Peter Briggs is up to his ears in supernatural ooze. He’s currently working on Mortis Rex, which tells the story of a disgraced Roman war hero who comes face to face with an otherworldly beast. Last week we learned that the Hellboy co-writer is gearing up for Panzer 88, a character-driven, supernatural thriller–this one set inside a German King Tiger fleeing Russia during World War II. The soldiers also happen to be fleeing a centuries-old, malevolent creature that has other plans for them.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Briggs, who divulged further details on Panzer 88′s story and talked about his directorial vision and influences. He also shared two storyboard drawings which you can check out below.
Are you looking forward to making the transition from writing to directing?
I’ve been looking forward to this for 20 years! Seriously, I never particularly intended or wanted to be a writer; I’ll still keep my hand in for pay, though, because although I kvetch about it, I do enjoy crafting a world from the ground-up. But from now on I hope most of what I write, I’ll be directing. I love telling stories, but in order to get to direct, I needed to approach that goal from a different direction. I started as a cameraman years back, and I’ve a pretty sharp eye for composition and lighting, but I was never seriously good enough technically to make a “gifted” career of it, and then hence a jump to directing from that. As Dirty Harry said, “a man’s gotta know his limitations.”
So it became necessary to change career paths. I’d been writing scripts for myself for some years, and when I realized I needed to change tack, to my surprise I got an agent very quickly. I think everyone knows the story of how I wrote and sold the Alien vs Predator script that never got made, but became a bit of a cause-celebre. After that, I got stuck in a rut writing studio pictures, which usually got mangled, and which I often never got credited on. It’s a pretty demoralizing process.
So, two years ago, I decided again to backtrack, and re-approach my goal via independent movie making. And in both cases, I’ve now got two independent movies, both of which were set-up in less than 48 hours, and both of which have two of Hollywood’s most respected producers — Jim Jacks and Gary Kurtz — involved! It’s pretty bizarre.
Who have been some of your biggest influences?
Ridley Scott, first and foremost. Alien, Duellists: if you know what the visual tone of those two movies looks like, that’s hopefully what you’re going to get with Panzer 88.
I always imagined that you could make the comparison with Panzer 88 to Michael Mann’s movie The Keep, but I went back and watched it again a few weeks ago after a couple of years of not seeing it. I was a little disappointed by how clinical it was.
But aside from Ridley? Out of the current crop of guys…I’d like to think the four I’d be sharing a treehouse and decoder rings with, would be Duncan Jones, Paul Thomas Anderson, Neil Blomkamp, and Christopher Nolan. What we’re trying for on Panzer is even more ambitious than what Duncan did on his budget for Moon, which was fantastic. While I love CG, I firmly believe there’s a place for convincing large-scale miniatures. I love Nolan’s eccentricity, and his willingness to go out on a limb with something like The Prestige that’s not homogenized studio pap; and he shares that same expansive visual style that Anderson had on There Will Be Blood, which was breathtaking. And Neil did with genre on District 9 what I try to do: grab elements that are familiar, and puree them into a whole new tasty treat.
I’d love to know more details on Panzer 88′s story, particularly how you’re going to make German soldiers fleeing Russia, where they did horrible things, sympathetic?
Okay. Interesting. Well, our plot takes great pains to make the distinction between “Germans” and “Nazis”. I think British and European audiences are more attuned to that dichotomy, whereas American movies tend to treat Nazis as comic-book villains…or what I call the “Hogan’s Heroes Syndrome.” It’s important to remember that it was a political party that came to power in Germany, and turned around a downtrodden country that was still being punished for the First World War, into a brilliantly-engineered machine. Almost every facet of their society was reinvented into creating a “Reich”. When I tell people about the Auto-Union, headed by Audi; or that the Nazi uniforms were designed by Hugo Boss, peoples’ jaws drop. Germany could have become Rome during its glory years, but instead got subverted into something brutal and twisted, by twisted and brutal leaders.
You made an interesting point about what the Germans did to the Russians. When I was doing research into Panzer, there were some fairly graphic things about what the Russians also did in retaliation to the Germans, especially when they advanced into Germany itself. I guess the bottom line is that war is a terrible thing, and that capacity for human depravity should never be underestimated.
Anyway. The tank in our story — a King Tiger, the biggest badass on the battlefield — is called “Ilsa”. That was my little nod in-joke back to Hellboy. And the story is set in October 1944, when “Ilsa” is limping back in retreat through Russian territory with the rest of the German forces. We get thrown immediately into the fray with the characters: the very first frame they’re in, they’re already in a tank battle that goes from a forest, to an ice plain.
I’d gone back and looked at the extended television version of Das Boot (Wolfgang Peterson’s World War 2 submarine drama), and even there the characters were a little too teutonically “Stiff Upper Lip”. Likewise, I went back to Kevin Reynolds’ movie The Beast, which was about a Russian tank-crew in Afghanistan. And, in that one, again the characters are pretty much bland two-dimensional stereotypes. In Panzer 88, I wanted you to like these guys, more in a Band Of Brothers kind of way. That’s still my favorite telly show to-date. I was deeply sad when the last episode ended, because I loved those characters…I’m really looking forward to the upcoming Pacific sequel. Of course, we don’t have the luxury of stretching our story out over long, long hours like they did, but I think we’ve got some guys you’re going to empathize with. Regardless of their country of origin, these are hopefully five relatable human beings.
There’s a great moment in the 1976 movie The Eagle Has Landed, in which Michael Caine plays the leader of a bunch of disgraced German soldiers. And Donald Sutherland comes to visit them, and Caine’s sidekick mistakes him for Gestapo, and pours a drink over him in disgust. And that attitude was what I wanted to inform the attitudes of Germans in the regular Wehrmacht military, to the S.S. we depict in Panzer 88.
So, in Panzer 88 you meet these five guys, “Ilsa’s” crew, who have bonded, and they’re the best in the brigade. Their tank barrel is full of black and white “kill rings”, each one representing a tank they’ve taken out. But, there’s the new kid who has replaced their radio operator, and he’s still feeling his way. And when they pick up an S.S. guy along the route who has been…involved in something…he creates the cracks and divisions within that team.
The S.S. character in the original draft written by Aaron (Mason) and Jim (Cowan) was a little more traditional, and I took pains to blur the lines a little. When Gary (Kurtz) came back with his notes, we changed his character again. But, make no mistake about it…he’s the bad guy of the piece.
I think the European setting/time period you chose is a rich backdrop for a horror film. Are you going for something more dark and atmospheric, or more gory and in your face?
I was asked that question by another website. And the answer is, a lot of the former, with a bit of the latter. But it’s not about “atmosphere” or “gore”. In addition to those facets, there are two pretty exciting tank battles, and several adrenalin-rush creature setpieces that might be straight out of Jurassic Park. I think we’ve got our bases covered in this one. It’s like smushing both Alien and Aliens together.
Will you be exploring some of the Nazi occultism mystique in the film?
Nope. That’s not this story. Our creature isn’t created by Nazi super science. Although there is a mention of a “Special Order” from Berlin, but it’s ambiguous what it is. This isn’t Raiders, and it isn’t Hellboy. There IS occult mystique in the movie…but its source is something different.
Can you reveal a little bit more about what is after the soldiers? Will it be more creature driven or be more of a paranormal/ghostly figure?
Ha! Very, very canny question! Again, without giving away too much, I’m going to say: both. But each are exclusive of one another. The thing that is out to get our boys in the movie is very physical, and very real. And it has its own internal logic, which you see in the opening prologue of the movie, which takes place a couple of hundred years before 1944. You understand what the logic of the creature is…you can’t really fault it for what it wants. It’s almost honor-bound.
There seems to be a recent influx of Nazi horror flicks (4th Reich, Final Solution and a possible Dead Snow sequel). Any thoughts on this?
Two volcano movies, two asteroid movies? Synchronicity. I’m not at all worried. The more the merrier…I know we’re the best on the block. Hey, the producer of Star Wars is backing it. We have impeccable credentials in Gary Kurtz.
We have German hardware in this movie that’s never been seen in a mainstream film, let alone an indie. We have a pair of tank battles that have never been seen in this way, even in a studio movie. I have the visual effects company that destroyed the world in 2012: they’re my cannons that are going to blow you away.
There’s going to be some beautiful visuals in Panzer 88. I carry around my Moleskine notebook and sit in cafes and sketch frames for the production. I’m a frustrated artist: I wish I were better than I am. I envy Ridley’s ability to storyboard a frame in seconds. I haven’t even started to scratch the surface of some our most elaborate sequences. Even though I’m a semi-okay scribbler, there’s one setpiece I don’t even want to try tackling myself, because it’s just too visually dense. I’ll leave that one for the concept guys.
We’re all working hard to try and show you things in this piece you’ve never seen before…I was a cameraman first, and a picture paints a thousand words, and I think some directors get lazy when they make a movie and never strive for something more. Worried about the competition? Nope. The only thing that rings bells for me coming up is Captain America. Joe Johnston designed Star Wars and has dealt with Nazis in Rocketeer. I’m very concerned that he may inadvertently replicate things we’re using in Panzer 88. And they’ve a lot more budget than we have. You may have seen some Panzer 88 production artwork we have by Stuart Jennett depicting the “Gustav”, one of a pair of monster artillery cannons that the Krupp Munitions Works fabricated in WW2. It’s the biggest gun ever built, and it plays an important part in our story. Beyond that, I’d rather keep some surprises about what’s in store. You’re going to giggle like a loon when you find out.
How is Mortis Rex coming along?
It’s coming. Every day, there are developments. That movie is very, very ambitious. Larger in scope than Panzer, so even though we announced that first, it’s taking correspondingly longer. There are a lot more variables than Panzer that have to be put into play. Again, the only thing that concerns me on that one is the upcoming Ron Howard H.P. Lovecraft biopic. Our creature in Mortis Rex, which I designed with Paul Mendoza, who is also my creature guy on Panzer, isn’t like any Lovecraftian creation you’ve ever seen onscreen before. It’s seriously weird, leagues beyond Hellboy. And, yes. It has tentacles. Amongst other things! That’s going to be a complex shoot.
Images: Peter Briggs