Bryan Singer Looks Back at 20 Years of ‘The Usual Suspects’ at San Pedro Fest

The director told lively stories of a spontaneous production, which largely took place in and around the port city.

Bryan Singer on 'The Usual Suspects'
Courtesy of Grammercy

SAN PEDRO, Calif. — Director Bryan Singer reminisced about “The Usual Suspects” Friday night as a 20th anniversary screening of his Oscar-winning sophomore effort kicked off the 4th annual San Pedro International Film Festival. The film has a unique connection to the city as many iconic scenes were shot in and around the area, with iconic scenes taking place at the Korean Liberty Bell and the Port of Los Angeles.

“I only knew it would be better than [my first film] ‘Public Access,’ because I had better actors,” Singer said during a post-screening Q&A. “You have no idea if a movie is going to have any longevity or a cult classic nature. None of that ever occurred to me.”

Indeed, many of the film’s memorable moments happened less by design than spontaneity and serendipity. He recalled, for instance, the oft-mentioned story of actor Benicio del Toro showing up on set with a bizarre take on his character Fred Fenster, mumbling his way through scenes. “I had to think, ‘Does anything this character say have any relevance or importance?'” Singer recalled. “And then I realized, ‘No, his entire purpose is to die.'”

Singer even wrote a pair of lines to show how characters are straining to understand Fenster, in order to accommodate the audience’s inevitable confusion. Much of that is what led to the actors cutting up during the famous line-up scene, giggling their way through it. All of that was real and, according to Singer, they never got through a straight take.

There was also the moment when actor Peter Greene nearly blinded Stephen Baldwin with a cigarette he flicked square into his eye. “Peter dove and broke the scene,” Singer said. “He was mortified; he thought he had blinded him. But I had two cameras going so I was able to use it. Stephen said, ‘Did you get it? Because I just experienced it. So if you got it, please use it!'”

And, of course, the film’s famous twist involving how villain Roger “Verbal” Kint (a.k.a. Keyser Söze, played by Kevin Spacey) concocts his grand fib for Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) came late in the process. “We were about 40 or 50 pages into the script,” Singer recalled. “Chris [McQuarrie, the screenwriter] called me and there was a bulletin board in front of him. He said, ‘How about if he takes the whole story off a bulletin board?’ And I remember saying, ‘Now there’s a reason to make this movie. That’s something to work toward.'”

The director told lively stories for 45 minutes, from Chris Farley’s set visit during the two days carved out for production in New York, to the ATF responding in force to an anonymous tip during the shooting of the film’s climactic gun battle in the harbor (a close call that Singer was sure would shut down production).

“The Usual Suspects” ultimately won two Academy Awards, for Best Supporting Actor (Spacey) and Best Original Screenplay.

These days, Singer is hard at work putting a bow on the “X-Men” franchise he has been involved with off and on for 15 years. He mentioned that the latest film, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” may be a bit beefier than the rest. “Usually they’re about two hours, but I might let this one be longer,” he said. “There’s even an homage at the end — it’s going to get spoiled because they decided to use it in the trailer, which comes out in, like, six months — but it’s kind of a wrap-up of the six movies.”

Asked whether he would transition back to a smaller project, he said he’d like to. His 2008 film “Valkyrie,” he reminded the audience, was supposed to be a $26 million modest production “until Tom Cruise said, ‘I want to play the lead role.'” Then the budget shot past $100 million. But Singer said he wants to strike while the iron is hot in his blockbuster career.

“The way I exercise my independent side is I do pilots,” he said. “It forces me to shoot fast and remember the old days. But yes, at some point I will do a small movie again. I will step back. But right now, I’m in that rarified air that few of us as directors are in, that can get movies greenlit north of $170 million. When you have that ability — maybe there’s only 20 of us right now — you try to take advantage of it.”

The San Pedro International Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 and will also include screenings of “Deep Sea Challenge 3D” (with an industry panel covering 3D innovations in filmmaking), Ante Novakovic’s “Leaves of a Tree” and Nelson George’s “A Ballerina’s Tale.”