Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have given audiences such all-timer action movies as Mission: Impossible—Fallout and Top Gun: Maverick, but it was Jack Reacher, an underrated thriller released 10 years ago this week, on December 19, 2012, that launched their successful partnership. Based on Lee Child’s bestseller One Shot, Reacher centers on a former MP-turned-justice wielding drifter who comes to Pittsburgh in search of the bad guys responsible for shooting five seemingly innocent people. Co-starring Rosamund Pike, Robert Duvall and a villainous Werner Herzog as The Zec, Reacher is a throwback to slow-burn ’70s noir.
Reacher would go on to be a sleeper hit, but the project got off to an inauspicious start after fan backlash over the casting of Cruise, whose physical stature didn’t quite measure up to Child’s hulking hero from the novel. McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, and Cruise managed to overcome that initial challenge, and together they crafted a film that set the stage for their more celebrated collaborations to come. In an exclusive email interview with The A.V. Club, McQuarrie looks back at the making of Jack Reacher and reveals how his partnership with Cruise came together.
A.V. Club: I’m gonna start with the ending: The final shot on the bus is a perfect example of “less is more” visual storytelling. How did you land on that final scene, and was that always planned to be the last shot?
McQuarrie: Reacher is unusual for Tom and I, in that very little changed from the draft I submitted to the draft we ultimately shot (the car chase being the big exception). If there was ever another ending, I don’t remember it. It seemed only right that the man who arrives by bus should leave the same way. And if trouble seems to find him wherever he goes, why shouldn’t it find him there, too?
I have very fond memories of shooting on that bus, driving around Pittsburgh as we were losing the light. You wouldn’t know it to see their faces, but the atmosphere among the crowd was actually quite upbeat. It was close to the end of the shoot and we were having the best time. The couple, Sara Lindsey and Jared Faubel, were local hires and absolutely great. Sara has such a fabulous face—instantly sympathetic—and the emotion she is able to communicate in such a fleeting moment is what makes the scene work.
AVC: Can you recall when you were first approached about this project?
McQ: I’d just finished writing and producing Valkyrie at United Artists after [the studio] had been taken over by Cruise/Wagner. I had a first look deal there, which amounted to an office and a desk and phone.
[Jack Reacher producer] Don Granger had been the studio executive for UA on Valkyrie and we worked very closely together on that movie. He came to my office one day having gone through all the old Cruise/Wagner titles, looking for what to do next as a producer. He’d settled on Lee Child’s One Shot and asked if I would rewrite the existing script with an eye toward directing. I’d been in director jail since The Way Of The Gun flopped 12 years prior. As had happened on other projects with other stars and studios, I knew I’d be asked to do all the heavy lifting before being kicked to the curb. I told Don I was very flattered, but I wasn’t interested in asking for permission to make movies anymore and turned him down flat. He wasn’t letting it go that easily.
Finally, I told him I’d only write the script if he convinced the studio to offer me the movie to direct. I was confident I’d given Don an impossible task and fully expected not to hear back on the project. I also figured it was a Cruise/Wagner property, which meant Tom Cruise was attached. I looked at the long list of directors he’d worked with and I had no illusions that my name would ever be on it.
A week later, Don came back and said Paramount was ready to offer me the movie. I signed on to develop the script, fully expecting it never to be made. After handing it in, I was hired to write [The] Wolverine. Hardly a line of what I wrote survived, further cementing my suspicion that One Shot was going nowhere.
Cruise called me out of the blue one day and told me he’d read [the Reacher script] and loved it. “I’d like to be in it if you’ll have me.” I knew this was going to be a controversial casting choice with the fans. I also knew I had Tom Cruise offering to be in my movie. Don and I went to New York to discuss it with Lee Child. We brought a chart with us—one that listed all the actors who could get the movie made and scored them on various curves; physical size, intellect, demeanor. Reacher is not just physically imposing, he has a wry wit and a piercing intellect. There’s a subtle tone to the character that not just anyone could pull off. Honestly, his physical size didn’t matter to me, particular since it meant I’d only have to cast even bigger people for him to square up against if his fights were to have any stakes.
We also felt Jack Reacher is uniquely American, and should be played by one, despite a number of very capable Brits and Australians on the list. When we walked through all the permutations of the movie, Lee agreed that Tom should play him (Lee also understood this was about expanding the series to a wider audience). With the author’s blessing, the gloves were off.
AVC: Can you walk me through how you shot the opening assassination sequence? And is the shot through the sniper scope an optical?
McQ: The sniper scope is two shots laid one on top of the other—a 50mm for the sniper’s peripheral vision and a whopping 2600mm for the sniper’s POV. They’re shot at a distance of about 400 feet. The hardware of the scope itself we added in post. The entire shot was done in a continuous take and broken up later. We rehearsed one day and shot the next.
I have very particular feelings about the depiction of violence on screen. And while I wasn’t going to shy away from the inciting incident of the book, I wasn’t going to make it fun to watch either. If I was going to shoot a scene like this, it had to hurt. Meanwhile, I had to avoid blood and gore to be within the limits of an obligatory PG-13 rating (this was long before the likes of Deadpool and Joker opened up the room to R-Rated fare). I focused instead on immersion. Everything in the sequence was designed to put the audience squarely in the Sniper’s point of view, unable to look away.
The sniper who trained Tom, Robert Duvall and Jai Courtney also trained both camera operators so they could simulate the motion of a sniper rifle rather than a much heavier camera. They also trained the actors playing the victims in how to die convincingly (not dramatically, but realistically). These victims were all chosen very carefully so that at least one would instill in the viewer a sense of sympathy—not just up close when we met them later, but at a distance the instant we see them.
The finishing touches came in the mix. Don Granger asked me several times to turn down the sound of the gunshots, saying they sounded too real. I told them that was because they were real. And they were going to stay that loud, which they did. There is also no score in order to maintain the sense that this was not a movie. This was really happening. The killing was not just some plot device. It was designed to unsettle an audience largely desensitized to violence.
AVC: During Reacher’s intro in the script, we see him comfort a troubled, sad woman on a bus. Was that ever shot?
McQ: It was indeed. Sadly, that character was a victim of a poorly executed set-up to a payoff that never quite worked. One woman after another admires Reacher. When he gets to the bar where he ultimately meets Sandy, he gives an attractive server the eye and she summarily dismisses him—completely uninterested. It was meant to build him up and take him down a peg. The whole concept was just too subtle and didn’t land. What you’re seeing is the least of all evils. It taught me a lot about the vital importance of absolute simplicity and zero ambiguity in visual storytelling.
AVC: Werner Herzog is such an outside-the-box choice for a villain. How did you convince him to sign on? Was the studio onboard with that casting?
McQ: I was impressed with Neils Arestrup’s performance in A Prophet and told casting director Mindy Marin I was looking for something like that—a villain we hadn’t seen before. She immediately suggested Werner, which I thought was inspired. I also never thought he’d do it. He wasn’t remotely what I imagined—Werner is actually quite charming and not at all spooky or intimidating. He said he would be glad to be involved because he had an “intimate understanding of depraved characters.”
He was a supreme pleasure to work with. He loved everything about movies and never left the set, never even took out his milky eye. He would tell stories about his misadventures to the crew—just an utterly pleasant person to have around. Occasionally, I would find myself watching the monitor and notice The Zec’s reflection over my shoulder, watching the action and my every choice intently.
AVC: Rosamund Pike makes delivering exposition seem really easy in that scene in her office with Reacher. How difficult is it to find balance between emotion vs. information in a scene like that?
McQ: I no longer think in terms of a “balance” between information and emotion. The challenge—the whole point of narrative storytelling for me—is how to convert information into emotion. The scene you’ve pointed out was a turning point for me in this regard. Its rhythms are extremely particular, very technical, with lots of specificity. As a director, I’m always searching for the simplest note, the least instruction. I figure if I’ve written the scene correctly, cast the right actor, set the right frame, I shouldn’t have to explain much about how a scene should be played.
A great example of this is when Rosamund answers the phone—her moment of realization at the desk when she begins putting the pieces together. After a few takes, all I told her to do was move as slowly as she could and never, ever stop moving until she put Reacher’s note down. The transformation was instantaneous. The rest is the actor, the lens and the frame.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel told me it was the most profound and effective change he’d ever seen from one take to the next. The truth is, I just minimized the technical bullshit Rosamund had to remember so she could be in the moment.
AVC: That car chase ... how challenging is it to execute such a pivotal set piece in a city whose geography may not align with what you originally envisioned when you wrote it?
McQ: I let the real location tell me what the action can be. All of the action in that sequence was designed around the locations where we shot it. The real challenge was that the chase itself wasn’t in the original script. In the screenplay, Reacher steals a car, drives a few blocks, crashes and takes off on foot. Tom saw an opportunity for us to do something that redefined the film. In time it became the chase that ate Pittsburgh.
The fact that we didn’t have days in the schedule to shoot the chase was quickly remedied. We retooled our second unit into what we called “action unit.” Tom and I would shoot the dialogue scenes during the day with one crew and the car chase with another at night. Only a handful of crew members worked both units. At best, I would have two hours of sleep in the morning between wrapping action unit before starting again with main. For a few consecutive nights, Tom and I worked 24 hours straight.
AVC: Wow. So how did you prepare for that sequence?
McQ: I was never more prepared. I had story-boarded the sequence meticulously. Then the Pursuit Arm showed up—a Porsche Cayenne with a camera crane on top. When I saw what it could do, I threw out my boards and rethought the entire sequence on the fly. It was very cold in Pittsburgh and the back of that Cayenne was like a womb with a monitor in it. I’d take catnaps in there between setups.
We had four Chevies for Tom to drive—two “interior” cars with armor plating and camera mounts on the outside looking in, and two “exterior” cars which were meant to be shot from the Pursuit Arm. We’d beat those cars to hell every night and the mechanics would put them back together during the day. One night, an exterior car came back in perfect condition. The mechanics ran out of time before they could dent it up for continuity. Tom and I got in and drove down the street while the stunt guys rode along side and ran into us a few times. We were back in business.
That chase was shot over a few weeks but it feels like months in my mind—a weird fever dream.
AVC: What surprised you the most about making this film or your experience in Pittsburgh?
A few nights before we finished the chase, the ADs discovered a bar that had once catered to steel workers on the graveyard shift. It opened at 7 a.m. On the night we wrapped the sequence, Jai Courtney and I took a handful of crew that could still stand and went there to celebrate. By 8 a.m., that place was on fire—packed with locals, partying like the night would never end—a fitting conclusion to that particular sequence.
If you’re reading this: Pittsburgh, I love you.
AVC: Did you and Cruise envision Reacher being a long-running franchise like Mission?
McQ: The studio offered me the choice of doing another Reacher or what would become Rogue Nation. Tom was prepared to back whatever choice I made. I came quite close to passing on Mission (and I’m quite sure there were certain people who hoped I would).
All through Rogue, Tom and I were talking about the next Reacher. It was going to be leaner, meaner—a hard R. We were eager to do it, too. But, well, let’s just say the stars didn’t align. None of that matters, anyway. We’ll just put all that energy into something else. To quote the Zec: This is what we do.