Before he directed X-Men, Bryan Singer made a name for himself with a movie about a different batch of heroes, with a different set of super powers. The Usual Suspects premiered at Sundance in 1995, played Cannes in May, and hit theaters exactly 20 years ago today, entertaining almost everyone (though Roger Ebert famously disliked it) with its twisty, humorous criminal caper. You already know who Keyser Söze is, but here are 14 things you might not have known about the film.
1. KEYSER SÖZE WAS NAMED AFTER A LAWYER.
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie once worked for a lawyer named Keyser Sume (pronounced Sue-may), whom he told: “You’ve got a great name. You’re going to be the villain in a script some day.” When it came time to write The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie figured that, for legal reasons, he’d better not use the exact name, and so he replaced it with part of the Turkish expression “söze boğmak,” which means “talk too much” (literally, “drown in/with words”). Considering that the movie also has a character nicknamed Verbal because he “talks too much,” Turkish audiences might not have been as surprised by the movie’s ending as other viewers were.
2. KEVIN SPACEY ASKED TO BE IN THE MOVIE BEFORE HE EVEN KNEW WHAT IT WOULD BE.
The actor met Bryan Singer at a screening of the director's first feature, Public Access, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. Spacey liked the movie so much that he told Singer he wanted to be in whatever he made next. “I took that as an assignment,” Singer told Charlie Rose. “Because I worship this man as an actor.”
3. MCQUARRIE THOUGHT UP THE TITLE AND POSTER IMAGE BEFORE HE CAME UP WITH THE STORY.
The satirical news and entertainment magazine Spy had a regular feature called “The Usual Suspects” (taken from a line in Casablanca), which McQuarrie thought would make a good movie title. What would it be about? Well, the usual suspects—a bunch of guys in a police lineup. It practically writes itself!
4. KEVIN SPACEY READ THE SCRIPT NOT KNOWING WHICH PART HE WAS SUPPOSED TO PLAY.
He liked the characters of Keaton and Dave Kujan, which eventually went to Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri, respectively. But Spacey was most drawn to Verbal Kint who, as it happened, was the part Singer and McQuarrie wanted him for anyway. In fact, McQuarrie later said he wrote the part specifically with Spacey in mind, “because he was lesser known at the time. I wanted the audience to dismiss him as a minor character.”
5. AL PACINO TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF DAVE KUJAN TO PLAY A COP IN A DIFFERENT MOVIE.
That would be Heat, which famously paired him onscreen with Robert De Niro for the first time. Pacino didn’t want to play a cop twice in the same year, so he opted for the more prestigious, Michael Mann-directed project.
6. THE DIRECTOR SAW THE FILM AS A PARALLEL TO THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Singer explained his theory in one of the DVD's making-of featurettes: New York is Kansas, where normal daily life happens; Los Angeles is Oz, where there’s a variety of adventures and colorful characters, including Kobayashi: “Is he the man, or is he the man behind the curtain?” Both stories also have endings that cast doubt on the reality of what the audience just saw.
7. THE FILMMAKERS WANTED HARRY DEAN STANTON, NOT BENICIO DEL TORO.
That’s quite a different direction for the character of Fenster, who in the film is known for his nearly incomprehensible manner of speech and not much else. Singer had an older actor in mind, someone like Stanton (whom he mentioned specifically), to give the partnership of Fenster and McManus an old guy/young guy dynamic. But on the page, the role didn’t have much personality to it, and Singer couldn’t seem to find an actor who fit. It was Spacey who suggested Del Toro.
8. FENSTER’S UNIQUE DIALECT WAS ALL BENICIO DEL TORO’S IDEA.
As Del Toro explained it on Inside the Actors Studio, his character’s only real purpose in the story was to die. So to liven things up, Del Toro tried delivering Fenster’s lines the way the audience hears them in the film—very quickly, and with a thick, indiscernible accent. Nobody on the set could understand him. Singer later recalled, “At first I thought it was a joke, but I didn’t want to offend him if it wasn’t a joke.” Once he determined that Del Toro was doing it on purpose, as a conscious character choice, Singer embraced it. He gave Kevin Pollak a line (“What did you say?”) to let audiences know that the movie knew that Fenster was hard to understand.
9. GABRIEL BYRNE TRIED TO DROP OUT JUST BEFORE FILMING BEGAN.
The actor was dealing with some personal issues that made him reluctant to make the film (or any film) at the time. His agent, attributing it to cold feet, asked if he was sure. He said he was. She asked what it would take for him to do the film. He said, “If they shot it in Los Angeles, where I live, and it took no longer than five weeks, I’ll do it.” Singer and company readily agreed to those terms; it wasn’t until later that Byrne realized shooting for five weeks in Los Angeles was what they had planned anyway. (Yep, even the scenes set in New York were shot in L.A.)
10. THE LINEUP SCENE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE SERIOUS, BUT BENICIO DEL TORO KEPT FARTING.
Though the script didn’t play that scene for laughs, the actors were in a silly mood the day of the shoot and kept screwing around with the lines, cracking each other up. On the special edition DVD, Del Toro gave an additional reason for the hilarity: “All I remember is that someone farted … and no one knew who the guilty party was.” Kevin Pollak remembers it differently: “Del Toro farted like 12 takes in a row.” Frustrated, Singer chewed them out during the lunch break, which only made it harder for the actors to keep straight faces when they got back to work. Singer finally embraced the tone and used the scene to establish camaraderie among the characters, making it work to his (and the film’s) advantage.
11. THE ENTIRE INTERROGATION SCENE, BITS OF WHICH ARE SPRINKLED THROUGHOUT THE MOVIE, WAS SHOT BEFORE EVERYTHING ELSE.
Singer and the cast spent five days filming that sequence. Without all the flashbacks interspersed, it felt like a two-person play between Spacey and Palminteri.
12. THE FILM’S EDITOR IS ALSO ITS COMPOSER.
Writer/directors are common. Even director/cinematographers aren’t unusual. But a composer/editor? John Ottman has been successful at both halves of that combination, largely thanks to Bryan Singer. The two met while working on someone else’s student film at USC, and Singer later asked him to edit his feature debut, Public Access. When that film lost its composer at the last minute, Ottman—who had been dabbling in music on the side—pitched himself for double-duty. The result was such that Singer wanted Ottman to do both jobs on his next film, too, which Ottman agreed to through “mutual blackmail.” “On The Usual Suspects, [Singer] says, ‘You’re not gonna score this movie unless you edit it,’” Ottman explained. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m not gonna edit it unless I score it.’” Except for the first X-Men, Ottman has been the composer/editor on all of Singer's movies.
13. IT WON EVERY OSCAR FOR WHICH IT WAS NOMINATED.
All two of them: Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Spacey, and Best Original Screenplay for Christopher McQuarrie. Spacey has since been nominated for another Oscar (Best Actor for 1999’s American Beauty), which he also won, so he’s batting 1.000. (So is McQuarrie, who has only been nominated that one time.) No losers in this crowd!
14. IT SUCCEEDS AT SURPRISING (MOST) VIEWERS BY MAKING THEM ASK THE WRONG QUESTION.
McQuarrie explained that instead of making audiences wonder “Who is Keyser Söze?,” the movie is set up so that the central question becomes “Is Keaton dead or alive?” Thus, misdirected, viewers are caught off-guard when the Keyser Söze question is answered. Of course, the marketing for the movie—which did emphasize the question “Who is Keyser Söze?”—might have undermined that a little.
Special Edition DVD features