If Tom Cruise is the Maverick of defying death, undertaking increasingly ludicrous and often sky-high stunts in his action-heavy blockbusters, then Christopher McQuarrie is his wingman.
The director might have got his start in the industry making small-scale thrillers (writing Bryan Singer’s Public Access and The Usual Suspects, directing The Way of the Gun), but ever since 2008, McQuarrie has been all-in on the Cruise canon. After working together on Singer’s 2008 Second World War thriller Valkyrie – Cruise starring, McQuarrie writing – the pair have almost exclusively worked with one another. McQuarrie has now written eight Cruise projects and directed four of them, including the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible series, Dead Reckoning Part One.
The film features easily the most ambitious stunt of either men’s careers: a motorcycle ride off a cliff that turns into a BASE jump that turns into ... something not to be spoiled. Shot without green screens or stunt doubles, the adrenaline-fuelled moment represents the high point of Cruise’s go-big-or-go-home relationship with the man he calls McQ.
Ahead of Dead Reckoning’s release July 12, Cruise’s partner in crime spoke with The Globe and Mail about his own many impossible cinematic missions.
You’ve talked about how from the moment Dead Reckoning began filming in 2020, you knew there would be a moment when Tom Cruise drives a motorbike off a cliff. But you weren’t yet sure “why.” Is that typical of the set-pieces constructed for your Mission: Impossible movies – that set-piece concept comes before the narrative structure?
Sometimes. Not always. I tend to view plot and story as two entirely separate things. Plot is merely the reason or reasons why things need to happen. Story is what happens when character and plot collide. Reasons and motivations tend to be quite fungible and can change as we make discoveries about the characters. Reasons of plot tend to be very general (I have to get to X before Y happens, for example). Reasons of character tend to be very specific (I care deeply about this person, yet I cannot tell them the truth). You end up with a movie where the characters are discovering the story much in the way the audience is. That’s a massive oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it.
Dead Reckoning has had one of the most complicated production periods in contemporary Hollywood history thanks to the pandemic. How do you manage the vision of the final film that you might be holding in your head as you’re encountering one challenge and delay after another?
Very simple. There is no vision of a final film. I find the entire notion to be limiting. The pursuit of a specific vision, in my experience, cuts me off from genuine discovery. Dead Reckoning Part One represents a complete surrender to the process of discovery. Given the conditions, there was no other way. Every shot, every angle, was one dictated by time, place, varying constraints and the needs of the ever-evolving narrative.
Has there been a moment working with Cruise that crystallized the idea that, yes, this is the man who I want to dedicate years of my career to?
I met Tom out of sheer curiosity at a time in my career when I was ready to quit the film business. We just talked about our mutual love of movies. Our first film together, Valkyrie, evolved naturally out of that conversation. I fully expected to hand the script over and walk away. When I was asked to stay on as a producer – something I had never done before – I fully expected to be promptly fired. I assumed every day was my last. I never took my position for granted. Sixteen years later, I still function that way.
Has Tom ever had an idea that was just too complex, something that you had to tell him, “no”?
We always come up with things that are too complex to execute. We usually discover this after we’ve committed. Rather than back out, we push on. In Africa, while shooting a sequence for Dead Reckoning Part Two, he came up with an idea that I told him could not be done, simply because no camera rig existed that could capture it. By that afternoon, our team had built it.
How important do you believe the box-office success of Dead Reckoning is to the future of the theatrical industry as a whole?
Every movie’s success is vital. That’s why I can’t understand this modern notion of box-office competition. We shouldn’t be competing with one another at all. We should be working together so that everyone can win. When we all win, the theatres win. The audience wins. And cinema wins.
It is hard to ignore how the villain of this film is an algorithm that attempts to stifle Ethan’s rogue brand of problem-solving at every turn. How much of that is your dig at the predictability of the streaming world?
As a filmmaker, I’m not here to tell you what I think. I’m here to give you things to think about.
Do you see yourself returning to smaller-scale filmmaking after Part Two?
I’d love to. Tom and I have plans for a (comparatively) smaller film. And no movie is easy. A bigger budget doesn’t mean smaller problems. Small movies are just as hard – often harder. I love a challenge. Bring it.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens in theatres July 12.