Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie might see himself as one of the luckiest men on the planet. The screenwriter won an Academy Award for his second produced screenplay (“The Usual Suspects”) and that launched him into directing. But his first feature, “The Way Of The Gun,” was a box office flop and in McQuarrie’s own words landed him into “director’s jail” for about twelve years.
While projects developed in the interim, McQuarrie wouldn’t land another credit until 2008 for “Valkyrie” starring Tom Cruise. But before the film was made, it seemed as if Cruise had kept the faith, and in 2007 the trades reported that McQuarrie would tailor several screenplays that the superstar actor was considering. All of them he liked, but he had handpicked McQuarrie to bring them up to snuff. “Valkyrie” was one of the few projects of that time that Cruise actually made, and the actor and filmmaker have now formed a kind of bond. “I believe in him and I trust him,” Cruise said in a recent podcast conversation and the superstar actor is not joking.
Cruise helped McQuarrie get back on his directing feet with “Jack Reacher,” asked him to rewrite and fix “Edge of Tomorrow” (which he came on set to help out with) and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” and finally got him back behind the camera with the hugest of blockbuster tentpoles with “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.” If McQuarrie was in filmmaking “jail” a decade ago, that imprisonment is a distant memory. “The truth is, I’m here because this guy banked me when no one else would,” McQuarrie said in the same podcast.
Cruise is already talking up “Mission: Impossible 6” and an “Edge Of Tomorrow 2,” which will no doubt include McQuarrie in some creative capacity. The writer/director recently came to New York to speak to a few journalists about ‘Rogue Nation.’ And while the fifth installment of this franchise was kind of written on the fly, adjusting the story as they went, if McQuarrie was ever sweating it, he surely didn’t let it show. Here are some highlights.
McQuarries vehemently denies a trade report that said Paramount was dissatisfied with the film’s ending and he and Cruise had to reshoot a new one.
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 that the movie doesn’t work, and maybe reshoot it. The truth of the matter was, Tom and I were never satisfied with any of the endings that I wrote. We took the last remaining things off of our list of things we had always wanted to do. A foot chase, a knife fight between a man and a woman, what was a sting that was going to really feel like “Mission: Impossible”?
But landing on a proper ending was difficult. And they decided bigger wasn’t better.
One of the reasons why the ending was so hard was because we kept writing endings in which Ethan killed Lane. I had a version where Ilsa killed Lane and Ethan killed Vinter, and I was writing numerous endings, and Tom and I were just inherently dissatisfied.
We kept thinking we need something like the parking garage [scene in ‘Ghost Protocol’], or maybe the the [big plane sequence] 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 that go and stopped comparing ourselves to other movies.
But Tom and I were really struggling. I said, “I think the reason why we can’t resolve this movie is because I don’t feel the need to kill Lane. I don’t have the event in the movie that makes me want Ethan to kill him. He didn’t kill Goose, you know? More importantly, you, Ethan Hunt, are not a killer for killing’s sake.” Tom really wanted a confrontation with the villain, but he thought about it for a minute, and he said, “You’re absolutely right.”
Sean Harris didn’t want to be in the movie, and he wanted his character killed off.
The funny thing was that Sean Harris did not want to be in this movie. He didn’t want to be in a franchise movie. He’s just not that kind of guy at all, and when I finally convinced him to be in it, the first thing he said to me was, “Promise me you’ll kill him. Please don’t bring me back, because I don’t want to be in five of these movies.”
I said to Sean, “Sean, I’ve got bad news for you. It’s not really up to you, and it isn’t up to me, and if the audience likes you … I said, ‘I’ll kill you. I can kill you right now.’ On the last night of the shoot, he was like, ‘Is there any way to kill me?’ I said, ‘Yes, I can kill you right now. With a stroke of a pen you’re a dead man. If the audience likes you, you’ve got a twin brother you don’t know about, or a clone, or a prequel. You’re coming back whether you like it or not. We’ve got you.’ “
However, when McQuarrie and Cruise figured out the ending, Harris ironically felt the same way.
He said, “I don’t see a version of this movie where Ethan kills Lane, and I don’t see Lane chasing Ethan at the end of the movie, and I don’t see Ethan chasing Lane.” I said, “You’re right, and we’ve just come to the same conclusion,” and he just responded, “What have I done?” Because at that moment we knew we weren’t going to kill him.
One version of ‘Ghost Protocol,’ before McQuarrie came on board, had Ethan Hunt’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, killed off. McQuarrie explained why he ditched that and it’s for the same reason he doesn’t like “Alien 3.”
I had done a little [screenwriting] work on ‘Ghost Protocol’ midway through the movie, and originally in that script, Julia [Michelle Monaghan] was gone, but they just sort of knocked her off in between [movies] 3 and 4. I remember reading the script, and it was like when they killed Newt in “Alien 3.” When [“Alien 3”] started I was like, “I hate “Alien 3″ already and I’m not even into the movie yet,” because it felt like all the effort made by the second film was sort of gone. By bringing Julia back, we resolved that story and [did so] in a satisfying way, and we don’t need to carry it or reference it in this movie.
McQuarrie talks “The Dark Knight” and the concept of “pure evil.”
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….you believed that his philosophy was that he had no philosophy. [The Joker] got off on the creativity with which he created chaos, because he was kind of angry at the world. What would make the anti-Ethan Hunt? We didn’t really come by it naturally.
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 was … It wasn’t a dark and brooding thing about villainy. It was more about the villain’s search to create 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. In my mind, Lane and The Syndicate had a methodology and had a philosophy. They’re not evil for evil’s sake. Solomon Lane believes that what he’s doing is good.
McQuarrie talks about working with Doug Liman, and how Cruise often likes to challenge the integrity of a scene.
[On “Valkyrie”] Tom would come in every day and sort of challenge the script, but there was only so much challenging we 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. It’s never arbitrary [though]. [When Tom challenge or questions a scene] it’s always in pursuit of an emotional result. It’s always about the character and story, and if he reads a scene and he [likes it, we’re good].
I’ve worked with other people who are just deliberately kind of fucking with you, just want to 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 Tom Cruise is sitting next you, sort of backing you up, and Doug is like, “No,” and he doesn’t care how many people [think it works]. 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.” I say, “What if I took it out?” He goes, “If you take it out, then the whole scene works.” But Doug, because he’s coming at it from another plane entirely, he’s not quite sure what it is that doesn’t work in a scene until you’ve kind of broken it all down. Doug is very indirect, Tom is very direct, and I’m kind of somewhere in the middle.
Paramount execs wanted the big plane sequence to end the movie, but McQuarrie believes his smaller, more intimate ending, written a few days before it was shot, was right for ‘Rogue Nation.’
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 going to be in the trailer. What do you care?”
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 a studio would ever agree to that?
Working with Cruise in the future.
[Tom and I are] always talking about other stuff, and the natural inclination is, of course, always going back to talk about the sequel to [‘Rogue Nation’], 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 own version of.
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’re going to be doing something… It’s fun.
“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.