|Christopher McQuarrie Career Interview|
The filmmaker talks Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise and how Hollywood really works...
Few filmmakers are as honest in interviews as Christopher McQuarrie - whether it's about his own failings or the way the film business operates.
After winning an Oscar with this second produced screenplay, The Usual Suspects (1995), McQuarrie made his directorial debut with The Way Of The Gun (2000), a brilliant, blackly comic crime drama seen by about three people on release.
It was 12 years before he would direct again, taking the reins on Jack Reacher (2012), an adaptation of the Lee Child novel One Shot, with Tom Cruise in the lead as the iconic ex-military detective.
In the interim, McQuarrie worked extensively as a script doctor, with Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer calling on him to rewrite the first two X-Men, before they collaborated on true-life World War Two thriller Valkyrie (2008).
That film sparked McQuarrie's fruitful working relationship with Tom Cruise and led to him writing on both Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and the upcoming All You Need Is Kill. It would not be a surprise to see them work together again soon. With Jack Reacher hitting DVD, we met with McQuarrie in a cafe in Beverly Hills, to discuss meaningful violence, the real Tom Cruise and lessons for his younger self...
It's been a few months since Jack Reacher came out: how do you feel about it now?
It's hard for me to answer that because, on the one hand, I'm really proud of the work we did. On the other hand, I'm always frustrated with myself as a filmmaker. When you're making a film you don't really have time to consider what the whole of your film is. And then when you're releasing your film and promoting your film, you're looking at it in a different way. Then, as you move away from it, you start to look at it objectively and think, 'What could I have done better?' And that's kind of the phase that I'm in now.
More than anything, I'm really proud of Tom's performance. I walked away from that movie feeling if there was anything where I succeeded as a director, it was in the collaboration with Tom, where the performance that he delivered was something totally unique in his filmography. It was a great opportunity to have a chance to direct that kind of a star.
Before you'd read the book, the producer - Don Granger - got you the offer from Paramount to direct. So were you reading it thinking, 'Shit, I hope I like it?'
Yeah. Well, when I was reading it I was thinking, 'God, I hope I don't have to change too much'. A lot of times I've been sent books to adapt (and whether it's a good book or not is beside the point) and there's only a kernel of that book that really belongs in a movie. A lot of books, if you take them at face value, they're just not gonna work as films. Reading it, your filter is constantly on, wondering: 'How much of this do I have to change?' I knew that other writers had done a lot of reinvention and I resisted that temptation - because I cared a great deal about what the fans of the series wanted and what they felt about it.
What you ended up with was kind of strange: the only way to be true to the book was to change a lot - because what really mattered most was the character and the spirit of the book.
The changes are to its strength. We all know adaptations that are slavishly faithful and just die on screen...
To me, the ultimate crime in an adaptation is the crime of reverence. A novel is one form of media, a screenplay is another, and a movie is yet another. There's even reverence to a screenplay. There's a movie that came out very recently that was slavishly reverent to the screenplay, because of who wrote it. And the screenplay contained big flaws and really required some visitation - but nobody wanted to touch the script.
I had a TV pilot that came out [Persons Unknown]: I wrote the pilot and was not there to make it and they would not change the script. And the script had major problems. The pilot came out and I thought it was a piece of shit and I was in an unusual position of having to say: "You did exactly what I wrote - and I would not have done it that way!"
In the case of Jack Reacher, I have mixed emotions towards the more vocal fans of the books. It meant a great deal to me that the spirit of their novel be preserved, but we had to make certain changes in order to do that. And then everybody becomes a filmmaker and says, "Shouldn't have done this! Shouldn't have done that!" - as though you could simply anoint what they are suggesting and make a movie of that. I'm a very binary filmmaker. There tends to only be one path. And this was the path. This was it.
Everyone's a good director in their armchair...
And, well: love my movie, hate my movie, see my movie, and then judge my movie. And say whatever you want about it. But the people who say "I will not go see this movie because..." - you don't get a vote. I think the message that we were never able to really get across, in the lead up to this movie, was how much we cared about the books and what it was we were trying to preserve. The truth of the matter is you can't change perception once perception's set. You just can't. You have to make the best movie you know how. And hope that it finds its audience. And in our case we were very lucky and we did.
|McQuarrie (centre) with Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise on the set of Valkyrie|
You've worked with Tom several times and you've said that on Valkyrie (which you co-wrote and produced) that you learned from him what you'd "been doing to alienate the film business" - what was it?
The first thing I was doing to alienate the business was holding grudges. People are gonna fuck me in this business. There's no two ways about it. And the first thing you have to realise is that they're very rarely doing it because it's personal. The truth is they're not thinking about you enough. What I want to tell those people that get so frustrated and so bitter about the business is: "No one knows who you are to care enough to deliberately screw you out of anything. You're not crossing their mind when they're doing whatever destructive thing that they're doing to you. They're thinking about themselves!" That's the way it is. They probably don't even know that they did anything wrong to you. And the magical thing about this business is it has no memory. People will screw you over and, next day, if they need you, they'll pick up the phone and call you and you're best friends.
The other thing was that I was trying very hard to make their movies the way I would make mine. And not make their movies the way they wanted them made. If I could distil it, that would be it. And I believed, naively, things that had been told to me by my first agent, which proved to be blatantly untrue. The biggest one being: "If you write a good script, you'll be delivered." That's a lie. The more correct statement is: "If you write the movie they want to make, you'll be delivered." I don't want to be disillusioning in that statement. I don't want to say to people: "Don't write the movie that you feel you should write." You should always go with your gut. You should always write the movie you believe in. But don't be surprised when you write a script that you know is good and nobody buys it. And nobody wants to read it. Because no one's interested in making your script. They have a huge mandate on their table: all this product that they have to generate and they need people to help them do it. And so I stopped being a person who looked at them as if they were people who were not giving me a chance and started looking at them as people who were terribly lost and desperately in need of help. And I had a certain set of skills that could be used for that. And by looking at them and saying, "You have a movie to make, how can I help you make it?", my entire life changed. My career changed. My position in the business changed. My financial prospects changed. Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I'm working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No.
And you don't think that'll change?
|The magical thing about this business is it has no memory. People will screw you over and, next day, if they need you, they'll pick up the phone and call you and you're best friends.|
And you can't compare yourself to other filmmakers - which I do all the time. I do it every day. I'm doing it right now. I'm looking at those filmmakers that have the career I wish I had - even if they're not making movies that I want to make - but the career I wish I had, which is: "I made a little movie and I got to make a slightly bigger movie and a slightly bigger movie..." And now they make their kind of movie, which is not commercial, and yet every hot actor wants to work with them and they get to keep making movies the way they want to do it. That's enormously enviable. I know how to do that now. But I'd have to start over. You don't get to just suddenly move onto that track. You're where life has brought you.
You don't get to move over because you have certain responsibilities?
You don't get to move over because, I believe, there comes a certain point where people have decided who you are as a filmmaker. They've decided who I am as a writer. I don't think they've made their decision as to who I am as a director or whether or not I really am. I have directed. That doesn't mean that in their minds I'm a director. I directed a movie that made money. Did it make $750m? No.
It's that scene in Bull Durham where he talks about the difference between a guy who makes it to the majors and who stays in the minors is 250 versus 300. That's one extra home run a game or one extra hit a game or whatever it is. That there's such a fine margin between what makes you a bankable director and what makes you a guy who didn't lose money. And that determines a lot of your fate. Now what makes that film successful? I make the movie; other people market the movie. Other people review the movie. Other people decide whether or not they're going to go see that movie. Other people release all the movies that same weekend. The only thing I can really do is make it a movie so good that if every other one of those people doesn't do their job, it will still succeed. Can I control it?
I guess you have to be process orientated rather than goal orientated - 'cause otherwise it could drive you insane.
Absolutely. Look, you wake up where I am: 44 years old, just directed my second feature. Don't know what the next feature is gonna be. Don't know when the next feature's gonna be. And you look at other directors and how their careers sort of go from one movie to another and you think, 'When is that gonna happen?' And the only rational answer is: 'When you least expect it, motherfucker! Stop looking at those people!'
But, at the risk of being obsequious, isn't that dissatisfaction part of being good? Because some of those guys you look at, they're frustrated they can't do your thing...
Look: the day I've made a movie that I think is really good I hope I say it out loud so somebody can say, "Then you probably made the worst movie of your entire career." You know that's when you're gonna get hit in the ass. But my frustration is I know there are things that I could be doing as a filmmaker to get there faster. I've said this before, it's kind of my new mantra: aesthetic is the new story. And I am not - partly by choice, partly by skill or lack thereof - an aesthetic filmmaker. I'm not one of those guys who makes slick and polished movies. I'm more interested in very sort of straightforward storytelling. That creates challenges. I'm not able to dazzle you and distract you from the fact that nothing's happening.
There were several movies that came out this year that I think were brilliantly, brilliantly crafted. And as a result were considered brilliant movies... You nodded 'cause one movie popped into your head. I bet everybody will have at least one that does. What I think they would be surprised to discover is an inordinate number get away with it. Now I could be critical of that and say it's a failing, but it isn't, it's my failing. It's my failure as a filmmaker to refuse to bend to what is now what the audience wants. The audience is telling us what they want: it's polished, it's style, gloss and attitude. And the story is not important to them. Continuity is not important to them. Narrative clarity, meaning, none of those things are important. This is not coming from a place of railing against what movies are, but trying to accept that that's what movies have become. And I'm at a crossroads in my career, where I'm looking at it, saying, "Are you gonna be the guy who sticks to what you believe in and suffers the consequences? Or are you gonna make that leap?" 'Cause, of all the things that I've learned about how to work better with the business, that's the hardest one for me. That's really the hardest one. I could have shot Reacher with long lenses and Steadicams and, you know, I could have made a very different movie that looked like contemporary movies do. And it would have been patently false 'cause it's not a contemporary movie. It's not a contemporary character. And it would have been generic when compared to other movies that I know you can think of.
That's one of the things I like about it: it's deliberate.
Yes, but I believe it hurt the movie. I don't believe it was the wrong thing to do. What I really believe is you and I, growing up watching movies, we developed a cinematic palate. The same way you develop a taste for certain foods. Same way your Mom's whatever-that-meal-is is always gonna taste better than any restaurant that ever makes it, no matter how extraordinary the ingredients are. The movies you grew up on defined your idea of what movies are. A new generation is coming along that has been cut off from black and white films, classic films, the movies that you and I grew up on, because their parents didn't show them to them, because their parents just showed them Star Wars again and again and again. And I'm not criticizing Star Wars. It just became a movie that they could watch and their kids could watch. And the movies that stemmed from that: my kids wanting to watch Pirates Of The Caribbean. I love those movies (I frankly love those movies more than Star Wars. I start a lot of fights about that). I didn't want to show it to my daughter because I didn't want my daughter thinking, at that age, that's what a movie is. I wanted her to have a broader understanding of movies before I gave her that movie, so that she could appreciate Gore Verbinski and Billy Wilder.
The movie I was thinking of - when I nodded - was fine, it just would have been better if it was about something. The only reason I remembered it afterwards is because everyone kept talking about it...
Without even knowing what movie you're talking about: the cinematography was brilliant, the cast was sexy, it had an attitude and a tone and an atmosphere. It was really great. So that as you're watching it, you're going, 'I'm watching a great movie. I'm watching a great movie.' And never once does it occur to you, 'I'm not having an experience. I'm not engaged in any way, shape or form in terms of story or character. I'm not seeing anything new. And I'm not being challenged to think. In fact, I'm being told at all times not to think...' Because if you think, for a minute, this entire tent will fall down. That's a skill. That's not haphazard filmmaking. That's not anything that I'm critical of. It's something that I simultaneously loathe and envy. Because if I could bring myself to do that... This is the worst part: if I could bring myself to do it, I don't think I'd have the talent to pull it off! I don't know that I could do that. All I really know how to do is tell a story. I don't know how good I am with actors. I don't know how good I am at framing and structuring and executing a scene. I just know I know what the point is and I'm just constantly after the point. And I'm at a place in my career where I'm asking myself, 'Does that qualify you to be a filmmaker, if all you are is a storyteller?'
Do you feel like working in the movie business is like working at the top floor of a building where the bottom floor is on fire?
Yes. Definitely. None of this is to say that you can't do it and keep your soul. But, God, if I knew differently, if anybody had explained it to me... It's why I do interviews the way I do: I'm trying to send a message in a bottle to whoever was me 20 years ago, to take a different view. Whatever you think the business is, it isn't. And however important you think those early meetings are, they're not. All that's ever really going to matter, the only thing that's ever going to be a commodity, is you and your script. Because if everybody could write screenplays, they would. Everybody thinks they've got a great story to tell. Everybody and their mother. If executives could do away with us, they would. If actors could do away with us, they would. And the writers that I see who are the most frustrated are the writers who cannot revel in the fact that the real pleasure of being a writer is: you'd love to get rid of me and can't. I'm the nerd at the party. But I drove. Nobody's getting home without my car!
With things like The Last Mission and Booth [two unproduced screenplays McQuarrie has long wanted to film], is it a question of scale that means you can't make them? If you had, say, an idea for a $500,000 movie, you could take your fee from a blockbuster and go and make that movie...
|Reacher's a win. Is it the career-making, catapulting thing that gives me the power to do what I want? No. What movie is?|
At the same time, I think he's really talented, but you can feel the committee in that movie...
Well, that's the same thing Bryan went through on the first X-Men. They were after him every day. They were handing us pages of notes from Harry Knowles's website. Harry had reviewed the script and they were, "This is what the fans think of the early drafts of the screenplay."
I don't know how you don't tell those people to just fuck off...
You can't. That is what I learned. It's the jujitsu of realising: this person is handing me these notes not because they're a tyrant, but because they don't know what to do. They're so overwhelmed at how to present this material that is only getting made because the option is running out. And a million other business things that I don't begin to understand are bearing down on them. And they're forced to make this movie. And the odds of them making a hit movie out of the soup that they've been given is astronomical. And so they're questioning everything - and rightly so. I used to think that it came from a place of total stupidity and I was really frustrated by those people and now I look at them and I think: 'My God, I couldn't do your job'.
Actually, it's similar in publishing. Eventually you've gotta go, "Okay, that's why he's doing that."
Yes. Bryan was very explicit when he first came to me with X-Men and I said, "Why do you want to do this? We're not those guys. We're not the comic book guys." He had aspirations. He had things he wanted to make, early on. And he said, "Look, it's all about positioning. I can't make this movie I really wanna make" - that he'd been talking about since he was a kid - "I can't make that movie until I make this movie. This movie will give me the opportunity to do that."
I see what you're saying about Singer, but the problem there is that it becomes not "One for me and one for them", but it's all for them...
You can wind up very quickly in a place where you have the power to make whatever you want to make so long as you never make what you want. You are assessing everything you want to do based on how much of your stack it risks. "If it risks too much of my stack, I don't wanna do it." But I don't live in that universe. It's easier for me to simply say, "Bring me what you got." And that's how I end up in a calendar year with Jack Reacher, The Wolverine and Jack The Giant Slayer. That's why my IMDb page looks so all over the map, because a lot of those projects I came in for a few weeks, or because I could quickly do it, and I left. I'm very comfortable in that area where I'm not trying to figure out, 'What am I gonna do? What story do I get to tell?'
That's not a bad return, though...
Oh yeah. It's a huge step up from The Way Of The Gun, the last time I directed a movie. Reacher's a win. Is it the career-making, catapulting thing that gives me the power to do what I want? No. What movie is?
Where did you grow up? What did your parents do?
Before I was born, my Dad was a teacher. And by the time I was born, he was working for the Teachers' Union in Jersey. In fact it's the strongest union in the country right now. It's the union that the Governor of New Jersey is trying to dismantle right now. My Dad was a key player in creating that. And my Mom was a nurse. I grew up with two older brothers and an older sister. And we are all each, in our own way, fiercely independent. We knew at a very young age what it was we did or did not want to do with our lives. And kind of lived by our own internal compass. And our parents encouraged that. They did not try to force us into moulds or protect us from ourselves. I think for my parents, of the four of us, I was the biggest challenge. I was a terrible student, a troublemaker. I didn't apply myself very much at anything. But I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer.
There's this idea that as you get older you get more certain. But I feel like I get less certain and more aware of my limitations.
The downside of wisdom is you've had the benefit of being proven wrong. You're so fucking sure you knew what you were doing and then you find out, "No, you don't. You don't know what you're doing." And real wisdom comes from accepting that you don't and just being okay with that. As opposed to becoming disillusioned by it. I can't tell you the number of people I've worked with who are titans in this business who haven't the foggiest fucking clue about what they're doing and are supported by an enormous mechanism that leaves them in the imperious position of getting to say "yes" or "no" after all the work has been done. That's an enviable position to be in. That's one that only works if it continues to succeed. And that's the reality of this business. It really isn't about how stable or reliable or prepared you are. Whatever gets you there, whatever alchemy gets you there, is all that matters.
Your brother Doug was a Navy SEAL and advises on the weapons/combat in your movies... In both The Way Of The Gun and Jack Reacher you really feel it when people get hurt - as you should...
As you should, yes. It is, to me, morally wrong to fetishise violence. I have to be very careful with my words. You want the audience to enjoy certain acts of violence. An audience wants to enjoy certain acts of violence. An audience wants to experience certain kinds of intensity. They want to see certain bad guys get theirs. Personally, I believe there's a way to do it that's right and a way to do it that's wrong. There is no concept that is taboo. If you want to cut a guy's balls off, scalp a dude, kill little kids: that's all fair game. You can't be moral and ethical and be a filmmaker - you're just fooling yourself, you're just betraying yourself. But you can be moral and ethical in the way in which you present it. You can be creative and you can be smart in the way that you present it. Ultimately, for me, if death has no meaning, if the violence has no meaning, it has no impact, then it's morally wrong.
What sort of discussions did you have about the violence in Reacher? Two things struck me, watching it... One, I wanted more blood. Two, even though the film wasn't an R, you do feel the violence: the sniper sequence is horrifying. Which is, again, as it should be...
Here's what we did. The violence I wrote in the script is all necessary violence. It all has purpose. And we were going to shoot it all explicitly. But Tom - having made a great many of these movies and having a long relationship with the MPAA [Motion Picture Association Of America - the US censor] and understanding it very well - was there all the time to say, "When you're shooting this, here's how you protect yourself." He would be there on set saying, "Do not change any of this. Do not alter it. Do not pull back from it. Suffocate Sandy. Point the rifle at the little kid. Have the guy chewing his fingers off. Beat the dudes, one dude with another dude's head. It all stays. Two things. One: always give yourself room to cut around it so that you can dial up and dial down the intensity to a precise point, to the difference between PG-13 and R. Two: don't use blood. It's the easiest thing in the world to add in post. We can then control the level that is acceptable."
What surprised you about Tom when you first met him? I've interviewed him a few times and people always say...
What they always say.
Yeah. But he really likes movies. He's just passionate about them.
Absolutely. You know, when you first meet him, you go with a whole preconception of who he is. And it's a preconception you share with millions of people. And when you meet the guy that you were talking to on the phone, you keep thinking to yourself 'Well, this is the public persona. This is what people who are not in the inside circle get.' So for the first few meetings you're waiting for the real Tom to manifest himself. But the guy you talked to is the real Tom Cruise. You know, when you're making movies at that level, the stress is extraordinary, the pressure is extraordinary, the exhaustion is extraordinary. The bigger the movie, the hotter the fire. And people are going to crack. The very best of them are going to crack and they're going to show you some other side of themselves, if not who they really are. And, more importantly - and this is the truth - people say success changes you: it doesn't. Success reveals who you truly are. Success burns away all of your pretences and all of your inhibitions and it reveals your core truth. The more successful you are, the more down to the core you really get. When a guy like Tom is so successful, he doesn't have to be anybody other than who he really is. And you spoke to him. That's the guy you met. I wouldn't have gotten through Valkyrie if he was anything but my friend and a guy that cares about the same things that I do as a filmmaker.
Think of any friend you have in your life. Any friend. More importantly, think of somebody you're not just friends - your wife and you are friends with him and his wife. The reason why you are friends with that couple boils down to one intrinsic truth: you have relatively the same priorities. Where family comes into it, where film comes into it, where compromise comes into it, where dignity comes into it, self-respect and respect of others - all of those things. You're friends with the people who have your priorities, whether you're aware or not. And if somebody does not share my priorities, I can't be around them for 10 fucking minutes, let alone day in and day out in the trenches making a movie. It's just not worth it. And we're very different people. We believe in very different things. We come from two very different universes of film. And I look at that guy and I'm like: "That guy's got my priorities in check". And I think he would tell you the same thing. That was a real surprise to me. I didn't think, as an outsider (I've always felt like an outsider and I probably always will) sitting down to have coffee for the first time with someone you would consider the ultimate insider, that 20 minutes into that conversation I'd think "Fuck, this dude's the same kind of filmmaker I am! He really gives a shit about the same things that I do." That really surprised me. And what surprised me more was it wasn't an act. It was not something that was just to get through that meeting.
|Working with Ryan Phillippe on 2000's The Way Of The Gun - written and directed by McQuarrie|
How do you feel - looking back 12 years - about The Way Of The Gun?
It's funny because I always struggled with it. It was a learning experience and a means to an end, I hoped when I was making the movie. I thought it was a stepping stone - and it was an anchor. I had 12 years to analyze all of the mistakes that I made on that movie, which were many. And all the mistakes on the movies I made in between. And I got to apply all of those to Reacher. But probably had I been able to make Reacher sooner, it would have been a bigger disaster, because instead of saying: "Here's everything you did wrong, but now apply it to what you believe", I would have said: "Here's everything you did wrong, now do the opposite." And that would have been an even bigger mistake.
It's the movie I wish I could do over again: I wish I could take that basic concept and make that as a film again with everything that I've learned... If only because it was the last truly original idea that I worked with. The other things that I really love, The Last Mission and Booth, are based on true stories. Reacher's based on a book. I toss out a lot of what occurs to me, what passes for original ideas, because I don't have the energy or the stamina or the drive to pursue them. They're not endings, they're beginnings. I have a lot of beginnings of things. I remember distinctly the moment when [the idea for The Way Of The Gun] first came up and knowing, 'God, I know what this movie is and I've never seen this movie.'
And, as you say, the older you get, the more uncertain you become. I knew so much more about writing when I wrote The Usual Suspects instinctively than in anything I've written since. Because now I know how it works. And in not knowing, I was able to write so freely I was able to write that screenplay. Very little changed. The Way of the Gun I wrote in five days. It didn't change very much. But I shot it in a very stark way and didn't leave myself room to manipulate. I would never shoot a movie like that again. I would shoot for that: I like masters and I like when a scene plays out. But you have to be able to control the rhythm and the tempo of the movie. And the movie's done in a way that you could never control. I killed it. So, on the one hand, I'm very proud of it. On the other hand, I'm very grateful for everything that I learned from it.
In one draft of The Usual Suspects Keaton has the line 'I swore I'd live above myself', which was something you once said to yourself in a bar. How do you feel you're doing?
I'm not there yet. I'm not there.
Jack Reacher is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.