It’s fair to say writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is no longer behind bars in director’s jail. The Academy Award winning writer behind The Usual Suspects made his feature directorial debut with The Way of the Gun, a movie about criminals with real teeth: the bad guys are genuine bad guys, not bad guys trying to steal money for their sick kid or so they can runaway with their innocent girlfriend. Unfortunately, audiences didn’t respond too well to the film back in 2000, which explains why it took 12 years for McQuarrie to get back behind the camera with Jack Reacher. By that point, he already had a good thing going with his now frequent collaborator, Tom Cruise, as the two first collaborated a few years prior on Valkyrie.
After the success of Jack Reacher, the duo have now made their biggest film yet: the fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Mission: Impossible ‐ Rogue Nation is unquestionably a film from Christopher McQuarrie. His voice is all over Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) latest adventure, which pits the super spy up against the Syndicate, an anti-IMF.
Christopher McQuarrie was kind enough to discuss his latest film with us. Here’s what he had to say in our spoiler-filled chat about celebrating the franchise, movie violence, pretty dresses, and writing women not trying to be men:
When the film’s release was moved up to the summer, was that exciting or stressful?
We insisted on it. Tom and I went to the studio and we presented them with a plan whereby we could do it, along with a rational for why. The studio was very supportive, but they were looking at us saying, “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure we can make it?” We said we could do it, and we finished five days before the premiere in Vienna.
Making the fifth installment in this series, how much did you feel like you had to respect or reflect what came before?
You know, it’s not about feeling like you have to; it was a desire to create a feeling of celebration for the entire franchise. This is the fifth movie and it’s been nearly 20 years since the first movie, so I wanted to do something that acknowledged all the previous films. I wasn’t really interested in topping or outdoing any of them, but really just celebrating the franchise.
You also deconstruct the franchise. This film raises questions about the IMF often saving the world through sheer dumb luck.
Yes. Well, that all stemmed from Hunley (Alec Baldwin). I took all the movies and put them together and said, “What would the outside world think of this organization if they knew the agency existed?” Then we created the persona of Hunley, to go, “Look at these guys. They’re agents of chaos.” When you’re not there it’s very easy to judge someone’s work [Laughs], but Hunley is coming from a place of absolute correctness, in terms of his view of the IMF.
It also gives Ethan Hunt an inner-conflict as well. He’s not a character that’s evolved much over the series, but he does in this film.
Definitely. That was a much bigger theme throughout the script, and we pared that down where it became much subtler. We found ourselves not needing it, but there’s that notion of this being Ethan’s life and Ethan having something of a crisis.
Do you consider theme while you’re writing?
It depends on the project and what I’m working on. I tend to let the themes present themselves to me, rather than go out and search for it. I’m not interested in making that sort of point ‐ a story that tells you how to feel about a specific topic. I’m more interested in exploring the topic and giving you things to think about.
Your characters are generally defined more by their actions than dialogue. Is that just how you approach writing?
I think so. To me, it’s always about working through to a conclusion. Each scene has to have its own internal structure, its own act beats, and its own emotional payoff. The simpler that conclusion is ‐ and I say conclusion, rather than a point ‐ the cleaner and more elegant the story becomes and less needs to be said about it.
You achieve that simplicity in Rogue Nation without too much exposition. Is creating clarity with a lack of exposition always a challenge?
With this film, yeah, we were always nervous we weren’t explaining enough about the Syndicate, and the flip side of that coin is: if I have to explain it, then I’m not doing my job. I dread it when they get to that safe boat, and Ethan explains to Benji what the Syndicate is all about. My wife turned to me the first time she watched it and said, “This is my favorite scene in the movie.” Being a Mission: Impossible movie I knew I’d have to explain stakes at one point ‐ and I knew I’d have to do that where it’s either you’re really feeling the stakes in that explanation or you’re having a good time, and that was really the trick of that scene in the boat. We shot that twice and I edited it 5,000 times and went back and shot a pick-up with Tom ‐ to just get that scene right and to get through it as quickly as possible, laying out the message as clearly as possible, and feeling a sense of who the villains were, without ever showing on screen what they’re doing. Once you’re showing the chaos caused by the villain, it’s the villain’s movie. No matter how big your hero is, the villain starts driving the tone of the film. The extreme example would be Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. It’s really his movie, because you spend so much time with the Joker. Getting the audience to understand the villain it becomes the villain’s movie.
Speaking of the stakes, death is slightly more tangible in this Mission: Impossible. For example, there’s that shot of the dead woman in the opera house.
It’s funny you say that, because originally he tased her, but it didn’t work, editorially. Even just seeing him raise the taser, you thought, Well, everyone knows what that thing is, but everyone else is going to think it’s a gun. We stopped trying to make the point he hadn’t killed her. Actually, I cast that girl specifically because she had a very pretty and sympathetic face. You didn’t want to see anybody harm her ‐ and the same goes for the girl we cast in the record shop. We took the bit out, and in doing so, it became a little darker and more graphic. At the same time, that made the assassin more dangerous and made you feel more for Benji when he charged in the room to confront him.
The Vienna opera house sequence is one of the many modestly-scaled pieces of action in the film. Did you never feel the pressure to always go big in a summer blockbuster?
You feel it right at the beginning. You think, My God, I’m making the fifth movie and I gotta top the fourth movie. When I go back and look at the Dubai sequence in the fourth movie, it’s unbeatable and it’s a fucking astonishing piece of filmmaking. Everything about it was bigger than everything we were going to do in the movie, and it was bigger than any place we were going to go. There are so few places like that in the world. That scene will stand forever, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. What I knew I couldn’t do in terms of scope in that one particular sequence, what I could do was give you a lot more sequences ‐ and have each one increase in pace and intensity. The trick was the third act of the movie. The third act was really about taking all of the bits of the story and putting together a resolution that felt like a sequence, not a series of scenes.
You also don’t try to top the second act chase sequence. What made you want to end the film with a more personal foot chase?
Truthfully, because we started the movie with an unfinished screenplay ‐ and because we were constantly changing that screenplay ‐ it really was a consequence of resources. By the time we were weeks away from the ending we still didn’t know what it was. I was confronted with what I had left: I had so much money, so much time, and so many recourses. We put all of those things together, along with things I wanted to do: I always wanted to do a knife fight between a man and a woman; Tom and I always wanted to do a foot chase.
We had to come up with some resolution between Tom and the villain. After much struggling, we knew we couldn’t come up with an ending that worked because any ending in which Tom killed the villain felt totally inorganic. We put all those elements together on the table, and I liken it to the scene in Apollo 13 where they’ve got to make the air filter with all the available crap. Finally, I had what I needed: boundaries. Until that moment, I had everyone looking at me, saying, “The ending can be whatever you want. What do you want it to be?” Once I had all of the obstacles in place the ending came together very quickly. The ending was the best we could make of the recourses that we had, and we knew as we were shooting it was all the movie needed.
Going back to the opera house sequence, you and [cinematographer] Robert Elswit just revel in that dress Rebecca Ferguson wears. How was that dress decided on?
There’s several layers. There’s the design of the dress and also the color of the dress. We needed a dress whereby she could pull off a lot of the action in the sequence. The one thing I swore I would not do is have a dress with a slit up the leg, because Maggie Q had done it in the third film and Paula Patton had done it in Ghost Protocol. I had to do something different. My brother, Doug, was training Rebecca with the rifle and he said, ‘What you want to do to balance the rifle is go bone on bone, so put your foot up.’ She put her foot up, so he showed her how to balance the rifle on her knee. Tom and I were just looking at Rebecca’s form ‐ and she was wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt ‐ and as soon as she put her leg on the table, Tom and I looked at each other and I said to a PA, ‘Call [costumer designer] Joanna Johnston, please.’
We brought Joanna up and I said, “I’m going to need a dress with a slit up the leg.” [Laughs] The fact that the dress is on her right shoulder and her left shoulder is bare, because the right shoulder was where she was going to shoulder the rifle, all of it was designed around the action in that sequence. Then, of course, how do we go down the roof? We had to design a dress that could accommodate a harness underneath the clothing, and hide that harness, so she didn’t feel really big and bulky. The dress had to do so many different things. Then the real trick was color. The selection of the color was very simple: Maggie wore red, Paula wore green, and I wasn’t going to have my assassin wear black or red, so I was left with yellow.
With Ethan, Benji, and Ilsa, there are a lot of moving pieces in that opera house sequence. Did it take time to find the right rhythm in the editing room or did you and [cinematographer] Robert Elswit find it on the set?
Certainly not. That was the scene where I lost all faith and really hit a low point. The fight was suppose to go entirely to [the song] “Nessun dorma,” and we had timed out the fight and timed out “Nessun dorma” and knew the fight between Tom and Wolfgang [Stegemann] would go for the length of “Nessun dorma,” with a little bit leftover for our cutaways. By the time we got there, it didn’t work. I realized I would have to include other music. Eddie had cut it together, and you had to listen to “Nessun dorma” three times, and it still didn’t go with the sequence. The scene felt really, really dirty, monotonous, and didn’t have any energy. I thought I had failed. [Editor] Eddie Hamilton said, ‘You didn’t fail. This whole sequence is going to work. It’s going to be awesome.’
I had never felt that way in editorial. I had always felt very, very convinced any problem could be solved with editing, and I just couldn’t see it [this time]. We just rolled up our sleeves and started playing it with other music from the opera, even though it doesn’t match the action on the stage. We knew we were cheating. The moment where Tom comes walking down that scaffold and sees Rebecca for the first time across the back stage, it synced up with that particular phrase of music so perfectly. I was so moved by it I looked at Eddie and said, “This is going to work.”
When I found the emotional chord in the sequence I had it. The thing I knew where it would really work is where Rebecca walks into that close-up in the tower, where you first reveal it’s actually her. It’s the most extraordinary close-up of an actress in anything I’ve ever done. She’s so good and at ease with the camera in that moment.
Like Rita (Emily Blunt) in Edge of Tomorrow, Ilsa is incredibly capable but also very vulnerable. Do you think that balance is why people respond so well to these female characters?
They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men. There’s not a single quip… Nowadays, writing is: five guys in a room are busting each other’s balls or they’re not friends. In order for a woman to compete in that atmosphere, she, too, must make fun of the guys, as a way of saying, ‘Oh, I love you, ya dick.’ I was having none of it. To me, more than anything, Rebecca is mature, elegant, confident, and at peace. Her only vulnerability in the movie is she’s just as fucked as everybody else. She has her own problems independent to Ethan.
Usually when you want to create vulnerability for a woman, it’s about giving her a neurosis ‐ a fear or some emotional arc that, ultimately, gets the better of her, whether it’s a need for revenge or need for redemption. You know, “Her father was killed by a twister, so she has to defeat twisters no matter what,” and I wouldn’t have any of that either. It simply was: you’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?
This is always a tough scene to pull off, but when Ilsa basically says to Ethan, “We can runaway together,” she really sells that moment.
She sells it beautifully. At one point we tried cutting all the dialogue. We were going to cut all of it out, just to make the scene go quippier, but the truth is, people wanted it. People wanted to know she was smarter ‐ that she had the bigger picture in hand. I’ll tell you the real reason why they love Ilsa, and I’d love to say it’s the writing and I’d love to say it’s the directing, but it’s Rebecca. The casting of Rebecca, it’s the same way I say the secret to a great villain is casting the right actor to play the villain. I could have written the most amazing woman in the world, but had I not cast the right person you wouldn’t have felt nearly what you felt for Ilsa. Rebecca really is Ilsa, because I didn’t really know the character until I met her.
What did you learn from shooting the car chase in Jack Reacher that you applied to the second act chase scene in Rogue Nation?
I went into the Jack Reacher car chase with the most basic tools in my head, in terms of shooting that car chase, and then I was introduced to the pursuit arm. With the pursuit, I threw out a lot of my standard material and was able to then focus on getting shots I hadn’t thought were possible before that. Once I had my mind blown by what the pursuit arm could be, I thought, God, imagine what I could do if I planned a bigger car chase. Jack Reacher was a very small car chase that grew as we were shooting it.
I planned a massive chase sequence [for Rogue Nation]. The car chase is very much in tact, but the motorcycle chase went on for another six minutes in the pre-viz. Simply because it was a matter of recourses, time, and budget, we were not able to do that. I felt all through the making of it we were shooting something, ultimately, compromised ‐ and that it could’ve been so much bigger and so much better. When we showed it to the audience they said, ‘We really love the car chase, but it’s a little bit too long.’ Had I shot everything I had wanted to I would’ve had to have cut it out of the movie entirely.
I made a few trims to the motorcycle chase, and then left it to [composer] Joe Kraemer, and said, ‘You’re going to score a part of this sequence. We’re going to do the car chase with no music, because you got the shifting rhythms of the BMW and the motorcycle and the different POVs ‐ and much like Reacher had its three-way language. Once we get to the motorcycle chase it’s just screaming engines for two minutes, and it’s going to be monotonous. I want you to bring in the score to tell us this has gone up a notch.” It turned out we had as much car chase as we needed.
Mission: Impossible ‐ Rogue Nation is now in theaters