'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' Director Christopher McQuarrie On Shaking The Series Up, Becoming A Better Director, And Those Insane Stunts [Interview]

After over 20 years and six movies, the Mission: Impossible series is still evolving, and not just because the action is getting bigger and wilder. Mission: Impossible – Fallout contains the biggest action sequences in the franchise, but also the most personal. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is more conflicted than ever as he enters morally murky waters in the well-received sequel.

Following up Rogue Nation, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie returns not to simply top the previous installments, but to deepen Ethan Hunt and the world of the IMF. The filmmaker gives Ethan Hunt as many personal challenges as physical ones in the sequel, although the action sequences are stunning to behold and mind-boggling in their ambition and scope. Both Ethan Hunt and Tom Cruise always go big, never home.

And as you'd imagine, McQuarrie had a lot to say about the making of the film in our interview.

You've said before you always want to be a better filmmaker than you were on a previous film. How have you evolved or changed as a filmmaker since Rogue Nation?

I hope I've evolved with every film, not just since Rogue Nation, though the shift in approach between that film and Fallout is the most conscious and deliberate. If there is a defining feature in my earlier work, it's intellectual over emotional story-telling. Fallout represents my determination to eschew information whenever possible. Of course, it being a espionage thriller means I can never escape the clutches of plot and exposition.

The last time we spoke you said you'd be disappointed if Mission: Impossible – Fallout looked like Rogue Nation. Visually, how did you want to approach the sequel differently?

Fans of the franchise have come to expect a different director for each installment and I was determined to maintain that aesthetic.

Brad Bird defined the template for a modern Mission with Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation embraced it. The two films also share the same Cinematographer and Production Designer – Robert Elswit and Jim Bissell. If I was going to make a different film visually, it would have to start there. But the differences were not just visual.

I was convinced that a third film in the tone of Ghost and Rogue risked being cute. At the same time, the franchise was working. Changing the formula meant risking all of that good will and momentum. I convinced Tom that, if the brand were to grow, we had to take a chance and change course. That meant a film different not just in look, but in feel – with a darker tone; good characters making bad decisions.

Finally, if my films have one thing in common, it's Joe Kraemer, who has scored every film I've ever done and is as distinct a part as anything of whatever passes for my style.

Thus, job one was building a new creative team with whom I had no history. Enter DP Rob Hardy, designer Peter Wenham and composer Lorne Balfe.

The HALO sequence is breathtakingly good. Can you take me through, beat-by-beat, how that scene was planned and shot?

Tom and I had long-discussed a HALO sequence, but had not expressly considered it for Fallout. Peter Wenham presented me with some concept art of the Grand Palais sequence, including one image from the air with Ethan skydiving onto the roof. It took off quickly from there.

Rule number one with any Mission stunt is: How do we make it subjective? How do we put the audience with Ethan? I'd seen plenty of people jump out of planes, but always with the camera on their backs. I had to devise a way to "pull" Tom from the plane rather than "push" him.

Next, I wanted the sequence to play as a oner. I worked with a previz team for several months refining what this shot would look like. At the same time, we built a giant wind tunnel for the actors and camera operator to see what was actually achievable. As with the helicopter sequence, we were in uncharted water, learning everything as we went. The camera moves in the previs quickly proved impossible and the sequence was constantly refined and streamlined.

To make matters more complicated, we were shooting a night sequence, meaning we had to shoot in a very narrow window of light just after sundown. Too early, too bright. Too late, too dark. The margin of error proved to be less than a minute on either side.

The gear Tom is wearing is all custom made for the sequence, including a helmet that would allow us to see his whole face. The lights had to be specially rigged with silicone covers. A single spark in the pure oxygen of that helmet would set Tom's head on fire.

The sequence was originally five shots that would be stitched together into one. By the time we were ready to shoot, we'd refined it down to three. This meant fewer jumps, but it also meant the shots were more complicated. We simply could not predict how many takes each shot required, thus we could not gauge how long it would take to shoot. For this reason, we decided to shoot the sequence at the end of production with a reduced unit. This created an enormous burden on the visual effects team who would have minimal time to do the incredibly complicated VFX work in the sequence (adding the storm and Paris). Every day the sequence went long was a day taken away from visual effects specifically and post production in general. Owing to the delays caused by Tom's injury, we were down to the wire already and this was creating enormous pressure.

We were, in essence, trying to hit a bullet with a bullet with a bullet.

The first shot involved Tom jumping out of the plane. Tom insisted we shoot as much of the prior scene as part of the oner. The cut was dictated by Tom's POV of the storm. Everything after that was folded into the oner.

Camera operator Craig O'Brien was an incredibly experienced skydiver and videographer, but had no experience with narrative filmmaking and had to learn as he went about framing and visual storytelling. We rehearsed on the ground for weeks before ever taking to the air. We moved editorial to a trailer on the military base in Abu Dhabi where we were shooting. My days were spent cutting the film with Eddie Hamilton and periodically driving out to the drop zone to review footage with Tom and Craig on their way back to the runway where there would put on new chutes and go up again. We would repeat this cycle five to seven times a day, culminating with an attempt to get the shot just after sunset. The crew would wait anxiously as we reviewed footage, unsure if any one of the three shots we needed would take three days or three weeks. It was incredibly surreal and morale dipped every time we didn't bag a take. The end was simultaneously just in sight and impossibly far away.

The first shot involved Craig jumping out of the plane with Tom following. Tom had to catch up with Craig and stop exactly three feet from the camera – the minimum distance at which he would be in focus. In such low light, the margin of error was about three inches. It's important to note, Craig was wearing the camera on top of his head and could not see through it. He was doing everything by sense of feel acquired in endless rehearsals.

The second shot required Tom and Craig to do a complicated aerial dance, culminating in a mid-air collision between Ethan and Walker. This was incredibly dangerous as it could easily result in a three way collision that could have injured or killed one or all.

The third shot was Ethan swapping his oxygen bottle with Walker, flipping him over and deploying Walker's chute before deploying his own. This was the longest piece and was always at risk of going below minimum safe altitude. Each piece was fraught with incredible tension. I would call action, watch my crew jump out of a plane, then fly back to base to find out if anyone had been injured or worse. This went on for weeks, ultimately requiring 106 jumps, all of which were done while Tom was still recovering from a broken ankle.

Post production was just as complicated. Tracking Paris into the shots could not be done by computer because the actors were not only moving in relation to the camera, they were also falling toward the ground. This meant Paris had to be tracked into every frame by hand. Hundreds of people worked on the assembled shot for three months.

All in all, it is the most work frame-for-frame of any shot in the film by an order of magnitude.

How does shooting a helicopter and motorcycle chase compare to shooting a car chase? What sort of challenges came with shooting the helicopter and motorcycle chases?

I've done car chases to the point where I can do them in my sleep. The motorcycle chase was complicated by the fact that the safety rigs we built for Tom all failed. We ended up shooting the entire thing practically. He just went for it. The challenge here was the limited time we had at each location. The Arch De Triomphe was ours for 90 minutes.

The heli chase was new territory for everyone involved. Never mind that all of the camera rigs were built specifically for the sequence. The lead actor was flying, acting and operating the camera. Henry Cavill was in the other heli with both doors open, sometimes at 7000 feet in sub zero temperatures. There was simply no rule book. We figured out the sequence as we went. I told my producer: "By the last day, we'll know how to shoot this thing." And that's exactly what happened.

During the car chase, there's a great push-in on Ethan that starts from the front of the BMW, and it reminded me of a similar push-in on Jack Reacher in the red '70 Chenille SS. Are there any other stylistic flourishes or specific ways you like to move the camera during a car chase?

I just do what I have to do to tell the story and put you in the action with Ethan. There are a couple of shots in the movie that remind me of earlier movies I've done with Tom. That's just me telling a story.

Are there any classic car chases that have influenced you?

The chase in Fallout was most directly influenced by a short film called Rendezvous by Claude LeLouch. By sheer coincidence, he owned the theatre where we were screening dailies in Paris. Sadly, we never met.

You ended the last movie with a foot chase. What made you want to go as big as you did with Fallout's finale?

I wanted to do a chase across the rooftops of London. We started with the roof where Tom ultimately broke his ankle. From there we could see St. Paul's, Blackfriar's bridge and the chimney of the Tate Modern. It was pretty clear where Ethan had to go from there.

During the hiatus after Tom Cruise broke his ankle you spent that time addressing a problem in the story. What was the problem, and what was the solution?

The second act of the movie (essentially, the entire London section) was not working. Tom's ankle break allowed me to cut together the film we had shot to date and gain a stronger sense of the movie we were making. I rewrote London accordingly.

Fallout spoiler review

Building on the past and what we know about Ethan, how much did you look back and consider the Ethan we saw in the movies directed by Brian De Palma and John Woo?

Hardly at all, save one aspect: Zero body count. Ethan is reluctant to take human life for any reason. This was at the root of "one life over millions." Ethan's greatest strength could be turned into a weakness.

Tom Cruise has been playing Ethan Hunt for over 20 years. Is there anything particularly meaningful he's said about the character that you've kept in mind during the making of these movies?

Ethan doesn't want to do any of the things he does. He'd rather find any other way. He must always be forced into the stunt. He is not a daredevil.

Ethan is not a daredevil, but to some extent, Cruise has to be, to do some of the death-defying stuff he has for this series. Has there been a time when you thought of an idea that was great for the story but which was prohibitive – or even just not necessary – for Cruise to do himself? 

Quite the contrary. I am always looking for the thing Tom will say no to. I haven't found it yet.

When you write with Tom Cruise and this cast in mind, of their many strengths as actors, are there any specific qualities they have that you consider while writing?

They all have their obvious strengths. What isn't so obvious is how each of the team members can extract empathy from an audience. I used it to considerable effect in Fallout.

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You said once White Widow was cast, you knew how to proceed writing that character. How did you initially imagine White Widow, and how did she evolve once Vanessa Kirby was cast?

I had a vague sense of a character who represented a temptation to the dark side. But it wasn't until I cast Vanessa that we discovered her delicate balance of playfulness and mischief. She is neither good nor evil, making her all the more unpredictable. It was important to me that all of the women in Mission own the scenes they're in, just as it was important that they all in some way throw Ethan off balance.

Mission: Impossible evolves as a franchise with each movie, and it seems like fans are always open to the series going in a new direction. They don't cling to expectations, but how much do you think about expectations while making a Mission: Impossible movie?

It's impossible not to, even as we try to focus entirely on the task in front of us. In the end, a clear story with emotional stakes and empathetic characters will deliver you. It never ceases to amaze him how simple that formula is to calculate and how hard it is to execute.

I remember you saying you wanted the plot to be leaner and lighter after Rogue Nation, but the plot is a little busier this time. How much did the story evolve or change early on, or is the finished film close to what you initially imagined?

I'm amused by the conflicting opinion here. I've seen reviews that say the plot is impenetrable and others that say its the simplest plot of the series.

When we're shooting these movies, we overshoot and over-explain everything, sometimes in multiple scenes. But Information is the death of emotion. The more you try to explain the story, the more the audience disconnects. They're as intolerant of talk as they are of opacity. So we test, pare back, test some more, until we find the line between too much and not enough. I can assure you there is a version of Fallout where the story is made perfectly clear. But you'd never know it because you'd be in the bathroom then. There are some things you want until I give them to you. The trick is understanding what information matters and what holes don't.

What the movie is missing is a moment where Ethan tells us emphatically what the plot is, or a moment when the villain tells Ethan. I think you're either the person who counts on this type of scene or you're not. For some, until Ethan says something, it isn't true. A segment of the audience is left without closure. I recommend they watch the movie again. It's all in there. And it's ridiculously simple. But don't count on Ethan to tell you what it is. He's busy.

How long was your first cut? Are there any notable deleted scenes?

The first assembly was just over three hours, but only Eddie Hamilton and I saw that. We screened a cut for an audience just eleven days after we wrapped and that ran 2:43 without credits. The first test was 2:39 without credits. We pairs that back by 20 minutes. Three scenes never saw the light of day – I knew the franchise well enough by then to know their chances of survival. I didn't even edit these scenes until I had settled on the final cut and only then as an exercise.

Only one scene was in question – a fight between Ilsa and Ethan after the footchase and before her scene with Luther. It was meant to bring their conflict to a head. My reasons for wanting it in the film were purely aesthetic – the establishing shot was great and a close up of Rebecca was breathtaking. After a lot of testing and debate, all of which was inconclusive, I cut it. I felt it weakened Ilsa, despite making her appear tough. When Rebecca saw the film, she thanked me. Despite giving the scene her all, she confessed that she never liked it. She felt the same way I did.

And that is Mission. You know you have the safety net of quality first. It gives you the courage to try things you might not be sure of. Nothing is going in the movie that ultimately doesn't work for the overall good.

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Mission: Impossible – Fallout is now in theaters.