Christopher McQuarrie Talks ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and the Unexpected But Necessary Narrative of Filmmaking
At the start of Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow our hero, Major Bill Cage (Tom Cruise), is a coward. He’s more than ready to run from a fight he knows he’s not equipped for. That’s not the kind of hero we expect from a blockbuster, but it’s the type of subversive choice we should expect from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who had a hand in bringing Hiroshi Sakurazak’s graphic novel, All You Need Is Kill, to the big screen.
A protagonist unwilling to help save the world isn’t the only fresh idea in Edge of Tomorrow. Even when Cage becomes a fierce soldier, he’s still no match for the bad-ass helicopter-blade-wielding Rita Vrastaski (Emily Blunt). She is the hero of this movie. Vrastaski drives the story. Cruise, once again playing a role a lot of movie stars would pass on, consistently pushed for his co-star to be this film’s true hero.
Cruise and McQuarrie’s creative partnership is built on risky choices. Valkyrie, a one-eyed Nazi movie about killing Hitler, was released on Christmas day in 2008. They took a crack at Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, the kind of character that doesn’t think twice about putting a bullet in the head of his unarmed enemy even after they’ve surrendered. And now, with Edge of Tomorrow, they’ve championed a project that follows an unlikely hero in a story not based on a well-known property.
The two men are now hard at work on the next Mission: Impossible, but Christopher McQuarrie was kind enough to speak with us weeks after Edge of Tomorrow’s release. The very candid Mr. McQuarrie openly discussed his career, why audiences demand answers, how marketing is perhaps more important than a film’s quality and more.
How pleased have you been with the film’s response?
Honestly, I’m a little surprised by the response. We were testing the film and the film was being very well received. The early critical responses were coming out. And then what happens is you are hoping that the financial success of the film follows with it, because I am accustomed, even in instances where the film is critically well received, my beliefs tend to [Laughs]…How else do I put it? My films do very well on home video. If you go all the way back to the beginning of my career and you look at even The Usual Suspects. The Usual Suspects, dollar for dollar, it did fine financially. But it wasn’t a runaway hit at the box office. It really didn’t get discovered till it was on video. The Way of the Gun, Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, they’re all movies that really, for whatever reason, were polarizing and didn’t really grab people when they were in the theaters. There wasn’t really a strong narrative about them. Sometimes it’s a film in which people are only vaguely aware.
In this instance I was thinking, “Well, gah. Maybe this is going to be different. Maybe this one is going to have a bigger response.” No. It was par for the course.
Still, it’s probably preferable to have a movie that stands the test of time rather than being forgotten a week after the release.
Ideally, I’d like to have a movie that people like and makes money. I’m fascinated by what I see as movies that people are extremely critical of that also seem to be really successful. It all comes down to one thing and that’s the narrative and the awareness around a film. The marketability of the film is more important than the quality. What is the narrative driving the movie? What’s people’s awareness of the film before they know what the film is about? And what the film is about is almost secondary to that.
When The Usual Suspects was released, was that also a time where marketability was more important than quality?
Well, Suspects was a completely different era. Suspects was an era where you could make a $5 million film, have that film come out and be successful, win the awards that it did, launch the careers that it did. I think that’s much harder to do now. That’s not to say it’s impossible. I mean Jennifer Lawrence got the amount that she did off of Winter’s Bone. But really, Winter’s Bone is kind of what got her noticed.
It’s a different marketplace right now and marketing is very different. I think when Suspects came out that was kind of the beginning of what the Oscar race is like now. When Suspects came out it really wasn’t a race. By race, I mean it’s a political race. You really have to go out and campaign and promote your movie and you have to chase after those awards. You can see the people who didn’t chase after them and didn’t get them.
I think in terms of marketing, yeah, I think it’s changed greatly. It’s become much more a science in terms of the images, in terms of the overall message. The word I constantly use is narrative. What’s got you rooting for the film before you even know what the film is about?
That’s well put. Early on in your career you didn’t want to tell other people’s stories, so you had trouble working in the studio system. Now, you have Edge of Tomorrow. You got Jack Reacher made. And now you are working on Mission: Impossible 5. Do you feel like you’re a part of the club now or are you still an outsider?
I always feel like an outsider. I’ll always feel like the nerd at the party. I don’t understand them. I don’t speak their language. I’m not ever fully comfortable in their presence. But I do understand what they want and what they need. I’ve made friends with the fact that that is how you progress.
Never lose sight of what the ultimate objective of filmmaking is, which is to deliver a return on the investment so that you can make another shot and to try to find your creative impulse within that. Would I have ever foreseen Mission: Impossible 5? No, only because I never would have imagined that anybody would have given me the job. I never would imagined that somebody would have turned to me and said, “Hey, why don’t you do one of these?” So when Tom Cruise suggested, I sorta looked at him like, “Uh, are you sure about that?”
But at the same time, he and I are very frank and very open with one another about what our objectives are. We don’t want this thing to go over budget. We don’t want this to go over schedule. We want to make sure that the studio sees a return on their investment. We want to be smart about the way that the movie gets made because it doesn’t have to be such a nasty process. It doesn’t have to be so chaotic. You don’t have to be re-shooting big chunks of your movie. You can actually have a plan and go in and make your film and have it all work. So that’s what we tried to do.
Mission: Impossible 5 marks your fifth collaboration with Tom Cruise. What makes that partnership work so well?
We love the same movies. We love the same filmmakers. We agree in terms of trope and, most importantly, in terms of storytelling. We really both value story. And a lot of films that you see nowadays, story is kind of secondary to an assembly of set pieces, of events, or of philosophical ideas disguised as set pieces and events. What we’re really about is telling a story. And that’s exceedingly hard. It’s made Mission: Impossible really difficult because you have four other films that have used up certain ideas and have taken the story in certain directions. You are constantly trying to find a way to break new ground but also to stay within the structure of what a Mission: Impossible is and somehow string all of those events together with a story that makes sense.
It’s a constant process of building it up, tearing it down, starting over again. I’m writing a draft as we speak that’s a completely different approach to the same story.
When you write a Mission: Impossible film or Edge of Tomorrow where you have to reach a mass audience, do you write with a different mindset?
Yeah, definitely. I worked on the last Mission: Impossible. I came in and did a production rewrite on that film. While I was doing that rewrite working on one of the sequences of the film, I was sort of patting myself on the back for how well the sequence was coming together. But I had to stop and say to myself, “You would never have written this on your own. You would never have come up with the bones of the scene in order to be where you are now. You needed a collaborator, whether that person was in the room or was a previous writer who may be thinking way different from me.” I tend to be extremely rational, extremely logical, character based, very binary.
So when I was asked to do this movie, I said, “I’ll do that on the condition that I’m not the first writer to do it. I need other people to come on board and write what they would write, not write what I would write. And then I will come into that and take what they’ve written and apply my process to it.”
That’s been the process for this movie. Of course, it’s evolved to a point where now I had to come in and rewrite my stuff. I’ve had to come back and look at my own sequences and say, “OK. Now, here’s the logical set. If you were the other kind of writer, how would you tackle that?” I kind of had to learn to write with my left hand. It’s really, really a challenge when you realize an action sequence that we had in the first draft of the script, for whatever reason, you couldn’t do it. You had to create a new action scene and that first writer is gone. So now I’ve gone to come up with a whole new action scene based on what? Based on a photograph of a location or a kernel of an idea? I’ve had to build sequences that way. There are other writers for whom that comes naturally. For me that’s the antithesis of the process.
What would you say, as a writer, comes naturally to you?
I’ve always said, and I’m probably shooting myself in the foot, I don’t think I’m a particularly good writer. I think I’m a good storyteller. If you give me objectives and a series of obstacles, I will navigate a course for you that brings you to that objective in a way that I think is best. So I prefer limitations, and I prefer boundaries, and I prefer obstacles. The Usual Suspects is a really good example. I came up with the ending first. Once I had that ending, once I knew what the ending was, everything else in the path was clear to me. Maybe not right at first, but I knew everything that could and could not be in the scene as I was writing the script, because it all had to be in support of that ending.
With The Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise presented me with an earlier draft of the script. I had read like several drafts over the course of them developing it. While I was making Reacher, I was reading his scripts occasionally and sort of giving my two cents before I came on as an actual writer. I understood very clearly what the premise of the story was and what they were looking for in terms of characters.
The infinite possibilities immediately became finite. They became very, very limited and very succinct. By virtue of the fact that there’s this relationship with this woman, by virtue of the fact that Tom, at his age, is playing this role. But suddenly you realize certain things have to happen in order for this story to work. I knew I had to extend the first half of the movie establishing the rules of the universe. Because what we wanted do is experience this story through his eyes. I knew right then that I needed to go to extreme loops with Tom’s character. Each loop needs to be successively faster. And then a part of the third loop was the loop in which Tom goes into that thing and he knows everything about everybody. So you had to feather in all the things that he had to know in order for that sequence to work.
So I understood, I saw it in my mind the sequence in which Tom walks into that thing and says, “Have any of you ever met me before?” Everything that was written before that served that scene. That scene was almost like the end of part one of the movie. Therefore, the scene in which Emily Blunt teaches him the rules is the beginning of part two of the movie. So it’s almost like those two scenes, the training sequence/the learning sequence and the scene where Tom finally realizes what’s happening to him, that’s the gravitational center of the movie. Everything before it is going to make that scene happen and everything that happens after that is the result of those sequences.
I have to say, because you mentioned Emily Blunt, when I saw the film again there were two little girls in the theater seated in front of me. I got the impression that they really loved seeing a character like Rita.
I’m immensely proud of Rita and how she turns out and how the romance never overwhelms her. It’s funny. The kiss at the end of the movie, we struggled with how to create any sort of…not romance, but their emotional connection between these characters. It was really difficult. It’s difficult to express in a way that isn’t physical, short of something that’s really sappy. And so as much as we tried to write some sort of a romantic moment between them, it always felt false. It always felt like they weren’t focused on what was really important, which was she wanted to kill the Omega and he just wanted to get out of this. He just wanted it all to end.
As we were shooting that scene at the very end of the movie, we gave up on the kiss. We weren’t even trying to find a place for it anymore. And right as Emily was saying goodbye to Tom, she just kissed him goodbye in the moment. And it was not in the script. It was not even discussed on the day. Afterwards, she said, “It just felt right. It felt right and I did it.”
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.