Success is relative in Hollywood, like a third cousin twice-removed who doesn't recognize you at family reunions, and doesn't care to. Fame is so fleeting it has a month-by-month lease. Six years ago, Christopher McQuarrie was as famous as any screenwriter on the backlot known as Los Angeles. He had gone to the Academy Awards stag and come home with a date: Oscar, a reward for his screenplay to a movie named The Usual Suspects. The film made a star of Kevin Spacey, who took home his own award for best supporting actor. It made absolutely nothing of Chris McQuarrie.
OK, that's not exactly true, because McQuarrie is not broke, homeless, or dead; he is not even out of the film business, despite being ground up in the gears of such an insidious industry. But he is forgotten, if only because he has not been heard from at all since 1994, and when you're not heard from in the movie business, you are no longer heard of. You are invisible. You do not exist. Maybe you never did.
In the past six years, McQuarrie has done what all screenwriters do when they find out you can't pay the rent with yellowing good reviews: He has rewritten other people's movies, letting them take the credit while he cashes the check. He has written television shows that never air. Powerful men at powerful studios have told him that he's not worthy of their trust or time. Six years ago, McQuarrie thought he was invincible, a golden child with one of his own. He was wrong.
"Right after the Academy Awards, I thought, 'I can do whatever I want now. I'm gonna fuck 'em with this,'" McQuarrie says, laughing the laugh of the humbled and, on more than one occasion, humiliated. "And I realized very quickly they had no interest in making my films. They wanted me to make their films. It took me an even longer time to realize there's a reason why it's called a film business. Studios are not working in an area of risk or suffering. They don't want to fight. They want it to be as easy as possible, because it's a fuckin' crapshoot no matter how hard you work or how hard you fight...For a long time, I was trying very hard to convince them my ideas can work, and there are many successful movies that support my argument for what an audience can handle. Remember, no one wanted to make The Usual Suspects."
In the end, that's all the studios wanted from him: another crime story, another thriller with a twist, another gotcha plot. So, on September 8, that is what he will deliver: a movie titled The Way of the Gun, which he likes to think of as his "fuck-you" to a business that once offered him its hand, only to extend a single finger. Starring Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as pitiless criminals who kidnap a woman (played by Juliette Lewis) pregnant with the child of a wealthy couple, The Way of the Gun is a film you've seen a million times as you've never before seen it. In McQuarrie's film, which he both wrote and directed, car chases take place at five miles per hour. Agendas are hinted at but rarely revealed; sidelong glances replace page-long speeches, and the bad guys never apologize for their evil deeds, even when they kill innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to get in the way. McQuarrie simply likes to describe his movie as a Western in which the cellular phones never work.
If The Usual Suspects was a roller coaster barreling toward its climactic revelation (Who is Keyser Soze?), The Way of the Gun is a merry-go-round moving so slowly it nearly stands still. On bad days, McQuarrie will watch the movie and convince himself he has created "the longest second act in the history of cinema." Sometimes, he wonders who will even want to see his movie: Long after producer Jerry Bruckheimer turned the action movie into a vapid, venal music video, Chris McQuarrie has made a genre film that sounds like a poem.
"I was so sick of the sort of sameness of the genre, the obsession with the fast-talking dialogue that was dialogue for the sake of dialogue, violence for the sake of violence, and I thought, 'Let's make a crime film in which we don't give anything away, we don't explain anything to the audience,'" McQuarrie says. "I like to think of it as if Eugene O'Neill was slumming as a pulp writer. Instead of filling you with dialogue, I wanted to extract and diminish what was going on and what was being said, because these are professionals who all know what's going on and don't really need to talk to each other much. They're not interested in explaining it to you. They don't give a shit what you think."
Had things worked out the way he wanted, McQuarrie likely would have never made The Way of the Gun; there would have been no need to exorcise the demons, to write with rage and revenge as his inspiration. Ever since The Usual Suspects, he has harbored dreams of directing a movie he did not write: a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great, from a script penned by novice Peter Buchman. Not so long ago, the film was considered a go project at Warner Bros., with the blessing of the studio's CEO, Terry Semel, who has since left Warners. But Alexander the Great, like the Macedonian monarch for whom it's named, died a tragic, young death: When McQuarrie and his production partner, Ken Kokin, couldn't agree with Warners on whom should play the role, the studio passed on the project. (At one point, it was rumored that Matthew McConaughey would play the part; little wonder McQuarrie balked and walked.)
McQuarrie knows why Alexander stalled out at Warners: It would have been an $80- to $120-million epic, and no studio is going to risk that much money on a first-time director. He knows now, after having directed the small, sleek The Way of the Gun for a fraction of that budget, that had he made Alexander when he intended, it would have been an embarrassment--"the worst piece of shit," he says, "the single most horrific directorial debut in history." But that doesn't mean he's glad he didn't make it. McQuarrie mentions Alexander a dozen times within the span of 90 minutes; no one brings up a moribund project as often without harboring more than a twinge of regret. "We know in our heart of hearts that when we're finished," he sighs, "we will have the best screenplay that never got made."
Alexander is but the tip of the arrow. McQuarrie's résumé is littered with more failed projects than an elementary school science fair: a script with thirtysomething creator Ed Zwick that's been on and off for years, some uncredited touch-up work on the forthcoming Winona Ryder supernatural thriller Lost Souls, and myriad other doctoring gigs too small to remember. In 1997, McQuarrie wrote a pilot for ABC-TV titled The Underworld, which he co-created with Usual Suspects star Kevin Pollak. The 90-minute pilot is a brilliant (for TV, especially) crime story told from the criminals' point of view: Pollak plays Charlie "The Brain" Dyer, a con who spent five years in "The Institute" and tries to go straight as a computer repairman, only to find his old gang, the Mob (headed by Chris Sarandon), and even the cops (Sports Night's Felicity Huffman) won't hear of it. ABC, no doubt afraid of the show's wink (courtesy Pollak) and smirk (McQuarrie made up fake curse words), passed.
McQuarrie can live with that. He can live with the slow-moving projects and the failed TV shows; better men than he have suffered similar fates in a town where quality's somewhere between casting and catering on the list of priorities. But what he will not suffer is being made to look like a fool, which is what happened when X-Men co-producer Lauren Shuler Donner repeatedly told the press that McQuarrie's script for the big-screen comic-book had to be rewritten "drastically" after he was brought in two years ago. Though he was attached to the movie almost from the beginning, his name doesn't even appear on the credits--at his own request. "It was the most miserable experience I've had working in film," McQuarrie says of X-Men.
McQuarrie was proud of his script, which was penned with contributions from Ed Solomon (Men in Black), first-timer Tom DeSanto, and director Bryan Singer--the same man with whom McQuarrie had made The Usual Suspects, the same man with whom McQuarrie had attended high school in New Jersey. The script, which is available on several Web sites, is a far more thoughtful and inventive version than the movie that made $54 million its opening weekend, only to tumble at the box office each week after that. McQuarrie had written the first three-dimensional comic-book movie; his heroes were humans, not mutants in tights who speak in balloons. And where the final version, credited only to rookie David Hayter, was self-serious and clumsy, McQuarrie's was witty and fleet-footed, full of knowing musical cues (Wolverine listens to Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" while holed up in his Alaskan cabin) and clever sight gags (Professor Xavier turns the shape-shifting Mystique into an annoying little girl).
While much of his story remains (the basic plot is, essentially, the same), McQuarrie demanded that Twentieth Century Fox remove his name from the credits. He wanted nothing to do with the film his old friend had made, which made the experience doubly painful. McQuarrie has a hard time even talking about X-Men, struggling to describe the excruciating process. For the only time in this 90-minute interview, the writer has a hard time coming up with the words.
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"The studio was like the girlfriend who will never tell you you're lousy in bed, but she'll tell all her friends," he says. "It was like they were afraid to tell me what was wrong, so the process never ended. It came to a point where I couldn't work anymore with a group of people who were so...I can't say...I can't say they. There was one specific executive who unfortunately had the most involvement who was so deceitful and so dishonest and such a bald-faced slanderous liar, and it was just this miserable experience, and by the end, you were so demoralized...I would have loved to have seen the movie I know was there...I would have loved to have seen them be human." He says the last thing very softly and very sadly.
Soon enough, he will have his revenge. McQuarrie has a handful of projects in front of him (including a screenplay for the big-screen redo of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner), and he has just completed his script for The Green Hornet, which he pitched to Universal as being "no super, just heroes." It's a movie in which bored rich men play dress-up, in which being a superhero is nothing but the ultimate status symbol. McQuarrie would like nothing more than to direct The Green Hornet, but expects nothing. Maybe he'll get the gig if The Way of the Gun does well at the box office. Or maybe Universal will give the movie to one of Jerry Bruckheimer's boys. It no longer matters. After the last six years, what more could any of them do to Chris McQuarrie? Not a damned thing.
"I'm beyond that now, because they have already co-opted me," he says, chuckling. "If they hadn't, I wouldn't have made The Way of the Gun. My wife will tell you I am the kind of person who will eat and eat and eat and eat and eat all the shit you give me, because I'm a writer and that's what writers do, and then at a certain point, I become cornered. If you just pull out that one last turd and ask me to eat it, I will freak out on you. That's The Way of the Gun. I was pushed into a corner, and I finally responded by saying, 'This is how I feel.' There was a lot of anger when I wrote it. But it's kind of a peaceful thing where I've finally come back to the place where I'm writing because I like writing, and I don't care if people see it. I don't care if I'm never allowed to make the one great perfect all-expressing film I wanted to make."
And, for a second, you might actually believe him.