Christopher McQuarrie Talks ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Unexpected But Necessary Narrative of Filmmaking

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

When she explains the rules to Cage, it’s a scene that you, Doug Liman, and Emily Blunt debated, in terms of how much information was necessary. The Way of the Gun is a film that rejected a lot of traditional exposition. What did you take away from that experience, when it comes to how much an audience does or doesn’t need to know?

Here’s the mistake that I made on The Way of the Gun. Not only did I not say to people what I was trying to say, I didn’t show them what I was trying to say. Because I stayed so far back with the camera and avoided communicating to them the emotions that I wanted them to feel, they didn’t know what to feel. They didn’t know who to respond to. They didn’t know how to attach themselves to characters. It’s not that you needed to do that in the writing. There’s a way to do it with the camera. There’s a way to present emotion. There’s a way to take the camera and say, “This means something and you should pay attention.” By doing the movie in such a startling presentational way, and then by also writing it in such an ambiguous way, you have to actively participate in that movie for that movie to work for you. You have to read into the movie and you have to search for its hidden meanings.

Now, that’s the kind of stuff I love. I love films like Deliverance where you can watch it over and over again and decode all of its many different meanings. Unfortunately, the audience today almost have almost an allergic reaction to interactivity. They really feel cheated when all of the answers are not presented to them. They feel as though something has been left out. They don’t want to participate in the movie. They want to experience the movie. So I’m always at war with that. I experienced that problem in Jack Reacher. I’m still astonished when I hear about people who thought that, because of what Barr says at the end of the movie, they thought Barr really was the shooter. They thought that there was a second shooter. They don’t understand the irony of that sequence. It’s a guy who thinks he did it because he has no memory of what happened. So they read a completely different movie into it.

Now, do I want to court that 10% to the audience? If I’m making a movie like Mission: Impossible for the budget that I’m making it and what it has to make globally? You bet. Would I do that if I was going to make a movie like The Way of the Gun again? Fuck those people. I’m not functioning in a budget where I have to court them. And no matter what I did to make the movie appetizing to them, they wouldn’t come. And so, you have to evaluate the movie that you are making. You have to say to yourself, “What does it have to do in order to fulfill the prime objective?”, which is I’ve got to make a return on the investment. This movie has to be profitable so that I can make another film.

You look at your film and say, “Well, is this a big commercial idea? If it’s not, how can I do it for less?” And if I can’t do it for less, how do I do it so that those people come and those people leave satisfied without compromising my integrity? That’s the tug of war with every single film. That’s the bones of Edge of Tomorrow. It was a constant struggle to reconcile the size of the movie with the complexity of the movie with the emotional demands of the movie. I think in a lot of ways we were successful. I think in other ways we paid the price. Only time will tell what people really think of it.

The Way of the Gun does have its fans now, though.

I think it’s a little bit more appreciated because the people that see movies the way I do found that movie. Do I think that there are enough people out there to support a film like The Way of the Gun? No. If, however, I was a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, whose name is what sells his films as much as his stars, you go to a Quentin Tarantino movie because you are going for the Quentin Tarantino experience. No one associates a film with a Chris McQuarrie experience.

To put it more accurately, there’s not a large enough audience [Laughs]. By virtue of the fact that I do not pursue an image as a filmmaker and that my career path has been so scattershot. One day I’m working on The Tourist. The next day I’m working on Edge of Tomorrow. The next day I’m working on Jack the Giant Slayer. The next day I’m working on The Way of the Gun. What I haven’t done is developed a name brand and developed a core audience the way someone like Tarantino, or Kevin Smith, or Wes Anderson, or Paul Thomas Anderson has done. I’ve worked as a guy sort of behind the scenes. I’ve worked in the trenches. And occasionally I step out and I direct a movie. Because there isn’t that sort of brand awareness, there isn’t a narrative. There isn’t something that has you rooting for that film. That’s where you end up with The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher. I don’t have that problem on Mission: Impossible. Mission: Impossible is the brand. Tom Cruise is the brand.

What will probably happen is 10 years from now someone will probably go, “Oh, fuck. McQuarrie directed that movie? I had no idea!”

[Laughs] Say if you are working on The Way of the Gun right now instead of Mission: Impossible 5, would you try to make it more accessible?

The problem is if you tried to make The Way of the Gun accessible, it would lose everything that makes it The Way of the Gun. I do think I could direct it better. I think I could make it look visually more compelling. I think I could have done a better trailer to get you interested in seeing that film now. I know more about what I need to bait more people in to see the movie. Do I think I can make that a runaway hit movie? No. It’s a dark and nihilistic movie. It extends both middle fingers and says, “I dare you to like me.” That was the intention behind the film. I wouldn’t change that aspect of the film for anything.

After making a movie like Mission: Impossible 5, that will afford you a lot of opportunities. Do you have more stories in the vein of The Way of the Gun you want to make?

Everything I’ve got in my drawer is like that. Unforgiven, The Monster of Florence, The Last Mission, those are all films that are challenging, that are not overtly commercial. They are not big effects driven spectacles. At the same time, they are really compelling stories. If I can take everything that I’ve learned in terms of how to build the narrative around the film, I feel like I can make those films successful.

Financers have not gotten to the place yet where they are looking at me as somebody who is there to maximize their return. They are looking at me more like somebody who is… “He’s a guy with odd ideas.” What I’ve learned is that the content of the film is almost irrelevant. It’s really the presentation of that content. It’s my responsibility to make them the film they can sell.

But the truth of the matter is, unless you’ve got your hands on one of a handful of properties, unless you’ve got Transformers, unless you’ve got Batman, unless you’ve got Marvel, you’ve got to make your own luck. We’ve proven time, and time, and time again that your own luck can be made from the strangest of places.

It’s really just knowing right from the beginning how we’re going to present that narrative. What’s in the film doesn’t really matter. What’s in the film is secondary to getting people to see it. If you can convince people that it’s a good film before they’ve come to see it, the film will succeed regardless of its quality.

So my mission in life is to tell two stories at the same time. It’s the movie I’m making, but it’s also the story of, “This is why we want you to come and see this movie.”

Is it frustrating as a writer that you have to tell those two stories?

It was frustrating when I didn’t understand that. It was frustrating when I didn’t have a name for it and just felt all the time like I was just watching films that I didn’t think were very good, watching them turn out to be really successful. And I would be working on something extremely, extremely hard and putting my very best work into it and people didn’t even know it existed. Or they did know it existed but they had a completely wrong impression, either total indifference or negativity.

It was until I was able to isolate that publicity and marketing are two sides of the same coin. Marketing is only half of the battle. The other half of the battle is the public image of your film that informs people’s excitement about it. It informs the talk on social media, which informs the mainstream press who sort of go to social media for their sense of what heat a movie has. All of that stuff has to happen long before the movie is ever finished. I didn’t know that. I didn’t understand that. Now I can look at a project and say, “This is a really good project, but it’s never going to be a project somebody is interested in.” Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.

Edge of Tomorrow is now in theaters, and you should really go see it.

All you really need to know about Jack is his favorite movies are: The Last Detail, Rumble Fish, Sunset Boulevard, The Truman Show, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Verdict, Closer, Shadow of a Doubt, Spider-Man 2, Jaws, Adaptation, Get Carter, The Last Days of Disco, Carnal Knowledge, Almost Famous, Ed Wood, Barton Fink, and L.A. Confidential.

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