John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 300 of Scriptnotes.
John: A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. 300 Craig. That’s just amazing.
Craig: I mean, we sort of blew it because we had that big live show that ended up being 299, but in a way that’s us, isn’t it? We’re not numerologists.
John: We’re not. I actually had some big plans for the 300th episode, which I talked you through, and it was going to be so much work that it did not end up happening because other life things interfered. But 300 is still good. And this is a really good 300th episode. Today on the show, we have Chris McQuarrie here to talk about the transition from being an A-list screenwriter to being an A-list writer-director. So, it’s an incredibly relatable episode. I mean, it’s really for all of the A-list screenwriters out there who are thinking about what is my path to being an A-list writer-director. Chris McQuarrie can talk you through that.
Craig: Yeah, our 300th episode is speaking to fewer than 300 people. [laughs] That’s how I look at it. It’s for like about three people.
John: Yean, three, four.
Craig: Four, tops.
John: Depends on the day. But it was actually a great conversation. So, when we get into it you’ll see that it ends up being mostly me and Chris because of just time zone problems. But he gets into some really fascinating stuff about just, you know, he had some peaks and some valleys even after his career sort of got going. And we talk about that. And I think there’s actually a lot of really relatable stuff there about being the person when stuff falls apart. And putting stuff back together. And that’s a valuable lesson.
Craig: Chris is – I was sorry to miss a good chunk of that. Chris is a very good friend of mine and one of the most infuriatingly smart people I know. I feel like I serve a similar role for him in that we make each other crazy, but we’re the sort of people that like making each other crazy, and so hours will go by where we debate absolute nonsense and everybody around us just gets very tired and bored and leaves. And we like that. I just have the greatest respect for his abilities. And he is an excellent articulator of the interior life of the writer. So, I’m looking forward to this discussion as much as perhaps the three or four people to whom this applies are listening, looking forward to it at home.
But he’s terrific. It’s hard to believe that it took us this long. You know what? We’ll have him back on for Episode 600. How about that?
John: That’s a very good idea. So, a lot has actually happened since you and I were on the Skype together. You did a live show which was fantastic. I actually got to listen to that live show as I was on my bus on the way over to meet with Chris. And it was just great. So, thank you again for a great show. Thank you to Dana Fox for filling in for me. But Rian Johnson and Rob McElhenney were terrific. And people asked smart questions, or at least the questions that made it into the edit I heard were smart. So, thank you to everybody and thank you to Hollywood Heart for hosting us there.
Craig: Yes. And by all accounts we did in fact achieve the goal, which was to raise a pretty good amount of money for Hollywood Heart. So we felt really good about that. They were very happy. Dana was wonderful. Just did a great job. I’m going to go ahead and just say if I croak, she gets my gig.
John: All right.
John: Sounds good. So if there’s Russians out there planning to do things, know that we have a backup in Dana Fox.
Craig: There are Russians out there planning to do things. I just don’t think this one is high up on their list.
John: No, they got a long, long list.
Craig: They got a long list.
John: But listening to that show, it was fascinating because you were recording it on Monday night and while you were recording it at the other side of the hill they were still negotiating the WGA contract. And we did know when that episode was being recorded whether or not we would be on strike or if a deal would be reached. And the deal was reached and huzzah. So, it went past the midnight deadline, but they kept talking, and there is now a deal that is up for vote by the membership.
Craig: Yeah, it’s up for vote by the membership, which means it’s going to be our deal. We’re not going to turn it down. And by all accounts it seems like a pretty good deal. We are actually going to have Chris Keyser, the former president of the Writers Guild and one of the co-chairs of the negotiating committee come on the show. I believe he’s going to come and record with us next week. And he’s going to walk us through it. And he’ll walk us through as much as he can. I mean, ideally he’s going to explain the deal itself to us and how that works. And hopefully he can also give us a little insight in how the actual machinery of the negotiation worked, up to a point. Because of course there are certain things they can’t really talk about, you know, because leverage is a delicate manner. You don’t want to necessarily give away all of your secrets. But I was thrilled with the outcome, certainly.
John: I was thrilled with the outcome, too. And one of the things which hopefully Chris will be able to explain to me, because I have a hard time understanding it as a person who writes mostly for film rather than for TV is there’s a change in the definition of how many weeks of work can be ascribed to an episode. And he will talk us through that, because that has a lot to do with the changing way we’re making television and he’s making one of those shows that is in a changed model. So he’ll hopefully be able to talk us through that as well.
Craig: That’s the most important change, I think. And it has ramifications not only for the way writers are compensated and how much money they make, but also our pension and healthcare. It’s one of those ripple effect changes. So, yeah, we’ll definitely get into that with Chris.
John: Another bit of follow up. Two episodes ago I asked listeners for their advice – what advice would they give to a time traveler whose time machine broke down? You remember this Craig.
Craig: I do.
John: Like you had some basic ideas of stumbling up to a person and asking, hey, what year it is. And seeming like a crazy person. Our listeners, once again, prove themselves to be the best, smartest people in the universe. So, already they started pointed me towards like, you know, OK, here’s how the stars change, so therefore you can figure out based on the shape of the Big Dipper. But they had some more specific things. So I wanted to get into a few of those.
Logan Rap wrote in to say, “If you have your iPhone with you, you can have an offline version of Wikipedia that’s only text but then you have a pretty good sense of history. And that would probably help you out. And, of course, your iPhone would also have a compass. It would help you sort of figure out geography around you.” He also suggested a Wild Edibles app to help you find the 200 edible plants in your area to help you figure out sort of how you could survive. So, if your time machine is broken but you still have a phone, that’s potentially helpful.
Craig: OK. Yeah. I mean, I can see that. Personally, I would mostly be using that offline Wikipedia to find out the most painless way to kill myself. As we already pointed out, my strategy is curl up right away.
John: Yeah. Perhaps they have like a Poisonous Plants app you can download, so you can figure out what is the quickest, most efficient poison plant you can find that would do it for you.
Craig: But that doesn’t – I don’t want any cramping.
John: That’s true. Because poison we’ve learned can be incredibly painful.
John: You want something quick. Honestly, use the compass to find a cliff and jump off of it.
Craig: But then I got to deal with the whole falling. I don’t think you quite understand how cowardly I am. I don’t think you’ve gotten it through your head yet. I need a beautiful, quiet, lovely sleep that just, yeah. My time travel nap.
John: I get that.
Craig: Oh, you do? You’re like, no, no, I understand exactly how pathetic you are.
John: I think we all want a nice gentle death. But if a nice gentle death doesn’t come, I just feel like the bungee-less bungee jumping would be a pretty good way out. Because I’ve bungee jumped. And bungee is tremendously fun, especially when you don’t die. But if you’re ghost smack at the end. Eh.
Craig: I don’t know. No one really to ask about it is there?
John: No, there really isn’t. Renee wrote in to point out that since the earth is 70% water and it’s only had a breathable atmosphere for a small portion of its existence, the chance of my broken time machine landing me someplace where I would survive even minutes are incredible small. So, that was despairing.
Craig: I like that.
John: But she also had a good suggestion. That if I ended up around humans and I couldn’t figure out who these humans were, a portable DNA testing kit could be really helpful. And so once again if I had something kind of like a medical tricorder, I could probably do some DNA testing to figure out what group of humans I was around. That would help sort of narrow it down.
Craig: It’s stretching the definition of useful, I got to say. I got to say.
John: Yeah. Finally, I want to single out some things that Rich wrote. And so he wanted to point out that for all we know we are surrounded by lost and confused time travelers. So think about how many beggars you’ve seen in your life. How many of them are time travelers? How often have you stopped to give them time travel advice? If not, why not? What could hurt? You could approach that guy and say, hey buddy, today is Friday April 28, 2017. And you’re currently located on the corner of Alameda and Prime in Los Angeles, California, United States of America. I hope that helps you, in case you’re lost. Have a nice day.
Craig: I don’t think Rich has actually seen any beggars in his life.
John: You don’t think that Rich is guessing correctly about sort of how – you don’t think that the US homeless situation is mostly a result of failed time travel.
Craig: It’s the result of failed something. But not – you know, generally speaking homeless people aren’t shy about asking you for things. So, like what year is it – I don’t think they’d have a problem with that.
John: Yeah. I think that’s fair. You know, I think it’s probably a very small subset of the people you see–
Craig: [laughs] Probably.
John: The people you see who seem confused in life are just time travelers. There could also just be shy time travelers who aren’t in the right place, but they just don’t kind of know how to ask. And so I would say even sometimes here in Paris there have been times where like I kind of needed to ask a question, but I have just no vocabulary for how to actually ask that question. So I just let the question go unasked and therefore unanswered.
Craig: Was the question on the order of where am I and what year is this? Or was it more like, where can I find a place that sells Diet Coke? Sorry Coca Light.
John: Oh yeah, Coca Zero is my go-to.
Craig: Coca Zero.
John: Everywhere sells that. But more on the order of, like for instance, I had to call in to make a doctor’s appointment. And that is one of the worst, most frustrating things. It wasn’t actually even a doctor’s appointment. I needed to call to get the doctor on the phone to ask her a question about something. And they didn’t speak English. And it was just beyond my vocabulary level to actually get through that. And a phone call makes it tough, too.
John: It’s challenging. So, in some ways aren’t we all shy time travelers at times?
Craig: No. In no ways. [laughs]
John: That was a reach, even for me. But time travel actually played an important role in this next bit.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: With Chris McQuarrie. Because we went through a lot of different times to try to find a way that we could meet up together to all have a conversation. So, me and Chris in person, because Chris is here in Paris shooting Mission: Impossible 6. And you were going to Skype in. And it kept getting moved because their schedule kept changing and they’re shooting French hours. And so a new time was set and you were not there at that time because of this time and math and stuff got changed and you didn’t get the email.
So, Chris and I spoke for most of this time by ourselves, but then you were there for the last part of it. And so people are going to listen to this conversation with me and Chris, but then Craig gets to join in about three-quarters of the way through. And stays with us through our One Cool Things.
Craig: And I emerge in the most Craig way possible.
John: Yeah. You’re just suddenly there.
John: And to make it extra jarring, we only have the backup audio for the last few minutes. So, I honestly don’t know how we’re going to edit it. So, Matthew, have fun. But we’re going to enjoy this conversation with Chris McQuarrie. It was really great and fun to talk about what he was doing and literally he was coming straight from the set of Mission: Impossible 6, so it was fun to see literally what he was doing that day be reflected in the conversation that we had. So, enjoy this.
Chris McQuarrie is a screenwriter whose credits include The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and Edge of Tomorrow. He’s also written and directed The Way of the Gun, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and the upcoming sixth installment of Mission: Impossible, currently filming in Paris.
Chris McQuarrie: That’s a very good introduction.
John: So, welcome to Paris. How far are you into shooting in Paris right now?
Chris: We are I believe four weeks in.
John: That’s a long time to be shooting in Paris. I’m guessing this is a globe-trotting movie that doesn’t all take place in Paris?
Chris: No, it does not. But I was determined, unlike the last movie, to spend more time in one location. I went back and I looked at the first movie, which started in Prague, and realized that they’re in Prague for the first half of the movie. So, I sort of pulled back a little bit on the globe-trotting. I think in Rogue Nation I think we might have been in six countries in the first ten minutes of the movie.
John: And if you hold to this production schedule, how many countries will you have reached before you’re done shooting this movie?
Chris: We’ll only be in three countries.
John: That’s great. There’s economy there.
John: You’re saving the studio money.
Chris: Sorry, no, that’s not true. We will also be – we’ll be in four countries. There’s a little piece in Germany.
John: So I think I remember speaking to you after your first directing gig. You did Way of the Gun, and I remember a very specific story you told me in a van on the way up to Sundance where you were talking about dealing with a prop guy about the bags of money and how much would those bags of money weigh. Like the reality of that much money.
Chris: Yeah. That was a Benicio del Toro question. Benicio asked me how much does $ 15 million weigh. Which I had just arbitrarily picked that number. And Benicio was always asking a lot of questions like that. And it was in the middle of a very busy day and I thought, “Who cares?” And he said, “I care. I’m going to have to carry it. So how much does it weigh?” And in the script it was a bag. It was like a suitcase with $ 15 million in it. So I went to the prop guy, Ian, and I asked him how much does $ 15 million weigh? He said, “Oh goodness. OK, I’ll come back to you.”
So he came back and he said, “As you have it in the script, $ 15 million in tens, twenties, and fifties. I’m assuming that it’s even amounts of those three denominations. It would fill 27 printer paper boxes and weigh something like – it was like 1,200 pounds or 1,500 pounds.” It was huge. It was a van full of money. And I said, oh god, we can’t do that. So, how about thousand dollar bills? And he said, “I knew you’d ask me that. They don’t make thousand dollar bills anymore.”
John: They don’t.
Chris: There was a time when they made them. And, in fact, they’re so rare, they’re worth more than a thousand dollars. And I said, OK, how about hundreds. And he picked up this huge duffel bag, like something you would go skiing with and said, “Each one of these contains $ 5 million in hundreds. And I suggest you reduce the amount to $ 5 million and we just make it the one big bag.” And I said, no, I got a better idea, let’s make it – let’s keep it $ 15 million and then let Ryan and Benicio figure out how to carry it. And that revolutionized the sequence at the end of the movie when obviously the sequence became all about two guys, three bags of money, and every time you get shot in the arm it costs you $ 5 million because you can’t carry the money.
John: That’s why I wanted you on the podcast today. Because it’s that difference between what you wrote as the screenwriter and what you actually encountered as a director. You had one thing in your head as you were writing that scene and you wrote a number in there, the $ 15 million was a fascinating number. But it wasn’t important to you as you were writing that like what does that actually look like, because that’s a director’s problem.
John: And then once you became the director, you had to really dig in on what that was going to be like. And you found an interesting answer because of that problem the screenwriter had given you.
Chris: Yes. And I still do that quite a lot. I still run into things where you just sort of cavalierly throw something out there and then the rubber hits the road and you realize, oh, that doesn’t work at all. Or even things that we very carefully plan. Right now, this chase scene that we’re shooting in this movie. We went and picked all these fabulous locations. And planned this whole chase scene. You previs everything out. And then you put Tom Cruise in the location in a car and he drives through so fast, the location is gone in like ten seconds. And so we’ve learned over the course of shooting this sequence when we get to a location we say, “Well the plan is not going to work, because if we do what we plan we’re just going to blow through here. So we have to kind of think of ways to…” But instead of slowing Tom down, we figure out more creative ways to shoot it.
John: So this is in your – coming back to a Mission: Impossible film. So you actually had a sense of what it was going to be like the first time. As you came back to write this movie, did your writing change because you had gone through the process of directing one of these beforehand?
Chris: Absolutely. Well, my process changed over the course of three of them. Because I did a rewrite on Ghost Protocol. But my rewrite was an onset rewrite. I came in about ten weeks into a 17-week show. And they had a lot of the action, but the story – it was things like that. Things that had been presented and now suddenly reality was hitting that stuff and it just wasn’t gelling. So when I came to the second – the second time I came in, when I came in on Rogue Nation, I said let’s take all the lessons we learned from that movie, let’s have somebody else write a screenplay and I’ll come in and fix it. And Mission: Impossible kind of has a mind of its own.
That script just blew up as soon as we started making small changes to it. It completely fell apart and we had to then write a whole new script. On this movie, I swore I wouldn’t start a movie without a finished screenplay. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. But, one of the things I learned from that movie, I developed a much more acute sense of what you were going to cut out of the movie. You start to feel a sense of this – I like this scene, but I can easily cut it out of the movie, so I probably should because I definitely will.
And Rebecca Ferguson’s character is back in this movie and her introduction in the movie was originally this page of dialogue when Ethan runs into her at this event. I also am working with a new cinematographer. And we kept talking about shooting things in longer takes, oners, less editing. And I realized that the scene that I had written for the two of them forced me to cut back and forth. And I was very frustrated in the last movie that every time people started talking, it eventually – the movie just stopped and turned into–
Chris: Shot of – just coverage. Just coverage, coverage, coverage. And I thought how do I get out of that. I want the camera to feel lighter. I just want the scenes to feel lighter. So, I realized this scene between Tom and Rebecca was going to just drag me down into coverage. So I started taking away the lines of the scene that weren’t necessary. And one by one I cut away every line until there was nothing left in the scene. And what happens now is Rebecca just bumps into Tom. Tom sees Rebecca. Rebecca sees Tom. And they have this whole moment. There’s a whole story between the two of them and there’s another person standing there. And she can’t say what she wants to say. He can’t say – and they just behave the scene.
And it was really liberating. So we’ve gone in and done a lot of that. We’ve just sort of chipped away.
John: That type of change that you’re talking about, is that a change that happens to Chris McQuarrie screenwriter who is there sort of watching the scene in rehearsals? Or at what point? Or was it still the conversation with your cinematographer that you realized I’m just not – as you’re talking through the scenes, like wow, I can’t actually shoot this scene I want to do. So, I’m going to send this back to the screenwriter and get a revision? Where in the process did that kind of change happen?
Chris: That happened from the conversation I had with Rob Hardy, I said I want to do a very different Mission: Impossible. The franchise relies on a different director every time. That’s what it’s sort of become known for. And so I want to maintain that, even though I’m coming back. And to that end, I’m going to defer to you on certain things. And Rob said, OK. I said, so how do you like to shoot? He said, “Well, I tend to shoot pretty much on a 35 and a 50mm lens. Everything.” Which terrified me, because I tend to start at 75mm. And so 30 and 50 I reserve for very specific things. He shoots everything. He covers scenes in it.
What was really interesting was on our second day we were shooting this car chase and we were into the hood mounts on the car chase. And Rob pulled out the 100mm lens. And the 135. And he was sort of shocked to find himself compelled to do it.
John: Because we don’t have people who necessarily are going to know the differences between these – the long focal length and the short thing. So, the shorter the lens, that feeling of being very close in their space, in a way, but it’s also the longer lens flattens things, makes people look better. There’s reasons for both type of lens.
Chris: If you look at a Tony Scott or a Michael Bay film, they’re all shot on long lens. If you look at a Sidney Lumet film, it’s all shot on wide lens. A wide lens, like a 50mm, is sort of like the human eye. And a 135 is a very long, very sexy lens that really blurs out the background and makes you very, very present. And, of course, you have to get very far back from somebody just to shoot them in a close up. It’s a very intimate lens.
John: It’s the real version of the iPhone 7 Portrait Mode, where it’s blurring out the background for you.
Chris: That’s exactly right. Well, actually, Portrait Mode in the iPhone 7 is like a 75mm lens. That’s kind of the effect that it gives you. What Rob and I have been doing is – he’s pushing me into wider lenses and the movie is pushing him into longer lenses. And both of our styles, we were determined to come to this with a specific style. And the movie and the action have just said, no, you’re going to do this. But it makes you more aware when you’re writing a scene. If I get into coverage, I’m going to have to start using the 75, because it just makes a nice close up. But if I don’t include a lot of dialogue in that scene, if there’s just behavior, then you actually want a wider lens. And suddenly your movie looks different from the last movie you shot.
So that’s what we’ve been kind of doing is I’ve been taking away the writing, the explicit writing in my storytelling. Again, I was determined to have – in Rogue Nation, in the middle of the movie, there’s a huge data dump. You know, they’ve had all these misadventures and now in the middle of the movie you have to explain why everything that has happened up to now is happening. I was determined not to do that this time. There’s no getting away from it. It’s right on page 60, characters start explaining why were you there and why did you do this and who are you loyal to. But we found ways to do them more elegantly, shorter scenes, to have a little more fun with it.
John: Now, if you were just the director or just the screenwriter, there’d be a conversation between the two of you, but there’s just you. So who else do you have these conversations with as you’re trying to figure out the narrative lenses through which you’re going to make these choices? I mean, who are the other people?
Chris: Well, obviously Rob Hardy, cinematographer, and first and foremost Tom. And Tom has a very distinct sense of what Mission is. He has a very distinct sense of what Mission isn’t. And Tom communicates in emotional terms. He’s not a guy who comes in and says, no, you have to do this in a Mission: Impossible movie. In fact, the only thing you have to do in a Mission: Impossible movie is Tom has to get a mission somewhere in the beginning of the movie. That trope is kind of the thing that differentiates Mission: Impossible. That’s really his only rule.
John: That’s sort of the contract with the audience you’ve made is that there’s going to be a mission assigned at some point.
Chris: Yes. And we have a really fun one at the beginning of this one which we’re very excited about. And it takes you in a direction that it hasn’t quite gone before. We’re quite excited about that. But then also getting back to your question, the other actors. The way the movie tends to come together, there’s a pretty good idea what the story is and what the screenplay is. And we hire actors with an idea of where their character is going. But what Tom and I like to do is work with the actor and on the set start to say, “Well, I’m feeling more of this from you.” For example, Vanessa Kirby’s character in the story started as one thing, and during our conversations, not even rehearsals, but costume fittings and props and things like that we started to play with is your character this – is this a good character or is this a bad character? Is it a character we like to see being bad, or is it a character we want to see get her comeuppance? And we played with all these different shades of the character until we found just who she was. And then on the first day we shot with her, that all proved to be wrong.
And Vanessa just found this beautiful tone that she played with Tom. And now I know how to write the rest of the movie.
We’re also very fortunate in that as long as we’re in Paris – we’re here for almost seven weeks, I only have three dialogue scenes in Paris. Everything else is action. All of the – the interior action in Paris will be shot in London. And what that allows me to do is play with the characters on a very, very, very minute scale and start to find what the movie looks like and know that, oh, I don’t have to explain what happens in this scene until the end of the summer when I’m in London. So it allowed us to sort of prioritize what did I really need to know in Paris before I left and what does that tie me into. And what we’re always trying to do is leave ourselves as many outs as possible.
John: So while you’re shooting this stuff, you are also cutting. There’s somebody who is getting all this information and cutting. So you have an editor who is working on this and–
John: He or she is giving you some sense of what this movie is looking like and feeling like. Are you going in to watch those cuts of sequences along the way?
Chris: Not at this stage. Eddie Hamilton, who cut the last movie, and who cut both Kingsman movies, really brilliant editor, is in London, because he was finishing up Kingsman as this movie started. He’ll join us in New Zealand and then I’ll be back in London. But he calls me – if there’s something particular that is missing from a scene and he knows we’re still at that location, he’ll call me and say get a close up of this, or this thing was out of focus. But for the most part Eddie just calls and says keep shooting.
John: Great. Go back ten years ago and did you think you’d be directing big blockbuster movies?
John: You were a writer of big movies and I thought you were at the apex of writing those big blockbuster movies. And I sort of assumed you’d keep doing that. So I was surprised that you ended up wanting to do – wanting to direct them. What was the change?
Chris: Somebody asked me. I think really it was – well, I directed The Way of the Gun in ’99 in the hopes that The Way of the Gun would be a stepping stone that would – I tried to do what Rian Johnson did with his career. I was going to direct the little movie, and then a slightly bigger movie, and a slightly bigger movie until I got to direct the big movie I wanted to direct. And that first movie was not successful. You could even go so far as to call it a tremendous bomb.
I guess it’s not a tremendous bomb only in that it wasn’t a big enough movie to be considered a tremendous bomb. [laughs]
John: Absolutely. I have one of those, too.
Chris: Yeah. But people really reacted quite angrily to it. No matter what I did over the next seven years to get another movie off the ground, I couldn’t. And I was working on two fronts. I was working as a rewrite guy and I was writing my own stuff, trying to get it made as a director, and was getting nowhere.
And it wasn’t until Valkyrie when I let go of something that was mine to direct and opted to be the producer on that movie. And as a producer, I learned so much more about both writing and directing then I ever did writing and directing my own movie.
John: Talk about the difference. Because when you’re doing Way of the Gun, you had the responsibilities for everything. So we talked about the bag of money. You’re dealing with all the department heads. You’re making those thousand choices a day, which always sort of terrified me about directing. But what was it about producing a big movie like Valkyrie, because it is just a fundamentally different beast for making a smaller movie like Way of the Gun? What was the change in Valkyrie?
Chris: Well, yes, the size and scope of the movie and also dealing with Tom Cruise, who at the time I did not know, and couldn’t safely assume anything about him. And so my intention was to take a producing credit for having put the movie together. But not actually go make the movie. I really didn’t want to do it. And Paula Wagner, who was still with Tom at the time, was running United Artists, which was the studio making the movie. Paula took me out to lunch to tell me they were making the movie and said, “Now, I understand you’re producing the film.” My intention was to say, “Well, yes…”
John: But you’re really going to do that.
Chris: Yeah. But no, I’m not… – And I sensed immediately how I answered that question would have a profound effect on my career. And instead of saying no, I said, “I am now.” And she said, “Good, because I’ve been on set with Tom for the last 25 years. This is the first time I won’t be able to be on set with him. So I want you to be there as Tom’s guy. I need somebody to be there day to day with Tom.”
And so I found myself very suddenly thrust into this position, which I had never anticipated. And Tom quite graciously took me under his wing. And he understood that my relationship with Bryan Singer was such that I could communicate with Bryan more effectively and probably with more force than Tom could. It allowed Tom to have a very comfortable relationship with Bryan. He never had to push Bryan. All he had to do was create with Bryan. And then he would come to me and say, “Hey, here’s what I think we should be doing.” So Tom and I worked together very well on that movie. And that sort of translated into the next thing, and the next thing.
The next job was we worked on a draft of The Tourist together, which is how I ended up on that movie. He dropped out of The Tourist and then called me up to Ghost Protocol. And he called me up to Ghost Protocol after reading Jack Reacher, which was not something to which he was originally attached.
John: And Jack Reacher was a project you adapted from the book originally?
Chris: Yeah. Don Granger, who was also at UA, and who had been at Cruise-Wagner before that, he’s at Skydance now. Don Granger saw the writing on the wall. Saw that UA was not going to be a going concern. And he said I’ve got this series of books at Cruise-Wagner and I think this is the best prospect at getting a franchise made. So, he offered me the movie and I said I’ll do it on the condition that the studio offers me the movie to direct. I’m not going to ask for permission to direct movies anymore. I’ve been doing it for ten years and getting nowhere. And they did. So I handed Tom that script to read as the producer. And he called me the next day and said, “Script is great. I need you to get on a plane and come up to Vancouver right now. We’re working on Mission: Impossible and I need your help.”
So now I was thrust into a very big movie, bigger than Valkyrie, and it was a movie that more than halfway through the show was in a critical state of confusion as to what the story was. And having worked on Valkyrie and having had that crash course in moviemaking, I now understood, OK, here are the resources I have. Here are the scenes that have been shot. Here are the scenes that haven’t been shot. Here’s the sets they haven’t built. Here’s the sets they haven’t struck. Here are the roles that they haven’t cast yet.
And so I had to make a puzzle out of things you had and things you didn’t have yet. And I could only reshoot what I still had sets for. Like sets they hadn’t torn down. And it gave me this sort of creative puzzle to solve. My first six days of my one week on the movie – I was originally only supposed to go for a week – my first six days were just meeting with department heads and saying, OK, well these are the sets you still have. Can I get rid of this set? Can I move these resources somewhere else if I have this idea? Is there something you can build? And so that really gave me, without ever having to stop and think about how daunting the task was, it gave me this fundamental grassroots understanding of how those big movies functioned. So that when it came my time to do it, I had a slightly better – I had a better understanding of the allocation of resources. And it’s very interesting that that career trajectory is the exception and not the rule. For me to have made an $ 8.5 million movie, didn’t make another movie for 12 years. That was a $ 60 million movie. With Valkyrie in the middle, which was like $ 70 million. But I wasn’t directing. And that the budgets continued to get bigger over time, now what you have is a guy directs a $ 5 million. The studio says, “Hey, that movie cost $ 5 million, made $ 60 million. Let’s give him $ 100 million and he’ll make a billion.”
That’s a very, very, very hard turn for a lot of filmmakers to make. And now I have another career, which is coming on to those movies and supporting that director and saying, OK, so now you’re making your big movie, here’s what’s important. Because what happens with a lot of those guys is they haven’t gone through the trial by fire where they realize there’s only so much reinventing the wheel can take. They’re still coming at it like an indie filmmaker, but somebody has given them $ 200 million and a giant franchise. They don’t really want to believe that they’re making mass entertainment and they struggle against that. And I’ve seen two kinds of filmmakers in that. There are the filmmakers who very quickly listen to reason and adapt and survive. And then there are the ones who just their movies get taken away from them.
John: Yeah. We can think of the ones whose movies got taken away, or the really bad scenarios there.
John: So, if you are coming in to be a director whisperer on a project, at what point is there a realization that there’s going to be a problem? Like are they bringing you in right when that person is hired on to say like this person is going to be a consigliere to you? Or it’s like something has gone horribly awry and now let’s get Chris McQuarrie there to help?
Chris: There’s a sweet spot I call 4-in and 4-out. If you’re four weeks out from shooting, or four weeks into shooting, you’re in this zone where you’re so freaked out you’ll do anything the doctor says. If you’re any deeper into production, you kind of get entrenched and you get blinders on and you’re afraid to change anything. And if you’re too far out, you’re afraid to change anything because you think, oh, it’s too daunting a task. And there was one movie in particular that’s coming out. I’m very interested to see it. I won’t say its name. I begged the director not to go in the direction he was going. Because I really did believe in the material and I thought it was wonderful. And there was one specific plot element that completely degraded the main character of the film. And I said if you just take this thing away, your movie will become really powerful.
But there was a visual idea. Either it was clearly an obsession with this particular idea, and there was a refusal to recognize that this very idea that gives you one visual aspect of the movie is going to tear the movie down. And he said, “Well, it’s just too much work.” And I said, “You’ve got nine months. You don’t realize how many times you can reinvent this movie.” And more importantly, because of the movies I’d worked on, I come into a movie like that and say, “I’m not going to change anything about your movie. I’m not going to change the sets. I’m not going to introduce new characters. I’m going to take the resources you have and kind of reconfigure your movie to give it a more emotional journey.” Because that’s really all I care about.
It took me a long time to learn that. I was an information guy. And it was what I was telling the audience. I was a writer who was all about dialogue. And I’ve since learned about emotional drag. That’s my catchphrase.
John: That 4 weeks in/4 weeks out thing is really interesting because you look at these filmmakers who are coming from – like you and I on our first movies, like those were four weeks, you’re almost done with your movie on a $ 5 movie.
John: And so it’s a very different thing. But you know we’ve both also been involved with these movies that just shoot for forever. And you and I both have helped out on those movies where you come in where the train is already running, but generally if we’re coming in as a screenwriter we’re just there to fix sort of the visible screenwriting problems. And so we’re not doing the thing of what you’re talking about with Mission: Impossible where you actually had to sort of talk to all the department heads and really get their buy-in.
A couple times we’ve had guests on the show, Drew Goddard, or Damon Lindelof recently, who talked about the big opportunity, the thing that changed everything was coming into a project that was in crisis. It was, you know, the TV show that was going down, that didn’t have any more scripts. In this case it was a movie that was sort of swirling around. And that’s also been true in my career. It’s the editing rooms where they couldn’t find the movie that I could come back in and actually really help.
John: And those are the moments. And if you haven’t had both the courage to step up when those things happen, but also the education to sort of know what are the right questions to ask, you know, how to push for the best thing. It can be really daunting. And if I were that filmmaker that you’re coming in to help, I would be scared to ask for help. Because that’s an admission of failure. That’s an admission that someone made a mistake in hiring me to do this job.
Chris: Yes. It’s the moment in Terminator when he says, “Come with me if you want to live.” You walk in and you say to that director, “Here’s what’s happening on your movie and here’s what’s going to happen.”
There was one director in particular, his movie is in trouble, he was four weeks in. There was going to be a big change. The script was going to be gutted. There was a lot of panic. And I said, “Can I just go in and talk to him for half an hour before you guys all come in so that he doesn’t feel like I’m the studio hatchet man?” And I have had that happen, too. I have had studios try to sort of manipulate that. They try to position me as being the hatchet man and I won’t do it. I’ll go to bat for the director every time.
So I walked in and I told him here’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to come in and they’re going to say these are the things we want in the movie. And a lot of them are ideas that I have suggested for how to fix your movie. I’m going to strongly urge you to say, “I’ve heard everything that Chris has suggested. I don’t like any of it. I don’t think any of it works. But if you think that’s what the movie needs, I look forward to seeing how it turns out.” I said, what you will then do is you will put the responsibility that has been placed on you onto the producers. And the producers will feel that you are working to make their movie. The studio will feel that you’re working to serve what they ultimately need served. And he didn’t do it.
And we had another meeting and half an hour before I went in and said, “Now remember, just say this, and the pressure will come off of you.” And he didn’t do it again. And eventually everything he was afraid would manifest itself manifested itself. And I don’t even think by the time he was through the process he even recognized that his movie had sort of been taken over. His worst nightmare sort of happened. That was the other thing. When you’re talking about working on those movies on those – those movies that are falling apart, you have an emotional detachment that you wouldn’t have if it was your own story.
Chris: You’re able to come into it and say, “Well, there’s a clarity that I have on everybody else’s movies that I will never have on my own movie.” I’m dying right now in the middle of Mission: Impossible, trying to figure out the turn on page 70. I know what happens in Act Three. I just can’t – know what’s supposed to happen, but I can’t quite figure out how to get there. If it wasn’t my movie, I would parachute in and just be like, oh, you just have to do this, and you know, and it’s just so much easier when it’s not your baby.
John: Can I ask you, a thing that’s happened to me over only the past few years where I will get on something that I will get stuck and I just can’t get past it. And I would never ask for help, but I have started asking for help. And so like just this last week with this book I’m doing, there was this one thing that I couldn’t get to work. And I was like you know who would actually know the answer to this thing, my friend Lisa. She will know the answer to this. And so I just called Lisa and I described the situation. And she absolutely had the answer. Do you call anybody? Do you bring anybody else onto–?
Chris: I call everybody. I’m going to call you right after this. [laughs] I have specific people that I call all the time. And we all kind of get stumped together. Because the problem with something like Mission, the action is dictating the narrative. And I was determined to change that on this movie. And I started with that. I started with more of an emotional story for this character and more of a character arc within it. It’s definitely more of an emotional journey for Ethan Hunt in that movie. But then the action comes in. And the ambitions of that action, so there’s a sequence at the end of the movie which is fabulous. It’s never been done. It’s all photo real. It’s going to be incredible. You then have to create the contrivances for that sequence to happen. And then there’s only a few locations in the world where you can shoot that sequence. So suddenly you find yourself going, well, I have this resource and that resource, and I have to put them in my movie. Why are they in my movie? And now I’ve got to explain that.
So suddenly you find yourself writing. And you know how it is. Especially when you’re writing for studios, you get to a place where you go, god, it would be – I know what I should write. If I didn’t have to turn right here and I could turn left, I’d know where this movie would go. And that is kind of the – that’s the thing you’re always struggling.
John: You’re trying to find a way to finesse it so it feels like it’s a natural turn, that it’s not just – and now we cut to a new sequence, because we all know the directors who would just like, OK, this is my big – on the wall here I have all the different sort of sequences and like find a way to connect them all together. Go. And those are the jobs I despise and ultimately get out of because I don’t want to just be the person who is stringing those things together.
Chris: Oh, it’s soul-sucking work. It really is.
John: It pays well, but it kills you. And you’re always just…
John: You’re responsible for just creating a trailer for the moments that are happening in front of you. It’s maddening.
Chris: Yes. Well, it’s funny you say that, because that’s another thing that we think about now. That since just before Rogue Nation, the lesson I learned, having had fights with the studio about the marketing of Jack Reacher, my first meeting on Rogue Nation I just went to marketing and said, “Tell me what to do, tell me what you need so that I’m not fighting with you.” And that has evolved for me. So that in this movie, Tom and I have a rule, you give marketing one shot a day. Every day you get a trailer shot. It’s like doesn’t matter–
John: That’s great.
Chris: And you look at it and go, yep, that could be in a trailer. OK, send it away. And then they’re happy. They’re invested in your movie as opposed to you’re fighting them. But we also know that movies like this need lines like, “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond.” You know, you just – I don’t know what that means in the context of the rest of the movie. I don’t ever particularly feel that he is a kite in a hurricane in that movie. But the sexiness of that line in a trailer is really effective. And so you develop a sense for where those lines might go in a movie. And we have little placeholders.
There’s a scene between Tom Cruise and Sean Harris in this movie and we have a blank space there were it’s like that’s where we know the villain is going to say something that is going to communicate the story of the movie in that one sound bite. I never really thought that way until this franchise.
John: Well, if you think about people who run TV shows, they have to think about this episode of television that they’re making, but they have to be thinking of the whole series. They have to be thinking of like how am I going to keep this thing on the air. And it sort of sounds like part of what you’re doing is that realization that you’re responsible not only for this two hours of entertainment, but you’re responsible for this giant ship that is going to be sailing through its berth and the success of that. And so it’s not just these two hours of film, it’s everything around it. It’s this universe of marketing around it that you also have to be aware of. And from an early time. You can’t just like make your movie then get involved with the marketing.
Chris: Yes. And what is Mission. It’s the life of whatever this thing is, so that your movie leaves it so that another chapter in the franchise can exist. And I guess that’s where jumping the shark comes in. You know, you worry all the time. Am I taking this in a way that it can’t go? And we had a big conversation about tone. Because Brad Bird really changed the tone of the franchise and Rogue Nation embraced that tone completely. At the beginning of this I said to Tom, “I don’t think we can do that three in a row. I think now it’s going to become cute. I think we need to take it another direction still.” And we did.
But now we find ourselves going, you know, are we going where Bond went where Bond became–
John: Dark and serious.
Chris: Serious. It’s another kind of tone. Which, by the way, has not hurt their bottom line at all. They’ve really found their place. But we can’t go there. We were sort of laughing because we were looking at Rogue Nation and saying, “Well thanks, Bond, for not doing that anymore, so we’ll do it.” Now we’re looking at it and going, “But we can’t keep doing that.” We suddenly hit that same wall and understood why Bond went the way they did. And we’re at this kind of emotional crossroads with the franchise saying well how dramatic can you take Mission? It’s not going to a dark place. It’s going to a more emotionally dramatic place.
John: When we were making Charlie’s Angels, when we started making the second one, I talked to the team and I described it as like I really want to approach this as we made an amazing pilot and now we’re going to make that first episode of the TV show that actually – of the series that really is the series. Where we sort of learned everything from the pilot and now we’re going to make the most amazing one. And we didn’t. Spoiler. It was as much of a trouble and more so than the first one.
But that was sort of the fantasy. You want to be able to make the sort of movie series. Marvel is able to do it remarkably well. DC, yet to see whether they’re going to be able to make a franchise-y series out of the things they’re trying to do. But it’s laudable. You understand why people want to do it.
Chris: Well, DC has a tough road to hoe because they’ve got to do something different than Marvel. Marvel has staked a claim so strongly in a very specific tone. And Marvel has Kevin Feige, who is not a traditional studio head. He’s not a traditional producer. He is a producer of the old school. That’s what producers used to be like in Hollywood. They were the guys who came in and said this is the movie. I guess the closest analogue in something other than comic book movies is somebody like a Scott Rudin who really he owns the material and he is a filmmaker in his own right and has specific control.
Warner Bros has to do something to differentiate itself from that. And what is that? There’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman, but that’s not a universe. That’s one character. Whereas Iron Man and the Marvel universe sort of set the tone for all those other movies. I mean, if you had told me even a year before it came out that Captain America would work as a movie, or that Thor would work as a movie, that I’d find those characters appealing, that I’d actually find Captain America one of the more appealing characters in the Marvel universe. I just would have laughed at you. And we had grown up seeing so many bad attempts inn these really cheesy TV movie ways.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen some of those Captain Marvel movies or–
John: They’re amazing.
Chris: Oh my god. Oh my god. So, it will be very interesting to see how DC defines themselves.
John: So, switching just for our last topic here, we just finished the negotiations for the WGA and so there’s not going to be a strike.
Chris: Thank god.
John: What would have happened if a strike had occurred while you were making this movie? Like what do you do?
Chris: Well, we had an emergency plan in place, assuming that if there was going to be a strike. On the day that the contract ran out, we were hedging our bets and saying there will probably be a ten-day extension. There wasn’t the feeling that it was acrimonious and that a strike was just going to happen that moment. So, I had a friend who is a writer friend of mine who I have worked with on other movies and he was on deck. And if there was an extension, he was ready to get on a plane, fly out, and during that ten days we were going to generate as many pages as we possibly could. And then we figured the lights were going to go out.
John: So you get past your page 70 thing. You just have something you can shoot at page 70.
Chris: You had to have something you could shoot.
John: Our friend Aline Brosh McKenna calls that the Rocky Shoals. It’s that point where the movie is transitioning from sort of one thing before it becomes that third act.
John: And it’s often a challenge in scripts, but it’s often a challenge in cuts. So I sympathize.
Chris: Yeah. It’s funny, on the last one, that wasn’t the problem. On the last one it was how does this movie end. I know the ending of the movie quite vividly. I don’t know – there’s this weird middle bit that’s happening in London. And I know what the last five pages of it are. I know there’s a confrontation that Ethan has at the end of that, which is this scene that I really love. And what happened was when we sensed that the strike was coming, I had all of these action scenes that had been storyboarded and worked out and in many cases prevised, but no one had ever written a page of those sequences.
There was something like 30 pages of material that existed in concept. We were building sets and rigs and all sorts of things. I just didn’t have them in script form. So I had this friend – the storyboard artist called him and said here’s everything we’re doing. And he took that 30 pages off of my docket. He wasn’t creating anything, but he was writing it in script form so that I could more quickly rewrite it. And he wrote this one scene, but not in any way, shape, or form the way I would have shot it, but inspired this idea where I was like, oh my god, I’ve got this really fun idea. So we know what that sequence is now. Or at least we know how that sequence ends. I just don’t know how it begins.
John: One of the things that was a big topic of the WGA negotiations was the move to shorter seasons and sort of how writers were being held for a very long time on these shorter seasons. And their writing fees was being applied against producing fees. But we see also a change happening in features where there are these mini rooms where they are bringing together a bunch of screenwriters, some really high levels, some newbies, and they’re working through a giant property. So they’ll take–
John: Transformers was an early example of that, where they’ll say, OK, we’re going to spend four weeks and figure out Transformers and generate, you know, a TV series and three movies and we’re going to figure out what this all is. Where do you see yourself fitting into that universe?
Chris: I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe. You can finish all the screenplays. It goes back to the very beginning of the conversation we were having. When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me. They’re going to call Drew. They’re going to call somebody in at some point and go, “None of this works. It was all great in theory, but we just suddenly…”
An actor drops out. Or the budget changes. And things happen. What I try to impress upon writers going into it now, I believe the future belongs to the writer-producer. That is not to say you have to be named a producer on the movie. But that you need to be able to function on a level where you are – you need to understand editing. You need to understand elements of physical production. The more you understand that, the more valuable you will be to those people. The more you’re selling yourself and not your writing.
Writers right now – and I did it for a long, long time – tend to believe I’m going to write this script and the script is the commodity. It’s not. It’s your ability to write a script that is the commodity. The truth of the matter is, if everybody could write they’d do it. They wouldn’t call us. The fact that the strike was going to happen and had people nervous, if we went on strike, movies just – nobody would write it. It’s a lonely, miserable, very difficult particular skill.
And everybody thinks they can do it. I think the same way everybody feels like playing guitar looks like it would be easy.
John: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, just pick it up. Just strumming.
Chris: Well, yeah, you teach me the basics. You teach me a couple of chords and I’m like, oh, this is very easy. Then show me Van Halen and say do that. And, by the way, do it with two weeks before you’re going on stage. In those writer’s rooms and things like that, this thing with the television seasons that they’re dealing with now. The nature of television is changing and it created a really prickly situation in this atmosphere with the strike.
I can see the studios looking at it and saying, “Well, yeah, now there are only ten episodes. There used to be 22 and now there’s ten. Why should we pay you more if there’s only ten?” And we’re saying, “But wait, you’re taking us off the market for this much time.”
The studio’s argument is going to be, “Go and create your own show.” It’s going to thin the herd out. It’s going to define who those writer-producers are. And I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to shape writer’s opinions of themselves. Writers have been trained to believe that they are simultaneously necessary and totally dependent. That you can’t make a movie without a screenplay, but I can’t get my screenplay made unless you buy it and validate me. And now you’re at a place where you can be more a part of the process.
Here’s the dirty little secret, and it’s something you know better than anybody. A lot of directors don’t know how to direct. They simply don’t know how to do it. They have some specific skill or some specific vision, or a team around them that helped them, but of great many of them don’t really understand the fundamentals of storytelling as much as they understand some specific visual style.
As a writer who understands editing, you will be invaluable to that director. You may not get the glory. You may not get the credit, but if those things aren’t important to you, if being valuable is what’s important to you, you will always work. And that was really the big change for me in my career. I wanted very much to be in control of my own destiny. And by letting go of that control, my destiny has become that much more in my control.
You were asking me at the beginning, you know, how did you – did you ever expect that you would be directing these blockbusters. I very distinctly remember when I was trying to get Valkyrie made, and I thought Valkyrie was going to be a little movie, no one would read it. It didn’t matter who I was or where I came from. They’d hear it’s about the German generals who, and they were done. They didn’t care.
When Bryan Singer attached himself, people were then offering to make it without having to read it. And I had a very painful realization which was I’ll never be at the level to direct the things that I really want to do. Booth and Valkyrie and The Last Mission and things like that. All my history stuff. Because I’m never going to direct X-Men. And X-Men gets you to a level where you can step down to do a Valkyrie. I’m just never going to get there. So I let go of that dream. And in doing that I became a producer on Valkyrie, which led to rewriting Mission: Impossible, which led to Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow. And on Edge of Tomorrow, Tom said, “You should direct the next Mission.”
So I never aimed for that target. I just showed up at work saying how can I help you make your film. How can I help you make your movie better? And not worrying about where the path was taking me. And at the beginning of this process, there was a thing in the press the movie fell apart. The movie was shut down for a while. It was shut down over contract stuff. And when it did, I felt this very strange relief. First, I was freaked out, for a minute. But I remember hanging up the phone. I got the call and I was in New Hampshire at a friend’s house, where we visit them in the summer, and I was in the same room that I had been in ten years to the week when Bryan Singer called and said he wanted to make Valkyrie. And my career took off again.
And I thought to myself, wow, that was – I’ve been working with Tom for ten years. We’ve made nine movies in ten years in some capacity. I’ve worked on nine movies with him. That’s a pretty good run. You can’t take that for granted. That part of your life is over now. Because Tom is going to go off and do something and I’m going to go off and do something else. And who knows when our stars will align again.
And for those two weeks, I was looking at a completely different life for myself. So that when Tom called me back up two weeks later and said, “Hey, we’re back on,” I went, I don’t know. I don’t really know about it. I’m not sure that’s what my future is. I had gone back to London to pack up my apartment. Because I had moved my family back to LA. My girls were in school. Two weeks into school I get the call that we’re back. And he goes, “Let’s go for a walk and we’ll talk about it.” We go walk around Hyde Park. It’s one of the reasons Tom loves London. He can just go out and walk places and everybody is very respectful.
And we talked all about it. And my apprehension and sort of the catharsis I’d been through. And he said, he goes, “Look, you’ll do whatever you want to do. You want to make this movie, make this movie. You don’t want to make it, don’t make it.” He goes, “I’ll always work with you. We’ll work on something else together. This is a go movie. That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t know what else you got going on, but this movie is going.” And that’s a really hard thing to achieve. And he was right. The other stuff that I wanted to do wasn’t immediately happening. Still isn’t happening. So, I got back on the train.
And now when I go to work in the morning, there’s days you get up and you don’t want to go. Don’t want to go to set. You’re not ready to face the material. And that the lesson I’ve learned is the days that I don’t want to go turn out to be the best days. Those are the days where you’re just like, “I don’t know what to shoot, and I don’t know how to do it.” And you find yourself creating this shot. And it builds, and builds, and builds. And you end up just starting with a problem and you walk away from it, just shot by shot, having created one neat little moment in your movie. That’s just a great feeling.
And the fact that these movies afford you the opportunity to do that on such a grand scale is really, really fun.
John: Comparing that to your life as a screenwriter, there are definitely days where you or I, we don’t want to sit down and write that thing. It’s almost always torture to actually get me at the computer.
John: But at least with the director, you have a call time on the sheet. Like someone is going to pick you up and take you there. And then you’re going to be responsible for those decisions. And that’s terrifying and there are definitely days I don’t want to get in the van, but once you’re there, there’s a whole bunch of people there who are there to help you. And there’s at least some plan for what you are supposed to do. There was some assignment you were given. Like this is the thing that is theoretically on the call sheet. So, we got this location, we got these people, it should be something like this. And you can figure it out.
And, you know, some of my favorite days in directing were things had gone horribly wrong, or there’s a rainstorm and it won’t match cut into anything else, but we have to shoot this. It’s the only day on this location. And you just make it work. It’s going back to remembering like, OK, what is this actually supposed to be about. What is here that we can use to do this and how can we sort of make this problem seem like a solution?
Chris: Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill. And directing is running downhill with the rock behind you. [laughs] That’s really what it is. It’s going, and it’s going to crush you if you don’t run. But, also, the other night we were – I think this was in our first or second week of shooting. We were at the Grand Palais. We had this big sequence at the Grand Palais. We had all these extras. And extras in France get paid quite a bit of money. So, you had to pick and choose what nights you had a lot of extras. And finally we were shooting outside the Grand Palais. There’s a scene where Tom and Vanessa Kirby and another character come – and Henry Cavill all come running out of the Grand Palais.
And there’s a big event inside. And that night there’s 150 extras. And we put the camera in front of the building and Tom and Vanessa and Henry come walking out and they’re just like three people and 150 extras barely – it’s just deserted. And you came from this big event inside to suddenly – it’s so big. There was nothing you can do.
And the cinematographer loved the building. And he said, “But this is great. This is a great shot of the Grand Palais.” And I said, “But it’s deserted. How do we make 150 people look like a thousand people?” And instead of shooting the outside of the building looking in, we went inside the building and put a long lens on the camera and created a narrow funnel of people. And had the actors rushing through the door with all the extras coming towards you. And it turned into this – the fun of it was we were shooting Mission: Impossible, but we were making an independent film. Where like I only have 150 people. What do I do to make this shot big?
And we had the best time that night. That was like really one of the more fun attacks we had. It was great.
John: So, at the end of our podcast we often do a One Cool Thing where we recommend one thing that people should check out. My One Cool Thing this week is a new tool from Google called AutoDraw, which is actually just madness and wonderful. So, it’s just a sketching program, but you can just freehand draw with the cursor and draw something that looks like a terrible horse and it will provide good line images of a horse, or it will guess basically what you’re trying to draw and give you a much better version of it.
Chris: That sounds crazy.
John: It’s just our modern computers doing smart things. And so it’s just Autodraw.com.
Craig: I’m going to stump AutoDraw. I guarantee you. I’m that bad. I have the drawing skills of a stroke victim. There’s no way. I’m going to try it. I’m going to try it. I’m going to try and draw a horse and I guarantee you it’s going to send back, “We’re you thinking of a transaxle? We’re you thinking of a pill?”
John: It pulls up along the top a bunch of images that sort of could be like what you’re trying to draw, so at least you get a sense of like what it thought you might be trying to draw. Like earlier today I was trying to draw a skeleton, but it kept giving me like lobster people. And it’s like, you know, I could see why they thought I was trying to draw a lobster.
Craig: Yeah, no, for sure. I mean, lobster people are certainly more frequently drawn than skeletons. So that makes sense. I think I’m going to try this and Google is just going to direct me to a site, You May Be Having a Stroke. And that’s useful.
My One Cool Thing this week is a game, a little tiny game. The best games for your phone are the little tiny stupid ones that do one thing. They don’t try and do a whole lot of things. Remember Dots, remember that one? Where you’d make the square with the dots? Did you ever play that?
John: Two Dots, yeah.
Craig: Two Dots. There you go. Two Dots. That was fun because it was incredibly simple. Well, so these folks have come up with a game called Zip Zap. I hate that name. I hate it. But, the game is so brilliant. It’s the simplest thing. You have basically – they’ll show you a couple of little girders. They look like little Lego type girders. And one of them if you tap on the screen – no swiping. Swiping does nothing. If you tap on the screen, you can make one of them contract in a certain way. And the whole point of this is to just move this thing around towards a goal.
It’s so simple. And at first you’re like, this is great, because I’m good at it. And then very quickly you’re like, oh, god, oh no. But it’s all brilliant. The level designs are all brilliant. And it’s the kind of game where you can just – it’s very level-based. I’m on like 3-16 right now. Great time waster. And it’s free.
John: Yay. We like that. I actually made it to the third screen of Zip Zap and gave up because it got to be really maddening. There’s a lot of times where like you’re trying to flip it in a certain way and then you’re going to – it’s like my daughter flipping the water bottle stuff. It just drove me crazy after a while.
Craig: Is your daughter doing the spinner thing? The Fidget Spinner?
John: The Fidget Spinner has not made it to France yet. And thank goodness.
Craig: Yeah. It’s here, buddy.
Chris: The thing I was going to tell you about is the Fidget Cube.
John: Oh, he’s got the Fidget Cube.
Craig: Oh, Fidget Cube. Yeah.
Chris: Somebody had just given me this as a gift. Here is the Fidget Cube.
John: Can I get a picture of you holding the Fidget Cube to prove we were here?
Chris: You can take a picture of me holding the Fidget Cube. Somebody gave this to me on set and I had read about it as–
John: It was a Kickstarter, yeah.
Chris: And like most things on Kickstarter, I go that looks cool. That’ll never get made. And sure enough, it did. Somebody gave this to me on set and it has been with me every day since. And when I’m nervous, which you quite often are on the set, you’re just – time is getting more and more horrible and you’re just getting agitated, I am constantly playing with this thing. And it’s actually quite satisfying. Have you seen one of these?
John: I haven’t seen it in person. But I’ll play it.
Craig: The Fidget Cube, I think wasn’t the initial application for people with ADHD?
John: Yeah. But we all sort of have something.
Craig: No, no, no, McQuarrie has it. There’s no sort of.
Chris: I don’t know what you would describe what I have as.
Craig: It’s advanced. It’s AADHD.
Chris: But my problem isn’t the hyper activity part. I don’t think you can call me hyper active. I’m actually hyper lazy.
Craig: Yeah. You know what you have? You have Attention Deficit Hypo Active Disorder. So you don’t move around, but you also don’t have an attention span. It’s perfect. Actually that’s a perfect director thing because you sit in your chair, but then you’re like show me something new.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
John: I meant to ask you, are you shooting French hours while you’re in Paris?
Chris: We are. Yes. The ten-hour days, you mean?
John: Yeah. Is it as amazing as everyone says?
Craig: Love those.
Chris: Well, we’ve always done it. We did it on the last Mission: Impossible as well. We were in London, but shooting French hours. It’s great. You don’t lose that momentum that you do with breaking for lunch. And an hour is really two hours. You don’t think about it in those terms. The difference is that when the day is done, most days I get in the car and I have real energy all through the day. I get in the car to drive home and I am unconscious before I get back to the hotel. You just feel like you’ve been in combat. You’re just drained.
But then when you wake up again, then it’s very hard to get to sleep. It’s really – it’s quite unusual.
John: But you came from the set right to recording a podcast, so thank you very much for doing that.
Chris: Yeah. But this thing is engaging. Sitting down and talking about ideas and talking about movies and stuff like that, I could stay here till four o’clock in the morning. It’s when I walk out this door, halfway up the steps I’m going to pass out.
John: All right. That’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you an outro, you can send a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can send longer questions. For short questions, I am on Twitter @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Are you on Twitter?
Chris: I’m on Twitter.
John: What is your Twitter handle?
Chris: I am @ChrisMcQuarrie on Twitter. And Christopher McQuarrie on Instagram.
Chris: Although I’m not kind of doing all that much on Twitter anymore, because it’s become – I put pictures on there, but Twitter has become a very angry, militant place.
Chris: Everyone is an activist.
John: Craig goes to war every day.
Craig: Every day. Every day.
Chris: When you make a comment, you make a joke about the global marketplace and are accused of being a racist, it was time to [unintelligible]. So now I just put pictures on Twitter. And I find that Instagram is a much more–
John: Nice and calm.
Chris: Welcoming place. And I think because it’s not words, it’s images, that’s much more. Anyway.
John: Anyway. We are also on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. But don’t look us up individually because I don’t friend anybody on Facebook.
You can find us on iTunes. Just search for Scriptnotes. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. And that’s also where you find the transcripts. They go up about four days after the episode airs.
You can find all those back episodes at Scriptnotes.net.
Chris McQuarrie, thank you so much for being on the show this week. This was amazing.
Chris: Thank you. And how cool that we’re doing this in Paris?
John: It’s in Paris. I live here.
Chris: Because you live here. Paris is fantastic. You’re an ex-pat.
John: I am an ex-pat for two more months.
- Chris McQuarrie
- Valkyrie Official Trailer
- Mission Impossible 5 – Rogue Nation
- Zip Zap
- Fidget Cube
- Chris McQuarrie on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.