Write and Wrong

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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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky