An acclaimed screenwriter with an Oscar for his work on The Usual Suspects, Christopher McQuarrie took on directing duties on Jack Reacher 12 years after his directorial debut The Way of the Gun. For McQuarrie, it was an opportunity to once again show off his directing chops after such a lengthy absence behind the lens.
“I had been trying for all that time to get back in the director’s chair, and the truth of the matter is that post The Way of the Gun, there was not a single directing offer” said McQuarrie. “And the projects that I had tried to get off the ground, as a director… They were difficult, even if I’d been a very successful director.”
“So, by the time ...Reacher was offered to me, I had been through the process for so long. Don Granger (producer) brought me the book and said, ‘I want you to write and direct this movie.’ I said, ‘Great, I’m not going to help you do it. I’ll direct it if somebody offers it to me, but I won’t ask permission anymore. I’m through with doing that,’ and Paramount very graciously offered.”
Adapting Jack Reacher to the screen came with it the hefty expectations of legions of fans that made the novels of Lee Child (17 in total) best sellers. It is novel number nine “One Shot” that served as the basis for Jack Reacher and McQuarrie never let the pressure of adapting the novel consume him, focusing on creating the best film he can rather than pleasing a fan club.
“It’s kind of a double edged sword” said McQuarrie. “On the one hand I very much respect the fact that I think when you buy a book you buy stock in the …Reacher brand and you’ve invested in it, and you feel some ownership of it. On the other hand there are so many elements of the book that work in the form of a book, but when you translate it to cinema it would be a literal translation of the book but it would completely loose the spirit of the book.”
“So what we always tried to do was be very respectful to the tone and the spirit of the novel, and at the same time obeying our own rules about storytelling and filmmaking. I think that when someone gets past what they might perceive as our disregard, they’re going to come to this movie and see that we did really carefully respect what I think that fans love about the book.”
“There’s all the things you think you know about him when you go to meet him, and so you’re waiting for…what you think is the real Tom to manifest himself...because the Tom that you’re meeting is far too polite and professional and funny and laidback that it’s all got to be an act.” - Christopher McQuarrie
The biggest reaction from the Jack Reacher fanbase came when Tom Cruise was cast in the title role, a move that spawned an almost violent reaction with complaints that Cruise lacked the physical specifications to play a character described as 6’5”, 235 pounds of muscle with blonde hair, something like Captain America meets Dolph Lundgren.
It’s a situation that reminds of when Cruise was cast as the villainous vampire Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, and like that situation McQuarrie cannot wait for those who lambasted Cruise’s casting to take back their objections with the same amount of passion.
“Honestly, I believe that any people who are honestly that die hard and really that vocal… I honestly don’t think that there’s every going to be convincing them” said McQuarrie. “Only because I don’t think that they’re aware of the realities of what we have to go through to make a movie. Let’s just say that there was a 6’5”, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American star… There never has been, but let’s just say there was… If I cast him in the role of Jack Reacher, I’d have to cast everybody around him 6’8” in order for there to be any sort of tension or suspense or stakes in scenes where he’s fighting with people.”
“So, we knew early on that that was going to be a sort of insurmountable issue, and that there were going to be a certain number of people who were never going to inherently understand that it was just something that could never be… But what I’ll be really interested to see is how many of those people will go back and delete their posts, or correct their posts.”
McQuarrie had previously worked with Cruise as the screenwriter on WWII thriller Valkyrie and as a ghost writer on (ironically) Mission – Impossible: Ghost Protocol. With Jack Reacher, McQuarrie found himself in a position of not only directing a friend and the world’s biggest movie star, but also the producer of the movie.
“There’s all the things you think you know about him when you go to meet him, and so you’re waiting for… You’re waiting for about the first six months of working with Tom for what you think is the real Tom to manifest himself” said McQuarrie. “Because the Tom that you’re meeting is far too polite and professional and funny and laidback that it’s all got to be an act, and after five years it’s either who he really is or it’s the most disciplined front I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Directing him…the really intimidating idea was making the transition from writing and producing for Tom to now directing him. Because as a writer and producer, you’re mandate is very clear: You just work to execute whatever the studio, the director, and the star want. Now, as the director, you’re in the position of being somebody who’s going from somebody who says ‘yes’ to somebody who says ‘no.’…That’s not to say he doesn’t have a lot of opinions and he doesn’t push. But, in the end, he’s ultimately respectful of the director’s role, and he’ll back the director 100%.”
"What we always tried to do was be very respectful to the tone and the spirit of the novel, and at the same time obeying our own rules about storytelling and filmmaking. " - Christopher McQuarrie
With Cruise firmly set as the (anti) hero, the next goal was to cast villains in a film where the especially violent murders of 5 unsuspecting souls bring with it a dense conspiracy which Jack Reacher takes upon himself to investigate.
First was the part of lead henchman Charlie, a role that required a physical brutality and intimidating presence to match Cruise on screen. Enter Australian actor Jai Courtney, who – before starring as Bruce Willis’ son in A Good Day to Die Hard – shows off why he is the next big Aussie to hit Hollywood, with Cruise and McQuarrie two of his biggest fans.
“I had other actors in mind” said McQuarrie. “I knew that Charlie was an opportunity to cast a bigger-name actor and somebody to be an antagonist to Tom. I knew I could get a lot of actors that I wanted to work with….and I saw Jai’s audition. He did a cold reading with an American accent. I didn’t know that he was Australian when he did it, and he nailed the scene.”
“It came to me as a link in an email and I forwarded the email on to Tom and just said, ‘What do you think of this guy?’, knowing that I really wanted him. Tom emailed me back about five minutes later and just said, ‘Cast him!’ and that was literally it. That was the whole process for Jai. He nailed it in one scene. Later I asked him to do it with an Australian accent just to explore that idea, not to obligate Jai to play it as an American, and I remember showing his audition, blind, to a couple of other people and they said, ‘Boy he’s good, but his Australian accent’s kind of phony!’ ”
Yet the real standout was the casting of infamous director Werner Herzog as the main villain known simply as “The Zec”, and who better to play a frosty, sadistic incarnation of pure evil who chewed his own fingers off to survive a Siberian prison camp?
“I just thought it was a great idea” said McQuarrie. “I just never thought he would do it and he was more than game, and he turned out to be a real treat to work with. He was a lot of fun. I only wish there had been more to do with Werner, because he was always fun to have on the set.”
“It’s interesting…. I mean, he’s the only director I’ve directed. But I think because he’s been in the position of… You know, he’s been on the other side of it… He was immensely cooperative. He was great. He definitely had his own ideas, he had his own opinions. But I think you get a certain level of sympathy out of a director-as-actor than you do from an actor. The real difference between Werner and virtually everybody else on the movie except Jai… he never left the set. When we were relighting and brought in second team and brought in the stand-ins and everything… Werner didn’t have a stand-in. He would just stay in his chair and let them relight him, and he would just talk to the crew and talk to me. He’s very much still a student of film. He loves being on the set and loves being around the process all the time, and he squeezed every bit of life out of that.”