Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is now in theaters and won the box office on its opening weekend, marking yet another blockbuster movie hit for star Tom Cruise. But behind Cruise (possibly the last bonafide mega-movie star) there is another figure of note: Rogue Nation's director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie.
McQuarrie gained fame due to his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Usual Suspects (1996), and had a cult-hit when he made his directorial debut with the 2000 film, Way of the Gun. After that, he fell into what he describes as "director jail," doing no new projects for over half a decade, until fate brought him into contact with the one and only Tom Cruise for the 2008 film, Valkyrie. McQuarrie and Cruise have since collaborated on two more films (Edge of Tomorrow, Jack Reacher), but Mission: Impossible 5 is no doubt their biggest challenge yet.
We sat down with Christopher McQuarrie to chat about the challenge of continuing this long-running franchise (read that here) - and also the more SPOILER-FILLED talk about how this movie came together, especially in regard to new characters like shadowy female agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and shadowy mastermind villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).
So Solomon Lane was a character kind of pre-Syndicate. How much Rogue Nation do we see through a vision before The Syndicate was brought into it?
Christopher McQuarrie: It’s a tough question. It all evolved as we were…it all evolved rather organically from the original construct. We started a story that was very different and much more plot driven and much more about the McGuffin of the movie. There was originally a different McGuffin that they were chasing after. There was kind of an end of the world scenario that was being discussed, because we felt you owed that in this kind of movie. And I’m not saying we sat down and all agreed…you just feel yourself sort of naturally going that way when you are making a big summer movie.
When we let go of all the things we thought we had to do, the story started to come together much more organically, if that makes sense.
Why didn’t you want to use The Syndicate?
Christopher McQuarrie: It just felt…it didn’t feel organic to where we were going. We just didn’t want to feel obligated. In our minds, the idea of The Syndicate felt like this über evil organization that existed just to be evil. That didn’t interest me at all. But then as I started to realize who Lane was and what he was after and realized that he was not acting on his own but that was acting with a much larger network. That network needed an identity. I thought, “Well, that’s what The Syndicate is.” I just had a picture in my mind of what The Syndicate would be as some sort of arch evil organization and it seemed silly to me when, suddenly, this idea of operatives who have decided, for whatever reason, that their own system is corrupt and they’ve turned against it, it shed that idea of being an explicitly evil organization. In my mind it had a methodology and it had a philosophy. They’re not evil for evil’s sake. Solomon Lane believes that what he’s doing is good.
The doppelganger villain concept is something that we see a lot in superhero movies, like Iron Man, and Man of Steel, and even just Ant-Man that just came out. And it’s something we’ve seen in spy movies, too. Bond has gone up against his evil version of him a couple of times. What about that is attractive as a storyteller? And what are some of the pitfalls of the doppelganger concept that you want to avoid?
Christopher McQuarrie: Well, evil is a really tough concept for me. The idea of a villain that is bad for bad’s sake seems kind of absurd, unless you have someone like Heath Ledger as The Joker, who really was: “I’m here for anarchy.” You believed that his philosophy was that he had no philosophy. He got off on the creativity with which he created chaos and he was kind of angry at the world.
So when you had the anti-Ethan Hunt, what would make the anti-Ethan Hunt? And we didn’t really come by it naturally. Normally, I tend to be a very binary filmmaker. You give me a problem and a destination and I say, “All right. If you want to get from here to here, there’s a series of if/then’s that will get you there. And if you have other stuff you want to do along the way, I’ll give you all the if/then’s that are caused by that.”
We really didn’t know who Lane was. We didn’t know Lane’s name. He was kind of a mystery to us as much as he is kind of in the narrative. So, for me, I didn’t think about in terms…It would be hard for me to answer in terms of what advantages and disadvantages there are. It’s just a pain in the ass. It’s a pain in the ass coming up with a villain that is creating chaos in a way that is satisfying.
The other problem with Lane you may have noticed is there’s not a great deal of onscreen chaos caused by him. And that was something that I really struggled with throughout the movie. Is he doing enough? Is it clear enough what he’s doing? Anything that you did to tell that story clearly onscreen took screen time away from the other story you were telling. If you look at The Dark Knight, it isn’t Batman’s movie. It’s The Joker’s movie. And the more fleshed out your villain becomes, the darker the movie becomes. And we didn’t want to go to a place where…it wasn’t a dark and brooding thing about villainy. Is was more about the villain sort of just creating a set of circumstances by which the movie moved forward.
That’s really where it became clear to us that Lane had a plan and Lane had the upper hand on Ethan almost through the entire movie. I hope I answered your question.
Piggybacking off that, what made you decide to preserve your villain to not kill him at the end?
Christopher McQuarrie: I’m glad you asked that. One of the reasons why the ending was so hard is we kept writing endings in which Ethan killed Lane and a version where Ilsa killed Lane and Ethan killed Vinter. And I was writing numerous endings and Tom and I were just inherently dissatisfied. The funny thing was that Sean Harris did not want to be in this movie. He didn’t want to be in this movie. He didn’t want to be in a franchise movie. He’s just not that kind of guy at all. And when I finally convinced him to be in it, the first thing he said to me is, “Promise me you’ll kill me. Just don’t bring me back, because I don’t want to be in five of these movies.” And I said to Sean, “Sean, I got bad news for you. It’s not really up to you. And it isn’t up to me. And if the audience likes you…” I said, “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you right now.” On the last night of the shoot he was like, “Is there any way you can kill me?” I said, “Yes. I can kill you right now. With the stroke of the pen you are a dead man. If the audience likes you, you gotta twin brother you don’t know about, or a clone, or a prequel. You are coming back whether you like it or not. We’ve got you now.”
So Tom and I were really struggling with this idea. And I came to him one night very late at night and I said, “I think the reason why we can’t resolve this movie is because I don’t feel the need to kill Lane. I don’t have the event in the movie that makes me want Ethan to kill him.” He didn’t kill Goose. I never saw him blow up these planes. I never saw him do these things. Yeah, he blew up The Chancellor, but we all know we never gave a shit about whether The Chancellor lived or died in the movie. He’s a figurehead in a scene. There’s not an emotional attachment to a politician.
“I’m not done with this character. I’m not resolved with this guy. And, more importantly, you, Ethan Hunt, are not a killer for killing’s sake. You haven’t been given the reason to kill him.” And Tom, who really wanted the confrontation with the villain, is the first person in the world that when you present to him the internal workings of his own movie, he thought about it for a minute and he said, “You’re absolutely right.”
And on my way home from that meeting I got a text from Sean Harris. He said, “The more I think about this…” Because he knew we were writing these scenes. He goes, “I don’t see a version of this movie where Ethan kills Lane. I don’t see Lane chasing Ethan at the end of the movie and I don’t see Ethan chasing Lane.” And I said, “You’re right. We’ve just come to the same conclusion.” And he just responded, “What have I done?” At that moment we knew we weren’t gonna kill him.
Feel free to be blunt if this has nothing to do with you, but in an era where movie trailers are often virtually giving you a summary of the movie in two minutes or showing you 20 seconds of the major climax, I found it really interesting that about 90% of the promotional material for this movie centered on the first scene. All the major set pieces…even in the full trailer the major set pieces got about two seconds each in it. Was that a conscious decision? What does that do as far as you presenting your story?
Christopher McQuarrie: There was only one element of the story that we were adamant that they could not show in the trailer. I think you know what that will be without my saying a spoiler to anybody reading it. Well, anything from the last five minutes of the movie. We were just like, “You can’t show that. Anything else you want to show, show it. And show it in way you want.” We knew, as a matter of sheer consequence, that the marketing would be driven by the A400. It was the stunt and it’s in the movie specifically because you had to have an image like that because of the expectation that was supplanted on this movie.
It’s as integrated into the story as it is simply as a matter of budget and time. We had four days to shoot that sequence. If I’d had 15 days to shoot that sequence and $20 million more that would have been the end of the movie. And the ending of the movie would have been ruined for you because you would have been waiting the whole time for that stunt and you would have seen in 500 times.
I was under a great deal of pressure to make that the end of the movie. In one meeting with one executive, he says, “You have to have the biggest stunt in the movie be part of the biggest sequence of the movie, and that needs to be at the end of the film.” And I said, “Why? What do you care? It’s going to be in the trailer. What do you care?”
So yeah, it was just simply a matter of “That’s going to be in the movie and the resources are telling us where it has to be.” So, as a result, it didn’t spoil the movie for you. If they’d given me all the money in the world, we probably would have done…Look. If I had written the script six months before we started shooting this movie and handed them the ending that you saw, you don’t really believe the studio would let me make that movie, do you? I don’t think any of us would. And I don’t think I would have written it that way. You would have people like, “This is your ending, in this parking garage?”
[Mimicking Studio Exec] Standing?
Christopher McQuarrie: Yeah, "standing???" What? Materials from Home Depot and some smoke? I don’t think so. So it just all found its way the way that it did and I’m very grateful that it did.
Speaking of both the ending and Rebecca, can you talk about just when you guys decided on that fight sequence at the end for her, and how brutal it actually all was?
Christopher McQuarrie: It had been something I had always wanted to do. I had always wanted to have a knife fight between a man and a woman. Don’t ask me where that comes from. My parents could probably answer that better than I could. And Vinter was supposed to die in that first scene with Ethan. When he hits his head on that pipe, he’s done. We cast Jens because he gave such a great audition. And we thought, “Well, not only do we have to hire him. We can’t kill this guy. This guy’s awesome.” And we put him in another scene. We put him in the scene where he opens the door to the hotel room and just as a moment with Rebecca, kinda walks out. It’s very perfunctory. We just had him there on the day and said, “Put him in because we’re not going to see him for a long time if we don’t.” Once we did that, we said, “Well, now we’re screwed. Now we’re kinda committed to keeping Yens in the movie. We gotta figure out how to resolve it.”
So that was one of those things sitting at the top in a Post-It note, is: kill Vinter. How are we going to do it? Everybody had their…There was a version of a scene where everybody in the movie killed Vinter. Once again, when I let go of feeling like I am obligated to give each and every character in this movie their action beat, a la Ghost Protocol, and said, “This movie is really about Ethan, and Ilsa, and Lane,” it all sort of came together.
The whole end of the movie really wasn’t written until a week before we shot it. There were erroneous reports that we had shot another ending and that it was unsatisfactory and now we were reshooting it. I will point out how absurd that reporting is. Under what circumstances would somebody look at uncut footage and decide that it is unsatisfactory and decide to go back and reshoot everything? You’d assemble the entire movie and then you’d decide the movie doesn’t work and then you’d reshoot it.
The truth of the matter was Tom and I were never satisfied with any of the endings that I wrote. And it wasn’t until we discovered….we took the last remaining things off of our list of things we’d always wanted to do—a foot chase, a knife fight between a man and a woman. What was a sting that was going to really feel like Mission Impossible? We always knew we wanted the movie to end with Ethan somehow getting the bad guy. Once we got rid of killing him, the only satisfactory conclusion was he’s gotta get him. He’s gotta outsmart him. He’s gotta outplay him. And we wanted something that harkened back to the original series.
We had 10 days. We had a set number of locations. We had a set number of finances. And it was like the scene in Apollo 13 where they came in with, “I’ve got all this crap. You’ve gotta build an air filter in 30 minutes or everybody is dead.” We threw all this stuff on the table and said, “This is all the stuff we have to make the end of Mission Impossible. How do you do it?” That’s really how the ending came together.
You’ve been talking a lot about how much of the movie was written on the fly. Was there any scenes that it particularly pained you not to be able to include?
Christopher McQuarrie: We shot them and they were cut from the movie. The movie was running 2 hours and 20 minutes long. The test audience was telling us that there were pace issues. There were things going on in the movie specifically about what drove the turn in the members of The Syndicate as told by the…There’s a ghost of a confrontation when Ethan confronts Lane at the end and says somewhere along the line: “You had a crisis of faith. Am I fighting for the right side? Is it worth risking my life for a world that doesn’t seem to care?” This is all stuff that Ethan and Benji discussed at the safe house at the beginning of the movie. It’s before Ethan introduces the idea of The Syndicate. He contextualizes it as, “This is who they are. This is what it’s about.”
There is 10 minutes after the car chase where you are in still in Morocco, where Ethan is confronted both by the villain and by Alec Baldwin. And the entire movie is, yet again, upended. And your concept of who Ilsa is, is thrown into complete and utter chaos. And the audience was just telling us, “Pace, pace, pace, and tempo. Pace and length.” When we went in and pulled all of those things out of the movie, the movie just took off. So I was sad to see them go. But, at the same time, I knew they didn’t really need to be there.
And the things that I meant to say, the stuff that I meant to…the same way with 'Jack Reacher.' There’s a lot baked into 'Jack Reacher' that reflects my beliefs on the things that I’m talking about in that movie. I’m not interested in telling you what to think. I’m interested in giving you things to think about. I’m not interested in telling you what I mean or what it is I’m after. To me that’s condescending. I’m much more interested in simply engaging you in a story from beginning to end so the next time you go back and watch it you are going to make discoveries about what I was sort of getting at.
So I found myself having overwritten and sort of violating my own cardinal rule. And the audience was telling me, “We don’t want it. We don’t need it. We just want to have a good time.”
Well, audiences seem to have gotten what they wanted, because Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is sweeping through theaters, carried by strong critical and audience word-of-mouth. With Mission: Impossible 6 plans already in motion, it doesn't look like the good times with Ethan Hunt and the IMF crew will be winding down anytime soon.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is now in theaters.