Christopher McQuarrie, the Proud Warrior of Valkyrie

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Christopher Mcquarrie, who won an Oscar for his screenplay to 1995’s The Usual Suspects, has had a rather unusual career. After receiving plaudits for that Bryan Singer film, he invested a great deal of time into a screenplay on the life of Alexander the Great for Martin Scorsese which never saw the light of day, then went back to the crime drama realm for The Way of the Gun, which was passed over by both critics and audiences. He then took an eight year break before reuniting with Singer for last winter’s big Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie. The film details the real-life plan by several key members of Germany’s military high command to assassinate Adolph Hitler and stage a coup of the government in 1944.

The film was plagued by production problems, reshoots, a constantly shuffled release date, and German anger with casting Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the hero and mastermind behind the plot to kill Hitler. Cruise’s involvement in Scientology, which is publicly considered a dangerous cult or sect throughout Germany, made it difficult for the filmmakers to shoot at the historic Benderblock military compound where the conspirators were executed, but ultimately permission was granted.

Despite all the troubles and bad press, Valkyrie went on to earn nearly $200 million worldwide and McQuarrie talked to us on the eve of its DVD release about his research into this fascinating footnote in history. He also discusses his next project, The Stanford Prison Experiment, also liable to cause controversy.

ComingSoon.net: Although the ultimate failure of Operation Valkyrie is not surprising to the audience, it is fascinating to see how close it came to fruition. How do you make the iPod generation for whom WWII barely registers understand the weight of what was at stake here?
Christopher McQuarrie: Well, I think we did a pretty good job of containing that within the movie. It was very difficult to find a balance of how do you contextualize WWII for people who may not have it in the front of their mind and at the same time not over-teach for the people who did. Really, what we tried to do in this movie was do everything we could to avoid a history lesson and make it a straight-up thriller using just the facts. I think anyone who watches this movie and lets it take ahold of them will have a great ride.

CS: It must have been challenging to craft a suspense film from a conspiracy the audience knows doesn’t succeed.
McQuarrie: That’s the thing, [co-writer] Nathan [Alexander] and I sorta looked at that as the story’s biggest asset. If you look at “Titanic” or “Apollo 13″… knowing the ending and then getting attached to the characters and their dilemma only adds to the suspense. Hitchcock would tell you that the essence of suspense isn’t not knowing how things will turn out, it’s not knowing how or when. Hitchcock used an example to define suspense by telling the story of a bomb under a table. There are two men in the room, one of them knows there’s a bomb, the other doesn’t, and I’m not gonna tell you when the bomb is gonna go off. There we were filming a scene where Stauffenberg is delivering the bomb to a conference room and someone turned to us and said, “You realize you’re doing the Hitchcock thing! I think this is the first time someone’s actually done it!”

CS: The impetus for this film began in 2002 when you visited the von Stauffenberg memorial at the Benderblock. You interviewed many surviving people connected to this event. At what point in your research did it become ubundantly clear that your instincts were correct, that there was indeed a movie here?
McQuarrie: Oh, I knew standing right there when I first got the idea for the film, the idea of Germans trying to kill Hitler was the stuff of a great movie. Trying to build a conspiracy to take down Adolph Hitler from within the Nazi government… it was gonna be “Day of the Jackal,” it was gonna be “Seven Days in May,” all the movies I really loved growing up.

CS: There is a lot of tension from waiting for the other shoe to drop. What was the most unexpected or startling thing you discovered in the research?
McQuarrie: I think it was the realization we made quite late in the process that none of these guys were Nazis. We always referred to anyone who was serving Germany as a “Nazi,” that just became the vernacular. What we discovered was a large majority of the German high command were in fact not Nazis and in fact you couldn’t be a member of a political party and be in the military prior to Hitler taking power. So a lot of these guys were not indoctrinated by that whole philosophy and as Hitler started to break his word, from as early as 1936, a lot of these old-school German generals who had been officers LONG before Hitler came to power, immediately began to resist. Ludvig Beck, the guy played by Terrence Stamp, resigned in 1936 and as a civilian began an active resistance. The challenge for the resistance was they couldn’t kill Hitler while he was on a roll. It was hard to get popular support when the guy was having success, so they had to wait until a point where Hitler was vulnerable.

CS: The difference between Hitler being killed at this point, July 1944, and when he actually died in April of ’45, is nine months. Besides the obvious lives that were lost in those nine months, what do you believe the outcome of an Allied truce with a coup government in July of ’44 would have been in terms of changing the ultimate landscape and timeline of the war?
McQuarrie: I would say this: a city like Bruges in Belgium would not be nearly as unique as it is now. You’ve gotta understand in July of ’44 the Allies were still contained on the peninsula in western France and the destruction of Europe had not really begun. War had not really touched the European continent at that point. You really have to go to places like Normandy and the surrounding area to understand the extent of the destruction of Old Europe in those nine months. That’s really where the intensity of the fighting of the war happened. Berlin would be a different city today, as would much of Eastern Europe, and Russia. The Cold War would have turned out quite differently. Russia would not have occupied Germany and cut it in half, the way they had to fight yard-by-yard to get all the way to Berlin. Would have been a very, very different Europe. Something like 12 million people died in those last nine months. So it’s very easy to say, “Oh, it was too late, the war was over anyway.” No, the war was not over. The war had turned with the invasion of Normandy, but you still had nine months of intense fighting and you also had the Battle of the Bulge. Massive, MASSIVE destruction to all these little cities between France and Berlin and obviously Eastern Europe. Let’s put it this way: Old Europe would still be “old.”

CS: Right, and there wouldn’t be all those haunting post-war photographs of people and families regrouping amid all the rubble in the streets.
McQuarrie: Oh yeah. If you go to the war museum at Caen in France they show you city-by-city the destruction before and after. It’s astonishing the number of little cities, beautiful little hamlets that had been there for HUNDREDS of years. They’d been untouched by WWI, some of them had been there for close to a millennia and they were all just devastated.

CS: It’s rare to get to interview someone about a film well after it has been released, and “Valkyrie” did respectable business. Can you talk a little about how you felt upon the film’s reception, both critically and with audiences?
McQuarrie: I was delighted! There had been a lot written and said about the film before it came out. The blogosphere had made their speculation. There was definitely an attitude that a film like this couldn’t succeed, had way too much going against it. There was almost a certain glee in wanting to see it go down. All along we knew we were making a good movie. I think a lot of the speculation on how the movie would fare came from speculation on the kind of movie we were making. Americans made the same assumption Germans did, that what we were gonna do is make an exploitive action movie out of a WWII story. What we did was tell the story straight-up, ’cause that was the movie we wanted to make. So when the movie came out everyone said, “This is not bullsh*t! Where’s my trainwreck?” So I was really happy that people actually showed up and saw it and it found its audience and was glad the audience was as big as it was. It had been a long and very significant seven years since I had made a film. The internet had evolved, as you said the iPhone evolved. The way people watch movies had all changed, and my fear that this kind of movie… a story-based movie that goes at a deliberate pace, doesn’t have big special effects, a movie of the old school that I had grown up on… I was worried that art was dead, ’cause if it is I’m not gonna make movies anymore. So I was very happy to see a movie like this perform.

CS: And in Germany?
McQuarrie: You know, after all the apprehension, all the concern, we went and had the premiere in Berlin and received a seven-minute standing ovation. Christian Berkel, who plays Mertz, turned to me and said, “I don’t think you can appreciate what’s happening: Germans don’t give standing ovations, it’s not something we do.” It was great vindication for Tom and for Bryan. Very emotional, a great reception.

CS: You’re currently attached to direct a story that every college sociology freshman learns, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. This is another fascinating, iconic historical event, dealing with issues of authority, power, and obeying orders. What specifically attracted you to it?
McQuarrie: I got involved in it through a friend of mine, Tim Talbott, who’s a writer, oddly enough wrote for “South Park.” He was attached to this project and asked me to come on as a producer. I knew very little about it going in. Like most historical subjects I just have the kernel of the idea. I went from developing it with him to writing it with him, and finally they asked me to direct it. I was about to go off and do that movie when “Valkyrie” happened. A few years later I’m able to think about getting back to it.

CS: Again there’s the issue of relevancy. Are you going to draw parallels to things like Abu Ghraib or do you think the audience can find those contemporary connections themselves?
McQuarrie: I’ll put it to you this way: A guy with a smock that barely covers his crotch and a bag over his head… do I have to draw a parallel? I don’t think so. (laughs) You literally don’t have to make one allusion to it for people to say, “Oh my God, this is Abu Ghraib.” What’s amazing is that Zimbardo actually went and testified on behalf of one of the guards at Abu Ghraib and basically described how you can’t put human beings in this situation. In these conditions they will behave in one of three ways. They will become one of three types that the guards in the prison experiment were. I don’t care who you are, and I say it about myself: put me in those conditions I would become one of those three people, and I’m just terrified to know which of those three I would be. That’s really what the movie says, it forces us to ask ourselves, “Who would you have been in this experiment?” You would have been somebody, you wouldn’t have been yourself anymore. What’s really unfortunate is there is no one in the experiment you can look to and say, “I hope I handle it like him.”

Valkyrie will be available on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, May 19th.

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