Sharing his journey to success in an interview with Rogue Nation editor Eddie Hamilton, Christopher McQuarrie began speaking with the words “I was always in love with telling stories.” As a child he would write stories to entertain himself. When discovered doing this, a teacher asked if that’s what he wanted to do when he was grown and formed idea that yes, maybe he could write for a living. Though his road to career happiness has been a curving one and he did other things along the way, that thought of professional storytelling was always at the back of his mind.
Knowing director Bryan Singer vaguely from high school the two had later become friends resulting in him writing a screenplay for Bryan to direct. This went to Sundance and while in line waiting to go in he told his friend Dylan about an idea to write next. A column he’d read with the heading The Usual Suspects would, he said, be a cool title for a film about a group of criminals. To pass time they imagined what the poster would look like with a line up of motley offenders and they mentioned it to Bryan before forgetting about it. A month later Bryan had come across some investors willing to spend $3M on a project and asked Christopher if he could write the movie for the poster he’d told him about.
Christopher found himself in a room at the law firm he worked at in LA, pondering what he could write about. There was a bulletin board in the room and as he was looking at it picking up names and bits of info to use he came up with the plot for The Usual Suspects central story. Looking back on his career McQuarrie sights that time as the closest to a religious writing experience he has ever had. The film culminated in an Oscar win for only his second produced screenplay.
His career continued, he script doctored, took on his first directing gig with his film Way of the Gun and for a long time he worked as a screenwriter never getting to direct any of the projects he wanted to. Working on Valkyrie he founded a working relationship with Tom Cruise. They would work together again when he was asked to write and direct an adaptation based on the Jack Reacher novel. Initially he turned the project down as he felt he wouldn’t ultimately get to direct it once a studio came on board and took over production, as had happened to him in the past. They’d want somebody more experienced. He had inadvertently invested someone else in his success and with someone else pushing for it the directing deal got signed off on before he began writing. The film got a $60M budget so it was expensive but not the sort of Transformers movie blockbuster type of story that brought in the profits. Still the project had Tom Cruise attached and a very (Christopher jokes) cheap director. It found it’s audience.
His writing skills had led him to being the guy who got movies made. That also meant he got fired a lot. He learned during this time that anytime during the magic window of four weeks out from production and four weeks into it they will do whatever I say! It’s a joke but not without some tough truth. He fixed a draft of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol but months out of production there was resistance to changing and letting go of what had already been planned and so he got fired from that. Later when he got the opportunity to work on Rogue Nation he wasn’t sure about going back where there had been frustration before but it was a big movie, an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker so he went for it.
He learned over time not to take studio decisions personally and to always be the person who’s easy to work with, between firings he always got hired. As writers we know we don’t get treated like the stars but without doing what we do the movie doesn’t get made. His dream had been to write, not to write a specific movie. He went from being the guy who said ‘please make my movie’ to the guy who said ‘ how can I help you make your movie.’ Ultimately personal relationships are more important than credits.
Writing a great script is great Christopher tells us, but you won’t be around when it’s made unless you understand the process. The first meeting he had about Rogue Nation was with the astonished marketing division. They’d never had a director come in and ask how he could make a film they could sell. The airplane stunt ended up being their marketing image from the movie and as a self contained stunt they put it up front right at the beginning of the film where it made for an exiting entry point. The more he understood what it took to sell the movie, the more he was willing to let go of stuff he wanted but didn’t fit. They did three tests, listened to the audience and the studio loved it but when asked if he’d brought in that script 6 months before would they have made it like that they said no, probably not. You have to go through that development process. There are things that are Mission and things that are not Mission, you get a feel for it. Understanding his own rhythms has helped him as a writer.
Finishing the session with thoughts about story Christopher points out that story is always the main thing that gums up the works. Good writing these days is a luxury option, it’s not a necessary thing to make a good movie. Aesthetic is the new story, indeed there’s a whole generation of moviegoers who have been raised on that. Great directors can make it work but looking at all the great directors best movies, they are usually the ones that are very well written. Food for thought from a candid and incredibly giving screenwriter who came to London to share his own story with us today.