By Iain Blair
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 22 years since Tom Cruise first launched the Mission: Impossible franchise. Since then, it’s become a global cultural phenomenon that’s grossed more than $2.8 billion, making it one of the most successful series in movie history.
With Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Cruise reprises his role of Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team leader Ethan Hunt for the sixth time. And writer/director/producer Christopher McQuarrie, who directed the series’ previous film Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, also returns. That makes him the first filmmaker ever to return to direct a second film in a franchise where one of its signature elements is that there’s been a different director for every movie.
In the latest twisty adventure, Hunt and his IMF team (Alec Baldwin, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames), along with some familiar allies (Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan), find themselves in a race against time to stop a nuclear bomb disaster after a mission gone wrong. The film, which also stars Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, Sean Harris and Vanessa Kirby, features a stellar team behind the camera as well, including director of photography Rob Hardy, production designer Peter Wenham, editor Eddie Hamilton, visual effects supervisor Jody Johnson and composer Lorne Balfe.
In 1995, McQuarrie got his start writing the script for The Usual Suspects, which won him the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. In 2000, he made his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun. Then in 2008 he reteamed with Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, co-writing the WWII film Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise. He followed that up with his 2010 script for The Tourist, then two years later, he worked with Cruise again on Jack Reacher, which he wrote and directed.
I recently talked with the director about making the film, dealing with all the visual effects and the workflow.
How did you feel when Tom asked for you to come back and do another MI film?
I thought, “Oh no!” In fact, when he asked me to do Rogue Nation, I was very hesitant because I’d been on the set of Ghost Protocol, and I saw just how complicated and challenging these films are. I was terrified. So after I’d finished Rogue, I said to myself, “I feel really sorry for the poor son-of-a-bitch who does the next one.” After five movies, I didn’t think there was anything left to do, but the joke turned out to be on me!
What’s the secret of its continuing appeal?
First off, Tom himself. He’s always pushing himself and entertaining the audience with stuff they’ve never seen before. Then it’s all about character and story. The emphasis is always on that and the humanity of these characters. On every film, and with the last two we’ve done together, he’s learned how much deeper you can go with that and refined the process. You’re always learning from the audience as well. What they want.
How do you top yourself and make this different from the last one?
To make it different, I replaced my core crew — new DP, new composer and so on — and went for a different visual language. My intention on both films was not to even try to top the previous one. So when we started this I told Tom, “I just want to place somewhere in the Top 6 of Mission: Impossible films. I’m not trying to make the greatest action film ever.”
You say that, but it’s stuffed full of nail-biting car chases and really ambitious action sequences.
(Laughs) Well, at the same time you’re always trying to do something different from the other films in the franchise, so in Rogue I had this idea for a female counterpart for Tom — Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) was a more dynamic love interest. I looked at the other five films and realized that the biggest action scene of any of those films had not come in the third act. So it was a chance to create the biggest and most climactic third act — a huge team sequence that involved everyone. That was the big goal. But we didn’t set out to make this giant movie, and it wasn’t till we began editing that we realized just how much action there is.
Women seem to have far larger roles this time out.
That was very intentional from the start. In my earliest talks with Tom, we discussed the need to resolve the Julia (Michelle Monaghan) character and find closure to that story. So we had her and Rebecca, and then Angela Bassett came on board to replace Alec Baldwin’s character at the CIA after he moves to IMF, and it grew from there. I had an idea for the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) character, and we just stayed open to all possibilities and the idea that these strong women, who own all the scenes they’re in, throw Ethan off balance all the time.
How early did you integrate post into the shoot?
Right at the start, since we had so many visual effects. We also had a major post challenge as Tom broke his ankle doing a rooftop chase stunt in London. So we had to shut down totally for six weeks and re-arrange the whole schedule to accommodate his recovery, and even when he got back on the movie his ankle wasn’t really healed enough.
We then had to shoot a lot of stuff piecemeal, and I knew, in order to make the release date, we had to start cutting right away when we had to stop for six weeks. But that also gave me a chance to re-evaluate it all, since you don’t really know the film you’ve shot until you get in the edit room, and that let me do course corrections I couldn’t have done otherwise. So, I essentially ended up doing re-shoots while still shooting the film. I was able to rewrite the second act, and it also meant that we had a finished cut done just six days after we wrapped. And we were able to test that movie four times and keep fine-tuning it.
Where did you do the post?
All in London, around Soho, and we did the sound at De Lane Lea.
Like Rogue, this was edited by Eddie Hamilton. Was he on the set?
Yes, and he’s invaluable because he’s got a very good eye, is a great storyteller and has a great sense of the continuity. He can also course-correct very quickly and let me know when we need to grab another shot. On Rogue Nation, he also did a lot of 2nd unit stuff, and he has great skills with the crew. We didn’t really have a 2nd unit on this one, which I think is better because it can get really chaotic with one. Basically, I love the edit, and I love being in the editing room and working hand in hand with my editor, shot for shot, and communicating all the time during production. It was a great collaboration.
There’s obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
I’d say well over 3,000, and our VFX supervisor Jody Johnson at Double Negative did an amazing job. DNeg, Lola, One of Us, Bluebolt and Cheap Shot all worked on them. There was a lot of rig removal and cleanup along with the big set pieces.
What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?
The big “High Altitude Low Opening,” or HALO sequence, where Tom jumps out of a Boeing Globemaster at 25,000 feet was far and away the most difficult one. We shot part of it at an RAF base in England, but then with Tom’s broken ankle and the changed schedule, we ended up shooting some of it in Abu Dhabi. Then we had to add in the Paris backdrop and the lightning for the storm, and to maintain the reality we had to keep the horizon in the shot. As the actors were falling at 160 MPH toward the Paris skyline, all of those shots had to be tracked by hand. No computer could do it, and that alone took hundreds of people working on it for three months to complete. It was exhausting.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
It’s so vital, and for me it’s always a three-pronged approach — music, sound and silence, and then the combination of all three elements. It’s very important to maintain the franchise aesthetic, but I wanted to have a fresh approach, so I brought in composer Lorne Balfe, and he did a great job.
The DI must have been vital. How did that process help?
We did it at Molinare in London with colorist Asa Shoul, who is just so good. I’m fairly hands on, especially as the DP was off on another project by the time we did the DI, although he worked on it with Asa as well. We had a big job dealing with all the stuff we shot in New Zealand, bringing it up to the other footage. I actually try to get the film as close as possible to what I want on the day, and then use the DI as a way of enhancing and shaping that, but I don’t actually like to manipulate things too much, although we gave all the Paris stuff this sort of hazy, sweaty look and feel which I love.
A very long nap.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.