If you've heard of Bryan Singer, you're probably wearing a Wolverine or Storm costume right now…because you're really into the X-Men and Singer directed the X-Men movies.
This makes Singer one of the main architects of the modern Hollywood superhero revolution—he pioneered the revitalized superhero movie, which has provided Hollywood's summer blockbuster bread-and-butter for the last fifteen years or so.
But Bryan Singer wasn't always in the biz of telling Cyclops to re-perform his eye-laser sequence with more intensity. Before he re-invented the superhero genre for the 2000's, he made his mark with The Usual Suspects, a smash hit that wildly out-earned its budget.
Now, he's pretty much obligated to make X-Men sequels again and again and again and again…what hath Bryan Singer wrought?
It wasn't always that way. Back in the day, Singer's first feature—the movie that got him noticed—was entitled Public Access. Working from a script written by McQuarrie, the film won Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 1993. Kevin Spacey was a fan and wanted to act in Singer's next film—so, when McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, Spacey was ready to roll.
Singer said, at the time,
"I only knew it [The Usual Suspects] would be better than Public Access, because I had better actors… You have no idea if a movie is going to have any longevity or a cult classic nature. None of that ever occurred to me." (Source)
When it came time to direct the film, Singer had to manage some setbacks. Benicio Del Toro decided—intentionally—to use an unusual and basically incomprehensible accent when reciting his lines. Singer decided to just go with it and added lines to the script making it clear that the other characters didn't understand what Fenster (Del Toro's character was saying, either).
So, problem averted—aside from the fact that Del Toro rendered a bunch of McQuarrie's dialogue unrecognizable. (Source)
Another challenge involved filming at the Port of Los Angeles: when they were filming the boat gunfight scene at the end, someone called the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, who arrived on the scene and almost shut down production. But, ultimately, they didn't—hmm, did Keyser Söze pay them off, or did they just know how awesome the movie would become? (Source)
But, of course, the movie was finally completed, and Bryan Singer became a major Hollywood director. This gave him the juice he needed to helm movies like X-Men…and the sequel to X-Men, X2…and Superman Returns…X-Men First Class…X-Men: Days of Future Past…and the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse.
Did we mention that he directed X-Men movies?
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer knew each other in high school in Princeton, NJ. (No word on whether they exchanged BFF bracelets). Singer was trying to become a filmmaker, creating his own home movies, while McQuarrie wanted to become a…wait for it…writer.
But their paths to these goals ran along different lines.
While Singer stuck to a straightforward road, studying filmmaking at NYU and USC, McQuarrie worked at a grammar school in Australia, got fired, hitchhiked around, and then worked at a detective agency, which—according to him—was really more like a security guard agency. After that, he almost joined the NYPD, before his screenwriting connection with Singer finally paid off. (Source)
He was "finding himself"—like lots of people in their early twenties. Finally, he moved to California to write screenplays. When he finally did find himself, it turned out that he was a screenwriter who wrote hit movies and made a ton of money. Which: not exactly a bad version of yourself to find.
He wrote Singer's first film, Public Access, which killed at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. After this initial success, they decided to team up again, basing their script of a simple idea McQuarrie had for the movie poster: a bunch of criminals standing in a police lineup. He thought the title would be The Usual Suspects, inspired by a column he'd read in Spy magazine…which in turn, of course, is inspired by one of the most famous quotes in the movie Casablanca.
That was the genesis, but clearly, there needed to be a lot more to the movie than that… The story-constructing duties fell to McQuarrie. (Source)
In crafting his script, McQuarrie actually based the names of the characters on people he was working with at an LA law firm (he still needed a day job at the time). For instance, Dave Kujan was a real guy and so was Fred Fenster.
One day he met a lawyer named Keyser Sume—McQuarrie changed it a little, apparently for legal reasons, to Keyser Söze. (Of course, now that this story is public knowledge, people probably assume this lawyer actually was a criminal mastermind. Cloaking device: failed.) (Source)
Also, McQuarrie got the idea for the movie's big twist when he was looking at bulletin board in his office and noticed it was made by Quartet, a company based in Skokie, Illinois—just like the bulletin board in the movie, which reveals the truth to Special Agent Kujan. (Source)
So, basically: we owe one of the greatest surprise endings in movie history to the label on a bulletin board.
The Usual Suspects is an indie movie—and, like lots of offbeat indie movies, producers originally didn't want to make it. "It's too hard to follow!" "Can't we put a fighter jet chase in it?" "Wait—who is Keyser Söze?" Those are the kind of things producers (probably) said.
According to the screenwriter, Christopher McQuarrie,
"Every studio, major and minor, rejected it. Miramax said they would distribute it if someone else footed the bill. No one understood a word of it, except Kevin Spacey, for whom we had written it. Our commitment to an actor at Kevin's level at the time coupled with a convoluted script meant death." (Source)
But producers aren't all giant infants wallowing in their own inability to comprehend anything. Enter Kenneth Kokin. When director Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie pitched the script, Kokin took the bait and decided to produce the movie.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Bloody, cult classic history.
Along with Kokin, a roster of indie film companies provided financial assistance. Here's the long, boring list of their names: Polygram, Spelling Films, Blue Parrot, Bad Hat Harry Productions, and Rosco Film. (Say that list five times fast.)
Fun fact: Kokin later worked on a film about the life of the notorious Boston mobster, Whitey Bulger. When the FBI finally captured Bulger, who had been a fugitive for years, it turned out that he had been living only a few blocks away from Kokin's home in Santa Monica.
It's the kind of trick Keyser Söze might've pulled…except Söze wouldn't have gotten caught. (Source)
The Usual Suspects kept it old school—shooting on 35 mm film—because it had to. It was 1995: no one was shooting movies digitally yet. (Source)
Some cool film techniques are on display in this movie: when Verbal tells the legend of Keyser Söze's origin, we see the story play out in a dream-like, sepia haze—the style of filming lets us know that we're seeing a story, not necessarily something that really happened.
To highlight the surreal nature of it all, when we glimpse Keyser Söze in that part of the movie, he ends up looking nothing like the real Keyser Söze—Verbal Kint—whose identity is revealed at the end.
Also, in the final sequence, as Kujan realizes the truth about Verbal, the movie intercuts scenes of Verbal-as-Söze shooting his fellow criminals at the dock, along with voiceover clips of things Verbal said earlier in the movie. As Kujan notices different clues on the bulletin board, we hear Verbal's voice saying things from earlier in the movie—statements that Kujan is realizing were lies.
You wouldn't normally expect a film composer to also be a film-editor—those are two totally different skill sets. But John Ottman is both, and he did both for The Usual Suspects.
And Ottman knows his stuff. The Usual Suspects has a straight-up classical score, which totally captures the movie's beguilingly enigmatic vibe.
After scoring Public Access and Suspects, Ottman went on to do a ton of scores for Bryan Singer movies (Apt Pupil, X2, Superman Returns, and Valkyrie) but also for movies directed by other people (The Cable Guy, Bubble Boy, Krampus).
The main theme—called "Theme"—for Usual Suspects plays at the beginning of the movie, and sets the tone for the rest of it, building from a sense of mystery towards a feeling of impending realization.
We don't know what's going on in the movie yet, but it's capturing our sense of wonder—the enigmatic piano leads towards dramatic strings that finally resolve the tension. It makes us feel like something crucial will be revealed, but we'll still be left with something mysterious in the end, something we can still puzzle over—which is exactly what happens.
"New York's Finest" uses clacking percussion (giving us the feeling of a stopwatch countdown) and intense bolts of strings to conjure up suspense as we watch the emerald smuggler arrive in New York. "The Arrests" plays during the arrests scene (who'd have thunk it?) when all the suspects are apprehended. Like "New York's Finest" it also uses percussion to give us the sense that we're marking off time towards a moment when the tension will end—probably with violence.
And then there's "The Greatest Trick"—the piece used in final scene, when Kujan realizes the truth about Verbal's made-up story; it has a Turkish vibe, befitting Keyser Söze's Turkish roots. The strings build and scream dramatically at the point where we see Kobayashi's name on the bottom of Kujan's broken cup.
This is the moment of realization promised in the "Theme" that begins the movie. We know the truth, but we're also left with the mystery about what in Verbal's story was true and what wasn't. This is something the music conveys: we haven't fully escaped the mystery.
If you were within a 200-foot radius of a dorm back in the late 90's or early 00's, chances are you say a few Usual Suspects posters, (probably tacked up next to a Pulp Fiction poster).
The appeal of The Usual Suspects is massive: it's clever, violent, and contains one of the most stunning twist endings in movie histories.
But its actual status is sort of halfway between "cult classic" and classic-classic status.
Its appeal isn't niche in the way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show used to be (before it also became mainstream). Usual Suspects' fans aren't necessarily people locked into a very specific vibe, or those heart films because they're campy-good or bad-good—think Reefer Madness or The Room.
At the same time, this flick isn't quite in Casablanca or The Godfather territory—it's not a universally acknowledged immortal masterpiece. But it's considered an awesome movie, and its inside jokes have made their way into the collective imagination.
Traces of The Usual Suspects' influence and fanbase crop up everywhere. Moe's Southwest Grill chain has a salsa called, "Who is Kaiser Salsa?" available at its salsa bar. Key and Peele parodied it…and so did Cougar Town, SNL, Robot Chicken, and Scary Movie. (Source)
With that many spoofs, you know you're deeply entrenched in the cultural mind.