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There's Simply No Escape From the L.A. Jokes

Movies: John Carpenter includes numerous local icons in his tongue-in-cheek depiction of the ravaged city.

August 10, 1996|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Carpenter loves L.A. . . . really.

"I've been here for 26 years--it's the cutting-edge of America," says the gaunt, gray-haired director of "Escape From L.A." "We're what America is going to be like. We're multicultural, we try our best to get along the best we can, and we're poised over the edge of the apocalypse."

The City of Angels plunges past that edge straight into hell in Carpenter's just-released $50-million sci-fi satire. A sequel to 1981's "Escape From New York," it wreaks gleeful havoc with L.A.'s most famous iconography.

But it took 15 years--and the Northridge earthquake--to get the project moving, as it were. Star Kurt Russell, producer Debra Hill and Carpenter, who all share screenplay credit, had commissioned a script in 1986, but "we just didn't get it right," Hill recalls. "It didn't have the tone."

Then came Northridge. Russell says that the disaster reminded him that "we're living in Pompeii waiting for the volcano to blow and denying it. I said to John and Debra, 'Guys, this is the time to do it. And by the way, I ain't getting any younger.' "

The trio quickly mapped out a new premise, in which the Big One separates La-La Land from the mainland and becomes a deportation camp for moral offenders. (In the 1986 script, Los Angeles had been an insane asylum.)

Trashing the city's landmarks was a chance to indulge in both dark fantasies and score-settling. Take Universal Studios: In 2013, its Black Tower office building and studio tour are buried on the ocean floor of the San Fernando Sea, along with the rest of the Valley.

"The Black Tower has always been a monstrous tower looming over the city," Hill says, "filled with--how can I put it nicely?--the giants. We wanted to pay homage to some of our past relationships by having Snake Pliskin [Russell] crash through the building."

At least MCA President Ron Meyer got the joke, approving use of the studio tour logo. Not amused was Disney President Michael Ovitz, who rejected use of the Magic Kingdom for the film's climax. It now takes place at a suspiciously familiar "Happy Kingdom by the Sea" with the Paramount mountain subbing for the Matterhorn. (Universal's "Back to the Future" square filled in for the Main Street-style setting.)

Carpenter's favorite destruction spot? "The Beverly Hills Hotel. I don't quite know why but seeing Beverly Hills decimated, with strange folks walking around in robes, was very heartening for me." (All of Rodeo Drive was originally targeted for movie annihilation, before the cost was prohibitive.)

Downtown's Bonaventure Hotel is the site of the most spectacular earthquake damage in the opening sequence, showering glass on the streets below. "When the Bonaventure was first built, if I was looking for cheap entertainment, I'd ride its glass elevators," Hill says.

Also in ruins: Capitol Records--echoing not only that building's destruction in 1974's "Earthquake," but a time in Hill and Carpenter's lives when their then-shared Hollywood apartment overlooked the spot. Tsunami waves make L.A. the ultimate surfer heaven in 2013--for those who survive.

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Cast as the ultimate beach dude is an unbilled Peter Fonda, "our first choice," Hill says. "The whole casting idea was, we have our stars, so let's make the rest an ensemble retro cast."

Not making "Escape's" final cut were such early-draft disaster zones as the Forum, the Getty Museum, the Hollywood Bowl, a mudslide (which Carpenter says may return on the laserdisc edition) and even entertainment agency CAA. "We had Snake going through the lobby, with those giant CAA letters on the ground," Hill recalls, "but we decided it was too 'in' a joke."

"Escape's" makers insist all the humor is affectionate--and even if the cynically comic fantasy comes closer to reality someday, Carpenter insists he's staying put.

"My home is here, it's where I'm going to stay. I love the architecture, the weather, the people. We do have calamities, and the Big One's gonna come--but hey, we're still here. So, wimps, get out of town."

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