The Usual Suspects, Gramercys tough-talking foray into the upcoming summer movie stampede, treats the noir thriller genre as a roller coaster ride. Twists and turns in plot and perception barrel past as the audience clings desperately to the safety bar. Manning the storytelling controls is narrator Roger "Verbal" Kint, a crippled con-man with a confession of a heist gone wrong. As played by Kevin Spacey, con-man Kint is an everyman antihero determined to pull off an impossible multi-million dollar heist despite a literal shipload of obstacles. Typically, Kints tale of battling unbeatable odds isnt far off from that of director/producer Bryan Singers own attempt to bring his sophomore independent feature to the screen.
"First we had a situation where the script and myself were financed and we were making offers to actors. Then WHAM!" Singer punctuates the personal plot twist with an expertly timed pause. While the current media hype following the films warm receptions at both Sundance and Cannes telegraphs the ending to the story, the 28-year-old USC film school graduate and self-proclaimed "storyteller" somehow manages to create suspense.
"All of a sudden we had no financing but we had actors committed. Because basically I was making offers to actors that were nonexistent, I could have been in really bad trouble. I remember when all of the foreign money fell through I had to go to the actors personally and say, Guys, I need your help, I need you to stick by me."
While Singer delivers a passionate pitch, the "guys" in question might have easily come unstuck. Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, and Spacey arent a likely group to be waiting around for offers. And while Singer admits the cast was making "good money, not scale plus ten" to work on his film, none of the leads, three Oscar nominees among them, were being guaranteed their usual rates for the $5.5 million feature.
Part of the draw was undoubtedly the tightly wound script delivered by Singers high school pal Christopher McQuarrie. The absence of the usual noir clichés in The Usual Suspects is due, at least in part, to McQuarries four years of experience at a New Jersey detective agency. Originally approached by Singer to co-write Public Access, their first feature and the 1993 co-winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, McQuarrie has fashioned for Singers second film a seamless thriller that recalls the noir of decades past, though the pair has only recently been able to make the comparison.
"I wasnt very familiar with heist films until after I made the movie. I started reading all the comparisons, then started to rent some of those movies. Im a sucker for a good story, and my whole theory is that its an old genre; ever since those guys got together and killed Julius Caesar, its been about men getting together to do a job. So my goal was to take the genre and twist it." And twist they did, until Singer felt that every "why" had been answered to his satisfaction, a process that took McQuarrie roughly five months.
Though the script may have kept the cast intact, Singers own sheer force of will and a sense of determination honed through a series of filmmaking challenges may well have been the glue that held the production together.
While still at USC, Singer directed, wrote and co-starred in Lions Den, a 25-minute short which Singer, unable to get school funding, shot on a thin $15,000 shoestring provided by family, friends, credit cards and old friend/lead actor Ethan Hawke. More money was spent renting a theater with three other short filmmakers for a screening when USC refused to admit the films into their First Look screening program. Hosted by Sam Raimi, the upstart screening met with a packed house and "a bunch of phone calls and a bunch of meetings" for Singer.
Besides learning that he was "a terrible actor," Singer discovered the usual Hollywood pitfalls. "You go around and you feel like people are interested in you and theyre really not. I got a manager. I lost the manager you know, all that." Singer promptly turned to less conventional financing sources. "One Japanese company called Tokuma Corporation had a program called Cinebeam, and the idea behind Cinebeam was to grant quarter of a million dollar stipends to six directors around the world. They chose me as one of them."
The resulting film, Public Access, was mired in production and post-production disasters. "We had all kinds of problems because we were using cheap equipment, but I demanded Kodak stock because I knew I needed a certain look. But then [I wound up] shooting short ends. Every time an actor gets what youre going for, BEEP! Rollout! It was a nightmare. We missed the Tokyo International Film Festival because of all the problems in post."
Considering Mr. Tokuma was general director of the festival, it seemed that a golden opportunity to get "a lot of attention" was lost. "So that left us with our dream festival, Sundance."
While co-winning Sundance propelled Singer into a "tour around the world to about 30 different festivals," it didnt result in the gold ring a distribution deal. "Up until Sundance I thought wed just sell it to some video distributor and that would be the end of it, cut a neat trailer, sell it at MIFED or something." Singer soon decided to use the festival circuit to promote new projects.
Hoping to set up a second feature at Tokuma while riding the circuit through Japan, Singer urged McQuarrie to write "that movie about five criminals who meet in a line-up and go off on an adventure." However, the script was dismissed as "too confusing, too dense" by six studios and a host of others.
"I cant tell you all the companies that rejected it, just rejection, rejection. With one company that was hot on me to direct a movie, I thought, Theyre my ace in the hole, theyre gonna love this. PASS." Fortunately, a connection from Cannes, Robert Jones, a producer for the German group WMG, saw the potential to make the film through European financing.
"So we set up offices, spent some of this money, and started casting. And then the money fell through." Jones and Singer had little time to spare after signing the cast to a ten-day option. "So what Robert did, and what we did with him, was take the script, the five actors we had, and my directing deal, set up a budget, get a completion bond guarantee on that budget, on that script, with these five actors, then turn around to PolyGram [Filmed Entertainment] and Spelling [Films International,] who [both] agreed to purchase the film once it was done. In other words they did a negative pick-up deal. So then the movie was bank financed, which was great for me because I got my deal and I also got a lot of freedom and power because the money was flowing from a bank as long as I stayed on schedule and on budget."
Singer succeeded in coming in under budget and sticking to the 35-day shooting schedule. "I had all the freedom and got my final cut and everything," Singer smiles. "It was a good experience."
Despite his experience with WMG, Singer still feels the grass is greener for American independents outside of their home turf. "Go for the foreign money to get started. The instinct when youve got a script is to take it to the eight major studios. Well, theyll all pass. Then you send it to 80 producers. Thats a route, but if that doesnt work, theres a number of foreign companies to go at and try to attach talent."
Singers experiences provoke further advice. "Never get an ego about anything. Lets say the president of Warner Bros. comes up to you and says, I want to be in business with you. Well, if in five seconds some small Italian distributor comes up, you treat him with the same goddamn respect because you have a much better chance making your movie with that Italian distributor than at Warners. To think that Hollywood is the only source of financing at that early level of your career is utterly ludicrous."
Even if producing holds no appeal for the novice filmmaker, Singer believes understanding the business end of the process is essential to the survival of an independent. "An independent filmmaker shopping around his project should take a good long walk over to the AFM and see what the real heart of independent filmmaking is. I hate it; its a horrible whorehouse of shit, but its the central, beating heart of independent film. Thats where that person has to make him or herself aware of the world of financing. Try to make it your business to learn learn what a negative pick-up deal is, what presales are, what foreign presales are, how movies get sold and made because it works the same on any level."
Learning the business on the job, however, isnt what Singer is talking about. "Dont get a job working in the entertainment industry. Thats the worst thing you can do." Having been fired from "countless jobs you name it, I did it" Singer feels that its better to be a filmmaker who busses tables to make money than to be an assistant writing a script on the side. "Work anywhere. Just work some job and make films and put your money into that. If youre any good, somebody will find your work."
With five studios that "will let me do anything I want" and ICM rallying behind The Usual Suspects August release, Singer could be expected to bask in the glow now that some very important somebodies have found his work. But having created his own cinematic roller coaster ride and weathered one to get it into production, he knows better than to let go of the safety bar until the train has come to a full and complete stop. "I remind myself every five seconds that my movie hasnt come out yet, and it could fail. And even if it doesnt fail, if its a hit, it doesnt matter. You ultimately want to be in business in the long run, and heat is a very dangerous word. Things that get hot get cold. Things that are good are good for all time. And you want to be a good director, not a hot one."