Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander on writing Valkyrie

The Valkyrie writing team have been in town, and we popped along to find out the inside story...

Valkyrie

The long-awaited true-life thriller Valkyrie, about the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, finally makes it to the UK today. And we have the chance to sit in on a round table discussion with screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander to find out more (with due thanks to the other questioners in the room!)…It’s a very exciting movie that reminded us of the movies of old: Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, The Guns Of Navarone – that sort of thing.

McQuarrie: That really was our inspiration: The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, Patton, Midway. In fact, in earlier cuts of the movie when a character appeared, we had titles appear underneath him with a name and what they did.

Unfortunately, with a contemporary American audience when we tested the movie like that and people said ‘there are so many characters to keep track of’, and we were thinking, ‘there’s not that many characters in this movie.’ But when we pulled that out, those responses stopped; people were thinking ‘well, I’m reading this so I must have to remember who this is’.

That does rather sound like the set up to a bad joke:  there’s a one-armed assassin, with one eye – and even his good hand doesn’t have all of its fingers.

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McQuarrie: Well, that was our gag on the set. We’d be at the War Ministry, and somebody would pick up the phone and say ‘wait, let me get this straight, you sent who!?!’ 

Are you relying on the fact that, because Bryan Singer and Tom are involved that – for anyone who was unaware of the true story – that it would be covered in the press beforehand?

McQuarrie: Uh-huh… And you don’t have to explain that this was a real person, to emphasise it with any kind of title card or other device. That you could just get on with telling the story. McQuarrie: How we looked at it was that, from a commercial standpoint the film’s got so many things going against it in the first place… It appears to be a World War II movie, it appears to be all about Germans and it appears not to end particularly well. At some point, we just stopped worrying about it and got on with telling the story. Early on, people were asking ‘why is he wearing that eye patch?’ They thought it was some kind of actor-led affectation, they though Tom Cruise had decided to wear it – ‘oh, he’s bucking for awards by playing that kind of thing’.

We were laughing that here was Tom, playing the protagonist in a movie wearing a German uniform with a Swastika and an eye patch – and all the villainous iconography that goes with that – and he’s this incredibly loyal man…. He had everything but the hook.(To Nathan Alexander) As I understand it, you were the Guardian of the historical timeline…?

Alexander: Yeah. When Christopher first approached me with the subject and the project I did a great deal of research. Our process was to create a detailed timeline of all the events, and then start to whittle that down to start shaping what the script eventually becomes. So yeah, there was a great deal of research. I take it that when you have a star like Tom Cruise attached to a project like this you have to have a little bit of flexibility with historical truth. Stauffenberg was the bag man, fact; he carried the bag – he wasn’t the instigator or mastermind behind the whole resistance plan.

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Alexander: He was key… When we started this, we didn’t know all of the details of the history, and we though – like you just said – that he was ‘the bag man’. As it turns out, and as we got more into it, it turns out that he plays a much more key role in the conspiracy and the German resistance than we were first aware of. We never set out to make a biopic about Stauffenberg, we set out to make a movie about the German resistance, but he became the most obvious figure to follow that story through.You sit there willing them to succeed, and then – of course – history takes its course, which is disappointing.

McQuarrie: We tried. We tried to write that version. [Laughs] The thing is, you change that and then World War II ends differently… It was a whole kettle of fish.Where did you start with your research?Alexander: Everything we could get our hands on: photos, newsreels, texts, first-hand accounts…

McQuarrie: …And our old friends the Gestapo and S.S….

Alexander: … Yeah

McQuarrie: They were the original research nuts on this; they were so thorough in reconstructing the events …

Alexander: Yeah, they went as far as to find all of the pieces they could of the briefcase and basically glue it back together – there’s a picture in their archive of all the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. There were measurements of how big the hole from the explosion was.

July 20th is incredibly well documented, so we got our hands on everything we could. Ultimately, when we got to Berlin and started to be in these locations and walk those streets and meet with relatives of the resistance members, it really helped to inform the script and organically the script evolved during shooting.So it really is down to the old cliché about German meticulousness?

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Alexander: They did their homework…

McQuarrie: [chuckles] Err, yes. But there were interesting flaws in it. When you see the film, the moment where von Haeften walks out and stands in front of Stauffenberg, that was reconstructed from eyewitness testimony, and the problem was we were on the spot, at the place where the guys died and we reconstructed the scene to be exactly like it was that day, based on a sketch that somebody had made based on photographs we were able to see – but suddenly the problem was that, if you have the firing squad standing there and all shooting at Haefton they would have killed both men at the same time. So we had to reassess what happened at the firing squad.

Our military advisors were shouting at us, saying ‘no, if they’d’ve said fire, they’d shoot – and if he didn’t say fire they wouldn’t shoot.’ So we said to them, ‘if you can explain to us how this happened any other way, then that’s how we’ll shoot it.’

The military advisors were confronted with the fact that, no matter how you sliced it, the firing squad weren’t following orders. By midnight that night, military protocol had broken down to such a point that not even a firing squad was doing what they it was supposed to do. We would never have known that had we not been standing on the exact spot reconstructing it, because the physics didn’t add up.Was what you shot significantly different to what you set out with, or was it just refinements?Alexander: No, it’s structurally the same movie that we originally wrote. What the re-writing was, was refining and making everything as clear as possible. We had a process whereby, at the weekends, we would read through the script leaving out whatever scenes we had already shot; by focusing on those sections you were going to shoot in the context of what you’ve already shot made it helps to make you realise what tweaks and changes are needed to help those scenes be as effective as they could be.

McQuarrie: Bryan also likes to rehearse on set, so we would get there in the morning and we would rehearse the scene. Then, things that you’ve lived with for months suddenly don’t sound right and we would throw it out, or bring it back in. I would say that the process was less a process of re-writing the script as it was of constantly re-examining it. When things work, you know they really work ‘cause you’ve tried everything else and then come back to what you’ve written.

I would say the one scene that went through the most analysis and re-thinking was that first few minutes, in Africa – because we wanted to get the historical context right and we wanted to get the spirit of the resistance, the idea that the was an on-going disgust in the officer corps; all of that stuff that you had to get into that few minutes at the beginning of the movie. Most importantly, we never wanted it to be a history lesson. We didn’t want the movie to start with a guy saying: [adopts spoof portentous newsreel voice] “1935…” [Laughs]

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We wouldn’t allow ourselves that, but we wanted to get in all that complexity – if you blink you miss it, but if you go back and watch the movie a second time you understand they are talking about the Jews, they are aware of the holocaust. All that stuff is in there, we’re just not putting it in your face.You said you did some testing of the film in America; did it score high? Did you go back and do tweaks.

McQuarrie: The process was we test it cut it, test it cut it, test it…

Were there significant changes?

McQuarrie: No no no. When you sit there and watch the film with an audience, it’s less about the focus groups and the cards and all of that. When you watch a film with an audience you see what is working and what’s not working – and there were some very small refinements. I’d say the biggest change we made was taking out the title cards. To answer your question though, it tested a lot higher than we thought it would. We went in thinking that this is perceived as ‘the one-eyed Nazi movie that doesn’t end well’ [Laughter], and – by the way – when does one traditionally release that movie? Christmas Day? Valentines!?!. I dunno…

…Hitler’s Birthday?

McQuarrie: Yeah [laughs]… That would’ve gone down like a fart in a spacesuit… The interesting things we took away from the focus group – apart from the higher than expected scores – was that it was scoring higher with women than with men. The other things that came up were the discussions amongst the focus group that went completely off-message to what they were being asked, y’know: ‘what scenes were exciting’, ‘where did it drag’? People were talking amongst themselves about contemporary relevance and whether they would’ve taken part in the conspiracy. Not, as you would often get from an American audience, ‘well they should’ve done this’, or ‘I would’ve done that’. They were all saying ‘it made them think, would I take part in this?’ We were really stunned to hear that.As a producer, with all the date changes that went on, did these high test scores make it easier for you?

McQuarrie: The release date changes were all a function of that process of re-reading and re-assessing the script. About half way through hthe movie we were re-reading the Africa stuff, and Tom said: “y’know, I’m really worried that, if we get the Africa stuff wrong, it’s going to look like Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler ‘cause he lost his eye and hand.”

Tom decided – and this is the major advantage of having a star with regards to the studio – that we’re just going to table Africa. We’ll cut the whole movie together, watch it and then decide what needs to be said. That’s where a lot of the re-shoot rumours came from, ‘cause we’d basically tabled 10 minutes of the movie until after it had all been cut together; Africa had been in the script from the beginning. 

While we were cutting the film, we knew ‘well, we’re not going to make June’, and then we were ‘well, we’re not going to make October’. In some circumstances, the studio will set a date and you’ll just be cutting faster and faster as you approach that, but here Tom was just ‘no, we’ll release it when it’s ready.’ February became the date, because we were still working on the movie.When it tested, and scored so well, Tom said [bangs the table] ‘Christmas Day, we’re ready, it’s coming out at Christmas’, and – of course – everyone though he was out of his mind.

I went to work one day thinking ‘I got three months until the movie’s coming out’, and then I was like ‘oh, it’s coming out next month.’ But it all worked out.I know this movie is more plot-driven than character based, but were you tempted to adapt the Stauffenberg character; he starts the movie heroically, and ends it heroically – he doesn’t have that traditional hero’s journey, beginning as someone who you don’t think can overcome the obstacles before him…

McQuarrie: That’s really who he was… No, we were pretty specific about wanting to let the history tell the story. We tried to shoot one scene where, at the start of the movie, Stauffenberg witnessed atrocities – assuming that the audience came to the movie know absolutely nothing, we thought ‘Hitler’s gotta be Darth Vader, how do we make Hitler Darth Vader?’

The problem was, we looked at all of Hitler’s speeches thinking that there’s gotta be one where he’s ‘I’m Hitler!’, but there weren’t any. His speeches were all about hope and prosperity – he ran on a platform of peace and prosperity. Hitler speeches that makes him sound like a villain are pretty hard to find, he was very detached from what he was doing, he kept himself compartmentalised from it. Stauffenberg, conversely, was a supply officer – so he was not exposed to many of the atrocities that were happening in Russia and Serbia were he was serving, he witnessed some things – but it was the starvation of Russians. It wasn’t the mass executions, and the concentration camps were still gestating. What you’re left with is a guy that was essentially reacting to field reports, but it’s very hard to dramatise a scene where Tom Cruise is reading about some bad thing that’s happened, and saying ‘I must stop this!It’s interesting that you mention Darth Vader, ‘cause weren’t the Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars based on Nazi uniforms?

McQuarrie: Oh my God, you look at all the uniforms in Star Wars and it’s all Nazi iconography.   Clearly the writing mechanic changes when you’re writing about important real-life characters. Did you find any of them particularly difficult to capture?Alexander: Probably the hardest thing was how to convey motive in the film. It’s very important, but a character like Stauffenberg has been left as very enigmatic to history. Studying Stauffenberg and the other members of the resistance it becomes clear that they are reacting to moral outrage; Stauffenberg is known to have said he was outraged by the treatment of the Jews and the starvation of Russian prisoners. But, I think that was the hardest thing to convey.

McQuarrie: But as a character, Goerdeler was the hardest…Alexander: Yeah, you’re probably right…McQuarrie: Kevin McNally’s character. He was as moral and idealistic as any member of the conspiracy, but on the other hand he had conflicts with Stauffenberg. So, dramatically, he’s something of an antagonist, but in reality Goerdeler was a much more moral character. He’s as much a great man as any of them were, and it was just hard – with the screen time we had – to make him that. Y’know, you needed friction in those scenes or it would’ve just been a bunch of guys going ‘you’re right, we should kill Hitler… Let’s go do it.’ And there was a great deal of friction and conflict in the conspiracy. Goerdeler came to represent that, and as a result he came out as an antagonist and it leaves out his moral objections to Hitler, which were great.

This started out as a small film; if United Artist hadn’t come on board with it, do you think you would’ve come out with a very different film – if you’d done it on a small budget?

McQuarrie: Well, I’ll tell you, the Tom Cruise effect: we wanted it to be a small film, because we wanted control. I’d spent too much time trying to get bigger movies made. I always say that for every million you need over $25m, that’s one more asshole you have to deal with [everyone in room laughs].

When we bought it to United Artists, we presented it as a $17m movie without ever having really done a budget on it. And Tom sat down and said – as the head of the studio, before he’s in the movie, before we’d even talked about it – “guys, you’ve got the 10th Panzer division wasted in the first ten minutes of this movie; you understand you’re going to need a lot more money?”It wasn’t about, ‘oh, now Tom Cruise is in the movie it’s getting bigger’, it was more ‘now that Tom is in the movie we can get the resources we need to get it made’. Without Tom being in it, it never would’ve been the movie it is. There wasn’t going to be another actor that could justify the resources needed to make the movie what it needed to be.

What did you think was going to happen? You had this script, that you’re saying couldn’t have been made without Tom, yet you were going to go ahead and make it. Did you have anyone else in mind?

McQuarrie: Remember, before Bryan came along, everything we wrote, we wrote for me to direct. That’s a liberation because we don’t have to worry about attaching another director to it – but remember, these are all written as scripts that are never going to get made, we usually don’t ever have to cross that bridge [laughter]. 

So, when I was going to direct it, I was talking to Thomas Kretschmann, I’ve known Thomas for a long time, and we were talking about making this movie. The problem was not Thomas, the problem was me – I was not a director that somebody was going to give all this money to. And another problem was the subject matter – maybe if I’d come to them with another spec script, that would’ve been a reality. But, it was me, coming to them with a movie about World War II, totally populated by Germans, that doesn’t end well.

With Bryan attached, it went from a script that no-one wanted to read, to one that no-one needed to read. They just wanted to make the movie. But, they only wanted to invest so much money into it, the kind of offers we were getting were around that $20m mark, and that was never going to get this movie made. We were being foolishly optimistic – and it was only when Tom came aboard that it was properly looked into.

So there were points where there was me and Kretschmann, with a script we really believed in, but that nobody else believed in. Suddenly, Bryan came on board, and I turned to Thomas and said: “Look, we can hold on to our ideals and never make this movie, or we can let it go and become part of something bigger.” Kretschmann said, “It’s an important story that needs to be told; let’s let it go.”

That’s how it became a movie with Tom and Bryan, and how I became producer, and how Thomas became Major Remer and how the movie turned into what it is. And we’re all glad it turned out as it did.Valkyrie is in UK cinemas now. Our review is here.

23 January 2009