How that thrilling opera scene in ‘Mission: Impossible 5’ was made

“Mission: Impossible” has been captivating audiences with high-octane action sequences ever since the film franchise launched in 1996.

From the iconic wire hang in the first film to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge shootout in “M:I 3” to the Burj Khalifa sequence in 2011″s “Ghost Protocol,” there was a long list of thrilling and original set pieces that Christopher McQuarrie had to live up to when he took on the fifth film in the espionage series.

The opera house scene was McQuarrie“s answer to that challenge in this year“s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a a plane 5,000 feet in the air caught the attention of anybody who watched the film”s trailer, but it”s the elegant and heart-pounding opera sequence that really wowed audiences upon the movie”s release.

The scene features Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and Benji (Simon Pegg) searching for a suspect at the Vienna Opera House. Various members of spy and counterspy organizations position themselves in what feels sometimes like a dance, sometimes like a fight, to either kill or protect the Chancellor of Austria – and sometimes it”s not clear exactly what fate someone has intended for the Chancellor, as is the case with Rebecca Ferguson”s mysterious Ilsa.

All this is going down during a performance of “Turandot,” an Italian opera by Giacomo Puccini. The aria “Nessun Dorma” in the final act is one of those opera pieces like Habanera from “Carmen” or “Ride of the Valkyries” from “Die Walkure” that are familiar even to those who have never seen an opera in their entire life.

HitFix looked back on this memorable scene in the hit summer movie with a chat with director Christopher McQuarrie.

Inspiration for the scene came during a vacation to relieve McQuarrie”s writers block.

“Very early in the process we were struggling with how to open the movie. You look at all the other ‘Mission” films, and they open with a very distinct, very straight-forward sequence that requires little in the way of explanation. You're just sort of dropped into the experience of the movie,” said McQuarrie, who also penned the film”s screenplay.

When he hit a wall trying to craft this opening sequence, “at a certain point I just decided I'm gonna walk away and I'm gonna take a little break, which of course everyone was horrified with cause the start date was approaching and they wanted me at my desk working,” he recalled. So he got out of London, where he was working on the screenplay, and his wife organized a trip to Paris. Watching the ballet there inspired McQuarrie to craft an action sequence in a grand auditorium. Ultimately, the opera sequence was pushed to later in the film when McQuarrie and Cruise realized having more time to introduce Ilsa and the head of the Syndicate gave the scene more heft.  

A Martin Scorsese short film convinced Cruise that a “Mission: Impossible” opera scene could work.

McQuarrie was worried that Cruise might not latch onto the idea of an opera scene, so when he pitched the sequence to the actor (who also produced the film), he came armed with a nine-minute short film by Martin Scorsese, “The Key to Reserva.” A long-form ad for Freixenet Cava champagne, the film chronicles Scorsese discovering and filming a “lost” Alfred Hitchcock scene that takes place during an orchestra performance.

After watching the short film and hearing McQuarrie”s pitch, Cruise was “very excited about the idea,” the writer-director recalled.

Why “Turandot”?

A visit to the London Coliseum led McQuarrie to settle on “Turandot,” a 1926 opera about a cold princess and the men who attempt to win her hand in marriage by answering riddles. The English National Opera was staging a production of “Turandot” at the time of McQuarrie”s tour of the venue. (It was a contender for the location of the scene before the production later settled on Vienna.)

“I was walking around backstage and saw these fantastic Chinese masks and all of this beautiful Chinese iconography and design and thought, ‘This looks great,”” McQuarrie said.

“So I ran home and immediately bought a copy of ‘Turandot” and started listening to it,” he said. “That”s when I heard ‘Nessun Dorma.” It had this beautiful emotional crescendo that was perfect. And there are several pieces around it that are also incredibly dramatic. So I started to structure the sequence with a sense that it was going to crescendo with ‘Nessun Dorma.””

Treating the music of “Turandot” like the movie”s score helped in editing.

Composer Joe Kraemer was on set during production of the opera scene (a rare move, having a composer involved that early on). He gave McQuarrie this helpful advice: “Don”t think about the music. Don”t think about synchronizing the opera with the action because it”s all gonna change.”

McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton cut the scene without the music. “We just cut the scene to tell the story. We took all the opera out and just cut the sequence for the rhythms of suspense and action,” McQuarrie explained.

“Then Eddie brought in ‘Nessun Dorma” and dropped it right where we wanted it to crescendo and worked backwards from there, putting in more and more of the opera,” the director continued. “There”s this moment when Tom sees Rebecca for the first time across backstage, and that musical phrase, that first reference of ‘Nessun Dorma” comes right as he sees her, and it was so beautiful. It was just this chance emotional synchronization of music and image. That”s when I realized the sequence was gonna work.”

That accidental discovery in the editing room inspired Kraemer to use that musical theme of “Nessun Dorma” in his score later in the film for a key emotional scene between Ethan and Ilsa.

The opera as you hear it in the scene isn”t exactly as you”ll hear it if you see it performed. “At first we were determined to be really true to the opera,” McQuarrie said. “Once we let that go and started to manipulate the opera and extend ‘Nessun Dorma” and borrow from other pieces of the opera and treat the opera like score that could be edited and re-cut, the sequence just really became infinitely more dramatic.”

Minimal CG was needed to craft the scene.

Cruise has garnered fame for doing his own daring stunts, and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” was no different. He really did hang off the side of that airplane taking off, and he really did fight a big dude on some theater lights trestles 60 feet above the ground.

The only CG required for that fight sequence was removal of the wires used while shooting for the actors' safety and placing footage of the opera house auditorium in the green screen in deep background of the shot – the fight was filmed at a concert rehearsal space in London called LH2, which provided the filmmakers a higher ceiling than any soundstage available in the U.K. The production had just five days to shoot all of their Vienna footage, four hours of which was at Wiener Staatosper (the Vienna State Opera house). So time at the opera house was reserved for exterior shots and essential interior shots. The entire backstage and upper box seating was built at LH2.

A model of the opera house (pictured above) helped McQuarrie and his team choreograph the sequence where creating a sense of geography for the audience was key for the climatic moment when three guns go off at once from three different parts of the theater.

Tom Cruise was game for making fun of his short stature.

It was in rehearsals that Cruise and McQuarrie discovered an opportunity to make Cruise”s height (5″7”) into a comedic moment, when the assassin he”s fighting on the lights trestle towers above him.

“We were looking at one of the early rehearsals of the blocking,” McQuarrie said, and when they stood up together, Wolfie [Stegemann, who played the assassin] just stood up taller than Tom, and Tom started laughing and said, ‘Let”s play with this.”

At 6″3”, Stegemann naturally towered plenty over Cruise, but McQuarrie pulled a few filmmaking tricks to make their height difference appear even more dramatic. Cruise bent his knees a bit to give Stegemann a few more inches. And the shots over Stegemann”s shoulder at Cruise were filmed with a slightly wider lens than those over Cruise”s shoulder at the stuntman.

One key piece of choreography influenced the design of Rebecca Ferguson”s dress.

McQuarrie was “determined from the very beginning to not have [Ferguson wear] a slinky dress with a slit up the leg. I had seen it twice in ‘Mission: Impossible” movies and didn”t want to do it again,” he said.

But those plans changed during Ferguson”s training with the director”s brother, Doug, a retired Navy SEAL. When Doug McQuarrie suggested that Ferguson put her leg on the table to brace her leg for the rifle shot, Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie looked at each other and realized that had to be in the scene, and they had to get costume designer Joanna Johnston to create a dress for that moment.

The yellow dress with the slit was born out of necessity with Ferguson”s shooting stance and out of a process of elimination – Christopher McQuarrie didn”t want the dress to be the same color as one worn by any former “Mission: Impossible” lady.

Ferguson, hidden in the “Turandot” set decoration, foot braced, raising her rifle was the final shot done for the production of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Long after the bulk of the opera scene had been filmed, the crew kept wanting to clear stage space and tear down that set piece, but McQuarrie was determined to make time to finally get that shot.

This scene was surreal to watch at the Vienna world premiere.

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” had its world premiere at Wiener Staatosper.

One of the most surreal moments of the premiere screening was, naturally, the scene that takes place in the very venue where they were sitting watching the movie.

“It was such a – for lack of a better expression – a meta moment that when the police came in the side doors [in the film], my wife instinctively turned around to look at the doors to see if the police were coming in the door. It was really that immersive,” Christopher McQuarrie said.

“The Austrian crowd were very excited about the movie but at the same time a fairly subdued crowd,” the director also recalled. “But when we cut to the opera house, the audience just went berserk. They were so excited to be sitting in that venue and to have that scene come inside the auditorium where you were sitting.”