Christopher McQuarrie interview: The Way Of The Gun

Christopher McQuarrie is about to unleash Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Ahead of that, he's joined us to revisit The Way Of The Gun...

This piece contains spoilers for The Way Of The Gun.

The Way Of The Gun. Rarely seen on terrestrial or subscription television, not available on Netflix and probably not the first film that comes to mind when you think of writer/producer/director Christopher McQuarrie.

Born in New Jersey in 1968, McQuarrie’s name memorably came to filmgoers’ attention 20 years with a script that made Keyser Soze one of the most memorable and mythical names of 90s cinema. The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer, would win over 30 awards and two decades on still has people talking about its ending.

Five years later McQuarrie would put pen to paper once again, but in addition take his talents behind the camera to make The Way Of The Gun. It’s an action movie in some places, a western in others, with sprinklings of Sam Peckinpah throughout and a score that could’ve been played at the OK Corral. His directorial debut would bring on board the talented acting chops of Benicio Del Toro (Mr Longbaugh), Ryan Phillipe (Mr Parker), Juliette Lewis (Robin), the enigmatic James Caan (Joe Sarno) and the late Geoffrey Lewis (Abner Mercer).

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Graciously, McQuarrie took time out from helming the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise (Rogue Nation) to chat to us about The Way Of The Gun.

What was it that inspired you to write the story?

Primarily, my inspiration was my frustration with the Hollywood system at the time. I didn’t know how to play the game and, frankly, I didn’t want to. Parker and Longbaugh were a response to what I viewed as an oppressive and hypocritical industry. Since then I’ve come to realise the business is neither of those things. People are just trying to survive and desperate to figure out an increasingly unpredictable marketplace – sort of like everyone in the film.

Parker and Longbaugh are examples of what happens to people who fight the system. Joe Sarno is an example of what it takes to survive. Of course, my younger self couldn’t know that at the time. But I see it now, clear as day. It was like a warning from my future self.

The cast, then. Were the likes of Del Toro, Phillippe, Lewis and Caan who you always had in mind initially?

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Del Toro, certainly. The story arose from a conversation fuelled by our mutual frustration. We were both enjoying early success, but now no one knew what to make of us. It was Benicio who insisted I make a crime film – the only sort of film they would let me make after The Usual Suspects.

For the role of Parker, Del Toro and I decided to be mercenary and go after an actor who could guarantee the financing. I had a tendency to chase actors I admired but the studios ignored – I’d had enough. We chose a specific actor and Del Toro hand delivered the script to him. He was flattered and excited, but we never heard from him again. Not a word. I’m guessing we lost him after the first line of dialogue. That was the last time I wrote for a specific actor.

I went to Matthew McConaughey and Matt Dillon. Both were incredibly gracious, but not interested. I’ll never forget how kind they both were in the way they passed, however. True gentlemen. It’s been a thrill to see the renaissance McConaughey is having. He deserves it.

Ryan Phillippe reached out and said he wanted to do it. I only knew him from Cruel Intentions and had a hard time seeing him in the role. But he was insistent. We went to lunch and I asked him why, with all the offers he was fielding, did he want to be in this movie? He said, “Everyone wants me to be a movie star. I want to be an actor”. He wanted to grow a beard and bulk up. Again, I couldn’t see it. I said: “I’m not interested in hiding who you really are. I’m interested in making you a killer.” The next time I saw Ryan, I gave him the job, along with a silver dollar. He asked me what the dollar was for. I told him to ask me again during production.

He showed up on set six weeks later with stubble and 25 extra pounds of bulk. He’d done something to his hair. He was a different man. He said, “You never told me what the silver dollar was for.” I said, “It got you the job.”  Benicio and I had cast Ryan on a coin toss.

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Jimmy Caan came to us, having read the script. I first saw him in the bar at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. He walked in and shouted across the crowded room: “YOU’RE A SICK FUCK.” We hit it off immediately. Still, I’d heard stories about Jimmy and was concerned. I called James Gray, who’d worked with Caan on The Yards. He said, “You don’t WANT Jimmy in your movie. You NEED Jimmy in your movie.”

Years later, I approached Robert Duvall for Jack Reacher. He told me Jimmy had called first and urged him to take the role.

Juliette [Lewis] was one of three actresses we were looking at. It was a very tough choice and one that hinged, I thought, on the scene where Robin admits the truth about the baby. Juliette was the only actress I didn’t audition. I cast her based on a face-to-face meeting. (In fact, none of the actors in the film were auditions. They were all people I clicked with personally.) Juliette is a force of nature – a truly lovely and loving spirit. Her approach is purely instinctive, purely primal. I loved directing her.

Talking of James Caan’s character, was that a particularly enjoyable part to write? What was he like to work with and were you able to draw on his vast cinematic experience in any way?

The role of Joe Sarno simply appeared on the page as I was writing. He was based in part on a real Joe Sarno for whom I’d worked years before. There was a cadence to that character that I loved – a pure pleasure to write. Caan showed up on set and announced himself as ‘Jimmy the Dream’. And he was. He was by no means a pushover. He drove us all to do more. But the only person he was truly hard on was himself. He also loved to tell stories. I heard dirt on everything from The Godfather to Thief. It was an education.

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Given this was your feature-length directorial debut, what, if any, were the pressures you faced?

Really, none externally. Artisan in general and Bill Block in particular were incredibly supportive. Bill Clark my AD and Dick Pope my DP were the best guides I could have hoped for. The pressure only began when the film was finished. There was a growing sense that it was going nowhere. I simply didn’t have the frame of reference to see it coming.

The $8.5 million budget was – and still is – mis-reported as $21 million, making it seem an even bigger disappointment than it was.

The town literally recoiled. I guess I did, too.

Was it a straight-forward shoot? How do you look back on it as an experience?

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It was a lot of fun. And exhausting. I wasn’t in great shape physically and, as I said, I struggled with the transition – the stress dealing with resistance from friends and collaborators. It manifested itself physically.

Twelve years later, when I was directing Jack Reacher, I was working 22 hour days without breaking stride. I felt great. Only then did I realise how fun the job can be when it’s going your way. But I also had kids by then. I’d learned how to let people have what they need to feel fulfilled, while at the same time creating boundaries and protecting my vision. Like Jimmy was trying to say: directing is really parenting.

Is there anything you would’ve done differently during the entire process from page to screen?

Everything. But that’s because I am who I am now having made The Way Of The Gun.

And nothing. I’ve come full circle and I’m very proud of the film. I’m eternally grateful to the people who see it for what it is, as opposed to the people who tried to pigeon-hole it. I’m grateful to be answering these questions 15 years later. Is the film flawed, is it uneven? Certainly. But it’s sincere. In the years since, it’s found its listeners. And that’s what people who enjoy the film really are – listeners. Or like Joe, observers. I’ve since learned I can’t make films strictly for them anymore. The rest of the class is holding them back. But I can send them little messages – a nod here, a wink there.

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Is directing something you enjoy doing? Given the choice would you rather just write? There was, of course, a 12-year gap between directing The Way of The Gun and Jack Reacher.

I love directing. Yet, when I’m finished, I don’t give a second thought to what’s next. After twelve years in the weeds I assume every film, every set-up in fact, is my last. For this, I am truly grateful. Now I work because I want to. I’m driven by the love of storytelling, not the fear of an uncertain future. And I work in the moment. I am more focused, more aware of the opportunity I’m enjoying right then and there.

What was your reaction to the way the film was received when it was released?

What are the seven stages of death again? Some critics were nasty – personally so. At first I was pretty depressed. Finally, I contacted the very nastiest of them and invited him to lunch. I asked, quite sincerely, for him to elaborate on some of the vaguer criticisms in his piece. I very much wanted to know what I had done wrong. He was surprised to hear from me and invited me to the paper where he worked. I took a tour of the building and noticed no one could look me in the eye. No one.

We walked to lunch and he started talking about his failed career as a film maker. I never defended myself or my film. I never had to. The thinking behind his review was fairly evident. In his eyes, I’d squandered an opportunity that should have been his. I came away realising that all reviews – good or bad – are meaningless. Do I want good reviews? Absolutely. Do bad reviews hurt my feelings? Only when they’re in some way right. But will I ever worry about criticism again? No. Criticism effects nothing. It merely reflects what one person thinks of your film – sometime that person is in touch with the majority. Just as often, they’re not.

Critics didn’t kill my film. The shitty marketing didn’t kill it. I killed it when I set out to make a film that lectured instead of entertained. Bottom line, most people just didn’t like it. But they didn’t need critics to tell them that.

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Do you have a favourite scene in the movie?

Del Toro and Phillippe arriving in that delivery room. The long silences. Each actor doing their best work in the film. I remember Benicio was struggling with his turn in that scene. He just didn’t believe Longbaugh would walk away. I put a 1000 foot mag on the camera and said: “Have a seat in that chair. Take all the time you need.” He did.

And, of course, anything involving the great Geoffrey Lewis, who just recently passed away. We were all in awe of him. He made it seem effortless.

Have you ever considered resurrecting the story in any way for TV, a sequel or a spin-off?

I tend not to look back. But who knows?

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Christopher McQuarrie, thank you very much

Christopher McQuarrie’s third film as director, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is released at the end of this month.