Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One: A love letter to the Mission series

Over six installments and 27 years of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible –Dead Reckoning Part One celebrates an extraordinary 16-year working relationship between writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and actor Tom Cruise. “We eat, sleep, and breathe movies all the time. We’re constantly taking all of the knowledge that we have acquired both separately, and together, and trying to apply it to something beyond our capabilities, something beyond what we have done before,” says McQ.

“McQ and I have all these ideas and, sure, some are based on passions we had as kids,” says Cruise, who recalls that when he was eight, – a child he now acknowledges “was always looking for dangerous stuff to do… But now it’s up to us to not just imagine these things, but to figure out how to shoot them.” And that, they both say, is where the real fun lies. 

“That’s the most dynamic aspect of the whole process of making these movies: ‘How do we approach this? What’s the training going to be? How are we going to get competent at the skills we need to achieve all this?’” Cruise smiles.

In the early ‘90s, when Cruise first took the idea to make a Mission: Impossible movie to the Paramount Pictures top brass, his intentions were still ambitious but also considerably more targeted: “I wanted to bring back the kind of classic action pictures that people just weren’t making anymore,” he says now. 

The original Mission: Impossible (1996) was Cruise’s first movie as a producer. “It was the very first thing I wanted to produce because I knew it would be fun,” Cruise says. “I didn’t know for sure, but I hoped it could potentially be very successful for the studio.” He wasn’t wrong. Currently, the Mission series has grossed over $3.5 billion worldwide.

Q & A with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie

On September 6, 2020, the first day of principal photography on Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Tom Cruise drove a motorbike off a mountain. Specifically, he drove a custom-made Honda CRF 250 off a purpose-built ramp on the side of Norway’s Helsetkopen mountain, a vertiginous rock face sat some 1,200 meters above sea level. Then he plunged 4,000 feet into the ravine below before opening his parachute barely 500 feet from the ground.

For McQ, Cruise, and the crew, the motorbike stunt represents the pinnacle of everything the Mission: Impossible process has always stood for: An incredible feat, years in the creation, achieved through a unique mix of imagination, bravery, innovation, and dedication.

“When I jumped off that cliff, we all jumped off that cliff,” Cruise says of the Mission cast and crew. “It was a turning point. It was like, ‘Here is the standard that we are setting. Here is the standard of film we are making. And we can’t back off from that. There’s no going back… That’s how I’ve lived my whole life,” Cruise says. “When I needed to make money as a kid, which I did because we didn’t have any, I had to learn how to cut grass very well. On my movies, I’ve had to learn how to fly a helicopter, drive a car into traffic, and jump out of a plane or off a mountain. For me, it’s the same mindset.”  

Cruise and McQuarrie mark another major series milestone

For this chapter of Ethan Hunt’s story, Cruise’s commitment to tackling new things doesn’t just extend to the potentially lethal, either.

For the first time in Mission: Impossible history, this movie and the next (Dead Reckoning Part Two will be released in June 2024) see Cruise and McQuarrie mark another major series milestone.

“This is the first time we’ve ever split a Mission: Impossible story over two movies. It’s something we’ve never attempted before because of the complexity of these stories. The scale of these two movies is epic in every sense,” says Cruise.

To pull off such a narrative gear shift, their ambition could be nothing but enormous. “We knew that if we were going to make a big, two-part adventure,” McQuarrie says, “these installments would have to swallow the rest of the franchise whole. That was the level we were looking at.”

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Cruise remembers the moment the idea first started forming while they were shooting another ground-breaking Cruise sequel scripted by McQuarrie, which the two also produced: “We were shooting Top Gun: Maverick and we started to talk about Mission. McQ said, ‘We have to make a back-to-back.’ And that really got me,” Cruise says, “because I’ve never done a back-to-back and I like learning new things. So, when he said that it was very much like, ‘Yes, okay…’”

They knew it would be challenging. “But we also knew it would be interesting,” Cruise counters. “McQ and I had always told stories that were bursting at the seams. And this felt like a certain point, you know? I’d wanted to build up this franchise to the stage where we are today, where it’s like, ‘Now I feel that we’ve earned this moment, to be able to blow it out on this scale.’” Now, a series synonymous with pushing the envelope of action cinema was about to test its creators in ways that not even they had previously dared imagine.

“We often like to say we’re not competing with anybody but ourselves. We’re looking at the last film and figuring how can we outdo that?,” McQuarrie adds. “The sense of scale becomes bigger with each movie and the sense of limitations becomes that much smaller. You just become a little bit more adventurous every time.”

“There were times when we were making this, I want you to know, that I wasn’t sure we’d made the right call,” Cruise laughs. “There were times when we’d be shooting and McQ and I would look at each other, exhausted. And I would always turn to him and say, ‘McQ, remember, this was your idea! You talked me into this!’ I hold him fully responsible.”

Dead Reckoning Part One is a love letter to the whole Mission series. “It’s absolutely that,” Cruise says. “People who haven’t seen the other Missions are going to enjoy this one as a standalone experience. And the people who have seen all the other Missions will have a whole other insight into it. The story we have is very special.”

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

According to McQuarrie, the key to crafting that story is the emotion. “Everything that you are seeing in this movie is Tom and I focused on two things simultaneously. There is the action that we owe you because you’re coming to see a Mission: Impossible movie, and there’s the emotion that makes that action worth doing,” he says. “And we are constantly applying what we’ve learned from the last film in both of those disciplines. How to make the action bigger and how to make the emotions resonate more deeply.”

This opening chapter in that two-movie arc sees Ethan Hunt and his IMF team on their most dangerous mission yet – trying to save the world from mysterious, all-powerful enemy with the power to control the way humanity perceives reality. “The stakes in this story are as global as global stakes get,” notes McQuarrie. Not to mention the personal stakes that Ethan is faced with as he is forced to consider that nothing can matter more than his mission – not even the lives of those he cares about most. It takes as its title an old maritime term. “In navigation, ‘dead reckoning’ is the process by which you calculate your course based solely on your last known position,” McQuarrie says. “You’re essentially flying blind. And that becomes quite the metaphor, not only for Ethan, but for several key characters.”

For Cruise and McQuarrie, that process, of starting without a finalized script, has led to some of the Mission movies they’re most proud of

Even though Cruise is quick to point out that it’s a filmmaking approach that dates back decades. “Here’s the thing: that’s how I was trained to make movies. This is how I make movies. The pages don’t matter. It’s the story structure and the locations that do,” Cruise says.

“If you look at the films I make,” he continues, “there is a fluidity to the filmmaking. You want to capture moments, so it feels alive. And filmmaking is a living process – it’s not rigid. If you look back at even Risky Business or Taps, we spent a month prepping. Yes, there’s always a script and there are ideas, but the script is always evolving, changing, reloading. That’s a constant in the movies I’ve made. Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, every single day we were writing, evolving. But that’s not to say we don’t have a plan.”

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

McQuarrie adds, “We’re both learning all the time. We both see ourselves as students of the craft, not masters of it. And we really are interested first and foremost in the audience’s experience… we’re simply trying to serve the story that is presenting itself as it goes along.”

From the start of Cruise and McQuarrie’s working partnership, the pair has spent hundreds of days studying their scripts, developing them, and pushing them to their peak. “I don’t want to waste time or money,” says Cruise of the painstaking, perpetual refinement. “What I want to do is put us in a position where we can win. And you do that by constantly evaluating, letting it grow. And this isn’t a new way of making films. It’s how films have been made from the beginning of cinema. Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, they were constantly looking at their stories, seeing what worked and what didn’t. Famously, Casablanca was constantly being rewritten and was constantly up in the air. This is a process.”

Sometimes the process is harder than others. “Particularly when you’re doing live action and it’s practical,” Cruise notes. Storyboards and animatics are produced, to clarify for all the departments what equipment will be needed and when. “But here’s the truth,” says Cruise. “It’s setting the table. Until you start shooting, you don’t know what’s really going to work and what’s not. That’s not for a lack of trying to predict. There’s a tremendous amount of preparation and knowledge that comes in, from all the films I’ve made and produced, and from all the films McQ and this crew has made and produced. But it’s when the cameras start rolling that the story really comes to life.”

Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

The Cruise/McQuarrie dynamic now stands as one of the all-time great filmmaking partnerships, responsible for some of the finest blockbusters in recent memory

With two hit Mission movies – Rogue Nation and Fallout – already under their belt and their Dead Reckoning double-bill waiting in the wings, this pair has also delivered an acclaimed book adaptation (Jack Reacher, which McQuarrie wrote and directed and Cruise starred in and produced), seminal sci-fi (Edge Of Tomorrow, starring Cruise and co-written by McQuarrie) and, of course, bona fide box office phenomena (Top Gun: Maverick, co-written and produced by McQuarrie, and starring and produced by Cruise).

But it was on Mission: Impossible that the pair found the spark that would ignite much of their next two decades together. Cruise had called in McQuarrie to work on the script for 2011’s Ghost Protocol, with McQuarrie building out a backstory of Ethan Hunt, giving him an empathy that has informed every Mission movie since.

Their following movie, Rogue Nation, a smash with critics and audiences, began the shift from the previously established Mission manifesto of having a new director for each new movie. Here was a fresh form of serialized storytelling that has continued to this day.

“Even from the beginning with McQ, it was a constant evolutionary process,” Cruise says. “Every Sunday we’d read through the whole script [of whatever we were working on] and evolve it, to see what was working and what was not. To seize those moments.”

Under their stewardship, every day on a Mission movie feels tangibly in the moment. “We don’t work with schedules the same way other people do. We have another technique, which is actually really exciting,” Ferguson says. “You could be called in the day before and they’ll say: ‘Are you ready for your fight?’ You’ve got to be ready.”

McQuarrie says that, in the construction of Dead Reckoning Part One, he and Cruise have “built from the lessons we learnt on Rogue Nation. On that movie we discovered there was as much to be mined from the characters as the action. We pushed that with Fallout and we’re pushing that again here. With us, it’s always been about not standing still but evolving.”

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Cruise maintains that every movie he makes is a culmination of everything he’s learned until that point. “If you look at my career, from one film to the next, I always wanted to challenge myself. Every time I make my next film, I take everything I’ve learned and put that into it. I’ve always been working towards becoming more competent in this art form,” he says. “When I started on a movie set, I went to every department and listened and studied it. And I didn’t think that was unusual.”

What has he learned in that time? “That to become competent at something, you have to go through the painful process of training,” Cruise says. “And I love that. It’s why we all love a good training sequence in a movie – because we can identify with it. It’s a moment in time where we’re learning a skill, our own kind of superpower. I’ve often been told, ‘You’ll never be able to do this,’ or, ‘You can’t do that because it’s a specialised thing.’ And I have always quietly sat there and thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to do that. And I am going to do it well.’”  

One of the primary things Cruise says that he and McQuarrie have discovered over the course of their Mission journey so far is to always listen to what the movie is telling you. “I’ve always said that Mission has a mind of its own,” McQuarrie agrees. “And [when we started mapping out the two-movie Dead Reckoning story] we could almost feel the franchise wanting to spread its wings. We had to listen to that. Going into these movies, we wanted to go deeper into Ethan’s character and deeper into the characters around him.”

Cruise remembers the conversation well. “We knew that to do that in the best way would require a bigger story.” McQuarrie adds: “So then it was, ‘Let’s not kid ourselves and try and jam all that into one movie. Let’s make the bigger movie and cut it in half.’ Both movies stand apart but this one leaves you wanting a continuation of that adventure.”

The filmmakers are not only delighted with what their approach has yielded thus far, but also thrilled with what they have yet to reveal. “In the next one, you will feel the world constantly expanding and you’ll go to places the franchise has never been. You’ll see parts of the world that you’ve never seen this way. And, frankly, some of them won’t exist for much longer,” McQuarrie says. “We have really, truly, taken this story to the edge of the world.”

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

If neither Cruise nor McQuarrie is yet prepared to reveal what ground-breaking stunt Cruise is preparing to pull off for audiences in the next movie, McQuarrie will at least confirm this: “The bike jump [in Dead Reckoning Part One] was far and away the most dangerous thing we had ever attempted. The only thing that scared me more than that stunt was what we had planned for Part Two.”

For now, though, what both men want is for audiences around the world to get ready to immerse themselves in a jaw-dropping story that they say makes this Mission: Impossible the most exhilarating, ambitious, and emotional installment so far.

“I always knew there were things we could do better,” Cruise says of his near-three-decade Mission journey. “There are always mountains to climb. But I really do believe that this movie is Mission in its highest gear. No one can be tougher on me than me. I have always set the bar high for myself and always expect a lot from myself. I never want to rest on any laurels in seeing how I can serve the audience.”

Cruise smiles, excited by what that audience is about to see, and by what he knows is coming next. “If I could be on a movie set every single day of my life, I would,” he says. “I am always pushing myself. I can’t help it, it’s in my nature.”

He pauses. “It’s who I am, you know?” 

Rebecca Ferguson and Christopher McQuarrie on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

CHRISTOPHER MCQUARRIE (Director, Writer & Producer) is an acclaimed director, producer, and screenwriter. His 1995 screenplay for The Usual Suspects was named by the Writer’s Guild of America as one of the greatest screenplays of all time. In addition to his credited work, McQuarrie is known throughout the industry for his uncredited contributions as a writer, editor, and production consultant.

In 2008, he co-wrote and produced Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise – a film which would lead to many more McQuarrie /Cruise collaborations. They re-teamed in 2012 for McQuarrie’s sophomore directorial effort, Jack Reacher. Within hours of completing the film, he was at work with Cruise again, this time re-writing the script for Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. It was while working together on the sci-fi action film that Cruise suggested McQuarrie write and direct what would become Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

In 2017, McQuarrie and Cruise re-teamed again for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the most successful installment of the franchise to date and the highest-grossing film of their respective careers until their subsequent collaboration on Top Gun: Maverick, which McQuarrie co-wrote and produced.

Undeterred by the outbreak of COVID 19 and the subsequent global pandemic just days before production was set to begin, Cruise and McQuarrie commenced principal photography on Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Parts One & Two in September of 2020. Production on Part Two is set to resume immediately following the release of Part One.

Q & A with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie

As co-creator, lead writer, and supervising producer of Band of Brothers for HBO in 2001, ERIK JENDRESEN (Writer) was one of the recipients of that year’s Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries.

As a writer, producer, and showrunner for television, his current and favorite former projects include a Dashiell Hammett series for WBTV; a series based on the Francis Ford Coppola film, The Conversation; The Pony Express (with Robert Duvall); “The 43,” a limited series about WWII British ex-servicemen fighting fascism on their home soil; “A Slave in the White House,” a limited series about James Madison’s relationship with Paul Jennings; “Castner’s Cutthroats,” a limited series about the Battle of the Aleutians; “No Man’s Land,” a limited series about the war to end all war; “Shot All to Hell,” a limited series about the James-Younger Gang; “Wicked,” a limited series adaptation of the novel by Gregory Maguire; and Killing Lincoln for the National Geographic Channel.

As a writer/producer [should they take out producer? Kind of makes it seem like he’s a producer for M:I7 & 8] for film, his current projects include Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Parts One & Two (with Christopher McQuarrie); Broadsword (with Christopher McQuarrie); Iron Curtain (with Christopher McQuarrie); The Mariner; Saint-Ex (the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry); Aloft (based on the book, On the Wing by Alan Tennant), La Légion – a film about the French Foreign Legion in 1954; The Windsor Knot, a mystery thriller about the son of Sherlock Holmes; and The Tracker (based on the book by Tom Brown, Jr.).

He lives on a 118-year-old Dutch former-naval vessel (a veteran of Dunkirk) in Sausalito, California and on the Catawba River, North Carolina with his wife, psychotherapist Venus Bobis.

He is an advisor for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.