On Oscar night 10 years ago, the Academy Awards were still safely in the hands of the major studios. While populist big-budget epics like Braveheart and Apollo 13 dominated the evening, one little indie, made for $6 million by a 28-year-old Sundance graduate, managed to gate-crash the event with two surprise nominations. With a final scene that pulled the rug out from audiences’ expectations, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects confounded even some of its stars. (More on that later.) Yet the film’s biggest twist was saved for the Oscars, where it went two-for-two with wins for Christopher McQuarrie’s Byzantine screenplay and supporting player Kevin Spacey’s star-making turn as a limpy, gimpy criminal named Verbal Kint. This is the story of how a couple of childhood friends, a cast of unwanted actors, and a shadowy character named Keyser Söze conjured an Oscar-winning con game.
Singer and McQuarrie had grown up in Princeton Junction, N.J. While Singer was a year older, the two were nodding acquaintances in school — they’d known each other since Singer’s mom and McQuarrie’s dad ran unsuccessfully on the same ticket for a local township committee seat. Singer had been making 8mm home movies since he was 12, along with a schoolmate named Ethan Hawke. And though McQuarrie acted in one of those films, his scene wound up on the cutting room floor.
Before his senior year of high school, McQuarrie was arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to a 7 p.m. curfew for the summer. ”All of my friends bailed on me, my girlfriend and I broke up; the only guy who came to hang out at my house at night was Bryan,” he recalls. The two spent the summer watching movies and writing short stories and screenplays. But that fall, Singer went off to NYC’s School of Visual Arts and McQuarrie drifted, hitchhiking in Australia, working at his uncle’s detective agency, and finally taking a job as a security guard at a multiplex on the Garden State Parkway. Then he got an unexpected call from his old friend.
Singer had just made a short film called Lion’s Den that was promising enough to help him raise $250,000 for his first feature. Problem was, he needed a script. So Singer called McQuarrie, who headed to L.A. and co-wrote Public Access, which later shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. While waiting in line for a screening at the festival, a friend asked McQuarrie about his next script. ”I said, ‘I was reading this article in Spy magazine called ”The Usual Suspects.” I thought that would be a great title.”’ As for the story, McQuarrie said, ”I guess it’s about…the usual suspects. The guys who always get arrested for some type of crime. I figure they meet in a police lineup and decide to work together. I told Bryan. He forgot about it a few seconds later.”
After Sundance, Singer was screening Public Access at a festival in Japan and thought he could secure financing for his next film. Singer called McQuarrie from Tokyo, and asked him to write up the ”Usual Suspects” idea. At the time, McQuarrie was working in the copy room of an L.A. law firm. During breaks, he pounded out the basic idea for The Usual Suspects. When it came time to flesh out the villain, he remembered a conversation he had had with a lawyer at the firm. ”I told him, ‘You’ve got a great name. You’re going to be the villain in a script some day,”’ says McQuarrie. The lawyer’s name: Keyser Sume. That’s right. Su-may.