INTERVIEW: Christopher McQuarrie On Accepting His Two New Missions & Ethan Hunt’s Emotional Journey
Before we learned yesterday’s exciting news that he would be returning to direct back-to-back Mission: Impossible films, we reached out to Christopher McQuarrie regarding our 2018 Odyssey Awards and he was kind enough to offer us an interview! (I know, we can’t quite believe it ourselves)
Mission: Impossible Fallout leads the race at this year’s Odyssey Awards with a whopping 9 nominations, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Editing, and 3 nominations for Best Stunt Sequence. So it’s safe to say the JumpCut team are fans of Fallout and McQuarrie’s work.
Because of how big this interview is for us, we decided to collate some questions together as a team for McQuarrie – which included about working on Fallout, working with Tom Cruise, and raising the bar the next Mission films.
How does it feel to be welcomed back to the franchise once again, especially after you were the first director to return with Fallout?
Exponentially more intimidating and exciting at the same time. I’ve learned a lot and am a bit more comfortable with how the beast works. At the same time, I threw everything I had at the last movie. I’m starting from scratch. We like a challenge and this will be the biggest challenge yet.
In Fallout, there is a seamless partnership between the narrative moving forward and the camera consistently echoing motion and momentum; what goes into linking those together?
The process comes down to being brutally honest with yourself; analyzing everything you’ve done and asking yourself why things worked or why they didn’t. Somewhere between Rogue Nation and Fallout, I was able to define this as the conflict between information and emotion. I don’t pull the trigger on a frame now unless it transmits some kind of emotion for me – whether it’s an insert or a master.
I no longer try to match the vision in my head. I just shoot for emotion and discover the look of the film I’m making as a go. It’s liberating. As such, each movie I make looks a little more like a movie to me.
What is the significance of Homer’s Odyssey as the delivery package for Ethan’s mission at the beginning of the film?
This was suggested by my storyboard artist, Mark Bristol. He recognized early on that the film was taking on an epic scale. Tom loved the idea. He wanted to tell the audience from the outset, this is a journey.
Many said that Fallout is the finest action movie since Fury Road. What makes a great action film, for you?
The question is a bit weighted. I don’t think anything I’ve done is great. I’m just trying to do the best I can. I hope I can do better. The thing I’m most proud of in Fallout is Ethan’s emotional journey.
You’re obviously well practiced in both writing and directing. Which creative process do you enjoy the most and why?
I’ve often said, writing is pushing a boulder up a mountain, directing is running down a mountain with a boulder chasing you. I prefer directing for the simple fact that I have no choice but to run.
How does the process of drafting an M:I story come about? Are the set pieces planned ahead of time or does story inform the set pieces?
It’s a very organic and fluid process. It’s a constant battle between information and emotion, action and story – and always with character at the center. The franchise was established before I arrived and the template demands we deliver a certain kind of movie, a certain amount of action and spectacle. Meanwhile, Tom and I demand story and character. We have all these ideas – both action and story – that we want in the movie. And those ideas all fight for their right to be there. In the end, one person can say Fallout has no story and another says it has too much. Most seem to understand what we’re going for and for that I am grateful.
With Fallout, I learned to lean on a specific emotional trajectory for Ethan. We couldn’t be sure it would work. Now we’re ready to take that further. At least that’s the plan. You never know where you’ll end up. Mission has a mind of its own. We go where it takes us.
Considering his experience in the franchise and your arrival with Rogue Nation, have you ever leaned on Tom Cruise’s experience to execute a scene or a shot? How collaborative is the production process between you and Tom?
Tom and I are extremely in sync on storytelling technique. And we indulge each other creatively with the complete faith that there’s no ego. If someone’s idea doesn’t work, no matter how much work went into it, it’s gone.
As such, when Tom wants to express an emotion, I know how to deliver it without our having to discuss it. When I want to take a risk with the template, he goes with it head on. When it works, with both win. When it doesn’t, there’s no blame. We dump it and never look back.
What are the challenges with making a franchise like M:I feel consistent in tone when it has such varied Directors (Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams et al) on board, yet ensuring it also has that unique personal touch?
We discuss tone a lot. We’re less concerned with the tone of the franchise than the tone of each film. We’re involved in deep discussions about the tone of 7 and 8 right now. It’s the foundation of everything that follows: character, emotion, action…
With the franchise so deeply rooted in old school practicality. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is very much an analogue hero in a digital world. With what you’re normally fighting against in the market, where do you stand on the excess and bombast of CGI? Do you appreciate the need or has working on MI made you wish others followed a similar approach more in such fare?
CGI is one kind of creativity. Practical action is another. Both have their place. Mission’s success all comes down to the actors – starting with Tom’s willingness and ability to do whatever madness we can conjure up. The bathroom fight and Helicopter chase in Fallout work not just because of Tom, but because Henry Cavill was willing to rise to that same level – he endured extreme physical punishment and never blinked, giving me greater options as a director. Not every actor is willing to do that sort of thing, which is something of a blessing.
Making Mission this way is extremely hard as it is. It would be even harder if everyone was doing it.
Are you ever scared of Tom Cruise and his desire to do bigger and more dangerous stunts?
I’m not scared of Tom. He extremely professional. He’s not a daredevil. I’m terrified of variables. The helicopter chase was the stuff of nightmares. What we learned from that will be incorporated into something else (just as American Made was a layup for the Helicopter).
When people ask “aren’t you worried about how you’re going to top yourself?” They are asking the wrong question. The real terror comes after you figure that out.
Jack Reacher shows the abundant synergy between you and Tom immediately; what is it like working with an actor that gets as invested as Tom?
It spoils you.
After educating people about the detrimental effects of motion smoothing on home cinema viewing, and the impending demise of HMV stores here in the UK, what is your stance on preserving physical media? Are you much of a collector?
I’m really not. I’m less concerned with the medium than I am with technique. My passion is visual storytelling – as simple and as elegant as possible. I can control that to some extent. I cannot control the medium. Who knows how people will be watching movies in ten years? Or a hundred? The best I can hope for is that someone, anyone, is still watching ours.
We’d like to say a huge thank you again to Christopher for taking the time to answer our team’s questions, and we can’t wait to see what he and Cruise cook up for the Mission: Impossible 7 & 8!
The Odyssey Awards takes place on February 1st from 8PM on Twitter where our team and partners will be presenting awards.