Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial debut, The Way of the Gun.
Christopher McQuarrie has only directed four features (so far), but each of them is a flat-out banger. He’s known best now for the Mission: Impossible films — we listened to his commentary on Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) previously — and delivered a terrific adaptation with Jack Reacher (2012), but it all started with 2000’s The Way of the Gun. McQuarrie kept busy after its release, but it would be over a decade before he directed again. That’s something of a shame as this debut shows a talented filmmaker delivering the goods even as he’s finding his way.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Way of the Gun.
The Way of the Gun (2000)
Commentator: Christopher McQuarrie (writer, director), Joe Kraemer (composer)
1. The opening sequence was in his head for quite a while before he even found the story to build around it. It was inspired by an awkward, uncomfortable encounter at a dog park that saw some folks playing frisbee grow angry with others hanging out with their dogs. His friend asked what they should do if things turn violent, and McQuarrie’s reply was simple and straightforward. “Just run into the crowd as they’re coming toward us and start punching the women as hard as you can.” His argument was that while he and his friend would still be beaten down, it’s the other guys who’d be the real losers as they’d have to go home after with the women.
2. The sequence was originally intended to be part of a fake trailer for a film starring these two guys as opposed to an actual opening. It was his attempt at showing disregard for backstory when it comes to these characters. An executive had asked what Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh’s (Benicio Del Toro) backstories were, and McQuarrie replied “who cares, a backstory is just a trailer.”
3. McQuarrie’s wife, Heather McQuarrie, is The Way of the Gun‘s costume designer, and she also gave him the idea for the Cesarean section scene.
4. He was “very resistant” to casting Phillippe, but the actor wouldn’t take no without the opportunity for a meeting. They sat down for a chat, and McQuarrie asked why he even wanted to do this film when other offers he was getting promised more exposure and higher pay. Phillippe responded, “There are a lot of people trying to make me a movie star, and I’m an actor.”
5. The building at 7:59 resembles a Star Destroyer — it’s the reason McQuarrie picked the location — and the original plan was to pan the camera to make it look like a Star Wars ship moving across the frame.
6. His brother, Doug McQuarrie, is a Navy SEAL, and the filmmaker brought him onboard to work with the actors on handling guns.
7. The kidnapping scene sees lots of collateral in the form of dead or wounded people in both the foreground and background. McQuarrie points out the couple in the car at 17:43 — “a guy crying over his dead wife with three bullets in the windshield” — and says it’s all meant to leave viewers questioning who their loyalty is aimed towards.
8. The sequence during the car chase with Parker and Longbaugh hopping out of the car while it still rolls only to then hop back in as Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt) approach on foot was inspired by Del Toro. The actor had seen something similar on the Cops television show and found it interesting.
9. They couldn’t afford breakable glass for the car window, so Del Toro broke a real one — it took multiple tries despite the screwdriver hidden in the actor’s sleeve.
10. The gas station cashier is played by Kraemer’s wife, Heidi Van Lier.
11. He learned a lot from directing his own writing for the first time including that “everything can happen much sooner, much faster, and with much less setup.” An example of this is a conversation between Parker and Robin (Juliette Lewis) as they eat that initially went on for a while and was essentially a commentary on movies. McQuarrie cut the majority of it.
12. He views the film as an allegory for independent filmmaking. From the leads winding up bloodied and bruised to watching someone else leave with the money, “that’s filmmaking.”
13. “The character is a survivor,” said James Caan about his character Joe Sarno, “I want to show what he survived.” The result was a highlighting of the scars on his face and neck.
14. McQuarrie’s breakout was his script for 1995’s The Usual Suspects, and he wanted to avoid the possibility of a “twist” in this film. He instead intended for viewers to pay attention to catch the revelations as opposed to delivering a big “wow” moment. “If you’re not willing to participate in the little clues I’m giving you, the second act is fairly uninvolving.”
15. He was “allotted” 6500 feet of film to shoot per day, but the hotel room sequence an hour in saw him shoot over 27000 feet on a single day. “And that, by the way, is bad directing.” He says he was over his head with the scene starting from his own script, and he thanks his three actors for working through it with him successfully.
16. McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun commentary makes a strong case for everyone to stop what they’re doing and go watch William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980).
17. A scene between Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and Painter (Dylan Kussman) was initially shot as a single master, mostly from behind Wilson. The actor convinced McQuarrie to shoot coverage from the other direction as well, and the director is extremely grateful.
18. He sees Painter as the hero of the film, and if you listen to his dialogue the film’s themes and purpose come clear.
19. The film’s shooting stage was “an old potato chip factory,” and the water was controlled by a business next door.
20. Del Toro asked McQuarrie how much fifteen million dollars would weigh, “and my immediate response was ‘who cares?!'” He then began inquiring and discovered it would weigh roughly 375 pounds if it was all in hundreds, and he let Del Toro figure out how he’d carry it.
21. The wide shot at 1:20:49 is his nod to Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).
22. He wanted desperately to avoid using CG in the film, but he ended up adding muzzle flashes to guns when the real ones didn’t pick up on camera. CG was also used later to remove the labels from the broken glass bottles in the empty fountain — they had been cleared to be on set, but they couldn’t get approval to show them smashed and jabbed into Parker’s arm.
23. Parker originally had a line during the motel gunfight where he said “Shoot the doctor,” but while he liked it, McQuarrie removed it from the finished film after seeing test audiences repeatedly laugh at it.
24. The Cesarean scene with Robin, Jeffers, and Painter is among McQuarrie’s favorites in The Way of the Gun. “Everything that happens in this room, whether you like it or not, is what I most hold dear about my experience on this film.” He also adds on the commentary that despite its intensity it was fun to shoot. “We were all taking huge Fritos and scooping goop out of Juliette’s belly and eating it.”
25. The extra whose ass is slapped by Longbaugh while exiting the brothel wasn’t pleased. It was McQuarrie’s direction to Del Toro, and he intentionally didn’t give the extra warning.
26. People often mention the film and its “Peckinpah influence,” but McQuarrie clarifies that it’s not the legendary filmmaker’s style he’s aping, “it’s the situation, it’s a bunch of guys in a whorehouse in the desert.”
27. The end shootout outside the brothel was meticulously choreographed between McQuarrie and his brother. They used a map and plastic “cowboy and Indian” figures, and they had the storyboard artist on hand to capture it all.
28. Parker was meant to be wearing a jacket during the whole end sequence, but Phillippe wanted to take it off due to the heat. McQuarrie resisted as he was worried the character’s upcoming arm injury would look terrible with prosthetic effects. He’s happy he gave in to Phillippe’s request, though, as the bloodied arm looks fantastic.
Best in Context-Free Commentary on The Way of the Gun
“If I’m going to make a film about criminals, they’re going to be criminals.”
“It’s just not in me to make a likable murderer.”
“Ryan is exceptional in his gun handling.”
“That’s the thing with Benicio, you’re never gonna get what you expect but you’re always gonna get something great.”
“Lose the scene, keep the sandwich.”
“As a writer, my rule is ‘Find what you’re trying to say and don’t say it.'”
“Somewhere, Jim Brooks is vomiting.”
“The humor between Taye and I was so completely racist throughout the movie. So funny.”
“This is a soap opera.”
“Okay, that I stole from Peckinpah.”
“I’m extremely proud of everything that everybody did in the movie with the exception of myself.”
“I love being told I’m derivative and ten years too late.”
This remains a wonderfully mean little thriller, and McQuarrie’s troubled affection for it is made clear on his The Way of the Gun commentary. He’s proud of everyone’s work but is a bit mixed on his own, and there’s hesitancy when asked if he’d direct again. That uncertainty is most likely what’s to blame for the twelve year wait between his first and second features, but happily it’s something he eventually got past. As fantastic as his next three films are — and presumably as his next two Mission: Impossible movies will be — I’d love to see him return to something small, dirty, and cruel again… and maybe even convince Tom Cruise to come along for the ride? Anyway, this is a fantastic commentary track thanks to both McQuarrie and Kraemer (who is a terrific moderator) as they keep the conversation flowing, fill it with anecdotes and observations, and entertain while they educate. The Way of the Gun commentary is a must-listen for fans and filmmakers alike.
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