Chris McQuarrie for “Jack Reacher”

Amongst film scribes, Christopher McQuarrie is something of a star. His first feature screenwriting credit, 1993’s “Public Access,” took the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Two years later his script for “The Usual Suspect” scored him an Oscar. He has since work as a script doctor on numerous other projects from “X-Men” to “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” along with fully penning 2008’s “Valkyrie”.

As a director though he’s still very much a freshman. He wrote and directed 2000’s low-budget crime comedy/drama “The Way of the Gun” which scored solid notices but disappointing box-office. It has taken thirteen years for him to get back into the director’s chair for his sophomore effort, and he’s done so with “Jack Reacher” – the upcoming film adaptation of Lee Child’s 2005 best-seller “One Shot.”

McQuarrie initially turned down the project when producer Don Granger offered it to him. He told Granger:

“I’ve been trying for twelve years to get another movie made and I’m through asking permission. I’m not going to go to a studio ever again and sell myself as a director, because I know they’re not buying. If you can convince the studio to offer me the movie, I’ll do it.”

Then there was the issue that Cruise owned the rights to the book and was already attached.

“I said Tom’s never going to 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 twelve years ago and it made $7 and I’ve been in director jail ever since. You’ve got to let Tom to let the book go and the studio to offer it to me.”

A week later, that’s exactly what happened.

Funnily enough the main impetus for the film getting into production – Cruise himself – is what has become the single biggest controversy in regards to this adaptation. A key component of the character of Jack Reacher in the books is one of physicality. He is a 6’5″ blond wall of muscle that can basically beat the crap out of anyone. Cruise is in very good shape and has good fighting skills, but physically he isn’t even close to the character. I asked McQuarrie what would he say to those still holding out from seeing the film because Cruise doesn’t match their casting ideal.

“What I say to the holdouts is I respect that when you buy a Jack Reacher, you’ve bought stock in the brand… At the same time a movie and a book are two very different things. There are multiple facets to that character, and too much emphasis on one would be a detriment to the others. We took very careful consideration as to the tone and spirit of the novels, as well as the physicality of the character.”

“We knew we were going to have to make changes, sacrifices, and we knew that a literal adaptation of the book was never going to work on screen. Everything we did was carefully calculated and considered, and we would just say to all those people – we know how it looks, and we deeply deeply respect your feelings. Just, come see the movie with an open mind. We’ve got your back.”

McQuarrie is consistently in awe of his regular collaborator Cruise, unafraid to call him the biggest movie star of all time and even cracking jokes about the Dorian Gray-esque quality to Cruise’s look. “Tom gets younger every year, there’s a picture in his basement that’s just getting older” he says wryly.

McQuarrie also jokes that he has a disorder that he’s not fully aware that while he’s making one movie, he actually has an ambition to make a whole other kind. While doing “The Usual Suspects” he had a deep desire to do a film noir, until one day someone pointed out that’s exactly what he was doing. While making this movie he was thinking about always wanting to make a movie like the western classic “Shane”. After the fact he realised there are some obvious parallels here, and he prefers it that way: “Any time I’ve consciously set out to reference a movie it fails, it just looks terrible.”

A big element of the film is a car chase in the middle between Cruise’s Jack Reacher and two of the goons who work for main antagonist The Zek. It’s a clever piece, one built on suspense and timing rather than flash cars and wild bouts of damage. McQuarrie says the sequence was originally quite short, and Cruise was the one who came up with the idea of making it a centerpiece.

“What really frustrated us with newer car chases, there’s the impression of action as opposed to the explicit execution of action. We wanted to actually see things happen. Paul [Jennings, second unit director] pointed out you have an actor who is an experienced driver. We can shoot a sequence… and Tom should be every possible shot he can be in. If the camera’s not in danger, the shot’s not worth doing.”

The sequence required long hours of shooting in cold conditions, but McQuarrie says:

“Truly, [it was] the greatest experience I’ve ever had… but everybody knew they were part of something unique. The guys driving the pursuit vehicle were so jazzed, they always had suggestions on the jobs they worked on but their suggestions were never heard. Here we were like ‘what’s something you guys have all wanted to do, Tom will do it’.”

Another key sequence is the opening segment. We see the action through the eyes of a sniper as he guns down five seemingly random people, and then the subsequent police investigation and arrest of a prime suspect. It’s an eight minute piece that’s pulled off without a single word of dialogue – only naturalistic sounds effects at first, followed up by some music. As McQuarrie was adapting the script he realised no-one was talking. It didn’t worry him, in fact as the sequence grew he began to worry the studio would balk at the idea – but they never did.

Shooting the sequence was a whole other issue in and of itself. In the book the shootout takes place in the center of a courtyard with a highway on one side and a parking garage on another. They struggled to find a place that fit the description, and the riverside location they ultimately used was 350 feet away from the parking garage where the sniper was supposed to be. As a result, filming the sequence required the use of a 400 pound, 2400mm anamorphic lens – along with a poor camera operator who had to mimic the movements of a sniper with it. A second camera with a 50mm lens was also shooting the same action simultaneously.

“When you look through a scope you don’t put it right against your eye, that cardboard cutout effect doesn’t exist. The scope is actually about six inches from your eye, which gives you an enormous amount of peripheral vision. We decided we wanted to maintain that, as a result we super imposed the 2400mm over the center of the 50mm image.”

One of the more unusual casting choices is that of the villains. Little know Australian actor Jai Courtney (“Spartacus,” “A Good Day to Die Hard”) stars as the young enforcer to a grizzled Russian former prisoner and mastermind named The Zek. That latter role is played by well-regarded German filmmaker Werner Herzog. McQuarrie said that Niels Arestrup’s work in “A Prophet” was the performance that inspired The Zek, and so he sought a European actor who is not widely familiar to a western audience. Herzog’s name was mentioned and within a few days he agreed to do a read.

For the role of Charlie, McQuarrie knew he could cast a fairly big name actor. However when he saw Jai’s audition he realised “nobody’s ever seen him, and this is a Tom Cruise movie I can cast whomever I want.” Cruise saw the audition tape and within five minutes had e-mailed McQuarrie telling him to cast the young Aussie.

Asked about his involvement in “Mission Impossible 5”, McQuarrie confirmed the speculation but says things are still in very early stages.

We’ve just started talking about it. He [Tom Cruise] is very busy with ‘All You Need is Kill’, JJ [Abrams] is very busy with ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’, I’m busy promoting this movie. Obviously, I love working with him [Cruise] and would love to do it, it’s daunting in that I would have to follow Brad Bird… you know, the biggest movie of the genre.

At the same time that’s kinda what I like about it, I like to come from a place of lowered expectation and I have to imagine that when they find out a filmmaker like me who feels, as someone put it earlier today ‘street level’… between ‘Way of the Gun’ and ‘Reacher’ and movies like that, I have to imagine that when it becomes real that people’s expectations could not be any lower.

“Jack Reacher” opens December 21st in the United States, and Australia on January 3rd 2013.