Criminal Conversation

In 'The Way of the Gun,' Writer-Director Christopher McQuarrie Finally Calls the Shots

James Caan (l) with Christopher McQuarrie
James Caan (l) with Christopher McQuarrie

You would never guess from appearances that deep within the soul of good-natured screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie lies a figment as dark as that of Keyser Soze, the personification of pure evil birthed by McQuarrie in his screenplay for The Usual Suspects. With childhood pal Bryan Singer in the director's chair, that 1995 thriller thrust the duo into the national spotlight and earned Oscars for Kevin Spacey's performance and McQuarrie's original screenplay. Singer and McQuarrie's first film together in 1993, Public Access, also won the grand jury prize at Sundance. But now McQuarrie is out on his own, not only writing, but also shouldering for the first time the task of directing.

The Way of the Gun is a story about criminals, their actions, and their logical consequences. It paints a world where crime often pays, bad deeds go unpunished, and good does not necessarily triumph. In other words, it's as real as a made-up story can be and as potent as a round of buckshot to the gut. Unrepentant and unbowed, McQuarrie's criminals (led by a tough-as-nails Ryan Phillippe and The Usual Suspects' mumbling con, Benicio Del Toro) form a complicated web in which no misdeed exists in isolation. Everyone is either a player or is played, but no one comes away with hands unbloodied.

While in Austin last month for a benefit premiere of The Way of the Gun for the Austin Film Society, McQuarrie took time out to discuss criminal urges and creative intents and how they factor into his movies.

Austin Chronicle: Let's start with your switch, or should we say evolution, into directing.

Christopher McQuarrie: No, it's a switch. It's definitely a change in response. As a writer, I'm very accustomed to accommodating everybody else. It's your job to help conform everybody else's vision to your work. As a director, it's your job to conform everybody else's work to your vision. They're so completely opposite, and I never really expected that, even though it's a completely logical step. There are two kinds of people in the film business. There are the people for whom it is easier to say "please" and the people who say "no." And I had to go from being a "please" person to a "no" person in a very short period of time. And it was very hard. It was hard on the set, because you wanted to accommodate everyone. And at a point, it starts to become very stressful because you've gone down this road, you want to be this pal, and there is no way to direct a film and be a pal. It's just impossible.

Jimmy Caan at one point during the movie could see that I was having a lot of trouble, and Jimmy pulled me aside and said, "You know what, man? We're actors, and actors like to be told what to do. No matter what you might think, we like to be told what to do. We require direction. Now quit fucking around and go back to your movie." That was really the first time I started directing. We had been doing it for a while before I started realizing: You're not a writer anymore. You gotta kick ass and tell people what to do.

I'm not big on confrontation. I'm not big on saying "no" to people. I want to please everybody. I don't think I really got it until we were doing the score. There was a lot of resistance and arguing and that was, literally, the first time during the whole process that I said: If Bryan Singer were here, what would Bryan do? And I stood up and started yelling at people. I channeled his spirit. It was amazing the work that started getting done, and I thought: Okay, I get it. If that's what I gotta do. And that really is a thing to make peace with. After the film, I had to say: Are you ready to be that person for two years at a stretch, are you ready to be that guy? That's going to be a big decision when it comes to making another movie. Do I want to be that guy?

AC: So you're not 100% sure you want to do this again?

CM: I'm 100% sure I want to do it again, but do I want to make that choice? There's got to be another way. I hope that there's another way. But, yeah, I'll do it.

AC: The Way of the Gun seems, in many ways, like a contemporary Western. First there's the characters' names, Parker and Longbaugh, which come from the surnames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Then there's that final shoot-out sequence that was like the end of The Wild Bunch, and you almost expect William Holden to walk out and say ...

CM: " ... If anybody moves, kill him." As we were getting closer to that scene, we would talk about The Wild Bunch. I had only seen it once and was not big a fan. But there was the shot where Parker and Longbaugh were walking toward the door to go out into that gunfight. I just saw in my mind the poster from The Wild Bunch, which is all these guys walking and sort of converging ... that inspired that shot.

AC: Also the money bags that are hauled into the plaza. That reminded me of a scene in The Wild Bunch.

CM: That's Benicio [del Toro]. In the script there was a gym bag filled with the money, and Benicio, in his attention to detail, came to me and said, "How much does $15 million weigh?" And I thought, "Who cares how much $15 million weighs?" And he said, "No no no. I want to know. How much does it weigh?" So I went to the prop guy, and I asked him to figure it out. In the script it was small, unmarked bills. The prop guy came back to me and said, "I've worked it out and a reasonable variation of 10s, 20s, and 50s -- it would fill 23 printer-paper boxes, and it would weigh about 2,000 pounds. And it would basically fill the van that they were driving." And I said, "What if we do it in thousands?" And he said, "Actually, they don't make thousand dollar bills. Thousand dollar bills are so rare they're actually worth about $1500." I thought, "Well great. I can use that in another movie." And then I said, "Well, what about hundreds?" And he said, "It would fill three of these bags," and he shows me this bag. "I think you should knock it down to five million." But I said, "No. I think what I'll do is let Benicio and Ryan figure out how to get the money." And then it just developed into this thing where I rewrote the scene about the ransom money. Thank god for Benicio asking the question that he did. That changed the choreography of the entire gunfight. Now, suddenly, the money became the anchor, this horrible inconvenience through this whole thing. That one question changed the entire sequence.

AC: Why did you choose irredeemably bad guys to be the central characters?

CM: There was so much interest in my doing another crime film. So I thought, "Okay, if I'm going to do another crime film, I'm going to make a film about criminals. I'm not going to make an effort to qualify why they are criminals." Hollywood's answer to violence is not toning down violence but just qualifying it, coming up with reasons for why it's okay to do these things, justifying people's actions. And I thought, "I'm going to make a movie where there is no apology. I'm never going to tell you who the good guys and the bad guys are. You're going to have to make your own decisions." Movies now ask who it is you're rooting for. It's propaganda. What we were very conscious of throughout was to make a movie about bad people and never try to apologize or qualify or justify what it was they do for a living.

AC: Also, villains are always much more interesting than the good guys.

CM: They're just more real. Good guys are bullshit. The fact that Superman has angst is really irritating, really annoying. There's absolutely nothing that he'd have to be concerned with. People all over the world have much bigger problems.

I tried to make a cop movie, from the cop's point of view. I tried to write the script. I'm writing a script for Ed Zwick right now, and it's all about a cop in Washington, DC, and he's a good man and as the story unravels, you start to find out that he's involved in all sorts of corruption. He has good reasons for why he started, but it's affected him. That, to me, is what life is about. You start out innocent and as life goes on you have to do certain things to survive, or to maintain your sanity, or to get ahead. You wake up one day, and you're as guilty as everybody else.

That really to me is what this movie is about: Everyone in the story is in one way or another responsible for what is happening. They're going to fall in one way or another because no one just wakes up and says, "Oh my god, this thing happened to me." What I didn't want was for anybody to get away at the end of the movie, be a sort of passive person. Because I really do believe that there are consequences. Movies don't often let everybody off with a free ride. Violence and murder and explosions and kidnapping and stealing and all this other stuff -- but in the end it all ends up happily. I can't stand it when people go, "Oh, the ending was this great happy ending," and you think, "But what happened next? They didn't just freeze those people." So, to me, happy endings are the high point of a downward slide into misery, and a really sad ending is, "It's going to get better. Tomorrow is another day."

AC: What other scripts have you been working on?

CM: I'm doing The Green Hornet right now. I'm also working on a script for Ed Zwick right now. And I've been working on a script for Adam Ripp, who was the co-producer on Public Access. Adam wanted to make a film about an L.A. police officer and as time goes by it becomes more and more timely. We've been writing this script for years about this guy -- I could liken him to Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman -- he's unto himself. He knows more shit than anybody. All he really wants to do in the world is be a cop and what happens to him is: Be careful what you wish for. The worst thing that could possibly happen to this person is he develops a humanity. It's this double-edged sword. What a cop should be and what a cop needs to be.

AC: Who is Arly Thomsen to whom the film is dedicated along with the comment, "You speak the truth?"

CM: Arly Thomsen was the key grip. I'm so glad you asked that question. Arly was this great guy. He died shortly after we finished the movie, very shortly after. Arly was this great guy in that he was very good at his job and he was so good that you never saw him doing it. You would always turn around, and Arly would be sitting on a top of a stack of crates and smoking a cigarette on the set where there was no smoking. There was one scene in the film -- the card game -- where we shot an unbelievable amount of film because I was shooting two cameras on each actor and I was shooting long takes and I was burning through film. And Arly would just be sitting in the back and he would be quiet all day and at one particular quiet moment in between takes, you would just hear Arly turn to the assistant director and say, "Are we going to be shooting a hundred thousand feet on this scene?" And it was during a really rough time. It was a really hard day. It made me so angry when he said it. And I turned around and for a second everybody thought, "Okay, now he's going to lose his temper." And I turned around, and I looked at Arly, and Arly just looked right back at me, and he had this big smile on his face, and there was a pause, and I just said, "You just keep speaking the truth, Arly. You just keep it real." And for the rest of the film, Arly never let the reality of the situation escape. We were really sad when we learned that he had died, and that's what the dedication is about.

AC: Did you and Bryan Singer intend to get involved with movies as you were growing up?

CM: From the time I was 12 and Bryan was 12, we both knew what we wanted. I wanted to write, and he wanted to direct. I never thought about writing film. It was only toward the very end of high school that Bryan and I started to think in those terms. I had an idea, and I told Bryan about it and said I thought this would make an interesting movie. And it just sort of took off from there. It was years later I graduated from school, traveled, worked for four years, and then one afternoon I got a call from Bryan who said, "I have the chance to make this film. Do you want to do it?" I dropped what I was doing and moved out and started writing. I had always imagined that I would write books.

AC: And then you get an Oscar for The Usual Suspects right out of the gate. What that's like?

CM: That's just overwhelming. It's really freaky. It's the kind of thing where it happens and this is great and then you start to think, "Wouldn't this have been better if this happened later in my career?" Talk about a happy ending. That's where you want somebody to walk up behind you and stab you in the head with an icepick and just end it right there. Now it's downhill and writing for the USA Network. Writing re-enactments for Discovery or some cop show.

I thought when it happened, "Now I have this thing, this fulcrum I can use," and I was very, very surprised to learn that when you win an Academy Award they still don't want to make your movies. They just want you to make their movies. Again, it's a double-edged sword. Your salary goes up, and it's this great thing to see in front of your name, but at the same time you've now been given entrée into this universe in which you were never born to function. It took me a very long time to come to a place where I could speak that language. And that's where I work. That's what I do for a living. And things like The Way of the Gun are my passions. That's what I get to do with my spare time. end story

The Way of the Gun opens in theatres nationwide this Friday, September 8.

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