Mission: Impossible — Fallout wasn’t just one of the biggest movies of the year; it’s one of the best action movies of the last decade, earning nearly $800 million at the global box office and receiving rave reviews from critics. It’s rare for a franchise — especially one lacking lightsabers or superheroes — to reach its high point six movies in, yet many say that’s exactly what Mission: Impossible achieved with Fallout. So how exactly is Ethan Hunt still managing to be the baddest dude in the espionage game more than two decades after the first MI film? We spoke with Fallout Director Christopher McQuarrie to try and crack the code. Along the way, McQuarrie revealed why he doesn’t care about comparing his work to other movies, and how he and Tom Cruise secretly harbored fears that they had let down all their fans.
Mission: Impossible has been around for more than two decades and with each new movie, the franchise seems to be topping itself. Do you guys feel pressure to elevate the franchise to meet expectations?
Mission is always a little bit of an underdog. This franchise doesn’t have the wind under its wings that something like Bond does. We always feel like we have something to prove. We never take that success for granted.
There are a lot of franchises that are always looking to top themselves or take their movies to the next level but the secret to our success is we aren’t trying to top ourselves. We’re not trying to outdo the last movie or make the biggest spectacle. Because then the movie just becomes a spectacle for spectacle’s sake, which gets very boring very quickly. We focus on story and we focus on making a movie that is worthy of the movies that came before it.
So you’re not setting out to make the best Mission: Impossible movie?
When I made Rogue Nation, I said I don’t want to be the best Mission: Impossible movie, I just want to be in the top five. And with Fallout, I just wanted it to be in the top six. Nothing good will come from us comparing myself to the previous filmmakers. All I can do is make the best movie I can make.
Let’s talk a bit about the fight scene in the bathroom. It was widely considered one of the best action sequences of the last few years. What is the process of designing and executing something of that magnitude?
It always starts with a story. With every action sequence we design, we begin worrying less about the spectacle and more about how it is moving the story along and how it’s revealing character. So that’s where we started with the bathroom fight scene. The basic idea we had in mind was that Ethan would enter the bathroom with the intent of taking a person’s identity but then he ends up leaving without getting the mask, so he has to assume that identity while still looking like Ethan.
And on a technical level, did you factor in each actor’s physicality while choreographing the fight?
[Stunt Coordinator] Wade [Eastwood] was able to create a fighting style for each of those guys. And in the script, there is a line that refers to Ethan as a scalpel and Walker as a hammer and Wade took that to heart. In the fight, Ethan is much more precise and Walker is much more brutal and physically violent. And what Tom was really interested was that the fight sequence showed each character’s vulnerability. He said this scene was essential to set up their final showdown because the viewer has seen the strength of these two but also knows that neither one of these guys are invincible.
A lot of action movies choose spectacle over story. How do you resist that urge?
There’s no question of resistance. It’s not a temptation for us. Chasing spectacle is a cardinal sin. Whenever we are writing, shooting, or editing, we are asking, “Why is this happening? How does this fit into the larger story?”
None of this is to say we aren’t trying. We always think the movie should be bigger than it turns out to be. Both Tom and I feel like the last third of the movie was a letdown. It’s not what it could have been in our minds. That’s the discipline.
So as a finished product, you and Tom weren’t satisfied with the final third of the film?
When we were still putting the movie together, Tom called me in the middle of the night and said, “I’m bummed. I feel like we really let people down. I feel like the helicopter chase could have been better and the whole ending could have been better.”
And I told him that once everything came together — the music, the visual effects, the sound design — it would be spectacular but in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “He’s right. It’s not what it could have been.”
But a lot of that comes from the allure of the spectacle. You convince yourself you could always go bigger and that bigger is better. You can lose perspective on what you’re doing and every movie I make, I have to remind myself to keep perspective or I’ll always be doubting myself and anything I make. But then once we saw the final product we realized that trusting story works.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, you’ve worked with him on the last few Mission: Impossible films, what has that relationship looked like?
Tom Cruise spoils you for working with everyone else. He approaches everything with such enthusiasm and he also approaches every aspect of his role with a storyteller’s eye. He won’t limit his performance with some “Tom Cruise” particular. He insists on showing the character’s vulnerabilities, which is something you don’t see in a lot of other action stars.
So often people are interested always looking like the toughest person and coming out on top in every interaction. But that’s not Ethan Hunt. There’s always a reluctance to what he has to do. He does these heroic and insane things because it’s what he needs to do to save the world. That’s where the empathy and humor come from when you look at that character. There’s a vulnerability to Ethan Hunt, he’s not a superhero.
It’s no secret that Tom does his own stunts in the movie. Is that purely spectacle or does that serve the story as well?
You can’t underestimate the fact that Tom does his own stunts. We’re not doing them because we want to impress the audience. If that was the purpose, we wouldn’t do it because it would take the audience out of the movie. The reason Tom does these stunts himself is that it lets us put the cameras in ways that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to.
Think about the skydiving sequence. If a stuntman was jumping out of a plane, the camera wouldn’t be able to be on his face. The shots that we have wouldn’t exist. With Tom, I get to put the camera right on him and the audience is suddenly having that experience with the character. That is the power of Mission Impossible.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is now available on Digital with 4K UHD, Blu-ray/DVD coming December 4.