Press > Exclusive Interviews > Peter Briggs
(Spec Script Writer/1994: Escape From L.A.)
How did you end up being a
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
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
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.
"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
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
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
Thank you for your time, Peter.
Peter Briggs script here: Peter
Briggs Original Escape From L.A. Storyline