How The Hell Do You Make A Blockbuster As Insane As Mission Impossible: Fallout? We Spoke To Director Christopher McQuarrie To Find Out

By James O Malley on at

For decades, James Bond has been widely considered Hollywood’s pre-eminent undercover agent. But this is wrong - that crown should go to Ethan Hunt, the super spy played by Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible franchise. Now entering its sixth instalment, Cruise has been toying with futuristic gadgets and flinging himself around in death-defying stunts for a decade longer than Daniel Craig has been his nearest rival.

All of the Mission films have been well received - but it appears that with Fallout, returning director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously helmed Rogue Nation and contributed to Ghost Protocol has achieved something rather special. At the time of writing, the new film has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95% after 66 critics reviews - which for a summer blockbuster is pretty damn amazing.

And in our humble opinion, the film deserves the plaudits. This time around, the stunts are amped up even further, with the focus still on the astonishing things that Tom Cruise has really, actually done - such as the high altitude, low oxygen “HALO” jump from an aeroplane. Just try not to snigger when you remember that the IMF team’s initials literally stand for “Impossible Mission Force”.

Brilliantly too, in addition to getting to see the film early, we were able to sit down for a chat with McQuarrie, who has previously directed Cruise in Jack Reacher, as well as Fallout’s immediate predecessor, Rogue Nation. He was also the screenwriter of Edge of Tomorrow, The Mummy and The Usual Suspects.

This interview contains a few minor spoilers for the film, but nothing that will ruin your enjoyment.

Giz: What is the essence of a Mission Impossible film? What are the sort of core elements that make the film distinctly Mission Impossible?

McQuarrie: Well there are only four rules. Ethan has to get a mission, there has to be a team, you have to use the theme song and Ethan does not want to do any of the things that he’s doing. He’s not a daredevil.

The humour of it comes from the fact that he’s always scared to be doing what he’s doing. There’s a reluctance. The essence is not the action but the characters and the storytelling. Tom’s a big believer in classic storytelling with techniques going all the way back to the silent era, serial movies, things like that.

Giz: The series is known for the amazing, crazy technology. How far can you go with that? Are there any rules that you wouldn’t break? Because, for example I would say time travel would clearly be a step too far for a Mission Impossible film but there’s still some fantastical stuff in there.

McQuarrie: Yeah I think you, what I perceive it to be – and by the way I am the series’ worst at coming up with gadgets, unless the gadget is what the story demands - like I think Brad [Bird - Director of Ghost Protocol] did a fantastic job with the invisibility screen. That’s kind of the all-time defining gadget of these things. You understand immediately how the technology works, that some thought went into it, you understand that it’s tracking your eye... it’s just this side of reality.

McQuarrie: What I’m always looking for, having looked at the other movies, is what is a ‘superpower’. The wish-fulfilment of all of these movies, in Mission 1 Ethan can levitate, in Mission 2 Ethan is Spider-Man. In Ghost Protocol, he’s Spider-Man and he’s invisible. In Rogue Nation he’s Aquaman. But all of it is done in a way that there’s a technology or some human difficulty that enables him to do that. He is always mortal and he always needs something to help him do it. Ethan’s not a superhero, the gadgets give him superpowers. And without those gadgets he’s a very vulnerable human being.

Giz: The other thing that Mission Impossible is known for is the insane stunts. Knowing they were real, my jaw was on the floor for much of Fallout. So say you’ve got a blank sheet of paper, it’s day one of putting the film together and you think, “What do we want to do?” How does that happen?

McQuarrie: Tom and I learned how over the course of two of these movies, and some of the work I did on Ghost Protocol. We stopped trying to make specific things happen. We don’t because you end up caught in a rabbit hole. The movie is kind of twisting itself in knots to get to the idea you want. So I’ve learning to just let everything go.

Tom said, “I want to do a HALO jump!” and “I want to do a helicopter chase!” And everyone was like, that takes training so start doing that now. And I thought I’ve got to figure that out. And sure enough the helicopter chase, the conceit of it immediately dictates a million things...

Tom Cruise doing crazy shit in a helicopter.

McQuarrie: One, where are you shooting it? And wherever you’re shooting it, it has to be photographically interesting. The Venn diagram of countries that are both photographically beautiful and will let you do it immediately shrinks to New Zealand. And that was it. Now I look at New Zealand and I think, that’s not a politically edgy kind of place. In fact it’s so far away from the rest of the world, I don’t believe any doomsday scenarios are unfolding in New Zealand. So what’s a place that looks like New Zealand? Ok it’s Kashmir. So now you have helicopters, and you have Kashmir.

At the beginning of the story I asked Tom, “What do you want to do emotionally in this movie” and he said, “Everybody’s asking me about Julia, I want to tie up that story”. So I know that somehow that story is going to come to a head in Kashmir and I know that Julia has a past that needs to somehow believably fold you into that.

So all these elements, they’re like sediment all piling up on top of each other and each one is creating more and more boundaries and limitations until finally you’re going, I don’t know how to make this sequence any more, because everything’s fighting with everything else. On top of that I have the IMF team. And they all have to be doing different jobs during the finale of the movie. And so all of those boundaries and all those limitations create a forest of complications that you have to some way navigate your way through believably and that’s how that sequence comes together. So it’s never me sitting down and going, “I want to write this crazy fucking half hour!” - It’s more I’m thrown a million problems to told, “Solve it, and by the way the movie start shooting Friday.”

Lock and load.

Giz: When you’re stuck at a problem, say, “Why not just...” and it’ll completely transform it from the original thing?

McQuarrie: Sometimes yeah, you’ll have people come in and make a suggestion, you know something simple. Or it’s the flourishes, you know, Henry Cavill cocking his arms in the bathroom fight which is like... it’s become this meme on the internet and it’s become probably the most memorable moment in the movie. It’s so funny because I see people responding to it in such a big way and I’m going, did you see the helicopter chase? Like, did you see the car chase in Paris? The guy’s just pumping his fists! You just never know what it is so you remain open. And what we do is we overshoot the movie, we over-explain it. This is the first time I’ve ever made a movie where the test audiences were saying there’s just too much action, you’ve got to pull it back. So we cut some out of the movie.

Giz: Can you hint at something that was taken out?

McQuarrie: Yeah, there’s a shot in the trailer where you see Tom going down a road in a truck and there’s a helicopter, we took that whole beat out. It was a fun thing to do but it was a detour. And they did a big stunt in the Grand Palais that was also in one of the earlier trailers where Tom and Henry originally had to do a whole complicated act to get from the roof to the ground and after the HALO jump you were like, I just want to get to the story now. We were so intent on giving you more action than the last movie, we overdid it.

The Fallout teaser trailer.

Giz: One thing that I think Fallout does great is give exactly the right amount of exposition - so that you understand the stakes and everyone’s motivations, but without dragging it out.

McQuarrie: I’m so delighted that you think that because there’s a whole other school of people who are going, “This plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, I don’t understand what’s going on.” A lot of that comes from the fact that again, we overwrite and over-explain it and information is the death of emotion. I want everyone to understand the movie in complete detail. You get so bored hearing it explained to you and so we tend to parrot back to a point where we over-do it. We tested this movie over and over again to make sure that we strike that fine balance between confusion and saturation.

Giz: How do Paramount executives react when you go to them and say, “I want Tom Cruise, the most bankable movie star in the world, to jump out of a high-altitude plane”, or put him in other extremely dangerous situations?

McQuarrie: It’s interesting, it’s always a different dynamic. On the last movie the A400 stunt came up really early and you felt an incredible amount of apprehension both from the studio and from Airbus. Airbus said it wasn’t possible, the studio were very nervous about it and Tom explained that we’re going to do it, and that it’s going to work out just fine, and the studio then started to realise that was really the only big stunt we had in the movie. The marketing depended on it so they became very protective of it. And then there was a lot of pressure to make it this centrepiece of the final action sequence of the movie.

I found myself in the unique position of saying to them, [that] you’re going to spend $20m more than you need to spend in order to get this image in the movie. And they said well, it’s your biggest stunt, you’ve got to put it at the end of the movie and I said, guys you’re going to put it in every trailer. Everyone in the world is going to have seen it. It will not be a surprise by the time people get to the movie, let me save you some money and let me put it up front in a five minute sequence instead of a twenty minute sequence. Because the truth of the matter is, that’s not a sequence it’s a stunt. The helicopter, that’s a sequence. The Burj Khalifa, that’s a sequence and you have to be able to discern the difference between one and the other.

Giz: Thinking about Fallout, there’s the Paris sequence which is an incredible car chase, and then you’ve got the helicopter sequence shot in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand – which is more challenging for you as a director and a producer? Because I guess with one you’ve got the challenge of half of Paris being closed off and then the other you’ve got the actual physical danger of helicopters.

McQuarrie: Yeah, each is difficult in it’s own way. In New Zealand we had the time to shoot it. What we didn’t have was the knowledge. We didn’t understand how to shoot it because it was all new technology, the cameras, the camera mounts, and the fact that you’re dealing with somebody flying the helicopter. How to make all of that stuff look like an action scene when there’s no-one there with a handbook to say here’s how you do that. Nobody had ever done it.

So for every minute of really compelling footage you have there are hours of not compelling footage, which is very concerning because we originally wanted there to be a massive rollercoaster of a sequence and realised very quickly that you get tired of action very, very quickly. We had seventy hours of footage that ultimately boiled down to I think three or four minutes on screen.

So the real pressure there is just how dangerous it was shooting. A helicopter is a machine that just does not want to be flown, even when you’re flying it safely, and when you add to that the aerobatics and you add to that the fact that Tom had relatively little experience flying helicopters, each one of those factors is a order of magnitude [more difficult].

McQuarrie: In Paris, the real challenge was time. You can close streets in Paris but you can’t close them for long. The Arc de Triomphe, they gave it to us for two hours, starting a half hour before sunrise. That meant that we had ninety minutes to get everything around the Arc de Triomphe. We were allowed to close the Rue de Opera for half a day and so what we did is we shot them both on the same day. And you’re talking about a company move, forty stunt drivers, and all those cars driving round the Arc de Triomphe, clearing the Rue de Opera, and multiple cameras. All of that, and needing to do it in such a way that the city of Paris is not gridlocked.

We were discouraged from doing it, the studio said “this is impossible, you can’t do it”. And we said look, you gotta think of this as an independent film, and imagine if this is an independent film and somebody says you can have the street for an hour and a half, you’d take it. Don’t convince yourself that because you’re Mission Impossible you can’t do something guerrilla style, and that’s what we did. We shot all of that in ninety minutes.

Giz: Were you able to improvise or did you know exactly what shots you needed to get because you were on such a tight time limit?

McQuarrie: We did a very quick pre-vis of what we wanted to do, of the one shot, but we also understood that you may get that, you may not.

What we did is we had a camera on a vehicle, it’s called a pursuit arm, it’s a camera on a crane on a Porsche Cayenne. And then we had a camera on a motorcycle that’s able to chase Tom. And in ten minutes you can flip them out around and Tom could chase Walker. So what we did is the motorcycle and the pursuit arm chased Tom around, in profile and from the front, and then the motorcycle went out, changed them out, and came back and chased... and we just kept driving around and shooting like mad and getting whatever we could.

I was in a van that’s on the outside of the Arc de Triomphe and Tom was in the middle. Our van has to be going faster than Tom to stay with him. And the van is very top-heavy and the road of the Arc de Triomphe is graded, it’s almost like a hill.

So imagine a van that’s already at an angle and now that van is accelerating in a circle as fast as it can to keep up with the motorcycle - then the van started to tip over. And when the van reached a certain angle, all the electronics in the van shorted out and had to be rebooted. So periodically the van would just black out and we’d have to restart and Tom would come around and we’d have to catch up and go around again. Every single technical barrier was against us and it was just absolute chaos for ninety minutes. And I left and I never looked at the footage, I didn’t look at it until I went to the editing room because I knew either I’ve got it or I don’t. And if I don’t it’ll be so disappointing because I’ll know we had this moment and never got to put it on screen.

Giz: Did you have a back-up plan in case the footage didn’t come out?

McQuarrie: Yeah, it would just cut to another location and we’d never tell... I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you, you’d never know that we’d fucked it up!

Giz: Another thing I find fascinating, again with telling the story, is there’s certain things that we the audience assume to happen and accept without needing to see it. For example, when the bad guys globetrot around the world, partly you think well they must have had to go through passport control and they must have had some sort of nefarious scheme to do that without being caught. But there’s no point in showing all of that tedious bullshit on screen, so how do you choose what parts of the scheme to show and what parts to assume the audience will just figure out in their own heads?

McQuarrie: It is so funny that you brought it up. One other scene that did not make it into the film and was in some of the trailers. There’s this very foggy eerie mountain scene that showed up in a couple of trailers and it’s the border at Kashmir. And I said look, Kashmir is very highly militarised. There’s a lot of contention around the border. I said you want to acknowledge that, for story sense, making it about the political tension in this area is one of the reasons why the terrorists in the movie are going there.

Later I realised [...] it’s just a lot easier to make it about natural resources. It’s something people understand, emotionally rather than intellectually. They’re going to contaminate the water - I didn’t even go near the political contention of that region.

That said, there’s a scene where you see them in the car explaining, you know they’re figuring everything out, and then right after that Ilsa says ‘there’s the border’ and Benji hands out passports. There’s a whole conversation about [it], he says ‘I got what I could’, and he gives Luther [Ving Rhames] a Swedish passport and Luther says, ‘do I look Swedish to you?’ - And Benji holds up his passport and says ‘I dunno, do I look Korean?’.

We played it for humour and it was one of those things where you never see this! You never see them packing! It’s, like, where does he even get all of these clothes? And the truth of the matter is you watch it, the movie, and you’re like, I don’t want to know that. Because I have to pack, and I have to deal with the border, and there’s something liberating about the fact that Ethan Hunt does not ever have to have his luggage X-rayed... And I’m determined to get it in there at some point, I’m going to find a way to make a movie that deals with [it]. I would love to see a Mission Impossible where actually, you actually had to deal with the complications of being a ghost and moving around the world. But you’ve got to find a way to make it entertaining.

Giz: I want to ask you about this, because I’m a complete nerd for this kind of thing. Certainly for the London scenes - I don’t know Paris well enough - but the geography was really accurate. I love the fact Ethan runs through St. Paul’s Cathedral and then down to the river and across Blackfriars Station to the Tate Modern. Was that a conscious choice to make it as accurate as it was?

McQuarrie: If I have any conscious stylistic affectation in my films it is an obsession with geography and clarity.

McQuarrie: How that whole sequence came to be is, the first location we went and scouted was the roof, where Ethan runs and jumps. That’s where Tom broke his ankle. And from that place you can see St. Paul’s, Blackfriars Bridge, and the Tate Modern. I allowed the locations to tell me what all the action sequences were. I scouted before I wrote. Because what happens is you write a sequence, then you try to find the locations to shoot it in, and you end up compromising either the action or the location.

So of course we were on this roof and we kept looking at St. Paul’s and I just kept looking back at it going, it just feels like the scene should be starting at St. Paul’s. It’s going to be in every frickin’ shot. And you look across at the chimney of the Tate Modern and you go, well obviously Ethan’s got to end on the top of that, so let’s figure out how to get from that point to that point, and that’s what became the foot chase. Now you know the geography well enough to know that the shortest distance between the Tate and St. Paul’s in the Millennium Bridge, and that’s where Walker should have gone, and we try not to draw too much attention to that because the Millennium Bridge just wasn’t as exciting as running across Blackfriars.

In Paris the geography of the Finance Ministry, where the helicopter lands, to where they knock the truck in the river, that, believe it or not, was the only place in Paris where you can land a helicopter and the only place in Paris where you can knock a truck in the river. And that’s why that geography is so consistent. The motorcycle chase is an absolute mutilation of all the geography of Paris and it’s very, very inconsistent. And the French have given me a good ribbing about that, you’d never get around Paris that quickly.

Giz: Finally, can I pitch you on Mission Impossible 7? It’s a bit of a ludicrous idea, but the Russian President has compromised the American President, there’s hacking involved, the American President is thought to be an asset, there’s secret meeting in the Seychelles and Prague... too crazy for Mission Impossible?

McQuarrie: I can’t imagine anyone believing that story.

Mission Impossible: Fallout hits cinemas on Friday. Go see it, it’s good!