By Iain Blair
Director, screenwriter and producer Ed Zwick got his start in television as co-creator of the Emmy Award-winning series Thirtysomething. His feature film career kicked off when he directed the Rob Lowe/Demi Moore vehicle, About Last Night. Zwick went on to direct the Academy Award-winning films Glory and Legends of the Fall.
Zwick also produced the Oscar-nominated I Am Sam, as well as Traffic — winner of two Golden Globes and four Academy Awards — directed by Steven Soderbergh. He won an Academy Award as a producer of 1999’s Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love.
His latest film, Paramount’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, reunites him with his The Last Samurai star Tom Cruise. It’s an action-packed follow-up to 2012’s Jack Reacher hit that grossed over $200 million in worldwide box office.
The set-up? Years after resigning command of an elite military police unit, the nomadic, righter-of-wrongs Reacher is drawn back into the life he left behind when his friend and successor, Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), is framed for espionage. Naturally, Reacher will stop at nothing to prove her innocence and to expose the real perpetrators behind the killings of his former soldiers. Mayhem quickly ensues, helped along with plenty of crazy stunts and cutting-edge VFX.
I recently chatted with Zwick about making the film.
You’ve worked in so many genres, but this is your first crime thriller.
I’ve always loved crime thrillers — especially films like Three Days of the Condor and Bullitt where the characters and their relationships are far more important than the action. That’s where I tried to take this.
Tom Cruise is famous for being a perfectionist and doing all his own stunts when possible. Any surprises re-teaming with him?
Yeah, I always say the most boring job on set is being Tom’s stunt double. Tom is a perfectionist and he loves to be involved in every aspect of the production, so no surprises there. He has such a great love for all the different genres, but a particular love for action films and thrillers. It was very important for him that he didn’t do something that was like all the other films out there. I think we all felt that superhero fatigue has been setting in, so the idea was to do things on a more human scale, and make it more realistic and authentic, both with the characters and with the action.
What were the main technical challenges of making this?
We shot it all in New Orleans, and it’s a road movie. So we had to shoot Washington, DC, there too, and create a cross-country journey with different airports and so on. We did all of that with some sleight of hand and extensions and VFX. I think it’s also a challenge to come up with new settings for action pieces we haven’t seen before, and that’s where the parade and rooftop sequences in New Orleans come in, along with the fight on the plane. The book it’s based on is set in LA and DC, but they’re both tough to shoot in, and with the great tax breaks in Louisiana and all the great locations, it made sense to shoot there.
Every shoot is tough, but it was pretty straightforward on this, though shutting down the whole French Quarter took some doing — but all the city officials were so helpful. The rooftop stuff was very challenging to do, and we did a lot of prep and began on post right away, on day one.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. I can sit there with a cup of coffee and my editor and rewrite the entire script as much as I can. It’s the best part and most creative part of the whole process.
Where did you post?
We did it all in LA. We just set up some offices in Santa Monica where I live and did all the editorial there.
You’ve typically worked with Steve Rosenblum, but you edited this film with Billy Weber, who’s been nominated twice for Oscars (Top Gun, The Thin Red Line) and whose credits include The Warriors, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beverly Hills Cop II, Midnight Run and The Tree of Life, among others. How did that relationship work?
Steve wasn’t available so I asked him, ‘Who can I hire that you’d be jealous of?’ He said, ‘There’s only one person — Billy Weber. He’s your guy.’ He was right. Billy’s legendary and has cut so many great movies for directors like Terrence Malik, Tony Scott, Walter Hill, Martin Brest, Tim Burton, and he’s a prince. I love editing, and I loved working with him. He’s a great collaborator, and I was very open to all his ideas.
He came to New Orleans and we set up a cutting room there and he did the assembly there as we shot. Then we moved back to LA. Billy lives on the other side of town, so to beat the traffic we’d start every day at 6am and wrap at 3pm. It was a great system.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I love working with the audio, and Henry Jackman did a great, classic-modern score. It was crucial, not just for all the action, but for some of the quieter moments. Then we mixed the sound at Fox, with Andy Nelson who’s now done 10 of my movies.
This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a big role.
You’re right, and we didn’t want it to look like there was a ton of CG work. In the end, we had well over 200 shots, including stuff like the Capitol Dome in DC in the background and tons of bullet hits on cars and enhancements. But I didn’t want all the VFX to be at all noticeable. Lola and Flash Film Works did the work, and often today where you need bullet hits on a car, it’s far cheaper and more time-effective to add them in post, so there was a lot of that.
How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Company 3 in Santa Monica with colorist Stephen Nakamura, who is brilliant. We went for a natural look but also enhanced some of the dramatic scenes [via Resolve]. It’s remarkable what you can do now in the DI, and as we shot on film I wanted to preserve some of that real film look, so I think it’s a light touch, but also a sophisticated one in the DI.
I don’t have anything lined up, so I’m taking a break.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.