Book Review | Escape From New York: The Official Story Of The Film
Carl takes a walk through the desecrated streets of the Big Apple In John Walsh’s Incredible Escape From New York book
It’s time for Future Of The Force to Escape From New York.
My favorite director of all time is John Carpenter. Not only for the sheer brilliance of the original ‘Halloween’ movie. Not forgetting the scares he gave us in ‘The Fog.’ Or his sublime remake of ‘The Thing.’ But for his incredible mind that produces terrific screenplays and movies that live on in our minds long after the credits have rolled. One of his best remains ‘Escape From New York.’
The 1981 film introduced us to the anti-hero Bob ‘Snake’ Plissken. The eye-patch sporting ex-army veteran remains one of Kurt Russell’s finest moments on screen. And once again led us on a tour of a dystopian future. Bleak, unforgiving, and unfair. It was and still is a terrific film, one that I can easily sit down and watch time and again. It did lead to a sequel ‘Escape From L.A’ fifteen years later. But it didn’t come close to matching the original film.
John Walsh is a filmmaker and established author. His BAFTA-nominated film ‘My Life: Karate Kids’ is one of the most repeated documentaries in BBC history. And rightfully so. The film tackled issues of bullying among disabled children. The author has been a trustee of the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation for eight years now. And he met the great Ray Harryhausen himself in the late 1980s. His 2019 book ‘Harryhausen: The Lost Movies’ is one of the greatest books ever devoted to the master. And is a must-have for all Harryhausen fans and film fans alike. It was nominated for book of the year for the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. And he devised the new Ray Harryhausen Awards that we revealed recently.
John Walsh followed that up with 2020s ‘Flash Gordon: The Official Story Of The Film.’ And created a book that not only paid tribute to the cult classic movie but brought the world unseen designs for the unmade version of the film from director Nicolas Roeg. The author also managed to secure interviews with the cast and creative forces behind the film. These included actor Sam J. Jones, Brian Blessed, and director Mike Hodges. Hodges also contributed the foreword as well as behind-the-scenes photography. It was a labor of love from the start. With rights issues, back and forth with various verification of facts, and the sheer task of getting an accurate picture of a film that is over forty years old.
But John Walsh accomplished it and delivered a book that is worth every penny of its cost price. And again, it led to a nomination for the book of the year for the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
And now we come to John Walsh’s latest book. ‘Escape from New York: The Official Story Of The Film.’ Here, we are treated to a book dedicated to John Carpenter’s classic science fiction film. Featuring new interviews with the cast and crew, the book gives us an incredible look into the complete workings of what has been described as a true ‘Carpenter Classic.’ And it has been named by AIPT Comics of being ‘a behind-the-scenes book worthy of Brain’s (Harry Dean Stanton) vast library. To say that the review of the book is putting it mildly is somewhat of an understatement. For what John Walsh has created here amongst the pages is something that needs to be seen and read to be believed.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK: THE OFFICIAL STORY OF THE FILM BY JOHN WALSH
The front cover of the book itself is a fantastic reproduction of the film’s original poster. And it shines through in glorious color. The back cover informs us what we can expect to discover inside once we break the seal of the plastic wrap covering. A shot of Kurt Russell in perhaps his finest and best-loved role greets us as we read the writing on the back. But it’s time we opened the pages to discover what delights await us inside. And it doesn’t disappoint. Following a foreword by Corin Hardy, who describes his feelings regarding the film. About how he was inspired by it and remains a prisoner to it to this day. About John Carpenter and his style of filmmaking, we enter into the meat of the book.
We start with an introduction to the film itself. Here, we look at what inspired John Carpenter to write and create the film. We discover that the film was written back in 1974, at the height of the Nixon Watergate scandal. And how no film studio would touch it. The film and its content hit perhaps a little too close to the bone at that time. And we find out that as the film debuted in theatres, the prison population had increased by 40,000. Carpenter seemed to have inside knowledge or foresight to predict this rise.
BRIGHT STAR: JOHN CARPENTER
We come to this section. And I must admit that I couldn’t wait to start reading the material. Everyone knows that I am the biggest John Carpenter fan. And I was desperate to discover everything I could about the man and his thinking behind the film. We start with a brief biography of Carpenter before we turn the page to begin our look at his work before ‘Escape From New York.’ From ‘Dark Star’ to ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ (An all-time classic urban remake of ‘Rio Bravo’). His TV movie ‘Someone’ Watching Me!’, His script for ‘The Eyes Of Laura Mars.’ The legendary ‘Halloween’ and ‘Elvis-The Movie.’ And not forgetting the classic ‘The Fog.’
We get a rundown of them all. Alongside these brilliantly written passages, we get photographs of Carpenter alongside other luminaries such as Jamie Lee Curtis. Her mother, the late Janet Leigh alongside Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s wife at the time on the set of ‘The Fog.’ A crew shot from the set of ‘Halloween.’ These photos are perfect to go alongside the written word.
This small section details everything that went into the script for the film. From Carpenter’s original ideas, bringing Nick Castle onboard to inject some humor into the screenplay. How Avco Embassy Pictures asked Carpenter to direct ‘The Philidelphia Experiment.’, which he passed on. How he told the studio he had a script in his truck called ‘Escape From New York’ which they decided to take a look at. And how the ‘Escape’ films and later, ‘Big Trouble In Little China’, were updated westerns. Despite its bleak ending, ‘Escape’ producer Debra Hill felt the film sent a strong message. About how people need to find the good in themselves. As well as being a statement on the political ideals at the time. It is a fascinating read.
After a brief look at Avco Embassy Pictures, we turn to the section regarding the casting of the film. And as it rightly should be, we start with Kurt Russell. A little-known fact, the studio wanted Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones for the part of Snake. Up until then, Kurt Russell had featured in family-friendly movies. A Walt Disney child star, Russell wasn’t who you would think could turn out to be a rugged and tough anti-hero. But Carpenter knew the character inside out, saying he was someone who “Doesn’t care about anybody. And he’s a survivor. And he’s the toughest guy on the planet.”
Thankfully, Russell understood the role completely. And his friendship with Carpenter, forged on ‘Elvis-The Movie‘ secured him the role. Debra Hill commented that “Kurt IS Snake. As much as John is Snake.” Russell agreed with the statement, believing that both he and John Carpenter each represent one side of Snake’s personality.
Throughout the section, we take a look at the other cast members featured in the film. Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine. Donald Pleasence, Issac Hayes. Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau get their time in the spotlight as they deserve. Even Frank Doubleday and Ox Baker as Romeo and Slag respectively get their characters a brief look at in this terrific section. Alongside these looks at the cast and their characters, wonderful photographs accompany the text to tremendous effect.
FINDING A NEW NEW YORK
Tempting though it may seem, shutting down parts of New York City at night wasn’t an option for the filmmakers. They needed to find somewhere that could stand-in for the big apple. Somewhere they could unleash havoc. That place was St Louis, Missouri. The city had recently suffered an urban fire that had burnt down much of the waterfront. It was perfect. The ideal vision of how Carpenter saw New York in the year 1997. We discover the thinking that went into creating this nightmare vision alongside behind-the-scenes photographs.
OVER THE WALL: THE SHOOT
We now come to the crux of the book. Inside this section, we will discover everything we ever wanted to know about the making of the film. With full-color photos and behind-the-scenes shots, we will visit various locations that we will see during the film. Places such as the Liberty Island Security Control. Airforce One, the President’s Escape Pod. The World Trade Center rooftop. The Theater, the New York Public Library. Broadway and the Chock Full O’Nuts. Grand Central Station and the 69th Bridge. And the saving the President sequence against the security wall is all covered here. We get an in-depth look at these places and sets we see during our time with the film. And some of the behind-the-scenes shots bring a sense of great comradery that occurred during the production.
DESIGNING THE FUTURE WORLD OF 1997
We now come to the section dedicated to the look of the 1997 Carpenter and production designer Joe Alves created. Once again, behind-the-scenes stills and shots from the actual film punctuate the pages to go alongside the information we crave to discover. We are afforded a guided tour inside the Statue Of Liberty control center booth. A look inside the President’s escape pod, the design of Snake’s countdown wrist clock.
The look of downtown New York, the set that represents the roof of the World Trade Center. We see the crashed Air Force One alongside Chock Full O’Nuts. And visit the New York Library and the wrestling ring where Snake will be forced to fight. We are shown through photographs and production illustrations. We are also granted a look at the vehicles we will see during proceedings. These include The Duke Of New York’s Cadillac and Cabbie’s Cab. We also get a look at the costumes seen in the film. These are presented to us via photographs and production illustrations.
LIGHTING THE SHADOWS: DEAN CUNDY
We now come to a section dedicated to the legendary cinematographer Dean Cundy. Here we will discover how Cundy embraced new technology which greatly aided with his shooting of the film. Combining this new tech with his work on previous Carpenter movies, Cundy gave the film an astonishing look. The choice of looks and colors used in the film gave the finished article a cark, brooding look and feel to go alongside the vibrant colors that appear throughout the film.
VISUAL EFFECTS: DESCENT INTO NEW YORK
The film relies on several special effects throughout the running time. From the opening monologue showing the computer graphics detailing the prison that is in New York, we get a feel for this version of the future. We get to see the models that went into creating this dark vision of what is to come. The level of detail that went into creating the models and what we will see on screen is marvelous. Full-color photos and behind-the-scenes pictures bring us every small nook and cranny that we will pass through. It is an in-depth look at how hard everyone worked to bring this to life.
To accompany the models, matte paintings were needed. And yet again, we are amazed as we see what went into establishing these shots. The depth the matte paintings give is incredible. And makes the effects we see all that more believable. Once again, we are rewarded with photographs from the behind-the-scenes creation of these works of art. And they are. You can look at the matte paintings and picture them hanging on a wall in your home. Yes, they are bleak. But with mood lighting surrounding them, they would be an excellent addition.
Of course, early CGI cityscapes were also featured in the film. But yet again, they made the film all that more believable to the audience. We are given a look at John Wash’s clean-lined graphics as seen in the now-iconic opening sequence. Everything we wanted to know about these effects is given to us in full descriptive detail.
SHARPSHOOTER: KIM GOTTLIEB-WALKER
Every production has a unit stills photographer. But Kim Gottlieb-Walker was one of the first females working as one on a film set. This all came to be thanks to being championed by Debra Hill herself. And she caught some of the best images of the film there is. From managing to catch the exact moment Donald Pleasence fired a machine gun, complete with the emerging flame, we can see that Kim Gottlieb-Walker is immensely talented. The accompanying written word tells us all about her and her journey. We also get to see the lady herself, thanks to some photographs that are afforded us. One of which shows a light moment between John Carpenter and Debra Hill during what was a tough shoot.
LOST IN NEW YORK
By now, every fan of the film knows about the deleted opening sequence. The Bank Robbery scene is available as a special feature on the DVD releases of the film and the upcoming special edition Blu-Ray. But why was this scene cut from the final film? Simple. After a late-stage test screening, it was decided that the film needed to be re-cut, thanks to some comments following the screening. It also didn’t feel right to director John Carpenter anyway.
As he said during the commentary track for the film, he felt that the scene didn’t do the character of Snake any justice. He felt like it softened the character up and made him normal. Instead, we have Snake walking in with a hardened attitude instead when he first appears. This deleted opening is covered in the book in detail, with production photographs and stills to bring it to life once more.
John Carpenter is a master of music. Let’s face it, EVERYONE knows his theme to ‘Halloween.’ People love his theme to ‘Assault On Precinct 13.’ His score for ‘The Fog‘ is sublime. But the opening theme to ‘Escape From New York‘ was and still is, a classic. Forget the remade version that accompanied 1996s ‘Escape From L.A.’ Yes, it is a good variation of the theme. But the original version is incredible. It has the swagger of Snake Plissken, the feeling of his countdown clock on his wrist, and the futuristic feel that is needed. In conjunction with Alan Howarth, Carpenter created a score that lives on to this day. This section goes into great detail about how the sound of the score came about.
From the original composition to the equipment used to record it, it is all laid bare for us to discover. We also get a look at the original vinyl release of the score. It is now considered a collector’s item. I am lucky enough to own a copy of the original vinyl album, such as my love of the score. But Carpenter was surprised the score was even considered for release. We can thank Alan Howarth for the album being released. I own the score, in all its forms on vinyl, cassette, CD, and digital download.
TITLES AND ANIMATION
John Carpenter didn’t have the financial resources to have an opening in the style of ‘Superman: The Movie.‘ So instead, he chose to go with a simple but effective plain style which featured the credits and was accompanied by his score. The style and the font have now become synonymous with Carpenter’s films. White titles over a black background. But when the film was shown to preview audiences, they were unaware that Manhatten was a walled prison. It was too late to film any new scenes to clarify this vital information. So Carpenter turned to John Wash to create the opening animation that followed the credits. And managed to get an un-credited Jamie Lee Curtis to provide the narration. And thus, a fantastic opening was created.
One of the best things about the marketing for the film was the posters. And there have been many various and different designs over time. I still believe the original to be my favorite. The decapitated head of the Statue Of Liberty lies in the streets of New York. While the prisoners are chasing after an escaping Snake, Maggie, and The President. The design is immediately eye-catching and memorable. And it was all due to the work of the then twenty-five-year-old Barry E Jackson. He was one of ten designers who competed with each other to create the poster for the film. His design is now world-famous. And adorns many walls in many homes across the globe. We are given the three versions of the poster. The original black and white version, the colored version, and the final version with the text added.
Along the way, we get to see the other posters that were designed for the film. Artists such as Paul Chadwick, Wieslaw Walkuski. Kim Passey, Richard Hescox. Renato Casaro and Tongdee Panumas were commissioned to create their posters for the film. Bill Garland created a version for the German and Yugoslavian releases. Rene Ferracci created one for the French release which became the basis for the British Quad version. But the one that stands out the most from the variations is one from Stan Watts, which was initially the final release poster just before the film opened in cinemas. However, it was switched to Jackson’s version at the last minute. We also get to see the 2016 Matt Ferguson poster which publicized the StudioCanal 4K restoration of the film. And Ferguson himself is a fan and was inspired by Barry E Jackson’s original design.
We are also treated to a look at the Drew Struzan artwork for the comic book series named ‘John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles.’ Drew Struzan has a great professional relationship with John Carpenter. He has created posters for ‘The Thing‘ (1982) as well as ‘Big Trouble In Little China.’ (1986). The artwork for the comic wasn’t used and is seen for the first time in the book. We spend our time looking through these wonderful pieces of art before our time with the book ends.
If you thought you knew everything about the film, think again. What John Walsh has pulled out of the bag here is nothing short of sheer brilliance. There are facts that we never knew. There are excellent behind-the-scenes photographs and production stills. Everything that we wanted to know or didn’t know is presented to us in clear and concise detail. And the book is a joy to behold. It is deserving of being owned, read, and re-read. Any fan of the film needs to have this in their collection. And any fan of John Walsh and what he has written and created must own this volume. The level of research, detail, and sheer enjoyment that has gone into the book is very much in evidence.
What John Walsh has given the world with this book is worthy of any award that comes its way. It is deserving in every way possible. After his ‘Flash Gordon‘ book and now this incredible follow-up, I can’t wait to read what the acclaimed author chooses as his next project. But no matter what it is, I’ll be first in line to get my copy. And I recommend getting a copy of this incredible book for yourself.
Escape from New York: The Official Story Of The Film by John Walsh is published by Titan Books and is available to buy now.
Carl Roberts is the News Editor for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force frequently!