Tom Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie not only up the “M:I” franchise with smarter espionage and more thrilling action, but also break down the entire spy game as a cat and mouse between two rogue warriors: Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane. That’s what happens when you pair the daredevil superstar with the master of the doppelganger shell game, which made it a lot more creative for the indie-spirited cinematographer Robert Elswit, who last worked on “Nightcrawler” and “Inherent Vice.”
“Tom’s a force of nature — there’s nobody like him — and he pulled it off with McQuarrie,” said the Oscar-winning Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”). “They wrestled this into shape and made it into something kind of fun.”
Actually, it’s the only time the cinematographer has said “yes” to a movie without reading a script. He had that much faith in McQuarrie after getting to know him as the ghost writer of “M:I — Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird. Indeed, McQuarrie shrewdly axed Paramount’s exit strategy for Cruise by making Hunt the centerpiece and giving him a second life. The gambit paid off and McQuarrie was elevated to director on “Rogue Nation.”
Despite all of the twists and turns, Elswit found “Rogue Nation” much simpler to follow and was willing to go on the adventure with Cruise and McQuarrie. And when Cruise insisted they shoot on film with anamorphic lenses because he dislikes digital, it suddenly became a lot more interesting for McQuarrie and Elswit, who regularly switches back and forth between the two formats.
Shooting on film also made for great contrast in lighting, from the cool blue/gray noir of Vienna and London to the warm yellow/brown of Morocco.
But first they concocted the set pieces, with the 53-year-old Cruise saying he wanted to cling to a plane taking off, swim underwater while holding his breath for six minutes in a continuous cut, choreograph a fight during an opera and zoom 150 miles on a motorcycle Grand Prix-style without a helmet.
For Elswit, the two highlights were the opera and underwater sequences. The Vienna Opera House served as the backdrop for an assassination attempt during a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” (in which a suitor has to solve three riddles to marry the Chinese princess or face death). To complicate this homage to “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hunt faces three assassins, and must go hand-to-hand with the most formidable foe.
But having the opera choreographed and staged independently meant it was ready for them to shoot while figuring out the action everywhere else during the performance. McQuarrie shot the action less efficiently than Bird, who storyboards everything in advance given his animation background, but he often came up with more interesting staging by being creatively looser on set, according to Elswit.
Meanwhile, the tense underwater sequence is the only one that was fully story-boarded and prevised and shot digitally (with the new Alexa 65, which is utilized to its fullest by Emmanuel Lubezki on “The Revenant”).
“It’s mostly a green screen environment done by Double Negative in post,” Elswit recalled. “But Tom and Rebecca [Ferguson] are holding their breath and they are underwater… on a rig, spinning and turning through space in a small area. We had the camera on a circular track in the large tank at Pinewood and we designed most of the shots based on transferred motion with the camera charging or pulling away at high speed. By shooting on the Alexa, they’re such big files and the quality of the image is so high that you were able to manipulate Tom and the environment in a way that you believe that he’s really in that world. And it’s the sequence that benefits the most seeing it in IMAX.”
Currently, Elswit’s in Bangkok shooting “Gold” (TWC-Dimension) for director Stephen Gaghan (“Syriana”), about the Bre-X mining scandal of 1997 that rocked Wall Street, and starring Matthew McConaughey. It’s also being shot on film and Gaghan even watches dailies in a screening room.
“McConaughey is the most patient actor on set I have ever seen and it’s amazing that they still have a lab in Bangkok,” Elswit said.