INTERVIEW: McQuarrie's Way of the Writer-Director
by Matthew Breen
(indieWIRE/9.15.00) — Oscar-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects“) is the silver screen’s newest hyphenate as he tackles robbers-and-robbers in “The Way of the Gun” as writer-director. In a film with virtually no
good guys, the trick for McQuarrie is to get audiences cheering for the
bad guys. The two bad guys in question, Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) and
Parker (Ryan Phillippe) kidnap the pregnant surrogate mother (Juliette
Lewis) of a wealthy money-launderer and hold her and the fetus for
The film attempts to “take the wind out of what the genre has become —
a sort of weird, loud, exploitative, stylized thing,” according to its
maker. McQuarrie presents a criminal machine that he feels is operating
around us, all the time. “It’s only by virtue of the fact that we mind
our own business that we don’t run into it,” he says. At the Los Angeles
press day for “The Way of the Gun,” McQuarrie spoke with indieWIRE about
becoming a director, the “Hollywood” sense of justice that pervades the
current cinema, the masturbatory effect of writing, and the delight of
indieWIRE: What was the impetus to move from screenwriting to directing/screenwriting?
Christopher McQuarrie: I’ve always wanted to make “Alexander the Great”
which is not economically the wisest first film to shoot, so I thought I
should try something else first, and I knew the area in which I’d get
the least amount of interference and the most amount of support was to
make another crime film.
iW: So how have you found the transition to directing?
McQuarrie: In the end, great. It was very difficult. It’s a very strange
shift to go from the person who accommodates everyone to being the
person who tells everyone to say no. I got there but it took some doing.
I’m a very non-confrontational person, and then to suddenly be in the
business of confrontation was a big, big step to me.
iW: What were the differences in terms of how you treated your own writing as compared to how another director might treat your writing?
McQuarrie: With not having the same forces working against me, the first
cut of the movie was certainly overwritten. There are a lot of things in
the film that could have been done sooner, faster, and with much less
set-up. It would have been much better if I’d had a writer was who was
there to fight me on every change that I made.
iW: When did Artisan come on board? Which cast members were attached?
McQuarrie: When we finished the script it was two years ago September.
We went to five different financiers. We knew not to bother going to a
major studio — we knew they would never make it. Of those, only Artisan
responded. Benicio [del Toro] was on from the very beginning. The first
guy to come on board was James Caan. He had read the script before we
sent it out, and had asked to meet with me. I was terrified of meeting
with James Caan, much less working with James Caan. We came to the Four
Seasons and it was supposed to be a half hour meeting and it lasted
three and a half hours, and we just had a great time; we hit it off.
iW: The movie flies in the face of the typical Hollywood sense of justice.
McQuarrie: Yes. In Hollywood, there are times when it’s okay to kill, to
maim, to torture. It’s okay to kill people as long as they deserve it,
as long as in the narrative, you’ve given them a reason why they deserve
to die, to make the audience comfortable with that person’s death. And I
didn’t want to make a film that made you comfortable with the notion of
death, or violence. I wanted there to be consequences for every single
act of violence in the script.
iW: So sympathy is not exactly at the core of this film.
McQuarrie: I think sympathy is a misused device. In an effort to make
characters sympathetic, Hollywood has had made characters who are
murdering role models. They’ve given characters great reasons why they
should go out and commit horrible acts of violence. I don’t believe in
that. I think sympathy is something you earn; it’s not something that I
write into the text.
iW: Even your bad guys are portrayed as cool. Are you worried about the implications of the violence in your film, even in the title?
McQuarrie: Sure. If anybody looks at this movie and thinks that this is
a lifestyle that they want to emulate, they were damaged to begin with.
There is no effort made to make this lifestyle — I mean, these two guys
live and die by the gun, and never for one second profit from their
iW: Tell me about working with the cast.
McQuarrie: I’ll tell you the single greatest experience I had on this
film. I was very intimidated going in to shooting everything that took
place in the C-section scene. The script was not working there. I was
having a great deal of trouble with a lot of the mechanics of this
scene. And I sat down with Juliette [Lewis] and Dylan Kussman the night
before we were to shoot that scene. I said, “Let’s just take the script
and put it aside. Juliette, I want you to tell me how you feel.” She
would describe to me exactly, based on her research, what she was going
through. “Now Dylan what are you going to do to alleviate that?” And
pretty soon the actors were just going back and forth with each other,
and I could just observe them and take notes. The following morning,
based on the notes I had taken, I went in at 5 o’clock and I rewrote
everything that we were shooting that day. Printed it out, never reread
it. I mean I didn’t have time to reread it, gave it to the actors and
went in and shot what I think is one of the more powerful scenes of the
movie. And that was my dream of what directing would be, that the script
was merely a guideline, and that we would all go in and as a group
collaborate on this idea and come up with a result like that.
iW: That’s a collaboration that you don’t often get as a screenwriter, obviously.
McQuarrie: Definitely not.
iW: How do you see yourself inviting that collaboration again?
McQuarrie: I would do it every time. You hire actors to do their job;
you hire them to act. You don’t hire them to just show up and read your
lines. The day I feel that I’ve got it written down so fucking
perfectly, that an actor has to say it the way that I want, then I’ve
got to quit. To me, more than anything else, what I enjoy about making
film is collaborating. Writing fulfills any solitary need I have to jerk
myself off. When you are sitting alone in a room and writing a script,
you are God and everything you are writing is great, and nobody can tell
you what to do. Then when you actually print the script out and let
other people see it you start to realize how human you are and how much
help you need from everybody else. You feed your ego as a writer. I
think to feed your ego as a director is ultimately to fail. I thought I
was so prepared going in, and I had done a lot of work to prepare. I
thought I will get through this. I didn’t know shit. And on the next
movie I know, with everything I’ve learned on this movie, I still don’t
know shit. I’ll be much more prepared to direct a film knowing that I
don’t know anything.
iW: Without the Hollywood sense of justice in the film, where do you see the audience finding satisfaction in “The Way of the Gun”?
McQuarrie: I’m a big believer that a movie shouldn’t satisfy you, that
you should always rob the audience of some satisfaction. I resolve the
story, I bring everything to a head, and I tie up all the loose ends,
but I always try to take something away from it. I really believe that
the way to make a film last in people’s minds, and prompt discussion —
which to me if my movies don’t prompt discussion, they’ve failed — the
best way to do that is to not answer every question and to not give them
everything they want. I believe in rather than trying to give them 100%,
give them 90% and let them provide the other 10%.