Enjoy, read, and learn: “The Usual Suspects” original screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie [pdf]. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
You’ve said The Usual Suspects was the eighth script you had written. What did you learn from writing the first seven?
It was actually the fifth. Only one of the others got made and the other three are all projects I have abandoned or outgrown, though one of them I worked on for years and lifted scenes from for Way of the Gun—the torture scene and the card game. I would say I learned more from that script than any of the others because I never gave up on it. I can read the different drafts and see how much my writing changes over the years, how I come at the same story over and over as a different person every time. But I learn from everything I write. In fact, I learned more about writing by directing Way of the Gun than in all the writing I did previously. The most important thing I learned was this: everything can always happen much sooner, much faster, and with much less said about it.
INTERVIEWED BY DAVID KONOW
Creative Screenwriting, VOLUME 7, #5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2000)
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.
“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)
For five bucks I recently bought The Usual Suspects DVD. You can buy the book of the screenplay on Amazon for another five bucks. Considering the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays list placed The Usual Suspects at #35 there are worse ways to spend ten dollars. (Or to save money see if your local library has the movie and track down an online version of the script.) Both the movie and the screenplay are a worthwhile investment of your time.
It doesn’t appear that The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie set out to be an Academy Award winning screenwriter—or even a screenwriter— and perhaps that’s his secret. According to Wikipedia, after high school he spent time hitchhiking around Australia and also worked there as an assistant teacher at a boarding school. He returned to the United States where he worked for a detective agency for four years. He was in the process of joining the New York Police Department when high school classmate Bryan Singer called with an opportunity to write Public Access.
Public Access won the 1993 Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Two years later the $400,000. film The Usual Suspectswas released and would go on to win McQuarrie an Academy Award. Since then he’s done rewrites on various Hollywood films including X-Men, wrote Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise, and wrote and directed The Way of the Gun starring Benicio del Toro. More recently he is writing or has written Wolverine 2 and a retelling of the Jack and the Beanstock fairy tale in a script called Jack the Giant Killer (which will be directed bySinger).
For independent film fans who don’t understand how McQuarrie went from Sundance and The Usual Suspects to working on Hollywood blockbusters, a German war film and then a fairy tale— maybe this will help;
“(Winning an Oscar) doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies. I found that rather than sacrificing the story, I was sacrificing something else. At every meeting I was taking less money and less back end, and giving up casting, just so I could have control of the story. And they said no. For a long time I resented those people, and saw them as fearful and ignorant, but in reality, all they’re doing is trying to reduce risk. It was the same thing I was doing: they’re trying to protect money and I’m trying to protect the story. The place that I’ve come to after all of this is, there are stories I want to make that will have to remain in a budget under $25 million, depending on what actors I can cast. And then there are those stories that the studios want to make, and that’s how you make your living. Is that selling out? Well, you’ve got to eat.”
Interview with Cynthia Fuchs
At some point McQuarrie decided to move to Seattle (where I believe he still resides) and is on the Advisory Board of The Film School. An interesting sidenote is McQuarrie not only went to high school with director Bryan Singer, but also actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke.
Sometimes it’s fun to make connections like this; In 2002, I was in Berlin for a couple days doing a shoot which happened to be the same year McQuarrie was on a tour in Berlin when he stumbled upon the idea of doing what became Valkyrie. Of course, the connection doesn’t mean anything, but it keeps the synapses firing. And creativity is all out connections. (Where Do Ideas Come From? A+B=C)
At some point before his screenwriting breakthrough McQuarrie also worked as a bodyguard for a jewelry dealer in downtown LA. That info not only provided him with a key event in The Usual Suspects, but is also where he saw a bulletin board that was made in Skokie, Illinois which provided McQuarrie with the impetus for the entire film. (Don’t Quit Your Day Job)
And for what it’s worth, Skokie is no stranger to Hollywood. The Chicago suburb over the years has provided shooting locations to many memorable films, including Blue Brothers, Risky Business, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone 3, and Sixteen Candles.
From a terrific new series on the Austin PBS TV station KLRU, here is a roundtable discussion about suspense writing with screenwriters Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (The Big Easy) and Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs).
Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects, Casino, A Few Good Men) sits down with screen writer Chris McQuarrie for an intimate one on one interview.