Oscar winning screen writer Christopher McQuarrie idolised by film geeks for The Usual Suspect ( and popularising the phrase "Give me the keys, you f*cking cocksucker...") was in Sydney to chat about his second venture behind the lens – Jack Reacher (based on the Lee Childs’ novel ‘One Shot’). In fact meeting Jack Reacher's director/screen writer Christopher McQuarrie really couldn't have been cooler. The candid and eloquent 'go to' screenwriter is finally getting a chance to show off his directorial aptitude for a mainstream audience and boy did he grab it with both hands.
How did the project, and Tom Cruise’s involvement come about?
The book had been brought to me by the producer Don Granger and he said this has been around a long time and I want you to write and direct it- this is right after we had finished Valkyrie together and I said ‘ok I’m not gonna help you do that, I’ve been trying for 12 years to try and get another movie made and I’m through asking for permission, I’m not gonna go to a studio ever again and try and sell myself as a director cause I know they’re not buying. If you can convince the studio to offer me the movie I’ll do it’. The next hurdle was that Tom Cruise was attached – he owned the rights because Cruise/Wagner controlled the rights of the book so I assumed he was attached. So I said ‘Tom’s never gonna be in a movie that I’m directing’. We get along very well but the truth of the matter is the last movie I directed was 12 years ago and it made $7 and I’ve been in director jail ever since. I told him ‘you gotta get Tom to let the book go and you gotta get the studio to offer it to me’ and a week later he came back to me and said ‘Ok, Tom says it’s yours, and the studio says it’s yours, now read the book’. So once I wrote the script a few months later we sent it to Tom in his capacity as a producer to get his notes, you know he was making Mission 4 at this point and he was very busy, so it was sent to him in the most laid back capacity – it wasn’t like you give a script to an actor and you wait ‘God I hope he reads it and I hope he says yes’ there was none of that pressure. Then Tom called on me to come and work on Mission 4, we were in the middle of a script meeting working on that script like 10 weeks in to a 17 week shoot –we were kind of pulling the script apart, putting it back together – and in the middle of one of these meetings he goes ‘Oh yeah by the way I read Reacher’. Well at the time it was called One Shot, he said ‘I read One Shot I love it, I don’t know who you have in mind to play that guy, but I’d love to be in it... anyway’ and he turns back to the script. And the whole time I was there writing the script I was like ‘What do I do with that ... do I take that for granted?’ So I called Don Granger and I said ‘I think Tom wants to be in the movie – what does that mean? What happens from here?’ And that was the first thing mentioned about it. There was no presumption that it was his role and I didn’t presume that it was his role and it was very much the way Valkyrie came together as well. When Brian and I sat down with Tom we sat down with him as UA not as Tom Cruise and we were told explicitly UA is not about making Tom Cruise star vehicles – you’re meeting with the studio not with the star. So we never had the pressure of having him do it, we were there saying ‘the movies getting done and we will figure out who Stauffenberg is down the road’ and it was only as he and Brian were talking to one another that the grammar changed and it stopped being ‘him’ and started being ‘you’ and then it stopped being ‘him’ and started being ‘me’ and I left that meeting and turned to Brian and said ‘Is he in the movie or??’. And that was the same thing with Mission Impossible, he read the script for Reacher and called me and said ‘I’ve read Reacher and the studio is going to call you tomorrow’ and I thought they were going to call me about Reacher and they sent me Mission 4 and asked me to go up to Vancouver to work on that, so it all sort of just blurs together into one long conversation.
Do you have a message for any of those Reacher fans that are unhappy with the casting?
What I’d say to the hold outs is that I respect that when you buy a Jack Reacher book you are buying stock in the brand, you are a shareholder, an owner, you have invested – At the same time a movie and a book are two very different things. There are multiple facades to that character and too much emphasis on one would be a detriment to the others and we took very careful consideration as to the tone and the spirit of the novels as well as the physicality of the character and we knew we were gonna have to make changes and we knew we were gonna have to make sacrifices and we knew that a literal adaptation of the book was never gonna work on screen. So everything that we did was carefully calculated and carefully considered and we would just say to all of those people ‘We know how it looks and we deeply, deeply, deeply respect your feelings, just come see the movie and watch it with an open mind, we got your back’.
So for a famed writer stepping behind the camera, was it your intention to open the film with a stretch visual storytelling?
No. That’s another advantage of working with Tom. The studio does not ask those questions and if they had any questions then he’s going to very adamantly defend it. The interesting thing again is that it wasn’t a conscience decision to make an 8 minute sequence with no dialogue. I just was writing in script for the opening of the book as I saw it and with every page... I think by around page 31 was like ‘Nobody's said anything’ and I just kept going and kept thinking ‘when am I gonna get to dialogue’ cause I’m still writing all these things. It didn’t worry me cause I felt that was what happening was compelling and it was moving things along, I did fear that when it went to the studio that they were going to read this and say we can’t do this and they never did, they never baulked at it – they were compelled. The trick became when we were shooting the sequence, was finding a location cause I didn’t really want to manipulate the location with CG and I don’t know if you read the book but in the book it takes place in the centre of a courtyard – Like the highway is on one side and the parking garage on another and they’re in the centre of the box... we couldn’t find anything like that in Pittsburgh and we were standing in that parking garage looking out over that river and going ‘Gosh are we ever going to find...’ and I suddenly looked out and the sun came out from behind the clouds and I saw that the sun was going to set right behind that highway oh my god! And we eliminated the middle ground and suddenly realised that it clarified the geography in a way we never would have done intentionally. From the garage to that walk way is 350 yards, the challenge then became to have people show up on camera substantially meant a 2400mm anamorphic lens, which there is only one and its enormously heavy. Now you have a camera operator who’s trying to act like a sniper a 400 pounds and so I sent in a navy sniper that my brother brought – the guy who trains the snipers on Team 6 to come in and train Tom, Duvall and Jai, and I had the camera operators go and train with the actors. So the camera operators became familiar with the breathing method and became familiar with the scope and it got to the point where BJ the camera operator could then sort of more effortlessly and fluently operate that lens. Then the seconds camera with a 50mm lens following the same action – we spent a day rehearsing all of that choreography and getting it down to a science so that all the actors knew and all of the extras knew what they were doing, then we shot the action simultaneously with two cameras and what you’re seeing there, because when you look for a scope you don’t put the scope right to your eye, that cardboard cut-out affect doesn’t exist.. The scope is actually about 6inches from your eye that gives you an enormous amount of peripheral vision so we decided that we wanted to maintain that and as a result by shooting those two cameras at the same time you could superimpose the 2400 image over the centre of the 50mm image and if you watch the film again you’ll see out of the corner of your eyes the characters who first appear on the scope are suddenly like ants running around so it’s all shot in real time. That was the multilayered challenge of getting all that to work. If you stop to think for one minute about what you’re attempting to do the tent would have collapsed. Terrible idea...
The gritty, 70s style car chase is the centrepiece of the film – how did it come about.
How it evolved is was originally a very short piece in the script and Tom recognised early on and he said ‘Look this is going to be much bigger – this could be the centrepiece of the movie, tell me what you want and we’ll make it happen’. So Paul Jennings the stunt coordinator and second unit director – he and I sat down and watched a lot of older car chases. What really frustrated us with newer car chases was there’s the impression of action opposed to the explicit execution of action... We wanted to actually see things happening and Paul pointed out ‘look you have an actor who’s an experienced driver, we can shoot a sequence where you can actually shoot it masters and Tom should be in every possible shot he can be in’. So the two rules became one, Tom should always be driving whenever possible and two if the camera is not in danger the shot’s not worth doing, and we said that before anybody introduced pursuit art to me – which was the camera package we used, which was a vehicle that I ended up driving so while I felt it was really funny that the camera would be in danger I suddenly realised [that] I [would be] behind it for a lot of that sequence and it was just truly the greatest experience – I had so much fun, long hours, cold, really tired but a party every night. Everybody knew they were a part of something that was completely unique. Just the guys driving the pursuit vehicle were so jagged because they always had suggestions on the jobs they worked on, but of course their suggestions where never heard, and then suddenly here we were and these guys are going ‘What’s something you guys have always wanted to do, Tom will do it’ – it was like Christmas to them every night and it was such a great experience.
What attracted you to casting maverick documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog in the film?
I want somebody that is not familiar to the audience – I feel that the power of The Zec is gonna come from the fact that he is lesser known, it’s gonna make him feel more real’ and she didn’t hesitate she said Werner. I thought ‘great idea he’s never gonna do it’ and a few days later I was talking to Werner and he said he wanted to do it and he was willing to come in and he was willing to read for the part, you know things that I just couldn’t imagine asking him to do and I also don’t like reading actors – I don’t find it terribly effective. And then my concern when getting closer to making my decision was ‘would it feel like everybody is in a movie and this guys in a documentary. I really didn’t know how it was going to work until the day he showed up and actually did it and he was just great.
What films(if any) influenced you during production?
I have this strange disorder, where I’m making a movie and while I’m making that movie one have an ambition to make another one. While I was making The Usual Suspects I had this deep desire to make a film Film Noir - and I was making a film noir. Someone pointed out to me while we were making The Way of Gun I kept saying next we gotta do a western. And Ryan [Phillipe] said 'we are making a Western'. So while I was making this movie I was thinking about always wanting to make a movie like Shane. I remember watching Shane with my daughter after this movie came out and there’s a moment at the end of Shane where a lot action takes place in that little bar, in that little general store and he walks in to the general store at the end of the movie and the villain is sitting there at the table, and he takes his hands out and puts them on the table. Which is something which Werner did at the suggestion of my brother. My brother is a Navy Seal and he’s the technical advisor of the movie – He was telling Tom - if you walk into a room and see a man with his hands in his pockets you’d shoot them right in the head - just f*ckin kill em. So Werner said ‘I’ll take my hands out of my pockets’ and so we did this thing out of pure practicality - it wasn’t influenced by anything and I was watching Shane and I watched him do that and I thought whether that was in my DNA or from when I saw this movie as a kid.. I suddenly looked at Alan Lang and I thought holy shit. [Even] Shane riding out of town at the end... Tom leaving on a bus, that Lee had managed to make the modern day Knight errand and I love the unglamorous nature that instead of a horse he’s on a bus. So yeah I think that without meaning to make it I made that movie. I think that if I had set out to make that movie it would have been too harsh, too over the top and I hope that whatever my disorder is it continues.
And before Aussie Jai Courtney graces our screens as John McClane Jr in A Good Day to Die Hard he’s one of Reacher’s antagonists. Can we credit you with his impending stratospheric rise?
Yeah where’s my cheque? Jai came to us again through Mindy Marin and she sent me an audition that he recorded and I immediately knew he was the guy. The funny thing was with Charlie I knew I had an opportunity to cast a bigger name actor – you know there was a lot of actors that I wanted to work with and was very interested in. I had met with a few of them to do the role, and I saw Jai and realised nobody has ever seen him and this is a Tom Cruise movie I can cast who ever I want, I’m not obligated to build a cast around him which is again another luxury of casting Tom in the role... Another actor in that role you wouldn’t have David Oyelowo, Jai Courtney, Alexis Fast. Jenkins would have been sort of more of the up market guy... So Jenkins and Duvall would have been safe everyone body else would be gone. But truth of the matter is without Tom in the role who knows if Jenkins and Duvall would have done it? So it all sort of follows of the casting of Tom. With Jai I watched his audition and I knew right away. I sent the link to Tom and Tom was working on Mission at the time finishing up Ghost Protocol and I undersold it ‘I said this is the guy I’m thinking about, tell me what you think?’ I got an email back 5 minutes later just saying ‘cast him’ and that was all we ever said about it. Jai turned out to be great.
And finally, I couldn’t resist but ask about Tom and Chris’ next collaboration, the untitled MISSION IMPOSSILE 5:
We just started talking about it. He’s very busy doing All You Need is Kill, JJ’s very busy with Star Trek, and I’m busy promoting this movie. Obviously I love working with him and would love to do it, but it’s daunting in that I would have to follow Brad Bird's...[Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol] the biggest movie in the genre. What I like about it is that I like to come from a place of lowered expectations and I have to imagine that when they find out that a film maker like me who feels as someone put it today ‘street level’, between The Way of the Gun and Reacher and movies like that I have to imagine them, that when it becomes real that people’s expectations cannot be any lower.
Thanks to Garth @DarkHorizons Franklin and Andrew Urban @urbancinefile who attended round tale interviews with us.
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.