“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 Suspects was 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 by Singer).
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.