AICN Legends: Quint chats up Kurt Russell about everything from Walt Disney to John Carpenter!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. If it wasn't crazy enough that I met Kurt Russell while at Sundance where I got to interview him alongside THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way, I figured why not shoot for the moon and ask him if he'd be down for talking about his extensive and incredible career.
”Yeah, sure. I've had fun talking with you.” Information was exchanged and a tentative sit-down was set up while I was in Los Angeles last week for my birthday, but you never know with these kinds of things. Schedules gets crazy, meetings get pushed and priorities have to be made, so I was waiting for Kurt to get in touch in the days leading up to the chat with an apologetic cancelation.
However at 9am last Monday we broke bread at Patrick's Roadhouse, an awesomely divey diner off of the PCH and we talked about as much of his career as I could fit in to an hour and fifteen minutes. Yes, I danced a little bit inside.
You may not be aware of this, but Mr. Russell's a passionate winemaker. When Kurt sat down he was buzzing from the recent Valentine's Day opening of his new spot at the 1880 Hotel and Saloon in Los Alamos, which will sell his Gogi wines exclusively.
Before the recorder flipped on Kurt was talking about how much pride he had in his wine, saying that unlike films where his creative input is limited to his performance (most of the time) the wine was all his choices, from picking the vineyard (which he discovered while filming the final chase scene in Death Proof) to overseeing the process. As he said, love the wine or hate it, it's 100% him.
I have yet to try his Pinot, but I'm very much looking forward to getting the chance to. What I did get to do was talk about the origins of his career on the through to his work with John Carpenter. As you'd expect, Kurt was super open, honest and spoke his mind. And yes he laughed. A lot. Somewhere some old school talkbackers are smiling.
Before we begin, my buddy Kraken was there for the breakfast, so don't be shocked when he pops up at the end of the conversation to explain what Dead Space is to Mr. Russell.
It's a long chat, but a really fun one. Enjoy!
Quint: So, my plan is to talk a bit about your career on the whole, starting in the early days. Don't worry, I'm not gonna go James Lipton on you and ask what God'll say to you when you get to get to heaven or anything.
Kurt Russell: Yeah, and then pretend like I don't know, as if I haven't ever seen that show. That's my favorite moment in that show. That's when you get to watch the actors act. I mean, they're acting most of the time anyway, as human beings we do, but that one in particular... I've seen that show maybe 6 or 7 times and about the third or fourth time I saw it I went “Oh, he asks the same questions at the end and they all act as if they didn't know it was coming!”
My favorite moment is when they (act as if) they fucking didn't know it was coming. They literally are pretending to think about this for the first time.
Quint: My favorite is the “what's your favorite curse word” question because they always act bashful, like they're embarrassed.
Kurt Russell: Yeah, they never thought about that. It's just great to watch! My favorite thing about that show is that Kurt Russell has never been invited on it! (laughs) It's fabulous, not a whimper!
Quint: Watch, when this interview goes online you'll get an invite!
Kurt Russell: No, fuck that! It's over, man! Clearly they'll see where I'm coming from. That's my favorite thing about that show! And other people would probably say the same thing! (laughs)
Quint: Let's start way back at the beginning. Your father was in the business, so you obviously came from an acting family...
Kurt Russell: Nah... It looks like that. When your father's an actor it looks like you come from an acting family, but it's not always that.
Quint: Sometimes when a parent is an actor they try to keep their kids as far away from the business as they can.
Kurt Russell: We didn't do that. My family didn't do that. His agent at the time said, “Hey, have you ever thought about having Kurt be in the business because I think he'd do well.” My parents said, “I don't know. We'll take a look at it.” It was just something that my dad did and there were jobs for young people.
For me, it was real simple. I was doing a paper route. I was 9 years old and I had a paper route and I wanted to buy a couple of bicycles. I did the math and for a couple of Schwinn 10-speeds it was going to cost $110. It was going to take me 9 months of the paper route to get that, which was fine. It wasn't bad.
So, I started the paper route and I'm about 6 months into it and just about the same time two things happened. One was I wanted to buy those bicycles, one for me and one for my sister so we could ride around together, and I needed a better bike for the paper route, which I was doing anyway. I knew what my dad did and I knew it was kind of different because my dad was home when other dads weren't home.
Don Drysdale did this thing called Don Drysdale's Little League All-Stars. Don Drysdale here in LA was this famous Dodgers pitcher at the time, '61 or '62. He went around and took players from different leagues and did a little show, taught kids how to do baseball stuff. I was chosen as the center fielder on that. I was a good ballplayer, so they picked me for (this show). Because of what my dad did I knew what you were supposed to do, learn your lines and stuff. We got paid a bat and a glove for the day's work and I thought “This is the shit! This is the greatest thing I've ever seen.”
Then I talked to my dad's agents and said, “How much do you make doing that?” It was $110 a day. So in one day I could earn enough for the bicycles, instead of 9 months. I went on an interview, got a job and I literally called them back and said “I want to do this.” It's that simple. Even a 9 year old kid could figure that out!
My dad looked like he was having fun and we were always putting on shows in the backyard. We liked putting on a show. That was it. That's how I got going.
Quint: The Disney stuff came after you had done some TV.
Kurt Russell: Yeah, when I was 11 I did a television series called The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters with Dan O'Herlihy and Charlie Bronson. Did 26 shows and I think we were up against Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Sunday nights. After that was over, I guess I went over to Disney for a interview for Follow Me, Boys, the Fred MacMurray movie, and I got the job.
Quint: Walt was still alive then, right?
Kurt Russell: Oh, yeah. There's a pretty funny story about that. By that time, at 13, I was just starting to get pretty serious about baseball. And by serious I mean I began to know that I was probably going to make a run at professional ball. My dad was a ballplayer. That was the family business. Baseball was the family business. It was what you did and we could all do it. My nephew, Matt Franco, his son is going to be a professional ballplayer. There's something there. It's written all over him. He sees it, hits it, great arm, loves the game. If he stays healthy, he'll play.
I happened to be with my dad when the contract negotiation part of doing this movie, Follow Me, Boys, was kind of done. We had to go in because there some kind of problem and the problem was mostly about the days I was playing, the days I had games, I had to be done by 3:30pm to make it to the ballgame. It was just once a week. My games were on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
Plus it was coming to the end of the All-Star season. At 13 I was on a 13-15 year old team that was ranked number one team in the United States. We actually did not win the world championship. We lost to the team that ended up winning it five games later, but I remember having to go in with my dad to meet his man, Mr. (Bill) Anderson, who was the producer on the show, I guess. He was the guy with the contracts.
We we were in there and my dad finally said, “I don't think you understand, I don't think you're looking at this right. You think this is some kind of a ploy to get more money. The money's great, we don't need any more money, it's a really good deal. Unfortunately, Kurt's life in the future... it may entail acting at some point, but his immediate future is starting to bend towards baseball and we have to pay attention to that. This is a non-negotiable thing. If you can't do this, then he can't do the movie. It's that simple. I'm sorry if that doesn't work for you. Kurt would love to do the part, but it's just not going to work.”
So, we got up and we were leaving, and my dad said, “It's too bad they can't do it.” I remember going past the gates. We got about 10 feet past the gates and the guard leaned out and said “Kurt Russell?” “Yeah?” He said, “Were you just in Mr. Anderson's office?” My dad said, “Yeah.” He said, “They'd like you to go back.” Okay... I thought we'd forgotten something, but we went back and signed the deal. I found out later on that Mr. Disney was listening to that conversation and he said “You guys don't get it. This is not what we think it is. He's a ballplayer, he's obviously very good at it. He's doing this because he enjoys it, but this is not a kid-actor. We do not have a kid-actor on our hands, in the normal sense of the word.” Disney really was great because from that moment on they understood it.
Now, they tested me on it. I had to leave the set of my own accord and that's tough to do when you're 13. They didn't say, “Hey, Kurt. It's 3:30pm, you have to go.” I had to say “I'm sorry, but I gotta leave in 1 minute.” They wouldn't say anything and that one minute would come and go and I'd say, “Okay, see you tomorrow!” The first time I did that it was really tough. I actually got a game-winning hit that night and the next day I got there and Mr. Disney was on the set. He said, “Hey, I heard you got the game-winning hit last night.” I said, “Yeah, I did.” He said, “Way to go!” He was there to make me feel good about it. From that point on everybody knew at 3:30 I was gone.
Quint: That's great. Walt Disney fascinates me. There's almost this feeling of the Cult of Disney... I just went to Disneyland for my birthday and listening to the opening of the park announcement about Disney coming to California in the '20s with a dream... it feels quasi-religious in the way they were talking about him.
Kurt Russell: Listen, I know from my wine now... it's at Club 33 and Steakhouse 55. I did a winemaker dinner there. Yeah, it's cult. It's beyond cult.
Quint: There's nothing like it. I can't think of any other person in any other field that has had the same recent impact outside of maybe L. Ron Hubbard. But Disney's face and imagination is still known to pretty much everybody in the world, who travel to these places to soak in his particular vision over 50 years after his death. I think I'm fascinated by it because I actually buy into the Cult of Disney myself.
Kurt Russell: It's interesting. I mean, now looking back on it, it's interesting that I spent as much time with him as I did, learning the things I did from being with him and around him. When it's you, looking out rather than looking in, he was just Walt Disney. He was the guy at the studio. He was the guy who said yes to whatever.
Quint: It also sounds like he got you as a person more than most regular executives.
Kurt Russell: He did. He really did. He made me feel really comfortable because he knew I liked acting, he knew I liked the world of making movies, but that I liked it from a sort of pure point of view. This could be fun, this could be a cool thing to do, this could be scary, this could be sad, happy, this could be entertaining in some way. He knew that I was interested in it from that point of view. What's the best way to get there, what's the best way to show that? It was a great opportunity for a 13/14/15 year old kid.
At the time he just reminded me of my grandfather, a good guy, you know? A really cool guy. He was very non-intimidating. I can remember people kind of acting (nervous) and I thought “Boy, is that what not to be around him.” He's not that guy. He's open for the fun, for the interesting thing. I was fortunate, though, to spend that time, at that age, with him.
Quint: It seems that whatever your personality was really impressed him or else he wouldn't have fought so hard on your behalf.
Kurt Russell: The things I actually did, if people took the time to look at what I was doing at the time, it was a little different. When I did the light comedies at Disney, that was quite a different thing for me to be doing because when I first went there the character that I played was a the son of an alcoholic and he was very ashamed of it. The kid had real problems, but he was a tough kid that wanted to be a part of something.
The other thing I remember doing with him at that age was Willie and the Yank and I was a confederate soldier at the age of 15, shooting people! Riding horses with guns!
Quint: You weren't Bobby Driscoll.
Kurt Russell: No, I was doing the 15 year old version of Tombstone, you know what I mean? It was very cool. Then doing some of the stuff later on, the lighter fair, for me was just kind of fun. I liked it because I liked the people I was working with and I thought it was fun and goofy, but it wasn't going to sustain what I wanted to do.
Quint: The Dexter Riley films?
Kurt Russell: Yeah. They were really fun. Also Now You See Him, Now You Don't is a great idea for a movie. It's a really funny idea.
Quint: With the invisible spray?
Kurt Russell: No, not that one. By that time it was, for me, just kind of by the numbers, but the other one... what was it? The one with the monkey.
Quint: Oh, Barefoot Executive.
Kurt Russell: Barefoot Executive! That's a deeply funny idea, right? So, I had no complaints. I did a lot of stuff there for a long period of time. It was a time, though, when Disney was... as a culture, we were embarking on an I Am Curious Yellow phase. In Hollywood to be working at Disney in those days, as a late teen/early 20s, was for most actors... they didn't understand it. It was cartoon world or something.
It's interesting how biased people have become in terms of performers, forgetting that there's all kinds of audiences. There's needs for different kinds of movies, but they were so wrapped up in this theoretical world of new stories. There's no new form of storytelling! It's all the same, it always has been the same and always will be the same. Somebody might do a new look or a different version of something that kicks off a new wave and they were all just part of this wave. I didn't care, I was playing ball, but to be a Disney at that time was almost something, in their minds, to be ashamed of, something to live down.
I always thought Rex Reed said one of the more interesting things... He was on a television show with me and they tried to put him on the spot a little bit because I was there. They were trying to kill two birds with one stone. They were trying to put Rex Reed on the spot with me and at the same time put Disney movies down. He said, “Look. Reviewing Disney movies is like anything else. Disney movies are just like any other movies. There's good ones, bad ones and in-between ones.” I thought, “Good for you.” I think more people needed to think that way at the time. I think even he was guilty of not thinking that way at times, but anyway that's the way it was.
Quint: It's that way now. It's weird, the geeks have won the world, but in many ways they've compartmentalized themselves even more. I still get people surprised when I tell them my favorite movies are Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Casablanca, The Third Man. “Why isn't it Star Wars?” It's all storytelling.
Kurt Russell: It's all storytelling, right. I did a movie a couple years ago at Disney again. It's one of my favorite movies that I did, one of my favorite characters, and it's got its own little cult wing. It's called Sky High.
Quint: Sky High is great!
Kurt Russell: It's so fuckin' funny, man! It's so deeply funny. The characters in it, especially The Commander and his son... he loves him so much and is so proud of him! It's so great being a superhero, that you can pass this gene on! The thought of his son not getting superpowers is so great because you can draw comparisons to a father having a gay son or a father who was a great athlete and his son doesn't think he's that good...
It also deals with the first year of school. In everybody's life, your freshman year in high school is your critical year in school no matter what. The first day of school is exciting, but whatever happens in that first day isn't going to be traumatic enough, in general, to change your life. That can happen in your first day in high school. That can be that important, it can have that strong of an impact on you and everybody knows it going it. That kid had a lot on his plate.
I look at that film and go, “I don't care who does it or what genre it's in, you just take it on its own accord.” It's really good and it's really funny.
Quint: I remember being very pleasantly surprised by that movie. I think it hooked me in when Bruce Campbell shows up as the coach that picks the superheroes and the sidekicks.
Kurt Russell: Yeah! To me people who look at movies purely and cleanly will throw all that out. It doesn't matter where it comes from, it just matters what's in it. So, I still defend a lot of the things Disney has done and what I have done over there, which right now is pretty far away from how people have a tendency to think of me.
Quint: It funny to think about, but Dexter Riley had more movies than Snake Plissken!
Kurt Russell: Those movies were very successful in their day. That's why they kept making of them. They were just fun to do. When you're me and you look at all the things you got to do, I'm really glad that's part of it. I would have missed that had I not been able to do them.
Quint: You did a film around that time called The Deadly Tower where you played Charles Whitman, the UT sniper. It kind of exemplifies what I love about your career. You're not afraid to go from one extreme to another. In the middle of your Disney comedies you play a real life mass-murderer.
Kurt Russell: Well, it started right about then. I can't remember when I did that, I was still playing ball I think. I'm not sure. I never concern myself with holding on to anything. I never concern myself as an actor trying to be something, to my demise. You can make a lot more money if the studio knows how to sell you. It's all about that. That marketing department just needs to know what the hook is and they key in.
A lot of actors claim they don't want to be typecast and then they do the same thing over and over again. You have to say no, if that's your thing, which they don't do. It has to come from a place in the person and for me I just never thought about holding on to anything. Even as a kid, when a director would want me to do something I loved trying it out, even if I thought it was dead wrong. I loved trying it out because it was a chance to do something different.
There are a lot of movies I didn't do because they were afraid of how I'd play the character. I'd say, “I'm going to be very upfront about what I want to do here” because the last thing I want to do is be on a set with a director doing this (bumps fists together), which I've never done. So, I said “I'm going to be upfront about what I'm going to do.” Until you become a movie star. Then they're just sort of glad to have you and you have free reign.
One of the craziest times that happened to me was on Captain Ron. I went in there and had what I wanted to do. After about a week, the director (Thom Eberhardt) came to me about toning my wardrobe down, changing my hair, basically changing the whole character. He said, “They're a little worried.” I said, “Are they? They shouldn't be worried. They should just go get Dennis Quaid because I know what they want now.” I wasn't putting Dennis Quaid down, I was just saying that I knew what they were looking for now. I said, “Unfortunately they put their bet on this racehorse and this racehorse sees it this way.”
At the time the movie was called Martin Harvey Takes A Vacation. Martin Short and I were becoming best friends and... I never walked off a set in my life, but I actually found myself drifting away from this one into his dressing room. He said, “Aren't you working right now?” I said, “Yeah, shit... I didn't even think about that. I have a weird one going on...” and I told him about it.
He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “Have them come over here if they want to talk to me, but this is the way I see it. I can't do Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I understand that's the way it looks on paper, but that's not my take on it.” I said, “Watch the dailies, guys, and see if it doesn't start going together for you.” Two weeks later they changed the title to Captain Ron.
Taking these movies and playing the character as I saw it... I would try as much as I could upfront to tell them what I see. It's your job, I think, to make it entertaining, to bring something to each character. When you start piling up a bunch of them they do start trusting you. Every time they put it together they go, “Oh, I see it!”
It could be when you're doing nothing, too, like when I played Herb Brooks (in Miracle). “It looks flat.” “Does it? Does it look flat? Good! Coming from you, I think that's a good sign.” Then you put it together and they say, “Okay, I see it now.” What can you say? It's the job of the actor to try to make it real and somehow entertaining, but I think being afraid of doing something that might be a violation to you somehow is something I never worried about.
Quint: From a movie geek perspective that's a very welcome attitude. It keeps your filmography fresh. I love that you went from a bubbly, outgoing goof-ball like Dexter Riley to a very internal, serious portrayal of Charles Whitman.
Kurt Russell: My agents were concerned. When you say what it is, that's your decision. That was my decision. If it's wrong, then I'm going going to be responsible for that. When your agents are looking at a young actor and saying, “I don't know about this. You're really a bad guy here.” It's okay in my mind because I'm doing it.
Somebody once said to me about Snake Plissken... it was a studio head and he was looking at the script and came to John and I and said “What is this guy? Now he wants to put a fuckin' eyepatch on and hide half his face? I don't understand what we're talking about here.”
I remember going into a room and having that conversation and understanding the consternation. Finally he said, “I just don't know why I'm going to pull for this guy.” I said, “Because I'm playing him. That's the only answer I can give you. I'm pulling for me. Even though I'm going to do it this way, I'm pulling for me. You'll pull for Snake.” I understood the question. It's a good question. You should pull for him. If you don't pull for him then it doesn't work. I think there's way too many movies where that doesn't happen. You just don't like (the character).
Quint: Snake comes across as a dick, but he's everybody's dick.
Kurt Russell: He is not a dick. Never call Snake a dick. One thing Snake Plissken isn't is he's not a dick. As he says about himself “I'm an asshole,” but there's a big difference between a dick and an asshole. He's never a dick. It's impossible for him to be a dick! It's just something he doesn't know how to do. That's like saying Snake's not cool. I mean, what the fuck!?! If Snake's not cool there is no cool! Yeah, he's not a dick, he's an asshole. He can be a fuckin' pain in your ass and he doesn't give a fuck about anything!
Quint: That brings us to your work with John. Those films you did together were my gateways into both of your careers. To be a kid in my generation meant you grew up worshipping Snake Plissken, RJ MacReady and Jack Burton. I remember shortly after The Thing hit video it was all anybody could talk about at school.
Kurt Russell: What's interesting about that the people who were interested in it were talking about it. Not critics, not studios, not people in the business. They just missed completely, but the people who saw it, the people we made it for, they got it completely. Instantly! It didn't take them 20 years to understand it.
Quint: Yeah, it maybe took the studios 20 years to realize it was that popular.
Kurt Russell: It's fascinating to me that it would happen again and again and again. They would never put the money into it, they would never fully back it, which is part of why it was just so different. It was never on the level of Terminator or something. No matter what you did to it, it had its own thing, its own people, and you guys were it. You were who it was made for.
Quint: Everything I've always heard about the origins of Snake Plissken was that it was pretty much just you and John creating the character, from the look to voice to wardrobe.
Kurt Russell: That's John. First of all, John had this thing he wrote. We worked together on Elvis and we really liked working with each other. The weird part for John, which I always admired John for, is that he was already saddled with his Elvis when he came onboard. They had been testing people and they hired the actor, who just happened to be me, and here comes the director and he's gotta deal with it. John just did that so easily. I look back on that and think “Man, John had guts.” He was stuck!
For me, as always, the director is the guy. I'm trying to get the director's vision on camera, but this was so different because I was already hired.
Quint: It sounds like it was fate that you two were thrown together and just got each other.
Kurt Russell: It was. You know how you read those stories about certain people coming together? Like, I remember reading about Bernie Taupin and Elton John. It was out of answering a newspaper ad looking for a writer or something.
John had done Halloween. Generally that's not going to be your #1 guy... “Yeah, there's your guy for Elvis!”
Quint: I don't know if the business has changed or if that was considered strange at the time, but I couldn't see that happening now.
Kurt Russell: The weird thing about that is that when you know John you realize those people did their homework. John was the guy to direct Elvis. John and I are not tremendously communicative... I mean, I talk more than he does. He's pretty quiet. He says things pretty concisely, but he's so damn much fun and he's such a good thinker.
It's always fun to do a show and you're always doing a show with John, not just a movie. You're putting on a show and I really love that about John.
Quint: I don't think anybody's had a run like Carpenter. Maybe Hitchcock. Where every movie is varying shades of gold from Assault on Precinct 13 to They Live. They were always radically different from each other and that was true even in the things he was producing. Halloween III is a ballsy move.
Kurt Russell: That's what was fun. We never dragged anything into the next one. The Thing was very different from Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China is radically different.
Quint: There's nothing like Big Trouble Trouble In Little China.
Kurt Russell: There's nothing like it. One of my favorite things about that one is my take on the character. John just started laughing. In my mind it was imagine if John Wayne did a movie and after he stumbled off of his horse or bumped into the leading lady coming out of the saloon, the director didn't want to show the stumble, but wanted the moment right after it to be the thrust of the character. Like he would quietly, without John Wayne knowing it, turn to the script gal and say, “Print that one.” (laughs)
Burton's just funny to me. He so believes in himself. A little bit of The Commander there, but he so believes in himself, but really has no reason to. We talk about this opening, but it elevated Wang's character to the lead. John and I spoke really openly about that to each other. As long as you have the behavior being taken care of by somebody it's in the movie. It would be wrong to not have the behavior in the movie. Then you're getting to miss that, right?
It gets you into some spots. John said, “Okay, here comes the big battle. What're we gonna do with you?” I remember the first thing that came to me, I said, “Well, I'll fire that gun and get knocked out. The first thing he does is get knocked out!” He said, “Okay, that takes care of two minutes...” (laughs) We literally were coming up with things like that. Now what do we do? Wang's going to do some great fighting.
Quint: All the stuff Jack does in that fight is reactionary. Hell, you can't even get your knife out of your boot!
Kurt Russell: As it was written, Jack would have just waded through there and big ol' American punch BANG knock these little oriental guys out, no matter how clever they are, right? Which, I get. You can always do that, but it did fly in the face of what we were doing. So we took a shot, all the way to coming out of the elevator with lipstick on your face.
I could see the crew kind of busting up behind me. I said, “What? What happened?” John comes up and said, “You've got lipstick all over your face.” We looked at each other and I said, “That's funny.” He said, “You want it to last 15 minutes of the movie?” I said, “How about we go as far as you can get and you find a place to wipe it off.” John finally found a spot and said, “Okay, it's time to wipe that off!”
He had a complete lack of fear in that regard. Me, too, I have to say. It's made for people who say, “Yeah, every time a guy kisses a girl and backs away (the lipstick) is gone! What happened?” Does it show up at the wrong time? Yes. The thing is you have to create other things that are watch-worthy. Just 'cause you're in an action-type movie doesn't mean you have to do only action things that are watch-worthy. You can say and behave and do things... just as in life there are a lot of different ways to be entertaining and worth being in a movie.
Quint: When you make choices like that that keeps your movie from being lost in a sea of similar things. There's a reason why people love The Thing and Big Trouble and Escape From New York as much as they do. It's because they're different from the pack, they stand out.
Kurt Russell: That's where the relationship between an actor and director comes in. John knew I knew the script so well, knew what John was doing... I never wanted to violate what John was doing. It never occurred to me to try to have the character step out and take center stage, pulling you away from the movie, unless John wanted that to happen.
The point I'm making there is what you're saying is very true, but that has to be tended to by the director. If it's not attended to you get lost in the fuckin' maze and suddenly your performance isn't very sharp. It wasn't your fault, but that goes back to the first thing we were talking about, which makes you kind of want to make wine. (laughs)
I'm willing to do this as long as you do it right. I'm willing to make this change, what you could even term sacrifice if you want. If you're going to make it work for the character you make it work for the movie. You can't just go out there and sacrifice yourself willy-nilly all the time and be a good guy. That's not the point. John always got the detail of that, so he made it a point for the audience to see it. He makes it enjoyable for the viewer. Therefor, what Kurt Russell did for the character was the right thing to do as opposed to a weak thing or a bad choice.
The outcome of what I was going to tell you... back in the day, '85 or '86, whenever it was when we made that movie, there was a little political stuff within the studio. The screening came and John and I were sitting in the back...
Quint: This is the first time it screened at the studio?
Kurt Russell: Yeah. A lot of them didn't know we were there. Lights come up and I'm looking at John and I'm like “That's great! That's just what it should be. It's funny, it's absolutely unique. Jack is always gonna be one of my favorite characters that I ever got to play. Jeez, John. That was really fun. What you did with the look of the movie, the great action stuff. If it's marketed correctly it could be a big hit!”
The lights come up, there's mumbling going on and a guy stands up. I won't say who it was, but he said, “I don't get it.” John and I looked at each other. “I mean, Kurt's character is just not that good at what he does. Basically the Chinese guy is the lead.” I said, “Well, you got it.” (laughs) John and I just walked out and said, “He got it. Doesn't like it, but he got it! Nothin' else to say there!”
There was a lot of stuff written about back in the day. You couldn't find that movie. Three days before it was coming out! It was the strangest campaign I've ever seen on a movie. Kinda cracked me up, but I felt bad for John. It was shut off. What the heck? Anyway, it was the life it was supposed to have at that time. Look, it went on to have an entirely different life.
Quint: It's funny, you couldn't convince my little brother's generation now that Big Trouble In Little China wasn't the most successful movie of the '80s. He was born in '91 and you couldn't convince him or his friends that The Thing or Big Trouble was a flop.
Kurt Russell: Look, there are certain aspects of our business that are in place for a reason. If you don't have that tool you'll probably just never be heard of. However there are some that no matter what you do to them, they live on and they grow. I think those movies, as far as I'm concerned people will just keep finding them, finding them, finding them. And they go “Oooh, that's why I've heard about that movie. It is fuckin' great! It's great! What the fuck!?!” and they'll become part of the “What happened!?!”
Quint: Everybody seemed to be on the same wavelength with that movie. James Hong's performance as Lo Pan is on another planet.
Kurt Russell: He's great!
Quint: Everybody! Kim Cattrall is so funny in the movie.
Kurt Russell: She's so funny! And Kate Burton is fuckin' funny. They all knew what they were doing. I do think Wang, Dennis Dun, was a little like “Is this really happening? Am I getting to really do this?” We never said anything to him!
Quint: “I hope they don't notice...”
Kurt Russell: Yeah! He just kept going. It was great. Look, you can go from The Thing to Big Trouble to Escape... Look at what's happening in the world. One of my favorite things about Escape From LA... look at what's happening in this country and tell me that isn't one of the first movies that called it out. The government will get to a point that for your own benefit we're not allowed to do these things. Tell me we're not going towards no red meat. Ultimately it's a simple story about a guy who wanted to have a cigarette.
The point of it is it's all based on “We, the government, know better than you do what's good for you.” I don't even care if you know what's better for me. I don't give a fuck. That's what Snake's saying. “Oh really? I don't care.”
Kraken: If you look at states like Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana that's kind of fighting that a little bit.
Kurt Russell: Yeah, but what they don't do on the other side, what we would have in the Escape world... I'm a libertarian so I can speak to this stuff. That's why I wrote half of the stuff in Escape From LA... When you're going to do that and say that you can do it in the privacy of your own home, if you come out on the street and commit any crime at all... anything, run a red light... connected to drugs, you're not going to believe the penalties you're going to face.
You're going to want to think real hard about where you go and what you do. Knock yourself out, you do what you want, however if you do anything to buy the drugs or any crime... “Sorry, you ran over a cat with your car. Guess what? You're going to spend 20 years in jail now.” “What!?! You didn't tell me that!” “Yeah, I did it. Look at the rules. Yeah, I did. You can go do whatever you want in your home, but you come out of that thing and you're out in my world with my kids in strollers on the street.” Now I'm going to jump on the other side and say “Now we're going to the Philippines, babe. It ain't gonna be fun when you screw up, so you might not want to do that.”
Kraken: My dad was a libertarian, too, and he would always say your freedom extends to about six inches in front of my face.
Kurt Russell: Exactly. Unfortunately, at the same time that they do these theoretical quasi-libertarian moves the other side is important and you don't hear enough of my libertarian friends talk about that. I scream at them and say, “Why don't you get out there and say something about that? About why it is we feel that way?” The whole point of it is freedom as long as I don't step on your toes. Well, if I run your kid over when I'm high on drugs, I've stepped on your toes a little bit. We're gonna watch you hang slow and painful, babe. That's the way it's going to be.
That to me what would have been on the other side of that. The other side of no read meat is carcinogens. Yeah, fine... Have the government take a look at it... they're going to make a mistake anyway, but let them look at it and say “We approve this beef, it doesn't contain too much arsenic.” I think what's fun about those movies... You're young enough to never have read them, but some of the crazy reviews we got on Escape From LA... “Do Carpenter and Russell realize they've made a lefty movie?” That was my favorite of all. Boy, did they not get it. That guy really didn't get it. His agenda is so in his face he can't get it's just about a guy who wants to have a cigarette! At the end of the movie he just wants you to get out of his face! He blows the match out on you. Go home! Get away! Die! Leave me alone!
Quint: He turns off the world so can be left alone.
Kurt Russell: Yeah! He just wanted to be left alone. And by the way, let's not forget he's a sociopath, he's a psychopath. He's not your average guy.
Quint: But he's not a dick.
Kurt Russell: Never a dick!
Quint: There was talk for a while about a third Escape film. Did that ever gain any traction for real?
Kurt Russell: It was talked about. It would have been Escape From Earth. I think we did what we did with those two. John wanted them to be able to be seen back to back.
Quint: That's the best way to watch those movies. It's almost like...
Kurt Russell: Deja vu. Remember, she looks at his hand and says “Your life is on a loop.” And he just takes his hand away. She's right, something's screwed up here. He's caught in an alternate universe or something's going on. He just wants out of it, but can't get out of it. I liked what they had to say together.
I'd love to do one more with John. One more really cool idea, shot a certain way...
Quint: Has John pitched you on anything recently?
Kurt Russell: No. I actually read a script not too long ago, about two months ago, that they already had a director lined up for that I said if they didn't I would have gone to John and said, “Hey, John, what do you think about this one?”
Quint: Speaking for the fans, we really hope you guys do make another one. Just pull him away from the Xbox...
Kurt Russell: It's hard to do.
Kraken: Although John did say he wanted to adapt a video game called Dead Space.
Kurt Russell: What's Dead Space about?
Kraken: It's already The Thing in space, so I can see why John was like “If you're going to take my monsters, might as well pay me to direct the movie...” It's about a mining ship that goes to a planet and contact is lost. The main character is a guy whose partner is on the missing ship, so he volunteers to go on the rescue mission and they find out that something has turned the crew into these bio-weapons. Rob Bottin style monsters. It's a fun subplot about a cult that worships the technology behind the transformations, a knock on Scientology.
Kurt Russell: (Laughs) John with Scientology would be funny. That would be funny!
Quint: Yeah, it's a perfect fit if they ever make the movie. I could see his sense of humor and talent for shooting crazy monsters making something special.
Kraken: So when he knocks on your door and says “Dead Space,” say yes!
Kurt Russell: That's one of the cool things about our relationship. We always said “Only if you see it. We'll only do the ones we see together.” There were a couple of things that I took to him and he kinda went “Nope.” Okay. Still would have liked to have seen what John would have done with them and vice-versa. He's a great one.
Quint: Since we're out of time, let's end on MacReady. One of the things that intrigues me the most about the film you guys made, an aspect that's not touched upon really in the '50s film, is the concept of loss of identity. Do those taken over know they're copies?
Kurt Russell: Well, the name of the book is Who Goes There? It's just that. Who goes there?
Quint: There's a moment in the middle of the movie where Norris is a thing and is offered control of the all the weapons and turns it down. Is that an echo of the real Norris or a knowingly deceptive move by the thing?
Kurt Russell: No, he's just an imitation of himself. What does the movie have to say at the end? This is why there should be no sequel to it. The sequel is in the last line. The question ultimately has to be who goes there? Did this already happen and it succeeded and we are all just imitations living it out. That's the thing we can't figure out. We can't figure the God question out. You're never going to because you're just an imitation now, you're no longer the real thing. We had great conversations about this. It was a good group of guys.
At the end of the movie, when that's possibly the reality... You and I are already sitting here talking about what has already happened that we can't do anything about, the only thing I think you could say is “Why don't we just sit here and see what happens?” (laughs) That is the sequel. That's the sequel, the prequel and everything else, guys!
I think it was really brilliantly done in terms of the way it was staged and acted and whatnot. It really is to me giving off the same beautifully sentimental, melancholy of Peggy Lee. Is that all there is? Then let's keep dancing! Let's break out the booze and have a ball.
Quint: Thanks so much for taking the time, man. I really appreciate it.
Kurt Russell: I'm glad we got a chance to do it.
There it is. Number one lesson from this is never, ever, under any circumstances call Snake Plissken a dick.
Maybe some day I'll get another breakfast with the man and get to talk about the stuff we skipped over. In particular I'd love to get some stories about Used Cars, Tango & Cash, Tequila Sunrise, Breakdown, Tombstone, Miracle, Backdraft, Stargate and Death Proof. It's a testament to how solid Mr. Russell's career is that we spent over an hour talking about his work and only barely chipped away at his legacy, which is still going strong.
Hope you guys enjoyed the chat!
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