Mission: Impossible poster art by Radostina/CinemaCity00
July 18, 2023
By Tim Pelan
In my mid-50s, doing ‘Carlito’s Way’ and then ‘Mission: Impossible,’ it doesn’t get much better than that. You have all the power and tools at your disposal. When you have the Hollywood system working for you, you can do some remarkable things. —Brian De Palma
In 1992, Tom Cruise and his then-agent Paula Wagner formed Cruise/Wagner Productions, signing a deal with Paramount Studios with the aim of giving Cruise more creatively diverse control over his projects. By now, the actor was in his most fertile period of collaboration, working with noted directors such as Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, Paul Thomas Anderson on Magnolia, and Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire. It would be four years before the company’s first project, a property close to Cruise’s heart—Mission: Impossible, based on the long-running TV spy series of the same name, which initially ran from 1966 to 1973 and was briefly resurrected in 1988, as always led by actor Peter Graves’ “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” agent Jim Phelps. In each episode, the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) team had to devise and execute a plan aimed at solving some “impossible” espionage mission, often behind the Iron Curtain.
The set-up always involved cutting-edge technology, elaborate disguises, usually with masks, split-second timing, and stealthy deception. Cruise chose to subvert these tropes in a tense set-up that [SPOILER ALERT!] destroys the team and leaves his agent “disavowed”, recruiting his own rogue’s gallery to unmask the traitor within and clear his name. The film version was therefore to be a clearly different beast, very much in line with his chosen director Brian De Palma’s hallmarks, the script by David Koepp further classily punched up by Robert Towne—suspenseful, naturally, but also filled with narrative and visual playfulness, subjective POV, homages galore, betrayal, flirtation, horniness, sleight of hand (“This disc?”), conspiracies, and audience manipulation. With Cruise’s newly created character Ethan Hunt, a seemingly clay Gollum to be moulded over time as the franchise continues to this day under different auteur stewardship, the question is—Who is the driving force when a young star/producer divines the gift of directing him upon an outlier in the studio system? When all is said and done, is Mission: Impossible a Tom Cruise vision, or a De Palma beast?
In a recent interview with Filmmaker Magazine, reprinted in the New Beverly blog, De Palma elaborated on that dynamic: “I’ve usually found that the more powerful the actor, the easier they are to direct. They’ve made a lot of movies, and they’ve been directed badly a lot of times. When they see that you’re very concerned about protecting their performances, watching what they’re doing, and giving them the right suggestions at the right time, they become very easy to direct and look for all the help they can get. Occasionally you run into actors with rigid ideas and there’s very little that you can do to get them off the path they’ve decided upon, but it’s rare.” Cruise himself, looking back on the series, believes that it is exciting to “allow a director to come in and imbue his style of filmmaking.” The mould of a different director per film was broken with Christopher McQuarrie returning for Fallout after Rogue Nation, and continuing to perhaps bring the series to a close with Dead Reckoning Part 1 and 2. With McQ, Cruise has refined and balanced the series template of character-driven gigantic set pieces and stunts. For instance, McQuarrie has decided that “every movement of a M:I film is 20 minutes long. The Burj Khalifa (Ghost Protocol); the Opera sequence (Rogue Nation); the CIA sequence in Langley (Mission: Impossible) is. So this time I said ‘We’re going to make six 20-minute movies.’” But in 1996, it was unproven ground. James Bond had only just returned to the big screen after an enforced legal hiatus, and Austin Powers had spoofed every spy trope going. The term “reboot” wasn’t even in common parlance.
De Palma chose to deliver Hitchcock-like old-school Euro spy thrills (Prague not long out from under the Soviet thumb) with Hollywood techno flair, as the action proceeds from foggy, chilly Europe to a Topkapi silent homage CIA high-wire break-in, to a then-cutting-edge CGI /green screen high-speed TGV train/helicopter chase climax into and through the newly opened channel tunnel between Britain and France. IMF agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the only holdover from the original series, arrives in Prague to meet his team: obvious femme fatale wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart); Kristin Scott Thomas as Sarah Davies; Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė as Hannah Williams; an uncredited Emilio Estevez as hacker/tech guy Jack Harmon (“Hasta lasagne, don’t get any on ya.”); and Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, cocky young point man, and Phelps’ protégé. Don’t get too invested in the others though, they don’t last long, wiped out by a shadow force. And Phelps disappears, to reappear later, sow doubt, and ultimately, scandalously, be revealed as the traitor who wants to sell the NOC list (a McGuffin of agent names and aliases, a trope since done to death with a lot less class). Ethan meets up with IMF suit Kitteridge (Henry Czerny), only to realize the whole set up was a “mole-hunt” and Ethan, as the only survivor, is suspect number one. Our Disavowed hero reunites with a very much alive Claire who agrees to work with him to contact arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), who wants the list, to find out who the traitor is. Claire and Ethan recruit fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to do what only they can do—break into CIA HQ, steal the real list, and set up an exchange on the channel tunnel train to smoke out the bad guy…
De Palma’s long-term director of photography Stephen Burum told American Cinematographer that suspense was created by often confining characters in tight spots. “Throughout the picture, the characters are stuck in airplanes, in elevator shafts, in air-conditioning ducts. There’s no place to hide. If you get caught in a tunnel and there’s somebody coming, you have no way out—it’s that feeling of being completely vulnerable at all times.” The American Embassy mission in Prague takes place during a crowded diplomatic reception and IMF operatives mingle everywhere, with Jack hacking systems in the elevator shaft. Much of the sequence is shot from a subjective point of view as Cruise, in masked disguise as a US Senator, mingles and makes contact with his team (De Palma often makes reference to his shots as being “either objective or POV” for direction). The masks in the film were created by VFX make-up supremo Rob Bottin. To my mind, they intentionally (apart from a rug-pulling finale) look “off.” Cruise’s “Senator” has more forehead wrinkles than Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine.
The film frequently employs split diopters to capture action taking place across different focal planes, keeping everything (and everyone) sharp. When the Langley theft is discovered, hapless analyst William Donloe (Rolf Saxon) is clearly visible in deep background as Kittridge and his associate Barnes (Dale Dye) debate how to keep a lid on the embarrassment and pack him off to “a radar station in Alaska.” The action on the nighttime streets of Prague, flitting between the Charles Bridge and the exploding car in the square, was elaborately lit. “We had to light two miles of riverfront on either side of the bridge. We ended up carefully placing 450 IK Par lights to duplicate the architectural lighting.” Burum and De Palma were of one mind that “it enhances the suspense if you can see everything because there’s no place to hide.” Split diopters were used again in these exterior scenes, compressing space between characters and background action, thus eliminating the need for cuts while using the entire widescreen frame.
The Prague scenes evoke “the old European spymaster stuff,” said Burum. “You know, the spymaster slinking around, dining in chic restaurants, smoking cigars and drinking brandy, while some Eurasian woman is wearing a tight silk dress with a mink dropping off her shoulder, with a Twenties bob hairdo—the Mata Hari thing.” To my mind, it recalls the most Hitchcock-like film not made by De Palma’s hero Hitchcock—Stanley Donen’s 1963 hit Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. It too is a film of duplicitousness, false identities, double-crosses, and of course, a McGuffin. The film straddles styles of romance, danger, intrigue, droll comedy, and occasional violence. It’s primarily set in Paris, and the costumes of Mission: Impossible seem to deliberately call back to its early sixties milieu—as Kittridge and Barnes close in on Max and Ethan, Kittridge wears a long tan or ivory raincoat (like Grant’s) and fedora, and a female agent wears a chic period looking hat and dress combo. Vanessa Redgrave imbues the stylish Max with a wonderful old-school playfulness and teasing quality, stroking a bound Ethan’s earlobe as he plays up and tries to charm her into funding his audacious scheme to secure the list. In her car, she practically purrs, scrinching her nose: “I don’t have to tell you what a comfort anonymity is in my business. It’s like a warm blanket.”
In Charade, Cary Grant changes identity four times in the film, yet Audrey Hepburn’s “mark,” the widowed interpreter, has to trust him as shady types who tell an alternate story of her husband seek something from her she doesn’t even know she has. The film therefore plays on notions of deceit and trust as the basis or ruination of love. Mission: Impossible also plays ambiguously with notions of love and betrayal, with an alluded-to attraction between Ethan and Claire which Phelps claims to have manipulated (she’s ultimately survived not by chance—she‘s in it with her husband for the money). It’s clear Ethan cares for her more than just for a colleague as he rouses her from a faked “death” in the pre-credits theatrics of a classic “Mission” fake room. Later in London, she reaches out to him to join her on the safe house disused travel agents floor amidst the torn old posters, a fitting bed for agents out to pasture to lie, and lie, in.
Ethan’s motivation is to clear his name primarily, and to unmask the mole. With every other “episode” he becomes, to various degrees, a mythologized archetype. As film writer A.J. Black puts it, “an espionage-based Batman equivalent who allows people to sleep safely at night knowing he is risking life and literal limb to stop extremists and terrorists the world over. He steadily evolves into this mythic hero across the next twenty years but here Ethan is simply a disavowed, deep-cover spy using every trick in the book to clear his name and expose the real mole.”
Phelps, when he returns in London, pretending to still be on the side of the angels, attempts to plant doubt about Kittridge to Ethan, but he’s espousing his own bitter creed:
“You think about it Ethan, it was inevitable. No more Cold War. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he? Then you realize, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage and sixty-two grand a year.”
This “betrayal” of the character outraged original Phelps Peter Graves. Even Mission: Impossible III director/producer J.J. Abrams, who began the process of “humanizing” Ethan, wobbled around the Phelps rug-pull, arguing that Graves could play Phelps in the fourth Mission: Impossible and so retcon the controversial characterization. Wiser heads prevailed. *Kittridge voice* We like our De Palma duplicity at Cinephilia & Beyond, Ethan.
So we have mystery and intrigue, spy staples. But what about spectacle, the defining mojo of future M:I films? Cruise’s stunt set pieces are spectacular building blocks, closely allied to character-driven *thinking.* Ethan crosses a square to the restaurant meet with Kittridge, the camera tightening on him crossing the screen diagonally while it narrows to push Kittridge up against the opposite end of the frame, seated behind the huge window. It’s a great setup. As Ethan dazedly sits down with Kittridge in the fishbowl atmosphere of the restaurant facing an equally huge aquarium tank on the wall opposite, De Palma utilizes low-shot Dutch angles to highlight the paranoia and realization he is a cornered rat. But he still has a trick up his sleeve, or rather, in his pants pocket—the chewing gum explosive Jack gave him earlier. He mashes the red/green together and hurls it at the tank, exploding the glass and gallons of water burst through the restaurant, breaching the window, as he runs for his life, leaping over flood-strewn chairs. Wade Eastwood, ongoing stunt coordinator from the fifth installment onwards, appreciates what Cruise had to do here.
“With all films, audiences have become more aware and more critical. They need more visual stimulation, so with the real action movies like the Missions and Bournes and Bonds, we’ve really had to challenge ourselves to create bigger action sequences and most stimulating visuals. The first Mission, in its time, I’m sure was quite complex and hectic from an action point of view, but if you look back at it now, the action in Mission One is probably the first ten pages of the action in Mission Six. Today, the audiences would want sharks coming out of that fish-tank and then chasing him down the street. But with the Missions, they’ve always stuck to story, and never doing action for action’s sake. Ethan’s character doesn’t want to fight, but sometimes he doesn’t really have a choice. He has to make these last-minute decisions, and he doesn’t want to fail, and he just doesn’t always have a plan.”
Then there is that Langley break-in. The vault’s ultra-bright high-tech interior contrasts deliberately with the moody Prague night scenes. Production designer Norman Reynolds and Burum collaborated closely here. Reynolds created a space that was also a self-contained soft light source. From ASC: “This futuristic white room is a seamless integration of luminescent plexiglass panels with dozens of photofloods and 216 diffusions behind them. The effect is an expanse of shadowless whiteness. To ensure the purity of the white light, Burum overexposed the panels by about three stops to ‘burn out any color.’” Silence played as much a part in the tension as Ethan is suspended above the computer desk by Krieger, bypassing the laser sensors in the air con grid—the room is both floor pressure and decibel sensitive. Not surprisingly, the sequence was dreamed up by the movie-literate De Palma, reimagining the jewel heist set piece from 1955’s Topkapi. Cruise reveals in an anniversary Blu-ray release of the film that De Palma first mentioned the vault sequence to him on a long-distance call when the actor was in Japan promoting another movie, before filming on M:I even began. “He pitched me the whole CIA scene on a phone when I was in the back of a car. I just went, ‘OK, this movie is really cool.’ It was a phenomenal idea.” Stunt Coordinator Greg Powell finessed it on a sound stage in England. “It was all done by hands and weights,” Powell said. Two crew members raised and lowered Cruise on high-strength Tech-12 rope.
Cruise however couldn’t stop his body from hitting the floor in that shot where Krieger is distracted by a rat and lets Ethan slip. Until he came up with a novel counterweight solution—one-pound coins in his shoes. “I hung on the cable to see if I was level,” Cruise said of that the last take. “I went all the way down on the floor, and I didn’t touch! I was there holding it, and I’m sweating. [Brian] just keeps rolling… and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to stop.’ Then I hear him off-camera start to howl [with laughter] and he goes, ‘All right, cut!’”
Then there is the finale. After acquiring the NOC list aboard a French TGV train speeding at 160 miles per hour through the England-bound Chunnel, Phelps makes his getaway by traversing the top of the train via magnetic grips to the rear engine, to await pick up from Krieger, who was Team Phelps all along. Ethan climbs out after him, minus his advantages. The ferocious wind flips Ethan about as he seeks to secure the chopper to the train via its cable, forcing Krieger to enter the tunnel with them as Ethan attempts to stop Phelps from releasing it and escaping. De Palma and Cruise employed ILM’s wizards to make the sequence sing. It still impresses to this day, but one wonders if, as Phil Nobile Jr. mused on Twitter, “This is a formative sequence in Cruise’s life because he was working with one of the masters of the medium here, and his 27-year takeaway was ‘I gotta find a dude who’ll let me do this shit for REAL.’”
From ASC: “ILM contributed 150 shots to the breath-taking seven-minute train sequence, most of them achieved with startlingly real computer graphics created on a variety of Silicon Graphics workstations. “From the time Ethan climbs onto the train till the end of the sequence, every single shot was a visual effect,” maintains ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll (Star Trek: Generations), who handled the sequence. The film’s overall visual effects supervisor was Richard Yuricich, ASC.
At Pinewood Studios, the pair (Cruise and Voigt) performed against bluescreen on a stationary full-scale locomotive set, while a parachuting fan outside created a genuine 160-mile-per-hour gale-force wind which was ducted to the stage. Aided by the powerful wind and strong off-camera tugs on his flying harness, Cruise did his own death-defying flips and lunges on-set. Cruise flew on wires for the shot in which Hunt loses his grip and hurtles down the entire 65′ length of the locomotive, crashing feet-first into Phelps.
Background plates of the real landscape passing behind the train were shot in Scotland, as were the fore and aft POVs of the train traveling down the track. In wider shots, ILM ran its digital train on the real rails; shots of the actors in the foreground were filmed on the locomotive set, which was often digitally blended with half a mile’s worth of CG train.”
And yes, the helicopter is CGI—the real chopper couldn’t keep up with the shots. But not all the time. When Hunt slaps the explosive gum on it and the blast hurls him back towards the camera to the train and the blasted wreckage, still tethered, tumbles towards him, Knoll switched the CG helicopter for a miniature. “To match their CG train’s virtual 200 m.p.h., Knoll’s team shot at 120 frames per second as a gigantic electric motor propelled the chopper model through a 120′-long Chunnel miniature at 50 m.p.h.” A sleight of hand to make Ethan proud.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: David Koepp & Robert Towne’s screenplay for Mission: Impossible [11.7.94, 12.12.94, Final Shooting 8.16.95, Robert Towne’s draft]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Light the Fuse—The Official Mission: Impossible Podcast’s interview with David Koepp, the ridiculously talented and successful screenwriter behind the first Mission: Impossible. In this in-depth conversation, he talks about what a fan he was of the original series, Luther’s original fate in the script, a military wedding that was part of an early draft, and the construction of the Langley sequence. Released October 9th, 2020. Check out David’s incredible script archive. You can find info about his other work on his website.
Part two of Light the Fuse’s conversation with screenwriter David Koepp. In this part, they talk about the train climax and how contentious it was, why he doesn’t enjoy doing sequels, several further unrealized reunions with Brian De Palma. Released October 16th, 2020.
In this wide-ranging conversation, David Koepp tells Script Apart podcast about the chaos that submerged Mission: Impossible at multiple points in its development, the explosive prison break scene that was cut from his screenplay for budgetary reasons, the artful exposition that’s a regular feature in his storytelling and how he approaches screenwriting versus his work as a novelist.
Light the Fuse’s interview with living legend and the filmmaker behind the first Mission: Impossible film, Brian De Palma.
Tom Cruise and filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, while taking a short break from making Mission: Impossible 7 and 8, sit down and reminisce about the film that started it all for its 25th anniversary. In this clip, Cruise talks about how he used to live down the street from Steven Spielberg, and being so close to one of the greatest directors who’s ever lived, he used to go over to Spielberg’s house, watch movies, and then talk to Spielberg about them. One night when he arrived at Spielberg’s house, Brian De Palma was there, and this set off a chain reaction that led to Cruise offering De Palma Mission: Impossible. Cruise recounts the story.
Ben Pearson at /Film has put together an amazing Oral History Of Mission: Impossible’s Iconic CIA Heist Scene. Not only is assistant director Chris Soldo one of the people interviewed, but Pearson also shares images from Soldo’s personal archives of script pages and Brian De Palma’s storyboards. (De Palma a la Mod)
BRIAN DE PALMA’S STORYBOARDS
“I was especially taken with the following images, which are storyboards made by Brian De Palma himself. Soldo told me the director was ‘fooling around with what was then a very new piece of software’ which allowed him to make 3D models and place the camera in 3D space. ‘Brian would literally slave over these models for, God knows, days, wherever he was living and then make the decision to capture certain frames to put the storyboards together,’ Soldo said. ‘He was doing that all himself.’ Feast your eyes on what can only be described as an extremely 1995 set of images, complete with De Palma’s hand-written notations.” —Ben Pearson, /Film
Go behind-the-scenes of the first Mission: Impossible movie with this compilation of featurettes. Includes clips from the film, on-set footage, as well as interviews with director Brian De Palma, screenwriter Robert Towne, producer Paula Wagner, Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, and many more.
As the new Mission: Impossible film Dead Reckoning hits cinemas, Geoffrey Macnab looks back at how Tom Cruise and a run of celebrated directors transformed a Sixties TV series into a blockbuster franchise. —‘We have to kill off the whole team’: The inside story of how Tom Cruise and Brian de Palma made Mission: Impossible
“In 1996. Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma’s reboot of an antiquated spy series was a risk in every sense. How did they pull it off?” —‘Incomprehensible!’: why the original Mission: Impossible was almost dead on arrival
STEPHEN BURUM, ASC
Cinematographer Stephen Burum, ASC resumes his longtime collaboration with director Brian De Palma to bring the seminal spy premise to the big screen. This article originally appeared in AC, June 1996. —Imaging the Impossible—Mission: Impossible
“I love working with Brian. He’s the greatest; he knows exactly what he’s doing. There’s not much dialogue between us on the set. [The collaboration] is not artsy at all, but very matter-of-fact. I have an expression that I use: ‘De Palma left and right.’ If Brian says the frame ends at a certain point, it’s going to end there. There is no reason to shoot anything past that point.”
Interview with Stephen H. Burum, the EnergaCAMEERIMAGE 2022 Lifetime Achievement recipient, who lensed such classics as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Carlito’s Way, Hoffa, and Mission to Mars.
Light the Fuse’s chat with Paul Hirsch, genius editor of both the first and fourth Mission: Impossible installments. In this jam-packed episode you’ll hear about Hirsch’s relationship with Brian De Palma (including a story about De Palma shooting his wedding), a detailed explanation of how Danny Elfman replaced Alan Silvestri, and an incredible anecdote about how Brad Bird approached editing. You’ll learn a whole lot and you’ll have fun doing it. Released June 7th, 2019.
The author of the new memoir A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away shares the truth about the rat in the Langley sequence of “M:I,” discusses how they fixed the opening of Ghost Protocol, and lets us know which shots weren’t Tom Cruise in the aquarium sequence in the first film—and much more! Released December 20th, 2019.
In October 2019, the Hamptons International Film Festival honored Brian De Palma with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented by his daughter, Piper De Palma, and he was interviewed by Alec Baldwin.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible. Photographed by Richard Blanshard, Murray Close © Paramount Pictures, Cruise/Wagner Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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