For director-writer McQuarrie, making the 'Jack Reacher' meant sleepless days and nights
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Two dozen questions scribbled in a notebook before last Friday's interview with Christopher McQuarrie and not a single one about a place called Newtown, Conn.
The writer-director of "Jack Reacher" chatted with the Post-Gazette in a small conference room at the Fairmont hotel before the news -- and certainly the heartbreaking extent -- of the school shooting was known.
That is why the talk was about the disparity between Reacher on the page and screen, sleep deprivation, the serendipity of scouting and scheduling squeezes forced by Tom Cruise's publicity tour for the fourth "Mission: Impossible" film and Rosamund Pike's discovery she was pregnant a week before the start of production.
It had been Mr. Cruise's idea to stage the national premiere of the movie here on Dec. 15, an event that was postponed and then recast and severely scaled down.
"We loved working here, the local crews were great and the city was extraordinarily accommodating," Mr. McQuarrie said. "I don't recall ever having an issue with securing any of the locations that we wanted or the time that we spent there, and quite frankly, we made a hell of a lot of noise.
"That car chase was sprawling across a huge amount of the city, and there was never any sort of resistance or any sort of problem. It was actually great, and that collaboration that we had with the city was the very thing that inspired our coming back. ... We were just very grateful for the city, and we wanted to give something back."
The time here ended up being carefully calculated and concentrated.
"Tom had to be out by Thanksgiving  because he had to start promoting 'Mission: Impossible.' So we had a compressed schedule to allow us to let Tom leave before that date. As a result, Rosamund's schedule was spread out all over the place in order to accommodate that."
Then, news of Ms. Pike's pregnancy meant she had to be finished by Dec. 7, further complicating matters. That led to 24-hour days -- literally, sometimes -- for Mr. McQuarrie and his star-producer-stunt car driver, Mr. Cruise.
"Tom and I would work first unit all day and then we'd go out with the second unit at night and shoot the car chase and then roll back into the first unit the following morning with a break of about sometimes as little as a 20-minute car ride between the two units."
Sleep? Well, there was that ride of 20 minutes, still a fraction of the luxurious two to four hours he enjoyed nights during his stint in Pittsburgh.
"You're kind of getting by on sheer momentum," said the bespectacled director, clad that day in a blue shirt, gray V-neck sweater, navy jacket and jeans, his thick hair brushed up and away from his forehead.
"There's a real energy you have when you're making a movie, but the truth of the matter is, you can only work at that level when everybody's making the same movie. ... I was physically exhausted throughout the making of my first film because I was dealing with a specific sort of resistance on that movie. There was real collaborative friction."
That meant questioning and reinventing the plan almost daily and finding the movie, "The Way of the Gun," as he went.
"With this movie, I had a partner, we saw completely eye to eye and that made it a lot easier," he said of Mr. Cruise. "So, when you went to work, you were just excited about what you were doing."
The grueling schedule was tolerable because he knew it would end and his body could and would collapse. The same happens when he submits a screenplay.
"I got home from Pittsburgh looking forward to that collapse and the day after I got home, at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I was with my wife and my two daughters, we were at a horseback riding lesson. I could feel it coming on. I could feel my brain just starting to atrophy," he said.
He figured he would go home at 5 p.m. and sleep for 72 hours.
Instead, one of the girls was thrown from a horse and she landed in the hospital for two days and home from school for two weeks. Plans to rest after editing "Jack Reacher" were interrupted by a call from Mr. Cruise in London, asking him to lend a hand with the screenplay for "All You Need Is Kill."
So it turns out there is no, or little, rest for an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Mr. McQuarrie wrote the sly, smart script for "The Usual Suspects," with the standout character of Verbal Kint.
Lee Child, author of 17 Jack Reacher novels, has a cameo in the movie as a uniformed police officer and is a rock star to readers, booksellers and librarians. Sixty million copies have been sold worldwide, and the books describe the ex-military investigator Jack Reacher as 6-feet-5 and 250 pounds.
Mr. Cruise is not that tall or heavy and the director said, "The truth of the matter is, there is no 6-foot-5, 250-pound, blond-haired, blue-eyed American movie star and there never has been. The physical archetype of Jack Reacher in the book simply doesn't exist. Once you acknowledge that, anything you do is a compromise."
His description as a giant of a man is just one aspect of a multifaceted character, Mr. McQuarrie said. He knows, better than most, that some fans of the book are not happy.
"I'm very respectful of their feelings and I've spent a lot of time reading their comments on the Internet and meeting them one on one, and I'm surprised at how many avowed Jack Reacher experts know absolutely nothing about Jack Reacher."
He created an algorithm with a list of criteria and way to grade the 25 potential stars the studio gave him. He acknowledged that he didn't have the luxury of casting an unknown the way a proven director such as Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott might have.
The formula produced the names of five actors who fit the criteria and none matched the physical size.
"We knew right from the beginning that whoever we cast was going to make the fans angry. We decided to pick somebody that we felt would make the fans angry before they see the movie and not after they see the movie."
Besides, he says, if Mr. Cruise were 6 feet 5, he would need to be surrounded by toughs who are 6 feet 8 inches tall, to create tension.
Another change from the book, of course, is the setting from an anonymous city in the state of Indiana. "I was presented with a series of budgets, depending on where I chose to shoot the movie, and Pittsburgh was far and away the most economical," Mr. McQuarrie said.
He also realized the city is so distinct that it should play itself.
Serendipity in scouting led him to the Downtown garage that appears in the movie. "We parked in that parking garage to scout the plaza on the opposite side of it," trying to replicate the description in the book of a public plaza with an ornamental pool.
"I was standing on the ledge of the parking garage, not far from where we ultimately shot the scene ... sort of grumbling about the fact that, as much as we wanted to shoot here, we couldn't find a location that fit the book."
And then, he looked across the river to PNC Park and realized that was exactly what he needed. Then he storyboarded scenes where a baseball game was being played as the sharpshooter takes aim, but Major League Baseball wasn't comfortable with that, if it implied fans might be targets.
In the end, it didn't matter. Once the scene started to come together, he realized he wanted to stick with the shooter's point of view and cutting to the crowd and noise would have been pointless.
On almost any other movie, the notion of your leading man taking the wheel of a Chevelle SS might have given the insurers the willies. But the "Days of Thunder" star is "essentially a professional driver who's got a lot of experience," the director said.
"He's very meticulous and he's very careful about what he does, and he rehearsed and he trained for a long, long time to prepare for all of that. Probably the biggest variable was the car itself; it's not a car that's designed to be driven that way.
"It's a car that's designed for driving very fast in a straight line. It's not meant to be delicately maneuvered, and it's obviously not meant to smash into things," Mr. McQuarrie said, and when one of the fleet broke down, Mr. Cruise would have to climb into another.
But, as he told David Letterman on Monday night, he also got the ultimate parting gift: one of those muscle cars to take home.
First Published December 21, 2012 12:00 am