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!