Set Visit: 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' team brings Russia to London for franchise reboot
How has Tom Clancy's hero been made current?
LONDON, ENGLAND. It's a late October day in 2012 and a movie called "Maryland" is shooting in the lobby of a Moscow skyscraper.
As the dateline to this story might spoil, we're actually nowhere near Moscow. We're actually directly adjacent to the very British Liverpool Station.
And as the headline to this story might also spoil, "Maryland" is just a dummy title to throw civilians off the scent. The movie that's actually shooting is Paramount's "Jack Ryan," a reintroduction for the eponymous character, who has been previously played by Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.
On this day, our new Jack Ryan, played by Hollywood's reigning king of the franchise reboot Chris Pine, isn't engaged in any high tech espionage, or at least not in any tradecraft that we can see. The budding intelligence operative is just descending an escalator and a flight of stairs outside of headquarters belonging to villain Viktor Cherevin, played by Kenneth Branagh, who is present, but dressed for his other job as director on the Paramount production. Over and over, Jack Ryan makes his way out of the building, each time seemingly sensing that he's being watched. Each time, he ends up in a mysterious blue van.
So it's a movie called "Maryland" being shot in London, playing Moscow, but it's really "Jack Ryan" which, 15 months later, isn't even called "Jack Ryan" anymore. The January 17 release is now "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit." [It's an expanded title that somewhat goes against what producer David Barron tells us on-set when he declares, "It's punchy and easy to remember. Easy to say, easy to remember. But also this film is not based on a preexisting book. So it's easy to come up with something that's not a book title."]
This level of disconnect -- fake titles, doctored locations, etc -- is fairly common on blockbuster movie sets and on this chilly fall day, the removes go far deeper. Yes, we're watching Jack Ryan in a constant state of descent, but it's unclear if anything we're watching is even happening. See, our group of journalists may be a long way from Moscow, but we're also a long way from the place where actual "Jack Ryan" production is taking place. In addition to being cold, it's also rainy and we're watching the action from Moscow or London on video monitors at The White Horse, a bright and cozy pub some distance from the cameras and bedlam of filming. This means that the reporters are nice and warm, but also that we have no way of knowing if what we're seeing is live or playback from prior footage.
Fortunately, the producers, director and several stars are stopping by to tell us why the time is right to bring Jack Ryan back to the multiplex for the first time since 2002's "Sum of All Fears."
"I've been trying to restart it for 9 years," admits longtime franchise producer Mace Neufeld. "With executive changes and having really run out of books that we could do... what triggered it was getting a green light with Kenneth. Kenneth came in, I had only talked to him years ago when I called him about directing a film, after he'd done that thriller 'Dead Again," and we had lunch, and he had read the script and liked it, had some suggestions, but more than that, he had gone beyond the call of duty and read every Tom Clancy book. And that's a lot of pages. And he'd seen all the movies, and was totally prepared and very enthusiastic."
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura agrees, "I think the first challenge is Mace put together this great series of films that really sorta stand -- their intelligence, their entertainment value -- so he set a pretty high bar. So that, in and of itself, was I think in some ways the biggest challenge, is you didn't really want to screw up after all those good films. I think the big break really, for us, came when Ken came aboard."
Branagh notes, "This script arrived and was un-put-down-able and I knew the previous films, I'd read some of the books and, simple as that, it came out of the blue. I was going to be making another movie, but it went away and this one came to me and I read it and responded very strongly and it's the kind of the film that I go to see."
The "Thor" director compares his approach to "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" to '70s thrillers like "All the President's Men" and draws a clear line between Tom Clancy's hero and the protagonists of other high profile action franchises.
"I always liked Bond and I like Bourne and I like 'Mission: Impossible' and this is distinct from all of those," Branagh says. "He's not a paid assassin. He's not a man coming off a program. We don't have the flamboyance of, say, Bond. We don't have the extremity of something like 'Mission; Impossible' in terms of the technology and things that goes on. In a weird way, although Jack Ryan is the sorta brightest and the best -- He's this analyst with a great, skillful intellectual mind -- he's also, in relatively terms, he's a kind of an Everyman, in as much as he doesn't have the range of skills. That Liam Neeson, "I have a very particular set of talents...' He doesn't have that particular set of talents. He's got his brain and he's got a desire to do something, so serve in some way. So all of that, it's rich stuff."
While the Jack Ryan readers and audiences know is tied to a very specific Cold War mythos, the producers never contemplated doing "Jack Ryan" as a period piece and suggesting that Chris Pine's version of the character could somehow age into the Baldwin version from "Hunt For Red October."
"It's a very contemporary setting for this story," David Barron says. "He's a very contemporary character. We haven't seen him for a while. Whether you know Jack Ryan or don't know Jack Ryan, he's a compelling person to spend time with."
At the time of the visit, we're over a year away from an originally scheduled Christmas 2013 release date, but Barron says hopefully, "It may be even more contemporary a year from now than it is today." Since nobody wants to exactly tell us the plot of the movie, I can't vouch for whether or not that's true.
Hints producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, "Our world right now faces incredible economic uncertainty. The notion of what is a superpower has evolved and who actually can carry what muscle and what is America's role in the world and a terrorism and all those things exist in this movie. It feels incredibly contemporary, particularly the economic aspect of it and the sense that a lot of the larger kinda 'earthquake' moves that precipitate this movie have to do with the fact of what is the economic order and who's trying to take control over it. So it's not a movie about economics, but the effect of what is going on in the world is very, very driven and very, very clear in this movie, the relationship with that."
That contemporary theme was also part of what made Branagh want to co-star in "Jack Ryan" in addition to his work behind the camera.
"Chris [Pine] and I had talked about some of the larger thematic strands in it. It's partly Old vs. New -- Old Empire vs. New Empire in a strange paradox where you might say that America is strangely the Old Empire and new monied is Russia, post-Glasnost and everything else, is a New Empire and that's a swing from previous historical versions. It's East and West in cultural attitudes and then it's a personal kind of series of opposites in the characters of Jack and Cherevin in relation to what it takes to be a patriot. If there was a subtitle at the moment for the ever-evolving story of 'What's the film about?,' it would be at least partly that. 'What does it takes to be a patriot?' How do you make a contribution that is not to do with nationalism, but is to do with this very interesting subject of what love-of-country may mean when that's a concept people sometimes can understand, but really, whether in the military or sometimes in politics, our more ordinary smaller lives, you might say, we're mostly interpreting that through interaction with people, with individuals, and how you relate to your fellow soldier or your fellow worker or your partner in life. We were so full of these things springing out of this -- We hope! -- very good yarn that I thought, 'Oh, now I have a handle on how to give the other side of that, to make that side of the story as personal as possible." So how do you approach it? Make it as personal a story, not a cardboard villain. I've never used the word 'villain' in relation to him because if you play it, I don't think you can see it that way. There's this fellow called Victor Cherevin, who is a very powerful guy and he has a very particular grudge and a pain that is in his system and that he wants to do something about, and he has the imagination to go with it and take on America, the CIA and Jack Ryan all at once. All of those clashes I hope makes for good drama."
That sounds very high-minded, right?
Don't worry. "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" is an action movie as well, at least somewhat.
"I always looked at these movies as half-action, half-thriller," di Bonaventura says. "We’ve stayed to that notion. Someone is directly in jeopardy. As you know, I have nothing against explosions, but [characters] are not running through fields of explosions. The hardest thing to do about this type of action is that you have to feel like you’re utterly in the guy’s shoes, or it doesn’t work. It’s so much about the emotional state. It’s not about the whiz-bang of it. You want to do the whiz-bang, but you can’t do it without being solidly inside the character. That makes it personal and emotional, which is different from other action movies."
Not surprisingly, Branagh is also the reason why we're sitting at the White Horse and not at some corresponding Moscow bar with an unpronounceable name. While "Jack Ryan" did a very small window of shooting in Moscow, there were challenges.
"Moscow is an amazing city, but it's a challenge to work in because it's so big and so spread out. So some of what we wanted, which is the brilliantly noisy architecture of Moscow -- Lots of buildings going up and the sense of the city being transformed -- we felt that we could get in some parts of the city of London and get the scale. And some visual effects would also allow us to create some of what we had to do ourselves. Victor Cheverin's building is going to be an adaptation of what you see here. We needed a place where perhaps, frankly, we could benefit from the tax rebates and we were pointed in all sorts of directions. You make a film nowadays and of course everybody is going to knock on your door, from New Orleans to Montreal to the Isle of Man or whatever. There are advantageous conditions here, plus London has big city DNA, big city architecture and that was important for us. We were able to also go to Liverpool and find some old imperial... Liverpool was once the most important city in the world for a short time when it was the center of the shipping industry and various trades, some notorious, so that was able to provide us with some old Imperial Moscow that, frankly, is gone. We felt as if we could get the big landscape by moving around and adding some visual effects back here and get our lovely tax rebate as well."
I mentioned earlier that Chris Pine's Jack Ryan doesn't become the Alec Baldwin character from "Red October" or the Harrison Ford character from "Patriot Games" and as of the set visit, every single person associated with the movie insists that if "Jack Ryan" succeeds, the next step isn't to do a rebooted version of those Clancy bestsellers. Di Bonaventura goes to far as to say that "Red October" is one of his favorite films and he can't see the idea of doing a redo of it. However, there will be plenty of Tom Clancy's Ryan in "Shadow Recruit."
"We have been going over every novel, gleaning every bit of back-story information that we could. And we put every bit in," di Bonaventura promises. "In a funny way, more than any of the other movies, we were relying on... they all had very good plots and specific character agendas. Because we didn’t have that, we were able to take all of the ideas and then design a movie around all of the backstory as opposed to a specific part of it. So if you’re a Clancy fan, you’re going to go, 'Oh my God, that? Do you remember that?' We’re able to do all that because the movie has been designed around the origin as opposed to the character being part of the plot."
So if it isn't "Red October" or "Patriot Games," what comes next if "Jack Ryan" hits? Other than giving Chris Pine his second franchise at the same studio? Well, there have been rumors of an offshoot film focused on Kevin Costner's William Harper character. But in the chilly rain of London/Moscow, nobody wants to speculate too far.
"We haven't discussed what comes after this yet," Barron insists. "Kenneth and I only joined a relatively short time ago and it came to fruition very quickly. Our focus is getting this film to the place it needs to be. Getting it shot and finished and hopefully making a film that will make everyone want us to make more films. But we haven't actually discussed yet how it would develop and where it would go from here, but the scope is enormous."
"Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" opens on January 17.