell would not unreasonably take to removing the patch entirely between takes.
Russell played one other character that required an eye patch: the title role in 1994 comedy Captain Ron.
8. Steve Buscemi only took his role to fund his first film as director
Buscemi followed this with roles in such acclaimed films as Fargo, and Tarantino’s second feature Pulp Fiction.
Soon, Buscemi decided he wanted to try his hand at writing and directing a film of his own.
The actor has admitted this was the key reason he signed on to play ‘Map to the Stars’ Eddie in Escape from LA.
Buscemi used his salary from the film to help finance Trees Lounge, his first film as writer-director.
Buscemi has clocked up a further 16 credits as director since, including three feature films and numerous TV episodes.
7. Carpenter and Russell rejected the original script for being “too campy”
Escape from LA didn’t hit screens until 15 years after Escape from New York, but it had been in development for some time.
Originally, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell had hired screenwriter Coleman Luck to pen the follow-up, which they’d already decided to set in LA.
However, the story that Luck came up with did not line up with what Carpenter and Russell had in mind, and was in the director’s words “too campy.”
Rather than seeing LA repurposed as a prison in line with the original, Luck’s script made LA an oversized lunatic asylum.
The sequel script also hinged on a climactic revelation that the Snake Plissken seen in the previous film was really a clone.
Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with this script almost derailed Escape from LA altogether, until Russell suggested they try writing it themselves.
6. Russell’s stepdaughter Kate Hudson turned down the role of Utopia
Snake Plissken is sent into LA to locate Utopia, the daughter of the President, who has betrayed her father and stolen the controls to a deadly space-bound weapon.
The role of Utopia is taken by A.J. Langer, best known at the time for her role on TV’s My So-Called Life.
However, at the audition stage another actress was up for the part, with no credits to her name at the time: Kate Hudson.
Hudson is of course Kurt Russell’s step-daughter, with his long-term partner Goldie Hawn. The actor was keen to cast her as Utopia, but Hudson herself decided against it.
Russell recalls, “She made her decision. That role, in a movie that Pa’s starring in, maybe not. And she talked it over with Goldie, she talked it over with me, and she ended up saying, ‘Nah, I guess this isn’t the way to start.’”
Hudson would go on to make a name for herself with her Oscar-nominated performance in Almost Famous.
5. They couldn’t shoot action scenes through the night because nearby residents complained about the noise
You don’t have to watch Escape from LA too closely to notice one specific detail: the total absence of sunlight.
The film takes place entirely at night, and as such it was shot by night as well – and this caused a bit of an issue when it came to shooting some of the bigger, noisier action sequences.
In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness, the director recalls, “everything went smoothly until we started gunfire,” at which point residents of the nearby neighbourhood “became incredibly p***ed off.”
Carpenter and company were ultimately told “we could only shoot gunfire sequences up to midnight,” which gave them barely four and a half hours each evening to shoot complex action scenes.
This, the director explains, “was not enough time. The entire shooting schedule went to s***. It was hideous chaos.”
Carpenter says things were exacerbated when he fell ill: “I got the flu and was walking around the set like one of George Romero’s zombies.”
4. Kurt Russell and Bruce Campbell had the same stunt double
It might not be immediately obvious to all viewers that Escape from LA features a cameo from cult film icon Bruce Campbell.
The Evil Dead series actor (at the height of his fame in the 90s after Army of Darkness) appears in the movie under heavy make-up as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills.
This marked the first time that Campbell had acted alongside Kurt Russell, but the two men already shared a common link.
Stuntman John Casino had doubled for both Russell and Campbell in many of their previous works.
Casino would go on to double for Russell and Campbell in many more films afterwards; on top of which, Russell and Campbell themselves would share the screen again in Sky High.
3. The President was modelled on televangelist Pat Robertson
Escape from LA’s President (Cliff Robertson) stands on a platform of morality, and seeks to outlaw everything that is deemed immoral.
By all accounts, the character and his ideology were very much the brainchild of Kurt Russell himself.
Russell is said to have based the President on Pat Robertson, a US televangelist and political commentator.
Robertson had been an influential Christian broadcaster for many years, and unsuccessfully campaigned as a Republican candidate for the Presidency in 1988.
Carpenter says that Russell’s idea was that the President would be worshipped as a deity by obsessive followers after predicting the earthquake that turns Los Angeles into an island.
The director explains, “Kurt said… ‘let’s have some idiot predict something that happens and everyone thinks he is some god!'”
2. Kurt Russell shot all those hoops for real
One of the more outlandish moments in a movie already filled with outlandish (surfing, hang-gliding etc) comes when Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is forced to play basketball to the death.
Plissken is informed that if he doesn’t shoot the requisite amount of hoops within the time allotted, he will be shot and killed.
As ridiculous an idea as it may seem, Kurt Russell took the challenge of the scene very seriously.
While editing is of course involved and Russell didn’t literally shoot all those hoops one after another, there is no trickery involved: the actor literally made all those shots himself.
This includes the especially eye-opening final shot of the sequence, from one end of the court to the other.
By all accounts, any time Russell had free in the run-up to shooting that sequence was spent practicing on the basketball court.
With that level of skill, it’s not too surprising that Russell in fact once played sports professionally – although in real life his game was baseball.
1. Russell says the film is “just about a guy who wants a cigarette”
Escape from LA is quite close in spirit to Sylvester Stallone’s Demolition Man in the way it envisions the future.
Both films see the political correctness and health consciousness of the early 90s taken to an extreme, as outlined in the opening moments of the Escape from LA trailer.
This dystopian future sees literally anything that could be potentially hazardous to health made illegal.
This, of course, includes Snake Plissken’s vice of choice, nicotine – and, according to Kurt Russell, this is the character’s main motivation.
Strong-armed into his mission, Plissken only goes along with it because, as Russell says, he wants to be left alone and allowed to smoke.
Russell (who had not long since quit smoking when he made the movie) declared, “it’s just about a guy who wants to have a cigarette! At the end of the movie he just wants you to get out of his face!”