Interview: 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back' Director Ed Zwick On Reuniting With Tom Cruise

Throughout his career, Tom Cruise has developed strong relationships with some notable filmmakers. From Steven Speilberg, Christopher McQuarrie, Cameron Crowe, to Doug Liman, it's clear when Cruise connects with a director, he's going to seek future opportunities and more stories to tell with those people. Another director on that list is Ed Zwick, whom Cruise worked with on The Last Samurai and most recently, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Like the Mission: Impossible franchise, Jack Reacher is maybe now another series where a director can come in and bring their personal touch to the character. Christopher McQuarrie's Jack Reacher is lean, efficient and runs like clockwork. In McQuarrie's film, Jack Reacher is already Jack Reacher. He knows who is he is. Reacher asks few questions, and McQuarrie asks even fewer questions about him. In Ed Zwick's hands, that's not the Reacher we watch. His portrayal of author Lee Child's character is more vulnerable and conflicted.

For a variety of reasons, the sequel is different from its predecessor. We discussed some of these differences with Zwick, in addition to adapting Child's novel, director Syndey Pollack, Tom Cruise's deep love for storytelling, and more.

Of course nobody wanted to make the same movie twice here, so what type of Jack Reacher movie did you want to make? 

Well, when Tom and I met we started talking about what we wanted to do. Tom has worked with a lot of directors over time and a lot of good directors. And he knows what a director is, and he also knows who I am because we worked together once before. I think he understood that what I might want to do is different from what Chris wanted to do, and he was quite interested in pursuing that. It's almost like casting. I think he knew that my interests in the genre would not just be in the action, which I was interested in certainly, but in going a little bit deeper into the relationships and the internal part of that character, so that was our intention.

Out of all the Jack Reacher stories, why Never Go Back

I think it probably began with [producer] Don [Granger], who seems to be a kind of historian of all these books. I can't admit having read all nineteen. Once I read Never Go Back what I saw in it was not just the idea of having some additional ... The minute you talk about the possibility of a paternity suit, you immediately ask about the past. The minute you meet someone who is his alter-ego, if you will, taking on his role you begin to ask about the past. I felt it was an opportunity to do something that raised really fun questions, which is to say this man who has cut himself off from everything is suddenly put in the position where he has to do anything but that; he's thrust into relationships in this kind of surrogate family. I thought that was a fun idea for drama.

Also, I think as a fan of Tom Cruise, it's fun to see him in a parental role. It's been a long time since we've seen that side of him. 

I'm glad you thought that because I thought that, too. There's one thing I think in this thing he did with Steven in War of the Worlds that he's a father in. I think it's important as an actor gets older that he begins to assume that mantle, or else he's going to be in trouble.

Before seeing the film, I didn't know about Reacher's relationship with Danika Yarosh's character. How does she differ from the source material? 

A lot of times in an adaptation I feel that my job is trying to make manifest what is latent. Lee introduces that character in the first scene of the book, and then you don't see her until the last scene in the book; she's not integral to the storytelling. And the job of adaptation that we chose was to literally make her central and consistent. We had this opportunity to really chart a relationship. The hard part is to keep the narrative thrust going while you're also trying to do things that are personal. And not just to overemphasize the balance of one over another, and that's the biggest challenge.

With Danika, it was the same way I met Cobie [Smulders]: they came in the room, we met, we talked, I met a lot of young women, actually for both parts, and I was charmed by her. I felt that she had a real core strength, and it's a lot to ask a sixteen-year-old girl to go up against a big movie star. On the other hand, I've raised a daughter, and she seemed never to have any trouble going up against me. So I thought, "Why not tell a story about a man who can handle anything, except a sixteen-year-old girl?"

Jack Reacher Never Go Back - Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders

[Laughs] You don't make this movie bigger than it needs to be. Did the modest scale go back to the idea of making Never Go Back more character-driven? 

Very much. First of all, I've known Chris for many years, we've worked together before. And there was a real sense on all of our part that there were movies that we had loved, going back to things like Three Days of the Condor or Bullitt or two of John Frankenheimer's movies, where the relationships were authentic so therefore you wanted the action to be of the same scale. You didn't want to blow it out and defy the laws of physics and suddenly add enormous stakes. You felt that there was enough in the story to sustain it.

Did you revisit any of those movies for inspiration before making Never Go Back?

I mention Three Days of the Condor because Sydney Pollack was an important mentor to me and he was to Tom as well. I think, ironically, a lot of the people that he's dedicated to working with were people that I've known, too. And there's a tradition of movies that are — I'm going to try and think of a word that's not too pretentious — but more humanist. There's interest in the internal lives of the characters as well as the externals of the plot.

You see that in the body count, too. You don't see cities destroyed in these movies, but when innocent people get killed, it's not glossed over. 

When you hit someone, it hurts. Getting shot has meaning. When someone holds a gun, people are scared. It was trying to keep it all of the same piece.

[Mild Spoiler Alert]

The final fight scene, you feel the characters' exhaustion. What do you recall most about planning and shooting that sequence? 

Do you remember a movie that Richard Lester did called, Robin and Marian?

I haven't seen it.

There's a thing with Sean Connery and Robert Shaw at the very end. They're old and wielding broadswords in the middle ages. By the end, it's really just hard even to pick up a broadsword. I have done some sparring in my life and, I don't know, that feeling at the end of a certain number of rounds or what you've done, it's unbelievably difficult. And we just wanted to include that. That somehow it wasn't just the strength of one man over the other, but it was his will.

There's one shot I'm curious about in that final fight scene. It's a more modern touch, but when the camera quickly pans behind Reacher from a low angle. 

I know the moment you mean. Inevitably even in something that's trying to pay homage to some more classical style, you want to do something that really helps the moment. So it's not going to be orthodox, it's to do what goes best. As a director, I tend to want to be hidden. I tend not to want to call attention to the camera. I'm much more interested in putting the story and the actors forward. But there are certain times when you go "Oh yeah, a shot like that is gonna emphasize a moment." So you just do it.

[Spoilers Over]

When you watch interviews with Tom Cruise or his commentaries, it's obvious he understands storytelling just as much as he understands acting. Does that make him a different type of actor to work with? 

You don't end up having a career of thirty years, like he does, without having something in addition to being great looking and being able to act. He cares so deeply about storytelling, and that's a subject of great conversation that we have had and continue to have each time. He really wants to deliver, and he has this deep love and this very internal stomach, brain, that understanding of movies and how they work. That's a part of what he does, and what then he and I try to accomplish when I'm writing. He's in there with me, and we mix it up, but in a good way, a very collaborative way.

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Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is now in theaters.