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They Live!

If you haven’t yet seen John Carpenter’s 1988 cinematic masterpiece, what the hell are you waiting for? Lots of fun facts to be found in IMDb’s Trivia section on this criminally underrated film.

John Carpenter brought real “homeless folks” into the production for several scenes and smaller characters and gave them food as well as paychecks. “I thought that was a pretty classy thing to do,” said Roddy Piper.

The line “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum” was ad-libbed by Roddy Piper. According to director John Carpenter, Piper had previously written the line in his notebook of potential verbal bits during his wrestling career. He shared the notebook with Carpenter, and they agreed that this particular line fit the character and the film perfectly. Piper went on to use it at a wrestling match.

The big fight sequence was designed, rehearsed and choreographed in the back-yard of director John Carpenter’s production office. The fight between Nada (Roddy Piper) and Frank (Keith David) was only supposed to last twenty seconds, but Piper and David decided to fight it out for real, only faking the hits to the face and groin. They rehearsed the fight for three weeks. Carpenter was so impressed he kept the scene intact, which runs five minutes, twenty seconds.

John Carpenter wanted a truly rugged individual to play Nada. He cast wrestler Roddy Piper in the lead role after seeing him in WrestleMania III (1987).

Vince McMahon didn’t want Roddy Piper to do the film. “Yeah, I figured,” said John Carpenter. McMahon told Piper that he would find him a different film at the same pay rate within four weeks, but Piper passed and ended up splitting with the WWF. Carpenter asks why, and Piper states plainly that McMahon is a control freak. “When I came back to wrestling I was twice as important as when I left,” he says and credits Carpenter and the success of the film. “The politics of that business is something I don’t get,” says Carpenter.

One of the alien TV broadcasts refers to the director by name. The alien commentators (who looks a lot like Siskel & Ebert) are complaining about sex and violence in the media, and the dialog breaks off with the words, “Film-makers like George A. Romero and John Carpenter have to show some restraint. They’re simply—.”

Roddy Piper’s character never gives his name nor is he referred to by name throughout the entire movie. He is simply listed as “Nada” in the credits, a reference to the character George Nada in Ray Faraday Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, from which the film was adapted.

Roddy Piper credited John Carpenter and “They Live” with jump-starting the wrestler-turned-actor migration. “I was the first wrestler ever in the history of wrestling to star in a major motion studio picture that became #1 box office of the weekend, and that gave the itch to I don’t know how many wrestlers. And not one of them to this day has put out a quality picture like this, and not one of them has had a #1 hit like this.”

The role of Nada was originally written for Kurt Russell. But John Carpenter felt he should cast somebody else after casting Russell in four of his films prior to this one: Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

On the commentary, Carpenter pointed out that Piper has made more movies than he has. “I’ve only made 20,” says the director. “Yeah, but you made 20 good ones,” replies Piper.

Plenty more where that came from, of course, and the Goofs page makes for some fun and fascinating reading also, as it always does. I couldn’t say what it was exactly that got me to thinking about They Live earlier today after all these years, but upon reflection it’s really kind of obvious: given the events of this past week, the film has never been more apposite, more directly and pungently relevant, than it is now. John Carpenter isn’t just a gifted director and writer; he’s a fucking prophet.

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