Eric’s musings on culture through Netflix—The Usual Suspects
Recovering from Valentine’s Day and House of Cards withdrawal, having finished the new season on Friday, is a slow process. When quitting any habit, it’s best to do it in stages, so to help with that process, here’s another dose of Kevin Spacey in “The Usual Suspects.”
Think back to 1995, when most of us were crawling around in diapers—Kevin Spacey has hardly changed since then. He plays Roger “Verbel” Kint, a con man developed specially for him—the kind of character who, on paper, actually tends to sink into the background, overrun by the powerful personalities around him. After Spacey approached Bryan Singer at a film screening and asked to work with him, Singer took crafting a script for him “as an assignment, because I worship this man as an actor,” as he told Charlie Rose. When they laid out a screenplay for him to view, Spacey chose Verbel, the observer, the cripple. For an actor known for playing the great, sophisticated villains, it seems like a shift, but the role slips easily onto Spacey. Besides, no character is what they seem to be in this movie.
That “The Usual Suspects” is such a top-down created movie shows us a lot about the creative process. The poster for the movie, of five suspects in a lineup, was actually thought up before the story—along with the title, taken from a scene in “Casablanca.” From there, the idea came to have five criminals meet in a lineup and then be sent on a grand heist. Then they had to figure out how they were brought together, so they invented Keyser Söse, the mysterious, all-powerful crime lord, likened to the devil, who pulls the strings to make them meet. The twist is that this whole story is told by Verbel in police interrogation after the heist has gone terribly wrong.
It may seem like an odd way to write a screenplay, but it’s a common and exciting new method. The toughest part of writing, at least for me, is developing the initial idea, and most choreographers need some type of visually compelling image to get their ideas going. Some like to watch on the subway for interesting conversations or body positions, while others read the newspaper just for politically relevant poses or compelling stories. “I like to see what arises on the set,” Singer told Charlie Rose. “50 percent I know exactly what I want going in, and 50 percent I leave grey, and that’s where some of the most interesting stuff happens.” That the criminals couldn’t stop laughing in the lineup would have been left for the bloopers in many other movies, but for Singer, it became a new aspect of the scene.
“The Usual Suspects,” only recently added to Netflix, is one of the best whodunits in the business, so the less that’s said about it the better. It might be the favorite movie I’ve watched so far for this column.
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