It's cold and damp, just the sort of night where most movie stars would stay cozied up in their trailers. But tonight one of the stuntmen is doing a daredevil motorcycle jump and Kurt Russell--something of a cycle nut himself--wouldn't miss it for the world.
"This guy's really a hot rod," says Russell, pointing to the cyclist. "He knows his bikes. You can bet this gag's going to be really good."
In movie parlance, gags are stunts and there are plenty in "John Carpenter's Escape From L.A.," the action-packed sequel to his 1981 cult film "Escape From New York." Set in the year 2013, the film portrays an earthquake-ravaged city that is now an island. Surf's up on Wilshire Boulevard, and the San Fernando Valley is buried under a vast sea: Racing along the ocean floor one day, a submarine runs smack into the King Kong ride from the Universal Studios tour.
When an L.A.-based gangster named Cuervo Jones turns up with the president's daughter and a lethal secret weapon she stole from a space defense lab, the government turns to its own secret weapon: Snake Plissken, an imprisoned sociopath who is injected with a designer virus and given 10 hours to retrieve the weapon. If he does, he'll receive a pardon--and an antidote.
Pumped up after months of pre-production workouts, the 44-year-old Russell plays Plissken, reprising the role from "Escape From New York" that launched him as an action hero. It's pretty much the same character this time. Dressed in Harley black leather, wearing a patch over one eye, Snake is simply an Old West gunfighter who does what it takes to survive.
"He represents my ultimate hatred of authority," Carpenter says dryly. "You really don't want him to change. It's like saying, 'How is Clint Eastwood different in "Fistful of Dollars" from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?' "
In the midst of a 70-day shoot that ends March 20, Carpenter is filming tonight on a deserted landfill in Carson. The area has been transformed into a squalid mile-long strip of lean-tos and scrap-metal shanties where a narrow road has been carved between huge mounds of boulders and rubble. It's L.A.'s future, with a nasty hangover.
"This is Sunset Boulevard after a 9.6 earthquake," says Carpenter, taking a stroll past a row of shacks illuminated by torches and barrels of oil. "We researched what happened after the massive earthquakes in China and India, where something like 600,000 people died, and this is what the streets would look like--all rubble, with people living from hand to mouth."
In tonight's scene, after being discovered infiltrating a carnival parade, Russell is dodging bullets from one of Cuervo Jones' thugs, who is riding in the parade on horseback. As originally written, the scene had Russell wrestling the thug off his horse. But Carpenter has made a last-minute change, improvising a stunt in which Russell vaults over the horse on his Harley, then turns and shoots the thug. (Russell will do the stunt later on wires and be inserted into the shot in post-production.)
As the stuntman rehearses his approach, Russell starts razzing his stunt double, John Casino, who had a minor crash earlier in the evening.
"When I get in trouble, I gas it," says Russell, who does some cycle riding in the film--within reason. "You want to have power all the time. If you start to lose it, give it some gas. Worry about slowing down later!"
Russell has a healthy regard for the rigors of motorcycle stunts, especially after taking a few tricky turns wearing a patch over one eye. "You have no depth perception," he explains. "You can't imagine what it's like to go roaring through all these huts and shacks, turning left here and right there, with no idea at all where the turns are.
"I was riding down some alley the other night and I saw this blur in front of me, like I was about to run over some guy, and I'm thinking, 'I don't remember seeing him in rehearsal. Is he supposed to be there? Did I drive down the wrong alley?' "
After Carpenter calls for action, the stuntman comes blasting through a thicket of shacks, vaults up a hidden ramp and soars through the air, landing on a flatbed truck, bouncing down a ramp on the other end and skidding to a stop.
The neatly executed stunt earns a hearty round of applause from the crew. Russell gives the stuntman a pat on the back as the young hot rod rides away. Now it's Casino's turn to razz him.
"You looked great up there, boss," he says. "Really good form."
"Don't worry," Russell replies. "The next one'll be even better."
Released in 1981, "Escape From New York" cost $7 million, cheap even for that era. It made money, got good reviews, helped make Russell (once a Disney boy hero) a legitimate star and established Carpenter (who'd already had a low-budget hit with "Halloween") as a major director.