Interview: Valkyrie Screenwriter/Producer Christopher McQuarrie
by Alex Billington
December 31, 2008
The moment I walked out of my screening of Valkyrie a few weeks back, I knew I wanted to talk with both director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. While I didn't get to talk with Singer (next time!), MGM did get me some time with Christopher McQuarrie, who turned out to be a fascinating person to talk with, because not only did he write the screenplay for Valkyrie, but he produced the film as well. If you're at all interested in hearing a lot more about the inspiration behind Valkyrie or the extensive research that went into it, then you definitely need to read this interview. Or if you love screenwriting and just want to get a grasp on how they formed this impressive screenplay, definitely start here.
I gave Valkyrie a 9 out of 10 in my review of it a few weeks ago. Not only did I love Bryan Singer's directing and most of the actors, but I especially thought McQuarrie's screenplay was top-notch. Going into this interview there was a lot that I was hoping to cover just purely out of interest in hearing about how they came up with all aspects of the script and how they turned a fascinating historical WWII story into a great bit of cinema. From there, McQuarrie and I just went into so much more, covering the accents, historical accuracy, the characters, and even the idea of actually having Stauffenberg kill Hitler. Read on!
It's been a while since you've last written anything and so I'm wondering how you first got involved with Valkyrie and what was it that really interested you in that story?
Christopher McQuarrie: I was in Berlin in early 2002. And I was on a tour of the city. The last place my tour guide took me was the Bendlerblock which is where a lot of the events of July 20th took place and where the whole story came to an end. And the Bendlerblock is now a monument to the German resistance. And as he was telling me about this -- I knew a little bit about it. I knew something about a one-eyed colonel and I knew about a bomb under a table. And I had always been fascinated with that kind of story, the behind-the-scenes story set within the Third Reich. And so when I got back from Germany, I tapped Nathan Alexander, who's an old friend of mine and who wanted to try his hand at screenwriting and said, if you want to write a screenplay, this is what I want to write it about.
And so we started developing the script at our own pace over a pretty long period of time. We'd work on it for a couple of weeks, and put it away for a couple of months. We knew it was going to be a very difficult movie, if not an impossible move, to get made. So we were really in no hurry. And it was kind of refreshing because a lot of the other historical projects that I've worked on all had competing projects. I knew nobody was going to be doing a movie about Germans in World War II but with no Americans in it. And a couple of years later, several years later, I was rewriting Logan's Run for Bryan Singer, and he found out about the script that I had sitting in a drawer and I wasn't showing to anybody and he asked to read it. And next time I heard from Bryan, he said he wanted to do it.
That actually covers another question that I was going to tackle at one point, which was what you have been doing in the meantime or just what you've been doing over the years since The Usual Suspects and those days. Obviously, you said you worked on Logan's Run…
McQuarrie: Yes, well that's primarily what I've been doing is rewriting studio movies to support myself while I've been developing historical projects, a lot of times with first-time screenwriters. I work with guys who have a real passion for the research and the history and want to get into screenwriting but really don't know where to start. And I give them the sort of comfort zone that they need. They don't have to worry about the movie part. They just have to worry about putting history in script form. And I will dramatize the script that they have written. And so what happens is I learn a lot about history as we're writing the screenplay. And so it allows me to learn as I go which keeps me engaged. It keeps me really fascinated in the material. And at the same time, it prevents me from getting overwhelmed by the history. If you know too much about the history going in, it's very difficult to determine what to leave in and what to leave out. By having a partner whose job it is to defend and protect the history, I can be a lot more focused on story and what matters to the movie.
How much research did you actually do? And how much material is there available? I would imagine that I guess some of it was destroyed after the war? I'm curious how much there was available for you to use while developing this?
McQuarrie: No. There's actually a massive amount of material that's intact. And in fact, a lot of the material that was lost was not destroyed, but it was captured by the Soviets. Some of it has only just recently emerged, some of it while we were in Germany making the movie. Your single greatest source for information on the events of July 20th would be the SS and the Gestapo. They were so meticulous in their investigation, so thorough and so brutal in their extraction of that information, that they got quite a lot. They went back and reconstructed Stauffenberg's briefcase from all of the little bits of leather. Everything. Where Haeften is throwing the bomb out of the car, and throwing the pliers -- they went back and they found all of that stuff. That's how we know all of that stuff happened. They very carefully constructed an eyewitness timeline. So all of those people you see reacting to Stauffenberg are based on real eyewitnesses to a lot of those events. That's why Stauffenberg is very rarely alone.
And the only time Stauffenberg and Haeften are alone on that day is when they're in the room building the bomb which is a big mystery -- what happened in that room that only one bomb made it into the bag. And we had to go into that room and reconstruct the events of that room based on a guy opening the door when he did and somebody banging into the door. We had to sort of come up with a plausible physical reason for why only one bomb ended up in the bag. But that's a digression.
So what I've been doing is sort of working on movies like that, while I'm rewriting studio movies to support myself. And I just kind of came to a place where I really – the studio rewrite thing was not paying any dividends. I was making good money while I was doing it, but a lot of those movies weren't getting made and I wasn't really taking credit on the ones that were. And I just decided, the movies that I want to make are movies like Valkyrie and these very – they're great stories, but they do not lend themselves on the surface to being typical Hollywood movies. I've had to focus on more – I wrote a script about John Wilkes Booth that focuses entirely on Booth. And I wrote a script about Alexander the Great, which is an extraordinarily difficult subject to make into a Hollywood movie given the morality of the time, the sexuality of the time and the fact that the guy could be perceived as a tyrant. So my problem is that my ambitions as a filmmaker far exceed my abilities to get those movies made.
You went into Valkyrie as a producer as well -- was that in regards to your desire to get it made? Or just an interest in working on the production side of it as well? What made you want to become a producer?
McQuarrie: Well, the intention was -- I have another movie I was supposed to direct, a very small movie about the Stanford Prison Experiment. And I was never supposed to be there for Valkyrie, but I had developed the script. I had attached a director. I had taken Bryan to United Artists, introduced him to Tom and to Paula and to Don in this respect. Bryan had met Tom previously but I had met Tom more recently. So I had sort of brought everybody together, packaged the movie and was ready to leave. Paula Wagner took me to lunch one afternoon and she said, "We're going to make an announcement in the trades tomorrow that we're making this movie and that we have an actor." And I said, "A specific actor?" Because I couldn't believe what I thought she was implying, and she said, "Yes," meaning Tom. And she said, "You're producing the movie, right?" Because she knew I was taking the producing credit.
I though it could answer this one of two ways. I could either say, I have to leave, or I could see this as an opportunity. So my answer to her was, "I am now." And that was sort of how it all began. And I thought my duties as a producer had more or less been fulfilled and that I would be on the set, primarily in the role as the custodian of the script. And that Nathan Alexander would be the custodian of the history. And I very quickly realized my responsibilities were constantly growing. And the expectations that were being placed on me, not just from Bryan but also from Tom and from the studio, very quickly increased. And suddenly I was drinking from a fire hose and I was producing my first movie, which happened to be Valkyrie.
That's actually a very cool story. And obviously it turned out well -- I personally loved the film. And I think the collaboration from everyone involved is what made it work in the end.
McQuarrie: Well, thank you.
The film has that kind of edge of your seat, intense feel to it as the story progresses. Is this something that you and Nathan, obviously, tried to work into the script? To tell a story where we wouldn't know the outcome though we obviously did in the end? Is that something you were trying to achieve?
McQuarrie: Nathan and I always viewed knowing the ending as the film's biggest asset. It's the more attached you get to these characters, the more terrifying their inevitable destiny is. And the movie really works only if you get involved with those characters. And a lot of that has to do with the casting. It's just such a bunch of fantastic people. And so if you like the people that are involved in this story, you're going to feel a great deal of empathy and a great deal of suspense for them. Within that, however, we created these other moments that were obligatory historical moments -- when Colonel Brandt moves the bomb in the Wolf's Lair, and when the police chief comes in to say that he'll support the crew. They're all fairly straightforward moments within the history. And we put in all of those moments from Stauffenberg's point of view, so that when somebody walks into the room you don't know what that person's intention is with Stauffenberg. For a moment, you're thinking, "Oh my god, this is where they get him." And so there were a lot of those moments that we laid in throughout which were – there was the bigger suspense of what happens to all of these characters, and then there were the smaller moments of torture that we introduced throughout the script which were about, "Oh my god, what's going to happen in this scene?"
And out of curiosity, was it ever a consideration to present this as an alternate history story where Stauffenberg did actually succeed in killing Hitler?
McQuarrie: No, there never was. In fact, quite the opposite. We sort of doomed ourselves right from the beginning to a lot of agony when we decided we're going to tell the story as close to the truth as we possibly can. And there were a lot of times when we'd be having creative arguments on the set, where a very simple Hollywood liberty would have gotten us out of it and either myself, or Bryan, and in a lot of cases, Tom, would turn to Nathan and say, "Well, what really happened?" And Nathan would describe what had happened in the room where we were standing on some occasions. And we'd all look at each other and say, "Well, that's what we're going with."
I only ask because as I was watching it, that's literally what I was hoping would happen in those two hours. I just said, "Screw it, I just want to see him succeed because I believe in Stauffenberg and seeing him actually finishing it," even though I knew the ending. That was just my experience as I was watching it.
McQuarrie: Well, we did shoot a more omniscient movie. I mean Fellgiebel, Eddie Izzard's character, when he called Berlin he knew that Hitler was alive. He had seen Hitler come out of the bunker, but because of garbled communications, they couldn't hear in Berlin what had happened. So when they were trying to establish communications with Fellgiebel there was this communication issue. And we watched the movie and we had seen the movie assembled, and it was Tom who said, "Just take the bit with Hitler out." And I said, "Yes, but Tom, everybody knows that this is not the way Hitler died." And he said, "Yes, but Stauffenberg doesn't know." And the audience won't feel it until Stauffenberg knows. They may know it or suspect it but they won't feel the ending of the movie until you hear Hitler's voice on that telephone.
You want the end of the coup to come as close to the end of the movie as possible, otherwise, the second half of the movie we'll all just feel like it's nothing. And so we simply pulled that little thread out of the movie. And the next time we played it, it had this enormous amount of suspense because once the bomb goes off you don't see Hitler. So part of your mind – our cinematic brain tends to be very neat and orderly, it wants to know everything before it moves on. And so part of you is saying, "Yes, but what happened to Hitler? When am I going to see Hitler, again? Where's Hitler?" And as a result that adds to all of those other layers of suspense that we put in.
Fellow writer Nathan Alexander (L) with McQuarrie (R) at the premiere.
Did you guys ever, at one point, address the German language aspect? I know that's been the biggest complaint coming from audiences before seeing it. Is that something that from the start where you just said, let's do it all in English? I thought the opening scene where Tom started in German and it faded into English -- I thought that was well done as well.
McQuarrie: Yes, by the way that was German that Tom learned in three days with a voice coach, and he actually does pretty great. German is not an easy language to speak. We knew right from the beginning that we didn't want to do accents. We looked at movies like The Sound of Music, Paths of Glory, Night of the Generals, Amadeus, Doctor Zhivago. We looked at movies like that that did not indulge in that conceit and it worked perfectly well. We also looked at movies that wrestled with accents and were horrible. And we were confident in the fact that, yes, some people are going to have a problem with this, but not nearly as many people that are going to have a problem with outrageous German accents that are going to sound like a Mel Brooks comedy and so we did away with it.
I have to take it as a reflection of the intelligence of the viewer, when somebody attacks it, it's on that point. Come on guys, we're all grown ups here. We can all pretend. And so very early on we decided to do away with that. However, we tabled the beginning of the movie until the end of the film. That's where all of the rigors of reshoot came from is that we parked the first 12 minutes of the movie and waited until we shot the entire film so that we could look at it and get the motives right. It was very important to keep it -- that the movie not be about a guy who wants to kill Hitler because he lost an eye and a hand. His motives had to be a lot more moral and a lot clearer.
But at the same time, there were things that Stauffenberg did not witness. And a lot of the things he knew about he knew because of his position in the German high command, which are very difficult to dramatize. You can't dramatize Stauffenberg reading a letter from the Russian front and getting angry about the mass executions and the starvation of Russian prisoners and killing Jews in the Ukraine. You couldn't do that in a letter. And so all of that got put aside, and when we looked at the entire film, it was Tom who said, "You know what I want to do is I want to start the movie with me speaking in German and as the subtitles disappear, I want everybody to say, 'Thank God, I don't have to read this movie for the next two hours.'" Tom will suggest something and you say, "God this is never going to work." And then when you walk into a studio and there's Tom speaking fluent German three days later.
Was that opening scene something that was planned all along? You just said that it was something that Tom had come up with last minute then?
McQuarrie: Which one, I'm sorry?
The opening scene in North Africa.
McQuarrie: Yes. The North Africa opening was always there, we had about 45 seconds of screen time to express everything Claus von Stauffenberg stood for, the kind of officer he was, why he was in Africa, what the importance of Africa was strategically to the rest of the world. Tom's process -- throughout the film, we would periodically go back and read the script and read everything we had shot -- we would read the script skipping over all of the things that we had shot. And it forces you to look at what you haven't shot in the context of what you had because we were making changes as we went. And it was a very healthy way to sort of stay connected to the script. And it was in the second or third read through that Tom said, "I'm really worried about Stauffenberg's motive at the beginning of the film." And that's when he made the decision to simply stop any plans for shooting Africa and shooting those first few scenes at the beginning of the movie until the film had been completely assembled.
So throughout post-production, while we were editing the movie, Tom and I were constantly talking about that scene and what was going to be in that scene and how did that scene portray his character with all of the rules we had established for ourselves. Characters couldn't think out loud. So they couldn't make sort of expository proclamations for the benefit of the audience. It all had to feel very real. You had to understand that Stauffenberg was in Africa because he was an outspoken opponent of Hitler. He had been sent to the front basically more or less to protect his life. You had to have a greater context of the World War. You had to have a greater context of Hitler and his atrocities, but at the same time you couldn't show them because it was from Stauffenberg's point of view. And so all of those things needed to be funneled into this four-and-a-half minute scene at the beginning of the movie that ends with Stauffenberg getting blown up and losing a hand and an eye. And so it was a very difficult needle to thread given the restrictions both of history and the restrictions that we placed on ourselves. And the opening of the movie is the result of that.
Was there a consideration to tell more or less of Stauffenberg's relationship with his wife?
McQuarrie: His family was a very important part of why he was doing what he was doing. But at the same time, there were two considerations. One, I wanted the relationship between Stauffenberg and his wife to be a private one, from which the audience was somewhat excluded. She knew what he was doing. She knew he was involved in the conspiracy and supported that. But as I learned, it was something they never discussed but it was all they ever talked about. And so I wanted to create this atmosphere where it has the appearances of the normal family but they're living in war torn Berlin and the husband is involved in a plot to assassinate the nation's leader. And so there's not much deeper you could have gone before you started getting into the Donnie Brasco scenes, which were all just taking you away from the plot of the movie. In the end, the movie is about the plot. It's not about the relationship between these two people. And I always find those scenes to be painfully false. What some people have criticized as being the lack of character development, I sort of emphasize as a lack of respect for the audience's ability to attach to themselves to characters without some hammy bullshit.
That's a good way to put it. Another thing I wanted to touch on was how you and Nathan, as the writers, go about filling in what I would say are historical gaps? And more specifically the conversations and the dialogue? I guess part of this question is, how much dialogue did the SS actually come up with in their report on this?
McQuarrie: Well, there are two things that you're expressing in every scene. One obviously is the mechanics of the plot to itself. I'll say that differently. The mechanics of the conspiracy itself. When I say plot, I don't want to confuse it with the plot of the screenplay. And there was an extremely complex dynamic going on a) between all of the conspirators, and b) the rewriting and the execution of Operation Valkyrie itself. That provides a lot of work all by itself in terms of dialogue that needs to be expressed in every scene. Then there's the stuff about character and the things that we want the audience to know about character, but again, things you can't express in overt dialogue.
The fact that none of these main characters in the movie were Nazis. Nathan and I egregiously overload the screenplay, there were big speeches, and there was all of this stuff in there that the reader needed to understand and that we knew we were slowly going to pull away and that we were going to start to strip out. And sure enough, once Bryan and Tom got involved we just started jettisoning all of that stuff because a) it didn't matter and because b) it slowed the story down. You know Stauffenberg's motives are very clearly expressed in that opening journal which is taken from letters written by different conspirators. And we just went through and sort of highlighted things that we thought were important in their actual words.
So some dialogue was actually provided by things that the conspirators wrote. The conversation that Stauffenberg has when he recruits Haeften -- that's the conversation they had and that comes from testimony after the fact. "I'm engaged in high treason," was the first thing that he said to Haeften. And in doing so, that reflects a side of his character, a side of Stauffenberg's character, his humor and of his sort of straight-forwardness and his determination. So dialogue more or less – there was no attempt at writing flourishes of dialogue. There was no attempt at writing that Oscar-winning performance. Everything was about -- here are all of these guys who have to, in a very straightforward manner, carry the movie to its inevitable conclusion. And it was an attempt at making everything understated and making it conspiratorial. And I think that that's been perceived as being light on character. And it's a fucking conspiracy. They're not going to tell you that shit.
Do you consider it more of a challenge for you to adapt a book or a novel? Which one do you consider more of a challenge for yourself? Which do you pursue more often, I guess?
McQuarrie: Well, having adapted Elmore Leonard – all of Elmore Leonard's books, his contemporary crime books are great characters centering around a very uncinematic crime. I actually like Elmore Leonard's westerns in terms of their stories. And so you have to dare to bring in more story to a great writer like Elmore Leonard. With history, you know that any time you deviate you're running the risk of manipulating people's perception of a true event because a lot of people are not going to read a book. A lot of people are not going to go on the internet. They're going to look at this movie and they're going to accept it as gospel. So I would say it's a lot harder to adapt a book, but it's a lot more dangerous to adapt history.
What really inspires you and your writing style? I'm specifically looking for films or other particular work like you just mentioned. Is there anything else that has really inspired a lot of your style, other past films in history?
McQuarrie: I'm a big fan of the movies of the '60s, more than a fan of the movies of the '70s. And I appreciate a very straightforward style of filmmaking really focused on story. And this movie was inspired by The Great Escape and Patton, The Devil's Brigade, The Longest Day, all of those sort of old school war movies that I really loved growing up that didn't spend a lot of time at home weeping with these guys while they got a foot massage. They were men of actions. And characters were defined by actions and not by emotions. And that's really the kind of movie we set out to make.
I'm wanted to touch briefly on a couple of your upcoming projects if possible.
I'm very curious to know about Champions that you've been working on Guillermo del Toro. And I'm not particularly familiar with the show that it's based on, but I'm just curious to know what your take on it will be and just how you're going to develop that into a cinematic story?
McQuarrie: I can't even begin to talk about it because we haven't even started working on it. I've been so immersed in Valkyrie I haven't had a minute to focus on it so anything I tell won't be the truth by the time I get to work on it.
I understand. Do you know what your next major project is going to be or will you just see how things play out as the next months come?
McQuarrie: Yes, I'm just trying to keep my sanity between now and Christmas Day.
I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
McQuarrie: Well, thank you very much. I appreciated talking to you. I hope that -- it would be great to see a movie like this succeed if only for other people to have opportunities to make movies like this.
A very big thank you to Christopher McQuarrie for allowing me this incredible opportunity to talk with! And a special thanks to Melanie Klein for helping set this up as well. Valkyrie is currently playing in theaters and is definitely worth checking out!