Born circa 1967 in Princeton Junction, NJ, McQuarrie attended West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, where Brian Singer and actor Ethan Hawke also attended. After graduation, he spent a year in Western Australia working as an assistant teacher at Christ Church Grammar School and hitchhiking across the continent. Upon his return to the States, McQuarrie worked for a Garden State detective agency, where his job entailed working as a glorified security guard at a rough urban movie theater as opposed to requiring him to crack many interesting cases. While not exactly the exciting life McQuarrie imagined leading, the experience was valuable as it allowed him to study movies and audiences' reaction to them. Just as he was about to leave the security guard business in favor of the New York City police department, McQuarrie was approached by Singer to co-write the screenplay for Public Access (1995), a thriller about a small town whose secrets are revealed by the host (Ron Marquette) of a local TV show. "Public Access" was named co-winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, though both McQuarrie and Singer later dismissed it for being underdeveloped.
Though he had made his first film, McQuarrie was still in need of money and found work making copies at a downtown Los Angeles law firm. Single, broke and without much of a future, he was again approached by Singer to write another film, but this time with a bigger budget. Pressed by time constraints to come up with a script for Singer to pitch, McQuarrie spent three days staring into a copy machine struggling to find a story and eventually struck upon the idea of a feeble-minded criminal spinning a tall tale about a harbor robbery gone bad by drawing details from a cluttered pin-up board. The result was The Usual Suspects (1995), which starred Kevin Spacey as a cerebral palsy-stricken con artist grilled by an imposing customs agent (Chazz Palminteri) about the true identity of a former cop-turned-master thief, Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). Incorporating numerous flashbacks, voiceover and an unreliable narrator, McQuarrie broke all the screenwriting rules in crafting a story about a group of criminals (Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack and Benicio del Toro) commissioned by a phantom-like crime boss named Keyser Söze. After making its debut at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, "The Usual Suspects" was hailed by critics and earned McQuarrie the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Overnight, McQuarrie was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. He followed up his monumental success by contributing uncredited rewrites to the shooting script for Singer's big-budget, effects-laden comic book adventure, X-Men (2000). That same year, McQuarrie marked his own directorial debut with The Way of the Gun (2000), a violent crime thriller laden with graphic language that starred del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, Juliette Lewis and James Caan. Despite the pedigree of both cast and crew, "Gun" was panned by critics on its way to becoming a box office failure. For the next seven years, McQuarrie spun his wheels developing one script after another without seeing a movie made. While he made a good living, he became frustrated with the Hollywood development system to the point of wanting to give up the screenwriting life entirely. But once again, Singer was there to pull his friend back in and asked McQuarrie to make his spec about a Nazi movement to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Based on real events, Valkyrie (2008) starred Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a German war hero who joins a clandestine group determined to kill Hitler and end the war.
Due to the fact that the film centered on a group of Nazis, McQuarrie and Singer faced an uphill battle to make their film, including with Germany itself. In the end, the two were able to produce a historically accurate and compelling thriller that earned mixed reviews from critics and performed fairly well at the box office. After writing the universally panned box office failure, Killshot (2009), which was adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, McQuarrie had the misfortune of being one of the writers credited on The Tourist (2010), a critical laughingstock starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Following uncredited rewrite work on the excellent "Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011), McQuarrie at long last returned to the director's chair for the crime thriller Jack Reacher (2012), which starred Cruise as the unstoppable titular soldier-turned-homicide investigator who tries to unravel the truth behind murder allegations brought against a military sniper (Joseph Sikora).
By Shawn Dwyer
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