Rogue Nation director Chris McQuarrie explains how to build a Mission: Impossible movie
To hear director Christopher McQuarrie describe it, production on Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation was designed around the idea of premeditated chaos. “It was all constantly an evolution based on elements coming together randomly,” he said, later noting, "We came to work every day knowing that what we had written the day before was not to our satisfaction, and trying to find it in the moment.”
That fluidity is somewhat surprising — after all, this is a movie with an estimated budget of $150 million — but it also speaks to the numerous interested parties whose demands a director has to balance when making a franchise story. Does the marketing team have incredible moments for the trailer? What characters must live to see another sequel? Do we have the scenes that audiences expect, and yet still somehow have enough surprises to avoid that feeling of déjà vu?
Does the marketing team have their big moment for the trailer?
It's a balancing act that McQuarrie is refreshingly transparent about. Although he’s been a staple in the film industry for over two decades — he’s still most famously known as the writer of The Usual Suspects — Rogue Nation is only the third film he’s directed. All signs point to another successful Mission: Impossible outing: initial reviews are overwhelmingly positive (my own thoughts were slightly more subdued) and a sequel is already in the works. Perhaps that has to do with McQuarrie's willingness to embrace all parts of the system — "My whole career changed when I stopped trying to get movies made... The only way I can describe it is you focus entirely on execution and don't worry about result."
Days before Rogue Nation's premiere, McQuarrie sat down at a small press roundtable to talk about the realities of making a modern blockbuster.
Warning: numerous spoilers
Place your big stunt strategically
Let's start with THE scene, the big one, wherein Tom Cruise is literally hanging from an A400 aircraft as it takes off. It's been the lynchpin of the film's marketing campaign, but unlike Ghost Protocol's "extreme-Tom-Cruise" scene (scaling Dubai's Burj Khalifa), this one basically serves as an all-too-brief cold open. "It's as integrated into the story as it is, simply as a matter of budget and time," explains McQuarrie. "We had four days to shoot that sequence. If I'd had 15 days to shoot that sequence and $20 million more, that would have been the end of the movie — and the ending of the movie would have been ruined for you. You would have been waiting the whole time for that stunt, and you would have [already] seen it 500 times."
But even at its current scale, there was pressure to make that scene the climax. McQuarrie recalls one meeting in particular where an executive told him, "You have to have the biggest stunt in the movie be part of the biggest sequence of the movie, and that needs to be at the end of the film," to which McQuarrie replied, "Why? What do you care? It's going to be in the trailer [regardless]."
Define your evil empire
The last Mission: Impossible movie, Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol, ended with an offhand reference to a mysterious organization known as the Syndicate. It was never McQuarrie's intention to incorporate the Syndicate — Mission: Impossible films have largely avoided narrative arcs between films — but as the story developed, it became an inevitable connecting thread.
"In our minds, the idea of the Syndicate felt like this über evil organization that existed just to be evil, and that didn't interest me at all," he said. "Then, as I started to realize who [main antagonist Solomon] Lane was and what he was after and that he was not acting on his own but was acting with a much larger network, that network needed an identity. I thought, that's what the Syndicate is. In my mind, it had a methodology and it had a philosophy. They're not evil for evil’s sake. Solomon Lane believes that what he's doing is good."
Don’t kill off a good villain
Instead, we end on antagonist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) being trapped in a glass cube filled with smoke and shipped off to a storage facility where he (and the rest of the Syndicate, for that matter) can be used for future Mission: Impossible films. It's a relatively low-key moment, especially for an action film, and one that was devised very late in production. "One of the reasons why the ending was so hard is we kept writing endings in which Ethan killed Lane [or] where Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) killed Lane and Ethan killed Vinter (Jens Hultén)," he said. "I was writing numerous endings, and Tom and I were inherently dissatisfied." One of the main reasons, McQuarrie and Cruise realized late one night, was that the audience never actually sees the villain do anything particularly evil ("Yeah, he blew up the chancellor but we all know we never gave a shit about whether the chancellor lived or died in the movie").
"I can kill you right now, but if the audience likes you, you got a twin brother."
And so Lane lived, much to the disappointment of actor Sean Harris who initially didn't want to be in the movie for fear of being locked into a franchise. "When I finally convinced him to be in it," said McQuarrie, "the first thing he said to me is, 'Promise me you'll kill me. Just don't bring me back because I don't want to be in five of these movies.' I said to Sean, 'I got bad news for you. It's not really up to you, and it isn't up to me.'"
McQuarrie smiles as he recalls one moment in particular. "On the last night of the shoot he was like, 'Is there any way you can kill me?' I said, 'Yes, I can kill you right now. With the stroke of a pen, you're a dead man, [but] if the audience likes you, you got a twin brother you don't know about. Or a clone. Or a prequel. You're coming back whether you like it or not.'"