It didn't take long for high school buddies Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer to make an indelible stamp on the Hollywood scene. After their film debuts, with McQuarrie writing and Singer directing Public Access, their next collaboration really put them on the map, with the smash-hit (and one of my personal favorites of all-time) The Usual Suspects, which landed McQuarrie an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. After making his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun, which he also wrote, McQuarrie is back with director Bryan Singer with the powerful true-story war drama, Valkyrie, which hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on May 19. I had the chance to speak with McQuarrie over the phone, and here's what he had to say about his latest film.
So Valkyrie was your first feature since The Way of the Gun in 2000, so when did you first discover this story and decide to adapt it into a film?
Christopher McQuarrie: Early 2002. I was in Berlin doing research for another movie, location scouting for another movie. I had a tour guide taking me around Berlin and the last place he took me on this very long tour of the city was Bendler Block, where this story comes to its end. I knew a little bit about the conspiracy and was fascinated by it and thought it would be a cool idea for a movie. The guy that I was with tried to discourage me from ever trying that, because it didn't lend itself to an immediately commercial idea. If I was going to spend so much time working on a script, he thought I should work on something that would have an easier time getting made. But, if you tell me that something is not a good idea for a movie, I'm the kind of person that will spend two years trying to prove it to you. (Co-writer) Nathan Alexander and I started working on it in 2004 and by about 2007... we had worked on it sort of on and off. We'd put it in the drawer, take it back out, go back and forth like that. We were really in no hurry to finish it, because we knew we were never going to show it to anybody, we were never going to shop it. Once we finished the script, or finished what we thought was a first draft, we just put it in a drawer. I tried to pitch it to a couple of people that I thought would be interested in it, and I could never really get past the first sentence before they would say, 'Never mind.' Then I was working on re-writing Logan's Run for Bryan Singer and he found out about this drawer full of scripts that I had and asked if he could look at them. He read through all of them and basically threw a dart at one and said, 'I want to do Valkyrie.'
Wow. So how much research did you and Nathan go into for this film? This is a historical drama so how would you go about balancing the real history and the fiction in this film?
Christopher McQuarrie: Well, really early on, we agreed that I would have an overview and Nathan would be the deep research guy. What happens when you're adapting something historical, you're so intimate with the history that you want to leave everything in. The tendency becomes that you're going out of your way to include things that are not conducive to making a straight-forward movie. Nathan was the protector of the history and all I did was write a movie. He wrote the first draft, gave it to me and I turned it into a film and gave it back to him. He said, 'Well, you screwed everything up, historically,' and he would fix all the facts and then, again, I would go back and turn it into a movie. You had drama on one side, you had your historical accuracy on the other and we were sort of fighting it out. The pendulum ended up resting right in the middle and what you end up with is a fairly-accurate depiction of the events. Our big thing was we were allowed to take liberties, only to make the story clearer to a contemporary audience. There was never an attempt to make a more Hollywood moment or turn it into a movie that can sell, because, again, all the historical projects I do, I approach from the point of view that no one will ever make this film, why should I sell it out?
I saw you worked with Nathan on The Way of the Gun, so how did you guys first start collaborating together in writing?
Christopher McQuarrie: Yeah. He had been working for me. He was my assistant on The Way of the Gun and then he got involved in script development, doing research for me. The great story is, the story I don't think Nathan would ever tell, is he was going to quit. He wanted to do something else, but he didn't know what. I said that until you figure out what you want to be, you're going to be a writer. I want you to go write this movie. He said, 'I don't know anything about screenwriting,' and I said, 'Sure you do. You've read 10 million scripts. I don't even read my scripts, you do.' I said just take the story and put it in script form and I'll worry about the movie. Just tell the truth and write the movie. You're not limited by budget, you're not limited by content, you're not limited by length, because no one is going to make it. So Nathan took about four months and he came back to me with this very historically-accurate, very dry account of July 20th. Over the next few years, we just went back and forth. To his credit, he's a hell of a fighter. He's very defensive of the history, very protective of it. Nathan is a student of old-school 70s cinema and also films of David Lynch, things like that. There's not a commercial bone in his body, the kinds of movies that he likes to watch. Nathan really kept the script to that place, that's why the movie really feels like a 60s, 70s movie. That's Nathan's influence.
The cast is quite amazing here with, of course, Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Thomas Kretschmann, Terrence Stamp. I know a lot of writers don't really do this, but was anything written for anyone specifically?
Christopher McQuarrie: We were trying to write a smaller movie. We were trying to keep the budget down, so that I didn't have another... you know, I wrote a script about Alexander the Great and $180 million later, it was never going to get made. I didn't want budget to be the reason that it didn't get made. We kept the budget down as much as we could, so we just pictured the guys. The movie we looked to as sort of a touchstone, was a movie like Downfall or a movie like Frank Pierson's Conspiracy, which is maybe why four of the guys from Conspiracy are in Valkyrie.
And a few from Downfall as well.
I read that the German Ministry of Defense wasn't originally going to allow you to film on Bendler Block until yourself and Tom Cruise persuaded them, so were there any other difficulties in securing certain locations like that for the film?
Christopher McQuarrie: No. There was a police station that we scouted, they said we couldn't use that. They said that before we even asked, and we never would've used that location anyway. Beyond that, the Germans were actually very supportive and we had a good time. The German crew was great and the people in Berlin were happy to have us there. A lot was made of problems that occurred in production, but the truth of the matter was it was never like that. We were working in a vacuum and, in truth, they were just making stuff up. The cut-and-paste blogosphere could never confirm a single one of these things. No one ever asked, they just printed these stories and if there were difficulties that we had on the movie, it had everything to do with the struggle of how best to depict this story without manipulating the events, because both Tom and Bryan sort of drank the Kool-Aid and were working hard to preserve the history.
There was a story going around about a citizen that complained about the swastika, or something like that.
Christopher McQuarrie: Well, what had happened was, and I wasn't even aware of it until the end of the day, what happened was one of the locations we were shooting was the old building that's now the Ministry of Finance, right in the center of downtown Berlin. We were using that as a government quarter, as a building that represents the government quarter. We had dressed it up with those big swastika banners and, as it turns out, right within view of that building is, I think it's a hotel and on the top floor they have this really beautiful view of Berlin and, unfortunately, part of that view is the Ministry of Finance. One of the guests at the wedding was, so the story goes, a survivor of the war, you know, and he saw four huge swastika banners and 300 extras dressed in uniforms, storming the Ministry of Finance. Obviously, he got very upset and someone from the wedding called over. This was the view of their wedding, so they called over and, of course, we had permits and everybody knew what we were doing, they said, 'Listen, we're having a wedding over here,' so in between every take we took all the banners down and when we were camera-ready we would put the banners back up. What it turned into was that people were complaining and they were offended and everything else, and in truth, people from the wedding called and were like, 'Could you maybe take the swastikas down while we're taking our pictures?' We were like, 'Fine.' We did it and just took them down. There was never an outrage, there was never disgust, we never had anyone horrified by the swastikas. I think, more than anything, the German's were like, 'Oh geez. Another f*&%ing Nazi movie' (Laughs). That's literally as vitriolic as it got. You know, 'Come on. You're holding up traffic with your f*&%ing Nazi movie.'
That's great. So you obviously have a long history with director Bryan Singer, so what was it like getting back to work with him after all those years?
Christopher McQuarrie: It was great. I mean, we had worked together over the years. I had sort of worked behind-the-scenes. I had re-written X-Men for him and was working on Logan's Run and we were always talking about doing something together again, but we had just never found the right thing, because Bryan's sensibilities went one way and mine went completely another way. We were laughing when we started to do Valkyrie because, subconsciously, we were always a little worried on what our follow-up would be, because how are you going to beat that big twist ending, right? He said to me, 'Well, there's no fear of a twist on this movie. Now we'll just see if we can get everybody to go and see it.'
You have a few other projects coming up. It was reported that you are script-doctoring The Tourist and The Stanford Prison Experiment. I know there is a German film called Das Experiment that is loosely based on that, so what can you tell us about those two projects?
Christopher McQuarrie: The Stanford one I was slated to direct before Valkyrie started and it was put on hold when I went off to do that. I was supposed to be gone for a few weeks, then a few months, and then I was gone for two years, so now I'm back revisiting Stanford, deciding what I want to do with it. The Tourist is out of my hands right now. I finished the script and I'm waiting to see what they do with it.
So, finally, with Valkyrie coming to DVD, what would you like to say to those who haven't seen it yet, to have them give it a chance on DVD?
Christopher McQuarrie: It's just a straight-up great story, really.
Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, Chris. Thanks so much for your time and I'm a big fan of your work.
Christopher McQuarrie: Thanks very much. I appreciate it.
Catch all the World War II action when Valkyrie hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on May 19.