"Alcatraz" production journal

Pitching Alcatraz

Alcatraz prison's eerie presence in the San Francisco Bay is a constant reminder that it once housed some of our nation's worst criminals. A few years ago I toured the prison and brought my camera along to shoot some video and photos.

If you've ever taken the Alcatraz tour you know how crowded it gets- and it's like that every day. The one chance I had to visit, it was sold-out up until the last ferry over to the island. Although there wasn't much time to finish the audio-guided tour, I was one of the last to leave which allowed me to get some nice empty wide-shots. Most of the time I was framing-out crowds of people because I wanted to capture the prison's desolate condition to give the viewer a sense of what it felt like inside those walls.

At the time I had just read Jim Quillen's memoir, "Alcatraz From Inside," and was so fascinated with his accounts as an inmate that I wanted to create my own video-adaptation to his book. Nothing had been produced to tell Quillen's life-story, so I edited together some of the footage I shot with sound-bites featured from the audio-tour.

I've always thought Quillen's book- along with Whitey Thompson's "Last Train To Alcatraz" and Jim Albright's "Last Guard Out" would make interesting dramas, perhaps even an entertaining miniseries altogether. Much like HBO's Band of Brothers and The Pacific were based on historical and personal accounts of those fighting within Easy Company during World War II, this series would focus on Alcatraz's history as a prison told through the perspectives of the inmates (Quillen, Thompson) and guards (Albright).

Even the way a series like Tremé captures the people and culture of New Orleans through certain characters, Alcatraz could tell the story of the the prison through the lives of those who inhabited the island- whether they were prisoners or family of the guards working there.

Throughout these accounts, the series would feature other major characters- some of the more infamous prisoners like Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman" Stroud, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis; place them within the backdrop of one of the toughest prisons of all-time, which was eventually shut down because of exceeding costs and amidst rumors of inhumane prisoner treatment (ironically, an issue that still exists in some prisons today).

Even more fascinating are the detailed accounts of Alcatraz's most notorious prison breaks.

The bloody Battle for Alcatraz which ended in military intervention after three inmates took over the prison; and the suspenseful escape where another three inmates left paper maché dummies in their beds to distract the guards while they climbed out from holes dug through their cell-walls and into the air-duct system, eventually out onto the roof.

The history-nerd side of me finds these memoirs and stories interesting, but the film-geek part of me also sees the entertainment value within them. None of this is to imply that past shows or movies based on the prison haven't been entertaining, but I just think Alcatraz could use an updated fresh-take, based more on the history and lives of those who inhabited the island.

Of course, a project like this would help to be produced by likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, or David Simon and Eric Overmyer, and released as a miniseries on HBO...but for now let's start with this video and get a feeling for how I think it could look.