Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie scored an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects in 1996 and then directed the 2000 release, The Way of the Gun, but after that, McQuarrie didn’t direct a single project until he got behind the lens for Jack Reacher in 2012. Why? As he explained, it’s because he insisted on pushing material that wasn’t commercial and needed to start focusing on the process rather than the results.
With McQuarrie’s latest directorial endeavor, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, hitting theaters on July 31st, I got the opportunity to participate in a roundtable interview with him during which he discussed what helped him get out of “director jail” and start securing green lights again:
“My whole career changed when I stopped trying to get movies made. I really believed in what I had been told which was, you write a good screenplay and it’ll be delivered. To an extent, that was true in that – Valkyrie is a very ill-advised piece of material to spend any of your time developing. It’s a one-act Nazi movie where they all fail and they all die. It’s not a crowdpleaser. I still pursued that when I was in my wilderness period, but at the same time, I let go of shopping that material around and going to people and asking them and by extension creating a sense of obligation, asking them to help me make my dream movie, which was not in their best interest. What I ended up doing after Valkyrie is I came out of that experience saying, ‘That was great. That was the best experience I’ve ever had making a movie. I learned a lot. I’ve developed new skills.’ I still feel the same way I did going in which is, ‘I don’t care if I ever make another movie again.’ I’ve gotten over the compulsion to make a movie for moviemaking’s sake.”
He continued by pinpointing the moment that changed everything:
“I went to a meeting one day with an executive and it was a general meeting, it was the last general meeting I ever took and I sat down opposite this guy, it was before Valkyrie ever came out, and he said, ‘So, what do you got?’ And I said, ‘Nothing. What have you got?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m just here to help, man. What do you got?’ And he started pitching me his slate, and he started sweating as soon as he started pitching. And I got to sit there and go, ‘Hmmm, no. What else? Hmmm, no. Not really.’ And it wasn’t to torture him, it was me listening to each idea and saying, ‘Nope, I don’t have anything to contribute to that. I won’t make that better, I’ll cost you more money and I won’t get you there.’ And I realized that my role as I walked out of that room was, ‘I’m here to help. How can I help you make your movie?’ And as soon as I took on that attitude, the whole business changed for me. I no longer felt the sense that I was the sweaty guy hitting on somebody at a bar and more felt like, people were like, ‘Thank you. Please, I have this whole slate of crap that I’ve got to get off my desk. Is there anything you can do to help me?’ And I no longer felt like I was being ripped off. And I no longer was being accused of ripping people off. And all of a sudden, movies started getting made.”
Here’s how he summed it all up:
“So it was about letting go of my synthesized ambitions of what sort of filmmaker I should be and really just focusing on my love of the process. The only way I can describe it is you focus entirely on execution and don’t worry about result. You can’t control result. I can’t control whether the movie is good or bad. I can’t control whether people like it or not. I can’t control whether people understand what I meant, what little things I buried in the movie. I can only control the work that I put into it.”
This mentality might not work for everybody, but it does seem like a great approach for someone looking to free him or herself of particular industry pressures, especially while working on a Mission: Impossible movie. I’ve got much more information on this topic coming your way soon, but based on what we discussed during this roundtable and my one-on-one video interview with McQuarrie from the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation world premiere, it seems as though MI5 called for a good deal of flexibility and likely benefited from McQuarrie’s focus on the process over the result.