Success is relative in Hollywood, like a third cousin twice-removed who doesn't recognize you at family reunions, and doesn't care to. Fame is so fleeting it has a month-by-month lease. Six years ago, Christopher McQuarrie was as famous as any screenwriter on the backlot known as Los Angeles. He had gone to the Academy Awards stag and come home with a date: Oscar, a reward for his screenplay to a movie named The Usual Suspects. The film made a star of Kevin Spacey, who took home his own award for best supporting actor. It made absolutely nothing of Chris McQuarrie.
The write man for the job: Chris McQuarrie, right, directs Ryan Phillippe on the set of The Way of the Gun.
OK, that's not exactly true, because McQuarrie is not broke, homeless, or dead; he is not even out of the film business, despite being ground up in the gears of such an insidious industry. But he is forgotten, if only because he has not been heard from at all since 1994, and when you're not heard from in the movie business, you are no longer heard of. You are invisible. You do not exist. Maybe you never did.
In the past six years, McQuarrie has done what all screenwriters do when they find out you can't pay the rent with yellowing good reviews: He has rewritten other people's movies, letting them take the credit while he cashes the check. He has written television shows that never air. Powerful men at powerful studios have told him that he's not worthy of their trust or time. Six years ago, McQuarrie thought he was invincible, a golden child with one of his own. He was wrong.
"Right after the Academy Awards, I thought, "I can do whatever I want now. I'm gonna fuck 'em with this,'" McQuarrie says, laughing the laugh of the humbled and, on more than one occasion, humiliated. "And I realized very quickly they had no interest in making my films. They wanted me to make their films. It took me an even longer time to realize there's a reason why it's called a film business. Studios are not working in an area of risk or suffering. They don't want to fight. They want it to be as easy as possible, because it's a fuckin' crapshoot no matter how hard you work or how hard you fight...For a long time, I was trying very hard to convince them my ideas can work, and there are many successful movies that support my argument for what an audience can handle. Remember, no one wanted to make The Usual Suspects."
In the end, that's all the studios wanted from him: another crime story, another thriller with a twist, another gotcha plot. So, on September 8, that is what he will deliver: a movie titled The Way of the Gun, which he likes to think of as his "fuck-you" to a business that once offered him its hand, only to extend a single finger. Starring Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as pitiless criminals who kidnap a woman (played by Juliette Lewis) pregnant with the child of a wealthy couple, The Way of the Gunis a film you've seen a million times as you've never before seen it. In McQuarrie's film, which he both wrote and directed, car chases take place at five miles per hour. Agendas are hinted at but rarely revealed; sidelong glances replace page-long speeches, and the bad guys never apologize for their evil deeds, even when they kill innocent bystanders unfortunate enough to get in the way. McQuarrie simply likes to describe his movie as a Western in which the cellular phones never work.
If The Usual Suspects was a roller coaster barreling toward its climactic revelation (Who is Keyser Soze?), The Way of the Gun is a merry-go-round moving so slowly it nearly stands still. On bad days, McQuarrie will watch the movie and convince himself he has created "the longest second act in the history of cinema." Sometimes, he wonders who will even want to see his movie: Long after producer Jerry Bruckheimer turned the action movie into a vapid, venal music video, Chris McQuarrie has made a genre film that sounds like a poem.
"I was so sick of the sort of sameness of the genre, the obsession with the fast-talking dialogue that was dialogue for the sake of dialogue, violence for the sake of violence, and I thought, "Let's make a crime film in which we don't give anything away, we don't explain anything to the audience,'" McQuarrie says. "I like to think of it as if Eugene O'Neill was slumming as a pulp writer. Instead of filling you with dialogue, I wanted to extract and diminish what was going on and what was being said, because these are professionals who all know what's going on and don't really need to talk to each other much. They're not interested in explaining it to you. They don't give a shit what you think."
Had things worked out the way he wanted, McQuarrie likely would have never made The Way of the Gun; there would have been no need to exorcise the demons, to write with rage and revenge as his inspiration. Ever since The Usual Suspects, he has harbored dreams of directing a movie he did not write: a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great, from a script penned by novice Peter Buchman. Not so long ago, the film was considered a go project at Warner Bros., with the blessing of the studio's CEO, Terry Semel, who has since left Warners. But Alexander the Great, like the Macedonian monarch for whom it's named, died a tragic, young death: When McQuarrie and his production partner, Ken Kokin, couldn't agree with Warners on whom should play the role, the studio passed on the project. (At one point, it was rumored that Matthew McConaughey would play the part; little wonder McQuarrie balked and walked.)