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"We fight about sh-t all the time" - Christopher McQuarrie interview

Christopher McQuarrie has a way with words. He is the brilliant, and indeed Academy Award-winning mind behind The Usual Suspects, as well as the man who turned Tom Cruise into a Nazi for Valkyrie. His latest screenplay sees the usually verbose writer switch gears to deliver a pared back adaptation of Lee Child’s crime thriller Jack Reacher, with Cruise playing the titular, and decidedly odd detective, who exists well off the grid. This time McQuarrie has also turned his hand to directing, and sitting down with TheVine, he discusses transitioning to this new role with Cruise, as well as his thoughts on working with Werner Herzog and casting Australian newcomer Jai Courtney. 

Let’s start right at the beginning of the film, which is those four words that come across the screen - A TOM CURISE PRODUCTION – what do those four words represent?

It represents the hardest work and the most fun you’re ever going to have making a movie. Ever. 

Nice! Can you give us an example of both?

Well when you’re working with Tom, you’re never waiting, you’re never resting. You don’t really have weekends, you don’t have days off. You have [only] so much time to make a movie, and you have somebody who’s there 24 hours a day saying, “What can we do next? We only get one chance to make this movie, how can we do more?” Which for me is great because I sort of function the same way. And at the same time there isn’t insane pressure and everything is done in a way that there’s an enormous amount of respect, and an enormous amount of collaboration. And that it should be fun. 

On the one hand we’re working really hard and taking it very seriously, and on the other hand we’re never that far away from remembering that what we’re doing is sort of silly. [Laughs] 

Ha! Yes, you’re creating a good time in the cinema. 

Yes. [Tom’s] still very much a kid playing in his backyard. 

You’ve obviously successfully written for Tom in VALKYRIE. How did the dynamic change with you stepping into the director’s chair? 

That was a thing I was most unsure of. I didn’t know what was going to happen on the first day [of production], because in Valkyrie – functioning as a producer and as a writer – well, the way I like to describe it is this: when you’re a writer, your job is to incorporate everybody’s vision into your work. The director, the star, the studio, [and] all the other departments. As a director, it’s your job to incorporate everybody’s work into your vision. So it’s completely opposite. And so working as a writer, it was very easy for me to take the position that, “Ok, I’m an executioner. You tell me what you want, and I’ll make that happen.” And now suddenly I’m doing a 180-degree turn and saying, “Well this is actually what I want. And how are we going to make that happen?” 

I didn’t know what the first day was going to be like. And it was as if the previous experience had never happened. I was treated as though I had made as many films as any other director that  [Tom] had ever worked with. It was really great to work in that sort of environment; feel that supported and feel that trusted.

So Tom was able to easily adapt from working with you as a writer-producer to this being your vision? 

Yes. Absolutely. And I remember the first day. You know it was very difficult for me making my first film [The Way of the Gun] – to be the person who said, “No.” As a writer, you’re always the person who says, “Yes.” You are there to sort of accommodate everybody else. And on my first film I was working with my friends and I wanted to indulge them; I wanted to give them everything. And it was very hard for me to become that person.

Then I had children. [Laughs] And once you have kids, you realise there is a way to say, “No,” and have them still love you in the end.

[Laughs] That the perfect analogy!

Well really [having kids] taught me more about directing than anything else! It really isn’t about saying, “No,” for reasons of being intractable. It is – as I tell my kids – “I’m going to say ‘no’ to you for your health or your safety. And that’s it.”

So there was that day when we had a definite disagreement, and afterwards we were talking about it and I said, “Look, this is kind of new, because I’m so used to being a position as a writer, and working to just serve what it is that you’re after. And I’m going to be really intractable. I can be that way when I really get after something and I believe something is right: I become a little bit dug in. And I want us to able to talk openly about the fact that we’re going to have disagreements from time to time,” which we had never had before. 

And he looked at me and he said, “What are you talking about?! We disagree all the time!” And I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yes! You mean as a writer? Yeah we fight about shit all the time! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” [Laughs] I had no memory of that, that we’d ever had any sort of [disagreement], but he was like, “No, you’re a complete pain in the arse, and I’m totally use to it, so no, that’s what you have to do.” 

But Tom still loves you? 

Yes, we get along enormously well. That was the nice thing. Was getting to the end of it and really going into the process going, “I really don’t know what this is going to do to a really well established relationship.” This is a change in the dynamic and this could either lead to something even better, or this could be the end. And we got to the end of it an we said, “What are we doing next?” 

So what was more challenging, turning Tom into a Nazi (for Valkyrie) or turning him into a beloved crime character?

I would say…the challenge is not for me, the challenge is for Tom. The nice thing is turning him into Claus von Stauffenberg or turning him into Jack Reacher is not really the issue. He comes with very specific ideas, he understands inherently. If you communicate to him in the screenplay what you’re after, he will bring that to you. We seem to agree so inherently on story and on storytelling that those things are not really an issue. I think more than anything the challenge becomes, with Claus von Stauffenberg, there are invariably an enormous amount of people who are going to hear that in concept and say, “That’ll never work.” Then watching all of those people be proven wrong. Then turning around and hearing all the people respond to Jack Reacher who say, “That’ll never work.” Having had the experience with Claus von Stauffenberg, I get to sit there and say, “You people just never learn. You never learn! He’s not coasting through this. He’s going to work very hard.”

I admit, I haven’t read the books, but I understand there’s a great different in the physicalities between the character and Tom. 

Yes, yes.

But I also understand author Lee Child gave his blessing and that was something that was very important to Tom. 

Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Believe it or not it was less important to me than it was to Tom. Tom said, “I won’t do this if Lee doesn’t give his blessing.” For me, I knew right from the outset, that to find a six-foot-five, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 250 pound American actor was not only going to be a challenge; there’s never been one, ever. So the physicality of that character was going to be the first thing that was never going to live up to what the book was. 

What I think so many people don’t really look past, when they look at the books, is who Reacher is as a character – looking past the size to who Reacher is... And I knew from what I imagined Reacher to be, how I wanted him to come off, I knew Tom was going to do that, and he was going to do that without effort.

Now you’re a man famous for his words – you of course won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay with THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Which is why the dialogue-free opening gambit is just so fascinating. I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, there’s been no dialogue. Wow, still no dialogue!”

[Laughs]

I don’t think that’s a spoiler, so can you tell me when did you decide to strip out the dialogue?

You know it wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t say, “I’m going to open the movie with no dialogue.” I was writing the beginning of the movie and I was writing it very true to what happens in the book. And with every page that when by I thought, “Nobody is saying anything.” And I got probably six or seven pages into the opening and thought, “Well, how long can I go before anyone says anything?” 

It was really quite liberating. Especially coming from a place where you’re so self-conscious about – you become very self-conscious about dialogue when you’ve written a film that is so specifically about language. That it was really liberating. And then to end up with not one but three sequences in the movie where there’s eight minutes or more with no dialogue in the movie whatsoever, without ever consciously deciding that that was what it was going to be, was really a lovely surprise. To be cutting the movie together and be saying, “Wait now here’s another big long stretch where nobody says anything!” [Laughs] And so having worked on numerous movies since [The Usual] Suspects that relied so heavily on dialogue – a movie like Valkyrie which was a true story, and relied very heavily on lots of exposition – I’ve sort of come away from those movies wanting to get away from dialogue. And wanting to be more and more expressive with less and less. I think what’s going to be interesting is that now I don’t have to set up who Jack Reacher is – if we end up doing another one of these movies – you’ll see even less. It will be really spare.

Now I can’t let you go without asking about Werner Herzog. We don’t want to spoil who he is in the film, but oh my goodness! Tell me what it was like directing the great director?

It was really intimidating for two reasons. One, obviously he’s a great filmmaker, [and] the other being that he is not someone who is known as an actor and he is so real, and so unique.

That voice!

The voice is so extraordinary. And I was really worried before I cast him, I vacillated for long time about whether or not to cast him, only because I thought, “Is he going to feel like something from a documentary that has walked into a feature film? Is he going to be integrated with everybody else?” And finally I just decided I can’t not make this choice. Whatever it is it’s ultimately going to bear fruit. And he showed up on the first day and he was so extraordinary and such a gracious, fun, charming guy, who never left the set. Even when we were resetting – moving the camera – he would stay there, hang out, talk to the crew and talk to the cinematographer. He’s still very much a student of film and a lover of film who’s there to learn and absorb everything he can. And to have Werner standing behind me and observing what it is that I’m doing, and interpreting what it is I’m doing, was really in a lot of ways an education. It was great.

I’m sure it was! And finally I must ask about our local boy Jai Courtney: when did he come onto your radar? And what do you look for in the person who has to show down with Tom Cruise?

He was the real wild card. I had other people in mind and I wanted whoever was opposite Tom to be someone who was as big and as vivid. And I saw an audition tape that Mindy Marron had put together with Jai doing the scene: a cold reading. I’d never met him, I’d never spoken to him, I’d never seen his previous work. I took one look at it and I said, “This guy is a discovery.” And I sent the tape to Tom. I sent him the link and he emailed me back five minutes later and just said, “Cast him!” Exclamation point. There was never any further discussion about it; we never talked about it.


Jack Reacher is in theatres January 3rd. Read our review here.


Lead image via Getty.

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