There’s something about screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie‘s writing that brings out the best in director Bryan Singer as evidenced by the inarguable fact that The Usual Suspects and Valkryie are easily his finest films. They have a real efficiency to them, both on the page and on the screen. The cleaner the story, the more proficient Singer is behind the camera. (McQuarrie and Singer also collaborated on Jack the Giant Slayer, but let’s just forget about that misstep.)
In the next month they both have films coming out, neither of which they collaborated on. Singer returns to the comic book genre with X-Men: Days of Future Past, while McQuarrie worked on the script for Edge of Tomorrow, which, of course, you should all be excited for.
It’s been nearly 20 years since The Usual Suspects, and the film holds up incredibly well. What makes the film stand the test of time isn’t its famous twist, but its appealing group of skillful misfits. This is a great ensemble of characters: they’re all distinct, have their own moments to shine and are exceptionally good at their jobs. McQuarrie is a real pro when it comes to writing characters who operate at the top of their game.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Commentators: Bryan Singer (director) and Christopher McQuarrie (screenwriter)
1. Singer’s company, Badhat Harry, is named after a line in Jaws.
2. The film was inspired by the title on a magazine cover: “The Usual Suspects.” Before there was even a script written there was a poster, with the tagline, “All of you can go to hell.” Once Singer became interested he told his high school buddy, McQuarrie, to proceed with the script.
3. The opening scene was written a whole year before McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects. It was an idea for an opening he had been carrying around for a while.
4. The shot of Keyser Söze dropping the cigarette was filmed in Singer’s backyard.
5. McQuarrie has a vocal and stomach cameo, playing the officer interrogating the team.
6. McQuarrie was “adamantly against” the casting of Benicio Del Toro, because he envisioned a much older actor for Fenster. The character Del Toro ended up with was made out of thin air. Del Toro saw Fenster as a “black, Chinese, Puerto Ricon Jew.” McQuarrie was won over when he saw Del Toro on the set.
7. The shots of the ensemble in the lineup was pretty much how McQuarrie envisioned it.
8. The actors were told, “It’s okay if you can’t understand Benicio, because neither can we.”
9. Verbal Kent was written with Kevin Spacey in mind. To bring Kent to life, for the sake of realism, they glued Spacey’s fingers together.
10. Söze is turkish for Verbal, so the big twist probably doesn’t play too well in Turkey.
11. When the team was released from prison, just a few streets over Strange Days and Don Juan were shooting at the same time.
12. Singer was so confident in that master shot of Kint and Keaton chatting in Keaton’s elaborate apartment he didn’t feel the need to get any pickup shots.
13. The first job was written as a night scene, but Singer decided there needed to be more daytime in the film. That heist was shot in one day in Los Angeles, even though it’s set in New York.
14. McQuarrie wanted the cops to appear genuinely good at their jobs, since “defeating a dummy” takes away from character and isn’t as satisfying to watch.
15. Peter Greene has played a lot of baddies, but both McQuarrie and Singer joke that “the terrifying” Greene is actually a “sweetheart.” Originally his character, Redfoot, was written as more of an eccentric, wearing a black and red boot. When Greene came onboard that’s when the character became more grounded.
16. McQuarrie once worked as a bodyguard for jewelers, which is what inspired the jewelry heist scene.
17. Aesthetically, Singer compares The Usual Suspects to The Wizard of Oz: New York is Kansas, while Los Angeles is the land of Oz, a more colorful and dangerous place.
18. When Redfoot hands Kint the bag of coke, on set Greene accidentally hit Spacey in the nuts with the bag. Spacey had to continue the scene in pain. Greene was also suppose to hit Baldwin in the chest with his cigarette, but instead got him in the eye, which is the take Singer used.
19. Söze’s potentially fake backstory was shot with a six frame step printing process: shot six frames per second, and then in post-production, each frame was printed six times. They were worried the moment with the kids getting shot would earn the film an NC-17 rating, but the MPAA immediately gave them the R and told them they made a “hell of a film.”
20. McQuarrie regrets the one pop culture reference in the movie: The Incredible Hulk line about the reporter. Singer is fine with it.
21. McQuarrie’s grandmother took her church group to see the film.
22. Singer jokingly defends the transition shot from the cave to the coffee mug, something he got a lot of flack for.
23. The scene where Kobayashi is shot in the head features a building in the background where McQuarrie actually spent his time working on the script.
24. McQuarrie never expected the line “Oswald is a fag” to make it past the first draft, but Singer liked it so much they kept it. Today, McQuarrie would probably be proven right.
25. McQuarrie says bullets don’t actually make sparks, even though they do in the film.
26. In the original draft Agent Kujan was after Keyser Söze, but later on, McQuarrie decided having fewer people believing in Söze made him more believable.
27. Kobayashi’s appearance at the end is meant to imply there’s some truth in every lie.
Best in Commentary
- Singer: “The idea was better on the page, in terms of the flame being put out by the urination. I could’ve done without the whole flame and urination bit.”
- Singer: “In my head, I cast Gabriel [Byrne] on the line, ‘You’re making me tired all over.’ That’s Gabriel.”
- McQuarrie: “I don’t understand why this man’s entire body is burned, and yet he’s managed to keep his eyebrows.”
- Singer: “Stephen Baldwin’s philosophy is to make violence and the intent of violence something sexual.”
- McQuarrie: “You’re never more aware of the language in a film than when you see it with a family member.”
- McQuarrie: “Everyone still asks, ‘Did the dog die? Did the dog get killed in the fire?’ No, the dog lived.”
- Singer: “Let dialog overlap. Always. Ultimately you get the better performance when you let actors completely run with it against each other. The best part of acting is reacting, and you can’t do that when you have to stop what you’re saying for the other guy to avoid overlap.”
Singer and McQuarrie’s friendship rings loud and clear. Not only do they have a good sense of humor about themselves, they’re also very thorough and candid about the film. I’ve never listened to a commentary from Singer before, but McQuarrie’s — Jack Reacher and The Way of the Gun — are must-listens for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters. Very few stones are left unturned by McQuarrie, and the same goes for Singer. If you haven’t heard their commentary for The Usual Suspects yet, please do and then go ahead and listen to their commentary track for Valkyrie as well.