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Interviews > Joe Alves
How did you end up being a
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.
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
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
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,
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Joe Alves here: