In the mid-1980s, John Carpenter stumbled upon a comic book story set in a world where aliens were secretly controlling the entire human race. A lifelong fan of science fiction, Carpenter saw a metaphor lurking there that tied the aliens to Reagan-era Republican politicians, and a story began brewing in his mind. That story became They Live, Carpenter’s cult masterpiece about an American everyman who sees the world for what it really is with the help of a very special pair of sunglasses.
Teaming with professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper for the lead role, Carpenter and company set out to make a film full of alien ghouls (most of which were the same guy), borrowed props, and a fight scene that seemed like it would never end. The result is one of greatest cult films of the 1980s, which also happens to feature one of the greatest movie lines of all time. We have come here to chew bubble gum and give you 10 facts about the making of They Live … and we’re all out of bubble gum.
1. They Live was inspired by a comic book adaptation of a short story.
They Live is an adaptation of Ray Nelson’s science fiction short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which was originally published in the 1960s. But John Carpenter’s more direct inspiration was an Eclipse Comics adaptation of Nelson’s story, which he stumbled across in the mid-1980s. Intrigued by the idea of aliens enslaving humanity, Carpenter then sought out the original prose work.
"'Eight O’Clock in the Morning is' a D.O.A.-type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist,” Carpenter told Starlog in 1988. "When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem."
Though Carpenter liked the idea of the entire populace being controlled subliminally by an alien menace, he wasn’t too keen on the hypnotism idea. He bought the rights to the story and began adapting it, changing hypnotism to the very 1980s notion of Americans being controlled via subliminal messaging.
2. They Live was a response to Ronald Reagan's America.
Carpenter has described They Live as a “primal scream against Reaganomics,” a story that uses a science fiction concept to pour on social commentary about the way he saw what was happening to the American middle class in the 1980s. In a 1988 interview with Starlog promoting the film’s release, Carpenter noted that he’d begun watching television more frequently while developing the story, and realized “it’s all about wanting us to buy something,” which further influenced his take on the material.
“I wanted to strike out in some way, so I cast the Republicans as alien creatures,” Carpenter later recalled.
Even years later, Carpenter continues to believe in the relevance of the rich-get-richer conspiracy at the heart of the film. "They’re still here, making more money than ever, and they’re still among us,” he said.
3. John Carpenter wrote They Live under an alias.
Carpenter has always been a multi-hyphenate kind of filmmaker, directing, writing, producing and scoring his movies. But by the time They Live came around, he’d grown a little disillusioned with the idea of continuing to have his name plastered absolutely everywhere. With that in mind, he decided that he’d use a pseudonym for They Live’s screenplay credit.
“It was a reaction to seeing my name all over these movies,” Carpenter explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "I think the height of it was Christine. It was like, John Carpenter’s Christine, directed by John Carpenter, music by John Carpenter … what an egotist!”
Carpenter chose the pseudonym Frank Armitage, which is a character from H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Dunwich Horror,” which he picked “just because I love Lovecraft.”
4. Roddy Piper had never heard of John Carpenter.
For the role of “John Nada,” They Live's central character, Carpenter was on the hunt for an everyman who could embody the blue collar working class. A lifelong wrestling fan, Carpenter was intrigued by the prospect of meeting with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and the two were introduced by Piper’s manager after Wrestlemania III. Piper was interested in getting into more acting roles, but later admitted he had no idea who Carpenter was before meeting him.
“The guy who was managing me at the time, Dave Wolfe, said, ‘I want you have dinner with this guy.’ I never heard of him, but that’s my bad, you know? ’Cause I had been fighting pro since I was 15, I was rolling pretty hard,” Piper recalled. “And he said, ‘Ok, after [Wrestlemania is] over, after it’s over.’ So we sat down and, I’m trying not to be too facetious, but it was pretty close to this—‘Could you pass me the butter? You want a roll? Yeah. Want to star in my next movie? Sure. Can I have some more champagne? Sure.’ It wasn’t much more than that, really.”
For his part, Carpenter felt Piper’s look and demeanor perfectly matched the Nada he was looking for.
“His face, his scars, everything about him. He seemed completely believable,” Carpenter said.
5. They Live's most famous line came from Roddy Piper.
Even if you’ve never seen They Live, you’ve probably heard someone at some point in your life say: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.” Ever since Nada delivered that line in the film, it’s maintained a life even beyond They Live, becoming one of the most popular and frequently quoted lines in all of pop culture. According to Carpenter, the line came straight from Piper, who kept a notebook full of quips like that to use in his wrestling promos.
“Traveling all around the country wrestling different people, those guys come up with a lot of stuff to hype matches in interviews. They have to come up with one-liners. Roddy had a book full of them that he carried with him,” Carpenter explained. “He’d sit on a plane and come up with these things. He gave me the book when I was writing the script and that was the best one in there. I think he was wrestling Playboy Buddy Rose and he may have said the line then.”
According to Piper, the line actually didn’t enter the picture until the day they shot the scene, but either way both men agree that he wrote it.
6. They Live's subliminal messaging proved costly.
They Live was a relatively low-budget film, and Carpenter recalled a budget of only about $4 million when he and Piper recorded a commentary track for the film years later, so the filmmakers sometimes had to get creative when depicting a world secretly taken over by aliens. In some cases, this was relatively easy, as in the moments when Nada looks through his sunglasses up at billboards on the sides of buildings. For that, Carpenter and company turned to classic matte paintings rather than paying to have new billboards hung and filmed. “It was just old-fashioned filmmaking, one of the oldest tricks in the book,” Carpenter recalled.
The scene in which Nada comes upon a supermarket full of aliens (or ghouls, to use Carpenter’s preferred term) was more complicated because every visible label in the store had to be replaced with a plain white label revealing the subliminal messaging. According to Carpenter, the crew attempted to shoot the scene on location at a real market, but they simply couldn’t cover everything, so a set had to be built instead.
“That was our biggest expenditure,” Carpenter said of the subliminal supermarket.
7. They Live's props were recycled from other movies.
In a few shots of They Live, particularly in the scenes set in the alien compound near the end, you might notice the alien characters using strange, sci-fi-looking devices as communicators, and realize they look similar to props used as ghost detection devices in Ghostbusters. That’s because they’re the same props. According to Carpenter, the film was so low-budget that they rented various things from prop houses, and that’s how the got those devices.
This money-saving technique also meant that the film got props left over from another Carpenter film. According to Piper, Big Trouble in Little China is responsible for the sunglasses at the center of the story.
“When John did Big Trouble in Little China with Kurt Russell, there’s a scene with the 18-wheeler … if you look at those glasses, they had a whole bunch of those glasses left over,” Piper said. “That’s the glasses we used in They Live. And, yes, I have a couple of pairs of the original glasses.”
8. Yes, They Live's iconic fight scene was always meant to be that long.
They Live is perhaps most famous for Roddy Piper’s “bubble gum” line, but longtime fans of the film also recall the fight scene between Nada and Frank (Keith David) as an equally important hallmark. It lasts more than five minutes at a key point in the film and goes through several evolutions, though the argument is always just over Frank’s refusal to put on Nada’s sunglasses. According to Carpenter, the fight was scripted as several nearly-blank pages in the screenplay that simply read “The Fight Continues,” signifying that it was always meant to be a long scene.
To make it come to life, Imada rehearsed and choreographed the scene for more than a month with Piper and David. Working with pads outside Carpenter’s office, they practiced each major beat (including several pro wrestling moves) over and over until they could hit each other for real while also pulling their punches to reduce injury. The result is what we see in the film.
Years later, during an interview for the DVD release, Carpenter was asked if he ever considered making the fight any shorter in the editing room. His response: “F**k no!”
9. One guy played (almost) every alien.
The whole point of the alien “ghouls” at the center of They Live is that they can be anybody, from the lady next to you at the supermarket to the cop who’s arresting you to the President of the United States. In actual fact, though, the ghouls in the film aren’t just anybody. They’re mostly one guy: Jeff Imada, who was also the film’s stunt coordinator. According to Imada, Carpenter originally hired actors to play the ghouls in the film, but wasn’t too happy with the male actor in particular, and asked Imada to begin doubling.
“It was funny because I ended up doubling a lot of the stunt guys that were in there,” Imada recalled.
Imada played “not all of them, but quite a few” in the film, including the very last ghoul we see, who’s having sex with a woman when the alien signal is shut down and all of the ghouls are revealed as they truly appear.
10. John Carpenter improvised the score.
Like many of his films, Carpenter also served as a composer for They Live, working once again with composer and sound designer Alan Howarth for what turned out to be a largely improvisational process. “I walked into Alan’s studio with a complete blank,” Carpenter said, and noted that he has taken a similarly blank slate approach to many of his films.
With Howarth (who recalled that Carpenter didn’t even want the faintest explanation of how his synthesizers worked) working on the programming side of things, Carpenter sat down at a keyboard with a cut of the movie playing on a screen in front of him, and started to make up the music as the film went along, beginning with the tempo, which was pulled directly from the pace of Nada’s walk across the train tracks in the opening shot. From there, Carpenter was off, and Howarth made adjustments as they went.
“I just invented this little bass part and put everything around it,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter was also responsible for one other key element of the film’s sound: The deep alien voice saying “sleep” is his, recorded and manipulated by Howarth.
“Independent Thought”: An Interview with Writer/Director John Carpenter (Shout! Factory, 2012)
“Watch, Look, Listen”: The Sights and Sounds of They Live (Shout! Factory, 2012)