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Bryan Singer remembers 'The Usual Suspects' on its 20th anniversary

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Linda R. Chen

Two decades ago, director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie crafted a labyrinthine shadow play that centered on five guys in a lineup, a con artist with miles of yarn to spin, and an ending that shattered our collective minds like a dropped coffee mug. The Usual Suspects wasn’t necessarily a hit in theaters, but both McQuarrie and Kevin Spacey, who plays master dissembler Verbal Kint, took home Oscars for their work. More enduringly, the crime thriller had already begun accumulating cult status before it even hit video and its motherload twist, an expert magician’s act of misdirection, influenced an entire generation of brain-bending finales. We talked to Bryan Singer (who is currently at the tail-end of shooting X-Men: Apocalypse) about his memories of making the movie, its lasting legacy, and his time in a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois. Wait a minute…

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Was it surprising to learn that it’s been twenty years since The Usual Suspects came out?

BRYAN SINGER: I’ve been visited lately by a lot of old friends here in Montreal where I’m working, people I’ve known for 30 years. So numbers like that are starting to freak me out a little. Not everybody has that blessing to keep doing what I’m doing after 20 years, though. That movie was obviously a gift. It enabled me to be taken more seriously by actors when moving into genre pictures, comic book movies, et cetera. It was a great experience, a very fast experience.

You shot the whole thing in 35 days, right?

Thirty-three days in Los Angeles and San Pedro and then two days in New York.

I assume it’s the same schedule for X-Men: Apocalypse, right?

[Laughs] Yeah, X-Men is 35 days of shooting, but then the reshoots are two years. Movies were not meant to be shot in five months, this is a new phenomenon. You know how jet lag is something we’ve only experienced in the last century? Movies were shot in five, six weeks. Preston Sturges could knock out three a year easy. I’m in my last week of shooting and I’m ready to collapse. These movies are a little different from when we made The Usual Suspects.

In retrospect it’s this influential movie, both in general and for your career. Did you have any sense of its eventual impact while you were making it?

No sense at all. I knew I had more time to shoot and an exceptional cast, so at least it had to be better than my first feature, Public Access, in terms of its accessibility and its outcome. But other than that there was no concept that it would become a cult classic or whatever it has become.

There was a moment at the first test screening I remember, I ran out of the theater to go to the bathroom and when I came back everyone was leaving the theater and this guy jumps behind his girlfriend and yells “Keyser Soze!” and grabbed her shoulders, and I thought, wow that’s pretty cool. That was probably the first sense. We had screened the whole finished film, too. We didn’t screen a rough temp-scored movie, which is very rare and it’s just the way things worked out in terms of production.

Then we screened it at Cannes and I remember that’s when I started to feel the fever. We were scheduled for two days of press in Cannes at the film festival and suddenly my press went up to five days. There was a standing ovation that went on and on at the screening and then it opened in France. I remember going to see it with the guy I was with at the time in a theater on the Champs-Elysees and I remember seeing it with French subtitles and when it was over there was all this buzz. I remember being like, “What are they saying? What are they saying?” And he was like “It’s good, Bryan, it’s good.” I believed him, or I chose to believe him at the time.

It wasn’t a massive hit when it came out stateside, though.

Gramercy didn’t fully understand what they had, I think. They’re wonderful people and the best, but I don’t think they fully understood the value of what they had until it won its second Academy Award and by that time it was already coming out on video. I think a more aggressive company, Miramax, maybe… Bob and Harvey always tell me, “If we had that movie, it would have made a $100 million!” And it’s probably true, they know how to do that kind of thing.

Was it a difficult process getting financing for the project?

Holy sh–, yeah. It’s a great story and I tell a version of it to any young filmmaker or screenwriter who is hocking their wares. We sent a script to over 50 different companies, all of whom passed — including the companies that eventually financed it. In the end it was basically a German financier who didn’t really have the money, but we were under the impression he did so we made offers to actors, and we accumulated the five principal actors of the film, which were Pete Postlethwaite, Stephen Baldwin, Spacey — who was first in because he was a friend and we developed it with him in mind, Chazz Palmintieri — and Gabriel Byrne. And suddenly we find out the company doesn’t really have any financing and they need to now raise the money. So we go to the five actors and we’re like, “I know we made you offers, but we really have a financial issue. Can you sign a 10-day option on commitment to the movie.” And they were like, “What the hell, man, we thought you were offering us roles, and now we have to attach ourselves to help you raise money?” But all five did it and we eventually got the money. We were actually doing deals where we would take phones and put them together, because we didn’t have conference calling, so we just laid two phones on a table and reversed the receivers and let them talk to each other because time was of the essence. It was crazy. It was right to the last minute. We hadn’t paid our bill and they cut our power at some point.

The script took awhile to develop. We took it through about nine drafts over six months, so it was a process. Chris and I are dear friends, we grew up together, so we had our share of rows, but then we’ve been doing that all our lives back and forth with our movies. I think at one point I threw the script across the car at his head, like, “This can’t be in the movie!” But of course we love each other, so it was a good experience. We both had quite of a lot of pride in the idea, and of course Chris had the idea for the twist — and the twist is what made the whole thing worth doing. Originally, when he started writing, it was going to be a story about five felons who meet in a lineup, and the poster would be five guys in a lineup, and it was going to be The Usual Suspects and the tagline would be “All of you can go to hell.” I think maybe we were all jacked up from Reservoir Dogs or something. And what happened was, Chris called me up while I was at my parents’ house and he said, “What if it all just came off this bulletin board?” And I remember my words were, “Now that’s a reason to make the movie!”

The whole movie is, essentially, an act of sleight of hand. Was it difficult for you and Spacey to thread that needle and make the twist obvious only in retrospect?

Whenever Kujan would take a sip from his cup, Spacey would look up at the bottom of the cup. Or he’d look at the walls or the desk. He’d look at the room because he knew he was going to exploit it. John and I first cut the film together and when his foot straightens out at the end, it didn’t have the impact it was supposed to have. I wasn’t feeling it. Intellectually it made sense, but you didn’t feel the fact of, “Oh wait, I’ve been duped.” John was too cheap to air condition his whole house, so that night I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor next to the editing machine. I woke up and I had a thought and told John, “We thought we’d finish this cut early but we’re not. We need to go back into the movie and find every scrap of footage, alternate takes, creepy shots, interesting intriguing shots, to convince the audience that Gabriel Byrne is the baddie. Outtakes, bloopers, audio tracks, whatever. And we have to make the audience feel and truly believe that they’re getting a climax with Gabriel Byrne. They can’t just hear it in dialogue, they have to see it narratively.”

I had a premonition this might be necessary on the set so I actually had Gabriel Byrne stand in a trenchcoat with a pistol and fire it down at the very spot in which he was sitting and Gabriel was like “Why are you asking me to do this when it’s not in the script?” I just felt that I’d need it — some image of him as Keyser Söze. But Gabriel’s not a big gun fan and he was like “But Bryan why do we need it?” And finally I was just like “Look Gabriel, I’m a big Miller’s Crossing fan so I just think it’ll be cool!”

You were really young when you made this, right?

I think when I was directing, I was 27.

What was it like directing a cast like that at 27?

I also looked uniquely young at that time, I was still being carded. I looked like a PA. The only way I coped with it was the fact that Spacey had become a friend and he was a big ally and defender of the movie, and secondly I took the attitude that I know this film, I developed it with Chris, so no matter what happens I know this script better than the actors. So it helped with my confidence level. It helped me develop enough of an ego to actually command the process. There were times we had some troubles, running out of lights or my line producer saying you can’t shoot this, but we shot it anyway. My lawyer negotiated a brilliant deal for me on the film. I controlled the movie, no one could fire me, no one could take it away and I control the rights of The Usual Suspects in perpetuity. Nobody can make a sequel or a spin-off without me. I’ve never seen a deal like that ever again.

So no The Usual Suspects 2: Business as Usual without asking you first.

Nope, can’t do that. We just announced a comic-book, though, and I supported that.

So you had full directorial control, but you still let your cast do their own thing. I’m thinking specifically of Benicio Del Toro’s very memorable, if incomprehensible, performance as Fenster.

They were out partying the night before, he and Chris and Postlethwaite, and Benicio shows up doing this voice. Half of me is thinking, “This is a joke they’re playing on me,” and the other half is thinking, “This is a choice, best take it seriously and be professional.” So I walk up to Benicio and I’m like, “Is that how you’re going to do it?” And he goes, “Yeah, unless you want me to do it different.” So in a blink of an eye I had to roll through my head every single piece of dialogue that Benicio had, now realizing that the audience isn’t going to understand any of it. And I’m like, you know what? He doesn’t really say anything that anyone has to understand, his purpose in the movie is just to die, so why not let him bring some colorful aspect to the character? 

But I protected the audience by adding some lines. In the prison cell, Kevin Pollack says, “What did you say?”, meaning an actor couldn’t understand what he was saying. And when our friend was in town we had him playing the interrogating officer during the lineup, and we had him say “Again, in English.” And the reason I did that was to let the audience know they were not supposed to know what he was saying. You have to tell the audience that it’s okay the guy is mumbling. Later, Benicio told me he partly based it on a character in [Stanley] Kubrick’s The Killing who talks the whole movie with his teeth clenched, so you kind of understand every other word, so that may have been what inspired it.

What do you think the lasting legacy of the movie will be?

I had a conversation with a friend whether Walt Disney will still be known in 600 years. I think so, but you never know with art and entertainment what’s really going to work until it works. But I think we did break some ground with the misdirect and I’ve seen it emulated in other films that followed it, like The Sixth Sense, so I think we did something that hadn’t quite been done before. Mainly, lie to the audience.

The twist throws pretty much all we’ve seen previously into doubt. What percentage of the story do you consider to be real and verifiable?

Well, I believe Keyser Söze was Kevin Spacey because the sketch artist does a sketch of him, so at least that is true. The sketch artist was played by the now mother of my son, I’m just realizing that now, and my mother played the woman at the police station receiving the sketch. Wow, those memories — first time my mom ever saw me on a set. But yeah, that moment clarified it for me, the moment of the fax. The visual reveal of the sketch being Keyser Söze is what cinches it for me, but pretty much everything else is up for debate.

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