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Director Christopher McQuarrie's unlikely path to 'Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation'

Director Christopher McQuarrie's unlikely path to 'Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation'
Director Chris McQuarrie at Sager + Wilde in Hackney, London. (Matthew Lloyd)

Near a leafy square in this bustling capital, filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie sat in a screening room, tilting his head at scenes from the new movie "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation."

In one scene, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt slid a BMW, Formula One style, through narrow streets in Morocco and, in another, dangled shirtless while wryly absorbing a brutal beating. McQuarrie made mental notes as he contemplated his biggest movie yet and one of the splashiest of the summer when it opens July 31.

Centering on Hunt's IMF as it tracks a terrorist supergroup known as the Syndicate, "Rogue Nation" needed to land with the accumulated power of a July action-adventure while also satisfying the unwritten "Mission" mandate: slick storytelling, playful comedy and — this is key wherever "Mission" is concerned — episodic cliffhangers.

McQuarrie had been staring at the scenes hundreds of times, and he was scrutinizing it on this May afternoon for the kind of nuances undetectable to the rest of us: sound design, tonal integrity, even fingerprints of his influences. "I was watching Hitchcock's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' the other night and thought, 'People are just going to think I stole from that,' he said a few minutes later as he discussed an extended "Mission" assassination scene set during a performance in a European opera house.

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Told that it was unlikely the Friday date-night crowd would be so keyed in — and couldn't he just say he didn't see it? — he flashed an unconvinced look. "I can say that. But I don't know if they'll believe me."

Shortly after, McQuarrie — imposing frame, teased-up hair, glasses with lenses that darkened in the sun — was moving confidently down the street, a man who'd taken one of the most winding paths in contemporary Hollywood now at an unlikely career destination. He swung open a door to a high-end restaurant, where several staffers converged, a regal greeting in a city far from where his odyssey began.

Heading downward

In 1995 life was good for Chris McQuarrie. At 26 and just a few years after moving to L.A. he had written "The Usual Suspects," the whodunit that became a cultural sensation and would net McQuarrie an Oscar. Bryan Singer, the film's director and McQuarrie's boyhood friend from New Jersey, would in a few years direct "X-Men" and become hugely bankable. McQuarrie appeared to be on the same upward trajectory.

As offers came in, though, he felt uncomfortable. Studios wanted another crime drama, preferably with a Keyser Soze twist. "Every time I tried to write a villain for my protagonist, he'd be living in the shadow of that guy who works because he's not there. And now I had to write a guy who is there."

McQuarrie met with Singer. The "Suspects" director was willing to make superhero movies — it was about career positioning, he believed. "But we're not comic-book guys," McQuarrie said to Singer, slightly baffled.He decided to work instead on an epic Alexander the Great story. He was a history buff and was fascinated by the person who had conquered so much at so young an age — a not dissimilar arc to McQuarrie's own, an observer might note — and then died at 32.

McQuarrie spent years trying to make the Alexander movie, flying to Seattle to meet with then-unknown playwright Peter Buchman. "Chris was figuring out what he wanted to do rather than let Hollywood dictate to him what he should be doing," said Dana Goldberg, a longtime friend who would later produce "Rogue Nation."

McQuarrie financed it and an expanding lifestyle--he and his wife Heather, who works with the filmmaker, would soon move to Seattle while maintaining an apartment in Beverly Hills--with the help of studio screenwriting gigs, including an ill-fated "X-Men" draft that caused the first of two fallouts with Singer.

McQuarrie and Buchman would spend late nights working on Alexander, then take meetings all over Hollywood. McQuarrie would drive to those meetings blasting the music he envisioned as its score. "Usual Suspects" was going to be his ticket to his David Lean epic.

But Alexander was an expensive risk, and the question was whether anyone would make the movie.

A WWII turn

The answer was no. First Warner Bros. and others didn't want to hand over a big budget to a first-time director. Then a studio wouldn't greenlight the movie even with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. When Oliver Stone leapfrogged it with a competing project, McQuarrie's Alexander was dead. (The Stone film turned out to be a flop, but that's another story.)

The news hit McQuarrie hard. "When you win a screenwriting Oscar at that age you think you can do whatever you want," Buchman said. "And then you realize you can't, and it's a huge blow."

He would spend time with a group that affectionately dubbed itself the Fat Pack (the friends, who first met in a screenwriters' online chat room, had a few stout members), McQuarrie often holding court at Canter's Deli and other Los Angeles spots. "Chris even in his darkest moments had a kind of gallows humor, and the ability to command a room by telling stories on the spot that would have the structure and payoff of the best script," said the screenwriter Tim Talbott, a friend whose 1970's drama "The Stanford Prison Experiment" McQuarrie would later try to help get off the ground.

McQuarrie finally made his directorial debut in 2000 with "The Way of the Gun," a violent drama that centered on a plot to kidnap a surrogate mother. The movie was a dud. The late Time critic Richard Corliss quipped, "McQuarrie … devises a two-hour gunfight interrupted by questions of paternity."

If McQuarrie was unable to have his way in Hollywood before, he was really shut out now. It didn't help that he had a reputation for being headstrong with executives. But he wrote his hands to the bone, hoping the story would conquer all, as young screenwriters are told, as people read about in profiles like this. He wrote scripts about history, including a Nazi officer's plot to kill Hitler — the kind of movie that today's conglomerate-owned studios don't touch even by telekinesis.

In Seattle, the filmmaker would play cards with successful Microsoft executives. They would ask the Oscar winner what he was working on, he would tell them, a year later they'd ask him again, he'd mumble something about another project.

Matters came to a head in 2006, when he traveled with his family to Europe on summer vacation. For the first time in years, he didn't bring his laptop or take work calls.

"My wife said, 'You're happier than you've ever been. You're better with the kids than you've ever been. Our marriage is better than it's ever been,'" he recalled. "And I thought, 'This is the first time in 10 years when I haven't thought about anyone in Los Angeles. And I realized that I'd been sick and hadn't even known it. I'd been working for so long under the myth that a good script would deliver you. And it was a lie."

He asked Heather: "'Would you mind if I never wrote another movie again and found some other way to make a living?' She said she wouldn't, so I quit."

And then Tom Cruise happened.

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A key connection

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Cruise was at a low point in his career in 2006. Several tabloid incidents and a public firing by Paramount boss Sumner Redstone meant Cruise was widely considered over in Hollywood.

Overhearing people in an L.A. restaurant writing Cruise's obituary, McQuarrie was intrigued. Here was someone else who had found early success and was now being spit out by the Hollywood meat grinder. Through a contact he asked to get in touch with Cruise. Soon, mostly out of curiosity, he had a meeting with Cruise's producing partner, Paula Wagner, and then with Cruise.

The two hit it off, geeking out over the Paul Newman film "The Verdict" — a shared favorite — and other film classics McQuarrie studied closely. "When McQ came that day I saw a guy who was so talented and so understood movie story and structure, and what a waste if he never got to fulfill that talent," Cruise said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, Singer, unaware of McQuarrie's resolution, had called his old friend about the Nazi script, titled "Valkyrie." Singer had just directed "Superman Returns" and needed a palate cleanser. McQuarrie was going to sell the script and cash out. But one meeting with Cruise turned to two, then four. Wagner, who was reviving United Artists with Cruise, asked if McQuarrie would produce the film.

"I was about to say no, but what came out of my mouth was yes," said McQuarrie. "And having acted against all my natural instincts, I was now producing a $70-million movie with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer."

There were more struggles to come, as a schadenfreude-minded press jumped on the Cruise production. But the months on set gave McQuarrie a crash course in producing. "If this was chess, you'd say he was finally seeing the whole board," recalled his longtime manager, Ken Kamins.

"Valkyrie" grossed $200 million worldwide, solid for a period drama. More important, a relationship with Cruise was forged. The star would bring McQuarrie in for script polishes on his films. McQuarrie also still had ideas about directing a historical epic. Once, after Cruise overheard him talking about such a film, the actor put his arm around McQuarrie and said, good-naturedly but pointedly, "We have to concentrate on a movie that will actually get made."

That film proved to be the 2012 Cruise thriller "Jack Reacher." It would lead to a much larger McQuarrie-Cruise collaboration.

'On the outside'

McQuarrie is finishing lunch. The man who is a complicated hybrid, both comeback story and cautionary tale, has much work to do on "Rogue Nation." Famously fastidious, he was working on postproduction as recently as a few days ago. McQuarrie has directed the fifth "Mission," from Paramount and Skydance Prods., with a blend of midcentury cinema style and modern techno-thriller convention, and it's both a heavy undertaking and fine balance.

The film's story has enough twists, the dialogue enough eloquence and a British agent (Rebecca Ferguson) enough dubious intentions to be recognizably from the writer of "The Usual Suspects," which came out 20 years ago next month.

McQuarrie and Cruise mainly designed the action scenes first — they also include a Moroccan motorcycle chase and a wordless underwater sequence — and then used plot to glue them together. (Fans may be surprised to learn the already-famous Hunt-clinging-to-the-plane sequence, slotted in one early cut at the film's close, takes place right at the beginning and has little immediate bearing on the main plot.)

Cruise had to work on McQuarrie to make the movie, eliciting a kind of tacit agreement during one late-night hangout session, then walking into the other room to call Paramount chief Brad Grey. "McQ was like, 'Yeah, maybe, I don't know,'" Cruise recalled with a laugh by phone from the "Mission" editing suite last week. "And I said, 'Come on, dude, let's quit talking about it and do it.'"

That McQuarrie is in charge of a world this big might seem a little strange. It does to Singer. "We're the two kids who were always on the outside," said the director by phone from the Montreal set of his latest "X-Men." "We never would have imagined any of this when we were using fireworks to make World War II movies in our backyards."

But Singer has been down the studio road many times. For McQuarrie, this is all new, and an even bigger canvas than the one he previously disliked. Not for nothing does McQuarrie live in London, having not been to Los Angeles in nearly two years: "I don't miss the culture. I don't miss the business atmosphere there."

But the director says that, as he has worked through the modern studio thicket (he also served as a high-end script doctor when "World War Z" ran aground and helped reverse a plan to begin phasing out Hunt while the crew was well into production on the previous "Mission"), he has softened his lone-crusader attitude. "Yes, you are surrendering some control with a movie like this. But the other way to look at that is collaboration," he said. "The only difficulty for me would be if I bought into the auteur myth. Which is frankly bull…" (It's not lost on 'Mission' star Simon Pegg that this is a slightly easier stance to take with Tom Cruise on your side.)

If McQuarrie's approach is different these days, his soul is unchanged, said Goldberg.

"I like to say he's a soft gummy bear underneath this big, scary, incredibly intense exterior," noted the "Mission" producer. "One of the things I love about Chris is that he comes across as a super-confident guy, but he's really an insecure guy at heart. He's always waiting for someone to come and take the card back.

"He didn't grow up inside Hollywood, and I think as a result he's a little like Sally Field — you know, 'You like me, you really really like me.' I see it every time he hands someone a script. I see it every time we preview a movie. He has a great deal of film knowledge and intelligence and even a little arrogance, but at the end of the day all he really wants is to make a film that entertains audiences."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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