Director's Chair: Chris McQuarrie — 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'
Issue: July 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Chris McQuarrie — 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'

Writer/director/producer Chris McQuarrie got his start with his acclaimed script for The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer, which won him an Oscar. In 2000 he made his directorial debut with The Way of the Gun, and in 2008 he reteamed with Singer, co-writing the WWII thriller Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise. He followed that up with his script for the global hit The Tourist. In 2012 he reteamed with Cruise on Jack Reacher, which he wrote and directed, and now the pair are back with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

In the latest MI installment, which stars Cruise opposite newcomer Rebecca Ferguson and regulars Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris and Alec Baldwin, the IMF has disbanded, and with Ethan Hunt out in the cold, the team now faces off against a network of highly skilled special agents, the Syndicate. These highly trained operatives are hellbent on creating a new world order through an escalating series of terrorist attacks. Ethan gathers his team and joins forces with disavowed British agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), who may or may not be a member of this rogue nation, as the group faces their most impossible mission yet.  

The movie was shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won the Oscar forThere Will Be Blood, and whose credits include Inherent Vice, Nightcrawler, Michael Clayton and the previous Mission: Impossible movie, Ghost Protocol. It was cut by editor Eddie Hamilton ( Kingsman: The Secret Service) and extensive VFX were done by Double Negative.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director, whose credits also include Jack the Giant Slayer and Edge of Tomorrow, talks about making the film, the visual effects, and his love of post. 

What sort of film did you set out to make, and how did you put your own stamp on a famous franchise like this? 

“We started out wanting to make a continuation of Ghost Protocol. We loved its tone and felt [director] Brad Bird had found a unique voice, one the franchise had always been looking for. So our first draft was very much in that vein, but once we began to arrange all the action sequences in such a way that they all escalated, the story took on a tone and life of its own, and we just followed it where it went. I tried to do something very different and get out of my comfort zone in terms of the storytelling, and I thought I was going in one direction but the story wanted to go in another.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together? 

“In every instance we were up against the clock. We never had enough time. The movie was big and getting bigger, and it was very difficult to budget the schedule of a film where your narrative is sprawling out ahead of you. It was like laying railroad tracks as you rode the train out of the station. The other big challenge was safety on all the stunts we did that had never been attempted before. And we were constantly trying to show that it really was Tom doing them all, and trying to maintain the high energy without relying on cutting, as you’re aiming to insert the audience into a reality where Tom is actually hanging off a plane and so on.”

How tough was the prep and shoot?

“The prep was especially tough as the script kept changing daily, and the shoot was tough because of all the logistics and locations, but it was actually pretty straightforward. We knew what we wanted to do every day. I’m pretty specific, but I also tend to be very open-minded, especially with the DP, who was really good at breaking me out of my comfort zone. For instance, we had one scene with Sean Harris, the villain, and [DP Elswit] walked around the set and found a really comfortable, elegant way of blocking the scene, but also a way that was very complex to shoot. And I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get bits of coverage over here, and way back there and so on, with all these different set ups.’ And Robert solved it by simply laying 10-feet of tracks with a crane on it so we could shoot the whole thing in one master set up... Generally, it’s a miracle that the crew managed to pull the whole shoot off. They were so flexible and responsive to constant change.”

How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?

“Right from prep, as we had a couple of big set pieces that are very complex with a lot of visual effects. Probably the biggest technical challenge on the shoot was the underwater sequence with Tom, which we shot in the tank at Pinewood. You could only get a few set ups a day — maybe six, and each one was really tricky. So I decided to do each movement in the sequence as a single shot — a series of masters. And that was tough for Tom as he had to do all these takes, holding his breath and doing all the action stuff. We shot it with the Alexa 65 with a HydroHead, and as it was so difficult getting the camera to move around sets underwater, some of it was done with real set pieces, but the rest was done with green screen, and the virtual set was added later in post.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I love it, as after the shoot it’s so peaceful and relaxed, and far more orderly and organized. And I’m heavily involved in every aspect, from editing to sound to the DI and so on. I love every aspect of post.”

Where did you do the post? 

“We’re doing it all in Soho, London.”

The film was edited by Eddie Hamilton. How did that relationship work?

“I love the edit and I’m not one to just check in on progress now and again. I love being in the editing room and working hand in hand with my editor, shot for shot — and communicating all the time during production. So when we shot the tank sequence, and were only doing a couple of set ups a day, because of all the rigging and lighting, I could sneak away for hours to the edit, so I could get a jump on the edit and was able to reassess certain sequences, and that all continued into post. And Eddie was with us at Pinewood a lot, as well as with us on-location whenever possible, which was a big help when we did another very complicated sequence shot at the Vienna Opera house, both on-stage and backstage. And the very first and very last shot of the film are both from that sequence, and we were shooting that sequence throughout the entire production. There’s a big fight in the lighting grid between Tom and a bad guy struggling over a gun, while an opera’s being performed, and we were shooting various stunts and action scenes 60-feet in the air, and so I’d bring Eddie on-set and he had a great sense of the continuity. He was also working with the 2nd unit whenever I couldn’t be there, to help supervise and direct, and I’m very wary of 2nd unit, but Eddie immediately proved himself to have a really good eye and great skills with the crew... He’d tell me he needed some pick-up shot for a sequence, and I’d tell him to get what he needed with the splinter unit, so it was a great collaboration.”

How many visual effects are there?

“Well over 1,200, and they were all done by [Double Negative] in London, who’ve done an amazing job.”

What was the most difficult sequence?

“It was definitely the underwater sequence. We had originally planned to build a complete set for the sequence, but safety was a big concern, along with all the problems of moving the camera, so we ultimately went with a virtual set. With the exception of the things that Tom physically interacts with underwater, it’s all virtual. And because it was so tricky to do, for the most part Tom is stationary and it’s the camera that moves.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“It’s so vital, and for me it’s a three-pronged approach; it’s music, sound and silence, and the combination of all three elements. We’re walking a fine line [at press time] as we’re still posting and testing the movie. I was able to play a lot with music — and the absence of music — in Jack Reacher. But that was a smaller film than this, and you’re trying to reach the broadest audience possible with this. And for every person who’s totally immersed in your movie, there are two others who may be distracted, and you’re constantly fighting to hold on to their attention. So I’m feeling my way through it right now, just in terms of what I can get away with. I like to rely on music only when it’s really needed for emotional beats, and I really like to play with silence. In the big car chase in Jack Reacher, we had no music at all — just the sound design, and it was very effective, I feel.”

How did the DI process help? 

“We’re not quite there yet, as we’ve just finished doing a few last pick-up shots. But it will be vital and we’ll be doing it in London. I actually try to get the film as close as possible to what I want on the day, and then I look at the DI as a way of enhancing that and shaping that, but I don’t actually like to manipulate things too gratuitously, although it’s very tempting with all the stuff you can do now to an image. I’d rather have it be as close to what was shot, as I feel, ‘That’s the movie we made.’ And it’s easy to forget that audiences are going to watch the film and look at it in a very different way from us.” 

Did the film turn out as you had hoped? 

“It did, although the process is always full of surprises.”

So will you do another?

“Absolutely! I’d love to. But I also think it’s a fantastic tradition they have of bringing in a new director for each one.” 

What’s next?

“A very long nap, and then I have a lot of writing obligations to fulfill before I decide what I’ll direct next.”