Press > Exclusive Interviews > Peter Briggs (Spec Script Writer/1994: Escape From L.A.)




How did you end up being a screenwriter?

Maybe that should be, "How d'you START off being a screenwriter?" (Laughs) But no, you're right. I ended up a screenwriter, but that wasn't the intent. From the outset, I optimistically intended to direct. I'd started in the '80s as an assistant cameraman; got my Union Card with the ACTT (as the British Film Union was named then), just in time for the British Film Industry, with Goldcrest and Cannon and a bunch of other companies, imploding. I'd hoped to chase a directing path from being a cinematographer as a number of leading cameramen were becoming directors at that time, and I naively thought I could follow. Candidly, I've a great eye for composition, but I wasn't technically, mathematically, a good enough cinematographer, so that could never have happened, even though there were people like director Hugh Hudson and Indiana Jones producer Robert Watts who'd seen some sort of something in me and very kindly pushed me forward. So, by way of strategizing another path I'd been writing screenplays for myself for a couple of years, and around 1990 thought I'd see if I could get a literary agent to represent me. These were scripts I'd written on a manual ribbon typewriter, and I spent a lot of time photocopying and pounding shoe-leather delivering them to agencies.

Long story short, I signed with the William Morris Agency and one of the first jobs I got from that was speculatively developing science fiction material for Paramount Pictures, who'd opened a branch in the UK to create contingency material in the wake of a then-recent Writers Guild Of America strike. Britain, I think still to this day, doesn't have its "Film Head" screwed-on properly in developing commercial material, and the process at Paramount was very frustrating. That peaked when I suggested to the head of the London office we develop Robert Heinlein's book Starship Troopers. She was scornful, and a few weeks later, in a big synchronicity, Tri-Star Pictures bought those rights for themselves. And I realized I was on a hiding to nothing, so decided to write on-spec an Alien vs. Predator screenplay. It turned out to be a good move, as my agent sold it overnight to 20th Century Fox. That lead to me writing on various movies, mostly uncredited, over the next decade. Freddy vs. Jason; War Of The Worlds, that kind of thing. Plus various other "Development Hell" projects that never saw the light of day. But, I was the credited co-writer in 2004 with Guillermo Del Toro on the movie Hellboy.



How come you wrote an Escape From L.A. script and how did it all start?

It came about in a fairly straightforward way. Back in 1992, 1993, I'd had my first "baptism-by-fire" when I was hired as a writer on the Judge Dredd movie. It'd eventually star Sylvester Stallone and be directed by Danny Cannon, but when I was on it was Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tony Scott. I was one of a wake of casualties of writers on that project, and it left me with a resolve to again spec something out in the vein of Alien vs. Predator, as something I controlled the writing on from beginning to end instead of being a dancing monkey for a bunch of organ grinders.

I loved Escape From New York when it was released, and I remembered an interview with John Carpenter (it was either in Starlog magazine, or the British publication Starburst, I forget which), in which Carpenter had mentioned, specifically, that he was mulling over a sequel which would be called Escape From L.A. So, that seemed a natural to have a go at.

To go off on a weird Carpenter-connection tangent for a moment which'll make sense later: even before I'd gone out to get my first agent, I had in my early pile of sample scripts an adaption of Robert Mason's memoir Chickenhawk, a book about helicopter pilots in Vietnam. The premise had fascinated me, and on a whim I decided to write it as an exercise. And that same time Carpenter had just made Starman, for which he personally supplied the helicopters to the production from his own company I understand, and said in an interview about Starman that he'd love to make Mason's Chickenhawk! The accumulation of coincidence was too much for me, so I blindly sent that finished (unrepresented) script off in a plain brown envelope to Carpenter's agent at the Gersh Agency in Los Angeles. And at that time, I never got a response back. So that was that, and I figured it'd ended up in a bin somewhere.

So, flash-forward almost 10 years to the early '90s again, and me sitting down and deciding to try do an Escape From L.A. Escape from New York was one of the first movies I had a VHS copy of in the 80s, and it got played a lot. And when CD hit the market late 80s: as a big soundtrack buff, I remember being thrilled at finding a copy of Die Klapperschlange -- as the German CD release of "NY" was known -- at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus. That disc also got a lot of rotation. So Escape From New York was sort of a minor obsession for me.

What did you want to accomplish with your Escape From L.A. script story-wise etc?

Well, at the end of Escape From New York, it's clear Snake has screwed things up and the world's likely gone to war as a result of Donald Pleasance's (The President) peace conference failing. So, an "L.A." story by extension would have to cope with that aftermath. And I was writing my version, remember, before that DVD edition of Escape From New York got released, with the bonus original opening heist scene that got cut. I wasn't aware at the time that cut-scene had ever been shot, much less scripted! But I was fascinated by Fresno Bob, mentioned briefly in that exchange between Harold "Brain" Hellmann and Snake. "You know what they did to Bob?" asked Snake, about that botched job they'd all pulled years before. Well, something horrible, you might think. But what if Bob were still alive, and Snake didn't know? And, Bob being possibly Special Forces Black Light as well as Snake — as I imagined they'd have some common history — Bob's specialist military talents might be put to some use somewhere, by somebody similarly nefarious.

The story came together surprisingly quickly. This was the 80s, and Cyberpunk literature was exploding, and William Gibson was its king and kinda my own personal writing hero. If you flip through Gibson's Burning Chrome anthology of short stories, that particular story itself featured ex-military cyber-cowboys who flew into Leningrad during some future war-that-never-was. I'd read some interviews with Gibson where he talked about how much he loved Escape From New York, and this aspect of Gibson's Burning Chrome was clearly influenced by Carpenter's movie and Snake's own history with Black Light in it. And, in turn my Escape From L.A. plot had its influence based in Gibson.

I pieced the story together using index cards. At some point, my brother Andy came to stay with me in London and I used him as a sounding board for thrashing the story out.

Which parts of it do you like the most and is there anything about those parts you'd like to discuss?

Well. My story followed on from the ramifications of Escape From New York. The peace conference failed, the world went to war. All America's armed forces got hurriedly deployed abroad, so the Homeland was pretty much unguarded. And the South American drug barons had basically rolled in to America with a massive military invasion force and taken key cities. It wasn't until America's military began to withdraw for home that the pitched battle against the drug lords to retake the cities began. It's mentioned at one point they had to nuke Miami. Poor Miami! And the last city to resist being fully retaken was Los Angeles. The military had encircled large portions, slowly closing in block-by-block, but the cartels had brought with them all kinds of sophisticated military hardware to fight back. When a U.S. Senator who is responsible for steering an upcoming key House land reclamation Bill is snatched by the bad guys, Snake (now a freelance bounty hunter) is grabbed from one of his own gigs and brought back. In my story it was Tommy Atkins' character Rehme from Escape From New York who brings Snake in, as Lee Van Cleef (Bob Hauk) had died in 1989, and I wanted to keep some continuity in the series. Snake doesn't want any part of Rehme's deal… until it's revealed to him that Fresno Bob is alive and well and working with the bad guys. Snake refuses to believe that Bob, ex-Special Forces, would go work for the scumbags, and agrees to fly into L.A. with a pair of B-2 stealth bombers accompanying a team of commandoes in powered fighting armor. As they say: Things Go Wrong. And Snake and his now-depleted team have to trek across tribalized Los Angeles to extract the Senator.

That was the bare bones. There's a lot, looking back on it, that I really like about the script. There's a hooker that's locked up in the mansion that had been looking after the Senator: that reminded me a little bit of the Catwoman/Senator subplot in Dark Knight Rises reading it recently. There's some really nice set-pieces. There's a massive hardware-heavy pyrotechnic third act that has what starts off as a sneak infiltration on this drug-lord's compound by what's left of the Marines, and then escalates into a massive firefight culminating in Snake armed with a hunting knife taking on Bob in a powered fighting suit. 20 years after I wrote this script, there was something similar in a little movie you might have seen called Avatar. I was very much into Japanese manga comic books with powered armor, so I guess that’s where that came from. Bob's a pretty big character throughout the story.


What happened to the script after you had finished it and is it true that John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell never got to read it?

Well, with the script finished, I took it in to my agent, Steve Kenis, who was then head of William Morris in London. A few years earlier, when I'd brought him my Alien vs. Predator spec and shoved it across the table towards him, he'd groaned good-naturedly, and then we'd gone out and sold the thing in less than a week. I optimistically hoped this might be the same story with Escape From L.A. I sat in his office, and he opened the front page, and almost immediately gave me a very firm and dismissive "No". I was a little taken aback. In his view, it was an impossible sale. His logic was sound, but it wasn't anything I didn't already know. Avco Embassy had gone bust, the rights were all over the place. His take was there was nobody to sell the project to and it was a flat-out waste of time. There had to be a solution I reasoned, starting with getting it to Carpenter. But, Steve wasn't having it.

I can't remember how many months passed, maybe almost a year. One day I got a call from the British journalist Alan Jones, a friend of mine who was organizing a fantasy/horror festival at the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank. Although Alan didn't know I'd gone through this demoralizing process with the "L.A." script, he knew how much I loved Carpenter and they’d managed to get Carpenter's new movie In The Mouth Of Madness for a festival exclusive world premiere, the 29th July 1994. Not only did they have Carpenter for an onstage Q&A following the movie… but Alan said there was a VIP reception party afterwards for the Festival in general. And, would I like to go...?

I immediately got back onto Steve Kenis to formulate a plan. I had his assistant at William Morris coordinate a copy messengered over from the L.A. office to arrive at Debra Hill's production company in California, at the precise same time I'd be meeting, or hoped I'd be meeting, Carpenter at the after-party in London. So that L.A. copy was officially and properly Agency-sent and represented legally, as it ought to be. On the "showmanship" side of this heist, I also got the London office to make me a copy of the script with the regular blue William Morris covers to take with me to the NFT (National Film Theatre).

I don't think I've ever been as anxious watching a movie as I was that night watching Mouth Of Madness, sitting in the audience and willing time to speed-up. Afterwards Carpenter gave his Q&A. I was so focused on the task of getting to him, I honestly don't recall a single reply he gave. Afterwards, I bolted up to the reception party. Carpenter was milling around, introduced to all and sundry. I circled nervously waiting for a right moment, until Alan saw me and waved me over.

I've since read an interview with Carpenter where somebody mentioned to him, him meeting him at the party. John's reported version of events… well. I wouldn't say it was entirely factually accurate. He was in pretty high spirits from the occasion — it was the world premiere of his movie, to be fair — and his attention was fairly distracted, let's say, but… I'll gloss over that. Regardless, Alan introduced me. Carpenter knew, or seemed to have heard, about me working on Alien vs. Predator and Dredd. Then I happened to mention the Chickenhawk draft I'd sent to his agent at Gersh almost a decade before, and he surprised the hell out of me. Turned out he'd actually read it, and said he enjoyed it a lot. He enthused a little while, and we talked about helicopters and the script, and the book itself… until I finally summoned up the moxie to make my move.

"Well… I have something else for you to read", I remarked cagily. "I actually had my agent at William Morris send it over to your office in L.A. today… but I brought a copy with me."  He looked bemused as I handed over that blue-and-white Morris bound script. Then he flipped the page and read the title. And pretty much froze, just like my agent had and snapped the cover closed with an immediate: "Aw, man… Oh, oh. No…!" I'm sure he's had kids over the years press scripts on him at various occasions, but I started to reassure him and tell him it had already gone to Debra Hill's company properly through the Morris L.A. office.

"No, no, that's all great. That's fine", he said. "If you'd brought this to me six months ago, I'd have loved to have read this. But Kurt and I literally just made the deal -- it isn't even in the trades yet -- a couple days ago, to write this thing! We managed to put the rights together. I can't read this now, even if it's the most amazing script in the world! If you'd have only got it to me a little earlier. Sorry, kid…"

I was floored, because my instincts about writing this thing had been right, as I'd insisted to my agent earlier in the year. If it had had gone to Carpenter back then… who knows? But, that was that. Carpenter's announcement made the trades just a short while later. And that was the version that got made, not the hundred-some pages of dead tree I was left holding.

But, to go back to your question about whether anyone on that team had read it? I don't know. It's entirely possible. I know given the circumstances in their shoes, I might have been tempted to take a peek. But, I can tell you that their finished movie and my story pretty much had zero in common, so there's certainly no case of anything being sneakily taken from my draft, at all. Not a thing.

Are you interested in sharing your script?

No! (Laughs) Sorry. It's a script I'm still very fond of. Obviously it's never going to be an existing series sequel. Maybe it could be a reboot story, for that notion that's been floating about for a few years now. But, for myself, I thought the story was strong enough, that I've done a couple of reworkings of it to make it a standalone action movie that has nothing to do with the world of Snake Plissken.

How much does your reworks of the script differ?

Well, there was only ever one Escape From L.A. Snake Plissken draft. When I reworked it after that, the character that was Snake doesn't speak like that any more… even though Snake is basically Joe Manko/The Man With No Name from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns! You know there was that lawsuit recently, between Carpenter and Besson over the "Escape From Space" thing and Besson's movie Lockout? That story was so clearly obviously a thinly-veiled version of an Escape From New York story. Maybe Besson originally even wrote it with the intention of partnering with Carpenter to do an actual "Escape From Space" story? Who can say.

What do you think of the final version of Escape From L.A. and in what ways do you think your version would've been better?

Well. My feelings about the filmed version of Escape From L.A., and my draft partially go go some way towards explaining why my newer non-Escape reworked draft of my script still works pretty well as an entirely different movie. If you look at Alien and Aliens, they're two different films. One's a haunted house thriller, the other is a war movie. They just happen to have certain shared trappings. And that's why, partially, I think the filmed version of Escape From L.A. failed. It's a remake, rather than an attempt to tell another Snake Plissken story. It's got another guarded penitentiary island. It's got people ejecting in escape pods. It's got Snake again being injected with something that's going to kill him. There's a MacGuffin in there that has to be retrieved. It's a retread.

The great thing about Escape From New York, was you believed it. Dean Cundey's cinematography was gritty and raw, and the look of the movie… you can almost smell it. The story drives along, and you care about Snake, and that's interesting because he's a character without much to recommend him, plus he has no character arc! And I love that about him. And Carpenter's at the top of his game with his direction, and his own music score absolutely zings. Escape From L.A.'s the polar opposite. The cinematography in "L.A." is, honestly, horrible. The movie looks cheap, like a made-for-cable TV spinoff. The story is just lesser version of the first one, and Snake is kind of an asshole this time. And none of the action sequences are particularly well done.

Where I think Carpenter did succeed in the film beyond what I did in my draft, was in conveying the crazy essence of L.A. The plastic surgery, the Maps To The Stars, the surf culture: all that stuff. I was a kid living in London, and even though I'd a pair of studio scripts under my belt at that point I'd really not spent any time in L.A., and I think you need to have lived in L.A. to understand L.A. I've spent years and years there now, and if I were to begin from scratch and do that story again, it'd be very different. I got the geography accurate in my script, but I think Carpenter's local character crazies were more interesting than mine. Although saying that, I really like the Marines in my story, and Fresno Bob. And my overall story and action scenes had more depth. It's a shame Carpenter had signed that agreement and we never worked together. Because I think grafting on his quirky "local" characters on top of my story would have created something more in line with what I think the fans were expecting from that sequel.

I'll be honest: I don't much care for the Escape From L.A. that got made. That's not sour grapes, but rather I was expecting more from that story. I saw it at the cinema, and I've tried and failed to watch it a second time on video. It's a missed opportunity. All around.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I had a stint of family life the since Hellboy came out. Dabbled in TV. The past few years, I've been working with Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and Ivor Powell who produced Alien and Blade Runner, on putting together an independent movie called Panzer 88, which is a supernatural World War 2 action thriller about a German tank crew being chased by a creature. I'm directing this, from a script by Aaron Mason, James Cowan, and myself. Being an indie, it's taken longer to put the financing together than we'd anticipated. Richard Taylor's Weta Workshop are doing the creature and some other elements. Peter Jackson was very supportive and helpful to us early on.

What else do I enjoy? Movies. It's all about about movies. Every day, and twice on Sunday!


Thank you for your time, Peter.

More about Peter Briggs script here: Peter Briggs Original Escape From L.A. Storyline