BOOKSHELF: Craig Oldham Reveals the Details of Making THEY LIVE: A VISUAL AND CULTURAL AWAKENING

In November, John Carpenter’s sci-fi invasion classic, They Live, celebrated its 30th anniversary. To say the movie’s influence has been long-reaching would be to undersell They Live‘s cultural impact by quite a lot, but suffice it to say, the film’s imagery and story have cropped up in any number of unusual places, from South Park to the punk rock of New Jersey’s Night Birds, to name but two random selections.

In honor of that anniversary, Rough Trade Books released They Live: A Visual And Cultural Awakening, the first in Craig Oldham’s Epiphany Editions. “Designed as a perfect replica from the film’s iconic magazine stand,” the book “touches on topics that are as relevant now as they were then.” It looks and feels like a slick ’80s magazine, features essays from the likes of Shepard Fairey and even includes the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” by Ray Nelson, upon which the film was based.

The They Live book is a brilliant and fascinating series of essays and images, and it even smells like bubble gum. It’s the sort of thing fans of Carpenter’s work will find deeply interesting, but those interested in sociological discourse and pop culture relevance will discover aspects of the film which might make a disciple of even the most skeptical dilettante.

We reached out to the book’s editor, Craig Oldham, and he was generous enough to answer some of the questions we had about the genesis and creation of They Live: A Visual And Cultural Awakening.

The They Live book design seems very carefully considered. The fact that parts of it feel like a magazine really bring everything together. What was the process of choosing the paper stock, font, and layout,to say nothing of getting the book to smell like bubble gum?

The very first idea for the book didn’t start with an idea to do a book on They Live, it was actually a series. Epiphany Editions was the very first idea, a series of fictional books from films made real. And They Live was the first of that series over the line; though not to diminish anything as I’m incredibly pleased and proud They Live is the first. But because these books, or these props, have a partial existence in the films they come from, that did give us a starting point.

In the infamous newsstand scene from They Live, as Nada’s (Roddy Piper) revelation is underway, he picks up the magazine and we see the cover and a few spreads with the sunglasses, and one spread without. This was our foothold when it came to the design; we had a starting platform from which we could — with some creative license — jump. From there, it was a hunt to find anything more we could and honoring the visual and aesthetic bent of the film.

We found, from on-set stills, what message was on the back cover (HONOUR APATHY). And through some pausing, zooming, and serious googling and archiving, which spreads the production designer had used to create the sans-glasses spread (it was a 50-50 split of Time and Scientific American from 1988 with some other changes).

After that, the design of the book sort of danced around the themes and ideas of the film. The prop is a magazine, so we tried to capture the essence of that vernacular of editorial design throughout the layouts (which is quite difficult, paradoxically, as in my head I was trying to make a book). But also pick up on other visual cues in the film; using cuts of Albertus for text, it seemingly being Carpenter’s favorite typeface, and is used for the titles and credits; flipping between Black and White, just as the character does in between wearing and not wearing the magic specs; and retaining the strong typographic presence of those infamous alien commands.

The production of the book — the stock changes, the UV ghost inks to make the subliminal commands, and the bubble gum scent — were all choices made to both embody and extend the ideas of the film with the aim of making it feel from that film world as much as possible, and reward readers for going deeper. These collectively subtle and seemingly small touches will extend and envelop their respective films and their ideas, and then express them to readers. Just like the films do to viewers.

When Roger Luckhurst’s “X-Ray Specs” name-checks Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, it makes me wish there was an entire essay on that book and its relation to the movie. Did you assign topics, or did you just reach out to writers and ask them to take on the film as they saw fit?

It was a little bit of both. We tried to take a bit of time to collaborate with the right people, whom we knew loved the film or could add something interesting on it, and didn’t want to control that too much. With Shepard, for example, it was quite a targeted contribution as the link is so tight and direct. With Roger, who loves Carpenter’s work but is such an expert in the Gothic, horror, science-fiction and who can draw on such a wide range of ideas and sources (such as Packard), it was more about asking them to go where their energy was. After discussing the idea of the book with Roger, we just said have a think and let us know what you want to do. A few weeks later he was absolutely running with X-Ray Specs. And it’s better because of that.

How did you decide who to reach out to, and were there any writers or designers you couldn’t get, but wanted?

The main concern was to collate cultural figures whom could offer a unique perspective on the film, but in different ways. We wanted a balance and critique and personality from the contributors, something that could really only come from them. John Grant, the musician, for example was one we knew would be amazing to contribute, even though the score for They Live wasn’t even really on his top five Carpenter scores list, but hearing why is interesting.

In terms of contributors we thought of approaching but didn’t: the cast. Sadly, Roddy Piper had passed away and though we could’ve attempted to gather the thoughts of Keith David and Meg Foster it somehow didn’t feel right for the direction and intention of the book and the series. Though I am certain both would’ve been amazing.

Did you discover any surprising insights into They Live while putting together the book?

Oh, there were lots. But that’s what I love about film.

Film has a rare quality as an art form that it can always be “new to you.” Someone yet to discover They Live, to me, is so very lucky because they have such a wonderful and rich experience awaiting them. And, for me, one that keeps on giving. I had seen the film scores of times before embarking on the book, and considered myself well versed on its making, so to speak. But in doing the book the surprises were less things I found out about the film, and more the connections I finally drew, or the dots that we joined through studying it.

On a personal note, the most enjoyable things in the film to explore were the throwaway elements. Justiceville for example. It’s mentioned once by name and never again, yet dig around and the story of that one single reference tells you so much about the film itself. So much came out of that for me personally, but also for the book in both it’s writing and in the visual material to enrich it.

Shepard Fairey goes into pretty deep detail regarding his exposure to They Live, but how did you first come to encounter the film, and what’s been your relationship with it?

I always loved Carpenter’s movies. I think, if I’m honest, Escape From New York was my point of entry and from there I slowly sought out his films and watched and re-watched them. It was a friend who initially shared They Live with me upon hearing I was working through the Carpenter catalog, with a “you’ve gotta watch this” recommendation. And I did, that night, on a bootleg DVD he’d copied for me. I was hooked. It was such a surreal experience as even though I’d never seen the film, it felt so familiar to me. But that only underscored its cultural relevance as all I was doing was picking up on all the films, music videos, art, shows, and such that had referenced it.

To confess, initially They Live wasn’t my favorite film of Carpenter’s. But it never went away, and it’s stock slowly rose with me up the point where if I felt in the mood to step into a Carpenter sculpted world, They Live would be my first choice.

I suppose it seems facile to ask, but how do you reconcile a fancy book with the film’s message of rejecting greed and consumption?

I think it’s probably an oversimplification to state that in fairness. Otherwise you would have to go back and question why one might even buy a cinema ticket to see the film in 1988, or buy the VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, and so on. The subjects, ideas, and themes They Live deals with are not binary but very complex and interconnected. It’s not simply good vs evil, greed vs famine, sexy vs spartan, etc. And in that vein, too, Carpenter himself has always rejected the idea that because They Live appears very anti-capitalist film then it must be a Marxist movie. Marxism “isn’t the answer” he believes.

For me, the film operates better as a wake up call for our value system. It’s about realignment and equilibrium with our existence of collective good and acceptance of difference and diversity. It attacks then-modern technologies and medias, such a Television and advertising, because of their increasing monopoly and monotony, but not necessarily technologies more settled in their relationship with us There’s no mention of radio in the film, for example. Fortunately for us, to add to the latter, we as a society seem to hold books in a much higher regard than TV or magazines, etc. So in that sense, there are probably worse things to buy or consume than books.

They Live: A Visual And Cultural Awakening is available now from Rough Trade Books.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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