This past weekend, Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout scored a massive box office opening — this franchise’s best to date. McQuarrie has made one of the best action movies of the last few years with a litany of practical effects and stunts, including a couple that has Tom Cruise performing a HALO jump (high altitude skydiving) and another in which Cruise flies a helicopter by himself.
Fallout also marks some changes for the franchise. With McQuarrie returning to direct after directing Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, it’s the first time a Mission: Impossible movie hasn’t changed directors. Also, it’s the most direct sequel from a previous entry with almost all the major players returning from the previous film, including the villain. And it’s a movie in which we learn the most about its main character, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, who for so long just kind of existed in these movies as a running, jumping vehicle of “good” who we didn’t know too much about. Well, in Fallout, that changes.
Interestingly, McQuarrie was wary that audiences wouldn’t accept this new approach to Mission: Impossible movies. As he puts it, “In my attempt to grow the brand, I was expecting to lose some people,” which sounds a little like what Rian Johnson encountered with The Last Jedi (which McQuarrie addresses). He also address the increased propensity for online harassment of filmmakers and actors by “fans” who didn’t like how the story went, and what that means going forward.
McQuarrie is one of the smartest and one of the most candid filmmakers working today. He’s always interesting and has a knack for explaining things in pragmatic terms. But he also has a tendency to drift into spoilerish material, so if you haven’t seen Mission: Impossible – Fallout yet, consider yourself warned.
You were a trivia question at bar trivia a couple of months ago.
It was to name the directors of the only franchise with three or more installments that all made over $100 million and all directed by different directors. They’ll have to scrap that one now.
Oh, wow. Well, you know you’ve arrived when you’re a trivia question.
Last time we spoke you said, “Watching Tom Cruise on the side of that A400, I feel sorry for the next director.”
[Laughs] And the joke was on me.
When we spoke I get the impression you knew you might come back.
No, what I knew was that my returning was convenient. It was only at the end when Tom started to talk about it. I said, “I can’t come back.” He said, “Why not?” I said, “Because these are all directed by different directors. That’s the precedent.” And he said, “Precedents are made to be broken.”
Though I get the sense the HALO jump was already being discussed. Because I joked you’d have to send Tom Cruise to space. You cut me off and said, “No, you don’t even have to go to low Earth orbit.”
[Laughing] And sure enough! Oh yeah, we had been talking about it. It was something we had been kicking around for a while. Whether or not we had a place to put it was a whole other thing entirely. And we had been talking about a helicopter chase for a while, too.
I assume you’ve seen the reactions.
Oh, it’s surreal. The truth of the matter is, we messed with the formula in a lot of ways. I look at Ghost Protocol as kind of the gold standard of what the franchise is – the franchise discovered its identity with that movie. And Rogue Nation adheres to that. So this was a conscious effort to break from that. I assumed a portion of the audience would feel we had messed with the brand. So in my attempt to grow the brand, I was expecting to lose some people. So I was shocked, frankly, to see it work out the way it did.
The way you worded that I can’t help but think of Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi.
Well, that’s been quite the topic of conversation.
But it reminds me of what you said, growing the franchise but maybe losing some people. So is that an example of what you were worried about?
I just worried it wouldn’t be Mission to them and they wouldn’t come. And I had this conversation long before any of this stuff I witnessed Rian going through came up. It was more about how do you grow the brand? The last two movies had made pretty much the same amount of money. So my question was how do you push beyond that? How do I get different demographics to come? How do I get it to grow? And it was really important to me that it feels like a different director. Fans of the franchise expect a different director so I was determined to give that to them.
It’s also the most direct sequel of all the movies. You brought back almost all the characters, even the villain.
Yes. Well, it started on Ghost Protocol. What happened was I came on board that movie about midway through production to help with the script – because these movies never start with a finished script. The thing that I noticed right away is there was exposition in the script that explained that Michelle Monaghan’s character was dead. And I said to Tom and Brad Bird that this was like when they killed Newt in Alien 3. This had really bummed me out because she had gone through so much in Aliens. Now, Fincher was making a very different movie – a very bleak and scary movie, so that wasn’t as much of an issue.
But this is Mission: Impossible! And we want to feel like order is restored at the end of these movies. And no matter how we restore order, this thing will be hanging over Ethan’s head that he failed to save his wife. In the end, Mission: Impossible 3 was for naught. So I rewrote it so she was alive in the end and have that little exchange with one another. And Tom and I thought that was closure to that relationship because it gave you a happy ending – but no one perceived it that way. Tom was being asked wherever he went, “What happened to Julia? You can’t be with Ilsa because you’re with Julia.” So I asked Tom, “What’s the one thing you want to do with this movie?” And he said, “I keep getting asked about Julia and I want to tie up that story. I want to give the audience the closure they are looking for.”
We learn more about Ethan in this movie than probably the other five movies combined.
Yes. Yes. Well, the strategy for me is to lay all the existing movies on top of one another and draw a line between everything they have in common and what’s something none of them have done.
You even repeat the “Did we get it?” “We got it” line from the first movie before it goes to the theme song.
Yes. That’s a little nod to that. But it’s more banter between the team and when I did it I wasn’t even thinking about the first movie. But then it’s like, that’s a nice little callback and I’ll embrace it.
When you laid them on top of each other, what did you find they didn’t have?
With Rogue Nation, what became very clear to me was I wanted to have a woman who didn’t answer to Ethan. I wanted a relationship with a woman who wasn’t a subordinate, who wasn’t a member of his team and kept him more off balance. A woman who challenged Ethan.
You said last time that it can’t be a female version of Ethan, because then it becomes a parody.
What happens is then she’s not a woman, she’s a man played by a woman. And that’s not what I want. I hate when they write characters that way. It just feels very frustrating. It’s undignified. It was very important to me she is her own character and has her own problems and that’s where Ilsa came from. In this film, I laid them on top of each other and I’ve always been looking for a villain that poses a physical threat to Ethan. I haven’t really seen that yet. And that’s what drew me to Henry Cavill. Who better for him to fight than Superman? Let’s use that baggage to our advantage.
And the second thing, we never really get close to Ethan in any of the movies. People are always speculating as to what he’s thinking, but we never really know. We never truly know. So I’m going to start this movie in such a way that you do know. And the audience is then in on secrets Ethan never tells anyone.
I assume you knew from the start you had to bring Rebecca Ferguson back? Ilsa is one of the best characters in this whole series.
Oh my God. Well, Rebecca Ferguson is such a rare find. You don’t go looking for another. And you don’t take for granted you’re going to find another. She’s such a rare mix of strength and empathy and vulnerability. So I had to have her back. I just had to. And there was unfinished stuff there. It was not resolved in the way a Bond girl relationship is resolved: they never see each other again; those are the rules of Bond. It was a big debate Tom and I had right up until the end of how they would say goodbye and what their relationship would be. Tom very much wanted a romance there and I came to work that day on her last day and said, “I’m just not feeling it. I’m not feeling this is earned. When we try to make something emotional we are reaching.” And without our knowing it, that was the birth of Fallout. And the end result, which I am so thrilled with: there are not four women in this film, there are five.
Including Vanessa Kirby, who plays the granddaughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s Max from the first film. Why did you decide to make that relationship?
Well, it’s funny. It’s something Vanessa and I toyed with when we were first discussing the character. It was going to be an inside joke with us. And I needed more dialogue in that scene when Tom walks in the room; I needed more off-camera dialogue from Vanessa. I was just writing a speech about her charity and thought, “Well, this is boring.” And I was like, wow, if anyone is paying attention, I’m going to give them this. I did that very much at the last minute. We did that in post.
You’ve spoken about getting to know how the marketing side of the business works and delivering trailer shots to sell the movie. There’s a scene in the trailer of Ethan flying a helicopter at a truck. Was that just for the trailer?
It’s a segment of the helicopter chase that could go, so it went. The interesting thing that happened on this movie, as compared to the last movie, we had this whole scene in Rogue Nation where Ethan and Alec Baldwin have a standoff in Morocco. There was a mask gag and it was a lot of fun. But it was dialogue and it was a lot of plot. We were getting a lot of notes that the middle of the movie was too long. When we took it out, all of those notes went away. In this one, when Ilsa is stalking Ethan through Paris, that’s the kind of crap that gets cut out of a movie in the first friends and family screening. A test audience never sees it! But instead, where were we getting the notes? “The car chase is too long,” and, “the helicopter chase is too long. There’s too much action in the movie.”
A few weeks ago you and Rian Johnson had a Twitter conversation about criticism and online bullying and harassment. Do you think it will get to the point filmmakers decide this just isn’t worth is and do something else?
No. I’ll tell you what it’s going to be. The only thing that shitty social media is going to be bad for is shitty social media. Filmmakers are always going to make movies. They are just going to make themselves less available to that. For me, the value of Twitter and why I signed up for it originally is so I could get ahead of inaccurate press. That was my opportunity to very quickly issue a correction when I read stuff that was wrong. I now realize that value is outstripped 1000 fold by the fact that you don’t even need to say the wrong thing to say the wrong thing anymore. It doesn’t matter what you said, the internet tells you what you meant. And that all comes from the fact that nobody is reading what you said, they are reading what they’ve come to complain about. What will happen is, you will lose contact with those filmmakers.
Well, if a director leaves social media, then those people will go after someone like Kelly Marie Tran, which we saw.
Well, look, I’ve been involved in enough social media platforms to tell you eventually it evolves into a wasteland where it’s just a bunch of people screaming at each other. When I signed up for Twitter – I signed up around Jack Reacher – it was funny! And I followed funny people for whom Twitter was a platform for them to promote their humor. And all I did was follow funny people. They’re not nearly as funny as they are angry now. And everybody is out there shouting into the void, promoting their political platform. And I get it. I get they are politically passionate, but I’m looking at it and saying, “Well, who do you think is following you?” It’s people who agree with you. So what value is this political platform when no one is communicating, we are just railing. When you are attacked on social media, any tweet is about your attacker. I should say any “statement” is about your attacker because I hate the word “tweet.”
Any statement is about what your attacker thinks it means no matter what is expressly stated or implied. Any reply to your attacker, no matter how measured, is abuse. And if you go on social media and watch the interactions that are going on, it’s that. Nobody is listening to what the other side is saying. We are all so busy defending our opinions, we don’t see the defensiveness in ourselves. We have forgotten it’s not a soapbox. It was designed so we can all communicate. So when we talk about toxic fandom, it isn’t toxic fandom, it’s a toxic medium. It ultimately spirals downward and you feel assaulted when you go there. Twitter will die a death like all those other ones have.
What I’d like to see Twitter do, instead of trying to police bad behavior – racist behavior and all that – and instead of trying to punish negative behavior, they could design a system that rewarded positive behavior and encouraged positive behavior. And incentivized positive behavior. And that would force people to behave themselves if only to stay in the conversation. Social media just doesn’t seem to understand its own dynamic or wants to do anything about it.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.