For a machine-tooled $290 million stunt-fuelled blockbuster it comes as a surprise to learn that the latest Mission: Impossible instalment was made with improvisation and experimentation at its core, reports Adrian Pennington.
Director Christopher McQuarrie may not quite be working with improv to the degree of a Shane Meadows or Mike Leigh but there are similarities to their indie drama in his method.
“No-one gets a script,” said the film’s editor Eddie Hamilton ACE, who cut the last two MI films, Rogue Nation and Fallout, as well as Top Gun: Maverick). “Instead, every head of department gets a sense of the type of sequences that are going to happen.
“Chris [aka McQ] and Tom have been having creative discussions for a decade about things they would like to see in the next MI movie. They will build the story around locations that are available and the geography that exists in that location. They cast specific actors that they want to work with and then they will work organically with the actors to evolve the characters giving them a lot of room to play around with dialogue.
“The wardrobe department will design costume for the cast that feels appropriate for each location and the art department design sets appropriate to where the characters are emotionally in the story – but there is no script. McQ has an idea of which way the story is going but not the details.
“He will usually write the scene the night before or even the morning of the shoot. Tom will approve the pages, everyone goes to set and evolves the scene. Ultimately what the script ends up being is what the script supervisor types up at the end of each day. We spend weeks and months discovering the organic fluidity of the movie in the edit room which is very time consuming but ultimately rewarding.”
The broad outline for Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One revolved around Grace (Hayley Atwell) reflecting the origin story of IMF characters Benji, Luther and Ethan. She is someone who journeys from selfish to selfless by the end of the film and who has the raw ingredients to make up an IMF agent. Couple that with a wish list mis-en-scene that Cruise and McQuarrie want to achieve - riding a bike of a cliff and crashing a train respectively - and that was the starting point. A Hitchcock MacGuffin about the hunt for an all-powerful AI called Entity became the plot’s glue.
“We’ve been working on this for three years and on every tiny nuance and detail,” Hamilton said. “Nothing is too insignificant to hone and craft.”
Behind the Scenes: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One: That stunt
In September 2020, Hamilton and the main crew flew to Norway for Day One of principal photography which is now fabled as the day Tom Cruise jumped off a mountain on a motorbike, six times.
“We used the penultimate take of day 1. On the second day he had cameras attached to the bike but with Mission Impossible you want to see that what he is doing is for real.”
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Hamilton explained that there is a standard visual language for a Tom Cruise stunt. This is to use shots that proceed tight to wide or wide to tight, or sometimes tight to wide to tight. This stunt was a little different though.
“For the hero take, which was shot on a helicopter, we start on a medium of Tom riding down the ramp then we pull back so you see him on the bike and we hold on the shot as he goes over. The camera tilts down and sees him falling. We aren’t cutting. It’s more impressive this way even though we have great angles from low down, a wide, a drone, and from the bike.”
A front-on shot of Cruise jumping appears in the titles and in trailers and was first seen in an IMAX behind the scenes short released last December from a 12-minute edit that Hamilton had made in the week of production for Paramount.
“I put together this reel to show the studio what we were doing. They trust Tom and McQ and they give them the resources to make the film but they’re not intimately involved. We didn’t want to send them just a minute of dailies of Tom riding off a mountain. We wanted to show them exactly what eight months of training and preparation had led up to.”
Behind the Scenes: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One: Trimming to the bone
Hamilton was in Soho or adjacent to soundstages at Longcross Studios for most of the shoot although production was interrupted on several occasions due to Covid. Photography began September 2020 and the final day was April 2023, just a couple months before the film’s premiere.
“When McQ is in production he’s collecting ingredients so he can cook the film in editorial,” Hamilton explained of the unusual process. “He has a sense of how the film will come together but knows he will only discover it in the edit. He overwrites all the scenes so there’s plenty of options. The actors give us a massive variety of emotions in their delivery and if things need improvement we’ll go back and do pick-ups or even throw out a scene if the audience flatly reject it when we test the film (which did happen).
“The reason it works is because Christopher McQuarrie is the secret ingredient, simple as that. He and Tom are constantly discussing where the film’s strength and weaknesses are and what we can course correct on.
“Some days, after having had a conversation with Tom over breakfast, Chris will come into the edit room and say ‘We’ve got an idea for this scene’ which means chopping off this half, rearranging this half, shooting some pickups, adding extra lines of dialogue or ADR.
“It is very stressful for everybody because we are doing all the heavy lifting of the storytelling and breaking the story apart during the process of filming. Chris also has to manage the day-to-day stress of production and problems with rigs on cars or issues with weather and the other 101 things a director has to worry about.”
Like Top Gun: Maverick, MI:7 burned through a lot of footage enabled by shooting digital (Sony Venice) for the first time in the franchise. Up to five times more material than was needed was shot for some scenes.
“There were so many options of Ethan running around the alleyways in Venice, for example, stopping and talking to the IMF team, the Entity instructing him which way to go, bumping into other characters. There was so much of it but I knew it would be refined into a rocket ride - which is one of Tom’s favourite expressions.
Hamilton aimed to stay on top of all the dailies. “I watch it all and break it down to have a sense of the best angles, best moments, the most dynamic action. We put that on a timeline and label it up.”
Behind the Scenes: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One: Leave them wanting more
One of the guiding principles is to leave the audience wanting more. Keenly aware of “action fatigue” that labours the experience of watching explosion after explosion and prolonged fight sequences in recent blockbusters, “we were very sensitive to the feeling of length for any sequence.”
He said, “If people even breathed a thought that something was too long we’d keep aggressively trimming it down so it felt like just enough or even not quite enough.”
Instinct aside they relied on numerous test screenings with friends and family and with cold audience recruits.
“McQ and Cruise want to make mass entertainment that works all over the world. We don’t fight any feedback if the audience feels strongly about something. [From feedback] they said they’d seen Tom driving a BMW before, but the real fun was when Ethan and Grace get into the Fiat (a much smaller car they switch into and continue a chase through Rome).
“The BMW material was trimmed to the bone. In fact, every sequence is trimmed tight to the frame. I’ve seen the film 700 times over three years, combing through each sequence 50 to 200 times to make sure that every single tiny emotional beat is exactly right for where the audience needs to be for that point in the story.”
“I tend not to worry about it while we’re building. You know it will be too long and lumpy, it won’t make sense, it will be boring. I know we will compress it and we all trust the process.”
Hamilton acknowledges that they “have the time and resources for it to come together in the end.”
This particular car chase, in which Cruise and Atwell’s characters are handcuffed together, combines action thrills with comedy and works in a way that other films with similar scenes do not. Hamilton thinks this is because they are not relying on editing to create comic timing.
“Everything is done in a two shot. We’re not cheating. You are watching two actors coming up with ideas and trying stuff out which contributes to the natural ease of what you are seeing. We’ve got these compositions, whether in profile or three quarters of the two of them, where you can see the geography around them, the Hummer chasing them, and that all contributes to the idea that we’re using edit to create comedy timing. You are watching natural comedy play out.”
Behind the Scenes: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One: Dialogue scenes cut like action
Pauses between the action are some dialogue heavy scenes including one set in the Department of National Intelligence near the film’s beginning and, later, a night club scene. To retain the audience’s attention as well as to unsettle them the filmmakers employ an unusual technique where the eyelines of characters are deliberately mismatched.
McQuarrie and DoP Fraser Taggart shoot A cam and B cam to provide left to right and right to left eyelines. In the edit Hamilton crosses the eyeline on a vital piece of information or where there’s an emotional shift in the scene in order to jolt the audience back into the picture.
“The way audiences watch a film is that they are not checked into the scene the whole time. Certain things the actor’s will say will trigger your own thoughts about your own life and sometimes it will take you out of the film for a few seconds. So, the way we trigger your attention to come back is by cutting on very specific emotional beats or words in the scene.
“It is all extremely precise. Every nuance is crafted and we refine it hundreds of times. Sometimes we watch a 10-minute scene 40 times in a day checking to see where your eye is moving in the frame and if certain pieces of emotion are landing for you and that your understanding of the story is working.”
There’s more going on here. The filmmakers lean into extreme close ups and Dutch angles, eschewing wide shots except to establish the proximity of characters in a scene. Director and DP employ long focal lengths to frame the closeups, a technique that adds intimacy.
“McQ learned which lens worked for each character, a 60mm or 75mm sometimes a 135mm, and would use the difference intimacy levels and common geography (shooting a close-up but seeing another character in the background or racking focus between them) which delivers emotional impact because you feel present in the scene.
“All those elements allow us to keep the pace of the dialogue very tight. We almost cut the dialogue scene like an action scene.”
Some of the criticisms levelled at the film is that dialogue scenes are too full of exposition.
“They all started out much more dialogue heavy and we boiled them down to the absolute minimum for the story to completely make sense,” he said. “It’s not like you have to listen to every line but when we take out more dialogue than is in the movie the audience are more confused.”
Behind the Scenes: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One: That train crash
The finale on a runaway steam train manages to do something audiences will probably not have seen before.
“We calibrated it precisely to get exactly the right amount of ‘Holy shit!’ from the audience,” Hamilton said. “In the kitchen carriage element of the scene we are down to the bare minimum you need to comprehend what is going on.”
McQuarrie came up with the idea in February 2020 and previz for it was among the first things designed in prep. The previz involved the broad strokes of the wreck, with the understanding that the actors would be finding performance on the day. McQuarrie has talked about the tendency of the previs team to animate the characters rushing through the sets as quickly as possible whereas his concept was for slow and suspenseful action.
An actual 70-ton locomotive was built (by SFX supervisor Neil Corbould) powered by a diesel engine housed in the coal tender behind the train. The bulk of Ethan and Gabriel’s fight, along with the majority of the wide establishing shots, was filmed on a railtrack in Norway. The wreck including a partial bridge was shot at a quarry in the UK’s Peak District.
“When you’ve just had a huge fight on the roof of the train (again, compressed massively) you want the audience to get to the end and still be wanting more. We vary the use of music and sound design constantly so you’re not getting too tired of one particularly sense. The whole end the movie has no score at all until they are climbing back through the last carriage.”
Train interiors were shot at Longcross and involved sets of tilted on gimbals at up to 90-degree angles. A camera tethered to a rail system on the roof of the carriage set enabled a camera to move with Cruise and Atwell as they clambered inside.
“It took forever to film. You are only getting 2-3 sets up a day because it was effectively stunt work required where safety is paramount and it take hours to rehearse and shoot but the results speak for themselves. It is very hard to do something you’ve never seen before.
“I promise you we have done it again in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part Two. We have already filmed the third act climax. It is jaw dropping from beginning to end.
“On Maverick I was eventually inured to all the aerial sequences because I’d seen them so many times but the visceral raw thrill when you see it for the first time on a big screen with all the sound, colour and VFX is so intense. It’s a lot of resources and experts working for months to make it happen.”