The story behind Escape from Alcatraz, as told by the film’s screenwriter, Richard Tuggle.
The making of Don Siegel’s 1979 classic Escape from Alcatraz was an incredible feat in itself. Featured here is an edited version of an interview SF writer Bruce Marshall conducted with Richard Tuggle in 2009, originally featured in Cinema Retro magazine.
. . .
“If you disobey the rules of society they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of the prison the send you to us… Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket and I was especially selected to make sure the stink from the basket does not escape…. No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz.And no one ever will.”
. . .
“I may have found a way out of here.”
—Frank Lee Morris
(Clint Eastwood), prisoner
. . .
BRUCE R. MARSHALL: Escape from Alcatraz was your first script. How did you go about writing and selling it?
RICHARD TUGGLE: I was living in San Francisco in the mid-seventies. Tourists are much more fascinated by the city than the locals, so a local said, “Do you want to go take the Alcatraz tour?” I was completely fascinated by the prison. The tour guide took us through the cells and told the story of how Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers made dummy heads, dug out of their cells, scaled the walls, made it down to the shore, and disappeared into the bay, never to be seen again. I thought it was the single most amazing story I ever heard because if you look at this prison and the cell block it seemed impossible.
I forgot about it because I wasn’t in the movie biz and I didn’t know what to do with it. Three years later I was fired from my job editing a health magazine. I thought, “Well, I’m not working, maybe I can try something different. Why don’t I try writing that story as a movie?” I went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and found a book that had a lot of good information about Alcatraz called Escape from Alcatraz by a local writer, J. Campbell Bruce. The book said he lived in Oakland so I drove over there and made a deal with him. It didn’t involve any money, I didn’t have any, and I gave him a percentage of the profits if I ever sold it. He told me to contact the publisher to see if the film rights were clear. The publisher told me the book was out of print and it would be too much bother for them to deal with the legal issues, plus they doubted I would ever sell it. So they just gave me the rights for nothing! Not being a screenwriter, I thought, now what do I do? I went down to the Mission District in San Francisco and found a book on screenwriting. I had never seen one before. There were not a lot of them back then.
BRM: Not like now, where there are tons of them!
RT: Then I started research. First I went to the FBI and they showed me some files. It turned out they shouldn’t have because it was an open case and they were still chasing these guys. The Bureau of Prisons was also a valuable source for information. With the records I obtained from these two government agencies combined with the Campbell book I was able to piece together what actually happened. It was such a fascinating case because no one really knew what happened in the end. The prisoners just disappeared. Then I started to watch as many prison-escape movies as I could. A Man Escaped made a big impression on me. Breakout, a lousy Charles Bronson prison-escape film, gave me hope ’cause I knew I could do much better than that! [laughs] So I sat down in my Telegraph Hill apartment and started typing. My window faced Alcatraz and at night the lighthouse beam would shine right into my bedroom so I had a real connection, a mystical feeling, toward the prison. I wrote it up in six months and moved to Los Angeles.
BRM: Did you have an agent?
RT: I knocked on doors but no one wants to take on a new guy. Since I didn’t have an agent, I specifically sought out Don Siegel, who had directed Dirty Harry and knew San Francisco. He had already directed the prison movie Riot in Cell Block Eleven so I knew he was interested in Alcatraz. On a whim I called his agent, told him about my script, and asked if his client might be interested in filming it. Don asked to read it, he liked it, he in turn gave the script to Clint Eastwood, with whom he had made four films, and Eastwood also liked it. In a flash, I had sold the script, and within five months they were shooting on Alcatraz Island.
BRM: How much of the shooting was done on location? I assume the interiors were studio sets.
RT: The prison was pretty much decaying at the time. Paramount put in something like a million dollars to fix it up back like it was. So the refurbished prison now had cell doors that opened and closed, the dining room was what it was, the hole Eastwood was thrown in.… They did create a couple of cells on the Paramount lot because to shoot in a small space like a prison cell, you need removable walls. But everything else—the dining room, the yard, the warden’s office—is the real thing!
BRM: The book Escape from Alcatraz is a work that tells the entire history of the prison. Only a small portion is devoted to the escape. How did you go about dramatizing a nonfiction book?
RT: I took the stuff from the book concerning the escape and I added stories from the entire thirty-year history of the prison and condensed it into the one year in which the story takes place. The bit where the inmate chops off his fingers comes from an actual incident that happened in the ’30s. I also created new characters. There were no Black characters in the book, and I wanted a Black inmate because I wanted it to be authentic. That’s why I didn’t like [pauses]…what was the name of that movie?
BRM: The Shawshank Redemption.
RT: Don’t get me started! [laughs] Right. The Black and white prisoners in that era, in that prison, would have hated each other. I wanted a Black prisoner and I wanted some racial tension because that’s the way it was.
I’ll tell you a fascinating story about dialogue just to show you how hard writing is.
There is a scene where Charlie Butts asks Morris his birthday and Morris tells him he doesn’t know the date. Butts then says, “Gee, what kind of childhood did you have?!” Morris answers—
RT: I originally wrote stuff like “my father beat me…we never had food…my mother left me….” The worst things I could imagine a childhood having. Two months go by and it felt kind of phony and wordy and I just wasn’t happy with it. So then I put in “long,” meaning it was a long childhood—it was painful, it never ended. For some reason I will never understand I eventually came up with “short.” Dialogue comes in a process of flowing out very slowly.
BRM: That is probably the most memorable dialogue in the film. It was so succinct and so perfect for Clint. Was he even on the film at the time?
RT: People always ask if a writer writes with an actor in mind. You never do that because you never know if that actor is going to be interested. What you do is your best work on the script, and actors who like that kind of script will be drawn to it. Eastwood is the kind of guy who can look at “short” and say, “That’s my kind of script.” If you gave that to Al Pacino or someone who likes to talk a lot, they probably wouldn’t like it.
BRM: I was originally going to title this article “The Cell Door and the Chrysanthemum,” because, let’s face it, it’s an existential film, filled with symbolism and mythic elements.
RT: It’s a very moody film.
BRM: That’s what makes it such a classic. Had you just done a straightforward retelling of the escape, it would have been a suspenseful, exciting thriller. But the chrysanthemum, the painting, the city of San Francisco tantalizingly out of reach…it’s really a film about freedom, isn’t it?
RT: Well, yeah. The problem is, in real life the warden might have been a good guy and the prisoners bad guys. In a movie you have to root for them to accomplish something, so you have to make the prison and the warden the obstacle and the enemy. Alcatraz is a character, a big character. You root for these guys to conquer it. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest.
BRM: The warden is a fictional character—
RT: [interrupting] That was done to avoid being sued by the real guy!
BRM: But certainly you intended all along for him to be an archetypal character who represents evil, the dark.
RT: That’s why he has a bird cage.
BRM: I love McGoohan’s line readings in the opening scene. All those aphorisms: “We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners,” etc. Were those invented or taken from real life?
RT: I was trying to steal from every movie I could. In The Great Escape, when Richard Attenborough is brought to the prison camp, the commandant says the “rotten eggs” line. I just took that and expanded it.
BRM: One impressive aspect of the screenplay is how you seamlessly slip the exposition in without it flashing in your face. For instance, from his opening interrogation with the warden, we find out that Morris has escaped from many prisons, has no friends or family, and is highly intelligent. That’s all we ever learn about him and it’s all we need. Likewise, during the scene on the courtyard steps, English fills us in on all the obstacles there are to escape.
RT: Whenever I wrote the exposition, I found it didn’t work. One advantage I had was that because Morris was new to the prison, you could have people like English and the Anglin brothers tell him about the place. If Morris had been there awhile you couldn’t do it.
BRM: Were there any scenes you wrote that were cut from the film?
RT: I had done so much research about Alcatraz that the script had come out too long, over two hours. So some scenes were never shot. One I regret losing took place over Christmas. I learned that during the holiday they played carols over the loudspeaker and handed out candy to the inmates. Morris is in his cell alone, “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night” is playing in the background, and he’s as sad and low as you can get. He has a gumball and as he opens the wrapper it falls on the floor and rolls out under the cell bar. He reaches under and by inches fails to reach it. It was heartbreaking and would have added some texture to the film, but it’s a thriller and it slowed down the momentum. It’s a balancing act.
BRM: I have always found the farewell scene between English and Morris surprisingly touching. English delivers some magazines to Frank’s cell, they engage in small talk, then English says, “See you later” and starts to push the cart away. Morris calls out “Goodbye,” English stops, turns around, and sees Morris extending his hand out the cell in a handshake gesture. There is a twinkle in his eye. English has an inscrutable expression. In your mind, what was he feeling?
RT: English felt sad. He was stuck behind for the rest of his life.
BRM: Or maybe he feared that his friend would die in the attempt. When the dummy head is discovered and the guard sounds the alarm, there is a brief shot of English standing at the front of his cell with a knowing smile on his face. How did you come up with the ending?
RT: One of the biggest puzzles I had was we didn’t know what happened to these guys, which made the ending sort of a letdown. I wanted an interesting ending, not a letdown. I couldn’t say they made it to Angel Island ’cause I didn’t know that. I couldn’t say they drowned because I didn’t know that either. What a downer that would have been after all the work they did to get off the island! What I needed was something they might have left behind that shows that they might have made it. It couldn’t be something like the warden’s tie clasp because then it would be obvious it was left there just to goad him. So I thought, “Shit! What am I going to do? What can I come up with that is symbolic?”
The answer came unexpectedly from a neighbor of mine in North Beach who mentioned that flowers grow on Alcatraz. At first, I didn’t see how that helped me. How was I going to get a flower into this movie?
Then, the Doc character came about as a painter and I had the impulse to use him and put it into his painting as a symbol of freedom. Before he chops his fingers off, he slips the chrysanthemum into Morris’s pants. When the Warden later sees him with the flower in the mess hall, he confiscates it and crumples it to the floor. This way I was able to make the link so when the warden sees the chrysanthemum on Angel Island, he knows Morris left it there. He just won’t admit it.
BRM: That ending is so poetic, so haunting. Some biographers of Clint have claimed that Siegel was unhappy with that ending. They claim he had originally closed the film with a shot of the dummy head of Morris after the escape was detected, but Eastwood, on his own, added the epilogue.
RT: There is some truth to that. Ferris Webster, the film editor, and Don did a first cut of the movie and made a temporary decision to end it on the mask, which was an upbeat ending.
BRM: Especially with that smirking grin! [The real-life mask was expressionless.]
RT: Don had to leave to shoot Rough Cut in England. Clint saw that version and was upset and said he wanted the ending that was in the screenplay and that was filmed. Clint called Don in England and Don said to go ahead and put it back in. Don later admitted it was the right decision. He was busy, had to take off for London, and hadn’t really thought it through. If he was upset, it was because he knew Clint was right.
[The dummy shot was eventually used as backdrop for the memorable end credits scroll.] ♦
In June 2012, the National Park Service held a public event at Alcatraz commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the famous escape. Richard Tuggle was among the invited guests. Afterward, Tuggle reflected to Alcatraz historian Michael Esslinger, “I’m still proud of the film after so many decades. I think we captured the real essence of what took place on Alcatraz during those years. More than half a century later, people are still rooting for those men who paddled off under a moonlit sky and into the unknown.”
Bruce R. Marshall is a local writer, naturalist, activist, and historian. He has published or contributed to articles on the environment and the arts in San Francisco Book Review, SF Observer, SF Chronicle, SF Progress, Film Score Monthly, and Cinema Retro. He lives in San Francisco.
Joy Li is an illustrator based in Oakville, Ontario. Most of her illustration work is for editorial and advertising clients. She draws inspiration (pun intended) from everyday life.