Film editor Eddie Hamilton, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for his work on Top Gun: Maverick, is halfway completed with an endeavor he can't quite recommend: Piecing together two massive blockbusters at the same time. "This year, between January and July, I had five days off," Hamilton tells A.frame of his efforts on the two-part Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning. In total, it's a workload that has stretched more than 700 days since the task began in 2020, and there will be many more to come.
For now, the first installment in director Christopher McQuarrie's and star and producer Tom Cruise's globe-trotting epic has opened in theaters, and so Hamilton can focus on sticking the landing next summer.
"Part One was very much its own story," he explains. "And that's not to say that we're not setting up things in Part One that will pay off in Part Two. There is some cross-pollination. Some of the process does inform itself. But I hope that, when you watched it, you felt satisfied — but anxious or excited to see the next one."
Both parts of Dead Reckoning came together in an unusual, fluid sort of way. The screenplay, as it were, evolved constantly throughout production, leaving Hamilton without a typical, clearly defined roadmap in the editing room. McQuarrie would find actors that he adored and created characters for them. He would fall in love with locations and then build action set-pieces around them. There were so many moving parts during production that anything written inevitably changed dramatically once cameras were rolling.
"McQ leans into that, and knows we'll only ever figure it out in the edit," Hamilton says. "It is a challenge, because there is no script that exists that's accurate. So, we're always pivoting. The whole crew has to, otherwise people would lose their minds a little bit. But we're all prepared for any eventuality, and we want to help Chris and Tom make the film, and help them in this process of discovery."
Hamilton recalls an early airport sequence to further illustrate this point. Early on in Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his IMF team, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), travel to the Abu Dhabi International Airport to intercept a key to the unlocking the sentient AI known as the Entity. Ethan pursues a master thief, Grace (Hayley Atwell), while another agent, Briggs (Shea Whigham), pursues Ethan. On top of all that, a mysterious antagonist, Gabriel (Esai Morales), adds another McGuffin to the mix.
"McQ had this idea of Gabriel bringing this bag in. He didn't know what was in the bag, and then Tom suggested the idea of this riddle machine. Then it was like, OK, well, Benji's got to go down there and Luther has got to stay behind, and then Ethan's got to be doing his things with the key. Clearly Ethan and Grace have got to be doing this and Benji’s got to be solving these riddles and Luther's got to be kind of in between the two, guiding them around. We've got to keep track of Briggs and Degas [Greg Tarzan Davis], who are these CIA agents who put extra pressure on Ethan in the airport. And McQ wants to have a fun scene where there's face replacement, where there's like an A.I. deep fake on the CCTV."
You start to see how it's quite the juggling act. As Hamilton began to build the sequence in the edit room, it became weeks and weeks of precision work to make everything flow and feel like the intercutting is effortless as it bounces between characters and events. Amid the action, certain moments need to breathe, such as when Ethan meets Atwell's cunning thief Grace, allowing dramatic weight when we need to connect with these characters.
And that's just one sequence. But Dead Reckoning Part One isn't a film teeming with these. It's actually comprised of just a handful of set-ups that are allowed to play out for extended stretches, which is uncommon in action movies of today.
"I think that in McQ's mind, the movie was always chaptered like this. It's not quite 20-minute chunks, but it's almost like that," Hamilton says. "The airport's about 20 minutes. The Department of National Intelligence is slightly less than 20 minutes. The submarine's, like, 10 minutes. Rome is 20 minutes, roughly, and Venice is a little bit longer. But then the train is obviously 40 or 50 minutes."
(Major spoilers follow.)
"The train" is a modest way to refer to the film's final act, a virtuoso feat of filmmaking across every craft that would be better left to its own separate word count. Hamilton's touchstones for the sequence were as disparate as Buster Keaton's beloved 1926 classic, The General, and John Frankenheimer's underrated 1964 thriller, The Train (the latter of which is arguably the first modern action film). In his own editing, Hamtilton was inspired to try to duplicate the feeling of awe that audiences must have felt watching Keaton and Frankenheimer go hog wild with practical spectacle four decades apart. (Both The General and The Train feature glorious train crashes, and Dead Reckoning certainly enters that canon with impressive aplomb.)
One other set piece worth examining is a nighttime foot chase through the streets of Venice, which culminates in the apparent death of Rebecca Ferguson's character, Ilsa Faust, who has been a fixture in McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible run. The sequence begins in a stylish Italian nightclub before spilling out into La Serenissima, with a pulse-pounding pursuit that pits Ethan and Ilsa against the corporeal threat of Morales's Gabriel, but also against the Entity.
"They shot so much of that, like five times as much as what's in the movie," Hamilton says. "And you're constantly compressing it and trying to intercut this, intercut that. How do we get Ethan here? Does the audience understand that the entity is impersonating Benji? Is that working? How do we bounce off Benji and Luther? It feels effortless because we’ve really crafted it, but I promise you, it's bumpy and lumpy and unfocused and quite a mess when it starts out. But we just keep working at it. Sometimes we’ll go through the same scene, like, 40 times a day, just carving through every tiny little emotional nuance and every frame to say, 'Is this the best it can be?' It's important that your eye is guided around the frame and you feel the emotion and the graphics are just very simple to understand."
The sequence was a particularly important moment for the editor, given Ilsa's ultimate fate.
"We only really cracked that scene after a year and a half of work," he explains. "It does seem to have the right effect on the audience, which I'm glad about. You're talking to somebody who was there on day one of Rebecca Ferguson's screen test on Rogue Nation. I've worked on every single nuance of that character. Every single moment of her in these three movies has gone through my fingertips, with love and care and passion. And I love Rebecca as a person as well, so I'm very attached to that character. No one was more concerned about this than I was. It's hard to talk about it, really."
With two weeks left to deliver the final movie, Hamilton and McQuarrie still found themselves discovering new ideas and concepts. The filmmaking team held a friends-and-family screening and received crucial notes and feedback. The biggest epiphany regarded the aural impact of the Entity (which is visually depicted as a sort of digital, all-seeing iris).
"Then we found the sound," Hamilton says. "It's this very intense digital clicking, which you may perceive in the submarine and perceive in the airport, but then it's very present in the nightclub in Venice. And then when Benji is talking to Ethan during the chase, you can hear it kind of clicking through. So, that was one thing we did, like, right at the end. It really had a significant impact on the audience being able to perceive the 'villain' of the movie."
From there, he went through the movie again and again, trimming every little moment of "air" that could allow the audience's attention to wander while claiming tiny victories for each second he was able to shave off the film's final (and still quite hefty) 163-minute running time. But as filmmaker David Fincher once put it, "Movies aren't finished. They're abandoned." And indeed, Hamilton worked all the way up until the final bell, all in an effort to keep the viewer rapt at the escapade as it unfolds in front of them and that bucket of popcorn.
"We're thinking of the audience sitting there, buying a ticket and having a great night at the movies," Hamilton says. "Seven days a week, day after day after day after day, combing through the movie, because we all love it. We're passionate. The quality-control threshold is at the highest possible level."