Director Edward Zwick has directed a lot of movies in many different genres — from the Civil War classic Glory to the eerily prophetic terrorist thriller The Siege to last year’s fact-based chess face-off Pawn Sacrifice — but he’s never made a straight-up crime/action film until now.
Picking up where screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie left off with 2012’s sleeper hit Jack Reacher, Zwick has penned (along with longtime collaborator Marshall Herskowitz and Richard Wenk) and directed Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, in which Tom Cruise once again plays the drifter and anti-hero at the heart of some 20 books by author Lee Child.
Reacher has a whole new set of problems to solve in this story, including clearing the name of the major who took his old military job (Cobie Smulders), determining whether a plucky teenage girl (Danica Yarosh) is really his daughter and battling against a team of rogue arms dealers and assassins. We spoke with Zwick earlier this week by phone about making his first sequel, reuniting with Cruise for the first time since 2003’s The Last Samurai, and more.
Den of Geek: I don’t think you’ve done a sequel before, and I know this is an unusual type of series in a way. How did this come to you? Did Tom approach you about doing it based on your previous work together?
Edward Zwick: Yeah. He called, and my first response was, well, gee, I’ve never done a franchise or a sequel before. I’m not sure that that’s something that I could necessarily related well to. He said, “Well, just read the book.” I did. What I saw in it was an opportunity to do something that was maybe a little bit different than the run of the mill sequel.
First of all, I realized that we could write it, and that was an opportunity to already change a little bit of the coordinates. Then I realized that Tom’s fondness for a certain kind of hybrid, in which the characters and the relationship were as important as the action, really dovetailed with what I had in mind. There were a whole lot of movies that we both had admired. The French Connection, or Three Days of the Condor, or Bullitt, which the relationships were central and not just peripheral. With that in mind, I said, let’s try it.
Were you familiar with the character at all before this?
I read one of the books. It was a while ago. I like the genre. It’s funny, it’s a genre I’ve never done before but I really read a lot of that stuff as escape. It’s a really pleasant escape, so I did have some idea of what I was getting myself into.
In a way Reacher sort of strikes me as almost a modern day descendant of Western anti-heroes like the Man with No Name.
I think every culture — you can call it an American Ronin, a medieval knight errant, you could talk about Shane. There is an archetype that I think is actually common to a lot of cultures, and even the Clint Eastwood stuff was probably as influenced by the Japanese stuff, and yet done by an Italian.
What was it about Jack Reacher the character on the page that you liked?
I think there is a very powerful wish that we all have, of being self-contained, and having sort of opted out or choosing to remove ourselves from society and to have no ties and no obligations, and even no possessions. To be free in a particular way. Yet, someone who also fights for that person in need, or has a code that he gets involved with something and he carries it through to the end, regardless of what that requires him to do. That’s a strong wish.
Books and stories and fiction live in their own world. Is it possible in the real world to actually get off the grid completely?
The answer is absolutely not, and that makes the fantasy even more powerful and desirable I think. The phone that you carry around with you. It’s not just that it’s a locator for anybody who wants to actually find out where you are, but it’s also a leash. It’s a reminder just how tethered you are. Coincidentally as the culture gets more and more like that, the fantasy only goes stronger.
When you came on board was the actual book, Never Go Back, already chosen or did you look at other books?
That’s something that Don Granger and Tom and Chris McQuarrie had together already thought would be the subject.
What spoke to them and you about that particular story, and did you make a lot of changes from the book?
A lot. The (Smulders) character Susan Turner was very much Lee’s creation. The idea of Reacher coming into a relationship and going on this adventure with this woman, who was like his opposite number, someone who has now taken on his old job, that was very much the premise of the book. Lee had also introduced this character, the girl who may or may not be his daughter, and there’s a scene where he’s told this. He meets her in the very first scene. Maybe the first 50 pages of the book. Then doesn’t see her again until the very end of the book.
What Marshall and I then did, was to make that the kind of spine that we could play off. At the same time we were playing the Susan Turner spine and create a kind of metaphor of the sudden family. The idea that all 3 of these people are alphas — none of them had an interest in or desired to be part of a family, yet they’re obliged to sort of become one. We both realized that could make for some interesting dynamics and some humor, and some jeopardy as well. That was the major change that we did, it spawned a lot of other changes as you can imagine.
Were there other elements from other books that you brought in?
Only the very beginning, this idea of him having broken up a ring of someone selling illegals. That is from another book. The idea was, this was Richard Wenk’s idea actually, that you would come upon a scene, not unlike something that’s happened before, something that might have already happened. It’s almost you were picking up something in res, and that was a good idea I thought. That little strand was taken from one of Lee’s other books.
That’s something that the James Bond movies have done on and off — they’ve incorporated things from one book into a different movie.
Yeah, that’s right and by the way we even went with a little meta bit of giving Lee a cameo in it. When Reacher steals the guy’s ID and he goes to the TSA guard, that guard is Lee. I thought was just a wonderful opportunity in which the author is sort of not recognized by the author’s hero. I thought that was a really fun opportunity. Fans of his will get that, I hope at least.
You worked with Tom on The Last Samurai 13 years ago. Has he changed at all in the way he prepares for a shoot? What sense do you have of him as an actor today as opposed to an actor 13 years ago?
His preparation is unbelievably intense. When we did Samurai he spent 6 to 8 months working with those swords to be able to do them with real fighters. If you recall, there was no CG, that was the real thing with those crazy swords. His involvement in the script in terms of his thoughts on the character and even on the structure were intense then and are intense now.
There’s a reason why a guy like that has a 30-year career. It’s not just because he’s great looking, and can act. It’s because he has a sense of what makes the movie work. He had that then and he certainly has that now. In these last 10 years or 12 years since we worked he’s been producing, as a real producer, and he really has some real contributions to make about the whole process. I will say, always respectful, always with the understanding of what a director is and what a director does. He’s worked with really wonderful filmmakers in his career. I think he realized that my version of this movie would be different than Chris’s version of the movie, and he wanted that. He wanted to see what my sensibility would bring and presumably he would do that with someone else.
This was the possibility for something a little bit more anthologized say than Mission: Impossible. I think it appealed to him. I think it also appealed to him, this yearning to do scenes that were a little more nuanced in terms of their relationships. As an actor he’s done some great stuff like that in his career. Maybe a little less of it in this last decade. He probably knew that. Has he changed? No, I think the times have changed a little bit and I think they’ve afforded him less opportunities to do things he had done a lot of before.
He also has a reputation of being a guy that’s willing to really put himself out there physically in a film. I wonder if you had any moments where you were standing there and one half of your brain is going, “Oh my god this looks great, this is amazing,” and the other half is saying, “I hope this guy doesn’t kill himself.”
Yeah, that’s really astute. The stunt when he ties himself to a plane and flies like that in the last Mission: Impossible movie, that’s a great stunt, right? I don’t think people realize the astonishing amount of discipline and precision and risk that these require. There was more than one time that I would see the bruises the next day that he had not revealed to me. Cobie too. There were a couple moments in which I saw Tom get hurt and said, let’s stop for the day, and he said, no, we’re going to go until we get this. It’s like an athlete, he somehow still has the resources to play hurt, and he did.
The thing is, you don’t do that by just getting trained for this film. He trains every day and has probably for 30 years to remain in that condition that he doesn’t have to try to lose it and recapture it.
You’re prepping a film called The American Can, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Is that still next?
I’m hoping. It’s gone through a lot of changes in the last year. It’s not clear to me when or if it will go exactly. It’s in that development limbo that we love, that makes us want to rip our faces off.
Before we go, I was really curious about your thoughts today on The Siege 18 years later. Without necessarily getting into the politics of it all, do you look at that film now and say we were kind of onto something with this?
Yeah, I mean look, I was talking to a lot of people then who felt it was a question of when not if. Don’t forget that 2 years before that movie some people had tried to blow up the World Trade Center, those vans in the basement. It didn’t take rocket science to be able to sense that imminence. The stuff that I look at in there is not just the tragedy, of which I never could have imagined the scale. Rather, the interrogation stuff, the surveillance, the Guantanamo type stuff, the torture. There are things in it that actually maybe were more present than the event.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is out in theaters this Friday (October 21).