Christopher McQuarrie’s Advice to Writers Is Also the Theme of His ‘Mission: Impossible’ Movies
Yesterday, writer and director Christopher McQuarrie posted a lengthy Twitter thread full of advice to aspiring filmmakers. Spread out over 25 tweets, McQuarrie outlined his theory of how to find success in the world of film. He compared writing and blindly submitting scripts to playing the lottery, and noted that while he’s found success as a director in the world of action in recent years, helming Jack Reacher and the last two Mission: Impossibles, playing the lottery of script submission has still, even to this day, “given [him] nothing.”
Instead, he suggested aspiring artists take their destiny in their own hands by making movies themselves, even if they don‘t want to be a director, or they doubt they’re qualified to shoot their own stories. McQuarrie’s entire thread was excellent, and you should go read the whole thing, but probably the single most important tweet in the chain was this one:
This is excellent and inspiring advice, not just for filmmakers, but for anyone who wants to achieve something but can’t quite bring themselves to attempt it for fear of failing. While I’ve never heard these sentiments from McQuarrie before, as an admirer of his work, they made perfect sense. Because his advice about how to achieve greatness is also one of the main themes of all of his Mission: Impossible movies — where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt only ever wins after he loses again and again and again.
McQuarrie’s first credited work on the franchise came in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which, after the cold open involving Cruise clinging to the side of a plane during takeoff, begins with Hunt falling into a trap engineered by the evil Syndicate. In a matter of seconds, he’s gassed and kidnapped, and the other IMF agent on hand is brutally murdered by the movie’s villain, Solomon Lane. Hunt watches helplessly as Lane shoots her in the head.
One of Rogue Nation’s most beloved sequences takes place in a Viennese opera house, where Hunt fights a sniper on a precarious series of platforms high above the stage during a performance of Turandot. The scene includes several memorable elements; death-defying stunts, a high-powered rifle hidden inside a flute, and Rebecca Ferguson in a truly spectacular gown. Maybe that’s why people sometimes forget Ethan Hunt fails in this scene too. He only delays the assassination of an Austrian government official; as he makes his escape, his target is killed by a car bomb.
McQuarrie’s next film, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, opens with another Ethan Hunt screwup, when he chooses the safety of his team over the protection of a series of nuclear bombs. A while later, Hunt and his partner get into a wild fight in a Parisian restroom with a man they’re supposed to subdue and impersonate. Instead, their mask-making machine is destroyed and, after a brawl, the man is killed. With all of the incredible flips and kicks and Henry Cavill arm-loading memes, it’s easy to overlook that this scene is another abject failure on the part of Ethan Hunt.
Also, while McQuarrie isn’t credited on Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, he did do uncredited rewrites on it, and that film includes this shot:
This recurring motif of frustration and near-catastrophe throughout the McQuarrie Missions speaks to something larger in Tom Cruise’s screen presence as an actor. Don’t forget; this is the guy who loves to do his own stunts. When Ethan Hunt has a scene where pilots a helicopter, Tom Cruise doesn’t let the stunt guys handle that; he goes and learns how to fly a helicopter. He finds the secret of knowledge by actually doing whatever means are necessary.
And, yes, Tom Cruise definitely fails sometimes too. On the set of Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Cruise famously broke his ankle during a stunt gone wrong.
Now if that’s not failing often and painfully, and letting everyone see, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps the most illuminating part of that whole clip is when Cruise explains that he didn’t come up short on the jump; it wasn’t like he was supposed to land perfectly on the other roof and keep on running. Ethan was always meant to slam into the side of the other building and hold on for dear life. A mess up was the goal. Because that’s what Ethan Hunt does. He botches things over and over, but he never quits, until he finally gets it right. In this case, Cruise just messed it up a little too convincingly.
I don’t know if McQuarrie deliberately embedded this personal philosophy of his into his Mission: Impossible scripts. But it is very clearly there, in every precarious Tom Cruise leap and fall and sprint. That’s why these last couple Mission: Impossible movies have gone over so well with audiences and critics. It’s not just that their stunts are spectacular. They are spectacular in a way that speaks to these ideas about what it takes to succeed in life; namely the ability to take a public ass kicking, dust yourself off, and get back into the fight. Doing that isn‘t impossible. We just tell ourselves it is to keep ourselves from doing things that scare us.
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