Interview: Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Usual Suspects)

Interview: Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher, The Usual Suspects). By Simon Miraudo.

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Christopher McQuarrie met director Bryan Singer in high school, and it would prove to be a fruitful friendship for the both of them. They collaborated on the sleeper hit The Usual Suspects, and McQuarrie won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his efforts. If only all our teenage relationships could lead to such prosperity in our adult lives. Singer’s now shepherding the X-Men franchise, and McQuarrie is looking to establish himself as a filmmaker in his own right. Though his directorial debut – 2000’s The Way of the Gun – sank without a trace at the box office, the same fate isn’t likely to befall his newie, Jack Reacher. Based on Lee Child’s best-selling novel One Shot and starring Tom Cruise, it’s a cracking thriller that has led to his name being whispered as a potential helmer of Cruise’s next Mission: Impossible.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of Jack Reacher here.

We spoke to McQuarrie about adapting Child’s text for the screen, working with Cruise, and hiring Werner Herzog as the villain. He also gave some advice to screenwriters looking to replicate the success of The Usual Suspects’ twist ending.

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SM: I do understand you were originally a teacher, and then worked for a detective agency before writing your first film. I’m curious; what was it about screenwriting and filmmaking that you thought you’d finally found the job you were looking for?

CM: Well, it was something I had wanted to do for a long, long time. I always knew that I wanted to write in some capacity, and I always loved film. I never really related to it until I started hanging out with Bryan Singer in high school. He and I collaborated on a couple of short films in his backyard as kids before we went out separate ways, so it was always something I knew I’d come back to eventually.

SM: Excellent. Well, you’re directing now, and your latest film is Jack Reacher. I was kind of surprised to discover the opening of the film is near wordless; nearly the first ten minutes. I’m assuming this was a choice to get through some of the book’s exposition in an artful way. Were you always intending to open the movie in that manner?

CM: You know, it was the sort of thing that when I was writing it, I was writing what I felt was a pretty close adaptation of the way the book itself opens, and with every page I realised, “God, nobody has said anything yet.” So, it was never consciously setting out to start the movie with no dialogue, but that feeling liberated, as I realised I was getting further and further along without really needing any.

SM: What was it about Lee Child’s book and the character of Jack Reacher that really appealed to you in that first instance?

CM: Specifically that. The character of Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s book. The character himself was so great and so dynamic that I knew the plot kind of becomes secondary.

SM: Were there any struggles in adapting the book. I have to admit; I’ve not read the book in this instance. Significant changes you felt you had to make in the transition to film?

CM: Yeah, quite a few. It’s really interesting. There had been other adaptations of the book; very literal adaptations of the book. Interestingly enough, they felt a lot less true to the more cinematic aspects of the book. It was about maintaining the spirit and the tone of the book, but all the time being very aware that the book itself is very cerebral and inside the head of the main characters; in fact, all of the characters. It was about finding ways to bring that out in a much more visual way.

SM: You’ve worked with Tom Cruise on a number of films, but this is your first as his director. Can you tell me a little bit about your working relationship?

CM: Where to begin? You couldn’t find two people who come from more different places in terms of their roots, and in terms of the types of movies that he made at the beginning of his career and I made in the beginning of mine. But, when we were first introduced to one another, and sat down and started talking movies, we just really clicked on a level of storytelling; what each of us found important about how to tell a story, in terms of emotionally and visually.

SM: Your film also has Werner Herzog as the villain, The Zec, and I think that’s just an inspired choice for that role. Obviously, he has acted before, but what was it that inspired you to go after him for this role?

CM: You know, Mindy Marin, my casting director, suggested him. I had given her a list of criteria that I wanted from that character; the biggest being I didn’t want him to be somebody that audiences readily knew. I felt like he would be a lot more threatening if he felt like someone that was not familiar. Once she suggested him, I said, “God, that’s a great idea, but he’ll never do that.” I had one phone conversation with him, and he was in.

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SM: No apprehension on his end at all?

CM: No. None whatsoever. I think the apprehension was all mine. The real concern I had, you know, was I was accustomed to Werner as a character in documentaries, and I wondered, “Is he going to feel like this very real, almost documentary style being in the midst of this heightened Hollywood movie?” I just wondered, was Herzog going to feel like he was in a different movie to everybody else, and he didn’t. He was really great.

SM: He certainly is. The idea of having a phone call with him alone is enough to get me excited there.

CM: [Laughs]

SM: You’ve made a couple of films as a director. What are the benefits to you that you feel from writing and directing, as opposed to just writing, where you started off?

CM: The benefit is less of a benefit and more of a curse. You don’t have someone there on set everyday to defend the screenplay from what you’re doing to it. The other side of that sword is I don’t have a lot of unpleasant arguments with writers.

SM: That’s excellent to hear. You did win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar back in 1996 for The Usual Suspects. You’ve been working steadily since. Did you find there was a period there where producers were looking for another script from you with a big twist ending?

CM: Not so much looking for a script from me with a big twist ending; more looking to help them to sell their twist. I really wasn’t consciously aware that I was writing a big twist movie when I wrote that movie.

SM: Sure.

CM: It wasn’t what we set out to do. It was quite the opposite. We came up with the twist and then engineered the movie backwards from there. It was only in trying to help others execute their twist ideas that I realised what makes great twists work, and what makes so many of them not work. The truth of the matter is, it all comes down to: if you can tell me what the twist is and I still want to see the movie, it’s a good twist.

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SM: If it doesn’t spoil the movie.

CM: That’s what I’m saying. You can spoil the movie and I go, “Oh, that’s cool. I want to see how you pull that off.” The really good twists are ones you can explain in two sentences or less. So, now, when people come to me with their twist movie that they want fixed, I say, “Tell me what your twist is.” When they’re still talking five minutes later, I say, “Your twist doesn’t work.”

SM: [Laughs] I think that’s a very good rule of thumb. Now, I’m actually speaking to you from Perth, Western Australia, where I understand you spent some time.

CM: I did. I lived there for a year. My first year out of high school.

SM: Have you ever been able to come back?

CM: I never have. Circumstances have always been such that I’ve never been able to get back there. I’m dying to see it again.

SM: I hope that does happen for you. Can you tell me what you’re working on? I mean, Jack Reacher’s not even out, but have you got anything lined up next?

CM: I just finished doing some work with Tom again on All You Need Is Kill, Doug Liman’s film, and literally after I promote this it’s kind of an unknown for me.

SM: Okay. There are rumours out there about Mission: Impossible 5. You probably couldn’t say even if you were involved, but is there any truth to that?

CM: We’re definitely talking about it, but it’s very early stages.

Jack Reacher is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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