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.