Escape from L.A

In 1981, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York—a small-budget, post-apocalyptic bruiser—raked it in at the box office and set up Kurt Russell as an 80s action star. Fifteen years later, Russell reprised his role as now-iconic anti-hero Snake Plissken for Escape from L.A. But despite all the hallmarks of promise—star actor, known property, and the return of a legendary director—the $50 million sequel didn’t even earn half its money back in theaters.

Creatively, there are numerous reasons that help explain why this film flopped—many of which are hilariously pointed out in the latest episode of How Did This Get Made? But in addition to all that, there’s another variable at play: timing. Had Escape from L.A. been made ten years earlier—alongside 1986 hits like Cobra and Crocodile Dundee—or even ten years later—alongside 2006 reboots like Casino Royale and Rocky Balboa—it seems more likely that the film would have succeeded. Which begs the question: if Escape from L.A. had been made in the late 80s, what would that have looked like?

So who better to answer that question than Coleman Luck who, in 1987, was hired by John Carpenter to write the first draft of Escape from L.A. Curious to learn more—and also learn why Luck’s bio lists that him as “also a mentalist and a member of the Academy of Magical Arts”—I managed to track down the now-retired writer.  Below is a copy of our conversation…

 

Synopsis: After an earthquake separates Los Angeles from the mainland, the former City of Angels becomes a penal colony for the worst of the worst. But what very few realize is that beneath the surface—the chaos, violence and debauchery—LA is also home to a world-threatening revolution. A revolution that can only be stopped by a badass motherfuker by the name of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell)

Tagline: Snake is Back

Escape from LA poster

Part 1: The Nature of If You Belong

Blake J. Harris: First tell me, before movies, magic and all of that, what did you want to be when you were growing up?

Coleman Luck: [laughs] Well, let’s see…that was back about 350 years ago.

Blake J. Harris: [laughs]

Coleman Luck: I grew in a suburb of Chicago—Wheaton, Illinois—had not the slightest indication or inclination that I would become a writer. In fact, writing was the last thing I wanted to do, really, because it was too difficult. You know, it’s hard to write! For a while, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an actor. Thank god I was freed of that disease!

Blake J. Harris: Ha! So when did you actually begin a career in writing?

Coleman Luck: I started off really writing in advertising at a small ad agency in Chicago and worked as an advertising manager for a small magazine in DC. Just in different places. All of that fell apart when I was in my 20s. By that point I’d spent several years in the army. I’d been to Vietnam. I was a young infantry lieutenant there, leading a rifle platoon in ’68.

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Coleman Luck: Came back. Was married, had kids and didn’t know what to do with my life. At that point I went to Northern Illinois University on the GI Bill and took a history of film course. It was an excellent course—I learned all about the amazing history of Hollywood—and during that time it came into my mind: Is it possible for me to be involved in something like this?

Blake J. Harris: How did you go about trying to answer that question?

Coleman Luck: This was back in 1975. You know, there was no course at this time that could even touch you how to write a screenplay. So I did an independent study; I wrote a script and I didn’t’ know what to do with it. It was in the wrong form…but when you’re a writer, you have nothing to lose. So I sent a copy of the script to Pauline Kael who was a famous film critic at New Yorker magazine. And I sent a copy to Ernest Lehman, the great screenwriter, who was the head of the Writer’s Guild.

Blake J. Harris: That’s a smart move.

Coleman Luck: That’s the sort of thing you do when you don’t know what else to do. Pauline Kael wrote a note to me and said I think you know what you’re doing. I wrote a note back to her saying if you think I know what you’re doing can I use your name to try and get into grad school and she said yes. And Ernest Lehman wrote this two page, single-spaced critique of my script. I didn’t understand at the time what a gift that was. He told me some things that I have never forgotten. And I was so appreciative. And that led me to come out to USC, go to grad school there. 

Blake J. Harris: what kind of advice to Earnest give you?

Coleman Luck: Well, Earnest Lehman wrote to me something that has stuck with me throughout all the years of my writing. He said to me in this letter that “one of the problems you’ve got with your script is that you don’t care enough about your central character. What you’ve done is created, basically, a stick-man that allows you to say whatever you want to say and take you through all the narrative points you want to hit. But you didn’t really care about him.” That was a very important statement. And as a value, I think it’s something that Hollywood has largely forgotten today. And that correlates with another quote—I don’t remember who said it—but that “every story is ultimately a redemption story.” And that’s mostly true in Western literature. In Western Civilization. That’s been an important value which I think has been largely lost today.

Blake J. Harris: Tell me a bit about film school. Was it what you expected?

Coleman Luck: Well, you know, I got an interesting education the first night; the first screenwriting course I took. It was an evening class (because I was working full-time during the days), there were about 25 students, in walks the teacher, absolutely drunk out of his mind. I was amazed. Here I am, sitting in grad school at one of the premier educational institutions in the country, and the teacher—the first night—he’s drunk.

Blake J. Harris: Wow.

Coleman Luck: I won’t mention his name, but he had a list of credits as long as your arm. And he was in agony. That man was in, I suppose you could say, psychological /spiritual agony. And he spent the next two hours: out of him was just flowing pain. He had all the success in the world. He had all the money he needed. But his wife was divorcing him, his family was falling apart; all the things that he thought would lead him to success, it was the exact opposite of where he was. And you know that was a tremendous educational moment. I’ve never forgotten that too. And that’s something that, as awful as it was for him, it was a great gift for me.

Blake J. Harris: So in light of that lesson—about the trappings of success—but what was your goal/objective as a writer? What did you want your life to be like?

Coleman Luck: The first thing I would say is that when you go to Hollywood you understand that you are attempting to move into an industry that has a long tradition; and you’re moving into it with the concept that you’re going to be writing commercial projects. Because people are going to be hiring you to do that. So my first thought was: do I have the ability to do this? Okay, I’ve written a script. It got me into school. But a career? My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t have the chops to do it and no one would tell me the truth. And I’d wind up… and I was 32 by the time I came out. I didn’t have years to mess around. I had a family to support. So there was a deep concern about that when I first stated.

Blake J. Harris: Sure.

Coleman Luck: And the other thing was—and this is deeply personal, but it’s very real—that I was a Christian and I grew up in a Christian community. And, you know, I’d been through the army and I’d been through a lot of hardass experiences so I understood the nature of what it meant to be that [a devout Christian] in places that are not particularly conductive to those beliefs. But my ultimate goal in the middle of all of it was: okay, am I here just to serve myself? Is my goal to get rich? My concern was—and it may sound very, very strange—but my concern was to say that in my life in writing, whatever I’m doing, even if it’s writing commercial projects in Hollywood (even with John Carpenter, for Pete’s sake!) I want to do it to glorify God. That’s a strange goal, I understand that. I doubt that you’ve ever talked to anybody who had a goal like that, but that’s been the goal of my life.

Blake J. Harris: True, I’ve never heard that before!

Coleman Luck: [cracks up]

Blake J. Harris: But I’ll also say that I’m not totally surprised. Partly because of the educational moments you’ve mentioned, also partly because you were in your 30s at the time. I suspect that if you had been in your 20s, you’d have had a different objective.

Coleman Luck: If I’d gone to film school in my 20s, and if I’d have come single, I think I would have been destroyed! [laughs] It’s not easy when you come out young. So yeah, I came out older; plus I had military experience behind me, which was a very, very intense experience. I mean, when I was 22, I was leading a rifle platoon in combat.

Blake J. Harris: I can’t even imagine. So when did you start to feel like “I can do this. I belong.”

Coleman Luck: Well, the nature of if you belong is maybe a separate question. But do I have the ability to do it? I think after I finished the screenwriting course at USC. I had a feeling at that point: yeah, I think I can do this. Also, you look around…you start to meet other writers—in the course and as you get around a bit—and you realize: you know what? These people are no better at what they’re doing. I mean, they’re good people, they’re talented people. But I think I’m pretty much the same. Let’s give it a shot.

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