While many people are focusing their attention on Jack Reacher star Tom Cruise (and the vast difference in appearance between the actor and the character described in author Lee Child’s source novels), the more intriguing story (for us at least) is the return of Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer of The Usual Suspects and director of the 2000 film The Way of the Gun, which has since become a cult-favorite in certain circles of cinephiles.

McQuarrie’s resume has been pretty sparse since the 21st century began; his only film credit during the ’00s (besides Gun) was doing the screenplay for his friend Bryan Singer’s 2008 WWII thriller, Valkyrie, which is where McQuarrie first struck-up a working relationship with Cruise. During our interview at the Jack Reacher press junket in New York, the acclaimed filmmaker talked about what it’s been like being stuck in ‘director jail’ for over a decade, and why Reacher (and the industry wisdom of Tom Cruise) were necessary in helping him get back to making commercially viable films.

SR: How was it jumping into a blockbuster film of this scope when your last directing job was Way of the Gun over a decade ago? 

McQ: You know, it was a lot of fun – I mean putting into it everything I had learned from the experience of making ‘Way of the Gun’ – and probably more so ‘Valkyrie.’ I learned so much from those two movies. I learned more about writing from editing ‘The Way of the Gun,’ and I learned more about directing from producing ‘Valkyrie’ that by the time this came around I felt like I was ready to make a movie that could exist in two places at the same time – that is, a movie that satisfied me and a movie that did not offend the industry [laughs].

The Way of the Gun Jack Reacher Director Christopher McQuarrie on Directing Jail & Sequel Ideas

Ryan Phillippe and Benecio Del Toro in ‘Way of the Gun’

Was it helpful having Tom Cruise as a guide to making this sort of high-profile film? 

Well without ‘Valkyrie’ there wouldn’t be a ‘Jack Reacher,’ honestly. Let me put it another way: there would not be a ‘Jack Reacher’ with ME involved. ‘Valkyrie’ is where Tom and I really got to know one another, and I learned a lot from Tom about what I had been doing to alienate the film business. One afternoon I was on the [Valkyrie] set talking to another actor, Jamie Parker, about a dream project of mine – a movie I really wanted to do. Tom was just sitting off to one side, overhearing our conversation – and I didn’t know that Tom was even listening, he was typing away on his Blackberry, managing all sorts of other stuff in his life – and when it was all over he suddenly looked up and I realized he had been listening to the whole story and he said, ‘You know, that’s a really great story and it sounds like a really great script… but we have to focus on helping you write scripts that can actually get made.’ [Laughs]

It wasn’t him saying ‘I would never make that movie,’ it was him saying, ‘I’d love to make that movie – but it’s impossible to get that movie made; you need to work up to that place to get there.’ And he and I spent a lot of time on that movie, just talking about storytelling and talking about his experiences working with other directors. It’s never him explicitly sitting down and saying, ‘Take a knee sparky, I’m gonna tell you how to make a movie.’ He imparts to you his experiences and from that you sort of gather what it is you need to do to make that kind of film. It’s important to point out, though, that what he’s NOT saying is, ‘change who you are and buy into the system.’

Bryan Singer Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise Valkyrie set Jack Reacher Director Christopher McQuarrie on Directing Jail & Sequel Ideas

Singer, McQuarrie and Cruise on the set of ‘Valkyrie’

When we brought him ‘Valkyrie’ – you know, as a studio, we didn’t approach him as an actor – he said ‘Guys, you need a lot more money to make this movie, you’re talking about $20 – 30 million dollars – you need a lot more money.’ And we said, ‘No, no no! We can do it! We think we can do this for budget.’ And he said, ‘Guys, you’re blowing up the tenth Panzer division in the first ten minutes of the movie – you need more money.’ And so we were waiting for the compromise that came with that [money]… and it never came. It was just him saying, ‘It needs to be bigger,’ and by making it bigger, by its very nature, you make it more commercial.

NEXT PAGE: The allure of ‘Jack Reacher’ and sequel ideas…

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SR: What made you settle on ‘Jack Reacher’ as a film you wanted to not only write, but direct as well? 

McQ: It was the first film that anyone would let me do in twelve years. After ‘The Way of the Gun’ I went hard to work on what the next movie was going to be, and spent the next twelve years not being able to get anything made. I was adamantly steadfast with still developing the kind of material that was – whether or not I thought it was – it was stuff that was still intensely anti-commercial. The look of ‘Way of the Gun’ – the way that ‘Way of the Gun’ was shot – did not lead to anybody saying, ‘Yeah! Let’s get that guy to direct our movie!’ Whereas with ‘The Usual Suspects’ I still had people wanting me to write their screenplays.  

So I just never successfully made that transition… I don’t think anybody considered me to be a director until [Producer] Don Granger came to me after ‘Valkyrie’ with this [Lee Child] book. I had never heard of the books before, and he said to me, ‘I want you to write and direct the adaptation of this book,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to help you do that. I’ve been in director jail for twelve years, I’m never going to ask permission to make a movie again. I’d rather not make a movie than ask permission. And the truth of the matter is, if I write this thing they’re just going to dangle directing in front of me like a carrot, and when it’s over we’re going to come to some kind of falling-out, and then they’re going to have a script that I wrote and somebody else is going to direct it. And I don’t need to spend more time building somebody else’s brand. So if you can get the studio to offer me the movie, I’ll do it – but otherwise I’m not going to read the book.’

Jack Reacher Spoilers Jack Reacher Director Christopher McQuarrie on Directing Jail & Sequel Ideas

The other thing I said was, ‘You have to get Tom to sign off on this, because I know he’s attached as a producer – I have to assume that Tom wants to be an actor in this movie; he’s not going to want to be in a movie with me directing. I don’t have the track record of the directors that he’s worked with previously, so you need to get Tom to just let the book go, so that it’s mine free and clear.’

Now I gave these instructions to Don Granger thinking that he could not achieve either of them, and to his credit, he came back a week later and he’d gotten the studio to offer me the movie and he’d gotten Tom to say, ‘Go with God – it’s yours.’ About four months later I was finished with the script; we handed it to Tom in his capacity as producer – while he was making ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ – and he and I ended up talking about the script and he said, ‘Look, I don’t know who you have in mind to play this guy, but I’d love to do it.’

So I never had to go through the stress of sending the script to an actor and waiting two, four, six, weeks for them to get around to reading the script and say yes or no; I sent it to the producer for notes on the script and I got a call back from the actor.

Now that you’ve successfully done a film like this – would you do it again? 

Definitely would do it again. I mean I love working with Tom, I love this character, I love the size of this movie. It’s a nice, gritty, handful of a budget, but it’s not too big and it’s not too small.

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Tom Cruise in ‘Jack Reacher’

Which Lee Child Reacher novel would you want to tackle in a sequel? 

I’m not quite sure what book yet – I’m sure I know what terrain that I want to go after. The first book, ‘The Killing Floor,’ is more rural; in fact, the reason we avoided it is because it felt a little too ‘Walking Tall,’ a little too small town. Some of the other books that involved big cities we knew that we couldn’t do because it truly isn’t quintessential Jack Reacher and it gave you no place to go [in sequels]. The reason why we settled on Pittsburgh was because it was a nice sort of middle-sized city.

What I’d like to do next is cut rural – go for one of those books that takes place in the badlands, out in the Dakotas, something like that, where the terrain reflects the character of the next movie. Because in truth, the next movie is not going to be such a complex mystery as ‘One Shot’ is – and more importantly, I don’t have to set up Jack Reacher. The next movie can begin with him right there on page one walking in; there’s going to be less dialogue, and it’s going to be a tougher, grittier, sparser movie. So I think the landscape should reflect that.

And then, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to go to a third movie, and then you blow it open, you go to a big city. You go to the one that takes place in New York and London, so that he’s always a fish out of water and he’s got a different thrust in each movie.

Given the positive slant of our Jack Recher review, suffice to say we’re glad that McQuarrie is out of ‘director jail’ and his hard-boiled style is a suitable fit for the franchise.

Jack Reacher is now playing in theaters. If you want to discuss the film in detail, head over to our Jack Reacher Spoilers Discussion. For more with McQuarrie, check out our discussion of his plans to expand Fox’s X-Men Universe and his beloved script for what he calls ‘Kurosawa’s Wolverine’.