It’s never been easy to put filmmaker Edward Zwick into a box. The multi-hyphenate has long eschewed sticking to just one genre and even one medium. He helped launch seminal television series like “Thirtysomething” (which he co-created alongside long-time partner Marshall Herskovitz) and “My So-Called Life” (which the pair executive produced) to the small screen, while also directing historical epics like “Glory” and “Defiance,” modern classics like “Courage Under Fire” and “Blood Diamond” and even the odd romantic comedy — or two: Zwick helmed “Love & Other Drugs” and the original “About Last Night…” feature.
Zwick has done it all, but with his latest film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” he’s managed to do something new: Try his hand at a bone-breaking action sequel, featuring America’s ass-kicking sweetheart in the title role. Zwick and Tom Cruise have worked together before, thanks to the 2003’s epic “The Last Samurai,” and bringing Reacher back to the big screen allowed the duo to further explore their shared desire to expand beyond genre restrictions and use their own classic reference points to make something new.
IndieWire sat down with Zwick earlier this week to talk about his new film, why Tom Cruise is the action hero we deserve and how he cracked “prestige TV” before there was even such a thing.
The film still has some huge action sequences. How did you embrace the kinds of challenges those pose, both technically and in service to the kind of film you wanted to make?
They just have to feel earned. There are great movies, and I will pick out the “Mission: Impossible” franchise as an example. Those films are designed to serve those set pieces, and those set pieces are so amazing, and have has such extraordinary execution, and that’s probably one of the reasons you go to those movies, I would think.
With this, I wanted the set pieces such as they are to be serving the more dramatic story of the relationships. And so, if they were gonna be big, and we wanted to get to one at the end certainly that was, I wanted it to be a little more classic finale.
Between this franchise and “Mission: Impossible,” Tom has really established himself as a great action hero. Why do you think that is the case?
First of all, he continues to be a really fine actor, and to be able to distinguish himself between Ethan Hunt and Jack Reacher is a real accomplishment. They’re very different performances as far as I see them.
On the other hand, he is exceedingly shrewd and was way ahead of the curve in understanding how the business was changing. Those movies that we associate Tom having done, whether it was “Jerry Maguire,” or “Magnolia” or “A Few Good Men,” or “Risky Business,” or “Rain Man,” they were real dramas. And the studios aren’t making those anymore. Only very, very rarely.
I think he really believes in popular culture, I think he wants that to be his audience, and he still wants to stay connected to them, and I think that emphasis and the shift in emphasis has reflected some of those choices. He’s not said that to me, that’s just me thinking from the outside. On the other hand, in a movie like this, he seizes that opportunity maybe to bring back some of those values that he’s always loved and wants to still be able to have in movies.
How has your working relationship changed since you collaborated on “The Last Samurai”?
There was always the thought of trying to work together again, because that was a very good experience and it went well, and it did well, and that’s a rare thing.
When this thing emerged, he picked up the phone and said, “Can we think about this?” You create kind of shorthand with somebody, and trust is a thing that’s earned. When we decided to talk about this, he really responded to the direction that I wanted to go in. I think it was in line with something that he had thought about.
We talked about all sorts of movies. We talked about “Paper Moon.” I remember talking about the character Samantha, we talked about “The Artful Dodger.” Just a way of trying to reference other kinds of movies.
The film features a pair of strong female characters. How important is that to you?
Very. When I did “Courage Under Fire” a lot of years ago with Meg Ryan, I met a lot of these women in the military. And they were so impressive and they were so interesting. They weren’t just versions of men. They were their own thing. And I was very impressed by them. The character that Lee has created in the book was impressive. Confident and serious and alpha and used to giving orders, and the idea of both people having had that role, it was really tempting.
I also think that we would be presenting these strong female characters at this very moment when the whole society is asking some very interesting questions about men and women. And that just is a coincidence.
Why did you think Cobie Smulders was right for the role?
I had liked her work comedically, but we met, and we went through a [casting] process which is a very traditional process. I was really looking for somebody who could really, each time, bring more to it, and she did. I knew she’d been an athlete and I, very directly, put it to her about her willingness to commit to a program of training that would be very intense, and she was unflinching about that.
She’s so available and she’s unflappable and quite kind and funny. I just knew it would be a good experience.
When it comes to the casting and audition process, do you like that kind of traditional process?
It’s not torture if you’re all professionals. It’s actually kind of fun. It’s an exploration. And there are times when I’ve done it with people whom I didn’t cast, but by virtue of it, got to know, and then cast in another movie some other time. And as an actor, you act a lot, but an actor auditions for a living too. And if they have a good perspective about that, they look upon it as an experience to work on their chops.
Your directorial filmography is populated by two seemingly disparate genres — comedy-dramas and historical epics — that make it hard to easily categorize your work. What is an Ed Zwick film to you?
First of all, you inevitably sound pretentious whenever you talk about your own work, so if we can make allowances for that, then please help me. [Laughs]
I think that I am interested in the resonance between character drama and high stakes, either situational or political or social or other kind of elevated drama, and I tend to find that those things combust. I’m always interested in the ways in which a character can inhabit either a theme or a premise personally, so that those scenes that are about his character or his relationship with other characters feel in context and don’t seem to be apart from or oddly vestigial to the actual drama.
You’ve produced a wide variety of projects over the years. What does producing a film or television series give you that directing does not?
Well, you don’t have to get up quite as early. [Laughs] It’s been an opportunity to work with wonderful people and not devote the same kind of two ears that you have to do when you direct a movie, at least that I’ve had to do. I worked with Steven Soderbergh, I worked with John Madden and Jessie Nelson, and we just did a movie that Jessica Chastain is in and others.
Here’s an analogy: There’s a psychological theory that when you’re a kid, that when you parent that kid you’re trying to idealize your own parents that you may not have had. And I’d like to try to be that producer that I’ve always wanted to have, which is to say, really supportive of a director’s vision and deeply involved creatively but not authoritarian. Recognizing that it is a director’s medium and trying to give that director and fight for the resources and the freedom that that director needs. And that’s a privilege.
We’ve done it in TV too, and we’ve done it with other writers, we did it with Winnie Holzman, we did it with Jason Kadems, trying to afford real artists that space to realize their capabilities.
You were involved in what we call “prestige TV” before that was even a term. How do you think that medium has changed over the years?
When we did “Thirtysomething,” television was either about doctors, lawyers, or cops. They were franchises. And we said, “No, it’s about these people and their relationships.” When I look at the TV landscape now, shows about people’s relationships are now the franchise. Whether it’s about a transgender parent, whether it’s in a prison, whether it’s about people who are related – that has become oddly commonplace. And that’s the difference. What was radical then, is actually quite familiar now.
Given the way the TV landscape was back when you first started, how do you think you were able to react in ways that were seen as radical?
My very first job was working on a TV show that was a prestigious TV show and well done was called “Family.” I was really indebted to them for giving me this opportunity and I really liked a lot of what we did, but there were several times in which I would write scenes for Kristy McNichol, and I would get notes back from the network saying “not our Buddy.” She would be inappropriate with her parents, or she would be wildly hormonal, or God knows what.
I remember in that moment vowing that if ever I got a chance, I would try to write a teenager as I was teenager, or as my sisters were teenagers, or as I knew teenagers to be. So that’s reactive. Reactive to what is constraining you in the past.
What would you like to direct next?
A great script. [Laughs]
What’s your preferred pace for directing movies?
You know, my preferred pace is the pace that I [seem to] have. But it just hasn’t worked out that way. I think maybe I’ve directed 15 movies in the past 30 years, so it seems to be [every] two years.
I wish that I could feather my nest and have something ready, and these directors that do are like Steven [Soderbergh] and Ridley Scott, but they have big infrastructures of people sort of preparing that material and looking for that material for them. I’ve never really devoted my time to creating that. I’ve tended to then be doing the one-off producing at the same time, so somehow I’ve now finished a movie and I sit around scratching my ass saying, “What am I gonna do next?”
“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is in theaters on Friday, October 21.