12/05/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

On Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher, and Passing the Baton

This article was first published at Word & Film

The Reacher books were a be-careful-what-you-wish-for proposition for Hollywood. At first glance: bestsellers, a popular central character, plenty of action and incident, and plenty of sequel possibility. A no-brainer. But at second glance, there were three problems.

First, casting was going to be difficult. Reacher is designed exclusively for the page, with no concession at all to the real physical world of SAG members.

Second, Hollywood sees story through the prism of character arc. And Reacher has no character arc. He's the same person at the end of the story as the beginning. The story swirls around him, but he's an unchanging rock. He learns nothing along the way, because he knew it all to start with.

Third, much of Reacher's appeal is inside his head. His quirky thought processes, his tastes and enthusiasms, his intuition, his logic, his deductions: All of these are entirely internal, with no obvious way to show them on the screen.

So the fact that the first movie follows the seventeenth book is explained by the long, slow, painstaking piecing together of people who felt a) willing and b) capable of beating those three difficulties. We needed producers who saw value outside of the character-arc trend; we needed a screenwriter good enough to put Reacher's mind on screen; and we needed an actor good enough to take that script and run with it.

The script was the key component. Producer Don Granger (essentially the godfather of this whole project) artfully told Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie that the project was impossible; McQuarrie reacted in Reacher-like fashion and said, "Well, we'll see about that," and turned in quite possibly the best first draft the industry had ever seen. I read it hot off the computer minutes after it was finished and was blown away. A nine-figure budget was greenlit with virtually no notes at all -- unheard of.

And McQuarrie's script brought Tom Cruise to the project. Cruise is a unique blend of two things: On the outside he's a gigantic movie star and celebrity and tabloid sensation; but on the inside he's an old-fashioned character actor who starts and finishes with the words, and trusts and values writers more than anything else.

And at that point I knew we had a success on our hands. Cruise and McQuarrie were unbeatable. Others felt the same way. Within days we had a hard core of twenty or so cast and crew, all of them real Reacher fans. The conventional paradigm of inevitable structural conflict between book fans and moviemakers didn't apply on this project: The moviemakers were book fans. They were obsessed by Reacher and understood him and protected him just as much as any reader would -- more so, even.

Which gave me a unique kind of involvement. Legally and formally, as always, I had no say and no veto about anything. But I bet I was kept closer than any book writer has ever been. They called me all the time, they gave me unlimited access to the set, they gave me their phone numbers and e-mail addresses, we had countless drinks and dinners, they dropped everything to show me dailies and rushes and rough cuts. Absolutely not because they wanted input or advice from me -- they were completely confident in their own abilities (again, rather Reacher-like) -- but because they wanted to celebrate with me... as if to say, See? We're nailing this, this is working, we're beating the odds. It was exactly like a hundred Reacher fans getting together and having fun.

Which all culminated in a call I got one day. There's a scene in the movie where Reacher's lawyer springs him from a night in jail, and he has to stop by the police station's front desk to pick up his possessions. As all Reacher fans know, he has only one possession -- his folding toothbrush. They said I had to play the sergeant at the front desk. They live in a world of story and symbolism, and they wanted Lee Child to pass the baton -- in the form of the toothbrush -- to Tom Cruise. The sergeant would have no lines, but he had to shrug, a little quizzically. On one level, it was the sergeant commenting on Reacher's theories. On another, it was me, looking at Cruise, and saying: He's doing okay. We filmed it one November afternoon, in Pittsburgh. I loved it.

Would I do it all again? I hope I get the chance.

Read more at Word & Film, and see an image of Lee Child's cameo appearance in the movie.