Making a “Mission: Impossible” movie is always about topping the last blockbuster. Tom Cruise, performing the majority of his own stunts, has made death-defying film history in each installment. In the first one, he was suspended horizontally from the ceiling like a plank. Upping the ante in the second movie, he climbed a sheer cliff. In No. 3, he leapt off a skyscraper; in the fourth chapter, he scaled the world’s tallest building, and in the fifth one, he clung to the outside of an airplane in flight.
The sixth go-round — otherwise known as “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” — outdoes the others in dangerous and difficult ways too numerous to mention. But returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie said Cruise’s early focus in planning discussions wasn’t on his training to pilot a helicopter or making a parachute jump from a cargo plane 5 miles high. It was his insistence to raise the bar on the unlikeliest aspect of a summer extravaganza: providing well developed dramatic characters. As with “The Dark Night” and “Skyfall,” he wanted a series that got better with age.
McQuarrie said that the first conversation they had about the film concerned Michelle Monaghan’s character, the wife of Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt. The two parted ways in the previous story as he walked away to preserve her safety, a development that left many viewers feeling unfulfilled.
“Tom finds himself all around the world being asked about her character and what happened to that story,” McQuarrie said by phone earlier this week. “We thought that had been resolved. To them, it wasn’t. There were still unanswered questions.”
Monaghan returns with a much more substantial part than she had in any of the predecessors, taking a central role in Hunt’s battle against nefarious arms smugglers.
“Tom stresses character and emotion, and we both agree that without it, it’s all just spectacle,” McQuarrie said. Throughout an extensive round of audience testing, “every single shot, every single line, had to fight for its place in the film.”
The test audiences asked for the action set pieces to be tightened, not the character-building. Several ambitious elements of Hunt leaping from a catwalk to the ground in a Paris nightclub and piloting a helicopter in a mountain-high chase were removed in response, McQuarrie said. But they will appear in the film’s DVD release, “hard-won shots that we were very proud of but had to go” from the theatrical version.
McQuarrie, who began his career by winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1995’s twisty crime drama “The Usual Suspects,” has been close to Cruise for an unusually long time, at least by Hollywood standards. Their partnership began in 2008 with his script for “Valkyrie,” where Cruise shed his boyish American vibe to play a German officer plotting to kill Hitler. That led to McQuarrie writing and directing Cruise’s “Jack Reacher,” scripting “Edge of Tomorrow,” polishing the screenplay of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” writing and directing the next film in the series, “Rogue Nation,” and becoming the only filmmaker in the series invited back to do it again in “Fallout.”
“I like to describe our relationship as one long conversation about movies that’s occasionally interrupted by production,” he said. “The film business is so much about you can’t make a movie without a star, a director, a studio saying yes. Your life is so dependent on the whims of other people. And Tom and I don’t think in that space. We just talk about making movies. We never stop to think about the business of it all.
“Tom looks at a movie and sees where he can do his best with his best. When we make a project we’re not saying, ‘Is this going to be the No. 1 movie?’ That’s not our concern. Our concern is what we can do with this that’s never done before, how can we push ourselves and make it engaging for an audience. The rest of it, most times, will come.”
McQuarrie said that if Cruise decided that he wanted to fight a shark in his next film, “there’s no telling him no.” But he’d be worried about bad things happening. Not to Cruise — to the shark.