Magazine article American Cinematographer

From Outer Space, They Live

Magazine article American Cinematographer

From Outer Space, They Live

Article excerpt

John Carpenter makes movies that are out of the ordinary. Leave it to a filmmaker whose subjects have included a haunted car (Christine) and the island of Manhattan as a futuristic prison (Escape From New York) to come up with this one: evil free enterprisers from outer space starring with a former pro wrestler.

In his latest film, They Live, John Carpenter brings his unusual type of social commentary to the subjects of subliminal seduction through media, and the growing homeless population. The story turns the tables on exploitative first world societies by making Earth a "third world" planet, exploited by aliens who use the mass media to gain control. Posing as successful humans, the aliens corrupt the greedy to their cause, and control the rest through subliminal messages in the media. If allowed to continue, the aliens would deplete all natural and human resources, discard the earth like so much trash, and move on to another planet. John Nada, played by former pro wrestler Roddy Piper, slowly uncovers the insidious plot. He joins the underground movement, which is based in the ever-growing tent city for the homeless, Justiceville.

"They Live began three years ago with a comic book I bought called 'Nada'," recalls Carpenter. "It was published by Eclipse Comics, a company which puts out very beautifully rendered science fiction stories. This particular strip was taken from a short story called 'Eight O'Clock in the Morning' by Ray Nelson. In the story, this guy wakes up and realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that there are creatures among us. I became entranced with the story, but I felt that it should be updated. I thought that it might be more current if the guy woke up and realized that the Reagan Revolution was run by aliens from another planet."

This eccentric, yet topical premise remained a seed in Carpenters fertile imagination while he made Prince of Darkness. But when Carpenter paid a recreational visit to Wrestlemania III, the seed germinated. There he met "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, professional wrestler and future star of They Live.

"My idea of a male hero is based on a person, a very close friend of mine, that I knew when I was growing up," says Carpenter. "Many of the heroes in my movies - Kurt Russell's character in Escape From Neiv York, Jeff Bridges' character in Starman have this person's qualities in one way or another. When I met Roddy Piper, I felt that he also had these qualities. He looks as if he's lived life, as opposed to looking like a glamorous Hollywood movie star. He has a rough face, with scars from his fights, but it's a kind face. I thought it would be a different point of view to use him as the leading character in this story. So finally it coalesced for me. I took the Ray Nelson story, added the political commentary and wove Roddy Piper in as Nada." The resulting screenplay incorporates many elements, including science fiction, action, comedy and political satire. However, Carpenter emphasizes that it is not a horror movie.

Carpenter's choice for cinematographer was Gary Kibbe. "I learned the camera when I went to USC film school," Carpenter recalls. "I shot a lot of film, and spent a lot of time with the ASC manual, so I generally know what's going on with the lenses and the camera. But there is no way I would consider myself a cameraman. Working with Gary Kibbe as director of photography produces a visual style that I am very happy with. Our working relationship began on Big Trouble in Little China." (see AC June 1987) "He was the camera operator for Dean Cundey and I was impressed by two things: his eye and his discipline. Unfortunately, in the movie business now, that sort of thing is disappearing. Everyone expects to arrive in town and become an instant star. There's not a willingness to learn the basics of a craft and put in the years of training that are necessary. Gary is about as far from that as possible. He's worked behind the camera for years and years, under some of the great cinematographers. …

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