I already shared my one-on-one interview with Christopher McQuarrie from the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation press day in Vienna, but the guy isn’t just a talented filmmaker who added an exceptional installment to the Mission: Impossible film franchise. He’s also a fantastic interview so when I got back to New York, I also participated in a roundtable discussion with McQuarrie and a group of other journalists.
This is a long one, but if you’re into Mission: Impossible, McQuarrie’s work and/or what it takes to make a blockbuster, it’s well worth the read. He discussed why he didn’t want to include the Syndicate in the film originally, how he got away with putting the plane stunt at the very beginning of the movie, what happened during the 20 minutes he had to cut out of the final film and so much more. You can check it all out in the interview below. [Warning: This interview does contain some plot spoilers.]
CHRISTOPHER MCQUARRIE: It was great. You get to sort of pick and choose what it is you want to bring back from the other stories. I had done a little work on Ghost Protocol midway through the movie and originally in that script, Julia was dead, that they just sort of knocked her off in between 3 and 4, and I remember reading the script and going, ‘God.’ It was like when they killed Newt in Alien 3. The movie started and I was like ‘Ah, I hate Alien 3 already and I’m not even into the movie yet,’ because it felt like all of the effort made by the second film was sort of gone. By bringing her back, we resolved that story and resolved it in kind of a satisfying way and didn’t need to carry it or reference it in this movie. And Ghost Protocol ends with a reference to the Syndicate, which we were determined not to use. We really didn’t want to get into some version of the boogeyman, but then as the movie went on you felt the presence of this thing without a name and we finally just said, ‘All right, it’s the Syndicate. Who are we kidding?’ So there was never a conscious effort to keep the sense of past story elements alive. We just sort of let the story develop the way that it did. The only thing I was interested in bringing back from the other movies were the four characters that I brought back, was the team.
Why didn’t you want to use the Syndicate?
MCQUARRIE: It didn’t feel organic to where we were going and we just didn’t want to feel obligated. In our minds, the idea of the Syndicate felt like this uber evil organization that existed just to be evil, and that didn’t interest me at all. But then, as I started to realize who Lane was and what he was after and realized that he was not acting on his own but he was acting with a much larger network, that network needed an identity and I thought, ‘Well, that’s what the Syndicate is.’ I just had a picture in my mind of what the Syndicate would be as some sort of arch evil organization and it seemed silly to me. When suddenly this idea of operatives who have decided for whatever reason that their own system is corrupt and they’ve turned against it, it shed that idea of being an explicitly evil organization. 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.
How much of what we see in Rogue Nation is what you had before the Syndicate was brought into it?
MCQUARRIE: It’s a tough question. It all evolved rather organically from the original construct. We started a story that was very different and much more plot driven and much more about the McGuffin of the movie. There was originally a different McGuffin they were chasing after. There was a kind of an end-of-the-world scenario that was being discussed because we felt you owed that in this kind of movie. And I’m not saying we sat down and all agreed that you owed that, you just feel yourself sort of naturally going that way while you’re making a big summer movie, and when we let go of all of the things we thought we had to do, the story started to come together much more organically, if that makes sense.
I know some fans saw the early marketing material and maybe unfairly compared what they saw to other Mission: Impossible movies, like the motorcycle chase in 2 and the intricate heist in 1. Was this something you were aware of when constructing these set pieces, that there might be mental callbacks to other things in the franchise?
MCQUARRIE: The whole process starts as one of comparison. It all starts the same way that criticism is a process of comparison. You looked at the whole thing and said, ‘I’ve got to top this movie. I have to be better than the last one.’ As a result, if you look at the profile of the movie, it’s like Ghost Protocol has this massive sequence in the middle and it has this kind of kick-ass pachinko machine of a parking garage at the end, and we thought we kind of needed to match that shape. And again, there came a certain point in the process where we just said, ‘Why? Why do we have to do any of that? Why don’t we just have the story reach its natural conclusion based on the direction we’ve set the movie in?’ That’s really how the ending finally came to be.
We were struggling to come up with the end of the movie all throughout production. Essentially I’d shoot Monday through Friday, scout Saturday, write Sunday, and we really didn’t know what the end of the movie was. We kept thinking, ‘We need something like the parking garage or maybe the A400 should be at the end of the movie because doesn’t the movie need to be constantly getting bigger and bigger and bigger?’ We let all of that go and stopped comparing ourselves to other movies. The motorcycle chase we knew, for example, well there’s already been a motorcycle chase. We said to ourselves, ‘Actually, no, there was kind of a motorcycle fight. It was like a motorcycle duel.’ And, more importantly, the technology that we have now didn’t exist when they did it. It’s like, we can do a motorcycle chase not to say better, but we can do one in a way that hadn’t been done in the franchise before.
And the real break came when the motorcycle chase and the torus were originally in different parts of the movie. There was a moment when I took Drew’s script and said, ‘Well, take the torus and put it back to back with the motorcycle chase and change who it is Ethan is chasing and suddenly the sequence is entirely different.’ It radicalized the sequence but then it also destroyed the screenplay. Everybody’s motives didn’t make sense anymore, and if Ilsa is running from Lane and running from Ethan, where is she running to? And that was the birth of Atlee (Simon McBurney), and that was the entrance of MI6 into our movie. Prior to that, MI6, it was just implied that that’s who she worked for. Prior to MI6, when we didn’t have an actress in the role, she was German and she worked for German intelligence. So it was all constantly in evolution based on elements sort of coming together at random.
Is it typical for you to rework elements of the script while shooting? That seems like an insane challenge to me, but I think you’ve done it on past movies.
MCQUARRIE: I’ve done it on other directors’ movies and burdened them with the concept. I’ve never had it happen on my own movie where I was also saddled with being the writer. With Jack Reacher, the script was fairly iron clad, except for the car chase, which was this little three-page thing and then you put Tom Cruise in it and it turns into what it did. Everything in Jack Reacher was worked out because it was based on a book and we simply didn’t have the resources to invent the way that we were. Don Granger, the producer, and I, right from very early on said, ‘We’re going to produce this movie so Tom doesn’t have to. We want Tom to come to Pittsburgh and just be able to have fun acting and drive the car and say the lines and play with the actors.’ With Mission: Impossible, you’re dealing with a franchise that is, it’s Tom’s emotional property as much as it is his intellectual property. Tom comes to the process saying, ‘This is what I want to feel. How would you make me feel that?’ He doesn’t come in and say, ‘No, scene’s got to be this.’ He’s like, ‘I want the audience to feel this. I want the audience to not know who she is and I want Benji to keep this part of what makes his character great in the other movies. This is the stuff I like about Brandt and try to hang onto that, but then, what would you do with it?’
The doppelgänger villain concept is something we see a lot in superhero and spy movies. What about that is attractive as a storyteller and what are some of the pitfalls of the doppelgänger concept that you want to avoid?
MCQUARRIE: Well, evil is a really tough concept for me. The idea of a villain that is bad for bad’s sake seems kind of absurd, unless you have someone like Heath Ledger as The Joker who really was, ‘I’m here for anarchy,’ and you believed that his philosophy was that he had no philosophy. He got off on the creativity with which he created chaos and he was kind of angry at the world. When you have the anti-Ethan Hunt, what would make the anti-Ethan Hunt? And we didn’t really come by it naturally. I tend to be a very binary filmmaker. You give me a problem and a destination and I say, ‘All right, if you want to get from here to here, there’s a series of if/thens that will get you there, and if you have other stuff you want to do along the way, I’ll give you all the if/thens that are caused by that.’
We really didn’t know who Lane was. We didn’t know Lane’s name. He was kind of a mystery to us as much as he is kind of in the narrative. For me, it would be hard for me to answer in terms of what advantages and disadvantages there are. It’s just a pain in the ass coming up with a villain that is creating chaos in a way that is satisfying. The other problem with Lane, you may have noticed, is that there’s not a great deal of on screen chaos caused by him and that was something that I really struggled with throughout the movie that, is he doing enough? Is it clear enough what he’s doing? Because anything that you did to tell that story clearly on screen took screen time away from the other story you’re telling. If you look at The Dark Knight, it isn’t Batman’s movie. It’s The Joker’s movie, and the more fleshed out your villain becomes, the darker the movie becomes and we didn’t want to go to a place where – it wasn’t a dark and brooding thing about villainy. It was more about, the villain was sort of just creating a set of circumstances by which the movie moved forward. And that’s really where it became clear to us that Lane had a plan and Lane had the upper hand on Ethan almost through the entire movie.
It sounds like Tom is an integral creative partner throughout all of this. You’ve written with him for a long time now, I think you were writing scripts for him even before Valkyrie.
MCQUARRIE: No, Valkyrie was the first thing we did together.
Could you talk a little bit about that and how your creative partnership has changed and evolved?
MCQUARRIE: It’s interesting, Valkyrie is sort of the bookend to that process because on Valkyrie you had this historical document. And what Nathan Alexander and I wrote was fairly rigid in terms of the history. We took liberties where we had to, but only where we had to for the sake of clarity and budget, and so Tom would come in every day and sort of challenge the script, but there was only so much challenging you could do. We’re not going to kill Hitler. Every day we’d blow the scene up and put it back together again and we’d rearrange things and we’d come to a better understanding, but it was pretty concrete.
Mission: Impossible is the exact opposite. 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. And then there were days where we had the scene locked and we’d come in and rehearse it, and Robert Elswit would go – you know, the scene in the subterranean chamber where he meets Ilsa at the beginning of the movie, originally she came in with everybody else and the whole idea of what was happening behind the scenes was kind of implied in all of the dialogue and the vials were in the case with all of the other tools and Robert Elswit walked up to us and said, ‘What was supposed to happen before everything went off the rails?’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ And we broke the scene down and said, ‘She’s got to come in first,’ and she comes in with one method, Vinter comes in with another, and that was sort of typical of how scenes develop. We’d rewrite them in the morning and shoot them that day with having sort of attacked everything with all of the pieces in place.
And then there were other sequences like Lenham which, once they were written, they remained relatively unchanged. The scene at the Tower of London where he confronts Lane, we had four days to shoot that scene and I came to work on the first day and said – you know, my job was to write that scene before we got there. I came on the first and said, ‘I figured out the scene, but I don’t have time to write it so we’re gonna spend the first day getting Tom to the table and then tomorrow during the day I will write the scene and we’ll start shooting the dialogue tomorrow night.’ And I pitched what it was, and Tom and I riffed back and forth, took some notes, and I went home and wrote that scene on the second day that we were shooting it. All of that that Tom was saying to Lane in that sequence and everything Simon was saying back to him was given to them that day.
Is he constantly, as you say, blowing up scenes and making you challenge them in a way that makes you think, does this scene hold water?
MCQUARRIE: No, it’s never arbitrary. It’s always in pursuit of an emotional result. It’s always about character and story. When I came to him that night with the scene that we had discussed the night before, he was like, ‘That’s it. That’s the scene.’ I’ve worked with other people who are just deliberately kind of fucking with you to sort of keep you off balance and push you to do it better. I’ve worked with Doug Liman who has that reputation which is unearned. What Doug Liman does is you bring him a scene and he says, ‘I don’t like the scene.’ And you’re going, ‘This scene, this is everything, it totally works,’ and you’ve got Tom sitting next to you sort of backing you up and Doug’s like, ‘No,’ and he doesn’t care how many people are hitting him. When you start to go through the scene, you’ll get to a line of dialogue and he’ll go, ‘That line, I don’t like that line.’ You say, ‘Well, what if I took it out?’ He goes, ‘If we take it out then the whole scene works.’ Because he’s coming at it from another plain entirely, he’s not quite sure what it is that doesn’t work with the scene until you’ve kind of broken it all down. So Doug is very indirect, Tom is very direct, and I’m kind of somewhere in the middle.
In an era where movie trailers are often giving you a summary of the movie in two minutes, I found it really interesting that about 90% of the promotional campaign for this movie centered on the first scene. Was that a conscious decision and what does that do as far as you presenting your story?
MCQUARRIE: There was only one element of the story that we were adamant that they could not show in the trailer and I think you know what that would be without my saying a spoiler to anyone reading it. Anything from the last five minutes of the movie we were just like, ‘You can’t show that. Anything else you want to show, show it and show it in any way you want.’ We knew as a matter of sheer consequence that the marketing would be driven by the A400. It was the stunt and it’s in the movie specifically because you had to have an image like that because of the expectation that was supplanted on this movie. It’s as integrated into the story as it is simply as a matter of budget and time. We had four days to shoot that sequence. If I had had 15 days to shoot that sequence and $20 million dollars more, that would have been the end of the movie, and the ending of the movie would have been ruined for you because you would’ve been waiting the whole time for that stunt and you would’ve seen it 500 times.
I was under a great deal of pressure to make that the end of the movie and in one meeting with one executive he says, ‘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,’ and I said, ‘Why, what do you care? It’s gonna be in the trailer. It’s gonna be in the trailer, what do you care?’ It was just simply a matter of, that’s gonna be in the movie and the resources are sort of telling us where it has to be. So, as a result, it didn’t spoil the movie for you, but if they had given me all the money in the world we probably would have done it – look, if I had written the script six months before we started shooting this movie and handed them the ending that you saw, you don’t really believe the studio would have let me make that movie? I don’t think any of us would, and I don’t think I would have written it that way. You would have had people like, ‘This is your ending? In this parking garage? Standing? What? Some materials from Home Depot and some smoke? I don’t think so.’ It just all found its way the way that it did and I’m very grateful that it did.
Can you talk about when you guys decided on that fight sequence at the end for Rebecca Ferguson and how brutal it actually all was?
MCQUARRIE: It had been something I had always wanted to do. I had always wanted to have a knife fight between a man and a woman. Don’t ask me where that comes from. My parents could probably answer that better than me. [Laughs] And Vinter was supposed to die in that first scene with Ethan, when he hits his head on that pipe, he’s done. We cast Jens because he gave such a great audition and we thought, ‘Well, not only do we have to hire him, we can’t kill this guy. This guy’s awesome,’ and we put him in another scene. We put him in the scene where he opens the door to the hotel room and just has a moment with Rebecca, kind of walks out. It’s very perfunctory. We just had him there on the day and said, ‘Put him in because we’re not gonna see him for a long time if we don’t.’ Once we did that we said, ‘Now we’re screwed. Now we’re kind of committed to keeping Jens in the movie. We need to figure out how to resolve him.’ So that was one of those things sitting at the top in a Post-it note was, ‘Kill Vinter, how are we gonna do it?’ There was a version of a scene where everybody in the movie killed Vinter and, again, when I let go of feeling like I am obligated to give each and every character in this movie their action beat, à la Ghost Protocol and said this movie’s really about Ethan and Ilsa and Lane, it all sort of came together.
The whole end of the movie really wasn’t written until a week before we shot it. There were erroneous reports that we had shot another ending and that it was unsatisfactory and now we were re-shooting it. I will point out how absurd that reporting is; under what circumstances would somebody look at uncut footage and decide that it is unsatisfactory and decide to go back and re-shoot it? You’d assemble the entire movie and then you decide the movie doesn’t work and then you re-shoot it. The truth of the matter was, Tom and I were never satisfied with any of the endings that I wrote, and it wasn’t until we discovered – we took the last remaining things off of our list of remaining things we’d always wanted to do, a foot chase, a knife fight between a man and a woman, what was a sting that was really going to feel like Mission: Impossible? We always knew we wanted the movie to end with Ethan somehow getting the bad guy. Once we got rid of killing him, the only satisfactory conclusion was, he’s gotta get him, he’s gotta outsmart him, he’s gotta outplay him, and we wanted something that harkened back to the original series. We had 10 days, we had a set number of locations, we had a set number of finances and it was like the scene in Apollo 13 when they came in with, ‘I got all this crap and you gotta build an air filter in 30 minutes or everybody’s dead.’ We threw all of this stuff on the table and said, ‘This is all the stuff we have to make the end of Mission: Impossible, how do you do it?’ And that’s really how the ending came together.
You’ve been talking a lot about how much of the movie was written on the fly. Were there any subplots or scenes that particularly pained you not to include?
MCQUARRIE: We shot them and they were cut from the movie. The movie was running two hours and 20 minutes long. The test audience was telling us that there were pace issues, there were things going on in the movie specifically about what drove the turn in the members of the Syndicate as told by – there’s a ghost of a conversation when Ethan confronts Lane at the end and says something along the line, ‘You had a crisis of faith. Am I fighting for the right side? Is it worth risking my life for a world that doesn’t seem to care?’ This is all stuff that Ethan and Benji discussed in the safe house at the beginning of the movie. It’s before Ethan introduces the idea of the Syndicate. He contextualizes it as, ‘This is who they are, this is what it’s about.’ There’s 10 minutes after the car chase where you’re still in Morocco, where Ethan is confronted both by the villain and by Alec Baldwin and the entire movie is yet again upended and your concept of who Ilsa is is thrown into complete and utter chaos and the audience was just telling us, ‘Pace, pace, pace and tempo,’ and the pace and length, the pace and length. And when we went in and pulled all of those things out of the movie, the movie just took off.
I was sad to see them go, but at the same time I knew they didn’t really need to be there. And the things that I meant to say, the stuff that I meant to – the same way with Jack Reacher. There’s a lot baked into Jack Reacher that reflects my beliefs on the things that I’m talking about in that movie. I’m not interested in telling you what to think. I’m interested in giving you things to think about. I’m not interested in telling you what I mean or what it is I’m after. To me, that’s condescending. I’m much more interested in simply engaging you in a story from beginning to end and the next time you go back and watch it, you’re gonna make discoveries about what I was sort of getting at. So I found myself having overwritten the movie and sort of violating my own cardinal rule, and the audience was telling me, ‘We don’t want it and we don’t need it. We just want to have a good time.’
You’ve done all of this work with Tom now, are we going to see that continue?
MCQUARRIE: No, we’re not speaking to each other. [Laughs] Reacher  is happening. I’m not writing or directing only because it had to happen during the making of this movie. There just wasn’t time. We’re always talking about other stuff and the natural inclination is of course always going back to talk about the sequence of this or the continuation of that, but also trying to find original stuff and trying to find things we haven’t done before. Where he and I always approach filmmaking is from scenes we want to do, scenes we love in other movies where we’d like to do our version of. This movie was we wanted to do a car chase that took everything we learned from Reacher and went beyond. The underwater sequence was everything we learned from Edge of Tomorrow, and he wanted to go beyond and I didn’t. Tank work is horrible and I didn’t want to do it. I begged him not to and he was like, ’No, we can do it better.’ And then the joke was on him because he was holding his breath for three and a half minutes. ‘And ……… cut.’ [Laughs] What Tom and I are involved in now is just an ongoing conversation about movies and moviemaking, and whenever we think we know where we’re going, we sort of end up going somewhere else. But yes, we’ll definitely do it. I hope. It’s fun.