IMF vs. CIA: Christopher McQuarrie finds new challenges for Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible—Fallout'

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Movie franchises aren't supposed to last as long as Mission: Impossible. An offshoot of a 1960s TV series, the first entry, starring Tom Cruise, appeared in 1996. Since then, Cruise has appeared in four sequels, all of them worldwide hits. The fifth, Mission: Impossible—Fallout will be released by Paramount on July 27. In it, Ethan Hunt (the Cruise role) is a target of enemy and government agents in an international conspiracy.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote and directed the fifth entry, Rogue Nation, took time out from a busy postproduction schedule to answer questions by e-mail.

Film Journal International: The last time we spoke, for Rogue Nation, you talked about the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) as a kind of substitute family for agent Ethan Hunt, who otherwise had sacrificed the idea of domestic life. But with the return of Hunt's wife Julia (played by Michelle Monaghan), can we expect more about his personal life in Fallout?

Christopher McQuarrie: I asked Tom at the very start of this project: What's the one thing you want to do with the character? Tom said a great many people still ask him about Julia and he wants to bring them resolution. I had assumed the end of Ghost Protocol [the fourth entry] had done that, but I’ve since realized it left too much to the imagination. Tom wanted to make it clear.

I was only too happy to do that, but I insisted it could not be a detour from the central narrative, since experience has taught me we’d just end up cutting it. If the story of Ethan and Julia was to have any place in this movie, the main story would have to collide with it.

This necessitated a reintroduction of Julia. As much as this film is connected directly to previous installments, Tom and I insist that it has to stand alone. I’m not expecting you to see the other films in the franchise or hold onto their emotional details. The question then became how to introduce Julia in a way that tells us something personal about Ethan. The answer led to a deeper emotional connection with the character. I knew then that we were onto something different for the franchise. You’ll feel that difference in the opening frame.

FJI: You've also talked about how the IMF is by its very structure in conflict with the government, which forces Ethan on the run. How can you keep that theme fresh?

CM: In Mission, it’s not whether or not Ethan and the team will end up at odds with their own side, it’s how. Remove that element and you remove conflict. You remove drama. I leaned into that conflict. It started at the end of Rogue Nation when the team more or less recruited CIA Director Alan Hunley [Alec Baldwin] to become the new Secretary. By introducing Erika Sloan [Angela Bassett] as the new head of the CIA and Walker [Henry Cavill] as her number-one man in the field, I created a yin to Hunley and Ethan’s yang. The conflict is overt and present from the very start. But it is a conflict between the IMF and the CIA—rooted in their very different approaches to solving problems. Ethan is a scalpel, Walker is a hammer and they are forced to work together, leading to yet more conflict.

FJI: For Rogue Nation, you described an organic style of screenwriting in which you discover the story as you're shooting. Did that occur during this production?

CM:  I’ve always said, Mission has a mind of its own. It goes where it wants to. I struggled with that on Rogue Nation. This time I just rode the lightning. The movie is so much the better for it.

FJI: Can you give an example of how the story changed from what you originally expected?

CM: Only in one respect and not without spoiling the movie. For the most part I just went where the story (and the demands of having to justify the many locations and action sequences in the film) took me. There is one idea that was a major touchstone for me—the scene that made me want to do the movie. I held onto it for as long as I could—too long, in fact—trying to bend the narrative to go there. When I let it go, the second half of the film came together. It turns out Mission had other plans.

FJI: You shot a sequence at an iconic Norwegian mountain called Preikestolen. Can you talk about what that involved?

CM: That sequence required the danger of falling. I was scouting New Zealand, which is a magnificent place to shoot, by the way. But everywhere I went, I could not find the fall I wanted. There are many impressive mountains there, but they slope. I needed a sheer precipice. I told my location coordinator: “Don’t bring me a place I can fall down. Bring me a place I can fall off. When he showed me a picture of Pulpit Rock [Preikestolen], I knew immediately that was the place.

Everything had to be brought in by helicopter, including the helipads to land the helicopters (the only other way to the summit is a two-hour hike). Cranes, stunt rigs, crew facilities, catering—it was all brought in over a period of two days. A massive undertaking. I had three days to shoot what I needed. Experience taught me I’d likely lose half my time up there to bad weather, so I planned accordingly and, sure enough, we lost a day and a half. Twenty minutes after the last shot, it started raining. Our helicopter made it out minutes before the weather would have grounded us. Moments later it was snowing and the rock stayed buried for the rest of the winter. We were that close to not finishing. As we like to say, and we say it often, it ain’t Mission: Difficult.

It’s important to note that I am not a lover of extreme environments. I like my couch and my dogs and a cup of hot tea. Yet somehow the requirements of story take me to these places and I go with them. My producer, the incomparable Jake Myers, also worked on The Revenant—which is legendary for its remote, bitterly cold locations. While making that movie, he ran into a couple of crew who had worked on Jack Reacher with us. They said: “This is bad, but it doesn’t come close to the quarry in Jack Reacher. That was hell.”

I don’t say this as a point of pride. I say this so you can appreciate the work our crew put into the movie. These people were incredible. They moved mountains, sometimes literally.

FJI: The M:I series has raised the bar for chases. You even developed proprietary equipment for a Rogue Nationsequence. Can you talk about Cruise on a motorcycle in Paris in this movie?

CM: Tom and I both love Paris and wanted a chase that would celebrate the city. I showed him a short film called Rendezvous which, if you haven’t seen it, you should check out on YouTube. It’s a single, uninterrupted eight-minute POV speeding though the streets of pre-dawn Paris past all the major landmarks. It became a touchstone for us. I designed a sequence to show as much of the city as I could—in, over, under. Cars, boats, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters. The city was incredibly accommodating. I still can’t believe they let us do it.

Tom and I learned a lot from the motorcycle chase in Rogue Nation and wanted to take that to the next level. But narrow city streets were much more challenging than a wide-open Moroccan highway. We devised rigs that would allow Tom to navigate the city more safely without a helmet, but those rigs failed. I looked at Tom on the first day and asked: “What do we do now?”

Tom sighed and said: “We gotta shoot, man.”

He mounted up and took off.

The next night I went to watch dailies at a theatre the production had rented. I came to find out it was owned by the director of Rendezvous.

If I never make another film, I’ll always have Paris.

FJI: Some cast members in Falloutreturn from previous entries, including Monaghan, Baldwin and Ving Rhames. And Rebecca Ferguson, who was a standout in the previous movie, is back as Ilsa Faust. Why do you think she is such a good foil for Ethan Hunt?

CM: Rebecca has the remarkable capacity to convey inner strength and vulnerability at the same time. She is tough, focused, dedicated, driven—while at the same time conveying and inspiring sympathy simultaneously. And she does it all without ever losing her sense of humor. All of this comes together to form Ilsa’s real power: When she leaves, you can’t wait for her to come back. This allows her to move in and out of the story with ease and keeps her from ever becoming a mere accessory.

Most importantly, Ilsa has her own story, her own problems to deal with independent of Ethan’s. In Rogue Nation those problems were aligned. In this movie they are in conflict.

Ultimately, Ilsa is great with Ethan precisely because she’s not a foil. She’s her own person.