Writer / director Christopher McQuarrie is known for his gritty and tense stories for films like The Usual SuspectsValkyrie or Edge of Tomorrow – but he’s also gained acclaim for directing cult-hit films like Way of the Gun and the Tom Cruise-led adaptation of the Jack Reacher novels. Now McQuarrie is stepping up to bat on his biggest directorial effort yet – Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth installment in Cruise’s most enduring and popular film franchise.

Stepping into a blockbuster franchise as big as Mission: Impossible is one thing – stepping into the franchise this late, when audiences have already seen so many versions of Ethan Hunt’s intricate espionage games (not to mention the rise of competing franchises like Bourne or the revamped Bond) is another challenge entirely.

We sat down with McQuarrie at the NYC press tour for Mission: Impossible 5, to talk about how the legacy of Mission: Impossible 1 – 4 did or did not affect the making of Rogue Nation, and how to bring something fresh to such a long-running franchise.

The anthology format of this film series, which is something that I guess Tom requested himself, how does that free you up as far as really being able to tell your own story and not having to necessarily have a lead-in from the last one or a lead-out to the next one? 

Christopher McQuarrie: It was great. You get to sort of pick and choose what it is you want to bring back from the other stories. I had done a little work on Ghost Protocol midway through the movie. Originally, in that script Julie was dead. They just sort of knocked her off in between 3 and 4. And I remember reading the script and going, “God…” It was like when they killed Newt in Alien 3. The movie started and I was like, “I hate Alien 3 already and I’m not even into the movie yet,” because it felt like all the effort made by the second film was sort of gone.

So by bringing her back we resolved that story and resolved in kind of a satisfying way and didn’t need to carry it or reference it in this movie. And Ghost Protocol ends with a reference to The Syndicate, which we were determined not to use. We really didn’t want to get into some version of the boogieman. But then as the movie went on, you felt the presence of this thing without a name. And we finally just said, “All right. It’s The Syndicate. Who are we kidding?”

So there was never a conscious effort to keep any sort of the sense of past story elements alive. We just sort of let the story develop the way that it did. The only thing I was interested in bringing back from the other movies were the four characters that I brought back, the team.

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I know some fans who have been with the franchise a long time saw maybe some of the earlier marketing materials and they maybe unfairly compared some of what they saw, kind of comparing it back to other elements of the franchise—the motorcycle chase from 2, the intricate heist from 1. Was this something you guys were aware of when constructing these set pieces that there might be…not references, but kind of mental callbacks to other things in the franchise?

Christopher McQuarrie: The whole process starts as one of comparison. It all starts the same way that criticism is a process of comparison. You looked at the whole thing and said, “I’ve gotta top this movie. I have to be better than the last one.” And, as a result, if you look at that…at the profile of the movie it’s like Ghost Protocol has this massive sequence in the middle and it has this kind of kickass pachinko machine of a parking garage at the end. And we thought we kinda needed to match that shape.

And again, there came a certain point in the process where we just said, “Why? Why do we have to do any of that? Why don’t we just have the story reach its natural conclusion based on the direction we’ve set the movie in?” That’s really how the ending finally came to be. We were struggling to come up with the end of the movie all throughout production. Essentially, I’d shoot Monday-Friday, scout Saturday, write Sunday. And we really didn’t know what the end of the movie was. We kept thinking we need something like the parking garage, or maybe the A400 should be at the end of the movie, because doesn’t the movie need to be constantly getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger? We let all that go and stopped comparing ourselves to other movies.

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Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ motorcycle sequence

The motorcycle chase, for example, we knew, well, there’s already been a motorcycle chase. We said to ourselves, “Actually, no. there was kind of a motorcycle fight. It was like a motorcycle duel.” More importantly, the technology that we had now didn’t exist when they did it. We can do a motorcycle chase…not to say better, but we do one in a way that it hadn’t been done in the franchise before.

And the real break came when…The motorcycle chase and The Taurus were originally in different parts of the movie. There was a moment when I took Drew’s script and said, “We’ll take the Taurus and put it back to back with the motorcycle chase and change who it is Ethan is chasing.” And suddenly, the sequence is entirely different. It radicalized the sequence, but then it also destroyed the screenplay. Everybody’s motives didn’t make sense anymore….So it was all constantly an evolution based on elements sort of coming together and random.

Can you talk a little bit about the masks and face ripping? That’s something that people expect to see in these movies, yet you don’t want it to seem cartoonish. I think you do it in the right way in this…both times in two very different ways. Can you talk about figuring out what to do with that?

Christopher McQuarrie: Well there was obviously the leftover from Ghost Protocol and the one that we sort of…We baked in a lot of stuff for fans of the franchise, but we also made a movie that was for the uninitiated. We always said you have to walk into this movie having never seen a Mission Impossible movie before. Therefore, a guy can’t just pull off a mask. You have to introduce the mask technology and you have to make it part of the reality of this movie.

WARNING – MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW!

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That was where the introduction of the mask became obligatory. We developed this mask machine. It was the 3D printer, and brought back this idea of Benji wanting to wear a mask. He always wanted to wear a mask. In the 10-minute chunk of the movie that we cut out, he really got to do it. And he shows up very unexpectedly. So it was really richly rewarding. And he showed up as Alec Baldwin. And it was this really fun moment. And he pulls off an Alec Baldwin mask and it’s Benji, and you are like, “Fuck!” And that’s how they’ve escaped from Alec Baldwin.

And you cut back to the embassy and Alec Baldwin…you see Alec and everybody come out of the embassy leave, and then you see Alec Baldwin come out of the embassy alone and you are like, “Did I just miss a reel? What’s happening?” Alec Baldwin realizes it before you do. You cut back to the car and Benji pulls off the Alec Baldwin mask and then reaches under his sleeve and pulls his tag and his Alec Baldwin body suit deflates. And we loved it. And it was a big laugh. It was great. And it just…All of the elements that made the scene work were also things that led the audience down a path they didn’t want to go and confused them with information they didn’t need.

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And also, by the time you got to the real mask reveal in the movie, you felt the audience saying, “There’s just too many of these mask gags in the movie.” So we looked at this whole chunk of the movie. It’s Alec Baldwin in his absolute finest. He’s so good in this scene. It’s Alec just taking a monologue and just chewing it up with his back teeth and just loving every minute of it. And it’s Tom Cruise just being torn apart by Alec Baldwin. And Tom, I said, “I’m sorry. Does this feel weird that you’re just like…you don’t have anything to do in this scene.” And Tom goes, “I got a front row seat, man. This is like the greatest…” He’s just sitting there in handcuffs with Alec Baldwin just destroying him. And it just didn’t earn itself there. And the audience was basically telling us, “You’ve gone one step too far.”

And we were terrified of that mask gag, thinking, “They are going to see it coming. They’re going to see it coming.” The nice thing is that for the people who do, they enjoy it just as much as the people who don’t. And it hinges on 30 seconds of screen time in an earlier scene. At one test I cut just a little deeper just to get us through a scene, and I took this little 30-second chunk out. And it destroyed that entire…it took away the things you needed to believe in order for that thing to work. The testing process on this movie was a very educational.

Be sure to check back after Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is in theaters for our SPOILER-FILLED discussion with Christopher McQuarrie. Also be sure to check out our video interview with Jeremy Renner, talking stuntwork, Bourne and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation will be in theaters on July 31st.

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