Ed Zwick interview: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

We chat to Edward Zwick, director of Jack Reacher 2, about modern cinema, the erosion of mid-budget cinema and more...

Tom Cruise returns this week as Jack Reacher, the ex-military badass from Lee Child’s popular series of novels. The first Jack Reacher was a great throwback to classic 90s action movies, that felt like a return to an era before superheroes and CGI overloads dominated blockbusters, and Tom Cruise running away from things and punching people was all we needed. And the sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back thankfully keeps that tradition.

Stepping into the director’s chair this time is Ed Zwick (replacing Christopher McQuarrie, who moved over to the Mission Impossible franchise). Zwick is the sort of Hollywood journeyman who’s name on a film is alway a good sign. He’s made movies like Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance and Love And Other Drugs — all really enjoyable mainstream films that don’t necessarily have that mark of an auteurist director, but are all worth seeing. He was a great interview, the sort of Hollywood old hand who you just want to spend an afternoon with talking about the movie business and what it’s actually like to make big budget films.

Here’s what he had to say about the state of modern action films, working with Tom Cruise, and making How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders into an action star.

One of the things I loved about the first Jack Reacher was that it felt very old school, and like an action film from the 90s — and the sequel keeps that up. Was that something you intentionally tried to stick with?

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It was very conscious. We didn’t want to have a lot of big CGI. We wanted there to be more of a focus on the people, and the relationships. We wanted the violence to be brutal and felt, but not defy the laws of physics.

Is that how you approach action scenes in general?

It depends. I’ve done all sorts of different kinds of action. We did a thing in Blood Diamond, the attack on Freetown, where I carefully staged the action but did not show the camera operators what we were going to film — so it has the feel of documentary, trying to capture something, and that gave it a whole different feel. I think it’s horses for courses really.

Was that because Blood Diamond is a film about a serious issue, and this is more just escapism?

Yeah. And I think there’s a style of shooting action these days that is so deliberately obscure, and is belying the beauty and the choreography of what people are doing. It’s just all happening in this figurative way. And I wanted a little more literalness.

So what action films influenced this film?

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Gosh, I hadn’t thought about this in terms of action film. I thought about 1970s movies, but in terms of relationships. I thought about Bullitt, I thought about The French Connection, and Three Days Of The Condor, those kind of movies. But I hadn’t thought about which particular action movies we were relating to.

That’s interesting, because both Bullitt and The French Connection are not what you’d call ‘action films’, but they both have amazing stand-out action scenes. And you get the drama in those from having characters you already care about.

That was the hope for us.

Do you think yourself as an old school filmmaker in that sense? You’ve tended to make very traditional, mid-budget films for adults, as opposed to big franchise movies…

Yeah. I think I have a more classical bias. And I feel that’s the more radical position to take now. Because so much [modern filmmaking] is about a deconstructed, or a very ‘cool’ and distanced, detached depiction of life. And I am more interested in a more humanistic view.

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Do you find it’s harder to get those sorts of movies made?

Yeah, it is. And look, what’s happened is that the studios discovered that the financial margins are just not available for those adult films, at that scale, and they abandoned them. It wasn’t the audience that fled, it was the studios that lost heart in them. It wasn’t the audiences, because you see them give themselves over to cable television by the millions, which have the most adult themes. Those shows are where the adult movies exist now.

Do you see yourself ending up doing TV in the future then?

Maybe. It may indeed be inevitable if you want to do things that are challenging and have adult themes. You can spend an extraordinary amount of time raising independent money to do a movie for very little means. I’ve done it with Pawn Sacrifice. It’s very satisfying, because its all under your control, but to have that movie then find its way into popular culture is rare.

So are you say getting the movie out there and actually seen is the hardest thing?

Yeah. Ironically it’s easier to raise the money to make the film than it is to have the film find wide distribution. If I were to tell you the numbers of independent films that have been made in the last five or so years, and the ratio between those films and the number of cinema screens they’ve actually been released to, you’d go pale. It’s appalling. It must be more than 10 to one.

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Never Go Back has a fantastic opening scene, with Reacher having already taken out a load of guys in a diner, which perfectly sets up the character even if you didn’t see the first film. Was that in the book?

I’m trying to remember… I think we stole a bit of that from another book. The idea was that you saw these bodies on the ground, trying to make seem like [it was another Jack Reacher story], but you’re not going to see it now. There were all sorts of conversations about whether we should show him taking on the guys so the audience knows, but I wanted a more creative way to do it. I’m reminds of the opening of John Ford’s Stagecoach, one of the greatest movies of all time. It’s just a man in a telegraph office, and they’re getting this communication in. Someone asks what it is, and the guy just says: “Geronimo”. It just promises the film you’re about to see.

This is the second film you’ve made with Tom Cruise. What is he like to work with?

He’s enormously well prepared, incredibly disciplined. He has great love of the process, great awareness of what everyone is doing, he’s joyous and gracious to the other actors, to the D.P., to the people who are miking him, all of that. He’s very regular in that process.

Did he bring you on board?

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Yeah. The phone rang and he asked if it interested me. I was surprised because it wasn’t like anything I’d ever done, but that was reason enough to try.

This film is based on a beloved character who has a lot of fans, but I really liked it because its very much a ‘Tom Cruise film’. You almost don’t need to know who Jack Reacher is, he’s Tom Cruise…

Well that’s another thing movie stars do, or at least used to do. By the force of their personality and charisma, there’s a magnetism that draws your eye and you give yourself over to.

How did you try and balance this being both a Jack Reacher film and a Tom Cruise film?

Well, I think there was some real attempt to differentiate from, say, Mission: Impossible. Because that Ethan Hunt character is very manic, and does things in a particular way. And this character is much more still, and internal. I think that was the distinguishing characteristic.

Let’s talk about Cobie Smulders in the film — it’s a really interesting role for her. Her character is at the same time sort of the sidekick, but also sort of the love interest, and also sort of the clichéd old army buddy character. Were you trying to not just make the female lead the damsel in distress?

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Oh, for sure. This is a very interesting moment in America for talking about gender, and strong women characters, and the idea of what a strong woman is. And to put Jack Reacher in that context seemed to be the real opportunity. So it was more important to me that she be another alpha, that has the job that he once had, and that revealed things about him, and also reveals things about his ideas about who women are, rather than the love interest.

Obviously, we know her best from How I Met Your Mother, and this is a very different role. How did she come on board?

I mean, Tom and I just had to make a movie. I went about the job of meeting a lot of actresses, seeing who’s available. I met Cobie, we worked on the part together, I introduced her to Tom, they read together, we did a little screen test. It was very conventional.

What made you think she could do the action?

The action stuff? Oh, she was a soccer player for 12 years. So she was physical. But I’ve met a lot women in the military, because I made a movie called Courage Under Fire years ago — and there was something very familiar about her, in relation to those women.

So you’ve said that she’s meant to be an equal to Jack Reacher. One thing I noticed is that there’s this cliche of Tom Cruise in action films, wearing the t-shirt and leather jacket and so forth. And that’s the outfit that she ends up wearing for most of the film! Was that intentional?

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That’s so funny! [laughs]. Well, Jack Reacher buys those clothes for her [when they are both on the run] — so maybe there’s some androgyny in that!

I’d like to ask you about the fight scenes, in terms of the choreography. There’s a great fight scene early on in a restaurant kitchen in particular. Who was the choreographer?

It was a wonderful choreographer by the name of Wade Eastwood, who’d actually worked with Tom on the Mission: Impossible films before. He has guys on his team. The way they do it is they plan it out alone, and then with me, and then with Tom. And we built it, and change it. Even on the day, you change it and find out certain things work better.

For a fight scene like that, how much is it storyboards, and how much is it shot for coverage then cut together?

It’s not storyboarded, because I’ve been involved with the choreography. And on the day I want to look at it and see what’s the way to photograph it. It’s obviously shot in both masters and coverage. It was important to me not to belie the literalness of the fight, and not make it just figurative images in the way that so many fight scenes are now shot. But on the other hand you use that coverage to punctuate the visuals. And not because they can’t do it, they [the actors and stuntpeople] did do it. You have to remember that when you’re doing a scene like that, they’re doing that choreography all day, again, and again, and again. And they’re getting kicked and bruised and beat up. So in some sense you want to minimise the number of takes if they’re going full on.

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How long does a scene like that take to shoot?

The fight in the kitchen? At least a day and a half. For less than five minutes of the film.

I wanted to ask about the music. James Newton Howard normally scores your films — how come Henry Jackman did this one?

James wasn’t available! I called Hans Zimmer actually, because he had worked with Henry, when Henry was a younger composer. And I’d seen Captain Phillips, that Henry did, which I thought was really effective.

I also wanted to ask you about using temp music in particular. I’ve seen composers like Danny Elfman moan about it, saying that directors put in bits from other film scores, and just ask composers to copy it, and so all films end up sounding the same. What’s your process?

Look, I think temp music is just one way of communication between a director and a composer. And there are other ways. I think I like to use all of them. One way is the temp score. Another way is just having a conversation [with the composer]. Another way is that I’m a half-assed musician, so I know enough to talk about tempo and different musical phrases.

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There’s another way, which is sometimes you’re sitting there with a composer, and if they are gifted as a keyboardist, everything they then play is digitally recorded. So there’s the opportunity to be improvisational. Sometimes James Newton Howard will say: “We can do something like this,” and you can skip back to two individual bars, and you’ve discovered something.

Is there any talk about a third Jack Reacher?

We don’t know yet. This is just coming out and we have to see how it does.

It originally looked like there wasn’t going to be a sequel to Jack Reacher, but eventually the film built up enough of a following for Never Go Back to happen. Are you aware then with a film like this that it might take time to get an audience?

The fact is the first one actually lived on in the ancillary markets. And I think one of the reasons is that readers [of Lee Child’s books] traditionally might not be the same ones going out to the cinema on the opening weekend.

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Do you think that it’s an older audience, who have lives and children etc?

I think inevitably becomes that. Because who reads books these days?

Finally, what do you think is the best film that you’ve made?

Inevitably, if someone’s being honest, they’d say it’s the one they haven’t made yet.

So you won’t single any film out then?

Its not for me to say… [Smiles].

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Ed Swick, thank you very much!

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is in UK cinemas now.