Christopher McQuarrie: Insights from a Filmmaking Master

Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir were delighted to chat with writer, director and producer Christopher McQuarrie on this week’s episode of The Filmmakers Podcast.

Chris is a multifaceted filmmaker celebrated for his exceptional storytelling abilities.

During the podcast, he shared his profound insights on character-driven narratives, the art of storytelling, valuable lessons for aspiring filmmakers and his work on the Mission Impossible franchise.

Character and Emotional Investment

For Chris, ‘the biggest thing is always character and the character journey.’ He reveals that Tom Cruise, his long-time collaborator, is constantly seeking ways to be hooked into and invested in the characters.

When working on high-stakes films like Mission Impossible, Chris acknowledges the importance of keeping the audience engaged, stating, ‘It’s not enough to have the character needing to save the world.’

But recognises that the abstract notion of millions of lives at stake can make it difficult for the audience to connect. So how does he do it? ‘We get the audience invested in the character, feeling affinity and empathy for that character as quickly as we can.’

His approach is to establish emotional connections early, and then maintain them by ‘turning up the pressure on the characters throughout the story.’

Letting The Story Drive The Visuals

While discussing his approach to filmmaking, Chris states that he’s ‘not in pursuit of a style.’ Instead, he says that he focuses on allowing the story to dictate the look and feel of the film. This was particularly true for Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, where he aimed to create a distinct style without relying on references or touchstones.

‘In Rogue Nation, there were conscious winks and nods to The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, and movies that I loved. In retrospect, all that stuff was cute and it’s not that I regret doing it, it’s just I’ve outgrown it.

With Dead Reckoning, there was absolutely no specific “creative vision” that I was in pursuit of. I went in saying, I’m going to find what this film’s style is. I’m going to find the look of the film and it’s all going to be determined by the necessities of the story.’

Character Development and Audience Engagement

One of the key takeaways from Chris’ insights is the importance of character development and emotional engagement. He emphasises, ‘We’re not going to change the structure of the movie. We’re just going to increase the pressure on the character in every single scene.’

His willingness to challenge conventional choices is evident in his approach to reshaping scenes and altering character dynamics to engage the audience. He explains the process of making creative decisions on set, saying that sometimes that means reshooting or re-blocking parts of the film.

‘And suddenly the movie has this lift and you realise the audience just needed a break from all the pressure. The audience can’t diagnose that. No test screen is going to tell you that. It’s not for the audience to tell us how to make the movie. The audience tells us, “this is where the movie’s not working for me”. Every note, even the worst note I’ve ever received, the subtext of it is “help me to like your movie”.’

His Final Words of Advice? 

‘It’s all about the audience. Forget everything you have been educated into in terms of thinking about critics, awards, and branding yourself as a filmmaker. 

Don’t compare yourself to other filmmakers. Just make a movie to engage the audience.’

This is just a glimpse into the creative mind of a master storyteller. For more from Christopher McQuarrie, listen here.

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