Ed Zwick is one of those workaday directors who’s never commanded much attention himself but who casts an outsize shadow over entertainment.
Getting his start as a TV producer way back in the late 70s, his breakout project was mid 80s dramedy series Thirtysomething. He’s still active in the field with shows like Once and Again and Quarterlife, but it’s on the big screen where he’s made some of the most searing portraits of men and women (often from military or highly structured backgrounds) in peril.
His first major film, Glory, is still a magnum opus of Civil War drama. Courage Under Fire, The Siege and The Last Samurai (with Jack Reacher star Tom Cruise) all followed. Romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs and Tobey Maguire as chess prodigy Bobby Fisher in Pawn Sacrifice reminded us Zwick could do almost anything, but he returns to the world of gunfights, frenetic action and savage beatings for hero Jack Reacher’s next outing, Never Go Back.
What was interesting about working with a character who’d already been established?
I’ve never done anything in the world of genre or franchise or sequel so my question was could I dig into it and broaden it and make it my own. [Reacher’s] is a very archetypal American character, and it’s a genre I like a lot and I’d never worked in, so I thought that would be fun.
I’ve read the literature of the genre for many years from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler all the way up through George Pelecanos and some of the great Danish ones and Swedish ones so it was fun to work in the genre.
But the thing about Tom is that if you look back at all the directors he’s chosen, he tends to want to have a director bring their own spin or their own vision, whether the Brian De Palma stuff with Mission Impossible or even Chris McQuarrie doing the original Jack Reacher.
There’s something particular to this franchise, it seems to be to be a little bit more of an anthology and that provides an opportunity because the setting’s different, the situations are different, the characters are different. A lot of superhero sequels resemble each other greatly and I think it might be nice if it resembles the previous one a little bit less.
Obviously though the studio would want to mandate a certain tone so its identifiable as Jack Reacher, how do you manage the balance?
That’s the real question isn’t it? In any genre or book series there are certain things that are obligatory to a genre, certain tropes that have to do with who the antagonist is and what the jeopardy is and what the threats are.
I look upon that the same way I would look upon trying to write a sonnet that had a certain rhyme scheme and meter. You have to work within the form but how innovative or interesting can you be within the form? That’s true any kind of discipline like haiku – and believe me, I’m saying this movie is poetry! – but you know what I mean.
To a certain degree all movies are like that. Movies are two hours and there are classical structures, there are commercial demands – particularly in studio movies – so you ask yourself how you can partake of that and yet still try to serve other things that interest you.
Have you and Tom ever talked about other projects to work on before now? It’s been awhile since you worked together.
No, we remain friendly, I’ve just been really busy and he had a real agenda – you look at the movies he’s made, like where he invigorated the Mission franchise and he did a couple of those very big action movies. This is a real internal performance by him and it harkens back to some of his best work.
I admire him going with the flow of what studio movies have become, but I think he has real nostalgia and yearning for some of the performances back around the late 80s early 90s. A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Born On The Fourth of July, the PT Anderson one, I think he gave some great performances, he wants to act as well as entertain.
And he approached you for the project?
Yes. My first instinct was ‘I don’t know, I’ve never done anything like that, a sequel or anything.’ He said to read the book, but the movie is not the book, the movie partakes of the book and takes some very good parts of the book but also becomes itself.
Talk about his famed intensity.
Yes he’s definitely intense, but I’m intense. I mean most people in this business are intense. I’ve made three movies with Denzel Washington and he’s intense and Leonardo DiCaprio is intense.
What you sign up for is that you engage with someone. There’s a struggle, but it’s a creative struggle and it’s a struggle of ambition and vision and he has a really good movie head. Tom has an understanding of what works or what he thinks works best for him.
But he also wants to be directed. He knows what a director is and it’s not for nothing that early on he wanted to work with the people he worked with.
How different an experience was it to working with him on The Last Samurai?
Well I think it’s a little different in that it was sort of our vision that he came to it with and he had a lot to contribute, unbelievably dedicated. Jack Reacher began with his vision of something that he invited me into. That inevitably creates a different dynamic, but I think he wants me to make it my own as he certainly made the other movie his own.
He’s been accomplished and mature as an actor for a long time but have you seen anything change in him or his process since The Last Samurai?
Every actor changes according to what the part is and who he’s working with, who the other actors are. I’ve never known anybody who works as hard or as much as he does. I don’t entirely understand that kind of utter absorption in making movies.
Ridley Scott has it, Steven Spielberg has it. There are certain people who just live for it utterly and I don’t. I mean I love it, but I try to have other aspects of my life, but this is desperately central to him.
Did you have much contact with [author] Lee Child?
Yeah. He’s lovely, he came and visited, he was a very generous and good guy. He read the script and had a few thoughts on it, it was great to talk to him about it. He then came and sat with us but the sophisticated authors of books understand movies aren’t books, but he was very interested in watching the process by which this became a movie.
What did you like about Cobie Smulders for her role?
She’s a great girl. I knew she had comedy chops, that’s obvious from the TV show. But we started to work together and I saw just how serious and capable she was and how committed she was.
And when I say committed she was obviously committed to some of the fight stuff and the training but she wanted to go deep into the character. It was a coincidence that at the moment one of the first women had just graduated Ranger school, she met a lot of tech advisers including some of these women and she wanted to really create a real characterization.
But you know you go into a movie outside of your comfort zone. I did it once before, Meg Ryan actually when we did Courage Under Fire and you have to be brave, you have to really be game, and she was and she’s also just a lot of fun and doesn’t sweat things.
How come you make movies mostly about men?
Well that’s more in film, I guess in television My So-Called Life was very emotional, Thirtysomething certainly was, Once and Again was, all the TV stuff we’ve done has definitely been more about that voice.
But you’re right, my retail business in films has been about male movie stars and often young male movie stars making the transition into manhood. Whether that was Matt Damon or Brad Pitt or all these guys, I am drawn to that. They certainly were movies that I loved as a kid.