Sundance's Unusual 'Suspects' : Movies: Director Bryan Singer's 'Public Access' 'came out of nowhere' to win the 1993 Grand Jury Prize. His new film is getting even more attention.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

"I don't feel any different than the last time I was here," says Bryan Singer, wadding up a tissue and carefully tossing it into a nearby basket. "I had the flu then, and I have the flu now."

True enough, but as the young director knows better than anyone, some things have changed since he shared the Sundance Film Festival's 1993 Grand Jury Prize here for his "Public Access."

"To come here then, completely unknown with this weird film, and now to come back just two years later with the film that sold out the fastest in the festival," he says softly, "that is ironic and very special."

That new film, "The Usual Suspects," has surprised everyone on the way to its packed world premiere Wednesday night at this year's Sundance Festival. It came out of nowhere to be one of the most sought-after items at MIFED, the international film market in Milan, and, says Singer, "What began as a negative pickup obligation for Gramercy Pictures has become their biggest release for the summer."

A deliciously complex crime story that starts when five master thieves meet in a police lineup and hatch a plan, "The Usual Suspects" easily merits all this attention. Not only is it tightly acted (the impressive cast includes Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Peter Postlethwaite and Suzy Amis), but it is directed with a supple cinematic intensity.

"I wanted to take the crime drama genre and twist it a little bit," says Singer, a cool and focused 28-year-old with a dark goatee that makes him look convincingly Mephistophelean. "Everyone's got a piece of the puzzle, everyone thinks they know something, but they don't. I like the idea of things not always being what they seem."

That same theme animated Singer's first film, "Public Access," which he describes as "the story of a 'High Plains Drifter' type of stranger who comes to town and is stranger than anyone thought." Financed by a Japanese company (and made with the same core creative team that Singer used on "Usual Suspects"), "Public Access" missed the deadline for the Tokyo Film Festival and was sent to Sundance as an afterthought.

"I just put the tape in an envelope and mailed it off, and (festival director) Geoff Gilmore told me he picked it up off a pile on the floor," Singer says. "When it was announced that the Grand Jury Prize was being split with 'Ruby in Paradise,' I was literally looking at the list wondering what the other film was when they called our name. We came out of nowhere to win."

One of the reasons he did succeed, Singer believes, is that the two directors on the jury, Percy Adlon and Charles Lane, understood and appreciated not just the story or the theme but his filmmaking skills. This absolute control of the medium, the sense of watching a natural but highly disciplined filmmaker at work, is the great pleasure of "Usual Suspects" as well.

"Lenses, the working of the camera, it's all second nature to me. I never have moments where I wonder where the camera should go," Singer acknowledges. "And if you are confident in terms of what you want, it helps put the actors in a comfort zone so they can enjoy their jobs."

Singer's confidence comes from several sources, including "having done every job on the set in either commercials or student films. I have a grasp of what can and cannot be done." Growing up in New Jersey, Singer became infatuated with still photography when he was 12, opting to "buy darkroom and photo equipment instead of all the other things you get as a kid," and soon moving on to making "a ton of 8mm and Super 8 movies."

Only half kidding, Singer says he decided on a career of filmmaking after realizing "I must have been fired or quit more than 37 separate jobs, working in flower shops, restaurants, gas stations, as a messenger, everything. They say that as a young filmmaker, if you've got something to fall back on, you'll fall back on it. I was running out of things to fall back on."

After two years at New York's School of Visual Arts, Singer was turned down by USC's production program but ended up in critical studies, which he now considers a blessing. "I didn't really need the filmmaking experience," he says, "and critical studies gave me the opportunity to catch up, to see all the classic films I'd never seen in great 35mm prints."

More than just his technical abilities have contributed to Singer's success; he considers himself "blessed" to have had the same key group of collaborators on both his films, including co-producer Kenneth Kokin, editor-composer John Ottman, and, most especially, childhood friend Christopher McQuarrie, who co-wrote "Public Access" and has solo writing credit on the "Usual Suspects" script.

"The two most important things in filmmaking are story and detail," Singer says. "I've always been a fanatic about telling a story. We work a script for eight or nine drafts until I know it will be good. I won't shoot a film unless I know we've got the script to where I can be proud of it. It really pays to take the time to get it right."

With his ability to, in his own words, "bring ambiguous, strange qualities to a wonderful story," Singer is in a good position to live up to one of his filmmaking aims. "I'd like to make it like it once was in the 1970s, when films like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Raging Bull' were studio releases," he says. "I'd like to try and bridge the gap between the independents and mainstream filmmaking."

"Usual Suspects" is, at the very least, a promising start.

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