Mission: Impossible’s Christopher McQuarrie: Industry Fosters Toxic Fan Culture

Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie tells to us why modern blockbusters are developing limited expectations in audiences.

It is easy to suspect that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie favors the old ways of making movies. To be sure, after helming the last two (and best reviewed) Mission: Impossible movies, McQuarrie is not afraid of embracing blockbuster cinema and serialized storytelling; he even was at the inception of the modern superhero genre craze, having worked on an early draft of 2000’s X-Men. However, when we were able to chat with the Oscar winning screenwriter about his latest Tom Cruise collaboration, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the filmmaker made clear he has strong thoughts about the direction of the industry in general, and specifically how so many tentpole blockbusters are fostering a very specific kind of expectation from moviegoers… and the fans who obsess over them.

During our interview for Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con Special Edition magazine, McQuarrie admits one of the reasons he so much enjoys pushing the envelope with the kind of stunt work and action that can be achieved in-camera is because he fears that type of sophisticated filmmaking, even in the realm of blockbusters, is going to go away.

“I do it because it’s hard and because it’s the stuff of the movies I love,” McQuarrie says. “When films like this are no longer being made, I won’t be one of those people wishing I’d done more. I won’t be the guy who says, ‘They’re closing that restaurant I never go to? Why? The food was so good there.’ You can blame the audience, but the truth is audiences are not born, they’re made. They acquire a taste for what we feed them.” McQuarrie went on to elaborate that while he appreciates what Disney’s Marvel Studios has been able to specifically accomplish as the most popular modern superhero franchise, he still laments it is sending the wrong message to the industry, who in turn reinforces negative ideas of what cinematic storytelling should be and how it must be consumed.

“What Marvel has done is pretty amazing,” McQuarrie says. “But the temptation to follow that sort of insane success is very powerful. You can feel the industry narrowing its focus almost daily, and I fear we’re conditioning an audience to some very specific appetites. We’re also spawning a very toxic fan subculture. A movie can’t just resonate with more or less people now. It has to be the greatest thing ever or it’s a disappointment. Other movies are deemed great for reasons that have nothing to do with quality.”

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McQuarrie’s thoughts echo what his friend and colleague James Mangold recently said on Twitter, noting that, in his opinion, the emphasis in modern Hollywood to build shared universes is more about hooking audiences onto a story doled out in pieces and to get more of their money.

Conversely, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an intense and acutely designed film that, while built around the spectacle of seeing Tom Cruise fall from increasingly perilous heights, is still structured to emphasize classical storytelling and action. That includes a screenplay that tracks the worst fear of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and continues the melodramatic flourishes of McQuarrie’s previous Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (which was not coy about its Casablanca influences), as well as tight action primarily achieved with real stunt work.

Stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood confirmed as much to us in a separate interview, speaking with a hint of satisfaction about the freedom to plan elaborate sequences on location and how that dramatically affected the film. For instance his pre-production trip to Paris helped the filmmakers select not just the kind of car Cruise would drive during a chase midway through the picture, but even its color after noticing how the sunlight hit the cobblestones. (He winds up driving a classic green BMW M5.)

When we run McQuarrie’s thoughts by Eastwood, he emphatically agrees that the industry is starving audiences for something more intelligent and grounded.

“I couldn’t agree with Chris anymore,” Eastwood says. “These other movies that are out there… they are all about overloading you with a visual spectacle. I’m not going to mention some of them, but they make a lot of money and I can’t watch them. They are so non-character driven, the dialogue is so terrible, but it doesn’t matter.” Still, Eastwood tends to think the change might be a pushback against this kind of moviemaking.

Eastwood continues, “It’s almost like this millennial generation are just disconnecting completely. I feel they’re clawing back, because they just want a story. They want to go on someone’s journey… I think the overloading of visuals is slightly dying out and thank God.”

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Intriguingly, McQuarrie offered one final consideration: Hollywood studios should move beyond the PG-13 rating and four-quadrant appeal if they want to compete with the likes of HBO’s Game of Thrones for pop culture dominance.

“At the same time, we’re cranking out PG-13 movies to chase a demographic that’s staying home to watch graphic content like Game of Thrones,” McQuarrie muses. “You don’t have to be a genius to see where that’s going. When it gets there, we won’t have anyone to blame but ourselves. We made the audience.”

That might be, but in the meantime Mission: Impossible – Fallout drops on Friday, July 27. And our full discussion with McQuarrie and Eastwood about Fallout will be available in our SDCC special edition issue, out later this week.