‘The Way of the Gun’: An Interview with Christopher McQuarrie

Beneath Christopher McQuarrie’s quiet surface runs dark passion and stubborn energy; after all, he did write the Oscar-winning script for 1995’s The Usual Suspects.

Can’t you people see there are guns here?

Chris McQuarrie doesn’t look like someone from Hollywood. He doesn’t wear black, his face is pleasant and his voice soft and deliberate, without the speed and breathlessness that afflict folks who spend too much time inside the business. In fact, after eight years of living in L.A., he and his wife have recently moved to Seattle, where they’re looking forward to raising their about-to-born child. But beneath this quiet surface runs dark passion and stubborn energy; after all, he did write the Oscar-winning script for 1995’s The Usual Suspects. He feels strongly about what he’s doing with his movies. And he loves to talk.

The Way of the Gun is McQuarrie’s second credited feature script, and his directorial debut. It follows the travails of a pair of criminals — who go by the real life names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro) — who kidnap the very pregnant Robin (Juliette Lewis) in order to extract millions from the rich gangster-businessman who’s paying her to carry his and his pretty young wife’s child. The businessman hires a hitman in addition to a couple of violence-prone bodyguards, and things go very wrong.

Cynthia Fuchs: I confess that when I first saw The Way of the Gun, I was struck by the way that Robin is treated as “meat,” quite literally, by most everyone. Then I thought, maybe that is the point. What were you thinking?

Christopher McQuarrie: The film came from our frustration with the system of rules that exists, about what characters can and cannot do in a film. Whenever you try to make a film like this, the studio will never suggest taking out violence, but ways of making the violence more palatable or more justifiable. We were determined to tell a story about two reprehensible characters [Parker and Longbaugh], and have the audience follow their story to the end without having to forgive them or in some way identify with them. We wanted to do a story where everybody is a little bit responsible, a little bit complicit and guilty. And some of them are punished and some of them aren’t. It became a comment on film itself, in fact, most of the work we do ends up being that.

To that end, Robin embodies the way we perceive women to be treated in film, which is that for the most part, women are in films to bring the breasts and eventually be in peril so that the men can save them. Rather than create ways of hiding that, which a lot of movies do, we introduced a character who literally exists in the story because she’s a woman and the other characters need a woman for this specific purpose. And everyone treats her that way. Eventually, you realize that she is more important and at least one character holds her dear. In most other movies, the woman is given some snappy dialogue and the opportunity to shoot one person. We wanted Robin to take control of her destiny. But it’s a world full of bad men.

CF: And on the other side is the wife, cold and bitchy Francesca [Kristin Lehman].

CM: Yes. My wife originally suggested the surrogate mother aspect when we discussed the kidnapping plot. We had decided we’d make a film about crime, and Benicio said, “Kidnappings are always the same.” We were all sitting around a table one day complaining that none of us could get a film made, and Benicio told me that if I did a crime film, they’d let me make it.

CF: And since Benicio had such good luck with his previous kidnapping film [the roundly panned, Alicia Silverstone-produced Excess Baggage]…

CM: [laughs] He was definitely interested in making up for that. My wife told me the story of a business executive married to a younger woman who just didn’t want to be bothered with the inconvenience of pregnancy. I wanted people to feel that Robin was the right person to raise the child. In the original script, Francesca was much more over the top: in every scene she had a cigarette and a glass of wine. In the film, she’s toned down. She’s always dressed in green: the greens start out very pale and get darker and darker throughout the film, representing money, then envy, and then fertility, alluding to the things that she most wants, as she develops. Kristin and I could look at any scene and say, this is a money scene, this is a fertility scene, just by the costumes. It was like Grr-animals. We pared down the dragon lady stuff so that she really only has one scene where she shows her true colors, so to speak. The last line in the movie is her saying, “I’m pregnant,” and it’s absolutely chilling, as you consider the consequences of that.

We were constantly trying to show consequences. Francesca, more than any other character, represents the consequences. When Longbaugh asks Parker, “What does it matter, after all the people we’ve killed and maimed, if we take this child away from its mother?” And Parker says, “It matters,” because he was a child taken from his mother. Parker’s life is shaped by that incident. So when Francesca says that at the end, no matter who the father is — and that’s in doubt — it’s clear that she’s the kind of mother who could make another Parker.

CF: Does the film work out a kind of moral relativity?

CM: I never tried to make any of the characters presentable. I just tried to give everyone good reasons for what they did. I don’t mean “benevolent,” but everybody had a truth and they stuck to it. I really believe that the more you try to make an audience identify with a character, the more you’re justifying any of their bad actions or overselling any of their good actions. I cut a scene that almost did just that, the scene in the van, when Parker and Robin share the sandwich. In the script, it’s a monologue, where Parker explains to her their philosophy, that “people like you [Robin and the doctor] are civilians who tell yourselves a lie so you can get out of bed in the morning. And that is, there are two ways people die: it’s either your time or you have it coming. But guys like Longbaugh and me, we know there’s only one way you die: you get in the way.” Ryan said, “I think I want a sandwich in this scene,” so we got him a bacon sandwich at the gas station. And at the end of every take, we let the cameras roll, to see what would happen. At the end of one, Juliette says, “Are you gonna eat the other half of that sandwich?” It’s great because you realize that the whole time he’s talking, she’s not looking at him, but at the sandwich. We got to the cutting room, and after one viewing, we said, keep the sandwich and lose the monologue, because he would never tell her all that. I had managed to create the very moment that irritated me in other films: the explanation scene. I was very proud of the writing, but as my father says, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit, no matter how much mayonnaise you put in.” There was a lot of mayonnaise there.

CF: It sounds like you’re not wed to your own work.

CM: The day I do, I’ll quit. What I learned from The Usual Suspects was this: there was a whole sequence where the suspects arrive in LA from New York, and have to introduce themselves to the LA crime scene so they can fence these jewels. The sequence shows them arriving, not knowing anybody, where they get the guns, and how they get the contacts, and it bonded all the characters and had one scene in it that I thought was the funniest scene I’d ever written at that point. And [ director] Bryan Singer read the script and said, “It’s all really good, but it’s twenty pages long. Why can’t McManus just know the fence, and we can cut all that out?” I realized then that something can always go. Directing my own writing, I see that I talk way too much, and everything can happen much sooner, with much less said about it. So it’s always an effort to find a way to convey a scene in ten lines or less. Benicio was great about that. He’d say, we only need those two lines, or we’d have pages of dialogue that were originally written for Benicio, that we gave to other parts. In Suspects, Fenster was this tiny throwaway role that was exploding, and we were trying to find dialogue for him; here it was just the opposite. Longbaugh was a hugely written part and Benicio was trying to find ways to get rid of his lines.

CF: You seem to have a special relationship with him, but also open to suggestions from everyone.

CM: Yes. I believe that as a writer and a director, you’re only providing the skeleton of a character, and you’re hiring actors to fill it out. And it all goes back to Fenster in Suspects. I did not want Benicio in that movie. I wanted another actor and had a specific vision of that character, and I learned my lesson. When I watch that film, the most vivid thing is Benicio’s performance, because it’s not relying on the script, it’s all about this strange being he created. When you’ve written a film and directed it and it comes out exactly as you imagined it, it’s pretty boring.

CF: Most writers aren’t so happy to see their work reshaped. You’ve been blessed with these two experiences, to have so much control and input.

CM: Yeah. I’ve rewritten other films and watched my writing be mutilated, but luckily it’s been mutilated anonymously. I try my best to say what I think, but these are people who’ve hired me to write their film, not my film. But with things like this, there are things on which I won’t compromise. There’s a reason why we held onto Suspects the way we did — and didn’t get paid the way we did. And the same thing with Way of the Gun. If my work is going to be mutilated, I’ll be the one to mutilate it.

CF: On this industry question, do you feel that if a movie is successful, it signals some compromise? That winning Academy Awards is not necessarily a good thing?

CM: No, It’s not. I thought it was at first, I thought, now I have this eight-pound thing I can beat people over the head with and make them do what I want. After Suspects, I tried immediately to get other things made, and to deviate from Suspects. And I found out that it was this anchor that was forever attached to me. It happens every year with the Academy, there’s always one person who wins, being anointed, the one they’re letting in. It’s like at a family reunion, being the child picked to sit at the adult table. And I thought, great, they’ve given this to us, but then I realized, no, “You’ve been brought in.” It doesn’t make the studios want to make your movie any more than before. It just means they want you to make their movies. I found that rather than sacrificing the story, I was sacrificing something else. At every meeting I was taking less money and less back end, and giving up casting, just so I could have control of the story. And they said no. For a long time I resented those people, and saw them as fearful and ignorant, but in reality, all they’re doing is trying to reduce risk. It was the same thing I was doing: they’re trying to protect money and I’m trying to protect the story. The place that I’ve come to after all of this is, there are stories I want to make that will have to remain in a budget under $25 million, depending on what actors I can cast. And then there are those stories that the studios want to make, and that’s how you make your living. Is that selling out? Well, you’ve got to eat.

And now that I’ve come to that position where I understand where they’re coming from, they’re a lot more reasonable, because they realize that I’m not doing it out of contempt. So now I’m working on two projects, The Green Hornet and The Prisoner, based on the old TV show. Immediately when I went in to pitch The Prisoner, I said, it’s Kafka, it’s The Trial. And of course, the studio’s first reaction was to want to know everything: why is he here, what happened to get him there? It took some convincing, but they eventually did accept that it’s simply practical. No answer I could come up with would ever be satisfying. This guy has the ultimate secret, and he refuses to tell you what it is. The best tool a filmmaker has is the audience’s imagination. I can’t tell you what happened in Baltimore, in Way of the Gun, any better than you can imagine what happened in Baltimore. Or, when you hear the explanation in The Silence of the Lambs, when she tells her story — no, I’m sorry, Dr. Lecter tells her story to her, which is what he does in that whole movie — to some people it’s a very emotional story. But as this friend of mine says, just change “lamb” to “turkey,” and listen to that whole scene over again and imagine her crying over a turkey or a chicken. And I realized, it was such a cheat, this little lamb in her hands.

CF: Speaking of turkeys, I guess, can you talk about how you use humor to create a rhythm in your scripts?

CM: The things I like the most come up by accident. When I try to write a funny moment, it always rings false. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, when they’re kidnapping Robin, there are these people just watching. That came form a real robbery I was in, in a supermarket. And this guy came in and put a gun to a cashier’s head and it was a good twenty seconds before anybody snapped out of whatever conversation they were having to see that a man was standing with a gun, saying “Give me the money.” And then, everyone just stood there, looking at each other — not even the gunman — for a long moment. And everybody started slowly inching their way down, nobody wanted to be the first. They were looking at each other like, “Is this what we do?” One of the things I wanted to do with the film was reset the clock on guns, because they’ve been so melodramatasized — if that’s a word — so overdone, and a gun doesn’t have any meaning until you pull it out and make noise with it and cock it and hold it sideways. What I specifically said to the actors was, “When guns come out, everybody stops moving.” It’s like there’s a cobra sitting on the floor: you don’t make any sudden moves because you don’t want it to strike. So, in the kidnapping, Parker says, “Can’t you people see there are guns here?” He’s so frustrated that people don’t respect guns the way he does. It starts as a humorous scene, but it leads directly to the next scene, where there are all these dead people lying about: clearly they got up and left, then hung around to see what was happening, when they could have been miles away by then.

CF: But Parker and Longbaugh don’t see a joke here.

CM: We never tried to make death a funny thing. I never wanted Parker and Longbaugh to be indifferent about death. They certainly have no problem killing, but they don’t enjoy it or find it funny. With each person they kill, they’re going to open up a whole new set of consequences.

CF: Are there particular consequences, in your thinking, in your casting choices? Say, Taye Diggs as the bodyguard?

CM: Once the script developed so that Francesca was sleeping with one of the bodyguards, I liked Taye from the beginning. I knew he would play a great villain, because he’s so good-looking. What I never wanted to do was make note of Jeffers’ race. I know that once you cast a black actor in a role, it’s almost like the script has to be written for a black person. But people don’t talk about that. The only reference we make to Taye’s race is when [old school gangster Abner] refers to him at the end as “that colored fellow.” Abner is of an age, where that is how one would refer. I don’t think about race in casting. For Suspects, Jack Bear was not black, and we hired Giancarlo Esposito, and Fenster was Jewish, and we hired Benicio. Kobayashi was Japanese, and we hired Pete Postlethwaite.

CF: Sarno seems like he had to be played by someone who played tough guys before.

CM: I wanted the scene between Longbaugh and Sarno (James Caan) to be between a veteran actor and a new one. I wanted that scene to be about someone who had “lived through the Golden Age” of Cinema,” talking to a guy who should have been there, speaking to the idea that Parker and Longbaugh are throwbacks, running around the modern world where they just don’t fit. And the one thing that I attribute to Jimmy more than anybody else on the film is this. As a writer of film, it’s your job to accommodate everybody else, and you work very hard to shape everybody’s vision into your work. As a director you’re trying to shape everybody else’s work into your vision. And Jimmy saw that I was having difficulty making that transition, and during one scene, he pulled me aside, and said, “Every actor, including myself, wants to be directed. This is your movie whether you like it or not, so quit fucking around and go back in there and tell those people what to do.” And that was the day I really started directing.