Screenwriting + Luck: The Story Behind The Usual Suspects

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by Fin Wheeler

In 1995 the then little-known screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a film which almost never went into production, The Usual Suspects.

Is it just luck, a confluence of happy dominoes, which dictates whether one screenwriter’s project becomes a success while hundreds of thousands of others do not, or is there more to it than that?

In his Hollywood memoir Tales from the Screen Trade, William Goldman ponders why it was that Sylvester Stallone’s popular Rocky claimed so many Academy Awards when it was up against Goldman’s critically exclaimed All The President’s Men.

Goldman theorized that Rocky had won so many Oscars over All The President’s Men because “it satisfied the most basic Hollywood dream – dreams can come true. If we sit on the right drug store stool at the right time, as Lana Turner supposedly did, Fame will find us. Sylvester Stallone’s phenomenal emergence from obscurity with a picture that he invested and starred in was too much for the voters to resist. They gave their hearts to Stallone and their votes to his picture.”

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While it’s easy to dismiss the success of others as just luck, it’s not entirely accurate. While every screen project, by definition, does require a little luck along the way to ensure the multitude of elements somehow fall into place, there’s also a lot of talent, hard work, out-of-the-box thinking, cooperation and persistence required.

The Usual Suspects

Christopher McQuarrie won his Oscar for a project which accidentally came into being.

He and the film’s director, Brian Singer, had grown up together because their parents were friends. They’d tooled around making home movies together. Christopher being a few year younger had let budding-auteur Brian boss him around.

A few decades on Singer had made the move to Hollywood to chip away at a directing career. A short of his starring Ethan Hawke, Lion’s Den, had made a few ripples. McQuarrie had shuffled between careers after school. He was doing well in his currently line, so much so that he’d just been offered a major promotion. But he was at a cross road: establish a new branch in a new city for his company, or head west like Brian had done, and try to make it as a screenwriter.

Singer was supportive of McQuarrie’s dreams, but also realistic. There’s no money in LA until you’ve already made it. McQuarrie took the company job.

Fate had other plans though. The job fell through. Around the same time Singer received an offer to develop a feature version of his short film. McQuarrie wrote a draft. It’s a little hard to believe in this day and age, but he’s said in interviews that many pages of the script he submitted were hand-written. (It was more than two decades ago.)

Not surprisingly, another screenwriter was hired to do a major re-write, McQuarrie learning a huge amount from observing the process. He also received a co-writing credit for the finished film, Public Access.

While Public Access (1993) was never released in theatres (perhaps due to the average response it got from festival audiences), it did win a number of important prizes: the Critics Award at the Deauville American Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Many screenwriters would give up there. Many have. Accept the awards and head back to a comfy full-time teaching position at the second-tier film school back in your home town. It’s a hell of a lot easier and safer than heading back to LA to sink yet more time and effort into another project.

But Singer and McQuarrie were determined to work even harder on a new project. And as they always say in LA, you don’t have to get everyone to like your work, just someone with the power to push a green light.

As luck would have it, McQuarrie and Singer ran into Kevin Spacey at an after-party for Public Access.  It seemed like everyone Spacey knew had seen and been impressed by Public Access. Spacey wasn’t concerned that it hadn’t achieved a distribution deal. He admired their vision and told Singer he didn’t care what his next project was, he wanted to be in it.

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Singer had always liked the line from Casablanca, “Round up the usual suspects.” He thought The Usual Suspects would make a great movie title.

At the title suggested, the script would be about five criminals who meet in a line up and go on to work together on a heist.

Singer pitched it, there was interest, so McQuarrie spent the next five months writing nine drafts and perfecting the story. Finally, Singer felt it was industry-ready and went around town pitching it.

Everyone agreed that it was an interesting script, but most who read it didn’t see how it could be converted to screen.

All the studios passed, as did independent LA producers.

Finally, Singer was able to find European financing (which then fell through but led to another deal) and it was made for $5.5-6 million. But, again, despite the recognizable name actors involved, there were no immediate offers for theatrical release in America or other territories.

Everyone involved in the project believed in the film they had created. It was screened out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival where it was extremely well received. On the strength of that, it got an exclusive LA release which did surprisingly well and led to an NYC release. When that did well, the film was taken to the next level and given a limited release and eventually a general release.

The Usual Suspects ended up taking $23.3 million in North America. Not bad for an indie film. And of course, there were the numerous awards it garnered.

Lessons Learned

So what can aspiring screenwriters take from this?

  1. Always behave well, work hard, and be genuine, because relationships matter.

  2. Live a full life and write what you know. McQuarie had had several different jobs before launching into screenwriting full time. That knowledge meant he could weave in brilliant detail organically.

  3. Don’t be afraid to contact an old friend if they’ve gotten traction in the industry. But don’t bug someone you used to bully, and only contact them if you’ve got solid skills and writing samples.

  4. If you respect someone, and they tell you now isn’t the time for you to try and turn pro, listen to them.

  5. Never just “phone in” your script. Keep re-writing until it’s a professional before you take it out into the industry.

  6. Don’t be held hostage by your ego. If the producer tells you a more experienced writer needs to be brought on to give the project the best chance, don’t throw a tantrum. It’s a rookie mistake. Those who make it rarely get another chance.

  7. Hollywood studios aren’t the be all and end all. Consider all funding options.

  8. Believe in yourself and your work.

  9. Persevere.

  10. Be prepared and ready when Luck comes calling.

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“Have you written anything today??”

Best of luck, and may your next spec breakthrough for you.

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