John Carpenter on ‘They Live’: ‘The ’80s never ended’

Nov. 07, 2012 | 1:03 p.m.

The 1980s saw John Carpenter direct films at a prolific clip, a streak that included 1988’s politically subversive slice of sci-fi action, “They Live.”

The film starred professional wrestler Roddy Piper as an out-of-work blue-collar fella who inadvertently learns of a vast alien conspiracy to subjugate the people of Earth by using invisible mind-control messages. Naturally, Piper’s character, a man with the not too subtle moniker John Nada, isn’t about to let the human race go down without a fight.

As “They Live” arrives on a new collector’s edition Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory, there’s one particular fight that looms large — the one that breaks out when Nada tries to convince his reluctant ally Frank (Keith David) to put on special glasses that make the coded messages visible. The confrontation turns physical, and the all-out brawl that ensues goes on for what seems like maybe 20% of the movie’s running time.

“‘They Live’ was definitely an entertainment movie,” Carpenter said by phone last month. “It was not meant to be a treatise on anything. I remember the head of the studio told me, ‘Now, don’t preach.’ I thought, ‘OK, in that case we’ll put a big nine-minute fight in the movie.'”

The sequence took three days to shoot, but Piper and David rehearsed the choreography with stunt man Jeff Imada for six weeks, Carpenter said.

“Roddy is an expert at staged fights in front of people in big arenas,” Carpenter explained. “Keith David was not a fighter – he’s an actor from Julliard of all places. They went out in the backyard of the office I had in the Valley at the time on pads and with Jeff Imada, learned the fight and created it.

“They were so good they knew exactly what the fight was going to entail,” he continued. “They were making contact with each other — what I mean by that is, they weren’t doing cowboy punches, the misses that you see in movies a lot. They were actually touching flesh. They had it so well choreographed and that all comes from Roddy. He knows all about how to do that.”

Action movie moments aside, the larger ideas in the film — media manipulation, the displacement of the lower socioeconomic classes, rampant consumerism — remain wildly relevant. And according to Carpenter, who, with Piper, recorded a new commentary track for the Blu-ray release, there’s a very good reason for that.

“The ’80s never ended,” Carpenter said. “The consumerism has gotten bigger since then. It’s all still going on. That’s why it seems prescient. That was just a cry in the dark against Reaganism and Thatcherism. There was nothing particularly special about it — it was just my rage about what had happened to the culture, which is not shared by a lot of people. A lot of people thought everything was great – ‘Let’s make some more money.'”

— Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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5 Responses to John Carpenter on ‘They Live’: ‘The ’80s never ended’

  1. jhs says:

    I consider this movie one of the key films that led to "The Matrix" trilogy…a lot of the same ideas

  2. GoodbyeNavi says:

    This is probably one of my favorite movies. As corny as it comes across, it really is pretty good. And my favorite scene is when Roddy Piper walks into the bank and says "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all outta bubblegum".

  3. jaydihard says:

    Still get a kick out of this film. What comes across in the storyline is still relevant today.

  4. reader 33 says:

    I love this movie. "We sleep, they live."

  5. John W. says:

    I remember reading a Carpenter interview in the local paper (no internet for regular civilians back then) right before this came out. I was one of maybe a half dozen people who saw it on opening night in my hometown. And although the budget was clearly minuscule, I love it. Glad to see that it's enjoying a second, third, and fourth life.

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