Write and Wrong

Chris McQuarrie won an Oscar for Usual Suspects, to which Hollywood responded, 'Big deal'

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.

The write man for the job: Chris McQuarrie, right, directs Ryan Phillippe on the set of The Way of the Gun.
John Baer
The write man for the job: Chris McQuarrie, right, directs Ryan Phillippe on the set of The Way of the Gun.

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.

"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.

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