Christopher McQuarrie Gets Verbal On The Usual Suspects

usual suspects 3

Below is  a brilliant in depth interview with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie on his break out Sundance success, The Usual Suspects. If you still haven’t seen it, spoilers abound!

Christopher McQuarrie was born in 1968 in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, where he attended high school with director Bryan Singer. He spent his first year out of school working abroad at a boarding school in West Australia before returning to the US to work at a detective agency in New Jersey for the next four years.

In 1991, he was approached by Singer to co-write the screenplay for their first feature film, Public Access, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. In the ensuing year, McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, which premiered at the 1995 Sundance festival, and was also featured in the “Un certain regard” section of the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. McQuarrie lives in Los Angeles, and is currently at work on several projects.

The version of The Usual Suspects published here is McQuarrie’s final draft, completed in the Fall of 1993.

Lippy : How did you get into screenwriting in the first place?

McQuarrie : Bryan Singer [Director of The Usual Suspects, and director co-screenwriter of Public Access] and I knew each other from the time we were very little; our parents were friends. I had been in one of his 8mm films. I always kind of know him, but we’ never really be close. It was after he graduated from high school – he was two years ahead of me – that we really become friends. He was talking with another friend about making an anthology film and turned it into a screenplay, really changing it around. That was my first lesson at the age of sixteen, of just what happens to a writer. This was a story that I had worked pretty hard on. I remember I was driving with Bryan and we were on an off-ramp on Route I, getting onto the highway. I was sitting in the car and I had the story in my lap. We had a big argument about it, and I took the entire story and threw it out the window – the only copy of it that existed, handwritten. It had been made into a script, it had evolved. I realized right then and there that once you write it, somebody else makes it and you have to be ready for those changes to take place. So from very early on I knew I could trust Bryan to make the film that he was going to make. I couldn’t expect him to make the film that I was going to make because I don’t know what kind of film I would make if I were a director. And I do not particularly worried about becoming one.

Lippy : How did you two end up collaborating on Public Access?

McQuarrie : Well, after high school I went to Australia and worked at a boarding school for nine months. I was fired. Then I hitchhiked for three months, came home, knocked around for about a month and then immediately started working for this detective agency, where I ended up staying for four years.

Lippy : What did you do for the detective agency?

McQuarrie : Well, the “Detective agency” was actually a glorified security-guard position. I think in the four years I worked there I did about six investigations, during one of which I wrecked my car. It sounds great, though: Yeah, I worked in a detective agency. The biggest thing we did was security for this movie theater in Sawyerville, New Jersey: The amboy Multiplex. This was a roughtheater. When New Jack city came out, Sayerville was one of four cities – along with Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York – where rioting occurred. There were constant fights, people trying to kill each other. So on one hand, I got to play cop, and on the other, I got to watch audiences. I learned to watch movies from the audience’s point of view. We were always trying to gauge which movie would have the biggest opening weekend, so that we could prepare for it securitywise. A few times we were completely wrong, like when Tougher than Leather came out. We thought it was going to be another New Jack city, and it died. But then Exorcist 3 came out and the place exploded – fights breaking out everywhere.

Anyway, after four years of that I decided it was time to move to California and try screenwriting – Bryan was already living there. And then I was offered my own agency in Florida. I was twentytwo years old, and was being given this opportunity to run my own business. So I called Bryan and he said, “Listen, I’d love to have you out here but there’s nothing going on; you should probably go to Florida.” So I told them I would do it. I bought a new car, I bought all these clothes and then, out of nowhere, it fell through. I was left in the lurch. I had this car, I had to pay bills, I couldn’t just come out to California to knock around. So I applied for the New York Police Department. I took the test with my friend J. B. and we both passed. As we were gearing up to do that, Bryan called. He had made a short film called Lion’s Den, with Ethan Hawke – it was basically a film about a group of us from school – and we tried to make a feature-length film out of it. The script was horrible. My parts of it were written by hand. So Bryan called me and said that these people had seen Lion’s Den and really liked it and had asked to see another script. And he made up a three-second pitch off the top of his head, which evolved into Public Access. It would be about a bunch of college students who start a public-access cable show in a small town, and while doing so they uncover some dirty politics in the town: a shock thriller. He asked me if I wanted to write it. And I said, sure. He said, “Okay, I need it in fifteen days.” So I bought this shitty little Panasonic word processor – I didn’t know how to type – and I wrote a draft in fifteen days. At the beginning, we had tried to write a film that would be sellable, that somebody would pick up. Bryan then got Michael Dougan involved in the writing, and he came in and took this basically glorified episode of Murder She Wrote and really darkened it up. I took a look at his rewrite and was like, ‘Oh, you mean I can be dark with it…’ So it became more and more surreal and removed and bizarre. Bryan and I realized finally one afternoon that this was the one time in our lives we would have the chance to do whatever we wanted to do without being held responsible. We just went bananas. Public Access was a series of very well-placed disasters. In so many different ways, that film shouldn’t have, couldn’t have, wouldn’t have ever gotten made, finished and into Sundance where it won the Grand Jury Prize and got us the recognition that then made Suspects at least more a viable commodity.

Lippy : Theme wise, they’re very different films. Public Access is much more of a cultural critique and is more cynical in that regard. Do you see similarities between the two?

McQuarrie : Well, in both films, the bad guy gets away. Also the ‘bad guy’ is not necessarily evil, just messed up – in the case of Wiley Pritcher in Public Access, he’s had Americana poured into him through an very strange filter. I remember that we were very angry when we wrote Public Access – I was becoming more and more politically aware, and it didn’t hurt that Bush was in office. The film reflects that; there’s a lot of anger in that movie.

Lippy : So tell me how The Usual Suspects came to be written.

McQuarrie : Well, it kind of came together in bits and pieces. I had been at Sundance in ’93 and I was standing in line with my friend Dylan Kussmann at the theater, waiting to go into Public Access. He asked me what next project was going to be, and I said that I had just recently seen a column in Spy magazine called ‘The Usual Suspects’, and I thought that would be a neat title for a movie. He wanted to know what the movie would be about and I said, ”Well it’s called The Usual Suspects, so I guess it’s about a bunch of criminals who meet in a police lineup.’ And then we stood and designed a poster for it. I said ‘Okay, in this poster you got five guys standing in a lineup and they’re all sort of conveying their attitudes: one guy is like, “I don’t want to be here”, and the other guy’s like, “All of you can go to hell…”‘ and Dylan interrupts me and says, ‘That’s the tag line.’ So we decided the poster’s copy would be ‘The Usual Suspects: All Of You Can Go to Hell.’ And we thought it was great and mentioned it to Bryan and then completely forgot about it.

About a month later, Bryan was in Tokyo with Public Access at the Tokyo Sundance Festival. He called to say that the people he’d been talking to who had expressed interest in working with us wanted to spend something in the neighborhood of three million dollars – could I write a film for that? I thought about it, and said, ‘Yeah, I guess,’ and he said, ‘Well, what about that “Usual Suspects” thing you were telling me about? Can You do that?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, why not? At least we’ve got a poster.’ He said he’d be home in a week and he wanted me to pitch it to him then. I had no idea what I was going to write. I was working in a law firm in downtown LA, and I was smoking at the time. I went into the break room one afternoon to have a cigarette and was sort of doodling on a piece of paper – coming up with names for characters, really racking my brain. Right in the middle of sitting in this dingy white room with a table and two chairs, I realized it looked kind of like an interrogation room. I was just running through dialogue, trying to find something that caught, and I came up with this character who was being interrogated, who was babbling – he had diarrhea of the mouth. As I was doing this, I looked up, and there was a bulletin board just to come up with stuff. And I started calling this guy in my head ‘Verbal’ because he was talking so much. The name of the office manager of the law firm was Dave Kujan, and I decided to throw his name in as Verbal’s interrogator; I figured I’d think up another name later. I noticed the bulletin board was made by a company called Quartet in Skokie, Illinois, and I started to spin a little tale about being in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois.

And then the idea hit me that this is what the guy, Verbal, is going to do in the film. A few days later, I was introduced by my boss at the time to a lawyer at the firm, and she said, ‘This is Keyser Sume.’ The first thing I said to him was, ‘You have a really cool name. You’re going to be the villain in a film some day.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, okay, great.’ He was a very nice guy, very unassuming – much like Verbal in that he didn’t really fit the name. From that point on, I began to pull names from other attorneys at the firm for the characters: there was a Fred Fenster, a Jeff Rabin. One of the guys I worked with was named Oscar, so he became Oscar Whitehead. The story really came together much in the way Verbal made it up. I just was pulling ideas from my environment.

Lippy : Did you have your pitch for Bryan a week later?

McQuarrie : The pitch I had for him was this: There’s a guy being interrogated by another guy who is looking for a criminal. He’s sitting in a big messy office with lots of crap in it. And there’s this bulletin board on the wall. At the end of the film, when the guy who’s doing the interrogating finally turns around and looks at the bulletin board after the other guy has left, he realizes that not only is this guy the guy he’s been looking for, but he’s made up his entire story from the board. And Bryan said, ‘That’s great, go with that.’ And we just began hammering it out that way.

Lippy : This was late 1993?

McQuarrie : This was the Spring of ’93, right after the Sundance. As the story started to develop, we had to get the permission to use all of the names. It was very funny – I was at the production office and I had a conference call with Keyser Sume and Dave Kujan, and we’re all talking and Keyser said – he was very polite about it – ‘I’m sure you guys are going to be very successful, and I’m sure your film’s going to be great, but I’d like to read the script and see how the name is presented so it won’t prevent me from getting clients.’ I said, ‘He’s not really a character; he’s kind of a myth’ – I’m trying so hard to soft-sell this – and he goes, ‘Well, send me the script.’ I was really confident when I hung up that we’d get his permission. We’d fallen in love with the name. Anyway, I opened the script to the page where he kills his entire family. And I closed it and said, ‘Bryan, we’ve got to change the name.’ I never even sent him the script. We were all joking, imaging if the film were successful: this poor guy would walk into court one day and it would be like saying, ‘Presenting the case for the defense is Darth Vader.’ So then we had to figure out what we would change the name to.

Lippy : How did you come up with Soze as the surname?

McQuarrie : We knew we wanted to keep some part of the name – either Keyser or Sume. We were more partial to Keyser, obviously because of its double meaning. We were coming up with alternate names of the Devil. There are thousands of them, but Bryan hated all of them. My room-mate at the time was this sort of bizarre little collector of strange things and he happened to have an English-to-Turkish dictionary. We went into the book and I asked him to look ‘devil’, ‘evil’, ‘fire’, ‘slippery’ – every single metaphor we could came up with – and finally I just said, ‘Look up “verbal”‘. And it was Soze.

Lippy : Are there any precedents for the character of Verbal/Keyser? He’s got to be one of the most evil characters in cinema.

McQuarrie : In the first place, I don’t think he’s evil. I’m not a big believer in evil in the conventional sense. I believe that he’s a bad guy, an unsavory character, but my feeling is that he had no choice but to do what he did, given the life that he had assumed. Given his upbringing, his personal code, he really believed that the only way to protect his family was to kill them. Death was a more honourable way out. His children and his wife had already been ruined, scarred for life. Previous to that event, I could see Keyser regarding his life as sort of idyllic. That while he was probably a drug dealer, or some kind of really filthy criminal, he came home at night to his beautiful wife and children and that elevated and legitimized him, sort of exonerated him from what he did. And then once that had been tampered with…

Lippy : It’s the flip side of the Batman legend.

McQuarrie : Well the biggest inspiration for the character of Keyser was a guy named John List. In the late ’50s, early ’60s, he was living in a very nice house in a very nice part of New Jersey. One day someone found his entire family – three children, his wife and his mother-in-law, I believe – murdered and rolled up into carpets and stacked in the living room. He vanished for seventeen years; just disappeared. And finally, America’s Most Wanted did a piece on him, and shortly thereafter he was caught. Amazingly, he had the same job, and had done nothing to change his appearance. He had gotten remarried and had been this upstanding citizen. He was quiet, kept to himself and had never killed again. And I don’t believe ever would. A friend of mine asked me, ‘Why do you think he did that?’ So I kind of thought about it for a while. On the program, they talked about his life in New Jersey and how he was, I believe, an accountant who made a lot of money but lived way beyond his means. His wife had champagne tastes, and they had this big house and these cars, and the kids were going to great private schools. When they investigated him after the murders, they realized he had gone bankrupt. So my guess was that he didn’t want his family to experience poverty. They were all going to be broke, they were going to be ruined. I think that in some twisted way, he really felt like he was saving his family a lot of misery by killing them. And when they finally prosecuted him, that was his defense: that he was being merciful to his family.

So that really sort of stuck in my craw. I had the idea for a character who murders his own family long before this script ever existed. He’s put in a situation where someone’s going to kill his family, so he does it instead. And it’s a lot quicker and a lot less painful. And of course, with Keyser, it destroys him. His family was all he had, and now he is this utterly ruthless shell of a man. I really believe that you’re not born that ruthless and that evil and that cunning and that cold; you’re made that way. And I think that an incident like that could make him that way. It’s not that he hates anybody in particular – he’s mad at life, life really screwed him. Ultimately, like every other character in the script, he really brought it on himself. He’s gotten mixed up in a bad business. And everybody in the script, I think – whether they indicate it or not – understands from the beginning that this is the business they’ve chosen. They don’t blame Keyser for killing them, that’s just the way it works.

Lippy : I’d like to talk about the structure of the script a bit, especially the constant shifting between past and present. This could have been handled in so many different ways: for instance, it could have simply be a two-character play.

McQuarrie : The impetus for the structure was that, I sat down to write the script, I had a story but I had no idea where to start. I really didn’t know how to approach it. I also set a limit for myself – ten pages a day – and I wasted a lot of the first day trying to come up with something and I needed pages. Other writers whom I’ve spoken with work in hours, four hours a day, eight hours a day. I’ll work ten pages a day. If it takes me three minutes to cut ten pages out of another script and stick it in, that’s a day’s work. If it takes me fourteen hours to write twenty pages and cut it down to ten, then I’ll do it that way. Anyway, I needed my pages that day and I had really just slacked. I was working on this crappy computer at the time, and I was digging through all these old files when I found a scene that I’d probably written a year before; it ultimately became the opening scene of the film. I’d set up these elements in a scene where a guy comes over and says, ‘Are you ready?’ and the other guy says, ‘What time is it?’ and then BANG, he’s dead. It was about five pages long. I said to myself, ‘Great, I’m five pages into this script.’ And that really set the tone for the structure. The only change I made in the scene was lowering the camera angle, so you couldn’t see the gunman. And now it became an investigation into who this guy was.

And then I decided to incorporate flashbacks. I remember going to a meeting, and the guy I was speaking with said, ‘You used flashbacks in your script ? that’s so bold.’ I never went to film school; nobody ever told me I couldn’t do that. I just did it because I started with this scene and, since it took place at the end of the story, I would have to use flashbacks. When they’re used to manipulate the story, I think they’re fine. When they’re used to salvage the story, you have a problem. There’s a ton of information to digest in this script – you’re never once given a break – and using flashbacks seemed like the best way to get it across.

Early on, I realized that the problem with this kind of film is, when you ask a question in the first act of the film the audience will immediately begin working on the answer; audiences are incredibly sophisticated in that way, whether they know it or not – they’re very aware of formulas. For instance, Bryan and I were watching a film called Malice, with Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman. One of the reasons I think it didn’t work is that there’s a scene in which a girl who’s later going to be a victim of this unknown rapist – the red herring of the film – is talking to Bill Pullman in his office at a university. As she turns around to leave, he bumps into this janitor. You see him in the frame for about three seconds; he just looks like an extra in a scene. The problem is, the janitor is played by the albino actor from The Firm. He’s also in the opening scene of In the Line of Fire, as the counterfeiter. You see this guy in this bit part and you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s the rapist, and now an hour of my life has been wasted.’ Audiences are not stupid: they’re going to think, ‘Why is that actor whom I’ve seen playing the villain in other movies playing an extra’s part? He’s going to figure in at some point.’

So one of the things that I didn’t want to do was to ask the question directly: I needed another question. And that’s where the whole thing about Keaton being dead or alive came in.

usual suspects 6

Lippy : Using the villain as the narrator was another good way of throwing the audience off track.

McQuarrie : I don’t know how calculated that was; the narration seemed necessary because there was so much dialogue. Verbal’s narration began to just bleed over into scenes so we wouldn’t have to sit there and watch him talk so much. It really was a thing where I wanted the audience to sincerely believe him, and an audience almost always believes the narrator.

Lippy : One of the greatest conceits of the film is how it presents the perfect metaphor for creating a story. In the end the character of Verbal is doing exactly what you did in devising the fiction. Speaking of casting the least likely actor in the red herring role, I understand that you wrote the part of Verbal with Kevin Spacey in mind.

McQuarrie : Kevin had seen Public Access and he said he was very interested in working with us. I had actually written parts for him in other scripts. So when he expressed interest, I thought, ‘All right, now how do I hold him to that? How do I make a character interesting enough for a Tony Award-winning actor to want to play him?’

Again, audiences are very smart. If you’d put the biggest actor in the movie in the role of Verbal, the audience would be thinking, ‘When is Dustin Hoffman going to stop limping?’ Kevin, who is a very gifted actor, was not the guy you would expect to suddenly be the villain, especially at that stage in his career. We live in an age where villains’ parts are handed to Jeremy Irons and Alan Rickman. We wanted to take that away from the audience. We wanted to make sure that they thought that Verbal was just a narrator.

Lippy : When you were writing this, how did you establish a rhythm of cutting between past and present, interrogation and action?

McQuarrie : It was very intuitive. Like I said, I never went to film school so I never learned how to sell a script, and I think that’s one of the strengths of this screenplay. A scene would go on for a while and I’d think, ‘I’ve said everything I want to say and now it’s boring, get out of it.’ I wanted to avoid the Saturday Night Live syndrome, where you have a concept – a funny joke – that takes thirty seconds to execute. If you make a four-minute sketch out of it, it’s not funny anymore. When a scene started to get boring, I would back up two lines and cut out of it. And you’ve always got the interrogation, which is the skeleton of the whole thing, with two characters, neither of whom is an idiot, creating constant conflict.

usual suspects 7

When it becomes a little too saturated or a little too boring or a little too where-the-hell-is-this-conflict-going? You cut back to the story of these five cool guys who are also each involved in a different sort of conflict. And then you bring in the lawyer and you’re just slowly unlayering things so that in every scene, whenever we go back to the suspects, we’re off in another direction. Those are the kinds of movies that I like.

Lippy : Speaking of movies you like, you mentioned The Taking of Pelham 123, the 1974 film about the hijacking of a subway train, as being an influence.


McQuarrie : That movie was very successful, but nobody’s ever heard of it. If you’re just laying around the house on Sunday afternoons, you know if you turn on the TV it will be the featured movie.

Lippy : Did you draw anything from the hijacker character played by Robert Shaw for Verbal/Keyser? They are both amoral characters with very strong wills. I think of the last scene, in particular, where Shaw’s character, rather than facing trial, calmly places his foot on the third rail, electrocuting himself.

McQuarrie : Yeah. The concept of death not being a concern to these characters. These are guys who understand fully that they’ll get knocked off. It’s the way they get knocked off that they won’t accept. Pelham, to me, is the original Die Hard. What I love is that the movie focuses on a very smart cop and a very smart criminal: who ? going to win? You want them both to win. There’s a part of us that wants to see the bad guy get away, that wants to see this guy outsmart authority, and beat the system. That to me is when a movie is really good: when no one is an idiot. Early on in the development of the Suspects script someone asked me why Kujan was chasing this guy Keaton. What does he care? Did Keaton kill his partner? No, he’s just passionate about his job. You don’t have to be Vincent Van Gogh to be passionate about what you do.

That’s a big element in films nowadays: Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t just be doing the right thing, they had to kill his partner or kidnap his daughter. So many movies use revenge as motivation for characters. But I think that, unless you’re analyzing the mind-set itself, it’s a bad motivation. I think it’s much more fascinating when a guy like Keyser is saying, ‘My ass is in a sling. Here’s a guy that can finger me. I gotta get rid of this guy. But I’m determined to do it without coming out, without stepping into the open.’

There is an element of calculation. But still, some things are beyond his control – the sketch, for example. I didn’t want to go so far as to make him superhuman. I had to be careful.

Lippy : Let’s talk about this film relationship to these other crime films. While fitting very comfortably into the genre, it also tends to amplify some of its standard elements. For instance, the whole male-bonding thing is really pushed to the limits here, resulting in a very homoerotic moments.

McQuarrie : It’s very homoerotic in the script.

Lippy : Was this something you were deliberately trying to push the envelope on?

McQuarrie : I have a lot of gay friends and so there’s a lot of gay humour floating around; there’s always just a lot of that sort of imagery going on in our conversations. A lot of subconscious. One of the few things from the script that didn’t make it into the film was part of the scene that takes place after they’ve hit New York’s Finest taxi Service. As is written, they’re all drinking beers. McManus says, ‘My boy with the plan!’ to Verbal, and they all start pouring their beers on him. The white foam from the beer is pouring all over Verbal – they’re just foaming all over him – he’s been accepted by these men.

usual suspects 10

Anyway a lot of this stuff became apparent afterwards. Hockney, for instance, is one of the more homoerotic characters in the story. When we were redubbing Verbal’s voiceover introducing his character – ‘Todd Hockney, without a doubt the one guy who didn’t give a fuck about anybody’ – we thought about having Kevin Spacey say instead, ‘Todd Hockney, without a doubt a closet homosexual’, because, when you watch the film through that prism, he’s such a flamer. Everything is just ‘cocksucker, cocksucker’. The thing about ‘I’ll fuck your father in the shower.’ ‘I live in Queens.’ It just went on and on and on.

Lippy : Another common trait of this type of film is the frequency of scatological references. But again, here it’s almost a litany.

McQuarrie : Well, you know, a lot of the dialogue comes from the guys I worked with as a security guard. One in particular really had a knack for these little colloquialism; he always had an interesting slang term for everything. I wanted to put them all in there. Bryan really toned a lot of the language down in the film because it got out of hand. The script I wrote immediately after this one had, I think, two profanities in the whole script, and very little killing. It’s the world I’m writing about – just because the characters speak a certain way doesn’t mean that I do. These are guys who are just a bunch of disgusting, seedy people who talk a disgusting, seedy way. In the next script we’re working on, the characters are aristocrats, and they don’t talk that way.

It seemed that if one characters talks that way, he becomes the foul-mouthed comic-relief guy. If they all talk that way, it’s different. These characters have to bond somewhere, and although they’re all very different, with different conflicts, at their core, they’re all the same: they’re just guys. And when guys get together, whether it’s to pull off a heist or just to play a game of poker, it always get ugly, and it always come down to the guy’s sexuality. And it always comes down to that orifice.

Lippy : Let’s talk about your writing style. I was intrigued by the fact that, in your directions, you introduced characters in a very terse manner, similar to something you would read on a police blotter: name, age, brief physical description. Was that conscious, or do you always write scripts that way?

McQuarrie : To me it’s always important to keep it simple. I have a great deal of difficulty keeping track of characters and locations. My thing is to concentrate on the name, make the name interesting, and give an age if it comes in handy. In terms of giving a description, unless it’s a character like Verbal, where the description is extraordinarily important, don’t even bother with it. Also, I really don’t believe in taking a moment out to speak to the reader. I’ve read scripts where the paragraph stops to describe a woman and at the end it’s like, ‘In a word, “va-va-va-voom”.’ If it’s a serious scene, you’ve ruined that scene. You’ve suddenly moved away from the narrative and taken a very bad opportunity to make a very bad joke. It’s very arduous reading a script: it’s stale, it’s boring, it’s dull. The best scripts in the world clunk along. My desire is to make those paragraphs a little more interesting to read, especially when studio readers have to read them.

Lippy : I know you have an extremely close working relationship with Bryan Singer. On Public Access, he shared a screenwriting credit with you. To what extent was he involved here?

McQuarrie : It was always a thing that was written for Bryan to direct. Basically, the way we work is, an idea will come up, whether it’s my idea or Bryan’s idea, and I’ll just go off and write it out. We always start with an ending, so we always know where the story is going; knowing. However, never to stay married to it. I’ve stayed married to endings before and it’s been disastrous. You’ve got to let the story take its own course. So I will go off and write, then I’ll bring it back to Bryan and he’ll read it and say, ‘Change this, like this’ – he’ll put his taste into it. Then I’ll go back and I’ll write it again. As I’m writing, I’ll come up with changes and I’ll run those changes past Bryan. The best way I can describe our writing relationship is, he’s directing the film from the moment it hits the drawing board. We also have our core group of people whose options we trust: there’s Ken Kokin [co-producer of Suspects], and John Ottman, the editor and composer. Bryan and I always say that the film is written in three times – once on paper, once on film and once on the flatbed. John, however blasphemous this sounds, has a better sense of comprehension than any of us. He’s the only guy who can get away with telling me what I’m thinking. So anyway, we have these friends we turn to for input, but it always comes back to Bryan and me sitting down to hash it out.

Lippy : The version of the script we’re publishing here was your final draft. Is it what you sent out to potential financiers?

McQuarrie : Yeah, we sent this version to everybody. The first people we went to were the financers of Public Access. They were Japanese, and were very into that film, and very hands-off during production. So we brought them this script, which was much less difficult, and they didn’t want anything to do with it. To this day, I don’t know what it was. Actually, a lot of people didn’t know what to do with it. They would get the script and then dawdle for the longest time. Their instinct was to say no, I think. After the film had been made, a woman in development at 20th Century-Fox asked me why I hadn’t brought them the script. And I said, ‘Well, there’s no hero or villain until the last page. There’s no sex, and the woman dies. The hero dies. The villain gets away and there’s very little action and a lot of talking. And it’s completely black.’ And she said, ‘All right, from a development standpoint I can see how we never would have bought it.’

So anyway, there was a producer, Robert Jones, who saw Public Access at Sundance, and he approached Ken, who walked him through Bryan. I was in the process of writing the script, and Bryan told him the title and he was very interested. When he saw the script, he loved it, and he pushed to get everything done. Ultimately what happened was that Polygram and Spelling International agreed to pick up the tab for the film. And the budget of three million that we’d shot for came in at about seven. Bryan actually brought it in almost a million under budget.

Lippy : And that’s when you started casting?

McQuarrie : Yeah. That was the hardest part of the film, the big nightmare. Spacey was the first person to read the script, and he committed almost immediately and was very patient through this whole process for getting the film financed. I think the script was done in August or September of ’93, and the film wasn’t up and going until June ’94. We didn’t close a deal until December of ’93. Spacey was very patient – it’s my understanding that he turned down a lot of work. All the actors were called upon to be extraordinarily patient, to the point where they all committed with no guarantee of money. They all showed a great deal of faith and a great deal of loyalty. A lot of them worked for very little money. One actor worked for less money than a grip, I think.

Anyway, the casting became an issue because we were now financed directly by distributors, so we were dealing with that kind of mentality: these actors have domestic value, these actors have foreign value, we want one of these. They were giving us lists of names – ‘If you can, get at least one actor off this list. ‘ I mean, we were making offers to Tommy Lee Jones on the weekend he won his Oscar. And all this time we had this group of actors already assembled who believed in what we were doing. It became a matter of knocking heads for a very long time.

Lippy : So you were very involved in casting.

McQuarrie : Yeah. Naturally, Bryan made the final decisions, but when it came to casting certain roles, he didn’t know names. So what I did was more or less weed out the people we didn’t want, and come up with other people he hasn’t familiar with. Francine Maisler, the casting director, and I worked very closely together. She was fantastic, the greatest. We were right in line with the exception of, I think, two characters – she didn’t agree with one of mine and I didn’t agree with one of hers. We both got our way. She got the actor she wanted, I got the actor I wanted. They know who they are. Once we began casting, we quickly came up with the actors that would be perfect. Chazz Palminteri, for instance, we went to first, and he didn’t think he’d be able to do it. He had too many conflicts and too many things going on. Kujan became an incredibly difficult part to cast. Then Chazz’s schedule opened up for two weeks and he was in.

Lippy : Were you on the set at all during production?

McQuarrie : Bryan and I have an agreement: At 7 a.m. on the first day of shooting, it’s not my script anymore. I trust Bryan; I wouldn’t know how to direct a film. Of course, there were days when I came to the set and saw things going on, like that scene in the garage where Hockney and McManus sort of flirt around with each other, and I thought it was a lot of posturing, a lot of bullshit. I didn’t say anything, I just left. And then I saw the scene cut together and I was like, ‘Oh, Okay. ‘

Lippy : Let’s talk a bit about some of the differences between this final draft of yours and the finished film. In the screenplay, the first time we’re introduced to Verbal, it’s in the form of a voiceover. In the film, he’s shown delivering the same dialogue on the stand, under a very hot, white light.

usual suspects 9

McQuarrie : We went back and forth on that. What that did was help to bridge another scene that’s missing in the film: his deposition, when the two lawyers are arguing over his sentence off-screen and he’s reacting to them. It gives us a sense that he’s told this story to someone. His statement is floating around Rabin’s office; everyone’s talking about it. What statement? Where did he make this? And with one succinct image, you reference it.

Lippy : Why was that other scene, where he’s basically reacting to the two lawyers off-screen, cut? Too much information?

McQuarrie : The script timed too long. It ran, I think, 2:12. My thing was, just make them talk faster. Turn into Mamet (no aspersions on David Mamet, I think he’s a god).After I finished the script, I was really exhausted – we had gone through a lot of rewrites and preparation – so I took a vacation. I was in a hotel in New Jersey and Bryan called and said, ‘We’ve got to cut it. ‘ And I thought the script was tight, as tight as we were ever going to make it. I’ve since learned that it can always be tighter. What ended up happening was that we had to cut out the part of Captain Leo. This was probably the saddest moment for me, because we were going to cast an actor friend of mine as Rabin, and Dan Hedaya was going to play Captain Leo. But because a lot of the cuts had to happen in the beginning, I ended up amalgamating the two characters. Instead of having those whole scenes where Kujan’s talking with Leo, sort of explaining and carefully setting up the film, it ended up being one page of Kujan and Rabin running down the hallway into the office to meet Verbal. While it seems like a scary thing to cut out an entire character, it ultimately served the film, because it established, without ever having to show a ticking clock or anything, that these people didn’t have a lot of time. There was no leisure time, no sitting around the office, no witty banter with the Captain.

Lippy : Also, Leo serves a pretty traditional role in this version: he’s always presenting these obstacles Kujan is going to have to get over to get to the next stage of the interrogation.

McQuarrie : He’s the bullshit angry police guy. He was very standard. Leo, to me, represented the line between the authority that was protecting Verbal and the cops who were trying to do their job. I tried to make him smart enough so that he didn’t seem like a foil, but there were smarter characters still. In a way, I’m glad the character was cut; he was the most cliche part of the script.

Lippy : What about the establishing scene at the restaurant with Edie Finneran and Dean Keaton? You get a real sense from that about their relationship and its relationship to his past.

McQuarrie : It’s all explained on the steps outside the police station. It’s all there, who he is, what’s she doing, what she’s done for him, how much she loves him. And that there is a duality to Keaton. When that scene in the restaurant stays in, Keaton becomes a contradictory character rather than a dual character. He becomes a character who’s like, ‘Ah, I love you’, and then in the next scene somebody punches him in the face and he’s suddenly looking at these five suspects and thinking about changing his life again. While I totally believe that everything that happened to Keaton that night was enough for him to say, ‘Enough of this shit’, I also felt that there needed to be more – in this case, less. There had to be a great duality to his character.

Lippy : There’s a great line in the screenplay that wasn’t in the film, where he says, ‘I swore I’d live above myself. ‘

McQuarrie : That is a line I miss, but I think in the way the scene works, it wasn’t the best solution. That is really one of my favourite moments in the film, certainly one of my favourite Gabriel Byrne moments. Keaton is so frustrated that this is happening again and Gabriel’s tone of voice says all of that when he says, ‘No killing?’and Verbal says, ‘Not if we do it my way.’ It’s a better line to end it on. I do love that original line, though. It’s actually something I said drunk at a bar one evening, so it has great personal meaning, but it doesn’t serve the scene, it kills the end of it. It’s the same old thing: You go to the punch line, back up two lines, and cut it there.

Lippy : The lineup scene, the back-to-back interrogation scenes, and the cell-block scene all have modified dialogue, and I got the sense this had to do with the actors’s personalities.

McQuarrie : That was Bryan’s instinct. Fenster switches a bunch of lines with McManus. Before we’d cast, McManus was the angry, hot-headed hotshot: again, much more of a standard character. When Steven Baldwin came into the picture, McManus became much cooler, just more of a steely guy. Also Fenster was a radically different character in the script. Here, he’s older than McManus, and I wanted that quirky dynamic: the young guy protecting the older one. Like a weird father-son twist to their relationship. When Benicio del Toro took the part – a performance he fashioned from basically nothing – things changed. So Bryan took the scene in the jail cell and fudged it around – cutting into it about a page later – so that the first line that McManus says in the scene is ‘I heard you were dead. ‘ One, it’s a heavy line that immediately focuses you on McManus. And it also drives that line home. It really makes us aware. It sets up the big red herring in the story, which is that Keaton was supposedly dead and now is alive again. A lot of the changes like that had to do with the casting.

Lippy : In the film, there are a couple of shots of planes landing to connect scenes taking place in different locations. One occurs when Kujan arrives in LA, and the other takes place when the five suspects go to LA to meet Redfoot. Neither of these was in the script; were they a function of trying to lessen the amount of expository information?

McQuarrie : Partly, but we also were having a lot of problems with people being confused by where the hell these guys were. The audience is so busy digesting big chunks of information that it tends to miss a lot of the little things. We had a group of people come in and watch an early cut of the film. And in that scene before they go to LA, McManus says he’s going to go to Los Angeles and see Redfoot. Then Keaton says something about LA being a good place to lay low for a while. Then Verbal’s voiceover is something about McManus’s fence in LA being called Redfoot. And people were like, ‘Wait. Where are they now?’ You say it three times in about a minute and people don’t get it because there’s so much going on. So we changed the voiceover a little bit and added the shot of the plane. We wanted to avoid title cards at all costs.

Lippy : That relates to another question I had, actually. In the script, your slug lines always indicate whether the scene is taking place in the present or the past. Were you confident that the temporal differences would be obvious enough in the film to avoid having to use dates in most cases?

McQuarrie : We ourselves had a hard time keeping track of what exactly the time frame was, over how many days the story had taken place, how time jumps around and gets so mixed up. We wanted audiences to know that this was happening present-tense, and that the film opens with that had just happened the day before. So the three places we used cards were at the beginning: ‘San Pedro, last night’, before the first scene in New York: ‘New York six weeks ago’, and when the film cuts to Giancarlo Esposito at the docks: ‘San Pedro, present day’. I mean, there was no distinct landmark in San Pedro to let people know where we were; there was no ‘San Pedro archway’ or anything in the background, and for things like that we really had to make it clear. Again, when you’re reading, you can go back and double check-everything. When you’re watching a film it’s different. If you forgot where you were, you’d forget when it was happening, and if you forgot when a particular scene was happening, the movie would just be a mess and the payoff wouldn’t work. We wanted to take people along for the ride.

usual suspects 10

Lippy : The film really takes risks regarding Verbal’s double identity when, in one of those early interrogation scenes, Verbal, fumbling, actually tries to light a cigarette. That definitely wasn’t in the script.

McQuarrie : That was added on set. Bryan really, really flirted with danger on a few things. He’s very mischievous that way. The thing with the lighter was saying, on the one hand, that it couldn’t have been him lighting the cigarette on the deck of the boat, but on the other hand, it was making such a show out of the cigarette that I was afraid the audience was going to get the clue. There’s another scene on the film where Verbal is sort of turned away from Kujan, and he smiles. He literally cracks a smile and lets on that he knows something. When I saw it the first time, I was like, ‘What is this?!’ Every time I watch the film, I’m convinced the audience has just gotten it. I can feel them all around me, getting it. Bryan does a few of those in the movie.

Lippy : The directions for Verbal in the script tend to put you off track more than the film. There is one scene in which he mentions Kobayashi, and in the script, you have him ‘blurting’ the name, then ‘looking around wildly’. In the film he delivers the line with a look of absolute premeditation, being almost flirtations about it.

McQuarrie : Well again the character changed and developed, and Kevin Spacey came in and began to give him life, he became smarter, and it doesn’t serve the film, as a film, that Verbal is dumb. In the script, Verbal’s presented as a Dummy. I didn’t want the reader to suspect for a second that Verbal knew anything. In the film he’s got something going on, and it’s okay that the audience knows that; it makes him more fascinating. In fact, you’re so busy trying to figure out what is he knows, you don’t stop to think about who he is. It was a very good instinct on Bryan’s and on Kevin’s part.

Lippy : There is an extended scene in the script in which Verbal comes to pitch the Taxi Service scam to Keaton and has words with Edie. She also makes a statement about how hard she’s worked to give Dean Keaton a second chance.

McQuarrie : In that scene in the film, Gabriel Byrne eradicates the need for all of that with a turn of his head. As he’s sitting down on the steps talking to Verbal, he looks off into the apartment somewhere and you know, immediately, what he’s looking at. That’s all you need, just a glance at his other life. We liked the idea that Edie was, as the story developed, less of a character and more of a representation of Keaton’s other life. In the film, there’s always glass, or some other barrier, between them. He’s up on that little walkway looking down on her, or she’s on the other side of the glass wall with Kobayashi. Edie represents the life that’s been taken away from him. It became less and less necessary to establish Edie as this character he loved. In robbing the audience of that emotion, we build on Keaton’s duality.

Lippy : As far as I can tell, there’s only one significant incidence of scenes being shifted. During the scene in which Kujan describes Keaton’s supposed death to Verbal in the script, there’s a quick cutaway to Leo and Rabin listening on the wiretap. The scene then resumes. In the film, the cutaway is replaced by a much longer hospital sequence – which occurs later in the script – before going back to the end of the scene. Was that just an editing choice?

McQuarrie : That was a very long scene that needed to be broken up, and that was a great way to do it. Chazz’s monologue just goes on and on and on; poor Chazz is given just about every word of exposition in this script. It just became a thing where there was so much talk in that little room, we had to get out for a while.

Lippy : The central scene of Soze killing his family: was that something that you had always envisioned as being slightly out of focus, slightly distorted, as it is in the film? Your directions don’t indicate it being treated any differently.

McQuarrie : Well, for one, I didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that I was necessarily trying to hide his identity, and two, I said to Bryan, ‘This is your problem. Shoot it however you want to.’ I give all the credit to Bryan in that respect. I wrote it as plainly and simply as I could, knowing that when it came time to shoot the film you would have to show a brutal, violent scene, bringing all that violence and potency to it without ever showing the character it’s happening to. I never knew how Bryan was going to do it, and I don’t envy him for having to figure out how.

Lippy : In that last scene on the boat, one of the major ‘characters’ in your script, is the crane which ends up crippling Keaton. What happened to it in the film? Was it a logistical problem?

McQuarrie : The entire sequence was written with a pier I had pictured in my head. On location, it became very different. It was a logistical nightmare to have that crane and the explosions and everything else we had going on. Also, we all agreed that it was a big telegraph to where the scene was going.

Lippy : About the final line in the film? It’s a repeat of an earlier comment of Verbal’s: ‘And just like that, he’s gone.’

McQuarrie : That was all editing. I think it’s fantastic. When we wrote the script, I hadn’t been thinking of the ’round up the usual suspects’ line from Casablanca, but as the film started to come together, Casablanca began to be more of an influence. Also, Dr Lecter was always being mentioned as a character similar to Keyser Soze. The endings of both The Silence of the Lambs and Casablanca utilized a crane shot with the people walking away. Intentional or not, I always saw it in my mind that way: Kujan standing in the middle of the street, lost in a mob of people, as the car is driving away behind him. And after having used the voice montage in those last few minutes, you had to end on the most powerful line. When I saw it I was blown away.

Lippy : Your script seems a lot more raw than the film. Here’s one passage from your directions in that final scene on the ship: ‘[McManus] screams like a lunatic, shooting everything in his path, killing some man with his bare hands, shooting others, stabbing still others with a knife he has brought along.’

McQuarrie : When I wrote the script, I was really figuring on a budget of three million dollars, assuming that Kevin Spacey would be the one guy we could get and that the rest of the cast would be made up of our friends. I saw it as being a bit brutal and a bit raw and exploitative. I was given free rein to do whatever I wanted and to have fun with it. Frankly, it’s not what I prefer to see in a movie, although there are times when it’s done right, when it’s fun. I was to make the read interesting, to just suck you into it. I couldn’t say, ‘This shot will be really cool.’ We didn’t have the visuals there so I had to describe action and the only thing going on at that point was the violence.

Lippy : How do you feel about the finished film?

McQuarrie : Bryan and I always joke that the only way we would ever really know whether this film is any good or not would be have our minds erased, then go in and sit down and see if it held up to our scrutiny. I don’t know if the movie would get me. I don’t know if I would fall for it or not.

This interview originally appeared in Scenario magazine, which also published the script.

Originally posted 2014-03-12 16:58:21. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article