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Escape from New York p.74
Kurt Russell and his Snake Plissken stunt double

Behind the lens with John Carpenter's set photographer

Snake Plissken at home and down-time with The Fog: celebrating John Carpenter's most iconic movie moments with an exclusive preview of a new book

As the saying goes: behind every great man there's a great woman. In the case of American photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, she was often behind the scenes of cult director John Carpenter’s original and thrilling films. From Halloween – arguably the first ever slasher film – to eerie classic The Fog, to cynical anti hero Snake Plissken’s performance in Escape From New York, Gottlieb-Walker was involved in documenting some of Carpenter’s most enduring work.

She began her life with photography taking 35mm stills during her freshman year at University of California, Berkeley, covering contemporary events such as the Free Speech Movement in 1964. After shooting a failed independent motion picture, her colleague on the project, Debra Hill, was drafted in to work Carpenter’s Halloween, or as it was initially titled “The Babysitter Murders.” Hill remembered Gottlieb-Walker’s good work, and brought her along, kickstarting an eclectic career that – alongside her Carpenter work – included diverse television shows such as Star Trek, Cheers, and even subjects such as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.

Gottlieb-Walker is set to release the book On Set With John Carpenter, which features many images giving invigorating insight into these trendsetting horror and sci-fi films from the 1970s and 80s. As Carpenter himself describes in the book’s dedication: “Kim’s behind the scene stills catch the fun we were having at the time. Her portraits and action shots are exquisite.”

What was your experience of your early career – attending UCLA film school and working as a grad student for Motion Picture production?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: I loved the Motion Picture department at UCLA. My film school teacher, Bill Kerby, used to do interviews for the underground press and brought me along to shoot the stills - it's how I got to shoot portraits of Jimi Hendrix when I was 20 and he ran the light show when the Doors played locally - which I got to help with as well. I worked as a teaching assistant for students making their first films when I was in grad school. Working for the underground press helped me compile a portfolio full of fascinating musicians, politicians, authors and popular culture heroes in the late '60s.

You came to live in London for a year - what were you doing?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: I had graduated and was ready for my European adventure! I worked occasionally for Time Out London magazine and made lifelong friends. I shot Pink Floyd in the recording studio and Rod Stewart and Donovan at the Isle of Wight and loved every minute of it.

In On Set With John Carpenter it says you took 3,000 to 5,000 photographs per movie. Is there work that you have lost and refound over time, or things that are still lost that you’d like to rediscover?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: Although I had proof sheets made so I could see what I was getting (no instant previews with film!), the original negatives from Halloween are long since missing, as far as I know. Each week during the shoots, I would have the best photos printed up to show John [Carpenter] and Debra [Hill]. Those prints went into my portfolio and I am now able to scan and reproduce them the way they are meant to be seen. I actually have all the original negatives from Escape from New York, so looking through those and picking some of my favorites to scan and print was tremendous fun. Fans from around the world have helped me with the book by sending stills and even strips of my negatives that were found online. 

In the book it also mentions that due to the noise your camera made, Carpenter would often restage scenes in order for you to document them. Did you ever have any issue with the authenticity of this approach?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: When I shot Halloween, I didn't yet have sound blimps to silence my camera, so on quiet dialogue takes John would often have the actors do the scene "one more time for Kim." Very few directors appreciate the value of the stills as much as John - working with him was such a pleasure.

Do you have a favourite shot of your time working on Carpenter’s films?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: I have a lot of favorite shots! I love the one where Donald Pleasence is shooting a machine gun, with the only illumination coming from the blast, so there was no way to take a light reading before hand. I had to guess at the exposure and hope for the best. I was thrilled when I got that proof sheet back! And I love all the behind the scenes joking. I had John and Dean Cundey "trained" to point at something whenever I was around (if nothing was going on) so that it would give me a usable photo. On Escape from New York there is a shot where they both pointed simultaneously in opposite directions. I love that shot. I also love the shots where we are playing with the props (I refer to the one of me holding one of the guns as my "Patty Hearst" shot.)

What was the vibe like on set of these trendsetting horror and sci-fi films, especially as a woman?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: It was some of the most fun I've ever had. It was like a family. We were really close friends working on something together with good humor and a sense of purpose. The vibe was energetic and happy. I don't think being female had any impact on anything. There were other women on the crew and Debra Hill was a dynamo. She wasn't more than 5' tall at most, but she was one of the best producers in Hollywood. 

“I see myself as the set historian. My goal was always to communicate the atmosphere and tone of each film and capture all the activities of each shoot.” – Kim Gottlieb-Walker

The book itself is mainly composed of quotes from cast and crew – what was it like going back and speaking to all of these people?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: It was fabulous to get together with people I love who I hadn't seen in 35 years or more. Most of those I interviewed for the book got their start on these films - and many are now very prominent film-makers. Jeff Chernov produced the most recent Star Trek movies and I got to show his production assistants what he looked like when he was a production assistant. Larry Franco and Barry Bernardi are both major producers now – Keith Gordon and Tommy Wallace and Nick Castle are directors. Debra Hill gave so many people their start in the business – it's one of the reasons the book is dedicated to her memory.

Could you tell us more about the last day of filming, before you were welcomed into the Cinematographers Guild, when your wrist was broken in 3 places?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: Getting into the union was considerably more difficult 40 years ago. There was a classic catch 22 – You couldn't get into the union unless you had worked 30 days on a union film. But you couldn't work on a union film if you weren't in the union. Debra signed contracts to shoot Escape from New York with everyone she and John had enjoyed working with from the earlier films, and only then she signed the union contracts. So, they had to honour the contracts and allow us to work on the film. On the 29th day, we had the wrap party at a roller skating rink (on a Saturday night with one day left to shoot on Monday) and I broke my wrist in three places. Debra took me to the hospital and stayed with me all night long. I shot on the last day with my arm in a cast, taking pain pills. Everyone was worried I would fall into San Pedro Harbor, but I got my shots and I got my 30th day! 

What changes did you see in Carpenter’s work and style?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: John didn't change over those films – he always knew what he wanted and knew how to communicate it to the crew. Keith Gordon (the star of Christine) learned how to become a director by watching how John did it!

How do you think your photographs relate to the end product that was seen in the cinema?

Kim Gottlieb-Walker: I see myself as the set historian. My goal was always to communicate the atmosphere and tone of each film and capture all the activities of each shoot - not just the essence of each scene, but also the special effects being rigged, the interactions between John and the actors, the laughs and fun of being on the set. The stills were very important to help promote the films – even today, when you mention one of the films, it is often a particular still image that comes to mind.

Kim Gottlieb-Walker’s On Set With John Carpenter is out through Titan Books on 24 October