'They Live': John Carpenter talks about his sci-fi classic
As Americans get ready to head to the polls, the timing couldn’t be better for a fresh look at John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi flick They Live. Fortunately, a brand new Blu-ray version of the film is hitting stores on election day. Aside from a slew of new bonus features and a crisp-as-a-hundred-dollar-bill high-def transfer, the film (about a blue-collar drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him see that aliens have turned us all into passive zombies) comes complete with an incendiary class-warfare political message that’s just as relevant today as it was back at the height of the Reagan/Bush era. If all of that doesn’t seal the deal, there’s also this: the sight of pro wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper spouting his gem of a one-liner: I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
On the eve of the Blu-ray’s release, we got an EXCLUSIVE peek at some of the disc’s new extras and spoke with Carpenter about his rage-against-the-machine classic…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you think They Live holds up in 2012?
JOHN CARPENTER: Oh man, I haven’t seen it. I don’t watch my films. I’ve seen ’em enough after cutting them and putting the music on. I don’t ever want to see them again.
It seems very timely with the election coming up and all of this talk of one-percenters?
Well, They Live was a primal scream against Reaganism of the ’80s. And the ’80s never went away. They’re still with us. That’s what makes They Live look so fresh — it’s a document of greed and insanity. It’s about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse.
Is it a movie you think people should see before they step into the voting booth?
Nah. It’s just a movie.
What made you want to make this movie after your run of hits in the first half of the ‘80s like Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China?
I read a comic-book version of the story when I was a teenager and then, in the ’80s, I went back to the Roy Nelson short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning and it had a framework that I thought I could use to do an off-beat science fiction film. So I took this idea that the aliens are here around us, we just don’t know it because we are hypnotized by media. And we can’t see because we don’t have the right glasses.
You say in your interview on the Blu-ray that you think aliens should always be evil.
Yeah, I think so. There’s no story if they’re not.
So you’re not a fan of E.T.?
Well, I remember seeing Close Encounters and thinking, Really?! They’re kind? And we cry at the end? Ay yi yi. That’s just not my thing.
Tell me about casting Roddy Piper. Why did you want a professional wrestler instead of a professional actor for the hero of the movie?
First of all, I was a wrestling fan when I was young. Even when I figured out what wrestling was, I was still a fan. To me, Roddy just had a weathered face and looked like he’d been working all his life. He wasn’t a Hollywood star. He had some scars on his face and I thought he would be convincing walking into town with a backpack on his back looking for work. I’d met Roddy at Wrestlemania 3 in Pontiac, Michigan. He was a great heel.
Did you have any doubts about whether he could pull it off?
I had all the confidence in the world. Plus, his being a wrestler allowed us to do that whole long fight scene, which I’m extremely proud of.
NEXT: CARPENTER ON THAT FAMOUS FIGHT SCENE
That famous fight scene is 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Did you plan it to be that long?
Yeah. When I wrote it, the screenplay had a blank page that said ‘The fight’, the next page said ‘The fight continues’, and the next page ‘The fight continues’. I always wanted to do a big long fight and Roddy knew what he was doing. And Jeff Imada, a legendary Hollywood stunt coordinator, and Keith David — the three of them went into the backyard of my office in the Valley with mats and they worked out the fight for about a month and a half. They knew exactly what they were going to do. They were making contact — they weren’t pulling punches. Keith came from Juilliard, so he knew dance and movement. I’m very proud of it. We shot it in three days.
Were you inspired by the famously long fight in John Wayne’s The Quiet Man?
I wanted to beat that because that’s a punk fight. I remember when I was young and I saw it, I thought, Wow, what a great fight! It’s not. It’s just sort of a dumb fight.
Do you recall what the reception for They Live was at the time?
We opened up at No. 1, which was pretty cool because it’s a tiny little movie. I think it stayed at No. 1 for a few weeks. I don’t know that the ‘80s action audience was really ready for the message of the movie. I think they just enjoyed the fight. I know the critics got it wrong. They thought the movie was about subliminal advertising, which is not what it’s about. It was not glowingly reviewed.
Any blowback from your parodying of Siskel & Ebert as aliens in the film?
No, no, no.
Who’s the best actor you’ve ever directed? I’m guessing it’s not Mr. Piper.
Oh God, there’s so many of them. Sam Neill maybe? My idea of great actors are the ones that don’t give me any trouble — the ones that know their lines and come prepared and don’t give me any shit. That’s what I think a great actor is.
I have to ask you about Roddy’s famous line, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
Roddy came up with that. 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. 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.
When he says that line and you’re on the other side of the camera, do you think to yourself, That’s going to be the line from the movie everyone’s going to quoting for the next 20 years?
I don’t think about that. His timing was so great though.
You wrote the script, but it’s credited to Frank Armitage — which is the name of Keith David’s character. Why the pseudonym?
It was a reaction to seeing my name all over these movies. 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!
They Live has cast a long shadow in pop culture. Roddy’s famous bubblegum line is used in a Duke Nukem game, Shepard Fairey adopted the Obey slogan, South Park did a riff on the fight scene. That has to make you proud.
Yeah, I mean, how cool is that? It’s flattering. Man, come on, you make something and it lasts a while, that’s what it’s all about.
There’s a whole Hollywood cottage industry of people remaking and prequelizing your films like Halloween and The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13. Have you ever thought about returning to any of them yourself?
Oh God, no! I don’t want to do something I’ve done before. Kurt Russell convinced me to do a sequel to Escape From New York, but it’s just too much work. I don’t want to work that hard. Movies are a young man’s game. When you get to be my age, you pick and choose your spots. I don’t want to work as much as I did when I was young. My god, I worked all the time. That’s why I had to stop. I didn’t have a life. They don’t seem to need me right now. But when they do, they’ll give me a call.
Do you watch a lot of new movies?
Not a lot. I used to watch everything. The Academy sends us all of the movies at the end of the year and we get to see everything. But I’ve seen The Avengers and Dark Shadows and Prometheus. I enjoyed The Avengers. I couldn’t do that kind of movie though. Superheroes aren’t my deal. But they did a good job with it. I watch a lot of basketball. I’m an addict.
Who’s your team?
Please! You’re calling me in Los Angeles, California. Don’t ask me what my team is.
So you’re a Clippers fan then?
Oh give me a break!