Christopher McQuarrie has worked with Tom Cruise for the last 12 years as a screenwriter, and first directed him in “Jack Reacher” before taking over the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. He’s often talked about the vital role Cruise plays in the storytelling and script structure. McQuarrie believes Cruise’s imprint on his films is not linked to a specific onscreen persona, but rather his insistence that every decision works toward increasing the audience’s emotional clarity.
What is so impressive about “Mission Impossible – Fallout” is that as an action director, McQuarrie brings this concept to another level. The extended action set pieces in “Fallout” delivers the jaw-dropping practical stunts we have come to expect from the franchise, but more importantly they are imbued with story and increase our emotional involvement. IndieWire recently sat down for an extended interview with McQuarrie as part of Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast, and posed the question: How did he bring so much emotional clarity to the action itself?
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“[‘Rogue Nation’] was a huge struggle,” said McQuarrie of his first “Mission Impossible” film. “We came up with the action first, then decided what order is the action is going to go in and what story makes all of these events worthwhile. Why do these events exist in this order? You feel that in the movie.”
While the massive action set pieces are selling point for “Fallout,” McQuarrie said the key was to not allow spectacle to be what is driving the train. Keying off problems Cruise had in connecting with his character’s journey in “Rogue Nation,” McQuarrie decided that if was going to make another “Mission Impossible” film, he wanted to get inside Hunt’s head.
“We learned so much about emotion on ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ that we were then able to translate to ‘Rogue Nation,'” said McQuarrie. “We made discoveries in terms of how much emotion the narrative can sustain, so much that when Tom asked me to do this movie, I said I’ll do it, but I want to make a more emotional movie, now I want to lean into that … and let character dictate story, so the action sequences were pushed into the background and character drama was drawn to the front.”
To accomplish this, McQuarrie needed, to some degree, to put his screenwriting hat to the side. One of his great lessons in becoming a director is discovering how character can be expressed through physical action and to move away from what he calls “narrative neatness.”
Photo Credit: Chiabella James
“As a writer, you tend to become very protective of the screenplay and the internal logic of the movie,” said McQuarrie. “My path as a director has to become more and more comfortable with, ‘I don’t need to know that. I don’t need to explain that. I don’t need to make that clear.'”
The epic bathroom fight scene in “Fallout” illustrates these principles perfectly. The initial concept was largely plot driven – Ethan entered the bathroom with the purpose of assuming the bad guy’s physical identity (“Mission Impossible” mask style), but when something goes wrong, he leaves the bathroom having assumed the man’s identity while still looking like himself. This sets into motion the narrative’s original driving force: Ethan is forced to play the villain in order to achieve his goal. And while there are traces of that storyline in the finished film, McQuarrie realized this film needed to be driven more by Ethan’s relationships with other characters.
“And therein lies the crux of ‘Mission Impossible – Fallout’: plot versus character, and intellectual concepts versus emotional realities,” said McQuarrie. Seeing the action scenes through this prism, McQuarrie started to let a different set of questions drive the bathroom fight scene: “What is the dynamic between Ethan and Ilsa [Rebecca Ferguson], Ethan and Lane [Sean Harris], Ethan and Henry [Cavill, who plays Walker]?”
The bathroom scene, which arrives in the film’s first half, becomes about setting up the dynamic between Walker and Ethan’s characters, who together struggle in an epic hand-to-hand combat with the formidable Lark [Liang Yang].
“There’s an emotional relationship that [Ethan] has with Walker, a very different relationship, but still based on an emotional conflict versus a plotted one,” said McQuarrie. “They don’t like each other because of their methods. And everything expands in that sequence from that ignition point. It becomes about the conflict and styles of these two guys.”
In choreographing the fight scene with stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and fight coordinator Wolfgang Stegemann, McQuarrie found ways not only to introduce Walker’s character, but also plant the seeds of his conflict with Ethan.
“[Walker] is a monster, this big guy, so we have to humanize him, but at the same time we’re introducing the styles of these two men,” said McQuarrie. “One of the reasons that fight resonates as well as it does [is] it’s not just fighting, it’s storytelling and character. You are learning about Henry Cavill and you’re learning about Ethan, you’re seeing Ethan’s vulnerabilities, you’re seeing Henry’s vulnerabilities, but you’re also seeing that Henry is capable of rage and is a powerful character in his own right. It also elevates Liang’s character to something almost mythic, so that when the scene resolves the way it does it gives power to that character.”
McQuarrie relies heavily on Eastwood and Stegemann to help create the visceral action. As they shoot different video versions of the fight in pre-production to share with McQuarrie, the director will dictate tweaks to make sure dramatic beats drive the action, rather than get lost in it.
Breaking the bathroom fight into narrative beats, he worked with production designer Peter Wenham to find layers and different spaces for action to grow, but without becoming some completely unrealistic space. Willem created the right combinations of walls and mirrors to break up the space and create different aspects of the stage to make it dynamic from a narrative perspective.
“That’s my fixation, whenever there’s a new space, the first thing I do is teach you the geography,” said McQuarrie. “So you can become grounded in it and you’re never playing catch-up when the action starts.”