HDTGM: A Conversation With Coleman Luck, Original Screenwriter Of '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 BackEscape 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.Escape from LA hollywood burning

Part 2: Golden Times

Coleman Luck: After school was finished at USC, I went through a year of starvation and horror with my family. We struggled through it. Then my first script was sold.Blake J. Harris: What was the script?Coleman Luck: It was entitled the Foxbat Strategy. I co-wrote it with a friend of mine, we sold it to United Artists in 1980. And when this was sold, it was a huge deal. This was one that was going.Blake J. Harris: What was it about?Coleman Luck: It came out of an experience I had years ago. I was coming home from Chicago on the train late at night and I needed to get a cab.  So I walked into the station and it was completely empty except for this little man. He was young, probably in his 20s. And he was disabled. He walked with a crutch. He was running the cab stand. And spread around him were board games. And I asked him, "What in the world are you doing?" And he said, "I'm playing war games with people around the world." He was doing it by mail; it was just the weirdest thing! That gave me an idea for a script, about this little man living in a warehouse in Brooklyn. He manages the warehouse, but he's got the 4th floor completely set up for war games. And the key of the whole story is that he's the greatest military strategist who's ever lived but nobody knows it.Blake J. Harris: So what happened with the project?Coleman Luck: We were at the point with that script where we had producers involved and we were interviewing directors. Then suddenly United Artists was bought by MGM. And the problem was the head of MGM was producing a film at the time that had a one-line similarity called WarGames. So they bought us out, shelved the project and it never saw the light of day. But that script opened a lot of doors. It was one of those scripts that people had on their shelves when I walked in and they said, "Oh, you know, that script should have really been made!" So that's how it all started. And then I started doing development deals until a friend of mine pulled me into television.Blake J. Harris: What was the perception of television back then? From what I remember and what I understand, it was viewed much differently than films...Coleman Luck: [playfully accusing] Were you even born then, Blake? Were you even alive?Blake J. Harris: [laughs] I was. Just barely. Born in 1982.Coleman Luck: Oh my gosh! [laughing] But yeah, there was a big divide back at the time. I don't think USC even had a television writing course because they looked down on television. The idea was "we train screenwriters, not television writers!" So I went into the industry without the slightest interest in writing television. At all. But this friend of mine, he pulled me into a TV series that he was creating for Universal. It was a short-lived series that was total war for us as writers. The title of it was OtherWorld, it was sold to CBS in 1984 (I believe). It only lasted about 8 episodes on the air, but it got me into an overall deal at Universal. And so I was there on the lot when The Equalizer began and I was pulled into that.Blake J. Harris: Tell me about The Equalizer.Coleman Luck: I came on in show 11. And like most TV series—which go through a nightmare during their first season—that series was in chaos. They were having a lot of trouble with scripts. They had tons of scripts that had been written, but nothing was really shoot-able; it was a big mess. All kinds of internal politics going on. I just came in and said, "Give me the most difficult script to put into condition." So I took that and I re-wrote it. And I didn't know it at the time, but the star of the series, Edward Woodward, was on the brink of walking off. But when he read my script he said, "Wow, this is what the show is about." And that sort of was the beginning for me.Blake J. Harris: In your mind, what was the show about?Coleman Luck: It was about a man, you know, who was a lot like me. A very, very bad man who was searching for redemption. It was a man who had done many bad things in his life and was desperately searching for redemption; and what he ended up doing to try and achieve that was use his skills to defend the weak. And those who were innocent against powerful forces of evil. That's how I viewed him. As a man searching for redemption. He has a lot of skills. I could relate with my military experience behind me. I could relate to someone who had a lot of dark experiences behind him and was searching for a way out. And was searching for light.Blake J. Harris: Interesting...Coleman Luck: For me as a Christian, that speaks to the issue of what Christianity is about. I ended up writing more episodes than any other writer and I ended up becoming the show-runner. And Edward Woodward related to everything I wrote. The entire time, he was deeply encouraging; and so was Universal, so was CBS. And the most wonderful team of people working on that series. That was a golden time for me.Blake J. Harris: So that's when everything clicked. Had you thought about giving up before that? Or were you kind of always committed to trying this thing through?Coleman Luck: [laughs] Seeing the thing through...I'd have to say, from my perspective the age that I am now, I don't think there's such a thing as "seeing this thing through."Blake J. Harris: That's fair...Coleman Luck: The reality is that you're going through wonderful and awful experiences all at the same time sometimes. And I'm a writer. I felt that was the calling of my life. Once again you go back to "I have to answer to God with what I do and how I treat people." All of these things are informed by Christian faith. And it's true of my writing too. I'm writing because I feel called to do it. Whatever that means. That means different things to different people...that's how I viewed it. I'm here to be a writer and that's what I'm going to do. And in my career as a writer I saw a lot of success, but I also saw a lot of war; just a lot of horror. And I think that's true of any writer in Hollywood that goes over a long period of time.Blake J. Harris: And in the course of those ups and downs you at some point get involved with Escape from L.A. How did that start to come together?Coleman Luck: [laughs] You mean, how did it come together and fall apart so quickly?Blake J. Harris: Ha, yeah.Coleman Luck: I really don't know how Carpenter ran into my work. He probably read some feature script that I had written some place. He knew I was writing the Equalizer, he knew I was doing that, which was a pretty dark show. Anyway, I just got the call to say, "Hey, would you like to write this script." And of course I'd loved Escape from New York. I mean, that was to me a great film. I just loved it. And I thought this was incredible, I cannot pass this up. So I got permission from the people on the show to spend the time that I needed, which was a great gift from them, to write the script.Blake J. Harris: Excellent.Coleman Luck: And I met Carpenter at a restaurant to discus the project.Blake J. Harris: Do you remember the restaurant? Any other details?Coleman Luck: It was a little restaurant on Venture Boulevard. In fact it was on Ventura and Coldwater; it was just a coffee shop. And I sat down with him and I'd loved his work in the past. I was a little bit in awe, you know? I mean, here I am sitting talking to John Carpenter and he wants me to write this script. So here I am, I'm thrilled. I tried to make small talk...I asked him about his background and where he grew up. But, you know, he didn't really go into anything as far as story was concerned. We just shot the breeze, you know, for a while. And I went out and started writing. I said, "Do you want a treatment?" Nope, just do it. So I just did it.Blake J. Harris: Do you remember what your creative approach was to it?Coleman Luck: Sure. I looked at it and said: here's LA. I've been living in LA for a number of years and the first thing that occurred to me was: you know, LA in the future that we're talking about here, the earthquake has happened—the giant earthquake has separated the city from the rest of the country—and LA is now an asylum for the criminally insane. With millions of people living in it and all the things that are in LA that we love; from the traffic jams to everything under the sun. Just everything. I went up with a sendoff on all of it. And of course Snake Plissken is gonna get sent into this place. And experience all the stuff that's going on. I turned Disneyland into Ratland and I mean, it was dark; let me tell you, it was dark!In 2007, while going through his records, Luck found a copy of his Escape from L.A. script and decided to auction it off on eBay. The draft wound up in the hands of a guy named RaulMonkey who wrote about it for Ain't It Cool NewsBelow are a few comments from RaulMonkey's recap: 

  • Does the Coleman Luck version of ESCAPE FROM L.A. represent the sequel many of us hoped to see as opposed to Carpenter's semi-remake? Yes and no.
  • Over images of a "holographic" Los Angeles, we are told the story of TWO separate catastrophes that strike the city in the year 1995. The first disaster involves a genetically engineered virus...designed to be harmless to humans, but it unexpectedly mutates after coming into contact with chemical discharge from a factory producing "Sun-In-A-Bottle" tanning lotion...The second disaster, occurring only three weeks later, is the Big One earthquake, measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale, which turns L.A. into an island off the new Western shore. The narration concludes, "Unable to cope with the two calamities, the United States Police Force abandoned the city, cutting off every avenue of escape and making it a permanent asylum for the criminally insane."
  • Apparently, the citizens of L.A. amuse themselves with something called FLOAT WARS. Two parade floats, each equipped with a gun and a crew, drift toward each other in the middle of the street and blow the shit of each other. There are onlookers lining the street, but it's also a televised event, hosted by "John and Meridee" who are the Island versions of John Tesh and Mary Hart. Each float has a corporate sponsor. The float Snake's crucified upon is in the shape of a gigantic medfly on top of a pancake, representing the Universal House of Pancakes (UHOP.) The opponent float is sponsored by the First Interstate Sperm Bank of America, and looks like, I shit you not, a nebulous blob of jizz.
  • All right, here's where we enter major SPOILER territory (if anyone's going to hold out on this sucker being published.) Snake eventually runs into a man named Oral Turnwheel. We see him a couple of times spying on Snake throughout the movie–he rides in a limousine filled with rats, and wears only a white tunic, like Gandhi. It seems that he owns a conglomeration of all the major military contractors on Los Angeles, and the Americans have given him the run of the island. He has devised a method of cloning the world's finest soldiers while removing certain genetic limitations, and retaining the benefit of the memories and experiences of the original subject. Turnwheel plans to sell the super-clones wholesale to all of the world's major powers.
  • I hope that my sensibilities in relating the story to you haven't given you any false impressions. A lot of subtlety is lost when you're writing an overview, so I want to say that in my opinion this script could have been made into a pretty kick-ass movie.
  • Coleman Luck: Years later, Carpenter described my script as too light and campy. That's the only thing that I'd ever heard about what his thought was. And I'll tell you something: it wasn't light, it was definitely not light. I mean, I sent up the Rose Parade with giant inflatable condoms. [laughs] It was horrible! And it was at the same time an adventure, a journey through the city and the LA that it had become. It might be considered campy today, but for it's day it was not campy at all. Anyway, that was sort of...it was an adventure and it was science fiction and I felt good about it. I still feel good about it! I think that if he had shot that script...in fact one person who read the script said "if he had only shot the film I wrote, it might have been successful!"Blake J. Harris: How close to getting made did the film get?Coleman Luck: Oh, pretty close. I also went in for a meeting with Debra Hill and Kurt Russell not too long after that. Just to say hello and they were very nice people. And then I went out and wrote the script. Turned it in and literally the week that I turned it in, DEG, De Laurentiis' company went bankrupt. And it was like that script just sailed away into a black hole.

    Part 3: Every Story is Ultimately a Redemption Story

    Blake J. Harris: Obviously to work in Hollywood, as we have seen, is to have a lot of unproduced scripts. Any favorites of yours from over the years that stand out as particularly special?Coleman Luck: [laughs] Well, they're all special, and I wish they'd all been made. I will say—and this is entirely a personal statement—but the so-called "Christian films" and "family-based films" and all of this garbage that's out there, I got so sick of it. So a year ago, my son (who is a professional writer), we sat down and wrote a script of our own. The title of it is Magnificent. I said, "I'm going to write a film that is uniquely Christian and also is hardass and hard-edged." And basically it's a telling of the Magnificent Seven story but with a very different group of people. So that is one that...it's probably the last script that I'll ever write. And that's definitely one that I would love to see made. But we don't want to just throw it out to the industry. We're looking to fund it ourselves and actually make it. So that's the one that I would point to right now.Blake J. Harris: That sounds really interesting. I guess you're not so "retired" after all.Coleman Luck: I still stay busy. Keep writing, I'm a writer, you know what that's about.Blake J. Harris: I do...Coleman Luck: If I had known before I started my career what the nature of the business was, I probably would have given up right at the start! I have a friend of mine who is one of the executives at the Writers Guild. He's been in charge of the accumulation of data and back a couple of years ago, he told me, "the average length of a screenwriter's career in Hollywood is five years." And these are the successful writers, the ones who sell scripts That is daunting, that's heavy-duty. If I had known that going in, I would have been thinking things through differently. I'm glad I didn't know it, actually...it's a tough business for everybody.Blake J. Harris: Well before we finish, I have to ask about another one of your passions:

    How did you get into magic and mentalism?

    Coleman Luck: Oh, mentalism. Well [laughing] I was a teenage magician. That's how I really got more deeply involved with my wife. You know, every magician finds the most beautiful girl and wants her to be his assistant.Blake J. Harris: Haha.Coleman Luck: So I was a teenage magician. When I went in the army, I came out of the army. It was the 60s, it was 69 when I got out of the army, and the whole supernatural, occult involvement of the culture was happening. The drug culture and everything else. And I had known about this area of magic called mentalism; and this was mind-reading. You know, it was pseudo-psychic phenomenon, all the rest, and I'd known about it. And magic at that point had kind of bored me so I decided to look into this and I got into it. And my wife and I, at that point we were married, we toured the Midwest with a program called "Beyond Reality."Blake J. Harris: Wow.Coleman Luck: You know, the approach of magic and the approach of mentalism...the secrets are very similar, but the effect on the audience is vastly different. When you're going into as a magician, the audience is sitting there and they want to be fooled, but they're also trying to figure out "how'd he do that?" But the audience goes into a mentalist program very differently. That's where you have people actually believing that you have mind-reading abilities. I tried hard not to let people think I had those actual abilities, but it was a very different approach. We toured with a program in which I'd predict the headlines in newspapers and appear to predict people's minds and control their actions and all the rest. Vast amount of fun.Blake J. Harris: Now before we finish, just one final question for you.  You said earlier that most stories are, ultimately, redemption stories. So I'm curious to hear yours? What has been your redemption story?Coleman Luck: I mean, I speak as someone who's a Christian. As someone who's done a lot of study for many years and who understands what that means. And ultimately, the ultimate the issue of redemption is being right with God. In the sense of saying, "I can't pay for my own sins. I can't earn my own salvation, you know?" And so for me—as a human being, as a man—who's certainly done a lot of bad things, how do I get rid of that guilt? Do I just learn to cope with it, which is what psychology tells us? Do I just try to escape it, which is what addictions of all sorts are about. Or is there a way that God has made for me to actually experience his redemption? And of course that's what I believe Jesus Christ is all about. He came to pay the price for my sins. Not just for the sins of the world, but for the terrible stuff that I've done in my life. And to understand what that meant and to experience that redemption changed everything for me. That happened many years ago when I really understood who he was and that I could have a relationship through him.Blake J. Harris: That's great.Coleman Luck: And the number one thing it takes away is fear. I'm not afraid any more. I mean the basis of all fear is the fear of death. We all know that, but that fear is gone. Because I know that because of the sacrifice that he made for me, when he died for my sins, my eternity is secure. And I don't say that lightly. And I respect other people's beliefs and everything else, but I think that God made a wonderful way for me to not be afraid any more of death.Blake J. Harris: That's beautiful.Coleman Luck: And when that is taken away, and you realize that God loves you; he loves you so much that he sent his son to die for you. That carried me through a career in Hollywood, where my family is still together... You don't have to live the way that so many people are living; they're afraid, they're trying to find fulfillment. I mean, you look at these incredible successful people in the industry who commit suicide...what does that tell you about the industry? What does that tell you about human life? Something is missing in all of us. And there's where I said: okay, I'm a hardass. I'm a tough person on a lot levels. Nobody in Hollywood is tougher than I am. You know, I've seen stuff. I've seen men die around me. Okay, what is this really about? ...So that's what it's about. Either Jesus Christ is who he says he was. Or it's all just a fantasy and a myth. And it's nothing in between. And that's how I came to live my life because I came to truly understand it was real.To learn more about Coleman Luck, visit his blog: http://colemanluck.blogspot.com/