5 Filmmaking Tips from Mission: Impossible Directors

JJ Abrams directing Mission: Impossible 3

Paramount Pictures

The Mission: Impossible franchise has proven to be remarkably durable for its near-twenty years of existence. And these films have done so not by realizing an expanding narrative universe across its many entries, but by exercising a simple formula of repetition and difference. Taking a cue from the genre system that defined Classical Hollywood, Tom Cruise’s signature franchise balances the inevitable (say, Cruise precariously hanging from something) and the surprisingly variable (but what will he be hanging from??). As Alex Huls puts it, the series’ “meeting of dependability and uncertainty has a thrilling allure.” Less concerned with a narrative throughline than in continually reassembling its core skeleton, Mission: Impossible films essentially reinvent themselves anew with each entry, but recognizably so.

Key to the variation component of this formula is the fact that each Mission: Impossible film has been helmed by a different director, with each helmer offering certain sensibilities while also making good on whatever they and Cruise agree a Mission: Impossible film to be. Together, these films have constructed a fascinating case for examining the end results of a repetition-and-difference formula, where the person behind the camera repeatedly changes as a star actor-producer maintains the series as its architect.

So, here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from five filmmakers prompted at some point to remind journalists that Tom Cruise does his own stunts.

Why Another?

It turns out you weren’t the only one who found the first Mission: Impossible hard to follow ‐ it was a notoriously difficult shoot that began without a full shooting script. However, Brian De Palma lent the production his signature sense of paranoid intrigue, giving the film remarkable tension throughout its elaborate set pieces. It was also reportedly De Palma’s idea to have the film’s first act take place in Prague, lending to the franchise its particular take of Bond-style globe-hopping (leading to its fifth entry opening in Belarus, that persistent global threat). De Palma’s principal goal with the first film was to “constantly surprise the audience,” an approach that set the stage for entries to come that would continually set up and subvert audience expectations.

But when Cruise and his producing began to pursue a sequel, De Palma wanted nothing to do with it, seeing little space for himself in revisiting the franchise. This choice opened the opportunity for inspiration to arise elsewhere.

Re-Create

Jim Ferguson: “Are you surprised that the audience leaving the theater at the screening last night ‐ I was hearing, ‘I was more entertained by this one than I was the first one.’ Does that make you feel good?”

John Woo: “Yeah, I feel very happy about it, because that’s also what we are trying to do. You know, Tom [Cruise] and I wanted to make this one totally different from the first one, and we tried to create a new kind of hero. A hero [who has] a great passion about life, about love, and really care about people. Not like a James Bond type. The other thing is we try to make a romantic classic spy movie.”

John Woo expressed little love for the first Mission: Impossible, and this was perhaps why he came to be seen as an ideal captain of its sequel, for the director of Face/Off and Broken Arrow would inevitably exercise an entirely different approach to the film’s idea of action. Woo also widened the scope of the film’s principal character in the process, making Ethan Hunt an extrovert in both his romance and his violence rather than a lone wolf battling against an obscure conspiracy. Oh, and there are doves and Metallica in this one.

Know Where You Fit

When I read the script that they had written, I really liked it, it was really cool…I just wasn’t the right person to direct it. It wasn’t the version that I’d be the best director of. So I said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do Mission 3, but this isn’t the version that I think I’m suited for’. I thought Tom would say ‘Oh well, we’ll find someone else’. But, he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’. I said ‘My version would be a more personal version, a more intimate movie, funnier, and it would be more heartbreaking’. He said ‘Well, that’s the version I’ve wanted to do from the beginning’.”

Cruise has openly sought out directors who might not appear on Hollywood’s shortlists for a tentpole summer action movie. In the case of Mission: Impossible III, Cruise sought to collaborate with someone who hadn’t directed a feature film at all, recruiting J.J. Abrams, the showrunner of Lost and Felicity to develop an Ethan Hunt adventure that would involve Philip Seymour Hoffman credibly delivering bone-chilling threats. I wonder how that worked out for this young director.

Listen

“There was a night where Robert Elswit and my first AD took me out to a restaurant and said, ‘You know, you’ve got to start asserting yourself.’ This was before we started filming, because I was unusually silent. I was just kind of taking in everything everybody was saying to me, trying to take in as much information as I could. I think they were starting to mistake my silence for,’I’m not going to have a point of view when the camera starts to roll.’ When the camera did roll, they were relieved that I very much had a point of view, but I didn’t want to speak up. I was in a listening mode when everything was being prepared. I had certain ways I wanted things done, but when they were telling me about their experience, I wanted to hear that. I was working with the best people in the business, so I had a period where I was kind of all-ears. I think they were starting to get worried that I wasn’t going to call ‘Charge!’ when it came time to do battle.”

Hopping onto a franchise well into its existence must involve a difficult balancing act between respecting the established experience of veterans and asserting your own vision. When Brad Bird made his first venture into live-action filmmaking with Mission: Impossible ‐ Ghost Protocol, he attempted to realize that balance by patiently witnessing the experience of the series’ revisiting crew. While that listening no doubt allowed him to find his place within the franchise, the series is not a well-oiled machine that can drive itself ‐ it needs an attentive, critical listener who will turn the experiences of others into something altogether new.

Geography Builds Suspense

In this “Anatomy of a Scene” feature from the New York Times, Christopher McQuarrie discusses the construction of the set for Mission: Impossible ‐ Rogue Nation’s enthralling opera house sequence. In so doing, McQuarrie explicates the importance of a coherent and intricately mapped geography in constructing a complex action scene, showing how a careful assembly of the audience’s knowledge of the cinematic space they’re in can yield surprising room for surprises.

And it’s hard to think of a more fitting summary of the tasks that beset a Mission: Impossible director than that.

What We’ve Learned

Usually this column is devoted to directors and other filmmakers who realize their cinematic qualities across their body of work through a set of repeated, learned approaches to the form. But there is a functional aspect that potentially gets lost in this view of film craftwork, one that ignores a major function of creatives in today’s Hollywood: that is, to realize their strengths and contributions within the existing framework of a franchise. The Mission: Impossible series provides a rewarding example of this practical aspect of contemporary tentpole directing in action, producing five entries that can be explored by the ways in which its directors navigate and subvert inherited expectations.