Over the past few years, Collider has a long-running screening series with IMAX and back in September, we screened Mission: Impossible – Fallout for some of our lucky readers. After the screening ended, I sat down with McQuarrie for an almost 90-minute conversation where we went in-depth on a myriad of subjects (here’s part 1 and part 2). As the two of us were leaving the building, I mentioned I still had a lot of things that I didn’t get to ask, and he said he’d be up for doing another screening and Q&A. I figured it would never happen due to his busy schedule, but a little over a week ago we screened the film again and then did another extended Q&A. Since the interview ended up being over 15,000 words, I decided to break it up. The other day I posted part 1, and below is part 2.
In today’s installment, McQuarrie talks about his writing process, procrastination, his favorite shot in the film, how the dream sequence came about, creating action scenes without score, choosing the film’s locations, which actors and actresses he’d like to work with, and a tiny tease about Mission: Impossible 7.
While 2018 has seen some incredible movies, I’d argue one of the top films is writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Not only does the film feature some of the most incredible action set pieces I’ve ever seen, the movie shows off unbelievable work from every department, an incredible score by Lorne Balfe, and a script that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final frame. It’s one of those rare films where everything just works.
Check out what Christopher McQuarrie had to say below. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is on Digital HD and Digital 4K HDR now, Blu-ray/4K HDR/DVD December 4th).
Collider: I want to talk a little bit about your writing process, and specifically on a Mission: Impossible film. You find out that you’re going to do Fallout. Let’s just use that as an example. Talk about day one. What’s going on prior to you sitting down the first time, to actually write the script or dialogue or scene or whatever you’re going to do?
CHRISTOPHER MCQUARRIE: I clean my office. Many, many times. I walk my dogs. I watch a movie with no sound on. I have a drop down screen on the other side of my desk, so I just drop the screen down and put on, I don’t know, Once Upon a Time in America or something long. I just put it on and turn the sound off and don’t even really watch it. It’s just there. I’ve discovered that the worst thing you can do for writing is actually try to write. You have to do it sometimes, there’s what I describe as the moment of ignition, which is harder and harder to achieve as I get older and older. That’s probably symbolic of something. You’re pushing and pushing and pushing and then at a certain moment something clicks and the writing takes over and you’re no longer driving it. It’s pulling you along. The perpetual motion of whatever you’re doing. You’re inspired to do something. The discipline of sitting down and doing that thing is absolutely dreadful. I need enormous stress, pressure, tension, debt, deadlines, anything to make me sit down and do that.
That first day that you’re writing, how much have you-
MCQUARRIE: Not writing. The first day of not writing.
The first day of not writing, how much is that day where you have ideas, you’ve spoken to Tom, you’ve spoken to the studio, you have an inkling of where it’s all going to be going, or is it one of these things where you’re doing all this without it? How much have you spoken to people about the idea and how much is it your figuring it out before you take it to everybody else?
MCQUARRIE: Well, Tom and I talk about everything. I bounce a lot of ideas off of him. On Rogue, for example, we would speak once a week. We would talk for about two hours and then I’d go off and work on the stuff we talked about. We’re really excited about one big idea and this was the idea that was going to make the movie work. A week later I would come back to him and say, “Remember that idea we talked about last week? Doesn’t really work. I spent a week working on it and it sucks but I have this other idea.” Every week we would do that and I would say probably 10% of what we talked about in a given conversation actually stuck. At a certain point, we were just in really a lot of trouble, time-wise. Suddenly, boy, the ideas start coming, when you’ve got days as opposed to weeks. That’s just how it works.
When you’re writing, how much are you thinking about budget as you’re writing and how much is it I’m just going to put all my ideas on the page and then we can always pull back based on money?
MCQUARRIE: I do not think about money because the producers do that. They’ll come to you and say, “Hey, this sentence that you wrote, it cost 12 million. You have $700. Solve that problem.” They’ll always come to you with that. I don’t worry about budget, I worry about editing. I think all the time about how is this going to cut together, how are characters introduced, and efficiency. Just how do I tell this story in as quickly and elegantly a way? I’m writing out what is the edited film, at least one version of the edited film. It’s not the rule. But as you read it, you’re reading a description of this is what I want you to see and then I want you to see this. Then you cut to this person and then the scene ends.
I was talking to a lot of writers who say that when they wake up, the first few hours of the day is their golden period where they can actually write. They’re pretty creative and then as the day progresses, less so. Other people I’ve spoken to say that they can do nine to five and it’s just that’s their routine. How is it with you?
MCQUARRIE: It’s procrastination. I wake up and I know maximum there’s six hours for you to solve this problem. It’s not that big a deal. It’s not that heavy a lifting job. Just sit down and do this six hours now and then take the week off. No. I stress for the whole week. Low grade stress. I’m goofing off and in the back of my mind thinking, I’ve really got to do that. I’ve really got to do that. Then, with five hours until people need the pages, I start writing the six hours of work that I needed to do and then probably in the middle of that I waste an hour on the phone and it becomes this thing of just when am I going to learn?
You ever check your blood pressure when you’re writing?
MCQUARRIE: I do not have high blood pressure. I have extraordinarily high cholesterol, not high blood pressure.
Questions from the audience begin here:
The whole chase sequence that starts from wham, truck in the water, to that whole sequence that ends up cars to motorcycles and running with the knife going in. Hearing your process, how much of that had you figured out or how much of that was being figured out on the fly?
MCQUARRIE: Anything that was action in the movie, with the exception of that gun fight, was worked out in advance, and worked out because we knew what the locations were. When I went and scouted Paris, I had written a rough sketch of what the chase sequence is going to be. We knew, for example, we were breaking Solomon Lane out. We came up with that idea in the last days of Rogue Nation. We were already talking about that as an idea.
When I toured Paris, they took me on a boat ride around the Seine and we went into that tunnel where they escape through, and of course I saw these holes and I went, “Well, I know where the scene’s going to end. I knew where the motorcycle portion was going to end.” I knew we wanted to do a motorcycle and I knew we wanted to do a car, and practical decisions are telling you what order those things happen in. I knew I had all the guys in the car at one point. Had to figure out how to get all the guys out of the car so that it was just Tom and Solomon Lane. I had the idea of the cop.
When I wrote it, it was a man, Tom said change it to a woman. He said it would be a lot more powerful scene if you make it a woman. I said, “Really? You want to leave a woman shot in the street?” He was like, “Go for it.” By the way, that kind of thinking permeates everything, and will, pardon my language, it will fuck you every time you start thinking about … Your film doesn’t represent anything but your film and what film has become is this thing imbued with all of this responsibility. If I say this, I’m making this statement about a whole group of people or a whole group of individuals. No, they’re people, stuff happens. You can’t be responsible and make art. You just can’t. I don’t call this art, by the way. I’m not an artist.
But anyway, I went off on a tangent. All that stuff we had worked out. But then there were things like we were in a traffic roundabout where Tom was supposed to get trapped by all these cops. I said, “There’s got to be a better roundabout somewhere in Paris. Can you guys get me the Arc de Triomphe?” The scouts, the French location guys were just like, “Oh my God.” They came back to me and they said, “It’s closed one day while you’re here. They will give you the Arc de Triomphe for two hours starting at six in the morning.” Well, the sun didn’t come up until 6:30 so we had to figure out how to execute the entire sequence in the 90 minutes of light that we had available, and everything that you’re looking at there we shot in 51 minutes. Everybody was saying, “Don’t do it. It’s impossible. It takes two hours to turn the lights on on a Mission: Impossible movie.” I said, “We can do this.” There were four days like that in Paris, which we called the impossible days. There are four impossible days. By preparing the crew and by telling them this day is impossible, they all wanted to do it and they all wanted to make it happen.
Everything that you see around the Arc de Triomphe and everything where he’s going down the route of opera, towards the opera house, was all shot on the same day. That’s when the company moved 40 vehicles through traffic in Paris. Really, really, really difficult stuff. They’ll give it to us for four hours? We’ll take it. We never stopped thinking that way. I think you feel that. It permeates the action in the sequence itself. That sort of thing. The gunfight was pretty much on the day. There were definitely things in the helicopter chase where we were on the day … But individual shots. But for the most part, all of the action we had a plan only because the location was telling us what that plan was. If I’m just sitting down at a blank page and somebody says, “Write action,” the experience paralyzes me from doing it. Because I know if I’m writing to a non-existent location, then I’m going to go scouting and I’m going to be trying to find a location to fit this action in, I’m either going to compromise on the location or compromise on the action. It’s a luxury on a movie like this that I’m able to do that.
Was there a city you almost got to instead of Paris or London?
MCQUARRIE: We almost went to Italy. We almost went to Naples. I went and scouted Naples. Really cool, actually. I would scout it again. But Naples was a backup if Paris said no. I was determined. The decision to go to Paris happened just after the attacks in November of 2015. I was watching them happen on T.V. and I called Tom and I said, “We’re going. We’re going to go to Paris.” He said, “Absolutely.” Of course everybody tried to discourage us from doing that. They said it’s not safe. Tom said, “Exactly, and that’s why we’re going. We’re going to show people that it is safe.” Because we both love Paris. We each have our own relationship with the city. We were very blessed that Paris embraced in and let us come shoot there.
You also like red wine.
MCQUARRIE: It helps.
These films have such big spectacles, like Tom climbing the tallest building, to hang out of an aircraft. What’s it like having to try and up the action in every film with someone like him?
MCQUARRIE: Don’t. Don’t try to top it. My attitude going into Rogue was just make a movie that’s worthy. Make a movie that’s in the top five Mission: Impossibles. This time I was like, “This time I’ll just be in the top six. As long as I’m not some number seven,” that’s all we were really trying to do is speak to that. It was interesting sitting here watching it tonight. As I was watching not the action but what makes you give a shit about the action, that I was able to look at it and go, it’s infinite. The possibilities are infinite. They’re certainly not building a taller building right now. You can’t do that. Even if they did, they would be like, oh, it’s not as good as … I’ve directed two of these movies and I’m not ashamed to say the Burj Khalifa sequence is for me the best sequence. It’s the best 20 minutes in a Mission: Impossible movie. It’s amazing. So much of what makes it good is the storytelling in it. When you go back and watch the Burj sequence, the climbing up and down the building is really just like this tiny fraction of what is Dubai, which is this incredible, nonstop the minute they get there. You’re just like, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. That’s what makes the movie work. We got away with murder here. He’s climbed mountains in movies before and he’s done other stuff. He’s not hanging off the side of an airplane or this, that, or the other thing. It’s the stakes of the third act that are what make it work.