Advice from a master of the “Impossible.”
Christopher McQuarrie did not originally intend to be a filmmaker or even end up in Hollywood at all. But childhood friend and aspiring director Bryan Singer needed a writer, and two collaborations later, McQuarrie was going home with an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Usual Suspects. Five years after that, McQuarrie threw his hat in the directing ring with The Way of the Gun, which has since achieved cult status.
An eight-year absence ensued as McQuarrie attempted to get a (still unrealized) Alexander the Great passion project off the ground. His eventual comeback took the form of 2008’s Valkyrie, and with it, he found both a new niche in the world of mega-budget action films and a new winning creative partnership with Tom Cruise.
McQuarrie returned to directing in 2012 with the Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, and has since become the new darling of Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise, helming 2015’s well-received Rogue Nation and then returning for Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which has received comparisons to the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight.
From interviews to commentary tracks to social media, McQuarrie is known for his blunt honesty, unabashedly pointing out continuity errors in his own films and laying bare his complaints about the studio system in which he works. Of course, such honesty also makes for some great advice, so here are six of his best filmmaking tips, compiled for your convenience.
Excitement, Not Gimmicks
As a director, one of McQuarrie’s calling cards is his ability to pull off sleek action sequences that pay homage to old-fashioned film artistry while still being exciting. Stunts that feel new yet stylistically have more in common with the gags of the great silent era comedians than with the fast-paced blurs typical of most 21st-century action sequences. And shot on 35mm film to boot.
McQuarrie elaborated on his approach to the visuals of his films in a 2015 interview with Film Comment:
“Well, the first thing I try to communicate to my crew is that there will be no shaky-cam and no rack zooms, because those techniques are only used to hide the fact that there is no energy. When you eliminate those gimmicks you’re confronted with the reality of the shot you have in front of you, and nine times out of 10 you say to yourself: “This just isn’t working.” Then you have to find ways of infusing the shot with energy and excitement, and ask yourself what you can do to sustain the shot so that you’re not relying on staccato editing.”
Truth Is Never A Cliché
The 199os were full of insanely quotable genre films, from The Big Lebowski to Reservoir Dogs to The Matrix. Yet even with this tough competition, The Usual Suspects can still claim some of the most infectiously quotable lines of the era, including, of course, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
While The Usual Suspects might be the most accoladed of McQuarrie’s screenplays, he’s shown a consistent knack for one-liners throughout his career. When asked by Creative Screenwriting about writing snappy one-liners while avoiding being cliché in the context of The Way of the Gun (which includes such lines as “A plan is a list of things that don’t happen” and “Karma is justice without the satisfaction”) McQuarrie responded:
“Truth is never a cliché. The plan line was all about the certainty of Alexander going to hell. The Karma line speaks to my hatred of revenge as reward, of immediate gratification and what it has done to story. There is no poetry in an eye for an eye, no real irony, and no lasting satisfaction. Thus, no justice. Movies tell us that justice is for the victim, but not for the offender. I believe otherwise. You may not agree, but it is my truth. You’ll get better lines if you write from that place every time.”
Something Can Always Go
Still in the realm of screenwriting advice, McQuarrie elaborated on the biggest lesson he learned from writing The Usual Suspects in a 2000 interview with PopMatters:
“What I learned from ‘The Usual Suspects’ was this: there was a whole sequence where the suspects arrive in LA from New York and have to introduce themselves to the LA crime scene so they can fence these jewels. The sequence shows them arriving, not knowing anybody, where they get the guns, and how they get the contacts, and it bonded all the characters and had one scene in it that I thought was the funniest scene I’d ever written at that point.
“And Bryan Singer read the script and said, ‘It’s all really good, but it’s 20 pages long. Why can’t McManus just know the fence, and we can cut all that out?’ I realized then that something can always go.”
Below is a video featuring a segment of McQuarrie and composer Joe Kraemer’s audio commentary track for The Way of the Gun, in which McQuarrie shares a similar tip: “Find what you’re trying to say, and don’t say it.”
Find An Emotional Connection
It’s not all too often you see a Hollywood director do interviews with high school newspapers, but that’s exactly what McQuarrie did back in January 2017, when he spoke with The Rider, the student paper of Legacy High School in Mansfield, Texas. In the interview, McQuarrie elaborates on what he thinks separates truly great directors from the rest:
“In terms of skill, the skill that separates the best directors from the merely competent directors is an understanding of story, how to tell a story and how to convey emotions. There are a great many directors, very successful directors, who really don’t know the first thing about connecting emotionally with an audience. Now, you may look for a different emotional connection than the person sitting next to you — that’s why there’s room for the David Lynch’s of the world — but we’re all still in some way looking for an emotional connection.”
Don’t Wait to Make Movies
When asked that inevitable question, “What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?” in an roundtable interview with multiple Australian press outlets to promote Jack Reacher back in 2013, McQuarrie responded (via Spotlight Report):
“It is not THE film business; it is A film business. Filmmakers now, more so than 10 years ago, certainly more than 20 years ago… they have access to equipment and global distribution… to the point where you can make a feature-quality 35mm-quality film, with rented equipment, and have people looking at it that night on YouTube.
“And, if you divorce yourself from the need to have a financial return on everything you do… If you start to treat your filmmaking as your calling card and put the film out there for people to experience, A film business (meaning Hollywood) will come calling for you. That puts you at a position of greater advantage than if you’d gone to them and asked them for permission. And that really is…
“If I could boil it down to one thing… it’s any filmmaker now… never ask permission to make movies. There’s no reason why you have to be asking permission to do your work.”
McQuarrie talked to us here at FSR back in 2014 and gave some frustrating but ultimately wise advice about working on big-budget studio films. After noting that a sizable faction of modern audiences want films that don’t require much in the way of interactivity—that is, they don’t want movies that require much thought—he elaborated on his attitude to this subset of moviegoers:
“Do I want to court that 10% of 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.”
Bonus: Learn to Pick Your Battles
As mentioned before, it’s not all that common to see major Hollywood directors do interviews with high school newspapers, but going back to that interview with The Rider, perhaps they should consider doing it more, because that interview also featured the amazing question “Would you rather fight, if you had to, one hundred duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?” To which McQuarrie responded:
“One horse sized duck, the duck sized horses would overwhelm me. They’d take me down. There’d just be too many of them.”
He then inquired what exactly he would have to fend off this foe, to which the interviewer responded, “Let’s say just your fists,” so McQuarrie elaborated:
“Yeah I’m gonna take on the horse sized duck, it doesn’t really have claws or a sharp beak, it’s just big. And I can eat it when I’m done.”
What We Learned
Looking at the journeys of various Hollywood directors, it’s clear that there are many paths one can take to get to that final destination. McQuarrie’s had something of a winding road, from indie crime film screenwriter to big-budget action movie director, but since Jack Reacher, McQuarrie has established himself as an action auteur to watch: a director with a distinct vision, visual style, and sense of self as a filmmaker—and also, pretty damn good at giving advice.