Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > Joe Alves (Production Designer)


How did you end up being a production designer?

I started at Disney when I was in Art School in animation and I was 19 and I did that a couple of years but I really wanted to get into live action. I did some sets on the Hollywood Playhouse and it was a small theater but it had you know, some people interesting. Clifford Odets did a play. He actually showed up and he liked what I did. He said, "I'm gonna use you on Broadway." What I did is incorporated a movie with stage play and all that. Then from there the producer or the director of the theater introduced me to art director Stan Galli. He told me how I should go bout getting a job as a set designer. That's how you have to start. You don't start as an art director or a production designer. You started either as a set designer or an illustrator. You did either architectural drawings or you did illustrations. I finally got a job with Bob (Robert) Kinoshita on Man in Space and I didn't know if I was an art director or a set designer and he said, "I need somebody to draw the set drawings." Then I started as a set designer and I worked at MGM, Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers as a set designer. I worked on some pretty good films. I eventually got settled at Universal and I was a staff set designer and somebody came in to the set department and he said, "Did somebody know what a Lotus car was" and I said, "What do you mean. There's a lot of Lotuses. Race cars, sports cars." He said, "You know cars." I said, "Yeah." "Well, we need somebody to do Indianapolis broadcast for the first time to do some kind of display and drawings." So I did that and went back to set design and the next year the head of the department said, "They want you to do it again." I said, "Well, yeah but I think you should make me an art director." So he made me an assistant art director. I worked on a lot of pictures. I worked with Hitchcock on Torn Curtain and it went that way. You worked until eventually you got your own show and I started doing television shows. I did Night Gallery for (Steven) Spielberg and then eventually you do features. I did Sugarland Express and then on Jaws for the first time I got the production design credit. It's the same job basically. Now everybody gets production design credit. It used to be, you had to do a special movie that has special challenges that you design the whole production. Now they all get the credit production design and the art director works for the production designer. Then it went on from there.           

How did you get the assignment to be the Production Designer for Escape From New York and what attracted you to do the movie?

It's sort of an interesting story. I had an agent at the time, Phil Gersh. It's a big agency. Phil Gersh has been around for years. He was Humphrey Bogart's agent etcetera. Very powerful and I was fortunate to get him as an agent as a Production Designer. I had after Jaws 2 directed a 100 days of second unit, and so I was certain interested moving into direction. I had a project that was suppose to shoot all over Europe about Formula One racing and scouted all over. France, Italy, even Holland and I came back and the studio had gone under so the project was dead and a couple of weeks later my father died and it was just a long story like this. So my agent said, "You know, you should get back to work." He said, "I represent a young film director named John Carpenter and he's got this project called Escape From New York." So I was older and I had been nominated for the academy award, won the British academy award. It seemed like a small film at this time, but Phil thought it would be good for me to get busy and I met John and Debra Hill (Producer) and they are very interesting and I thought the project had a lot of possibilities because the futuristic setting and all that. So I got on board. So Phil negotiated things. He sort of put this together because of mutual agents. So that how's that happened.          
How did you prepare for this project and how much creative freedom did you have?
Yes I did have a lot of freedom and it was interesting how the thing developed. I had to sort of motivate some of the people that he works with as aggressive as I was having come off Jaws and Close Encounters. You know, bigger pictures with bigger problems, and so some of the big problems were to look at were obviously New York and all of that. Very specific set locations such as a bridge that ends into a wall. That was the first thing to key off. I was playing with the look. The futuristic look, but key locations was New York City and finding the bridge that would end in a wall. 

Were you inspired by something particular?

Not really. I think it just sort of grew. It sort of grew as we got into it. I still have a lot of the original sketches if you get on to my website. It grew from there was just doing sketches and the futuristic was obviously the United States police thing and I wanted to make that sort of a little bit Nazi looking if anything. Futuristic Nazi. I mean, I hung the flag at this place and very sort of clean. Sort of if you took the 30s and you made it future, but what's important I think is how the thing laid out as far as New York. John, Larry Franco
(Producer/First Assistant Director) and I went to New York City and we went to the top of the Trade Center because that was scripted and we stood there and looked at New York and we said, "We don't have a budget to do New York. We have to do something different." but I knew that I would have to duplicate the top of the Trade Center somewhere so we can have the glider land there. The sad thing is that there is no Trade Center anymore you know.               
Which were the most challenging sets to do and what were the hardest things to pull off considering the modest budget? 
Here's how these things developed. I guess I pushed the envelope as far as I could. We were looking all over for this bridge and we found the bridge in St. Louis and it was a very controllable bridge that we could use, but it didn't have a wall. So the idea that I would build this wall about 200 feet long and about, I can't recall, maybe 50, 60 feet high. That was a fairly big build and we did that with a scaffolding. Got a scaffolding company and we covered all the scaffold with plywood and then I had my painter Ward Welton who had worked with me since Sugarland Express, Jaws and Close Encounters. Many movies. Very expert. So I had some expert people on that.

So now we're in St. Louis and the thing is with movies, making movies is very expensive so if you better be in St. Louis then let's see how much of St. Louis we could use. Let's see if we can use downtown St. Louis as New York and there was a whole urban redevelopment area. So there was a big section of New York that they were going to redo, so we could pretty much do anything we wanted there. So that became sort of, we could trash it. We'd have to clean it up and then trash it in weird areas where the helicopters could land. Then we found the old train station and that was pretty much deserted. That made a wonderful setting for a New York, a real down looking New York. So while we were in St. Louis then we could utilize the train station and other kind of facilities there.

And the airplane. This is an interesting thing. The burning airplane where the president's pod comes out. I went to Arizona where they have sort of a graveyard of airplane parts. So I was going with my assistant and we were marking things that we wanted to buy or rent and as I was coming to the conclusion of my checking somebody mentioned there, "You know, they have a DC-8, an old DC-8 prop plane. That's a big prop plane though, for sale for like 5000 dollars." and I said, "Really? That would make great parts." I said, "Where is it?" He said, "In St. Louis." What's the chances of that happening. So I cancelled all my parts. I went to St. Louis and I found the DC-8 and I thought, "Ok, I could take the engines out and the propellers." and my painter who became the coordinator basically, he found a way of cutting it in pieces and we transported it to this lot in downtown St. Louis. We did it at night. We didn't have permits, and so that worked extremely well and then Roy Arbogast who I just spoke to about 10 minutes ago was the special effect man on it and so that's the one that we burnt and someone laid the shot out and John just loved it. He said, "I'm just shooting Joe shots here." We got along so well. It was really a wonderful group. Larry Franco
and Debra and John. So I was sort of laying things out and John was coming and say that's great you know, and we found an old theater there, so St. Louis became the hub.

So we had to still shoot this Statue of Liberty and so what we decided to do. I had been designing the big set at a basin we have here called Sepulveda Dam and it has some nice big concrete structures and a nice big concrete area so I was building the sort of buildings that sit there. Very sort of you know, modern sort of geometrical looking and I built a sentry post where Tommy Atkins (Rehme) comes down and walks through. We built the set, the sentry post, put it on a truck and drove it across the country and we got to the ferry. We all flew there but when it arrived we put it on the last ferry going to Liberty Island so we didn't have to pay for a special boat and then we set it up at night and then we did the shot. John did the shot with a panning down the Statue of Liberty. Tommy comes out. He walks into the building. You see him going through and then Dean Cundey (Director of Photography) was very clever. Today they do it in CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) and whatever so easy but he had a dolly track and he moved it and then we had a space of just black. It said something. I can't remember the exact word. Anyway, as he panned or as he dollied through, when he got a frame of black he cut. Then we shipped it back to L.A. He measured the exact dolly distance and the timing and he picked it up and then Tommy came out the door and we were in Los Angeles. So that was very clever for the time and we did very cheaply that way but it worked because you know, it flowed. It was one continues shot that started with the top of the Statue of Liberty. Panned down. He continued on. The dolly moved up. Then we continued the dolly. Then the pan in L.A. and that's how they did that transition.  

There's a very interesting storyboard print available on your website where Times Square is seen. The script doesn't have a scene involving the taxi driving through Times Square. Can you shed some light on this?

Storyboard #7

I've been asked about that. I was doing a Jaws 100 anniversary Universal thing and Jaws the Blu-ray and they asked me to come to the studio there in front of the Jaws display and talk to these various reporters. Maybe I talked to around 25 and one of them said, "You know, the new Batman movie copied a lot of your stuff from Escape From New York." I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Well you know, they, locked in New York. Then they built these walls of cars." I said, "You know, yeah." I have this big wall of drawers so I opened one and I found these rows of drawings. Pencil drawings that I did in 1980 and there was all the walls with cars and so. In somewhere in one of the script or one of the version when they are driving through New York City I might have just took it for granted that we were gonna go to Times Square and use that and maybe we just didn't shoot it. I remembered just talking to Roy Arbogast, he said that when Snake drives through the wall of cars he had to build it so we could pull off cars as if he drove through those walls of cars. Yeah, The Batman series, the recent one did use walls of cars which is sort of interesting exactly like we did in

Was there any talks about actually doing this scene?

Well there was talk about driving through New York. You know, the taxi thing with Ernie Borgnine (Cabbie). Such a nice man. So anyway. We had a lot of plans to do things but I guess we're shooting in St. Louis so it was limited to actually. When I did the conceptional sketches obviously I thought they'd be shot in New York. Those are just hangovers from very early thinking.

Were there more ideas from you, John or someone else that didn't make it into the movie? Were there any other scenes you would do if the movie had been shot in New York for instance?

There are always ideas that don't get into a final film but I can't remember anything in particular that really bothered me that didn't get in. It's hard to say that we would have shot had we used New York. Other than Liberty Island we really didn't scout anything in NY. We probably would have used the entrance to the Trade Towers.

Which sets did you enjoy the most doing and is there any particular contribution to the movie or set you are most proud of?

Well, you know. I think it's not a sense of prudery. It was just. It was pieces. You see, unlike Close Encounters where I built this huge, huge set. What we were trying to do were pieces and the Chock full o' Nuts on Lexington Boulevard there, and we did a piece of it in St. Louis and then I built a section of the street out in the desert here.
We couldn't afford a soundstage. So that whole set where he's walking across down the street and then he walks into the Chock full o' Nuts and then people start popping up. That set was probably the most challenging to build and it was very limited. I mean if John panned to much the left you'd see cactus. We were just getting a piece of land out there and built these exteriors and then we went in to the interior. I think that was probably the most complicated thing.

The idea of shooting the Trade Tower. I had to build a big section for that and then we shot the exterior of the Trade Towers in Century City in Los Angeles and then the interiors. We shot two different interiors. One at California Art Institute and one at CalArts Art Center. The Art Center was a black and white beautiful building and it worked really well for us. With the CalArts I had to do a lot of graffiti. So I brought rows and rows of butcher paper and put them on the walls and then we did the graffiti because we couldn't harm the walls. It was sort of just inventing you know. A shot here. A shot there. The theater was a theater in Los Angeles and you know, was doing a lot of making everything look bad. Getting in there and aging it and putting a lot of trash and stuff like that, so that was a tricky thing. The bridge of course we dressed.

Oh, I think the thing that people remember a lot and this is sort of funny is Isaac Hayes (The Duke) chandeliers on his car. What happened was that, Debra said to me, "Can we do some kind of little
chandeliers or something inside the car that would reflect?" and I said, "Oh yeah, Debra we could do that." I remember going with a decorative service in Norba, CA and finding these chandeliers and I said, "Let's buy a bunch of those and put them on the hood of the car. Two on the fenders." and of course we're doing stunts with this thing so they're breaking like crazy and each time we have to replace it, but that sort of you know, Isaac is driving and it's going thump, thump, thump, thump, thump and then you see this thing with these crazy chandeliers and I get a lot of comments about that and that just sort of evolved.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Well, I think basically it was one of the most fun movies. It's two movies that I have really had a lot of fun just because the crew was good people. One was Sugarland Express, the first thing I did with Steven and we were just all over Texas and that was fun and I think Escape From New York was just, good people. I had a good time with Larry Franco who's the first assistant and John and I had a good relationship. Became very good friends with Debra Hill and eventually she was dating one of my best friends for many years. She was going out with Dick Smothers. The Smothers Brothers were very big comedy on television during around the time of the Vietnam war. They were very progressive and anti-war and Richard Nixon got them taken off the air because they were sort of protesting but they were very, very big. Anyway, Dick is a good friend of mine. I met him racing cars. I used to race formula cars and so he met Debra and they sort of dating. It's very sad that she passed away so young.

Did you learn anything particular to your profession from making this movie that was useful in your later work?

I think it was just, you know, I was very impressed with this. Vincent Canby was a critic for The New York Times and this is a low budget picture. He mentioned it three times that summer about the movie and the look of the movie and I think having done big movies, you know, Jaws, Close Encounters and stuff it made me feel very rewarded by doing this sort of small picture and getting so much notoriety for the innovative look of it and people are still interested in it. So I think that's what I learned from. It's not about budget. It's about ideas and working with a director as creative as John and a nice team. Dean Cundey is an incredible cinematographer and I think we had a great relationship. We could talk about this and that. I think it was, yeah, just the relationship with the people was the most rewarding.

What do you think of the movie personally?

Well, I thought. At first I didn't know quite was John was going with it but I think it had a good balance of humor and innovative sort of quality about it and I thought Kurt Russell was quite commanding in it. Yeah, it was a very interesting movie because it didn't take itself too serious you know, and you could go with it sort of light hearted.

Why do you think the movie has become a cult classic?

Ah gosh. Who knows. I mean, I really don't know. You know, you work on movies and you work as hard on the ones that fail as the ones that success. I just came back from Atlanta where I did a lecture on Jaws for a company on the innovation of Jaws and next week I'm doing another thing with Jaws, a festival thing and I got something in April and that will include all the movies I've worked on pretty much. You know, I never thought Jaws was gonna be a cult classic. I mean, the thing sort of die after you do them and then I think with the internet and the last 10, 15 years people can get a hold of you and they start you know, younger generations start finding things. My daughter is in film school and she's taken this class on Production Management. You know, breaking down scripts for budgets and do you know what the teacher said to her recently, "We're gonna break down a movie called Escape From New York." Could you believe that. And I said to her, "I think I have my original breakdown which I did on just lying yellow paper." They do it in the computer and these programs and so it's quite different but I had it taken into class and the teacher was quite surprised by it. 

Have you kept anything from working on the movie?

What I've kept is all my drawings and you know, the USPF, that eagle sign.

Were you ever approached to be involved in Escape From L.A.?

No, the second movie. Larry Paull (Lawrence G. Paull) did that one. I did Starman with John as a visual consultant and I did the second unit. I was really moving into direction at that time and I had a few projects going so that's why I didn't want to commit to do the Production Design on Starman and then John had something to do. He was gonna do Creature From the Black Lagoon or something and I passed on that. I think what happened is that I got involved in other projects. I directed Jaws 3 and looked for other things to direct. So that was a strange period in my time so I wasn't working.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Oh, what do I do now. I've been retired. Beside these lectures I have probably in the last 10 years done 30 sculptures. Big sculptures. You know, full size people. I got into a thing of doing mermaids. I don't know why. Someone interviewed me from Sweden. This is for a Swedish talk show of all things you being from Sweden and this was some kind of reality show and this woman went up to interview the guy who scared everybody. So I come in and a film crew comes in and a very tall, blond lady comes in. Very nice and she looks at all my mermaids. I have a fishpond in the house with big coy and mermaids and she said, "Oh my gosh, the softer side of Jaws." It was sort of fun but I have so many sculptors. I do them in wood or clay, in carbon foam. Plus, I'm looking outside through the windows. I've got. Oh my gosh. I got a half a dozen there. So that is. I had originally sculpted the shark in Jaws and I sculpted some aliens for Close Encounters so that was something I always wanted to do so that's what I'm doing.      

Thank you for your time, Joe.

More about Joe Alves here: