The wire-frame computer graphics on the display screens in the glider were not computer-generated, as computers capable of 3-D wire-frame imaging were too expensive when the film was made. To generate the "wire-frame" images, special effects designers built a model of the city, painted it black, attached bright white tape to the model buildings in an orderly grid, and moved a camera through the model city.
The night street scenes were filmed in East St. Louis, Illinois, which had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Across the Mississippi River from the more prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, East St. Louis was filled with old buildings that look seedy and run-down.
In an interview, John Carpenter said the story was inspired by the science fiction novel "Planet of the Damned" by Harry Harrison, which was about a man with no choice, but to do a job for the government.
Ox Baker struck Kurt Russell very heavily with some of his blows during the boxing ring fight scene. Russell had finally had enough and asked Baker to take it easy, tapping him in the groin to let him know he was serious. Baker then calmed down.
The line "I thought you were dead" was probably borrowed from Big Jake (1971). Every time John Wayne tells someone his name, the standard response is "I thought you were dead." Which would mean that parts of this film were inspired by two legendary western stars, or their films; John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the latter, on whom Kurt Russell based his performance.
John Carpenter originally wrote the film in the mid 70s, as a reaction to the Watergate scandal, but no studio wanted to make it, because it was deemed to be too dark, and too violent. That all changed after the success of Halloween (1978).
Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his novel Neuromancer. "I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?' It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best science fiction, where a casual reference can imply a lot."
The President's downed plane was an old Convair 580 bought from an airplane graveyard in Tucson, Arizona. The plane was carved up into three separate pieces, and trucked into the film's St. Louis locations in the dead of night, as they didn't have the requisite paperwork.
The film was shot from August to November 1980. It was a tough and demanding shoot for John Carpenter, as he recalls. "We'd finish shooting at about six a.m., and I'd just be going to sleep at seven, when the sun would be coming up. I'd wake up around five or six p.m., depending on whether or not we had dailies, and by the time I got going, the sun would be setting. So for about two and a half months, I never saw daylight, which was really strange."
This was the first film to be shot on Liberty Island beneath the Statue of Liberty. The Liberty Island scene, along with the morning shot of Manhattan (where a helicopter is seen), were the only scenes of the film shot in New York City.
"Everyone's Coming To New York" is the song being sung at the stage show where Snake first meets Cabbie. The lyrics are as follows: Shoot a cop/With a gun/The Big Apple is plenty of fun/Stab a priest/With a fork/And you'll spend your vacation in New York/Rob a bank/Take a truck/You can get here by stealing a buck/This is bliss/It's a lark/Honey, everyone's coming to New York!/No more Yankees/Strike the word from your ears/Play the roulette/There's no more opera at the Met/This is hell/This is fate/But now this is your home and it's great/So rejoice/Pop a cork/Honey, everyone's coming to New York!
In 1981, Bantam Books published a movie tie-in novelization written by Mike McQuay that adopts a lean, humorous style reminiscent of the film. The novel is significant because it includes scenes that were cut out of the film, such as the Federal Reserve Depository robbery that results in Snake's incarceration. The novel provides motivation and backstory to Snake and Hauk - both disillusioned war veterans - deepening their relationship that was only hinted at it in the film. The novel explains how Snake lost his eye during the Battle for Leningrad in World War III, how Hauk became warden of New York, and Hauk's quest to find his crazy son who lives somewhere in the prison. The novel fleshes out the world that these characters exist in, at times presenting a future even bleaker than the one depicted in the film. The book explains that the West Coast is a no-man's land, and the country's population is gradually being driven crazy by nerve gas as a result of World War III.
When it came to shooting in New York City, John Carpenter managed to persuade federal officials to grant access to Liberty Island. "We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island at the Statue of Liberty at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier, and were worried about trouble."
The fight scene, in the boxing ring, was filmed in the abandoned grand hall of St. Louis Union Station several years before the building's renovation. While the hall was extremely dilapidated, viewers can make out the stained glass window representing New York City, St. Louis, and San Francisco in the background. This window is still above the front entry into the grand hall from Market Street.
Popular videogame director Hideo Kojima has referred to the movie frequently as an influence on his work, in particular the Metal Gear series. Solid Snake is partially influenced by Snake Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001), Snake actually uses the alias "Pliskin" to hide his real identity during most of the game.
The film's setting proved to be a potential problem for John Carpenter, who needed to create a decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City on only a shoe-string budget. He and Production Designer Joe Alves rejected shooting on location in New York City, because it would be too hard to make it look like a destroyed city. Carpenter suggested shooting on a movie backlot, but Alves nixed that idea "because the texture of a real street is not like a back lot." They sent Barry Bernardi, their Location Manager (and Associate Producer), "on a sort of all-expense-paid trip across the country looking for the worst city in America," Producer Debra Hill remembers. Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, Illinois, because it was filled with old buildings "that exist in New York City now, and have that seedy run-down quality" that the team was looking for.
Avco Embassy approached John Carpenter after the success of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) to make a film based on a novel that they had acquired titled "The Philadelphia Experiment". When Carpenter got stuck on that project, he proposed instead his idea for "Escape from New York". Avco liked the idea and green-lit the project almost immediately.
Back in June 2003, Production I.G. started pre-production on an eighty to ninety minute animé feature film, based off of this movie. Mitsuru Hongo was attached as director, and a script was written by Corey Mitchell and William Wilson, under the supervision of John Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell. Carpenter was also going to score the music, and Russell would have provided the voice of Snake Plissken. The film was meant to be released back in 2005. However, the project ended up being shelved, and the only thing that remains, is a thirty second teaser trailer, and a collection of character designs and storyboards.
John Carpenter was interested in creating two distinct looks for the movie. "One is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a United States dominated by underground computers. That was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England."
In December 2016, it was announced Hollywood would not remake the film, but instead opted to do a prequel set before this film and it was rumored Chris Hemsworth would play Snake Plissken and the film would co-star Summer Glau.
Isaac Hayes's '77 Cadillac Fleetwood, sedan with the fender-mounted chandeliers, has been used as an influence for the modern-day art car - a vehicle decorated or customized as works of art. Two other vehicles used in the film (a late 1970s Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon fitted with rebar around the windshield and windows, along with Cabbie's Checker Cab with wire mesh cages) were the ancestors of the mutant vehicles seen at Burning Man (a public art festival outside Reno, Nevada), or during the annual Houston Art Car Parade.
The skeletal weapons being carried by the police, in the beginning of the movie, are M16A1 rifles with the ventilated hand-guards and gas tubes removed. In reality, though the rifles can fire without the handguards, they are unable to fire with the gas tube removed. Cocking manually, the M16 can fire single shots even with the gas tube removed, but not in semi-automatic, full automatic, or three-shot burst modes.
Lee Van Cleef flew in from Los Angeles for a one-night shoot, and flew out the next day. When John Carpenter watched the dailies, he discovered that some of Van Cleef's close-ups were out of focus. Carpenter was forced to use some of the close-ups in the movie, since they couldn't afford to get the actor back. Cleef had also suffered a knee injury prior to filming, and wasn't fully recovered when it came time to film his scenes. Van Cleef's wife Barbara Havelone was on-set to make sure the actor could get through his scenes.
John Carpenter was inspired by Death Wish (1974). He did not agree with the film's philosophy, but liked how it conveyed "the sense of New York City as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make a science fiction film along these lines".
Shooting began in late summer, 1980, with a seven million dollar budget co-financed by AEPC, International Film Investors, Inc., and Goldcrest Films International. The budget was the largest either John Carpenter or Debra Hill had ever worked with, and the shooting schedule, which lasted three months, was their longest and most "logistically complex," to date. The production employed a 180-person, fully union crew, another benchmark for Carpenter and Hill, who were used to smaller crews of either non-union or partially unionized personnel.
Bill Bartell was the pilot in the glider sequence at the start of the movie. He sold the glider to the production company, and then flew it. The glider used had the designation N2927B and was a Romanian-made IS28-B2.
Scenes of the movie were filmed in the Swift Printing Company building, in downtown St. Louis, abandoned since Swift moved out in 1969. The building was renovated in 1991, and is now the home of the St. Louis Brewing Company - the makers of the Schlafly brand of beers.
The film shot in St. Louis, Missouri, Los Angeles, California, New York City, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia. Barry Bernardi selected St. Louis to double for Manhattan, due to the city's eager co-operation, its aesthetic similarity to a "major east coast city", and its proximity to the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which was conveniently closed and could double as New York City's famed Queensborough (59th Street) Bridge. Carpenter elaborated on the selection of St. Louis as a surrogate locale for New York City: "St. Louis, due to a major fire they had there in 1977, now just has the right amount of emptiness in the downtown area. Also the right architecture. So much of the city looks vacant and dead; perfect for our needs, since we couldn't use anything looking new or fresh." St. Louis' Union Train Station simulated Madison Square Garden, while the city's downtown area, after being littered with "junked cars" and trash, became the decrepit streets of a 1997 Manhattan. Four separate locales in Los Angeles were used to recreate the World Trade Center, and Liberty Island was among the New York City shooting sites. Atlanta's MARTA mass-transit system, which was originally featured in the film as a "futuristic trans-continental train," was cut from the final edit.
Dean Cundey reunited with John Carpenter for the fourth time. On the set, Cundey introduced a "computerized light modulator," which he and Joy Brown had invented and built. Using the modulator for the first time ever, Cundey was able to mimic the light patterns of fire instead of relying on actual fire during photography. Cundey also utilized a Panaglide image stabilization rig, which he helped popularize on Carpenter's Halloween (1978), for approximately 25 percent of the production, to capture the smooth moving camera shots, indicative of the technology.
The Elicon Camera Control System was used to capture roughly twelve to fourteen visual effects segments, including the sequence in which Snake pilots a jet glider down Wall Street. The exceedingly precise "computer-controlled camera movement repetition device," which earned its developers, Peter Regla and Dan Slater, an Academy Award in Technical Achievement, allowed for the creation of in-camera mattes. In this movie, the device was predominantly used to recreate the film's New York City backdrop. This eased and expedited the matting process by eliminating the need for more complex bluescreen matting techniques. As a result, the sequences captured using the Elicon Camera Control System were completed nearly a month ahead of schedule.
The two months following principal photography were reserved for editing, scoring, and mixing, and ongoing visual effects work at Roger Corman's Venice, California studio, to be concluded by April or May of 1981, in preparation for a July 1981 release date. According to production notes, Corman's New World Pictures utilized several different optical effects, including "matte paintings, glass paintings, 3-D models, time-lapse photography, and model animation" to create all of the film's visual effects. Among the models built, was a "ten-foot by ten-foot scale miniature" of Manhattan, with surrounding water, and Brooklyn visible in the distance. Roy Arbogast oversaw the "live" effects, such as explosions and the operation of mechanical devices like the President's escape pod. Arbogast and Carpenter would work together again on several future projects, including Carpenter's follow-up film, the visual effects-heavy, The Thing (1982).
The Hartford, Connecticut Summit mentioned in the film, had two visiting Communist nations (People's Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) - the USSR/Soviet Union ceased to exist in late 1991.
In the film, Air Force One crashes into a building in New York City, when it is taken over by a terrorist group. That scene was a prediction of a tragic event that happened twenty years after the film's release. On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners. Two of the planes, Flight 11 and Flight 175 crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and both towers collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 2,996 people.
This film previewed to an enthusiastic audience as an unannounced feature at Filmex, the former-annual Los Angeles film festival. The film had been set to screen at the USA Film Festival in Dallas, but was pulled from the schedule, because they did not have the equipment to screen the film's "double system work print."
The additional shot of Adrienne Barbeau's corpse (shot in John Carpenter's driveway long after principal shooting was completed) was added after a then teen-aged J.J. Abrams suggested it to Carpenter. Abrams saw an early cut because his father worked for the studio that produced the film, and pointed out to Carpenter that Maggie's death was never fully established.
John Carpenter had originally considered a scene where Hauk reveals that the explosive charges in his neck were a hoax intended to coerce Snake into rescuing the President, but decided not to use it. Carpenter did, however, use said plot device in the sequel Escape from L.A. (1996).