Making “Mission: Impossible” history, Christopher McQuarrie is the first director ever to return. “No sane person would do this twice,” he says. “That’s like the real reason I’m the first.”
Just as the partnership of John Ford and John Wayne galloped triumphantly across the vast landscape of the Western, or the pairing of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon pushed the envelope of comedy to eternally iconic effect, the director-star relationship between Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise has resulted in some truly legendary action movies, and shifted the parameters of what had previously been thought possible.
And it’s about to go one better, with “Fallout” representing their most simpatico picture to date. As the writer-director himself says, “We’ve [now] developed a shorthand that anyone around us cannot follow. We forget this sometimes and have to be reminded that we’re the only ones who know what the hell is going on.”
They met when Cruise starred in “Valkyrie”, the 2008 movie based on a real-life assassination plot against Hitler that McQuarrie had written. It would prove to be a meeting that would mark a second key filmmaking milestone for McQuarrie, after his astonishing screenplay for The Usual Suspects in 1995 won him the Oscar and instantly established him as one of the most talented screenwriters in the industry. But it would be on a Mission: Impossible that the partnership really found its enduring legacy.
Called in by Cruise to rewrite “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” when filming was already underway (“Chris can look at a script and tell you exactly why it’s not working, and how to fix it,” observes Simon Pegg, who made his Mission debut in that movie), McQuarrie’s prowess at propulsive storytelling on the fly only solidified the partnership. From there, McQuarrie directed him in “Jack Reacher”, and was then almost immediately called in to rewrite the script on Cruise’s next, the sci-fi epic “Edge Of Tomorrow”.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that it was on that movie, in which McQuarrie had to devise multiple ways for Tom Cruise to die, that Cruise suggested McQuarrie direct “Rogue Nation”, which would go on to achieve the biggest box office opening in the franchise’s history so far.
Now, making Mission: Impossible history, McQuarrie finds himself back in the director’s chair for a second time. “Let me be clear. No sane person would do this twice in a row. That’s likely the real reason I’m the first to have done it,” says McQuarrie of the fact that after a run of Mission: Impossible movies directed by Brian De Palma, then John Woo, then J.J. Abrams and then Brad Bird, he is the first one ever to get to return.
And if that challenge hasn’t exactly been without its pressures – not least given that his leading man broke his ankle halfway through filming – you get the sense the pair of them wouldn’t have had it any other way. “We could not have made the job harder for ourselves. Unless maybe Tom was trying to deal cards. While on fire,” says McQuarrie of the sheer scale of the stunts they have pushed themselves – and each other – to, thus ensuring Fallout is the most spectacular Mission: Impossible of them all. “But you’ve got to just go with it. Be good to Mission and Mission will be good to you.”
Over the years, you and Tom have executed some pretty insane stunts. But, even by your standards, Fallout’s HALO sequence, in which Tom jumps out of a plane at 25,000 feet, sounds incredible. How did that come about?
Christopher: Tom and I had been discussing a sequence like that for years. Events in Fallout organically created a place for it. The sequence itself was incredibly complicated to execute – from the development of the camera and safety equipment to the incredibly narrow light-margin at dusk. We could not have made the job harder for ourselves. Unless maybe Tom was trying to deal cards. While on fire.
Obviously you and Tom have a great working relationship. But, if the roles were reversed, would you jump out of a plane for him?
Christopher: Absolutely. Would anyone care?
In all seriousness, this is the seventh time you have worked with each other now. How has your relationship evolved over the past decade?
Christopher: We’ve developed a shorthand that anyone around us cannot follow. We forget this sometimes and have to be reminded that we’re the only ones who know what the hell is going on.
Specifically on Mission: Impossible, how would you describe your journey together on this hat-trick of movies? It started out pretty seat-of-the-pants when you were called in as a writer on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Has your process calmed down now?
Christopher: [It’s the] same madness. But we know now that disaster is not a guarantee of failure, nor is a plan a guarantee of success. Just go with it. Be good to Mission and Mission will be good to you.
Ever since its conception, this is a franchise that has been synonymous with drafting in different directors for each installment. What was the pressure like being the first director to come back?
Christopher: Let me be clear. No sane person would do this twice in a row. That’s likely the real reason I’m the first to have done it. As for the pressure of that tradition, it’s there. And I felt I had to honour it. I wanted this movie to feel as though a different director was at the helm. We’ll see if I pulled it off.
So this isn’t a direct sequel, then? Like, say, “Spectre” was to “Skyfall” in the 007 universe?
Christopher: I went in the exact opposite direction of those films. They work best as a box set. I wanted Fallout to stand alone. If you’ve seen the previous films – any of them – so much the better.
In terms of making “Fallout” feel different, then, have you brought in a different palette on this one?
Christopher: Absolutely. Mission must evolve. “Rogue Nation” was a conscious nod to the previous films, something of a Greatest Hits. “Fallout” is a departure from all of them, yet very conscious of what has come before.
Talking of “Rogue Nation”, that had a great Hitchcock vibe. Is it fair to say “Fallout” feels quite ’70s in its look and feel?
Christopher: I’m not aiming for anything other than a more emotional story for the characters. The ’70s vibe is likely an inevitable by-product of the movies, specifically the cinematography, that I love. I just keep reaching for what looks like a movie to me. I never quite get there. That’s the most I’ve ever thought about style.
Of course, you’re not the only person who is back. What was it about Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane that made you want to see them again in Fallout?
Christopher: Rebecca is simply a delight to work with – an immensely talented and rare combination of empathy, strength and vulnerability. Why on Earth would I not bring her back? As for Solomon Lane, Sean Harris only accepted the role thinking he would be killed off. But Mission has a mind of its own and he was left alive at the end of “Rogue Nation”, despite our many plans to the contrary. Ilsa’s story in “Rogue Nation” took over and Lane was left to be a motivation more than a fully developed character. As a result, he was left as something of a cypher. I wanted the audience to see who Lane really is…
And, what does that mean for Ethan? How would you describe the stakes for him this time out?
Christopher: They are the biggest emotional stakes he has ever faced by virtue of the fact that he is directly responsible. He has a terrible choice to make in the opening of the film – complete his mission or save his friends. He chooses his friends and now everyone and everything he cares about, along with the world, are in peril.
The physical stakes here for Tom were huge, too. How did you feel when he broke his ankle on the rooftop jump?
Christopher: Horrible that it happened, relieved that it wasn’t worse.
Obviously the stunts you do aren’t done recklessly, but did that accident influence any of your decisions moving forward, that realisation that Tom isn’t completely indestructible?
Christopher: I’d never suspected for a second that he was. I’ve known from my earlier days working with Tom that the smallest stunt can be as dangerous as the biggest. The injury changed nothing but the order in which we made the movie. I went into editorial and Tom went to work healing – and, like everything else he does, he committed to it fully. We were back at work ahead of the most liberal estimates.
What did the hiatus in filming mean for you?
Christopher: I had time to look at the film we were making, as opposed to the one we’d set out to make, and was able to rewrite accordingly. Tom’s injury did nothing to hurt the film in the long run. No pun intended.
Other than the HALO jump we talked about earlier, what were the other most challenging set-pieces? The helicopters?
Christopher: Every sequence was challenging. The gunfight in London and the foot chase – where Tom’s ankle is still broken in 99 percent of the shots – were each in their own way as intense and stressful as the HALO or Heli sequences. We were ambitious and we went for it. As we like to say: It ain’t Mission: Difficult.
A lot of people on the production are talking about what a filmmaking achievement your sequence in Paris is. What can you tell us about it? Is it your love letter to the city?
Christopher: I love Paris and have spent a lot of time there with my family. The city suffered multiple tragedies while we were developing “Fallout” and it broke my heart. I was immediately determined to film there. Tom loves the city as well and readily agreed. Certain well-meaning people tried to discourage us from going. There were fears the city wasn’t safe. Tom said, ‘That is precisely why we’re going. We want people to see that it is.’ The welcome we received in Paris was wonderful and the city’s level of cooperation was extraordinary. There was certainly some apprehension when we described what we wanted to do, but the longer we were there, the more they saw the care we were taking. We were in the air, on the river, on the streets – helicopters, trucks, cars, motorcycles, boats. We had the Grand Palais for nine nights. We had the Arc De Triomphe for only two hours, starting 30 minutes before sunrise. We said, ‘We’ll take it’. Everything you see there was shot in 90 minutes.
That sounds like an intense schedule…
Christopher: All-in-all, Paris had four days in the schedule that [producer] Jake Myers and [assistant director] Tommy Gormley referred to as ‘the impossible days’ – ones so packed they were deemed unmakeable. Thanks to the cooperation of the city and people of Paris, we made them all. The sequence is not just my love letter to Paris. It is my ‘thank you’ for all Paris has given me. Paris, je t’aime.
Finally, are you and Tom already talking about a third Mission together as director and star? Do you have a big stunt in mind already?
Christopher: No sane person would ever do two of these things, let alone three in a row. But it may not be up to me. After all, Mission has a mind of its own…
“Mission Impossible FALLOUT” is now in cinemas.