This past week I started listening to Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s podcasts after Max recommended that I do so, and one of the first ones that I downloaded was the one with Christopher McQuarrie (all of their podcasts are interviews/Q&A’s with screenwriters). I very much enjoyed The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie so I was already excited to hear him talk, but I was still surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. His thoughts on the industry were very insightful and his anecdotes about the productions he has worked on were great. I thought that I’d write up his entire talk about writing The Usual Suspects because of how… chaotic the process was and because it’s just really interesting. I’ll probably end up transcribing more things from the podcast for later posts too.
Christopher McQuarrie: And I also didn’t know what I was doing. I really did not understand the beginning, middle, and end of the process the way that I do now, which is actually– I sort of long for and regret ever having learned anything about screenwriting because I was so blissfully unaware when I was writing that script that I was doing everything wrong, and that I was violating every rule, which later I was told I had done and immediately claimed I was a genius. I just had no idea that you weren’t allowed to use flashbacks, and I didn’t know that the narrator couldn’t lie, and so everything that I did was simply… I came up with an ending and I needed a beginning.
Q: Was that the first thing that hit you?
Yeah I was working in a law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
Q: How old were you?
I was… 23, 24. I was working the copy room, all day, just making legal documents. Thousands and thousands of pages of legal documents and just staring at a copy machine. I recommend to all of you to go out and get a giant xerox machine and just stare at it for hours a day, it’s very productive. So I had nothing to do except think about this stuff. When we were at Sundance for Public Access, I was in line to see the movie with a very good friend of mine, Dylan Cussman. And Dylan always seems to be around when the best bad ideas come up. He asked what the next movie was going to be and I said, “You know, I was reading this magazine and I had this idea, the title of the article was “The Usual Suspects”. I thought this would be a real cool name for a movie. And he asked, “Well what’s it about?” “I assume the usual suspects, the guys who are always arrested for committing whatever crime.” And we were standing in the lobby of one of the theaters at Sundance where the film posters are designed by the filmmakers instead of the marketing people and so we designed the poster for the Usual Suspects. Came up with the tagline, we were very proud of the tagline, it was “All you people can go to Hell.” And we told Bryan [Singer] about it, “it’s a great idea, these five guys, they’re in a line-up,” and Bryan was like “Yeah, okay”. Forgot all about it.
[Bryan then goes to Tokyo and meets with the people who financed Public Access, who like the film so much that they want another one. Bryan then asks McQuarrie if he's interested in writing a script based on that line-up film he told him about. McQuarrie says yes and Bryan tells him that he has a week to come up with a pitch. I'm leaving it out because there's no real discussion of writing.]
So for three days I stared at a copy machine, not getting any ideas and feeling this enormous sense of tension and the sense of obligation that Bryan manages to embue with everyone associated with him. And on the third day, I was sitting in a break room at the law firm, and the break room is this little sort of cinder block cube with a table and two chairs and nothing else in it. And I kept thinking how much it looked like an interrogation room so I thought, “I’m going to have a mock interrogation with myself and see what I come up with.” So I started interrogating myself and I was the cop and then I was the guy answering the questions. And the guy answering the questions didn’t really want to answer the questions but he couldn’t help talking, so he would end up talking about anything but the answers to the questions. So the cop started referring to him as Verbal. And I needed a name for the cop and the office manager of the law firm was named Dave Kunyon so the cop became Dave Kunyon. And I needed a last name for Verbal so I looked up at the NO SMOKING sign and was like “No smoking beyond this point and I picked out KING and I was like, Verbal King, that’s too strong of a name, dropped the g and I added a T and Verbal Kint, so Verbal Kint is talking to Dave Kunyon… and I ran out of ideas. I just completely, it went nowhere from there. I had written down a bunch of names on a piece of paper, people I knew, lawyers at the law firm. There was one lawyer at the lawfirm named Keyser Sume and I said, “You got a really cool name, you’re going to be the villain in a movie some day,” and he said, “Yeah, okay kid,” and six months later I was calling him to ask permission to use his name in the movie. And so I’m sitting in this break room, I have no ideas, and I look up at this bulletin board and there’s nothing on this board and I looked down at the name plate and it said QUARTET Skokie, Illinois, and Verbal Kint said, “You know I was in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois” and he starts telling this story about Kip Discon which is a riff on a name of a person I went to school with who I didn’t like and he starts telling this very offensive story. And I said this is the worse, this is going nowhere and then it suddenly occurred to me and I saw the whole end of the movie.
So Bryan came home and he said, okay, pitch me The Usual Suspects, and I said “I have no idea what happens in the movie, but this is the end of the movie.” And I pitched the end of the movie including the description of the office. I said that it’s very important that the office be very cluttered and messy with a lot of crap everywhere. The one difference from the pitch and the finished movie was that in the pitch Kunyon was looking for Keyser Soze in the beginning of the movie. And Bryan said, “That’s great, I want a draft in two weeks.” So I sat down to write The Usual Suspects in two weeks. And in those days I tried to write ten pages a day, but nowadays I literally try to move the cursor to the right of the page.
So I was staring at the screen and I knew how the movie ended, but I didn’t know how it started. I didn’t know where all this crap began. So I started looking in my computer, and back in those days I’d get an idea and I’d actually write it down. And I had written a scene that became the opening scene of The Usual Suspects. Two guys on a boat, one guy’s laying there dying, the other guy asks, “Are you ready?” and I thought, I know what time I was born, I wonder what time I’m going to die, so the guy asks, “What time is it?” And the scene was five pages long and I thought, well, that’s a half days work. And that was the beginning of The Usual Suspects and I was too lazy to change it. So now I had the beginning and I had the end, but I didn’t know what happened in between these two points on the circuit. So I just started writing to get from point A to point B and I knew instinctively, not from any sort of book I had read, I just knew that I should probably have three action scenes. One at the end and two to sort of break up what I learned later were act breaks. So I figured out what these action scenes were and I wrote to those action scenes, I wrote to get to the next waypoint. I had worked in my time at a detective agency as a bodyguard for jewelers who would travel all around the country and go to hotels and make appraisals and buy shit and carried a lot of cash and I thought, I know how to rob these guys. So I wrote the scene where I kill the guys I used to work for. And the one thing I didn’t know was what happened on the boat. I had no idea where the movie was going, the 27 dead guys, the $91 million, I don’t even know how I came to $91 million dollars, I think it was some amount of money that someone won in a divorce settlement. And I didn’t know what the MacGuffin of the movie was, I just knew that, it was 1994 and it couldn’t be cocaine. If it was cocaine then you had to have Mel Gibson or Schwarzenegger to justify all of those kilos of cocaine. It was so tired and used up, I just didn’t want to do it.
So I ended up going to San Diego; somebody I worked with needed a ride to San Diego and I offered and he said, “Why?” and I said, “It’ll help me think.” So I drove him to San Diego and I was on my way back and I saw those signs about immigrants crossing the highway and for some reason that triggered the idea of human trafficking and I got this idea; they’re not there to buy drugs, they’re there to buy a person. And that was the first time, as I was thirty pages away from finishing, that the notion of what the whole movie was about occurred to me. And I went home and finished the script that night. And I handed it Bryan and said, “We have a problem. If we ask the question who is Keyser Soze on page one, the audience will figure this movie out by page ten. Kunyon can’t be looking for Keyser Soze, we have to come up with another question.” And Bryan said, “Figure it out.” So I sat and sort of agonized over what the question was and I realized, well in the first scene of the movie we see Keaton get killed. What if I spent the rest of the movie saying that that’s not really what you saw? And that Kunyon is chasing after Keaton thinking that he was still alive, and that’s what you think the movie is going to be about. And Bryan and I engineered everything from that moment on based on the belief that the audience knew everything that we were doing.And the way that I compare The Usual Suspects to most of the movies that you see — The Usual Suspects is presented to you as saying “I hope I can fool you” as opposed to most movies which are presented to you saying “I hope you are a fool.”