The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
It’s not your first time directing a Mission: Impossible film, and you’re the first director to come back. I hear you were kind of hesitant about that. Why?
Christopher McQuarrie: I had worked on Ghost Protocol. I came in midway through and was working on that movie. I saw Brad Bird going through what could only be described as a meat grinder. So, when Tom Cruise asked me to do Rogue Nation, I was very reluctant to do it. We were working on Edge of Tomorrow, and in the midst of a script session he said, “You know you should direct the next Mission Impossible!” A chill went down my spine. He picked up the phone, walked out of the room and called Brad Grey of Paramount Pictures. About ten minutes later he came back in and said, “You’re directing Mission Impossible.” So, I never formally accepted the job. It just happened. When I finished shooting Rogue Nation, I turned to Robert Elswit, the cinematographer, and I said, “I really feel sorry for the next son of a bitch who directs one of these movies cause I don’t know what’s left.” Then of course the joke was on me, because I was the next son of a bitch. The fans of the franchise have come to expect a different director every time. That’s a precedent. Tom said that precedents are made to be broken. So, I said if I was going to do it I have to come back as a different director. I want to achieve a new aesthetic. Tom asked how I was going to do that, and first and foremost I replaced my entire crew no matter how comfortable of a relationship I had with somebody. I think with the exception of our stunt coordinator and our editor, we replaced everyone. And, in many cases replaced them with people who had never done a movie of this scale before. The other thing was that I was going to go against the grain of Rogue Nation, which had obeyed the template of Ghost Protocol. Ghost Protocol really felt like the series had finally figured out what it was. So, just as we had decided what Mission: Impossible was, I was going to break what didn’t need fixing.
“They asked me what I would do to grow the audience. I said, ‘I’d make a more grown up film.’ “
Do you think that Mission: Impossible plays differently in the modern world?
CM: What the process teaches you is that you’re making these movies for four separate demographics that want four separate things from movies. And, at a certain budget you’re always trying to make a “four quadrant” movie. On Rogue Nation I went to marketing and said that I had really clashed with marketing on Jack Reacher. I had the luck or curse depending on how you look at it of making three movies with the same studio. So, I was able to learn the personality of that studio over time. So, with Rogue Nation I went to marketing and said, “Tell me how to make a Mission: Impossible movie. What do you guys need so that I’m not fighting with you a year from now on how to sell this?” They were so stunned. No director had ever come to them before. They brought out all these trailers and showed me how they sold movies. They’d point to shots and say, “this is the only moment we have with a woman in the movie. This is the only line of a dialogue we have that tells this part of the story.” We had the same conversation again and again at the beginning of this film. And this time they showed me this demographic breakdown of Mission: Impossible from the first movie all the way to the fifth movie. The thing that I noticed was that the under 25 audience peaked at Mission: Impossible II, and they have been steadily dropping film over film. The movie was growing with the audience, and younger audiences were coming less and less. Until Rogue Nation when the audience was less than 20% for under 25. So, I said why am I making a movie for these people? If you take the under 25 and separate everybody who is under 13 and can’t come to this movie, it’s even less than 20%. Screw those guys. Let’s read the feedback cards. They’re the ones who, when it’s emotional, say it’s corny. And, when it’s funny, they say it’s cheesy. They’re coming with this cynical attitude, and they’re not really reaching for what you’re offering. They asked me what I would do to grow the audience. I said, “I’d make a more grown up film.”
Can you speak about the handmade and “real” stunt nature of Mission: Impossible in the modern day, when people are so hard to impress in terms of visuals?
CM: I don’t think about it. I don’t think about it in terms of impressing. I think about it in terms of engaging. I remember on Rogue Nation he kept saying to me that he wasn’t hooked in. All we’re really trying to do is tell stories in the most elegant way imaginable and the most analog way imaginable. That’s why it’s the book and the tape recorder. We’ve gone back to the original TV show, and we nod towards that through the majority of the technology of this movie. We’re shooting as much of this we can on film. There’s two sequences shot digitally: the HALO jump and the helicopter sequence. Both of which are only shot digitally because there is no practical way that a film camera could be there to do those things. There were a lot of technical reasons why we did it. So, that’s why I think you feel that texture. Rob Hardy, the cinematographer, is someone that understands that and goes for a very gritty, realistic look. I hear people saying I’ve got this kind of ’70’s vibe to my movies. That’s not a conscious thing. I’m not sitting there sort of picking through and trying to make it more ’70’s. That’s what I grew up watching, and I hate technology in movies. I hate the internet in movies. I hate cellphones in movies. They get between characters and their struggle, and that’s what I’m always looking for. That’s why I like pay phones and not cell phones. All of that feels very “throwback,” but it’s not me trying to be ’70’s. It’s trying to create something that feels more connected and more textured and analog. So, I think that’s what you’re feeling.
How do you get Tom Cruise to stay so good looking, year after year?
CM: The quote that has come up out of this press tour is that I am the portrait and he is Dorian Gray. I had dark hair when I met Tom Cruise, and I have turned into his grandfather. He’s aged two years in the twelve that I’ve known him. He’s just a genetically pure specimen, but he also takes incredible care of himself. I wish there was a pill that he took. The truth of the matter is you’re looking at somebody that has only become more and more disciplined in terms of his training and his diet. For everything that he does to take care of himself, it is his instrument. And, he loves making movies. Everything that goes into that guy’s body and into developing himself is about preserving this for as long as he can, because he loves making movies. It’s just the thing he likes to do. He’s already onto the next movie. I just want to go on vacation. I want to lie on the couch with my dogs and read for three months. When we were at the Paris premiere, it was the first time we had watched the movie together. The movie ends, and the title comes on the screen. The audience is applauding, and Tom nudges me and goes, “Eh… We can do better.” That’s Tom.