The Project From Hell - Writer Peter Briggs Talks About Hellboy
Joshua Zyber, DVDTalk: Peter, how did you first become associated with Hellboy? Was it a project you were assigned, or were you a fan of the comic first?
Peter Briggs: Now, there’s a question! And, the answer is both. When screenwriters say they’re "big fans" of projects they’re on – even if it’s Death Invaders from Pluto, Part 8, I usually figure they’re doing "Automatic Hollywood Lie/Answer 101". But in the case of Hellboy, I was a genuine fan of the comic book… had them all, all the crossovers, even Hellboy’s first "guest" appearance in Next Men, Part 3.
My agent was approached by producer Lloyd Levin from Larry Gordon’s company, who I’d previously worked on two projects with, in Summer ’96; but we didn’t get to talk about the project until he was over in England producing Event Horizon in December that year. Lloyd basically asked me if I wanted to do it, and that was it. But due to Universal’s business affairs taking their time dicking around on the deal, I didn’t get to sign the contract until I’d spent some time with Mike Mignola at his home in Portland, which was August ’97. I finished my draft just before Christmas that year.
DVDTalk: Were any interesting filmmakers attached to the project before Guillermo del Toro took the reigns?
Briggs: Nope. The initial running was me, then del Toro. I got back to Los Angeles from Portland, end of August ’97. An online website had run a little piece about me being assigned to Hellboy and meeting with Mike in Portland. When I walked into Lloyd’s office, it transpired that Guillermo had learned about this and begun chasing the project.
DVDTalk: In the movie, you are credited with "Screen Story", but director Guillermo del Toro holds the screenplay credit. Can you explain what that means? How much of the movie did you actually write?
Briggs: That’s a pretty convoluted answer. When the Writers Guild of America arbitrated the movie, they basically examined my draft, all the source material, and del Toro’s many, many drafts, and judged that I’d created enough of both the broad strokes of the story, plus sufficient, substantial amounts of specific material aside from the comic books, and that exist in the finished movie, to warrant that credit.
If you strip out the Hellboy/Liz love subplot, and the character of Myers, there’s still a considerable bulk of stuff in what remains that’s mine. In terms of the big scenes, in the broad strokes, I had a firefight on the island at the beginning, a street and subway chase/fight, an underwater fight with Abe where he gets wounded by a creature in the process, Liz being abducted as a means to get Hellboy to Rasputin’s hideout, basically the whole ending of the movie. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. I was surprised when I read the shooting draft just how many things I’d created were still in the movie. Little instances: Liz coming back to the agency after time away due to some pyrokinetic "mishap", baby Hellboy being enticed by the candy bar, Hellboy using the grinder to file his horn stumps, the glowing runes on his gauntlet. Hellboy’s true name, Anung un Rama? That was one of mine. All kinds of stuff.
There’s a funny story about that. When I first met with Mike Mignola, I’d made copious questions to ask him, all with color-coded text to refer back to the individual comic books. I’d assumed Mike had "Done A Tolkien" and created his own language for the comic book: all this "Obdith Sancti, Yug Jahood" stuff. So, I spent a lot of time reverse-engineering the language, trying to be clever about it. This one phrase "Anung un Rama" popped out a couple of times. And, in context, it felt like Hellboy’s true, demonic name. As one of the key plot points, I’d decided early on that Rasputin would have an arcane hold over Hellboy by using this, as it’s traditional in demonology. So, I smugly asked Mike if this was Hellboy’s name, as I was gonna use it. And Mike looked at me like I was nuts, and basically told me that none of the language meant anything, and he made it all up in the shower! So, we had a laugh about that, I used the phrase, and – which is the cool thing, that I feel pretty good about – Mike then went back into the later comic books and then specifically employed it as that himself. So I’m kinda jazzed that I helped give Hellboy his name. Hellboy’s nickname in the movie, too: "Red." That was my little Howard Hawks homage.
I made all these timelines from the comic book, and bios of all the major characters. Mike asked if he could have those… I don’t think he’d maintained a timeline, at that point. Dunno if they were ever useful to him later on!
DVDTalk:What were your working relationships with del Toro and the studio like? Were you allowed much input?
Briggs: I had no working relationship with Guillermo del Toro whatsoever. The first time I met him was at the premiere. I had a meeting with Mike Richardson of Dark Horse and Lloyd Levin to discuss the script I’d written, early ‘98. Richardson, bless him, pounded the table with his fist and said that he didn’t want to change a word of it. Levin was more pragmatic: he was concerned that the action sequences I’d written – and there were many more that weren’t in the finished film – were prohibitively elaborate and expensive.
I was told by Levin I’d be meeting very soon with del Toro to work on the next draft. Never happened. I was kept completely in the dark. I stayed in L.A. on my own coin all through ’98 to make myself available, and called the studio every week, and kept getting the same evasive answers. When it was announced in the trades in mid ’98 that Guillermo was officially onboard, there was no mention of my involvement. Lloyd apologized; said it was an oversight. I called Mike Mignola sometime around August, and he told me he’d just spent several days with del Toro. Finally, in December ’98, I was told that my services were "postponed", which I thought was fairly odd terminology. That was it.
DVDTalk: Are you pleased with the finished product?
Briggs: For me, it’s very schizophrenic to watch, because it’s most definitely a fusion of two different sets of ideas: mine, and del Toro’s. But that’s the nature of movie-making. I can understand now why many directors can’t watch their own films until years afterwards. I liked it, and I’m proud to have contributed to a movie that people seem to have enjoyed.
DVDTalk: Are there any scenes in particular that you didn’t write but liked?
Briggs: Everything with Abe I thought was great. Abe’s my favorite character in the movie, and all of that was down to del Toro. He wrote Abe far, far cooler than I did. His Broom scenes were more interesting than mine. Broom was less of a major character and more of a plot device as I had him; he was essentially bedridden in the hospital. I loved the scene with the kid on the rooftop… that was Guillermo’s. I was surprised he managed to pull the cemetery Corpse off so well… that was one thing I left out of my draft because my feeling was that it was too out there. Although I hate the font used for the Corpse’s theatrical subtitles!
Guillermo’s future Apocalypse vision was great, too. I almost smacked my forehead when I first read that. It was so obvious a scene that should have been in there, and it just never occurred to me to show it! I imagine it’s based off the Mignola "Right Hand Of Doom" short story. I take my hat off to Guillermo for creating that.
DVDTalk: Is there any one scene you wrote that you wished had made the final cut?
Briggs: There’s many, many scenes I wish had been in it. At the beginning of the movie, I had a scene with Rasputin traveling to the island on a Nazi flying wing, and using his occult powers to fry the crew of a British Lancaster Bomber that inadvertently sights them. That's one. The fight with the medusa-creature Hecate from the comic books, I had that in it.
DVDTalk: The movie has now been released in a theatrical cut and a longer "Director’s Cut". Is any of the new footage from your draft, or is it all del Toro’s working?
Briggs: Nope. All his. But it was interesting we both had unused Rasputin "eye gags", as you see in the Director’s Cut. Although mine was an optical… when Rasputin employed his powers, I had his pupils divide into two.
DVDTalk: Do you prefer the theatrical cut or the Director’s Cut?
Briggs: Oh, give me an expanded cut of a movie any time! Besides which, the transfer seems to be improved.
DVDTalk: Now that there are two DVD sets available, and both of them have a fair amount of supplemental content, do you know of any interesting material that didn’t make either DVD?
Briggs: Well, I was originally contacted to do a commentary track on the first DVD, but for some reason – I have no idea why, because I made myself very available – the production deadline passed and it was recorded without me.
When the Director’s Cut disc came up, Javier Soto – the DVD producer – got in touch, and brought me in to Sony Studios in L.A. He videotaped an hour and a half of interview in one of the screening rooms there, where I talked in-depth about the material. My artist friend John Kelly did a slew of storyboards for me that Javier was going to use to illustrate all the various scenes that weren’t filmed. Javier was going to put together a mini-doc for Disc 3. Again, Sony bizarrely elected not to use it. So, the only mention of me on that entire, enormous three disc set is by Jeffrey Tambor in the end credits of the actors’ commentary on Disc 3, and a still of the continuity script’s cover on Disc 2!
DVDTalk: Peter, in addition to your woes on Hellboy, you are (in)famous in some circles for having written a highly publicized script for a certain major science fiction franchise picture that got stuck in development turnaround for years, before finally going into production in a radically rewritten form without any credit to you.
Briggs: You mean "Mortal Kombat 3: Monsters On Ice"? What did they call that again? Oh, yeah: Alien vs. Predator.
DVDTalk: Do you feel "burned" by the studio system?
Briggs: I think anyone who wants to be in the business has to become inured to being "burned", as a matter of routine from the very beginning. You start off being seduced onto a project, when everyone tells you they love you, and then when the studio "business affairs" department starts negotiating with your agents, they begin cutting the legs out from underneath you and nickel-and-diming. So, when you get to actually commence writing, you’re feeling considerably less enthusiastic about the project. You need to develop a hide like a rhino, and let it all roll off.
DVDTalk: Are you in least bit bitter about either of these experiences?
Briggs: Life’s too short to be bitter. I have some issues about Hellboy that are all past history now. For "The Other One", I’m more irritated than bitter. There was the real possibility of making something very cool, and it turned out… not really cool at all. I’ve been through this before on Judge Dredd and Freddy vs. Jason. Time’s a great healer.
DVDTalk: Will there be a Hellboy 2, and if so will you be involved?
Briggs: There will, but I haven't been asked. Honestly, I didn't expect I would be. Which is a shame, as I utterly love Hellboy, and I feel what I did was even more faithful to Mike Mignola's creation than Guillermo del Toro achieved.
DVDTalk: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
Briggs: I’m juggling a couple of rewrites that may happen for Paramount and Warner. But, the first immediate thing will be a CG kids’ movie that got a lot of interest from all the majors a few months ago. I’m doing that, again with my friend John Kelly, based on one of he and his wife Cathy’s published kids’ storybooks. The deal’s just finalizing with a pretty well-known production company right now, so that’ll hopefully be announced in the trades within a few weeks.
Aside from that, consuming most of my time now is a period monster movie that’s been close to my heart for about 7 years. It’s somewhat in the vein of Brotherhood of the Wolf… in fact, when that movie came out, I had to change a number of plot-points, because Christophe Gans had beat me to the punch. That’ll likely be a co-production between Stillking in Prague and Studio Eight in Britain. I’m finishing up the new draft now, and – fingers crossed – should be directing it next year. So the only person I can blame for screwing that one up will be me!