Jack Reacher: Never Go Back reunites director Ed Zwick with star Tom Cruise. They worked together in 2003 on The Last Samurai. I recently spoke over the phone with Ed to ask him about his latest movie…
Matt: How’s it going?
Ed: Very well thanks. We’re in Beijing right now.
Matt: The Chinese market is so huge and has a big impact on a film’s international box-office…
Ed: It is. Tom and I have both found great success here in China and so we said we definitely wanted to visit as part of the promotion for the film.
Matt: I realise that you’ve worked with Tom Cruise before on The Last Samurai back in 2003. How did you get involved in this project? Did Tom help get you in?
Ed: That’s right. The phone rang and I saw it was Tom and said to myself “I’ll take that call.” (laughs) I had never done this kind of movie before but he knew I liked this genre and he asked if I would be keen to jump in. I read the book and realised there was a lot that could be fun to do. We got together and talked about what we could accomplish and then went from there.
Matt: The previous film was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie and I notice he’s one of the producers here. Did he provide a lot of input or were you left to your own devices here?
Ed: I’ve known Chris for a long time and he’s actually worked for me before. There were a couple of moments where I talked things out with him and he was very helpful. He also understands that a writer-director wants to make his own movie and he was respectful of that.
Matt: You’ve made some great films in your career like Glory, Legends of the Fall, and Blood Diamond, but I notice this is the first time you’ve come on board for a sequel. Is that right?
Ed: Yeah. It’s also my first franchise too. I was wary but the fact that Tom and I had worked together before was a help. We also knew we were trying to do something a little bit different from the first movie. If I felt I was doing a mere repeat of the original then I think I would have shied away. I think this movie is more a reflection of what interests me as opposed to what interests Chris.
Matt: Over your career, you’ve had the chance to direct some of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Morgan Freeman. Is there something special about them that justifies the price tag? Or are they just like working with any other actor?
Ed: It’s funny. I like to think that they’ve made their money on the back of being a great actor. Obviously they have something unique that captures an audience’s imagination but I have always thought about casting movie stars as actors and treating them as actors. The best ones want to be treated as actors and I would definitely include Tom in that list. He’s known from a young age what a director can do to bring out a great performance and it’s why he’s worked with so many great directors.
I can think of a couple of people I wouldn’t work with again because they didn’t have a humility, joy and gratitude that you want as part of a team. Those names that you mentioned are all a privilege to work with. They have an understanding of not just what they can do but also what a movie is. Tom’s career has been about more than a great smile and physicality.
Matt: Do you stay in touch with all these actors you’ve worked with multiple times? Are you always looking for opportunities to work together again?
Ed: We actually all live very different lives. I happened to see Denzel two weeks ago because I was at Paramount and he was in the cutting room working on Fences. I knocked on the door, chatted for an hour and then had lunch together. I don’t think I’d seen him for at least a year. The fondness and the experiences from working on a movie are often quite intense and profound. You don’t forget them.
Matt: Well tell me a little about Cobie Smulders. I was reading she broke her leg before the shoot. Is that right?
Ed: The first time we met, she came into my office with a cane and her leg in a brace. I said “what the fuck is this?” and she said she’d just broken it and that it was going to be fine. I was a bit sceptical because this was to be a very physical movie. She told me that she’d been an athlete in college and that she wouldn’t put herself in a situation unless she thought she could handle it. The doctors then looked her over, agreed with that assessment, an she ended up doing an extraordinary job.
Matt: People will be familiar with Tom Cruise and to a lesser extent Cobie Smulders because of her roles in the Marvel films but aside from those two, most of the cast will be relatively unknown to filmgoers. Was it a deliberate decision to go with some lesser known actors?
Ed: One of the great pleasures of having a big name movie star already on the film is that you don’t have to fill the remaining roles with names to satisfy a foreign investor who believes it will add value. It’s just about casting great actors. The kid who plays Prudhomme, Austin Hébert, just graduated from Southern Methodist University and is a really great actor. I saw Aldis Hodge in Straight Outta Compton and it was fun to work with him too.
Matt: How did you approach the action scenes? Given that action movies are a staple of the Hollywood diet, is there something you’re trying to do to make these particular scenes stand out?
Ed: I believe that they’re most interesting if they can advance the story and the relationships between the characters. If they’re just there for the sake of action then I don’t think they add much. I can point to a couple of scenes in this movie that I think help us follow the story and it feels more organic to the piece itself.
Matt: Do you have precise angles in mind when you’re shooting the action scenes or have you got a hundred cameras going at once and you leave it up to the editor to piece it together?
Ed: An editor can show you things you never imagined but no, I’m pretty specific with how I shoot these scenes. As we choreographed these scenes and worked with the stunt people and actors, I’m often shooting the scenes on tape to get a sense of what’s going to be the best angle. You have to be pretty specific as these scenes are dangerous, you don’t want anyone to get hurt, and you don’t want to have to shoot them too many times because that adds to the risk.
Matt: I have to finish up by asking a couple of non-Jack Reacher questions. I’m a big Oscars buff and you won an Academy Award for producing Shakespeare in Love which was one of the big upsets in Oscars history. Did you see it that way? Was it a huge shock to you when they opened the envelope?
Ed: You never really think about it in terms of a bet. I’ll tell you that the following year, we were convinced that we were going to win for Traffic and the found it was Gladiator who took the top prize. It’s weird that you’ve made a movie that you think is the best thing you’ve ever done… and then you go along to an awards show and suddenly think of yourself as a loser. It’s really screwed up and typical of Hollywood to make you feel bad about something that you should feel good about.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What projects will see from your next?
Ed: Not sure yet. There’s something we’re starting to write and I hope it turns out as I wish but you never know.