'The Usual Suspects' writer Christopher McQuarrie talks about his new film

By Jeff Jensen
September 22, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

In The Way Of The Gun, a pair of aimless, unrepentant rogues kidnap a young woman they believe is carrying the child of a millionaire and end up trading bullets with the mobbed-up papa’s minions at a Mexican whorehouse while an emergency C-section is going on inside. Only natural, then, that when actor James Caan — who plays the film’s most slippery snake — first met writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, he greeted him thusly: ”You are one sick f—.”

But at least he’s one who got to make his movie his way. The Way of the Gun is the directorial debut McQuarrie has been trying to birth since penning the Oscar-winning script to 1995’s The Usual Suspects. But the less-than-$10 million thriller isn’t necessarily the firstborn he was hoping for: That would be his proposed $80 million biopic of Alexander the Great. The filmmaker insists one studio was willing — provided he made his Macedonian king a nicer fella. By 1998, McQuarrie was ready to quit Hollywood to write novels, convinced nobody would let him direct unless the story was overtly mainstream — or another Usual Suspects.

”I just didn’t want to make a movie about those same friggin’ characters in the same f—ing way,” he says. But Usual Suspects costar Benicio Del Toro gave him two reasons why he should: opportunity and control. ”I resigned myself,” McQuarrie, 32, says, ”and braced for the fusillade of Tarantino comparisons.”

The movie may be loaded with wild, nobody-talks-like-that patter uttered by such pretty faces as Ryan Phillippe and Del Toro, but McQuarrie was dead set on painting his bad guys irredeemably bad. Hence, no criminals with easily explained motivations, no commercially mandated redemption, and no camera tricks, either. ”I’m big on John Ford, John Huston, Sidney Lumet,” he says of his visual style, ”directors who put the camera in a corner and let the actors perform.” The filmmaker even tried to satirize the very style he hates with a sequence imagining his anti-Butch and Sundance in a Hollywood movie about them. His producers persuaded him to spend the time and money elsewhere. ”Besides,” he laughs, ”I don’t think I was good enough to pull it off.”

The rookie helmer shot in sequence, and inspired by input from cast and crew, rewrote on the fly. For the finale, McQuarrie originally envisioned a nighttime gunfight, and wanted actress Juliette Lewis to be holding a flashlight during her character’s surgery. ”The morning we shot,” says McQuarrie, ”we said, ‘Okay. How would this really happen?”’ After cinematographer Dick Pope warned him the sun could come up during shooting and production designer Maia Javan proposed a courtyard crammed with columns and crannies where the combatants could duck and cover, McQuarrie revamped his climax. Phillippe dug the new ending — to a point. ”We’re having a shoot-out with senior citizens — I love that,” he says. ”But [the whole sequence] was really tough, because my wife [actress Reese Witherspoon] was about to go into labor at any time. I was slightly preoccupied from all the stress.” Yet McQuarrie says his toughest challenge was jazzing up a scene in which Del Toro, Phillippe, and Lewis simply play cards. ”I want to say I’m sorry to anyone who’s ever directed eight pages of my dialogue,” he says.

McQuarrie, currently writing screenplays for Universal’s The Green Hornet and The Prisoner, is praying for his next shot at directing. Another noir, perhaps? ”No way.” As for Alexander, McQuarrie hasn’t given up hope, but believes he and producing partner Ken Kokin are a lot like Gun‘s desperadoes: ”We spend our lives chasing after the big money for the one big film we want to make, and while we hold on to our ideals, we always end up bloody and beaten and laying in the dirt — in a whorehouse,”he says. ”Please, if you quote me, I said it with a smile.”

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