Cruise control: Chris McQuarrie enlists Tom Cruise for big-screen incarnation of bestselling action hero Jack Reacher

With millions of copies in print, Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels have built a dedicated, and protective, fan base. An Army veteran and former major in the Military Police, Reacher lives off the grid, with no fixed address or income. That doesn't stop him from getting dragged into crimes and conspiracies across the United States.

All of the 17 Reacher novels have been optioned for the movies, but Paramount’s Jack Reacher, based on the 2004 book One Shot, will be the first to reach the screen on Dec. 21. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, it stars Tom Cruise as Reacher, who had been drifting through the South until he is called to Pittsburgh after a sniping incident leaves five pedestrians dead.

Speaking from London, where he is doctoring a screenplay, McQuarrie admits that he was skeptical that a Reacher film would ever get made, "especially with me attached." He credits producer Don Granger with persevering until the right package could be assembled.

Child writes in a direct and highly visual style that would seem well-suited to movies. But as McQuarrie points out, the Reacher stories are "extraordinarily internal. A lot of the books are spent inside his head, understanding what makes him tick. Finding ways of visualizing that without a lot of painful exposition is pretty challenging. You have to pick what things you want the audience to know."

McQuarrie, an Oscar winner for his script for 1995’s The Usual Suspects, also had to meet the expectations of Reacher fans. "There are people for whom the movie will never be and could never be what they fully imagined it to be," he admits. "There's nothing I could really do to please them, and at a certain point I made friends with that. But there are the fans who are willing to accept a certain amount of latitude so long as we protect what makes the books really great, which is Reacher's character, tone and attitude."

In the books. Reacher is six feet, five inches tall and 250 pounds. But McQuarrie considers size just one of the dimensions to the character. "Physical stature is not nearly as important to me as personality—his confidence and mind," the director says. "Frankly, Reacher's physical size was never going to be an asset on the screen. What I love about him is that he's utterly pragmatic. There's no flash, no ego, no bravado."

What makes the Reacher books so exciting is the character's command of his surroundings. Given his military training, he can handle everything from barroom brawls to explosives. And with his physique and bullheaded sense of justice, he can and will stand up to anybody: petty crooks, cops, generals, assassins.

The director is also fascinated by the way Reacher lives. "It's not an easy choice, it's not an easy way to live," McQuarrie says. "I walked away from this movie with a sort of drumbeat in my head that 'freedom is a discipline.' In this day and age, freedom is something you really have to work at."

Cruise was originally attached to the project as a producer. It wasn't until McQuarrie sat in with him on production meetings for Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol that the actor revealed he was interested in the part. Having worked together on several projects, including Ghost Protocol and Valkyrie, McQuarrie felt confident about directing one of the biggest stars in the world. "It's not like an episode of 'The Tudors' where Henry VIII is telling you he likes your house and he's really telling you to move out."

McQuarrie praises Cruise's commitment to his work. "He's one of us, he's very much a filmmaker. There's a perception of Tom as somebody who is more concerned with making Tom Cruise movies than with making movies. The truth is quite the opposite. He's there to serve the filmmaker. I've witnessed that with four other directors now, I've watched the way he supports and encourages them—challenges them, definitely. But above all he's there to make their movie."

Reacher is very different from the typical Cruise role. McQuarrie gave this approach to the actor: "I said, 'Tom, look, in every movie you've done you play a character who's under extreme pressure. Reacher is someone who does not experience pressure. Is that the sort of character you're interested in playing?' And Tom looked at me and just sort of relaxed into the idea. I think Reacher was someone that he had been longing to play, someone who is more akin to who he is in a difficult situation."

McQuarrie found himself adopting aspects of Reacher's character as well. "There are moments in the story when Reacher's not in control," the director says. "But even in those moments he knows exactly how he's going to respond. He has a plan. And all filmmaking is, when it's done correctly, is that you have a plan. You have contingencies, reserves, backups, and in a worst-case scenario, compromises. But you're always ready for chaos, and that's Reacher in a nutshell."

Jack Reacher had its share of unexpected production twists. Rosamund Pike, who plays public defender Helen Rodin, learned she was pregnant a week before shooting started. Cruise was committed to another movie, further jeopardizing the schedule. McQuarrie and Cruise ended up shooting with two separate units, working day and night.

From the start, McQuarrie knew he would be altering Child's novel, with the author's blessing. (Child visited the set twice and has a brief cameo in the film.) Characters were dropped, the plot condensed, and certain settings changed. "Lee had a whole novel to ramble around in, but I had two hours. And in a movie like this, you need action at certain intervals," McQuarrie argues. "The story has to have a different thrust."

One example is a nighttime car chase not in the novel. Cruise did many of his stunts, including one unnerving shot in which the camera seems to zoom in on the actor while his car is speeding down the street.

"We did that with a Porsche Cayenne that had a crane on its roof," McQuarrie explains. "The camera's hanging from an articulated arm off the back of the car. We're driving away from Tom at 60 mph, and he's chasing after us at anywhere from 70 to 90 mph. He has to get within a very specific distance to be inside the depth of field for the lens. So what you're seeing is Tom driving into his close-up, chasing after a moving target."

McQuarrie got the shot in three takes. Some of the other moments in the chase were the results of happy accidents that weren't quite planned, like the way Cruise's car skids to a stop in front of actor David Oyelowo. "We'd walk away saying, 'Well, the fourth one was kind of a mess,' but then we'd see it projected and we realized we had scored."

The director describes editing as a process of acceptance. "In fact, filmmaking to me is a process of acceptance," he goes on. "You push and push to get exactly what you want, and you either run out of time or you might wind up killing somebody."

Long stretches of the film have little or no dialogue. In fact, Jack Reacher runs for eight minutes before anyone speaks. These sequences forced McQuarrie to focus on a coherent visual style. And even though he was shooting another film, Cruise added crucial editing input. McQuarrie credits the actor's innate sense of storytelling. "When you make a movie, you inherently understand it better than anybody watching it," he says. "You take certain things for granted. But Tom never does. He understands what an audience can absorb, at what rate to tell a story."

The German director Werner Herzog plays Zec, the chief villain in Jack Reacher and a survivor of the Russian gulag. McQuarrie admits he was worried about how Herzog would relate to Cruise.

"Werner is still very much a student of film," McQuarrie observes. "In a lot of ways he is like a young independent filmmaker. He never wanted to leave the set. And interestingly enough, Tom is the same way. It was really fun to watch two men from such vastly different cinematic backgrounds communicating so clearly about what they believed 'story' was."

Although the Reacher novels are "not typical franchise material," as McQuarrie admits, the director hopes to work on future Reacher adaptations. "They will have to pry it from my cold dead hands," is how he puts it.

"What's really great about the books is that there's always a different terrain, and Reacher is always a fish out of water no matter where he is," the director says. "More importantly, each book has a different drive, and that's what's most exciting about potentially doing another one of these."

Will McQuarrie be working with Cruise again? "I've said it many times," he replies. "Tom's ruined me for anybody else. There isn't even a distant second choice."