At long last, someone has finally gone on record about the inside story of how Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol morphed midway through production from a handover movie to a proper Tom Cruise vehicle. When the project was in development, it was rumored that co-star Jeremy Renner was being set up to take over the franchise from Cruise, and that Ghost Protocol would bring Ethan Hunt’s story to some kind of a conclusion. We know that Christopher McQuarrie—who would go on to write and direct Rogue Nation, Fallout—came onboard midway through production and performed rewrites, and we know that in the finished film, Jeremy Renner’s Agent Brandt does in no way take over the franchise.
But he was supposed to. Or at least someone was supposed to. Appearing on Drew Taylor and Charles Hood’s Light the Fuse podcast (which is a must-listen for Mission fans), Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation cinematographer Robert Elswit revealed that in the original version of the film, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt would have ended the movie transitioning into the IMF Secretary role, paving the way for a new leader of the franchise:
“The original version of Ghost Protocol—most of the people involved probably wouldn’t speak about this, but I can because nobody gives a shit about what I say. The original version of this movie was at the end of it Tom Cruise stops being Ethan Hunt the agent and becomes Ethan Hunt the Secretary. The whole version of this was they were gonna put another IMF Mission unit together with another actor—maybe it’s Jeremy Renner, who knows who it is—and they’re gonna go through this series of wild events, and at the end Tom gets to be the Secretary and a new agent takes over the franchise. Which I think seemed kind of nutty, but that was kind of the marching orders.”
Elswit says the film even concluded with a big battle in the snow, which is far different from the car park climax of the finished movie:
“Everybody had kind of signed off on that. The script was a little loose, but that’s what the script was. You meet these other agents and they free Tom from prison and they go though all this other stuff that happens, the IMF Secretary gets killed… and then there was a big battle at the end in the snow and all this stuff happens and then Tom gets elevated to Secretary. I can’t remember who the new agent people would be, but it doesn’t matter now.”
These plans all changed when McQuarrie came in to address script issues, and ended up reworking the movie alongside Cruise in a way that kept Hunt as the anchor of the franchise:
“At some point when we came back to Vancouver and did a lot of the interior work—we had already done the one big stunt on the building and breaking out of prison in Russia—Chris McQuarrie came in, and Chris McQuarrie and Tom sat down and said, ‘How do we fix this?’… Chris came in and he kind of rewrote it, the last half, maybe more, and made it so that we had to change a few things that we shot at the beginning, like add lines, reshoot little pieces so that it all made sense. He tied the whole thing together and made it so that at the end of the movie, Tom ends up not becoming the Secretary but just goes on in his own lonely way.”
The key scene that changed the movie was the scene on the train, in which Ethan Hunt addresses this new IMF crew after he and Brandt crashed their car into a river:
“Essentially what happens in the train, it’s a literal and metaphorical ‘Tom Cruise Takes Over the Movie’. He takes over the IMF crew and he takes over the movie. That scene does both. He walks you through and he says, ‘Okay here’s what’s happened up until now, here’s what you’re all gonna do, and here’s who all the bad guys are,’ and he sort of lays the whole thing out.”
McQuarrie previously spoke at length about his work on Ghost Protocol in an earlier episode of Light the Fuse, but obviously he wasn’t as blunt as Elswit. You can read a lot more of what he said here, but he did allude to an ending that the studio wanted, and one they were trying to move towards even after McQuarrie was off the film:
“Damon Lindelof came in because there was another ending to the screenplay that the studio wanted, that no longer fit on the movie. It was more to their liking but the script that I had written took the movie in a direction that didn’t allow that… the studio wanted their ending and they were doing everything they could to somehow make that work, but by the time they were there, they had already shot the things that were directing the movie where it went, not where they wanted it to go…. Damon, poor Damon was brought in, much to his credit, to essentially take the square peg of Ghost Protocol and drive the entire thing through a round hole of what the studio wanted the ending of the movie to be versus what Mission wanted it to be… and Mission has a mind of its own.”
Was this studio-mandated ending the one in which Ethan becomes Secretary? Possibly! And honestly, thank God for McQuarrie and Cruise’s rework, and for director Brad Bird who rolled with the new story direction in the middle of production. Ghost Protocol is an immensely entertaining blockbuster, and it lead directly to two of the best Mission movies yet. Indeed, in a darker timeline Cruise is no longer the lead of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the masterful sequel Mission: Impossible – Fallout doesn’t exist. Talk about a bummer.
Of course now not only is Cruise still the charismatic lead of the series, but McQuarrie has become its de facto author. After becoming the first Mission director to repeat and come back to make Fallout, he’s now signed to write and direct two additional Mission sequels back-to-back.
Listen to the full, delightful Elswit interview on Light the Fuse below.