`Surprises And No Holes' In Director's Prize-Winning Mystery

"Story is everything to me," said Bryan Singer.

That won't be news to anyone who saw the young filmmaker's marvelously tricky mystery, "The Usual Suspects," at the Seattle International Film Festival a couple of months ago.

The audience gave him the Golden Space Needle for best director and picked his star, Kevin Spacey, as best actor.

The movie, which also made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in January, opens for a regular run here Friday. It's actually the second Singer film to win a festival prize.

His first, "Public Access," was a 1993 Grand Jury Prize co-winner at Sundance. It had a very limited release and never played Seattle, but it impressed at least one actor.

"Spacey saw it and wanted to do anything we did," said Singer during his festival visit here. "We developed the script for this with him in mind."

Singer and his writing partner, Christopher McQuarrie, came up with the visual idea for the poster ("five guys who meet in a line-up") before they started working on the script.

They set out to create a mystery with "surprises and no holes. Great care was taken to create a puzzle in which everyone thinks they know something, even though they don't.

"If I have to see something over and over (in the editing room), I want it to hold up. And I want the audience to feel they're learning something, that they're not always ahead of the characters. It's all about perception, like `Rashomon.' "

McQuarrie and Singer have been best friends since childhood, when Singer started experimenting with 8mm and Super 8 home movies in Princeton Junction, N.J. One of the child "stars" who appeared in them was Ethan Hawke, before he landed his first Hollywood picture ("Explorers").

"I was making everything from war films to `Macbeth,' and all kinds of things in between," said Singer. "At 16 I decided I wanted to do it for a living. I did photography before that.

"In fact, I was obsessed with photographers. I was very much in love physically with the materials. I got my aesthetic training from still photography. But I was bored with the fact that the camera didn't move."

Filmed in 35 days for about $5.5 million, "The Usual Suspects" also stars Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Suzy Amis, Kevin Pollak, Giancarlo Esposito and two recent supporting-actor Oscar nominees, Pete Postlethwaite ("In the Name of the Father") and Chazz Palminteri ("Bullets Over Broadway").

"We had to offer well below what the actors usually make," said Singer, who ran into several roadblocks while trying to arrange the financing. "Stephen Baldwin signed on because of everyone else who was in it. One actor bailed out and I called up screaming, but he came right back."

During his late teens, Singer dropped out of New York's School of Visual Arts to pursue a degree in critical studies at the University of Southern California. His first professional film was the award-winning short "Lion's Den," about a short-lived reunion of high-school pals. It includes an appearance by Hawke.

"I saw dozens of great movies at USC," Singer said. "Certain specific things influenced me, but I don't want to get tagged with anything."

That's not likely to happen. "Public Access" was a small-town story, quite unlike "The Usual Suspects," while his next project is an Isaac Asimov science-fiction tale, "The Last Question." He and McQuarrie also plan to collaborate on an epic about the life of Alexander the Great.

"I love quintessential moments in movies," he said. "Like the scene in `Lawrence of Arabia' where Lawrence is asked `Who are you?,' across the canal, in the middle of the desert."

He also mentioned a certain scene in "The Usual Suspects," which he regards as a tipoff to the audience, as well as an admission of one criminal's true character. To cite it here would give too much away.

Much of the storyline revolves around a mystery man, Keyser Soze, who seems to have superhuman knowledge and powers. Singer said this invention, seemingly so innocent when he and McQuarrie were committing it to paper, has expanded his idea of what's possible in movies.

"Not until I started shooting did I realize how creepy and big I could make this guy," said Singer. "It's terrifying how little we know about other people."