600full-the-usual-suspects-screenshot

Warning: Spoilers below. Please watch movie before reading this article.  

It seems almost silly that I’ve run a screenwriting blog for five years and never once looked at The Usual Suspects. It’s kind of like writing a football blog and never mentioning Jerry Rice. The Usual Suspects was written in 1994 by a then unknown Christopher McQuarrie when his director buddy, Bryan Singer, called and said he’d been given money to make a movie and needed a script (a problem we all wish we had, no doubt). McQuarrie cooked up this strange little time-bouncing noir mystery about a group of usual suspects who meet during a line-up and quickly find themselves hunted by the most ruthless killer in the world, Keyser Soze. A couple years later, McQuarrie found himself holding an Oscar. This dream ended up in a nightmare, however, as McQaurrie stumbled into a decade long stint of development hell, writing numerous projects that never made it to the big screen (or did with other writers) and watched as his stock plummeted with each failure. It got so bad he considered leaving the film industry. It wasn’t until 2007, when Tom Cruise rescued him to write his film, Valkyrie, that McQuarrie’s career was reborn. He recently wrote and directed the modest hit, “Jack Reacher,” for Cruise again, and has since written a draft or two of the always-scary-to-imagine Top Gun 2. In probably one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever heard about a successful film, McQuarrie recently admitted that he and Singer realized they had completely different conceptions about the plot. “I pulled Bryan aside the night before press began and I said, ‘We need to get our stories straight because people are starting to ask what happened and what didn’t. And we got into the biggest argument we’ve ever had in our lives. One of us believed that the story was all lies, peppered with little bits of the truth. And the other one believed it was all true, peppered with tiny, little lies. … We each thought we were making a movie that was completely different from what the other one thought.”

1) Ignoring the rules only works if you get to make all your movies on an island – McQuarrie didn’t really know how to write when he wrote The Usual Suspects. He ended up breaking a ton of rules due to his ignorance (time-jumping, voice over, too many characters). The result was a hit movie and an Oscar. You’d think, then, that the lesson would be, “Ignore the rules.” Well, sorta. Once McQuarrie moved from the indie world to Hollywood, none of his projects went anywhere. The reason for this is that McQuarrie didn’t really know how to write Hollywood movies. He didn’t understand structure and character and goals and stakes and conflict and all the things that make mainstream movies go. So he kept turning in drafts that nobody liked. He kept doing it HIS way. The lesson here is that if you can pull off a Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen and write and make movies off on your own little island, you don’t need to pay attention to what Hollywood says. But if you plan to work in the system, you better study every screenwriting book out there and understand how this business likes their stories told.

2) Explore concepts that allow you to create characters audiences have never seen before – The coolest thing I took away from The Usual Suspects is that when we finally meet Kobayashi, Keyser Soze’s right-hand man, it turns out he’s white and British. At first, this doesn’t really make sense. But in retrospect, you realize this was because Verbal (Kevin Spacey) was making up the story as he went along. He spotted the name “Kobayashi” on the bottom of his coffee cup, and simply turned him into a British guy in the story. I’m not sure a white British man with a Japanese name would’ve ever made it into a script otherwise. This got me wondering why more writers don’t explore ideas that allow them to introduce unexpected characters into their screenplays. It seems like an easy way to turn stereotypes on their head.

3) Don’t drop your reader into a time-blender in the first 5 pages – The Usual Suspects has an overly confusing opening that bounces all over the place. We start one day ago on a boat, then cut to present day for a split second, then jump back 6 weeks ago. The problem with this is, we don’t know your characters yet. We don’t know what story you’re telling. We’re not yet used to your writing style. We know nothing and you’ve already dropped us into a blender. So the first two times I saw The Usual Suspects, I had no clue what the actual timeline was.  Even watching it this time around, I was a little confused.  Only jump around in time early if there’s NO OTHER WAY for your story to work. And if you do, please pay a tremendous amount of attention to orienting your reader. But yeah, I’d just keep that opening easy to follow.

4) Extend a mystery with a delay – This is a neat little way to give a cool mystery extra life so you can milk it for a few extra scenes. When the boat blows up at the beginning of the film, there’s a survivor, a man in critical condition suffering from 60% burns to his body. This man knows what happened, which means he can solve our mystery! So the police come to find out what he knows but…oh no! He speaks Hungarian. Now the police have to go out there and find a Hungarian translator! The mystery continues. And we get a couple more scenes wondering what this intriguing character knows.

5) CONFLICT ALERT – As I always tell you guys, the best drama is packed with conflict. And that’s clearly the case with The Usual Suspects. Lots of conflict all over. But I don’t think anyone can deny that the best scenes in The Usual Suspects take place between Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Verbal (Kevin Spacey). And the reason for this is their scenes are based on one of the oldest conflict setups in the book: A character who wants something (Kujan), and a character who doesn’t want to give it to him (Spacey). You do that, you have conflict, and you will always have a scene (or in this case, an entire movie full of scenes).

6) A CLEAR MYSTERY can soften the confusion of a dense pot – If you have a dense multi-layered plot like The Usual Suspects, offset it with one big CLEAR mystery the audience can easily follow. Not everyone is able to follow what’s happening in The Usual Suspects. There’s a strange set of time jumps, lots of characters, and an ever-changing story, but you won’t find anyone who doesn’t want to finish the movie in order to solve the big mystery: WHO IS KEYSER SOZE???

7) Characters should speak in their own unique voice – One of my favorite lines in The Usual Suspects is when Kobayashi (Keyser Soze’s Number 2) warns Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) that if he kills him, his wife “will find herself the victim of a most gruesome violation.” I’ve heard so many cliche bad guys dish out over-the-top threats like, “I’ll fuck your wife and make your family watch.” It’s refreshing to hear an uptight, upstanding, proper gentleman threaten in exactly the manner and tone you’d expect a man like him to threaten in. It’s a reminder that you’d like all your characters to speak in a way only they would speak. This is one of the reasons The Usual Suspects is so popular. It had a ton of unique characters who all spoke THEIR OWN way.

8) Always think like an actor when writing characters – Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) was nothing like the character McQuarrie originally wrote. Benicio turned him into an overly-primped excessively-styled unintelligible mutterer, and the result was one of the more memorable movie characters of the decade. It’s a great lesson for writers. Actors are looking to create the most complex interesting characters possible. By simply thinking like one, you can do this for them, and your script will be populated with much more interesting characters as a result. I guarantee it.

9) You must be smarter than the reader in the subject matter you’re writing about – Readers are smart. They have the internet. They know a lot of things. So if you’re going to write a script, make sure you know that subject matter better than the reader. This may seem obvious, but I read tons of embarrassing screenplays where I know more about cop procedure than the writer who’s writing a cop procedural. That’s embarrassing. Cause I don’t know much about cop procedure. The result of this realization is that I don’t believe in the writer anymore, which means I lose confidence in him, which means I lose confidence in the script, which means the script is dead to me. McQuarrie worked at a detective agency for four years before he wrote this. He knew how the  hierarchy of this world worked and it shows. If you don’t have that knowledge going into your script, research the subject matter until you do. I promise it will pay off.

10) When writing a group of characters, make sure to create dynamics WITHIN the group – There is no group of people in this world where everyone knows and likes each other equally. They all have side friendships, people they like and dislike, histories, guys they trust and don’t trust. Here, Fenster and McManus (Stephen Baldwin) are good friends. Verbal (Spacey) engages in a friendship with Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). Hockney (Pollack) kind of knows everyone. By digging in and understanding the dynamics within your group, the group will feel more complex, and by association, genuine.  It’ll also help you know your individual characters better.

  • JW

    And, the #1 rule learned from The Usual Suspects… writing is hard fuckin’ work and sometimes this level of execution comes around only once in a career. As solid as McQuarrie is, as solid as Walker is (and this list goes on and on), we’ve never seen a follow up to match or exceed both The Usual Suspects or Seven (some may argue The Sixth Sense…).

    Are most writers destined to have just one of these up their sleeve?

  • Buster

    Who is Kaiser Soze? Uhhhhh don’t ask the writer or director… They don’t know. Or at least, they can’t agree… Biggest trick the devil ever played? The smoke and mirror job that won this script an Oscar. It was all just so much superficial but highly entertaining nothingness that everyone tried to find meaning in. You can’t solve the puzzle if the pieces are rigged and don’t fit together. Most over rated script of the last 20 years for sure. Again, it’s entertaining. But if you have half a brain and spend 5 minutes thinking about it you’ll see it for what it is… One giant parlor trick.

    • Citizen M

      100% agree. The most overrated film of the last 20 years. I hated it from the first moment to the last. I hated it even more when it won Oscars that should have gone to Se7en, a far superior film.

      • Kay Bryen

        The hilarious thing is I was just going to mention The Usual Suspects *and* Se7en in the same sentence as movies I find over-rated… I’ve been watching a marathon of Oscar-winning movies, and the ones that are impressing me the most are the ones you never hear mentioned (like In The Loop).

  • Logline_Villain

    It’s a script/movie so full of mystery boxes it probably made JJ Abrams jealous. Excellent analysis, Carson – it’s a love it or hate it movie, but the characters were indeed memorable…

  • Abdul Fataki

    I’m gonna boycott this website until I see a Pitch Black 10 Tips post.

    • Poe_Serling

      lol. Perhaps Carson has recently converted to Necroism… I heard that they just opened a new center on Hollywood Blvd.

    • JT

      funny, I emailed about PITCH yesterday myself. Was Carson intending on breaking that one down?

    • John B

      The Usual Suspects>>>>>>>>>>Pitch Black……I like that movie, but complaining about a lack of a Pitch Black review on a post about The Usual Suspects is like going to an expensive steakhouse and walking out because they don’t serve a $10 burger=)

      • Abdul Fataki

        Yeah but I think we can learn more from Pitch Black, which has a normal structure, an interesting protagonist (bad hero) – a lot of conflict in the group – urgency – a goal etc. Plus that one should’ve been done like three weeks ago!

        • John B

          I agree it would be a good article. I just wanted to make a funny.

  • ArabyChic

    Is it just me or was Pete Postelthwaite wearing brown face paint and trying to speak in an Indian accent?

    • brenkilco

      Think he’s supposed to come across as an English educated asian character so the name isn’t totally incongruous. Could be wrong.

    • DrMatt

      In the commentary they mention how funny it was that he was a white British guy playing a Paktistani/middle-eastern man (hence the tan and crossed accent), with a Japanese name.

  • brenkilco

    It works well on a first viewing. Its only when you think about it afterwards that it begins to fall apart. A thriller that leaves you unsure of how much you’ve seen actually happened is open to a lot of criticism. The script took a lot of effort and needed more. The lying flashback has tripped up more than one filmmaker, including Hitchcock who considered its use in Stage Fright one of his biggest mistakes. If material is presented objectively the audience is going to accept it as real. Part of the reason Fight Club has always irritated me. Norton and Pitt being shown in the same shot.

    • Alexander Jarman

      In Fight Club though, we’re being told the story from the perspective of
      Norton, and Norton sees Pitt standing in the same shots as him. I think
      that is why that works for me. Once Norton stops seeing Pitt, or starts
      to believe that he isn’t real, we see Pitt flicker and even disappear
      from the shot. This is continuity of storytelling, albeit the story
      based upon the beliefs of a schizo.

      • brenkilco

        If we were seeing things from Norton’s point of view we would see only Pitt. The fact that both characters are shown from the view of an objective third party observer makes it a technical cheat. IMHO

        • Alexander Jarman

          With schizophrenia though, a person does not forget themselves when they mentally begin thinking as another personality. When they begin thinking as themselves again, they can sometimes remember the events that took place as an actual interaction that they remember themselves being a part of. This is not always the case, as some people respond to the stressful event using a defense mechanism known as compartmentalization. This has even been shown (not discussed really) in the film Me, Myself, and Irene. That film didn’t get it all right, but enough to ensure some laughs. (Plus that movie was made when I was a child, so my education came after seeing it. Possibly would have turned me off to the movie had I been able to pick up the falsities of his condition.)

          • brenkilco

            I’m not objecting to the film’s dramatization of mental illness, though clearly it owes infinitely more to Hollywood than it does to Freud, only to its visualization of the condition; a dishonest device which, as with the Usual Suspects, makes me question whether the big twist is genuinely earned.

          • Alexander Jarman

            I guess I’m getting hung up on the term ‘dishonest device’. It is difficult to accept what a mentally ill person would see when telling a story, especially because there are no two schizophrenics the same. I feel like that’s why I can’t accept dishonest because it’s meant to be a depiction of the mind of a schizophrenic, and it’s tough to argue with a schizophrenic that they are not seeing something the way it is actually occurring in reality and walk away sounding like the sane person.

          • brenkilco

            Think we’re at cross purposes here. You’re talking psychology and I’m talking narrative. If I were reading a book where the narrator turns out to be a schizophrenic I would accept any lie I’d been told. The story is totally subjective. But movies aren’t books. While they may have subjective elements most of the time the screen is being filled with images that the audience is asked to accept as real. If the director presents subjective material as if its objective and doesn’t clue the audience he’s cheating. Assume you also like “A Beautiful mind” where an imaginary character throws a real desk through a window; another movie that, you should pardon the expression, drives me crazy.

          • Alexander Jarman

            I think our difference is that because I accept the psychology, I see the story information as the truth instead of a lie. The truth is what Norton believes and it is revealed to us at the same pace Norton discovers it. Since Norton is the one telling the story, we see what he accepts as true because it’s his story.

            And A Beautiful Mind is a similar concept for the same reasons, along with the Black Swan. A thesis studied many years ago would be quoted in The Matrix years later that would validate these in that “the mind makes it real”. It’s real to them. It’s their story. We see what they believe is real. Now if you just don’t enjoy movies with no or limited clues alluding to the climactic twist, none of these films would be for you.

    • Citizen M

      Watch Fight Club again, knowing the big reveal. You’ll realize it’s very well crafted. I couldn’t see any inconsistencies. In fact, I enjoyed it more the second time around.

    • TruckDweller

      Life of Pi is the same way. It’s all fiction, it’s all crafted by someone. Why should it matter if it’s crafted by the character or the screenwriter? At the end, you get to decide how much of Verbal’s story was real and how much was bullshit.

      For what it’s worth, you have the story of the Hungarian mob creating Soze. Verbal says he believes it and I choose to believe it because of all of the verifiables that occur. The point of Soze was that he was willing to do the evil that others were not. Figuring out that Verbal was Soze allows you to review the story and recreate it with a clever Verbal pulling the strings. How much of it actually happens doesn’t matter as much as the fact that these characters end up being forced to destroy a threat to Soze by someone that was in their midst, that they did not suspect. To me, the questions that I’m left with don’t ruin the movie, they enhance it.

    • Ken

      I’ve never found the the big reveal (that it’s all been a pack of lies) to be very clever either: all it means is that any bunch of stuff could’ve been added to the story and the reveal would still be the same: it’s lies! The Usual Suspects’ twist is not the same as, say, the twist in The Sixth Sense, which reveals a specific fact (he’s a ghost) and you realize that all you’ve seen still makes sense.

    • Linkthis83

      Big reveal movies only have one chance to “get you.” The entire story is the set up. And if they “get you,” well…then they “got you.” We can go back and analyze all we want but the story “got us” plain and simple. That was what was cool about The Usual Suspects. It made me believe that Verbal was Keyser Soze and that he saved himself by creating a whole story of lies based off of things located within the same room as him. I appreciate the hell out of that concept.

      When people get “got” and they don’t like it, the ego steps in to explain why it was unfair they got “got.” :) Isn’t that what stories are: a crafted collection of lies and manipulations?

      • gazrow

        Loved The Usual Suspects – Never had a problem with the ending because it was so clever – Even though I and everyone else had no chance of uncovering the “twist” I never felt cheated in any way!

        On the other hand, two lesser films, that I enjoyed until the last five minutes, and which still piss me off, are: The Bone Collector – Because when the killer’s true identity is revealed, he start’s spouting off all this back story about how Denzel’s character testified against him, got him sent to prison, where he was subsequently raped etc. All stuff that we the audience were never privy too, so never had a hope in hell of solving the case!!

        The other film is Orphan – A girl who’s actually an adult! That was just a blatant cheat!!

        • Linkthis83

          I don’t remember The Bone Collector enough to make 100% statements but I do remember feeling cheated on that ending too. It was like somebody said “Hey, what if the killer is the same guy who is taking care of him?!?!? And nobody will see it coming?!?!?” Of course we won’t, if you don’t give us any reason to think Denzel is in danger. If I remember correctly, we aren’t given any reason to believe this whole plot has to do with getting even with Denzel.

          So in the big reveal that catches everyone off-guard, then they have to overload us with the exposition to justify their choice. I mean they could’ve even thrown in Denzel getting threatening messages or something that would at least clue us in that he might be in danger. And just make those messages seem weak or amateurish. To throw us off but still make us aware he was potentially in danger.

          • gazrow

            Yeah – Good point!

    • filmklassik

      Yeah, the whole movie’s a cheat. It doesn’t play fair. The best “sleight of hand” movies are the ones that give you, the viewer, all the information you need to anticipate the big twist at the end — and still manage to fool you.

      We don’t see them often — maybe once per decade — as they are incredibly difficult to pull off. THE STING managed to do it. So did THE SIXTH SENSE (although that ending didn’t surprise me as I went into it with my antenna raised for “a big surprise ending”). So did THE WICKER MAN… ANGEL HEART… WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION… DEATH ON THE NILE… HOUSE OF GAMES (although once again, I saw that one coming)… and a brilliant TV movie from the late 1980s called VANISHING ACT.

      • Kieran ODea

        gonna have to check those out now. thanks!

      • Poe_Serling

        Oh, the Vanishing Act is a good one…

        One of my favorite mystery/whodunit is the ’73 film The Last of Sheila. Here a ‘game of murder among wealthy vacationers turns into the real thing.’

        Directed by Herbert Ross. Written by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim.

        • brenkilco

          The Last of Sheila is a fantastic one of a kind picture that deserves a lot more love. “You don’t have to move for this game, if you’re smart enough.”

      • brenkilco

        A great twist is more than a surprise, more than something that gets you. It must literally turn the plot inside out and force the viewer to reconsider everything he has seen in a new light. The twist must be impossible to guess yet make the viewer kick himself for not guessing. By definition a twist story must withhold information from the viewers but it must play fair with what it chooses to show him which is why I believe that despite their impact neither The Usual Suspects nor Fight Club quite measure up. Lastly, the best twist stories, regardless of their complexity, must deliver their revelation in a blinding flash. Deitrich’s “Want to kiss me Ducky?” in Witnesss for the Prosecution or the “dead” husband popping out his fake eyeball in Diabolique. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a personal favorite, requires a bit more splaining but is worth it.

        • filmklassik

          “Lastly, the best twist stories, regardless of their complexity, must deliver their revelation in a blinding flash.”

          Great insight and you’re exactly right — the best ones do precisely that!

          • Linkthis83

            You guys are making my head hurt. The Usual Suspects isn’t a “twist” movie. Nor is it “sleight of hand.” It’s a “big reveal” type movie. Verbal takes what is available to him in the room and creates a compelling and convincing STORY which is subsequently “bought” by Kujan. And bought by you too. Kujan realizes it’s tale. You realize it’s a tale. Now you want to call Shenanigans. You didn’t have to believe Verbal’s story. But he got you ;) And now you have the luxury of crying foul. I love it.

          • filmklassik

            “You didn’t have to believe Verbal’s story. But he got you.”

            Right. He “got” me. To Mr. McQuarrie I can only say, “Well played, sir.” To think I could be dumb enough to believe that what I saw unfolding up onscreen was objective reality. D’ohhhh!!! Silly me. I’m still kicking myself.

          • Linkthis83

            I don’t think it’s the getting “got” part that I’m really even trying to emphasize. I think it’s the perspective of the character that’s the most important here. He’s a criminal and a suspect and he is being asked/forced to tell his story. Based on McQuarrie’s background, he has probably heard all kinds of made up criminal stories. And from the character’s perspective, he’s telling a story that helps his own situation. I guess I don’t get why this is an unacceptable angle to play in a movie/story. I know I didn’t feel cheated. I thought it was really cool to find out he’d been using things within the room to weave this tale. It’s clever I guess. And I like that.

            I mean, if somebody sat and told me a story for two hours that was mostly lies and then I discovered it was mostly lies, I wouldn’t say that person performed “sleight of hand” on me. Nor would I refer to it as a “twist.” The only thing that has happened is that I’ve been told a brilliant, engrossing lie.

          • filmklassik

            Link: Hear, hear! I couldn’t agree more. But this movie is PERCEIVED by some as having a brilliant “twist ending” and I’m glad to see you acknowledging that it doesn’t.

            And I agree that it’s well directed and well acted… the dialogue is good and often very funny…

            …but the ending is crazy. Remember those incredibly lame “not” jokes from a few years back? Well that’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS, my friend. One big “not” joke. And it shouldn’t be compared to the handful of truly ingenious “twist in the tail” movies that we have been discussing on this page.

          • Linkthis83

            Yeah, I would only refer to this movie as a “big reveal” movie. (now in my head i’m arguing with myself over “twist” and “reveal” and it makes me think of Primal Fear) Loved that movie. Loved that big twist at the end. But now was it a twist or a reveal or both or ………

            I guess the other thing I was arguing is that it sounded like you felt tricked or cheated regarding The Usual Suspects. And I just don’t think that is the case. I think a lot of us were on the edge of the desk soaking up this tale. Which to me, means the story worked. But again, also because of the role of the character and his perspective and goals.

          • brenkilco

            Guess we’re beating a dead flashback here, but I’m not getting the distinction you’re drawing between a reveal and a twist, except that a reveal apparently has to be less logically accountable. Look you can have a teriffic story with an unreliable narrator. Its a tried and true device in fiction. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where the narrator dun it made Agatha Christie’s reputation. But in a book you see nothing but what the narrator describes. Movies are different. The viewer takes concrete images to be real. Its a sort of pact between filmmaker and audience and I think the filmmaker violates it at his peril. What do you take the flashbacks in the Usual Suspects to be? They can’t be what’s going on in Kujan’s head. He wouldn’t be visualizing Verbal’s story with such extraordinary specificity. They can’t be what’s going on in Verbal’s head where he must be both recalling the truth and cutting trimming and morphing it minute by minute. And he woundn’t be visualizing his lies with such specificity either. What’s left? A concrete presentation of what actually happened in the past, except that its not. It’s a cheat.
            Recall the bit at the end where we see Verbal has been drinking from Kobyashi china. So Kobyashi is an invention. Then Kobyashi picks him up. Who is the guy really? How much of what we saw him say and do did he actually say and do? I doubt even the writer knows. A final mini mind blower or a final FU?

          • Linkthis83

            “The viewer takes concrete images to be real.”

            Why would a viewer do that? The story we “see” is just a visual representation of the lie. Who says it has to be real? When movies show flashbacks or dreams, do you take all things to happen within that to be fact or true? Because then the difficulty lies within you.

            When a story shows us different characters flashbacks of the same event, do you assume all are true? No. You understand that you are getting that character’s version of what they THINK to be true. Unless their character is also lying or purposely being misleading for whatever reason they may have. The filmmaker is just trying to show that character’s truth (or lie) in a visual way. In this case with The Usual Suspects, we only get one view/version.

            I don’t get how that bothers you so much. The filmmaker gave us a visual interpretation of Verbal’s story. He pulled things from that room that were real to him. Why not some of the people he knows? Just change their names and roles. And the point of the story is that you don’t know what was real versus what was a lie. That’s what is cool in this case. You know some elements were real, but their usage was not. Thus, you can extrapolate that you know you just heard a guy tell an amazing tale in order to save himself that included some things based in reality and some he made up.

          • brenkilco

            Watched Vanishing Act. Didn’t surprise me. Not because I’m so clever but because it was so close in plot to an old British movie from the fifties called Chase a Crooked Shadow that I caught on TCM a while back. The old movie was a bit more plausible, the good guys had a year to set up their con, but it wasn’t as well paced. When I checked the IMDB it said that their were three separate TV movies made of this same story and all were based on a French play but no mention of the British flick. A little further digging revealed that the old film was indeed the first film version of the story but no attribution was given to the playwright. Hope the poor guy got some money. Here’s the kicker. Hitchcock was once set to do a film version of the play. It was formally announced, never happened. Who knew?

          • filmklassik

            Yep, you’re right, the French playwright clearly ripped off CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW. That being said, many believe that SHADOW was, in turn, an unofficial retelling of an episode of the radio show THE WHISTLER — from 1946! I’ve listened to that episode, by the way (you can hear it for free online) and take my word for it, there’s no question it’s the same basic story.

            Personally, I think VANISHING ACT is the best iteration of the plot. But in any form, it is unbelievably clever. Almost “Fuck you” clever. As in, “Oh, think you’re ingenious, do you? Trust me, nothing you write, ever, if you live to be a thousand, will be half as clever as this tale. So fuck you.” Very intimidating.

          • brenkilco

            Discovering the stage origins of Vanishing Act it occurred to me, as hard as it is to craft a clever thriller script, how much harder is it to craft a clever thriller play. In the fifties there was Dial M. In the sixties Wait Until Dark. In the Seventies Sleuth and Deathtrap. And that’s it. Maybe four plays in the last sixty years that anybody knows and nothing at all in the last forty. Really want to do the impossible. Write a great stage thriller.

          • filmklassik

            Funny but I had a similar conversation with my wife not long ago and came up with a similar list: DIAL M FOR MURDER, WAIT UNTIL DARK (both by Frederick Knott!), SLEUTH and DEATHTRAP.

            Oh and I may have had WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION on there as well… although I’ve never read or seen the play, only Billy Wilder’s adaptation of it (which I assume was pretty faithful).

            And you’re right: Crafting a logical, compelling, comprehensible thriller (for stage OR screen) with a mind-blowing twist at the end of it isn’t merely hard — it is well nigh impossible.

          • brenkilco

            Yeah, Witness. Mea Culpa. For some reason I always forget it was a play. Here’s something you might try some time since you’re interested in plotting. Run Witness for the Prosecution and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold back to back and focus only on the basic plots. Notice anything? If you can’t invent a great plot the next best thing is to steal a great one and conceal the theft brilliantly.

        • filmklassik

          Brenkilco take an hour and a half and watch VANISHING ACT starring Elliott Gould and Margot Kidder.

          Someone put the whole movie up on Youtube in 3 parts. Here’s part 1:

          Watch all 3 parts carefully and do not fast forward. Trust me, the story moves quick, plays fair, and will blow the top of your f***ing head off. Guaranteed.

          • brenkilco

            We’ll do. Surprised I’ve never heard of it.

  • jaehkim

    some people love this movie, some hate it.

    one criticism I’ve heard about the usual suspects is that there are no clues to the twist. there is no way to ‘figure’ it out while watching the movie.

    I personally think that is the genius of the usual suspects. a lot of movies these days have twists because as audiences we need the movie to be smarter than us in order for it to be entertaining. the thing that makes the twist in the usual suspects genius is that it makes you ‘feel’ like you could have figured it out if you had paid more attention, which of course is not true.

    • Jonathan Soens

      I think the only way to figure it out is to go into the Verbal interview assuming everything about him is bullshit. But you, as a reader/viewer, don’t do that. Because the cops seem like dicks who are bullying him (telling him he can go to jail or he can talk, which we are made to think will get him killed), and he just seems like a poor, timid cripple who is caught between a rock and a hard place. Instead of viewing him with suspicion, we sympathize with him.

      There’s probably a screenwriting lesson in there somewhere. By making him seem like a victim, like an underdog, we sympathize for him and root for him instead of suspecting him.

      • jaehkim

        use sympathy to distract the audience. I think we may have found tip #11.

    • Ken

      How could you have ‘figured’ it out? It’s just a bunch of lies. All the ‘clues’ (the names on mugs, etc) are only revealed at the very end.

      • jaehkim

        excactly!

    • filmklassik

      Yeah, you can place me firmly in the latter camp. I mean anyone can write a mystery where the clues do not add up… where the solution is some variation of “FOOLED YOU! NONE OF WHAT I JUST TOLD YOU ACTUALLY HAPPENED! HA HA HA HA HA HA!!”

      But constructing an intricate, logical, satisfying and 100% comprehensible story that “plays fair” with the audience AND STILL MANAGES TO FOOL THE HELL OUT OF THEM (as, for instance, THE STING or WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION does) takes diabolical skill, and nobody has pulled it off lately.

      • Linkthis83

        “…anyone can write a mystery where the clues do not add up…”

        Can anyone do that? To the level and success of The Usual Suspects? And I’m confused, why do people think this is a movie they can figure out? It’s a suspect telling HIS version of the story. And telling it to ANOTHER CHARACTER in order to convince him of something he doesn’t want to believe. The joke isn’t on the AUDIENCE, it’s on DAVE KUJAN. We were just along for the ride.

        • filmklassik

          Of course not anyone can write great dialogue and craft compelling characters and scenes, but we aren’t talking about writing ability here, we’re talking about plot.

          And when it comes to constructing a plot recounted in flashback and culminating in a “big twist” where the narrator turns out to be unreliable and the story he was telling us bullshit… then yeah, that kind of “Everything I just told you is a lie!” denouement is something I think anyone — even a backward 9-year-old — could come up with.

          Conversely, telling a story that is objectively honest and enthralling and makes perfect sense and yet STILL manages to fool the audience… that, my friend, carries a level of difficulty of 10/10.

          And by the way, McQuarrie himself disagrees with your observation that “The joke isn’t on the AUDIENCE, it’s on DAVE KUJAN. We were just along for the ride.”

          Because McQuarrie has in interviews referred to the ending of this movie as a “magic trick” — a bit of slight of hand designed to fool not just one of the characters in the story, but the audience, too.

          And does it ever.

          By really, REALLY cheating.

          • Linkthis83

            Like all online discussions, I know the following is futile….and yet I will still do it:

            The plot IS to tell a compelling lie. The narrator isn’t unreliable. His purpose is to tell this lie so well that Kujan BELIEVES it. I don’t know any 9 years olds that can make up a lie that is that compelling and interesting for that length of time. Kujan was so worked up he was on the edge of his desk. The more involved the lie got, the more animated he got.

            I understand you don’t want your storyteller to lie to you. But in this case, he wasn’t lying to YOU. And the number of movies that pull off anything 10/10 is so low. And depending on who you ask (this conversation included), you will get others who disagree about the 10/10 rating.

            FUTILITY CON’D

            So McQuarrie says it was a magic trick on the audience? According to this article, he and his own director didn’t know what story was being told. I also think it’s possible that McQuarrie wanted that to be his goal, and I would disagree with the man that he accomplished it. So in fooling himself he seems to even have fooled you, that he fooled you.

  • TruckDweller

    To extend number 9, know your subject matter, McQuarrie doesn’t just have a well researched criminal investigators, he constantly gives you a view point on the cops from the criminal perspective. The new view point makes all of the cop procedural feel that much more real and that much more interesting.

  • wlubake

    I love how he plans out his action scenes. In the otherwise mundane The Way of the Gun, there was that scene where they were climbing in and out of a car that just seemed well thought out. Need to watch that one again, actually. I miss when Nicky Katt was in everything.

  • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

    Carson, GREAT insight behind the inner workings of Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer. Really like hearing stories behind the movies like that. So thanks.
    Just looked up Christopher McQuarrie on IMBD. He’s really on a hot streak right now, and by that I merely mean he’s had a lot of movies he’s been involved with get a theartical release.
    One of the more cooler projects on Christopher McQuarrie’s slate is “Star Blazers.” Do you remember that sci-fi animated series? I remember as a kid watching that series and loving it. Very suprised the Hollywood hasn’t already made “Star Blazers” into a feature film.

  • Bobby

    Particularly like 8. But for me, what Benicio did CANNOT be captured on the page. Or at least not as accurately. Actors see a glimmer of something special in a character that fuels their thought process on how they want to play the role. This is what elevates a good character (on the page) to a great character (on screen). Try hard as the writer may, he/she will never do with 12point courier what an actor will do with performance.

  • Abdul Fataki

    Yes it was good enough to spawn a TRILOGY!

  • andyjaxfl

    Never knew that about McQuarrie but glad to see he’s finally getting his due. I think Way of the Gun is one of the most underrated crime movies of the last 30 years.

  • Alexander Jarman

    Good point with it not being objective reality, but I have already accepted that. With psychological movies such as Fight Club, I don’t think we are meant to see an objective reality. I feel that the story is more trying to show us what is taking place from the mind of the person with psychological issues.

    If this was the intent of Fight Club, then I feel that the way the story was told was true to the subjective experience of Norton. His mind would be able to create himself and others in situations, because when information is missing from reality, our brain’s job is to fill in the missing information with logic based upon the reality that is perceived.

    The logic of a mentally ill person is not the same as that of a healthy person, which causes their perceptions of reality to also be askew based upon their inability to fill in the missing information with accurate perceptions of reality.

    I understand the argument of objectivity used to gain the trust of the audience, but a psychological movie may be very difficult to tell in an objective way that allows for just as much interest and excitement to be brewed within the storyline. It seems that Fight Club took a perspective that would allow for the most intrigue to be built and executed without worrying about trust because they knew it would be the most exciting story.

  • rsuddhi

    Anyone else not impressed by this movie? The twist that Kint was Soze was pretty obvious. The plot was so highly convoluted that it was a chore to keep up with it, and then to learn it was all made up felt like I just wasted the last 2 hours watching it.

  • j111

    A script that’s garnered some positive reviews on The Black List site that I thought was similar to The Usual Suspects is H8RZ. (I hate the title, btw) Here’s the log line:

    “The lone survivor of a massive school explosion is held against his will while the administration, police and school board appointed lawyer sift through a story of blackmail, cyber-bullying, and murder, to try to figure out exactly what happened.”

    Similar but different, as they say.

    You can read more about it here: http://thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.com/2013/07/black-list-submission-gets-9-no-reason.html

    Apparently it’s by two repped writers but it hasn’t sold or anything. Still seems worth mentioning as a twist on an old idea.

  • Calavera

    That’s a great post, but it made me think during the day and maybe I would have put more emphasis on what are the two biggest screenwriting lessons of this movie (in my opinion).

    1/ This movie is basically built as a huge mystery box : we want to know who Keyzer Soze is. And despite a complex plot, sometimes hard to follow, it works amazingly well because ABSOLUTELY ALL THE CHARACTERS have heard about him/are afraid of him/want to know who he is/are afraid to know. And because they do… well, so do we.

    The lesson here would be: emotions are contagious. If all the characters of a story are afraid of something (in a realistic way), then we’ll start to get scared as well. If they’re all curious about something, probably we’ll be too. In Usual Suspects, the mystery box is so effective it single-handedly manages to keep us invested in the story.

    2/ And then there’s the ending. By creating this super-powerful mystery box, McQuarrie kind of forced himself to deliver a reveal of the same level, and I think he totally nailed it. The ending is unexpected, logical, it provides a satisfying answer to the mystery… and it makes you reconsider THE FULL STORY. I would also add : it was perfectly executed on screen, the proof of that being we can all visualize images of this sequence, even years after seeing the movie.

    The lesson here, in addition to the ingredients of what makes an ending “great”, is that an ending works even better when it’s been prepared throughout the movie. Here, the mystery box and the ending work hand-in-hand : we spend the whole movie dying to know who Keyzer Soze is, until we get this totally stunning and satisfying answer. That is what I call maximum power !

    PS : I don’t think the ending should be reduced to a variation of “in fact nothing of this really happened” (I also hate that kind of stuff !). Keyzer Soze does exist. The Usual Suspects did exist. Kobayashi does exist, although under another name. The transaction on the boat did happen… It’s our job to figure out what is real and what has been added, which 1/ makes the story engaging even after it’s finished 2/ make us reflect on the power of storytelling, which is an interesting – and unexpected – theme of Usual Suspects.

  • TheRealMWitty

    So glad I saw this movie on its opening weekend all those years ago. My friend Adam and I smelled Pulp Fiction cool all over this thing from the trailer and took the T from Braintree all the way to Kenmore to see it at what seemed to be the only theater in Massachusetts playing it (I don’t think I associate any movie I’ve ever seen with the theater I first saw it at more strongly than I do with Suspects and the Nick, for some unknowable reason). We smelled Pulp Fiction-cool all over this thing from the first trailer (an annoying comparison for McQuarrie, since he had written his script before anyone had even seen The Defining Movie of the 90′s, but it was 1995 and we had no other way to describe that very particular kind of movie-cool anticipation). To put things mildly, it did not disappoint.

    But what keeps this movie more re-watchable than so many spring-loaded caper twist-o-ramas was the feeling of poetry and music to the dialogue. Made all these guys feel so real: “News said it’s raining in New York today.”

  • Auckland Guy

    Great post Grendl, a lot of truth in there. Love your description of Grownups ‘a videotaped cast party featuring Adam Sandler and his cronies’… have to agree.

    I too think the Lone Ranger could have succeeded if the storytelling was better and fresher. Another point to consider there too was; have people just had enough of Johnny Depp being, well… Johnny Depp? A slightly offbeat and weird take on every character. Has what was once original and fresh now become utterly cliche and expected? The only two roles I can remember him playing relatively straight were Donnie Brasco and John Dillinger. Him playing ‘straight’ would now be unexpected and original I feel.

    Reading the backstory behind John Carter getting made was instructive. It seems Andrew Stanton read the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories as a boy and was transported by them. So were a lot of others and thought ‘this has got to be a movie’. That’s for me where the mistake came in. What was a fascinating ‘boys own’ adventure in book form in the early 1900′s does not necessarily make for a fascinating movie to 14 year old boys circa 2010. The basic premise could have been retained, but the story needed to be thoroughly updated and made relevant, like the Sherlock Holmes franchise has managed. And the name? Could anything scream dull and boring more than a title like ‘John Carter’? maybe ‘John Smith’. But I think the main problem was the story just wasn’t interesting enough to today’s audiences and Stanton violated his number one rule, ‘make them care’. i.e. he didn’t and couldn’t.

    Good point about Lucas not reaching to 1930′s heroes, but coming up with something new and original. If studios want to retread every story that has ‘pre-awareness’ factor, they better come up with some pretty fresh and original storytelling within the old concept or it is going to be decidedly hit and miss.

  • Johnny

    This is a great article. Sometimes in getting so carried away with a story I lose touch with what gave me the idea in the first place and it turns into a disorganized mind gumbo, and I end up starting over. I normally write stories with a nest of characters involved and you’re right on with your advice. Your article caused me to stop and listen again. Thanks.

  • fragglewriter

    I watched The Usual Suspects for the first time two weeks ago. I didn’t like it. I think because I’ve watched a few mystery movies from the Golden Era, and just wasn’t impressed, but I can appreciate the writer for creating interesting characters.

    A few questions:
    #1 – But isn’t that why Hollywood took an interest in the writer because it was different. How do you take that originality to create a blockbuster for Hollywood?

    #8 – I understand short action blocks to describe a character, but should we include mannerism in our scripts? If an actor is going to create the character on how he interprets it, then are descriptions necessary aside from age? Is dialogue suffice?

  • Marija ZombiGirl

    As much as I love this movie and loved getting “got”, I think there’s a very simple and logical thing to be learned here : the sole survivor usually has something to do with what happened… :-) We’ve seen this liitle trick in other scipts/screenplays that I’d rather not name so as not to spoil them. When the story is as genius as this one, I’m onboard. If the plot twist is obvious from the get-go, it just annoys me.

    • Zombietroy

      Except that we’ve seen nefarious types fake deaths in movies, and frankly I thought it was Keaton as well. Gabriel Byrne and/or Chazz was the best known of the cast. If you’ve never seen it, and watch it now, it’s obvious. Spacey was NOT a household name back then.

      *Recommendation watch Consenting Adults, 1992 and his turn in Wiseguy and I think, you can see that he had a future in Hollywood. Swimming with Sharks is another favorite.

  • EtoileBrilliant

    “George Lucas did not regurgitate Buck Rogers. Allan Quartermain, or Flash Gordon in the seventies, he invented Luke Skywalker, and Indiana Jones with Spielberg”

    Grendl, whilst I normally bow down in awe to your commentary, i beg to differ. Indiana Jones was pure homage to the 30s action serials. They did very little to update the original by way of aliens and special effects, and produced a story that was almost synchronized to the second to the 15 minute one-reelers that were common fare for the period.

    If John Carter/Lone Ranger failed, it was not simply down to resurrecting heroes from yesteryear with whom audiences felt no connection.

  • Steve

    Yeah, giant robots and monsters hitting each other. Real original. Or do you mean that providing a “viable alternative” is original? What’s original about having counter programming? Doesn’t matter. The paragraph’s a sloppy mess.

    And do you really think lousy storytelling is risky, grendl? What a brilliant point. And you think audiences are getting smarter? Another incredible revelation.

    Of course you’re absolutely right that Lucas didn’t regurgitate Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the seventies. Surely you’re a film historian, grendl?

    I mean, Luke Skywalker has no relation to Buck Rogers. It’s not like Lucas grew up being a big fan of those 30s serials and wanted to use them. And same with Raiders. Totally original. No relation to 30s serials, so your point that Lone Ranger failed because it used old characters is even more illuminating.

    I have this idea for a character, grendl. I call him Duperman. He’s from the planet Krupton and his arch-enemy is General Dod. What do you think of my original idea? In your opinion, will I have a huge hit because it’s not based on old 30s characters?

    The studios should hire you for your story expertise.

    Or at least to have a good laugh once you leave the room.

  • Cfrancis1

    Man, I LOVE this movie. I’ll never forget seeing the trailer and thinking that it looked awesome. Saw it opening night and loved every minute of it.

    Maybe it’s just me but I like movies where I don’t understand everything that’s going on right away. I loved all the time jumps and the fact that I had to work to keep up with it. I’ve seen Usual Suspects probably 20 times at this point. Mostly makes sense to me now. But that’s part of the fun. Watching it over and over again to get all the details. Great modern noir.

  • Poe_Serling

    Hey Malibo-

    The real mystery here is why your posts get stuck in moderation for soooo long… ;-)

    A few months ago I had the same problem… then I realized it was only happening when I tried to post something here while using Firefox… when I punch up the SS site using Goggle, my comments post immediately…. go figure.

    And yeah, that would be cool if they did a remake of The Last of Sheila.

    And your script with the multiple twists… is it the same one you mentioned on an earlier thread – The Devil Knows Your Name??

  • Zaike Airey

    anyone see McQuirre going in on Carson on Twitter? Shit was funny.

  • Zombietroy

    Also, Benicio only got his gig because he had just been in Swimming With Sharks with Spacey. They couldn’t find the right person to play Fenster, and Spacey recommended De Toro, the type they had in mind would’ve been 15-20 years older.

  • Zombietroy

    He wrote at least 4 original scripts that went nowhere. Being a script doctor is not succeeding in Hollywood (at least in the mid 90s).

  • maxi1981

    Thanks Carson for the great article AND finally giving The Usual Suspects the praise it deserves. Out of curiosity i had a look at the year it came out 1995 and couldn’t believe the amount of movies that year that are actually some of my all time favourites. From Box office mojo: Heat, Seven, Braveheart, Casino, 12 Monkeys, and IL Postino. And i mean these movies that i actually love not just like. The most surprising thing was that only one of these was in the top 10 top grossing films that year and that was Seven at #9.

    Would be great to get a 10 screenwriting tips you can learn from either 12 Monkeys or Heat.

Archives
  • 2014 (223)
  • 2013 (287)
  • 2012 (276)
  • 2011 (290)
  • 2010 (323)
  • 2009 (350)