Interview: Director Christopher McQuarrie On Making A Big Action Movie With Less

Christopher McQuarrie and actor Tom Cruise have collaborated many times now. The Oscar-winning writer wrote Valkyrie and worked on the scripts for Edge of Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and in 2012, he directed Cruise in Jack Reacher. After McQuarrie launched a potential franchise with Reacher, he landed the opportunity in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to take part in a series that keeps getting better.

After the jump, read our Christopher McQuarrie interview.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation marks Cruise and McQuarrie's most successful collaboration to date. Director Brad Bird (Tomorrowland) set the bar high with Ghost Protocol – a bar all involved in Rogue Nation reached. The sequel, like the other Mission: Impossible films, features an authorial voice. McQuarrie crafts efficient structures, with a focus more on action and character than exposition, and his direction is clean and to the point, and those are some of the strengths that make Rogue Nation such a memorable crowd-pleaser.

The writer-director is returning for Mission: Impossible 6, which we talked a bit about below, but we mostly discussed some of Rogue Nation's standout sequences, actress Rebecca Ferguson, and lessons he's learned from past films.

Here's what Christopher McQuarrie had to say:

Last night I had a chance to listen to the audio commentary. One of the running themes throughout is Mr. Cruise saying this is a Mission: Impossible movie, that you have to raise the stakes.

[Laughs.] Yes. Absolutely. You've got to raise the bar.

You don't always feel the need to go big, though, especially with the foot chase at the end.

Yes. In the end, that's the most important thing, is just what feels right to the movie. We were never chasing after spectacle and we were never out to... you know, bigger does not necessarily mean better. We have spent a long time trying to come up with what was the big finish to this movie and it just never felt right. That sequence evolved out of a lot of debate about what felt naturally correct to the series.

Plus, if you tried to top the underwater sequence and the big chase scene, maybe audiences would have been exhausted by that point. 

Well, and where does that end? As the end of a movie, where does it end? What would happen after it all ended? It just feels like it would go on and on forever. And, frankly, it would feel like you are exhausted. That's not to say that we're setting out to replicate that. At least in the outset, I'm jettisoning the entire structure of Rogue Nation for where I'm starting on the next movie. But people ask me, they say, "Do you have any ideas for the next movie?" I say, "Yeah. I have ideas. But Mission has a mind of its own." It goes where it wants to go.

One thing you mentioned often throughout the commentary is lessons you've learned from past films, especially with the car chase in Jack Reacher or the underwater sequence in Edge of Tomorrow. What did you learn from Rogue Nation?

I think the biggest thing that I learned is you don't need as much as you think you do. The motorcycle sequence was originally so much bigger, and so much longer, and so much more involved. And there were so many action sequences in the movie. You can make a bigger movie with less. And I'm determined to do something leaner or less heavily reliant on plot, a little more stripped down.

How much longer did the motorcycle chase scene go? Do you recall any specific beats you cut?

Oh, god yeah. It was eight minutes long. Frankly, when you look at the chase sequence that is there and imagine if that sequence had gone for five more minutes how punishing it would have been. [Laughs.] It really would have worn out its welcome after a while. But again, we were sort of... It's hard to gauge. It's really hard to judge when you are doing it in the abstract, and even where you are pre-vizing it and you have some sense of what it is. It's hard. It's hard to tell what you have. We were just relieved when we were cutting the sequence together and saying, "My god. Just imagine if we had shot the entire sequence that we had originally had envisioned, how much material we would have had to cut out."

The opera house sequence is around 20 minutes long. Some people had concerns about that scene, but it doesn't feel that long. 

Like the bird sequence in Ghost Protocol, there's so much going on. The terrain is constantly evolving. And with a motorcycle chase, it's... And you look at the chase, by the way, it's a car into a motorcycle. We were constantly trying to evolve the terrain itself. Once you feel that go on for even just a couple of minutes, it just starts to feel like, "OK. Where's all this going?"

ilsa

One of the film's standout shots features Ilsa holding the rifle, with her elbow resting on her knee. How many takes was it until you got that exact shot?

I can tell you exactly how many we did. We did 12 takes. The reason for it was the timing of the push-in had to be just right, because if you didn't see her put her elbow on her knee before you pushed in tighter, you wouldn't really understand why she was doing what she was doing. So just getting the timing of the shot right, we had done it a couple times and I couldn't figure out what wasn't right. Suddenly, it occurred to me. I was like, "I know what it is." You have to be able to step back from the shot and look at it from the point of view of somebody watching the movie and doesn't take for granted what it is you are trying to tell them.

And so, we got it dialed in just right. And then I did a couple more takes to make sure I got it. But, sure enough, the first one where she rested her elbow on her knee was the one we ended up using. Frankly, the truth of the matter is — I'll be very honest with you — it was the very last shot of principal photography. We had been trying to find time to get back to that little set so we could shoot that shot. It was actually a very complicated shot — the light, it was up on a platform. It was very involved. And it was on the very last day. And we just didn't want it to end. It was our last day with Rebecca. It was our last shot of the opera. So we did it as long as we could.

What are some other complicated shots?

A lot of the shots in the opera. The opera is far and away the most difficult sequence, for no other reason than just the vast number of individual pieces were very difficult. And keep in mind that there's backstage, there's onstage, there's beneath the stage, there's in the opera boxes, there's the rooftop of the opera. It's scenes, within scenes, within scenes. You are working with a giant orchestra. You have a fully cast and conducted opera happening on stage. So it was just, in and of itself, incredibly complex.

The other one that was really difficult to get was the gunfight at the end of the movie in the restaurant, only because we had such limited time and we had bad weather. By the time it came time to shoot the entire gunfight, we had half a night for everything. And so, once the shooting starts, all the action that you are seeing in that sequence took place in half a night, about six hours.

Another shot I'm curious about is when Ilsa is standing in the road and the camera zooms in on her eyes, ending the motorcycle chase. What did it take to execute that shot and scene?

Well, we had debated the end of the motorcycle chase for a long time. There was concern that that ending would make Ilsa seem unsympathetic. So we debated it for a really long time. We had another ending which was, frankly, kind of perfunctory. We got there on the day and we were actually standing on the physical location. Cruise and I walked through the versions of it. He said, "You know, it's undeniable..." Once we saw it on the location, we knew this was the right thing to do.

Then, of course, I told Rebecca what I wanted her to do. That camera is mounted on a crane on a car. It's called the pursuit vehicle. So imagine a Porsche Cayenne with a crane on it, hangs the crane of the front. And to get that shot you are driving at 60 miles an hour right towards the actor.

I said to Rebecca, "This is what I want you to do. I know this driver very well. I'm going to do it first." I said, "I'm going to walk out. I'm going to straddle the white line in the road and he's going to drive right past me. That's how we're going to get this shot. So imagine he was on that same curve that Tom is coming around. He's coming at me at about 60 miles an hour. And I stepped out into the road and stood with my hands on my hips in the center of the road. And he went by me. [Laughs.] And right as he went by me, I just had this feeling, and I tucked my arm in, and I felt the rearview mirror of the car brush my elbow as he went past.

Of course, the safety person was absolutely furious with me. It was on video. And my kids saw the video. And they were absolutely livid. I got in so much trouble. [Laughs.] They said, "You don't do that!" I said, "Look. I would not ask an actor to do something that I wouldn't do." Even after that, Rebecca looked at it, she goes, "I'm just not going to step over the line." I said, "That's probably a good idea." That's how we got that shot.

[Laughs.] Even when you first met with Rebecca Ferguson, was she the obvious choice?

Yeah. No, we knew the minute we saw her. We knew the minute we laid eyes on Rebecca that this was the one and that she was going to be great. When she walked in the room for that audition, for that first general meeting with Tom and I, we were just over the moon. We knew we had what we were looking for. Tom and I really have a love of sort of that classic movie star. We're both great lovers of Ingrid Bergman. And she really spoke to that quality.

When Ilsa saves Ethan Hunt in the underwater sequence, you got feedback saying an audience needs to see her dive in to save him. On a movie of this scale, how much questioning is there over what an audience really needs to know?

Really, for us it all comes down to what they need to know when they need to know it. If you are telling the story in the audience's point of view... and Mission: Impossible is very much doing that. Mission is a movie that relies on telling you a story that's very much subjectively from Ethan's point-of-view. As long as you know what Ethan knows when Ethan knows it, then you are with the story. All we were told then are those few little secrets. You know the ones I'm talking about. It's at the point when... the things that are going to make a pleasant surprise. I believe as long as the audience knows where the character is in the story and what the character is trying to achieve and where the character is going, they'll go with you anywhere. That's the most important thing: where am I in the movie and what's happening?

Looking at that underwater sequence, after Edge of Tomorrow, you knew it'd be more time time efficient to go with longer takes. Are there any other scenes where you faced restrictions, but those restrictions led to great results?

Virtually everything you are looking at is the end result of some excruciating restriction. We ran out of time in the opera house. We had four short winter days to shoot the entire A400 sequence, which essentially means I had about 24 hours of total time to shoot everything that you are seeing in that sequence. All of that stuff forces you to just be very efficient and very particular. And every decision that you made had to be very carefully thought out. Everything in the movie is like that.

Everything in the movie was all drawing on my experience making other movies, knowing, for example, that when we were getting towards the end of that final sequence and everyone was freaking out. They were like, "How are we going to shoot this entire gunfight in six hours?" I shot so many gunfights on The Way of the Gun that I knew exactly what I needed and what I didn't. Had you given me more time, I would have shot more. I might have used some of it. But I got exactly what I needed on the day.

What's unique about this franchise is that every film features their director's voice, making them all different. For M:I6, do you feel the pressure or desire to change up the style? 

You know, my desire as a filmmaker is to always be a better filmmaker than I was on the previous film. I'm not interested in stasis. I really want to grow. I want to push myself. And I think if you look at the three films I've done, if you go from The Way of the Gun, to Jack Reacher, to Mission: Impossible, I think it's very clear that there's a distinct voice that runs through them. They are each sort of expanding in terms of their storytelling, in terms of their use of technology. I'm learning on each movie sort of the mysteries of this technical craft or that technical craft. And I have things that I specifically learned from this movie that I want to apply to the next. I gotta imagine it will look different. If it looks the same I'll be disappointed.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.