Like many of us, Christopher McQuarrie has been spending the better part of his days on Zoom. He’s consulting with storyboard artists, visual effects supervisors, and producers across several time zones to get Mission: Impossible 7 and 8, and Top Gun 2, done. You might know Chris for his earlier M:I work (he directed Rogue Nation and Fallout) or his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Usual Suspects. Chris recently sat down with some of our members to discuss his career and work philosophy—over Zoom, of course. Here are five key takeaways:
On the 12-year gap between his first and second films as director
The 12-year gap between The Way of the Gun and my second film [Jack Reacher] was entirely due to The Way of the Gun. The film did spectacularly unwell and landed me in director jail for a long time. It was not for lack of trying that I couldn’t get movies made. But those 12 years were filled with me making the same mistake over and over again, which was believing that if I wrote a strong enough screenplay, the opportunity would be given to me to direct again. And that wasn’t the case. It was only when I changed the paradigm and was willing to relinquish control on one of the movies that I wanted to direct for someone else to direct it, that I ended up making Valkyrie. I ended up on a very different trajectory where I was working in a support capacity as a writer and as an editor and as an uncredited producer on the next couple of projects that Tom [Cruise] and I did together until we ended up doing Jack Reacher.
I probably would have returned to the director chair a lot sooner if I had not been making the same mistake over and over again, which was writing screenplays and giving them to studios and thinking one of these people will make my movie.
I do not submit screenplays anymore. I will not take pitch meetings with the studio. To me, it’s a folly. And studios know less what they want now than I think they have at any other point in my time in the business. After Valkyrie, I stopped going to studios exclusively saying, “Will you make my movie?” And I started saying to them, “How can I help you with your problem?”
People talk a lot about how studios are afraid to make original movies. That’s not true. They very much do want to make original content—and they need to. They don’t have the bandwidth to do it because there’s so much energy being spent fixing problems they have created for themselves. A lot of what I see in the business now is that they have enormous infrastructures that they have to manage. They have product that they have to develop. They have franchises that they have to keep alive. And to some extent, they’ve kind of lost touch with the thing that makes those things work in the first place, which is story. Things are now about packages from there and story is kind of an afterthought. The screenplay is an afterthought to the decision to make a movie.
So that’s the space I’ve been sort of navigating. To me, it’s enormously liberating. It’s enormously freeing. What is terrifying and overwhelming to me is the notion of having to hand over a screenplay to someone and let that screenplay go and recognize that their storytelling priority is not the same. Now what I’ve tried to do is develop a language with my creative partners at the very beginning of the process: What’s your definition of story? What’s your definition of character? Where do you prioritize emotion and engagement over spectacle?
On preparing for notes meetings with executives
The first and most important lesson I had to learn was that there are no bad notes. What writers are conditioned to believe is that they need others. And the mindset that writers need to embrace is that everybody needs them. What writers do is very, very difficult. And I’m always astonished that people can’t sit down and do it. The number of times I had challenged people and said, “Just sit down and just write one line of dialogue.” It's like watching somebody with paralysis unable to do that.
You have to understand, first and foremost, that without you, they can’t execute the note in the first place. The notes that they’re giving you is their way, no matter how badly articulated, of saying, “Help me to connect to your story. Help me to like your story.” So I always look for the emotion behind the note.
And the mindset is, I don’t have to execute the note the way they’re telling me to. Their solutions are never going to be the correct ones for the simple fact that they are not writers. What they are are managers and representatives of what they believe the audience is. You have to find a way to take their note and turn it into something that works creatively for you. When you do that, it absolves you of a lot of the pressure because the meetings stop being defensive and start to become therapy. It’s really about decoding their notes and making that the game instead of protecting your screenplay.
On wearing various hats as a writer, director, and producer
As a writer working for other directors and very frustrated by seeing my work executed in ways that I might not necessarily have done is a very terrifying, perilous experience. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. What writers tend to do when they make the transition from writing to writing and directing is they defend the screenplay because they’re going to do it right. They’re going to treat the screenplay with the respect that the last director didn’t. And you very quickly learn that when you do that, you’re not directing the movie, you’re shooting the screenplay.
As a director, your job is not to defend the screenplay. As the director your job is to interrogate the screenplay and confront it and challenge it and to elevate it.
A lot of writers that I see who are not interested in becoming directors don’t feel that it’s their ambition to understand the process of filmmaking. And as such, a lot of the scripts that I’m sent to rewrite are not movies. They are ideas and they’re in screenplay form. If you actually tried to shoot them the way that they’re written, they wouldn’t make a movie. So it’s understandable that a writer is very frustrated that they hand the script over and that script is being torn apart and reinvented and turned into something else. I only learned that from having directed something myself and then looked back on my experiences as a writer.
Producing is about letting all of those things go and understanding that I am at the mercy of the writer and at the mercy of the director. Producer is a very vague term; it’s vaguer than story. What my producer Jake Myers would say is a producer asks questions and a director answers them. That’s his definition. For me, a producer does everything that is required and nothing more. By that I mean, you are there doing everything that can be done to move the ball forward and you are not there doing things that aren't moving the ball forward.
As a producer, don’t let anybody see you not producing the movie. If you find yourself not producing, you shouldn’t be there.
In the end, all the roles tend to blur together. Each one of us is telling a story from a slightly different perspective. As the writer, I’m trying to create the blueprint for the movie. As the director, I am interrogating that blueprint. And as the producer, I exist as a conduit between not only the writer and the director, but between the creative and the financial.
On his storyboarding process
We have three ways of doing it. There are scenes that we write and don’t really bother to board. There are scenes that we board and then write afterwards. And there are scenes that we pre-visualize, and we don’t even bother with storyboards because of particularly complicated camera moves that need to be shown.
In the case of Fallout, in the motorcycle chase, we really didn’t storyboard at all. Anything that we tried to do in terms of pre-visualizing it, the rigs failed and we threw out the pre-vis. So there were no storyboards. We were flying blind. The opera sequence in Rogue Nation was about 80 percent boarded, but there were big unknowns because of the timing of the music. We weren’t quite sure how that was going to work. The underwater sequence in Rogue Nation was pre-visualized to the second to the frame because of the challenges of shooting underwater.
That sequence was shot as a oner [or one uninterrupted camera shot]. I have no interest whatsoever in shooting a oner for a oner’s sake so that everybody can say, “Look at what he did with the oner.” What matters to me was the efficiency of the pain of shooting underwater. The most you’re ever going to get is about six setups a day. I had 10 days to shoot the sequence. And I recognized that the more coverage I had in that sequence, the more difficult it was going to be for me to shoot it. So I gave myself two setups a day. And I was lucky that I had an actor who I could turn to and say, “Look, we can do this in 10 days. And we can do the whole sequence in 20 setups, but it means you’re going to have to hold your breath a lot longer. And you’re going to have to do a lot more without cutting.” And Tom was willing to do that.
Then, I had to teach my camera crew and all of our underwater safety divers visual storytelling so that they understood timing. And I had my pre-vis team watch this video essay that you can find on the YouTube series Every Frame a Painting. There’s one called “The Spielberg Oner,” where [Tony Zhou] analyzes all of Steven Spielberg’s oners and how Spielberg is kind of the unspoken master of the oner because he doesn’t draw attention to it. And he doesn’t try to make Olympic oners in his movies. He shoots oners so as to be more efficient and more elegant and less distracting with the storytelling. We all watched that together and analyzed the methodology to understand why we were shooting the oner. And the pre-vis team was then able to design it so that each oner had coverage in and eliminated my need to get specific shots.
On looking back at his earlier work
I feel like I am only just now beginning to understand my craft as a writer, as a storyteller. With each film, I’m making exponential leaps. I’ve learned more in the last year than I have in the previous five. And that comes from not just writing and directing my own work, but also working as a producer for other directors, working as an editor for other directors. It allows me a certain emotional distance from certain projects that I’m not allowed on my own. It’s a different kind of pressure.
Everything I’m doing is trying to take what I’ve learned in the last movie and build upon it.
When I look at Suspects, I see a movie that’s based very much on my understanding of how you use the audience’s interaction with the story against them. If the ending of The Usual Suspects fooled you, I’m not the one who fooled you. You fooled yourself. You were doing what you naturally do in trying to anticipate where a story is going and I simply let you go where you naturally thought it was going.
That, to me, is one kind of emotional manipulation. I’ve now, through each story I’ve done since then, worked harder to understand what it is that connects an audience emotionally to a movie. I didn’t really know how to articulate that until the space between Rogue Nation and Fallout. And Top Gun was an entirely new evolution of that. All of which will be applied to M:I 7 and 8.
What I’ve learned, not just with my screenplays but with my films, is that the audience is always right. What they feel I meant is what matters because that’s what I communicated, whether I meant to communicate it or not. The discipline has been about learning how to better communicate what I mean and how to make what I mean more emotionally satisfying so that the audience is telling me less how to make my movie instead of more.