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Bringing Jack Reacher to the big screen has been tough. Author Lee Child tells all to Jonathan Pile

A man stood in a hotel room. Alone. Alert. Waiting. The room itself was like countless others in thousands of cities in hundreds of countries across the world. Except for one thing. There was no bed.

A small detail. But a significant one.

The man didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes he was joined by two people. A man and a woman. The woman sat by the window. The two men sat at a table where the bed should have been and ordered coffee. Black, no sugar, two cups. The drinks arrived and the men began the business in hand: ShortList’s interview with Lee Child.

In 1995, Lee Child was an unpublished author, his distinctive, pulpy writing style (imitated above, badly) and protagonist – former military policeman-turned-drifter Jack Reacher – yet to make him a household name. In fact, in 1995, he was still Jim Grant. His pen name was chosen as it sounded more memorable and came earlier in the alphabet.

But in 1995, Lee Child (which, for ease, we’ll call him throughout) was already talking about making the first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, into a Hollywood film.

“I’d written the book, and my agent had the idea to sell it as a movie first to create a platform for selling it as a book. That strategy didn’t work,” says Child with a laugh. “We eventually sold the book, which came out in March 1997. Polygram [Films] optioned it on the same day. It was a cat and mouse game – they weren’t going to jump first, but as soon as it came out as a book, they jumped.”

This prompts an obvious question: where is the Killing Floor film? Why isn’t there a decade-old DVD with Liam Neeson (just a suggestion…) investigating a murder in rural Georgia?

“I learned that it’s like rolling a handful of dice. Every dice has to come up six,” says Child. “Money people have to be interested. An actor has to be interested. A director, a scriptwriter; everyone has to be interested at the same time. And there was no actor clamouring for it.”

Does size matter?

“Reacher was a big man, six feet five inches tall, heavily built, and that night as always he looked a little ragged and unkempt.” A Wanted Man (2012)

A number of scripted versions of Killing Floor exist. Between 1997 and 2005, while the entire Reacher catalogue was optioned (and lapsed, and optioned again every year), that debut book was the one being developed. Then suddenly, it changed. The catalyst: the moment the ninth book in Child’s series, One Shot, was released, and caught the eye of a certain Tom Cruise.

“It was One Shot he noticed. I met with his producer Don Granger and felt they understood it and wanted it in a way that meant something to me. We did the deal in 2005.”

You can’t have failed to notice it’s now 2012. Why the gap between the deal and the film? There are two main reasons: the star and the script.

The star’s the real bone of contention with fans, so let’s deal with him first. In a world where the announcement of a blond James Bond can cause tabloid outrage, how do you justify casting an actor who’s, at best, 5ft 8in, as a character who’s, as indicated in the extract above, 6ft 5in?

This is not the first time Child’s had to field this question: “It’s a fascinating subject in an intellectual sense, because a book has no reality. It exists in the imagination. A movie is always rooted in reality because it’s real people in a real place, albeit acting out a fictional story.”

As an aside to this, Child has a point. The city in One Shot is never named, simply referred to as a “heartland city”. That’s not possible in the film, so it’s set in Pittsburgh, even though Child admits he imagined parts of Cincinnati as he wrote it. Still, it seems a satisfactory answer to the Cruise conundrum.

“I always knew we’d never have a screen Reacher who looked anything like the book Reacher. There are no leading men who look like that. There have never been any leading men in the history of Hollywood who look like that. So, to me, it was taken for granted that we were going to have a different type of Reacher on screen. And therefore what’s important is replicating his thought processes. You need a big enough name to command the budget, so you’re into a very short list. Taking into consideration the required acting ability, you’ve then got a shortlist of one: Tom Cruise.”

A good answer. Although we prefer one he’s used previously: “One thing I can promise you is that Tom Cruise isn’t going to come into your houses and steal your books.” And that’s hard to argue with.

If Child sounds unsympathetic to diehard fans’ distress (there’s a ‘Tom Cruise is NOT Jack Reacher’ Facebook page), that’s not his intention. “I’m glad my readers care. That they’re so passionate is a great metric of success. But I’m thinking, ‘Hang on guys, you trust me to write the books, trust me on this too.’ As soon as they see the movie they will understand.”

From page to screen

However, as previously stated, the star was just half of the challenge. Scripts were written and discarded, including one by A History Of Violence writer Josh Olson, but nothing came of them. Then Don Granger took control. He identified his ideal candidate to write and direct, and was relentless in his pursuit. Given the directing requirement, the man in question might initially seem surprising.

Christopher McQuarrie is not a household name. He’s written scripts for big films, The Usual Suspects and Valkyrie among them, but his directing credits total one: little-seen indie flick The Way Of The Gun. But Granger insisted he was the man.

“Granger stalked him,” says Child with a smile. “He identified McQuarrie as the man he wanted, then taunted him into doing it: ‘I’ve got this great project, but it’s impossible to do so it’s going to go nowhere.’ McQuarrie understands pulp, but he’s so stubborn that if he’s given a challenge, he won’t stop until he beats it. I’ll bet you his first draft is the least-altered first draft in history.”

Which is fine, but as a director? “Actually, what clinched it for me was that he was going to direct. When you write something, you’re already directing it in your head. I love that dual responsibility. I was happy with that. And so was Tom Cruise.”

Reacher said nothing

From then, it was a quick process. The script was finished in early 2011. Cruise was signed on by May, and now the film’s ready to come out. Listening to Child, everything’s rosy. But Child has been beating the Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher drum for a while and, for the most part, the fans aren’t prepared to be swayed. But he’s ready to give it one last shot.

“Cruise is more similar to Reacher than he is different. Reacher is brave to the point of recklessness. Well, so’s bloody Cruise. He’s a maniac. Reacher is a hardman who gets the job done, and so is Tom Cruise.”

His impatient wait to prove this belief is nearing an end. You get the feeling it can’t come soon enough.

Jack Reacher is at cinemas nationwide from 26 December

Image: Rex

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