It's taken seven years for Lee Child's bestselling series of novels about military policeman turned existential loner Jack Reacher to be adapted for the big screen. There's been an unusual amount of controversy surrounding its release this weekend, from the dissimilarity of Tom Cruise's physical appearance as the title character compared to Reacher's description in the novels to the fact that the movie begins with a mass shooting. Jack Reacher is a flinty, back to basics actioner about a guy using his wits to solve a terrible crime. Quite a different approach from the techno-forensics of many recent procedural thrillers. The fact that it's deliberately unshowy makes all the scrutiny it's attracted all the more remarkable. Hollywood.com spoke to Child and director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie) about the film, whether or not Cruise succeeded in playing Reacher, and just how the hell they landed Werner Herzog to play the villain of the piece, The Zec.
Hollywood.com: Lee, why was One Shot the ideal choice among all your Jack Reacher novels to be the first to be adapted for the screen?
Lee Child: Well, I write the books so that you can read them in any order. You don’t have to start in any particular place, which gave our producer, Don Granger, a completely free hand. They chose One Shot simply because that book has a particular structure where Reacher does not show up right at the beginning of the story. There are in the book about 40 or 50 pages and in the movie there’s possibly eight or so minutes, in which the other characters can talk about him to set him up, so that when he appears we don’t have to stop and explain him, the moviegoers already know who he is. Therefore that particular structure of easing him in, building him up mythically, seemed to be a great way to start the first movie, and I agreed with them.
Chris McQuarrie: Don Granger had read all 15 of the books at the time—now there are 17—and he recognized that this was the most mythic introduction to the character. One, you start with a very shocking opening and the story begins before Reacher enters, and it allows us the opportunity to establish who he is through the eyes of the people who can’t find him, and in their attempts to find him you learn a lot about Reacher’s lifestyle. So it was almost dictating that it would be the one we would adapt. The nice thing is, now that the heavy lifting is done you can go anywhere you want. The next Reacher movie, if we’re lucky enough to make one, Reacher can appear on Page 1 and we know who he is. We’re off to the races.
HW: Lee, you’ve said that Reacher never has an arc, that he never changes. If he doesn’t change, how do you get viewers to identify with him?
LC: I think actually there isn’t a challenge. I think it’s a good thing not to have a normal character arc. I think people take great comfort in the familiarity of an unchanging character. Especially in a book series that’s what they want, that’s why they buy the books every year because they know what they’re gonna get, they want to spend time with their friend as it were, and they rely on the fact that he will be the same this year that he was last year. The challenge was convincing the movie executives that this was a valid approach, because they have gotten so used to the idea of the journey, the arc, the learning as you go along that this was outside the box for them, and it took some convincing.
HW: Much has been made about how Cruise doesn’t bear much physical resemblance to Jack Reacher. Lee, now that you’ve seen the movie do you still feel he was the right choice to play your character?
LC: I do, actually even more so than I had in theory going into it. Having seen the end product I feel completely vindicated and that there are even dimensions that I hadn’t anticipated. Part of the ongoing discussion is, well, who would have been the physical facsimile of Reacher…well, there isn’t anybody. Chris has been saying that not only is there nobody now, there never has been any leading actor that resembles Jack Reacher. And I’ve thought…why is that? You would think that in a hundred years of cinema history there would have been one of everything. I just think that somehow the camera lens does not relate well to large people. Otherwise we would have large people onscreen. But we don’t. If you imagine a scene or still from your favorite movie with one of the actors replaced with a very large person it just doesn’t look right. So I started out thinking, “It’s a shame we can’t get the physical facsimile but Cruise will do a fine job,” into thinking, “Perhaps only Cruise could have done a fine job. Maybe if we had found someone who’s the right size it wouldn’t have worked.”
HW: Did you ever imagine you’d get Werner Herzog to play the villain, The Zec?
LC: I certainly did not! Herzog was one of those wildest dreams things. It was a bit like you’re at a party, you’re stoned, and suddenly someone asks, "Who would you like to play The Zec?" and you say “Werner Herzog.” And of course you don’t expect to get him but we did get him. And not only that, he really wanted to do it. Werner was totally enthusiastic about it. I think he loved every minute of it.
HW: Was he onboard from the start? Was there anything that you guys had to do to convince him to take the role?
LC: No, it was quite the reverse. Mindy Marin, the casting director, came up with the idea, which everybody thought was fantastic but doomed to failure. But within a week Herzog had agreed. He seemed to be really excited about it. He’d read the books and wanted to be part of it.
HW: Tom Cruise says that Reacher is an analog character for a digital age. Do you both agree?
LC: Yeah, Reacher is a character rooted in myths and legends that are thousands of years old. So he is very much an old traditional character in the modern age and therefore valuable to the modern age but also bewildered by it and not at home in it.
CM: The thing that I love that really attracts me to this character is that there is an anti-materialist, anti-technology strain that runs through Reacher. He's in search of an Americana that's vanishing. The fact that we’re all permanently grafted to the cellphones in our pockets—including myself. I love my iPhone, I love my iPad, my MacBook Air, and I’m the guy you call at 3:00 a.m. to fix your computer—I hate that s**t in movies. I feel like technology really gets in the way of drama and becomes a convenience that undermines dramatic tension and makes things too easy, not to mention the fact that if I ever see a person search Google to answer a question in a movie I walk out of the theater, because I know the filmmaker isn’t working very hard. So I love the fact that Reacher is divorced from all that, creatively. But also emotionally. I think consciously or subconsciously everybody would like to live their lives like that for a little while. Or rather, they’d like to think they could. The truth of the matter is, I don’t think most people would last 24 hours.
HW: One of things that really struck me is that there’s no score during the car chase sequence. That’s pretty rare these days.
CM: As with most decisions I make, I’m a fairly binary guy. When I first sat in that Chevelle [Reacher drives], it had such an insane motor. You hear that thrum, and I knew right away that I wanted to hear that engine. I also knew that I was going to have a car chase that primarily centers around three different points of view, three different people and three different cars, and that each car would have its own distinct sound. I wanted to emphasize the constant shift in perspective, going inside and outside Tom’s car, and that it would result in a key change every time you switch the camera angle and especially when you cut to a different car. Every time I shifted the perspective in the car chase I’m changing the notes. So I knew long before I ever shot the sequence that I was not going to have music. What I was fearful of was that, once I was done, music would be imposed on me. And the truth of the matter is, the studio watched the movie and they were flipping out over the fact there wasn’t music over it. In fact, there are three sequences in the movie that go on for the better part of eight minutes that don’t have dialogue: the opening sniper shooting, the car chase, and the final showdown at the quarry at the end of the movie. Those are all things where I didn’t consciously set out to do that, but when I found myself writing for pages at a time without dialogue, I didn’t allow myself to get uncomfortable either. If something didn’t need to be said, then I wouldn’t have it be said.
HW: It’s hard for a lot of screenwriters to think “No, I don’t need a line of dialogue here.” Can you give me an example of when you thought, “I can take something out rather than put something in”?
CM: It was more of a philosophy going in to the movie. I’m tired of dialogue, and I found so much of today’s dialogue to be mannered because it’s telling something that you should be seeing and feeling. I went into this movie with a very different approach than I did on The Way of the Gun and The Usual Suspects, which come from my love of dialogue. This was my attempt to eliminate dialogue as much as possible, and where I did have to have dialogue, make the exposition as streamlined as possible.
HW: The story has been transplanted from Indiana to Pittsburgh. Lee, do you approve of the change?
LC: Well, the book is set in an unnamed and fictional town in Indiana. I wanted a sense of heartland outrage about the sniper atrocity, so I thought I would place it somewhere calm and decent in terms of the American landscape. Pittsburgh was very quickly identified as being a good location and it has all the essential elements that are in the book: it's a city somewhat old fashioned, hilly, and with a river. It has a gritty, brawny, muscular look and it suits the tone of the movie really well.
CM: When we were talking about where to shoot Pittsburgh was head and shoulders above the others. With its tax rebates and the outstanding local film board, it was economically the best place to shoot. The next step was…do we try to pretend its Indiana or do we just do what the book did and try to hide the identity of the city, have it be a generic city. And when we got there I realized, in trying to hide the identity of the city I’m really shooting myself in the foot. In its own way it’s such a beautiful city, so I might as well embrace it, and if I’m going to embrace it I’m going to make it a character in the movie.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Paramount]