INTERVIEWS

“Rhythm Over Flare.” Christopher McQuarrie On Mission: Impossible – Fallout 

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Despite production snafus, Tom Cruise’s broken ankle and budget overruns, Christopher McQuarrie remained unfazed (relatively) by the filming of Mission Impossible- Fallout. Creative Screenwriting sneaked in an interview with the helmer to discuss his latest cinematic achievement. Despite the breathtaking action sequences, most of which Tom Cruise insisted on performing himself, it all comes down to story, character relationships, emotions, and a visceral audience response.

Every new screenplay is a brand new learning (and unlearning) experience.

With every screenplay, I am unlearning the process,” said Christopher McQuarrie. Best known as Tom Cruise’s go-to screenwriter for films like Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Mummy and now Mission: Impossible –Fallout, the writer turned director turned producer got his start, and his Oscar, with his first major film, The Usual Suspects.

I didn’t know enough about the rules to know I was breaking them when I started my career,” he said about this groundbreaking film. “Then, of course, somebody pointed them out. Over the last five years, after working on Mission Impossible, [the films] have taught me not to try and control the process—not to try and make a script go where I wanted it to go, but to go where the process takes me.”

Before McQuarrie started making annual blockbusters, he actually worked as a security guard in a movie theater. Thinking he was just getting paid to watch movies (and occasionally break-up fights in a theater), he had no idea he was actually earning a proper education in filmmaking while developing an internal test audience that would never leave his writing process.

To say the least, it was unruly. A big part of my job was to stand in the back of the theater and make sure violence didn’t break out. It was very unusual for me. I was a kid from a very middle-class part of New Jersey. If you ever watched The Sopranos, that opening drive was my drive to work. It was the part of New Jersey I was working in.

He soon realized that he was standing in the back of a movie theater with the “world’s most varied focus group.” The viewers were articulating their reactions to the movies in real time. “The audiences were very smart. They saw bullshit coming from a mile away.

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Living With An Internal Audience

When McQuarrie started working on The Usual Suspects with director Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns), he realized that while the director had been studying films at USC, he received an education at the Amway Multiplex in New Jersey from the audience. “I still have those people in my head whenever I’m writing movies. I’m still acutely aware of that very vocal, very cynical, skeptical audience.”

At the same time, when they saw a good movie, nobody enjoyed the movie more. That’s who I write movies for.” That said, he may be his toughest critic, but this helps filter out some of the derivative tropes that often make it to the big screen. Those howls and comments now shape the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Believe me, I’ve managed to make derivative, boring and repetitive stuff in my career,” said the screenwriter. “If there was a way to magically avoid it, I’d be a very rich man. What I try to do is take the previous movies and lay them on top of one another. I look for the thing that they all haven’t done. If I come up with an idea that hasn’t been in any of the Mission films…”

It’s not to say I can avoid repeating things that were in other Mission: Impossible films, but I’m not showcasing them as original ideas. The big example from Rogue Nation being Rebecca Ferguson (as Ilsa Faust). We’ve never seen a woman who challenged Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). We’ve seen him in romantic relationships, we’ve not seen a woman spy with her own problems and her own things to deal with put against Ethan, with whom he was in conflict.

Isla keeps Ethan off-balance, but his new nemesis is a physical force to be reckoned with, almost like a super-human. “In the case of Henry Cavill (as August Walker), I’ve never seen an antagonist that was a physical threat to Tom Cruise. [The previous villains] were intellectual threats. Sean Harris (as Lane in Rogue Nation) is a very dangerous villain, but we kept having to come up with ideas to resolve that character and I could never come up with a really satisfying ending where they fought with one another.”

The ending we came up with, I think, was the appropriate one for that character. It’s not about a physical confrontation—their [fight] was a battle of wits. With Henry and Tom, their confrontation was obviously a physical one,” he mused.

The Steadfast Rules Of Mission: Impossible

According to the screenwriter-director, there are very few steadfast rules in a Mission: Impossible film. Obviously, Ethan Hunt needs to get a mission or there can’t be a movie. There needs to be a team and they’ve got to use the theme song. But, more importantly, the focus is on character, specifically, the relationships between characters. 

Ethan does not want to do the things he has to do. He’s not a daredevil. He’s not a thrill-seeker. He would give anything to solve the problem any other way than by risking his life,” joked McQuarrie. “That’s the great thing about Tom. Tom is not afraid to look afraid and he’s not afraid for Ethan to look vulnerable. So, we’re always pushing for that and searching for Ethan’s vulnerability.”

As such, they’re also looking for emotional connections within the team. After laying all of the franchise films on top of one another, the screenwriter noticed that he had never really gotten inside the mind of Ethan Hunt. “Other people might have speculated on what Ethan might be thinking, but no one ever knows for sure.” Once McQuarrie had this idea, he knew he wanted to start Fallout in the mind of Ethan. 

Emotional Clarity Between Characters

“I was in a real hurry at the beginning of the movie to get into the story, but I had a lot of different business that has to happen at the beginning of the film,” said McQuarrie. “That scene at the beginning—I shot that scene and Tom was watching it and he said, ‘I’m not feeling the team.’ There wasn’t that banter from the team.”

Cruise told the screenwriter, “Ethan just feels totally disconnected from the scene.” They were determined to make a standalone movie, but in the haste of this creation, he wrote a scene that broke his own rule. The scene only worked if everyone in the audience was familiar with the characters and their various dynamics. 

The tightrope for a franchise movie to walk falls back down on showcasing the familiar dynamic in a new way. Similar to a television pilot, the audience needs to be introduced (or re-introduced) to each of the players on the team, even though Ethan Hunt is obviously the quarterback of the group. 

They went back and added all of the dialogue at the beginning of the film as a reshoot to showcase the team and satisfy the rule. “We added to that scene so [audiences] felt more about the characters. That’s always where we begin. In that dynamic of the team.

Then, of course, there’s Rebecca Ferguson’s role. In each of these interactions, Cruise wanted to make sure it was clear there was pressure forcing these two people together, through circumstances or otherwise. “He didn’t want it to be an easy relationship. He wanted it to feel like they were stuck with each other.

McQuarrie tried this dynamic, but had some major difficulties keeping the two characters together. Then, he decided to reverse the idea and come up with things that would tear them apart. Then, Isla’s storyline changed. When she came into the story, she was quickly taken out of the story, which created a new need. 

The minute she left, McQuarrie thought, the audience would then wonder when she would return. “You find yourself missing her. That’s hardly to do with the circumstances. It’s mostly to do with Rebecca. If you’d ever met Rebecca, you know that’s a quality she has in spades.

The Grey Area Of Good & Evil

In the Mission: Impossible films, there are often characters that seem to have wavering loyalties. In the first film, Ethan’s mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), turned into a man who couldn’t be trusted. Later, when Jeremy Renner entered the franchise as William Brandt in Rogue Nation, it was unclear if he could be trusted because of his mysterious past. 

In Fallout, there are various new characters who appear to have a defect or lose their way. “The original idea was Ethan assumes the identity of this character in the bathroom fight. He has to consume this identity and he ends up trapped in that identity for the rest of the movie. He ends up having to maintain this alter ego and prove to people that he is who he says. That meant Ethan must prove to be the villain of the movie if only to accomplish the mission.”

That was a fun dilemma, but it’s also an intellectual one,” added McQuarrie. “The more we tried to push the story in that direction, the more forced it became…  I never felt audiences believe that Ethan was ever going to turn or do anything bad. I don’t think I believed that about Luther (Ving Rhames) or Benji (Simon Pegg) either.

With Ilsa, however, the question is also not good or bad. Rather, it’s about whether or not what she has to do conflicts with what Ethan has to do (hence the car-motorcycle standoff in the film’s teaser). This tension helps ground the film, so it’s not just an action-thriller from start to finish. 

Comedy Between Death-Defying Stunts

Lines that I enjoy or have fun with come off as really cheesy or outrageous,” said the writer-director about the comedy in his films. To make sure a line doesn’t go too far, he tries to read the response early in the scripts. “One person may think something is really moving and another may think it’s horrible.

All I’m trying to do is tell the story. I gave up a long time ago writing subconscious dialogue—trying to make the dialogue [more than] straightforward speech. So, all I’m trying to do is convey the story with a rhythm as opposed to a flare.” But, he did play with one classic line from the series. 

In the first full trailer for the film, Sean Harris’ character Lane started in with a voiceover: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it… I wonder, did you ever choose not to?” After playing with the classic line, the character moved into his real threat for Ethan Hunt. “The end you always feared is coming…

A version of this conversation was written in Rogue Nation, which also featured Lane, but the creators decided to cut most of the scene. As he mentioned before, the good thing about cutting a scene or line from one franchise film is that it can be used in another. “This was my opportunity to hone that scene and write it better.

Additional comedic moments come from Benji, who is telling Ethan how to pursue a suspect. The comedic moment, of course, is that Tom is in a three-dimensional space, while Benji is looking at a two-dimensional screen image. This leads to Ethan being forced to jump off multiple building or through multistory windows. 

Tom Cruise dove into these scenes (often literally), by ad-libbing scenes in the moment for comedic effect. “When Tom smashes the window and steps into the windowsill, he improvised that line, right on the spot. Everything that Tom did influenced what Benji did in the van later. We shot Simon’s scene [afterward]. In a funny way, all of that is improvised rather than written.”

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Write For Beautiful Locations

To avoid location problems in the third act, which happened in the previous film, McQuarrie started with a vague outline and filled in the pieces. He told the studio he wasn’t going to start writing the script until he knew all of the settings. He then gave the outline to the locations experts and told them to find the movie locations. 

They told him they didn’t know what was happening to take on this task. McQuarrie responded, “The location is going to tell us.” Ironically, this type of advice mirrors many low-budget films. In Robert Rodriguez’s first film, he created a list of things he had and wrote the script around those items or locations. The limitation helped spark the creativity. 

If I wrote a sentence about the action, they would have inevitably brought me the ugliest location you’ve ever seen,” joked the screenwriter. “They say, ‘Well, this is where this thing would work. The car comes through here and the bike comes through here.’ I said, ‘But, this looks ugly. There’s no scope. There’s no scale.’”

I said, ‘Guys, forget the outline.’ Except I didn’t say forget. It started with an “F,” but it wasn’t “forget”… I said, ‘Forget the outline. The outline is meaningless. All that matters is the look of the film. The location is going to tell us what the action is.” By working in reverse, it was actually easier to write a more beautiful film.

While they were scouting, he focused on the story and the various emotional stakes between characters on the page. Essentially, he worked on the intimate elements within the movie while the locations manager helped expand the scope and settings of the film. 

We didn’t really think about making a bigger movie and we didn’t take stock in how big the movie was until we were well into it—almost finished with it.” While it also may be overwhelming to picture these major stunts on the page, the screenwriter said he mostly “writes what you see. 

As a screenwriter, director, and occasional editor, he works hard to make sure his scripts are the highly detailed blueprints when it’s time to film. There are scenes, however, like the gunfight in London, which were made up on the spot. He got there two hours early and worked out the action based on what the characters needed to do in the following scene. 

Follow The Story Where It Wants To Go

So far, the Mission: Impossible films also have not really taken a deep dive into Ethan’s past. Essentially, we only know what we were told back in Brian De Palma’s original film and the occasional reference over the other five movies. In the closest comparison to these spy movies, there’s the James Bond franchise, which explored the past of the protagonist in the recent film, Skyfall.

We played with ideas in Rogue Nation that went further back than that. It went to teams that pre-dated Ethan like an old story of the IMF past has come back to haunt him. By virtue of the fact that we’ve discussed, it means it will, at some point, come up,” said McQuarrie, opening the door to additional films for the franchise. 

Everything we talk about and incidentally throw away, because it’s half-baked or doesn’t quite work in the story, finds its way back in other means. I’ve learned now, having made two of these things, there are no sequel roots at the end of a Mission: Impossible, but the most direct root is to simply let go. It’s not to try to make the story anything in particular. It’s to follow the story where it wants to go.

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Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

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