While he only has four films under his belt as a director, Christopher McQuarrie has emerged as one of the more exciting and insightful filmmakers working today. He helmed The Way of the Gun in 2000 after winning the Oscar for scripting The Usual Suspects, but his directorial debut fell short of box office expectations and McQuarrie found himself working mostly as a screenwriter for the next decade, until Tom Cruise—with whom McQuarrie had worked on Valkyrie—signed on to star in McQuarrie’s 2012 directorial effort Jack Reacher. That then led to McQuarrie helming Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to stellar results, and in between scripting films like Edge of Tomorrow and The Mummy, McQuarrie is now serving as the first repeat director on the Mission franchise with Mission: Impossible 6.
The filmmaker took some time out of his busy M:I 6 filming schedule to appear on John August and Craig Mazin’s Scriptnotes podcast recently, and the one-hour talk is a must-listen for anyone interested in the craft of filmmaking. McQuarrie goes into candid detail about his career both as a director and now script doctor/rewrite specialist on major blockbuster movies, and he also offered some fascinating insight into the making of Mission: Impossible 6.
As for the Mission sequel, McQuarrie—who is in the middle of a seven-week shoot in Paris—revealed the film will be more static when it comes to the geography of the action:
I was determined, unlike the last movie, to spend more time in one location. I went back and I looked at the first movie, which started in Prague, and realized that they’re in Prague for the first half of the movie. So, I sort of pulled back a little bit on the globe-trotting. I think in Rogue Nation I think we might have been in six countries in the first ten minutes of the movie.
Another way McQuarrie decided to set this film apart was taking a different visual approach with cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also shot Ex Machina:
That happened from the conversation I had with Rob Hardy, I said I want to do a very different Mission: Impossible. The franchise relies on a different director every time. That’s what it’s sort of become known for. And so I want to maintain that, even though I’m coming back. And to that end, I’m going to defer to you on certain things. And Rob said, OK. I said, so how do you like to shoot? He said, “Well, I tend to shoot pretty much on a 35 and a 50mm lens. Everything.” Which terrified me, because I tend to start at 75mm. And so 30 and 50 I reserve for very specific things. He shoots everything. He covers scenes in it.
What was really interesting was on our second day we were shooting this car chase and we were into the hood mounts on the car chase. And Rob pulled out the 100mm lens. And the 135. And he was sort of shocked to find himself compelled to do it.
As for lessons learned from Rogue Nation, McQuarrie says he now has a much better instinct for what scenes might be trimmed or excised in editing:
That [Rogue Nation] script just blew up as soon as we started making small changes to it. It completely fell apart and we had to then write a whole new script. On this movie, I swore I wouldn’t start a movie without a finished screenplay. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. But, one of the things I learned from that movie, I developed a much more acute sense of what you were going to cut out of the movie. You start to feel a sense of this – I like this scene, but I can easily cut it out of the movie, so I probably should because I definitely will.
As an example, McQuarrie described a scene in Mission: Impossible 6 between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson that evolved into a version with far less dialogue:
And Rebecca Ferguson’s character is back in this movie and her introduction in the movie was originally this page of dialogue when Ethan runs into her at this event. I also am working with a new cinematographer. And we kept talking about shooting things in longer takes, oners, less editing. And I realized that the scene that I had written for the two of them forced me to cut back and forth. And I was very frustrated in the last movie that every time people started talking, it eventually – the movie just stopped and turned into– just coverage. Just coverage, coverage, coverage. And I thought how do I get out of that. I want the camera to feel lighter. I just want the scenes to feel lighter. So, I realized this scene between Tom and Rebecca was going to just drag me down into coverage. So I started taking away the lines of the scene that weren’t necessary. And one by one I cut away every line until there was nothing left in the scene. And what happens now is Rebecca just bumps into Tom. Tom sees Rebecca. Rebecca sees Tom. And they have this whole moment. There’s a whole story between the two of them and there’s another person standing there. And she can’t say what she wants to say. He can’t say – and they just behave the scene. And it was really liberating. So we’ve gone in and done a lot of that. We’ve just sort of chipped away.
McQuarrie also says Vanessa Kirby‘s character changed dramatically from what was on the page once the actress showed up to set:
We have a really fun [mission given to Ethan] at the beginning of this one which we’re very excited about. And it takes you in a direction that it hasn’t quite gone before. We’re quite excited about that. But then also getting back to your question, the other actors. The way the movie tends to come together, there’s a pretty good idea what the story is and what the screenplay is. And we hire actors with an idea of where their character is going. But what Tom and I like to do is work with the actor and on the set start to say, “Well, I’m feeling more of this from you.” For example, Vanessa Kirby’s character in the story started as one thing, and during our conversations, not even rehearsals, but costume fittings and props and things like that we started to play with is your character this – is this a good character or is this a bad character? Is it a character we like to see being bad, or is it a character we want to see get her comeuppance? And we played with all these different shades of the character until we found just who she was. And then on the first day we shot with her, that all proved to be wrong. And Vanessa just found this beautiful tone that she played with Tom. And now I know how to write the rest of the movie.