Contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
It’s finally here. No, not just Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One – though its arrival once again confirms that Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie are an absolute force to be reckoned with when delivering breath-taking cinematic spectacle. No, the completion of (part one of) another Mission also means another dizzying deep-dive into the dramatic making of a Hollywood blockbuster like no other on the Empire Spoiler Special Podcast. Following in the footsteps of Fallout and Rogue Nation, McQuarrie – or, McQ – sat down with Empire’s Chris Hewitt for a lengthy, no-holds-barred, spoiler-filled conversation about his experiences of making Dead Reckoning Part One – from its lengthy production through COVID, to its narrative twists and turns, astonishing action sequences, and excised material.
The first part of that epic (and ongoing) spoiler conversation has now dropped on the Spoiler Special Podcast feed – a three-and-a-half-hour exploration of Ethan Hunt’s latest thunderous IMF mission. And believe us, this is only the beginning. There are hundreds of gems to be found in this instalment alone – be sure to listen to the full episode for a deeply incisive, honest, in-depth conversation. And here you’ll find just a smattering of the diamonds McQuarrie dropped along the way – delve into 10 fascinating facts from that first part here.
1) The actors ‘risked their lives’ for a sequence that was cut from the film
One of the most astonishing things about McQuarrie’s Mission movies is that, for all the incredible stuff you see on screen, you know that there was equally impressive stuff that hit the cutting room floor. Take, for instance, an entire sequence from the thunderous steam-train finale that was edited out. “It was supposed to be something we did with a resettable rig where everything could be very predictable, and nothing we did worked, and ultimately the actors had to risk their lives and do it practically,” McQ explains.
But when test notes came back with feedback on the pace and length of the movie, it had to go. “The train was a little bit like the car chase in Jack Reacher, where we couldn’t understand why we kept getting this note about length,” he says. “Finally, there was one shot in the Jack Reacher chase I pulled out, and it taught me everything about shooting action.” He had a sense a similar thing was affecting Dead Reckoning Part One’s finale. “With the train, I kept thinking, ‘Is this the shot?’ And we kept pulling and we kept getting the note, and eventually we identified what it was.” It was a shame to lose it, though. “The work that went into what was holding back the sequence was extraordinary – it was days, and it was a struggle, and it was very, very risky,” he says. “We took it out, and the scene just sang.”
2) The flashback Marie could have been a de-aged Julia Roberts
A key sequence in Dead Reckoning Part One has Ethan looking back to his own past, before the first Mission: Impossible film – in which Esai Morales’ villain Gabriel kills Ethan’s partner Marie. The role (originally due to be a bigger part of Part One, and set to be expanded in Part Two) went to Mariela Garriga. But, given the time-period there were thoughts of casting a de-aged actor appropriate to the late-‘80s, early-‘90s time period. “We started thinking, ‘What would it look like if Tony Scott had shot this, and who would it have been? Who was the ingénue, who was the breakout star in 1989?’,” recalls McQ. “And right around then was Mystic Pizza, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, Julia Roberts – a then pre-Pretty Woman Julia Roberts.” Ultimately, it didn’t come to pass – not only because of the expense (and distraction) of de-ageing everybody for the scene, but because McQ would have “to somehow convince Julia Roberts to come in and be this small role at the beginning of this story”.
3) Young Ethan Hunt’s file photo is Mission: Impossible-era Cruise with Days Of Thunder hair
Speaking of Ethan’s past, this time we see the picture in his IMF folder, hinting at some kind of troubled history that he’s been working to erase. And the image of the young Hunt was a simple combination of two historic Tom Cruise eras. “It just so happens Tom has one sensational photo of him looking directly at the camera and that happens to be in his dossier in Mission: Impossible,” says McQuarrie. It needed some tweaks, though, to fit the 1989 time period. “I had found a picture of Tom from Days Of Thunder, with that hair. And we took his Days Of Thunder hair and stuck it on his Mission: Impossible dossier photo, put some vertical lines behind it and created it in about 15 minutes. We made young Ethan Hunt without any kind of de-aging or special effects or anything else.” Mission complete.
4) McQ fixed the movie after a ‘brutal’ post-screening email
As ever, test screenings and bits of feedback from filmmaker friends were a vital part of bringing Dead Reckoning Part One together – with the likes of Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, and Alfonso Cuaron offering notes. And one bit of feedback, from a friend of editor Eddie Hamilton, was especially helpful for not holding back. “He wrote the most brutal email I've ever read – not hostile, but just both barrels right to the chin, things that were not working for him in the movie, things that were really bugging him, and that he was not a big franchise action movie guy to begin with. He was not a huge fan of Mission: Impossible,” explains McQ. “And I woke up that morning and read this email and just wanted to vomit. It was so brutal.” As it turned out, it was exactly what the filmmaker needed to hear – and led to the removal of scenes, some involving Marie, that were holding the film back. “It just forced me to look at things through another person's eyes, which is really what the value of testing is,” he says. As for Eddie’s friend? He got his credit. “He's in the special thanks.”
5) Tom Cruise decided where the title sequence should drop
There’s a specific thrill when a film drops its title sequence surprisingly late into the runtime – almost at the point you’d assumed it wouldn’t even have any opening credits. Dead Reckoning Part One holds out 28 minutes before running that iconic theme music, as decreed by Cruise – who knew exactly when the sequence would work best.
It felt odd coming straight from the submarine opener, and played a bit subdued when positioned after the desert shootout too. “You went into the credits with a very down note,” says McQ. “[Tom] just said, ‘The credits are in the wrong place’. He looked at the whole first act and said, ‘The first act is great, it’s the best it’s ever been, you’ve fixed all those issues. But the credits are in the wrong place – they’ve got to go after the scene with Kittridge.’” As skeptical as McQuarrie was, when he tried it the filmmaker agreed with Cruise that it was “just the right place” for them to be. “So they go 28 minutes into the movie – who cares! It’s the right vibe. You go into the credits with a win. He was right.”
6) McQ and Cruise lived together while shooting during COVID
How’s this for a sitcom set-up: one of the biggest movie stars in the world and his long-time director, holed up together while shooting a behemoth action blockbuster. While you can imagine the laugh-track and slap-bass now, that’s exactly the position Cruise and McQuarrie found themselves in here, thanks to the intervention of COVID. “We’d wake up in the morning, we'd meet in the living room for breakfast, we'd talk about the movie, we would drive to work in the car together, we’d work all day, we’d drive back to the apartment together at the end of the night. And that was our life.” It’s the material the 22-minute network formula was made for.
7) Tom Cruise was adamant not to end Part One on a cliffhanger
Dead Reckoning is one of several summer movies in 2023 that’s actually just ‘Part One’ of a bigger story – see also Across The Spider-Verse, and Fast X. And while there’s plenty more story to come in Part Two of Mission, it was Cruise who was particularly adamant that this film have its own ending. “Tom was fixated day and night on the ending of the movie,” says McQuarrie. “He had great anxiety about the end of the film – that the end of a ‘Part One’ was going to be a cliffhanger, and that cliffhangers by their very nature tend to be deeply, deeply unsatisfying. You feel like the camera just stopped and you're not there. You're not given that release. ‘I have to wait a year? I have to wait two years, for whatever that release is?’” Cue the reveal that Ethan has the key (Mission: Accomplished!), and that Part Two will be all about heading to the very thing it unlocks. “He said, ‘We gotta give them that sense of completion, and yet the story has to feel like it needs a place to go.’”
8) The title Dead Reckoning didn’t arrive until after Part Two had started shooting
One of the benefits, though, of having a Part Two? It gave them time to, er, come up with the title of the film. It wasn’t until work began on the next film that Dead Reckoning emerged as the title for Ethan’s latest mission. “Somewhere along the line, the title of this movie – which did not exist until we were in Africa shooting Part Two – became both fitting for the story, and the making of the story itself,” muses McQuarrie. “We were quite literally navigating via dead reckoning for most of the production, it's the most aptly named [movie].”
9) Tom Cruise is basically like Gromit in The Wrong Trousers
You wouldn’t necessarily expect to compare Tom Cruise – the most American of all-American action stars – to Aardman’s Lancashire legends Wallace and Gromit. And yet, the process of making a Mission movie – where the action literally comes first, and the rest of the film is built around it, with Ethan’s arc coming into place right at the very end – brings to mind an iconic scene from The Wrong Trousers. “[Tom] is a train in front of which you must lay track,” McQ explains. “There's that little GIF of Wallace And Gromit, and Gromit is putting the track in front of the train. That's very much what making Mission: Impossible is.” Did he watch a version of The Wrong Trousers where the train crashes down a ravine?
10) Cruise and McQ are still working on ‘The Gnarly Movie’
Back in 2020, in an interview looking back on Jack Reacher, McQuarrie told Empire that he and Cruise had been looking to make a hard-R movie together with “a very un-Tom character” in it. And while the two-part Mission has taken precedent, they’re still planning to make that together, under the codename ‘The Gnarly Movie’. “There's a movie that Cruise and I are talking about doing next or in some probable next, that Erik [Jendresen, writer] and I developed together – what has been referred to on the internet as ‘The Gnarly Movie’,” McQ teases. “It's that movie that they're all asking for, and that we want to do.” First, they just have to get through the gnarliest movie of all: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two.
Listen to Empire’s full epic, three-and-a-half-hour first instalment of the Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Spoiler Special interview with Christopher McQuarrie, out now on the subscription feed. Haven’t joined yet? Sign up here. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out now in UK cinemas.