12 Facts About John Carpenter's 'Escape From New York'
These days, dystopian cinema has been taken over by the big-budget flicks like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But in 1981, director John Carpenter and former Disney star Kurt Russell set the standard for such films with the low-budget cult classic Escape From New York. It’s not a film that’s big on heroics, kindness, or even hope. Rather, it’s grim, violent, and ultimately, one of the most iconic science fiction films ever made. Here are a dozen facts about Snake Plissken and his mission into the world’s largest prison: New York City.
1. Escape From New York was filmed in St. Louis because of a disaster.
Though the film takes place in New York City, director John Carpenter said he and his crew couldn’t film some of the more ambitious sequences there because it would have “tied up the whole city too much,” so they went looking for an alternate location, and found one in St. Louis, Missouri. Why St. Louis? Well, a few years prior to filming, a fire destroyed parts of that city’s waterfront, leaving large areas of ruined buildings and empty streets that provided the perfect post-apocalyptic look.
“You would have these huge blocks of burned-out buildings that just went on forever and ever and ever, as far as you could see,” producer Debra Hill said. Carpenter was essentially given free rein to shoot in the city at night and cover the streets with debris to craft the perfect look for Snake Plissken’s journey.
2. The movie originally started with a bank robbery.
When we first meet Snake Plissken (Russell), he’s already a notorious prisoner and former war hero being given a shot at freedom. But Carpenter’s original plan was to show the audience how he landed in prison in the first place. Carpenter initially shot an elaborate opening sequence featuring Snake and an accomplice pulling a bank robbery, then fleeing on a hot-wired train before being captured. Audiences ultimately found it confusing, so it was cut.
3. "Snake Plissken" was a real person.
When writing the original script for the film, Carpenter was in search of a name for his main character, and it just so happened that a friend of a friend actually knew a person named “Snake Plissken,” who Carpenter described as “a kinda high school tough guy,” complete with a snake tattoo. It was too perfect to pass up.
“Anybody with a snake tattooed on them someplace … that’s my kinda hero,” Carpenter said.
4. John Carpenter had to fight to cast Kurt Russell.
At the time of the film’s production, Kurt Russell was an actor best known for his work in Disney projects like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. He wasn’t an action star, but Carpenter thought he was the right choice to play Snake. The studio, on the other hand, wanted a star like Tommy Lee Jones or Chuck Norris for the part. Carpenter dismissed Norris as too old, and preferred Russell over Jones, so he fought for his young star, and eventually—obviously—won.
5. James Cameron was part of Escape from New York's crew.
To pull off some of the film’s special effects, Carpenter turned to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. For one particular sequence in which security forces drop food for the prisoners via helicopter, Carpenter needed matte paintings to simulate a New York skyline, since they weren’t actually shooting in New York. One of the artists who produced those paintings was James Cameron, who worked for New World at the time and would later go on to direct Titanic and Avatar.
6. Snake Plissken's eyepatch was Russell's idea.
One of the most iconic things about the film is Plissken’s eyepatch, and apparently that wasn’t in the script. According to Russell, he suggested it to Carpenter, who immediately likened the idea to a favorite Western hero.
“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!'”
7. The crew was given unprecedented access to Liberty Island.
Though much of the film was shot elsewhere, Carpenter did secure one key piece of New York City iconography for on-location shooting: Liberty Island, for the sequence in which a helicopter flies by the Statue of Liberty and the film establishes that it’s now a headquarters for security forces. According to Carpenter, the City of New York granted his crew unprecedented access.
“We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island, at the Statue of Liberty, at night," Carpenter said. "They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier, and were worried about trouble. But we were good tenants. We were extremely careful, and cleaned up our messes afterward."
8. Carpenter hired a pro wrestler to fight Russell.
For the sequence in which Snake has to fight a fellow prisoner, gladiator-style, Carpenter hired actual pro wrestler Ox Baker, who was so rough and real when rehearsing the fight scenes that Russell’s stuntman only gave him one piece of advice: “Good luck.” Russell had the last laugh, though, because he had to hit Baker in the back of the neck with an actual baseball bat studded with nails. A piece of padding was attached to Baker’s neck to absorb the blow, but both Carpenter and Russell recalled the wrestler was a little on edge before the stunt took place.
9. Jamie Lee Curtis may have made a cameo in Escape From New York.
Three years prior to Escape From New York, Carpenter directed his breakout hit: the slasher film Halloween, which also proved to be the breakout film for star Jamie Lee Curtis. If Halloween hadn’t worked out, it’s doubtful Carpenter ever would have made Escape From New York, so he called upon his Halloween star to participate when it finally happened. You won’t see Curtis in the film, but you may hear her: She's believed to have lent her voice to the narrator role under the pseudonym Kathleen Blanchard.
10. Donald Pleasence wrote his own backstory.
Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t the only Halloween star to appear in the film. Carpenter also called upon Donald Pleasence—who leant some star credibility to Halloween as Dr. Loomis—to play the President of the United States. So why does an American president have Pleasence’s British accent? The film never explains it, but Pleasence himself apparently did. According to Carpenter, the actor wrote a backstory for his character involving Margaret Thatcher and the U.S. apparently reverting back to being a British colony. Carpenter opted not to use it.
11. One shot in Escape From New York was filmed in Carpenter's garage.
According to Russell, there’s only one character in the film, other than himself, that Snake Plissken cares about: Maggie, the tough woman played by Carpenter’s then-wife, Adrienne Barbeau. So for one of the only real moments of emotion in the film, her death, Carpenter wanted to make it clear that Maggie really was gone. The problem with that was that he never shot footage of Maggie’s body, only of her being hit by the Duke’s car. So, to fix that, Carpenter later added a shot of her body that he and Barbeau filmed in their own garage.
12. Carpenter hasn't ruled out a third movie.
It took 15 years, but Carpenter and Russell eventually returned to the world of Snake Plissken with 1996’s Escape From L.A. Since then, talks of rebooting the franchise have stopped and started several times, but Carpenter and Russell apparently had an idea for a third film that would’ve seen Snake struggling to flee from the Earth.
“You never know,” Carpenter told Den of Geek in March 2022, when asked about the prospect of a third film. “I learned never to say never in the business. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.”
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.