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Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun is a nasty piece of work, but there’s a reason for that. The first film directed by The Usual Suspects’ Oscar-winning scripter is animated by his rage at Hollywood for insisting that he make another crime flick, and it was designed as a test case.

“I wanted to make a film on my own terms, so when it succeeded or failed, I could much more comfortably walk into the next project,” says McQuarrie, whose glasses and beard make him look more like an assistant professor than a wise guy. “The whole purpose of the film was that every time I tried to create a character with some depth or some complication, the studio would always say, ‘Well, that’s not sympathetic. You’ll lose the audience if the character does that.’ And I’m of the belief that audiences stay with the character no matter what he or she does, as long as that character is interesting.

“So I thought, If I make this movie this way, and it’s a success, maybe I’ll get away with drawing similar complex characters on a bigger canvas. If it’s a failure, then I’ll know not to even try. That’ll just end the argument, and I guess they’ll be right. So I’m very interested to see how this thing performs. I have a lot of other work that relies on Parker and Longbaugh.”

Those are the two petty thugs (played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) who kidnap surrogate mother Robin (Juliette Lewis) and hold her for ransom, only to discover that she’s carrying the child of a mob-connected money launderer. McQuarrie took the thugs’ names from the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who are just the sort of likable rogues he finds uninteresting.

The writer-director doesn’t even much like the era that produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, preferring John Huston, John Ford, and Preston Sturges. “I did not grow up a student of the ’70s,” he says. “Of the ’70s guys, Sidney Lumet is the one I like most, because he stays out of his movies. You’re not aware of the directing. I find it really irritating when you’re watching a film and realize that nothing’s really happening in front of the camera—it’s all being done with the camera. I feel that’s cheating. I’m giving the audience enough work with the storytelling; I don’t want them also trying to figure out what’s happening onscreen.”

Although The Way of the Gun’s Mexican-bordello finale has been widely compared to the conclusion of The Wild Bunch, McQuarrie professes little regard for the work of Sam Peckinpah. The director paid tribute to a very different cinematic tradition when he named his production company Aqaba, after a sequence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. That epic also inspired a film Hollywood hasn’t let McQuarrie make: the story of Alexander the Great.

The major studios originally weren’t interested in Alexander, because the historical epic was supposedly a dead genre. “And then Braveheart was a very successful film, and then Gladiator,” McQuarrie says. “But the truth of the matter was, neither of them made the kind of money” that would guarantee more sword-and-sandal pictures. “If Alexander made that kind of money, it wouldn’t be a success, because of how much it would cost to make.

“The bottom line is, if I put Leonardo DiCaprio in it, if I give it a love story that historically didn’t exist, and if I cut off the last third of his life and kill him when things were good, anybody would make it.

“They’ll always come up with all the reasons why the movie doesn’t work,” the director adds. “A friend of mine in Hollywood says, ‘Movies get made because somebody forgot to say no.’”

Alexander is not Hollywood’s idea of a likable protagonist, McQuarrie concedes. “He’s not this wonderful hero who does nothing but benevolent things. In trying to tell about him honestly, you constantly run into the notion of sympathy. A studio honestly believes you will lose the audience, as if 500 people will get up at a certain point in the film and just leave. If [The Way of the Gun] is a success, I can go into any other meeting and say, ‘No matter how bad this person is, he’s not as bad as Parker and Longbaugh.’”

McQuarrie intended to direct Alexander and was surprised that no one objected. “That was interesting,” he says. “They said no to everything that I wanted to direct, but they didn’t have a problem with me directing. In fact, they didn’t have a problem with me directing Alexander. We came very close at Warner Bros. to getting the film made, and at every meeting I would say, ‘You understand that I’ve never directed a film before,’ and that didn’t seem to bother anybody. It’s when I brought them these characters who didn’t live by Hollywood’s moral code of what makes a sympathetic character that they started to have problems.”

Those characters grew out of the New Jersey native’s post-collegiate experience working for a detective/security agency, where he met the man who was the model for the fixer James Caan plays in The Way of the Gun. “The character of Joe Sarno is, well, beyond based—the character’s name was Joe Sarno,” the writer admits. “My boss at the detective agency where I worked was very much that character. He’s the guy you would call if you ever ended up in trouble. I think that experience had a lot to do with my writing, my ear for dialogue. A lot of the characters I worked with, their way of speaking and whatnot, all had an effect.”

McQuarrie says he’s never studied organized crime, but “I’ve always just been fascinated by it. I’ve just sort of picked things up.”

As The Usual Suspects revealed, one of the things that intrigues him is the shadowy character. Three of the roles in The Way of the Gun are identified in the cast list only by question marks, and most of the other ones are almost as, well, suspect. “To me, the backstory is the single most irritating, time-consuming device in the history of film,” the director says with a chortle. “This need to create some sort of personal identification with the character through whatever story they have. I don’t write about characters who necessarily tell the truth in the first place, so why should we believe them when they talk about their lives? I really believe in judging people based on their actions, not based on their words. If it’s not something that’s going to happen onscreen, I would just as soon not talk about it.

“In this movie, a lot of people’s pasts have an effect on what it is they do,” he notes. “But the audience can imagine those things. It’s more powerful in their minds than anything I could write.”

The Way of the Gun opens in the hi-tech present, the world of surrogate childbearing and instant communication, and gradually travels into something resembling the Old West, where none of the characters can get their cell phones to work. “The films that really inspired this movie were The Magnificent Seven and Bad Day at Black Rock,” McQuarrie explains, “so it was my way of sort of pining for a dead era. To have it sort of go back and end up there.”

Even while journeying symbolically into the past, however, McQuarrie was still thinking of Hollywood. “In the screenplay—it was too over-the-top to do in the film—Dr. Painter is delivering the child and there has to be someone in the room at all times to make sure Painter doesn’t leave,” because the doctor is considered untrustworthy. “And at a certain point, everyone has to leave the room, and Parker as the last person to leave hands Robin a gun, so that she can cover Painter. That to me is the ultimate representation of filmmaking, the notion that two people have come together to create this child, neither of whom trusts the other one, and so I’ve got to hold a gun on you while you’re cutting me open to deliver our baby. To me, everything that happens in that birthing room is about filmmaking.”

Would that make the parturient woman with the gun the producer or director? “Well, I guess it depends on what job you have. Everyone in the film business would prefer to identify with the woman. Certainly, in my case, I feel like Robin, trying to deliver a film.”

McQuarrie says he wasn’t poking fun at agents, producers, and major-studio executives, however, when he ended The Way of the Gun in a place that’s beyond the reach of cell phones. “It’s a joke on Hollywood to end up in a whorehouse,” he chuckles. “That was really my comment on Hollywood.” —Mark Jenkins