Yes, it's true. Tom Cruise did all his own stunts on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — including running around on top of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
We interviewed MI:4 director Brad Bird one on one, to find out just how they managed to throw Tom Cruise out of a building, and which of the movie's crazy gadgets are based on reality.
There were so many great toys in Mission Impossible, are any of them grounded in reality?
In a strange way, yes. The one that probably gets the most attention is the Gecko Glove. While they don't really exist, yet — the principle is called the van der Waals effect, and it's essentially what does work on a Gecko's hands (or paws or whatever you want to call them). They're these tiny little hairs that engage with the surface and allow the gecko to stick and then peel its hand off and move. There is some basis for putting an electrical current through a glove and being able to stick when you want it to stick, and peel off when you want it to peel off. They're working on it.
For the first time in the Mission Impossible movies it looks like the cast is actually having fun with the technology. And meanwhile the tech keeps failing, like the gloves. Was that all in the script or did that get added on by adding someone like Simon Pegg?
The idea of having the tech be a little more real world in terms of its consistent reliability was something that I brought to the film. J.J. Abrams said early on, "Was there anything that you would love to see in a spy movie?" And that's the kind of question that you just hope a producer asks you, because I had a number of things that I wanted to see in a spy movie, and I got to do most of them, and that was one of them. To have fun with it. The fact that you can have some amazing tech, but that doesn't guarantee that it's always going to work.
There's the whole rigamarole with the masks, lots of attention is paid to the masks and yet no one on the team ever gets to use them, was that intentional or was there an additional mask scene that you shot and cut?
No I think that anytime that you do a sequel, particularly when you're doing a third sequel, there's the burden of audience expectations. Rather than being afraid of it, I think you can take it as an opportunity to play with the fact that the audience expects you to zig, and then if you suddenly zag it can be a really delightful thing. So we definitely tried to do that in this film and played with the fact that the audience was expecting us to do one thing, and then pull the rug out from under them.
This really seems like it's the most light hearted or comical Mission Impossible movie was that your intent? Did you set out to make this the fun Mission Impossible, but with death?
Absolutely. One of the things that attracted me to the group of Mission Impossible films, was that the films really embrace the style of whoever the director is. When I was first talking to Tom and J.J. about what I wanted to do, I mentioned Raiders Of The Lost Ark, which is one of my favorite action films, and part of what I love about it is that it enjoys its own movie-ness. The Hero is very human and screws up, gets beaten up and prepares for something to go one way, and suddenly it doesn't go that way. There's a slightly irreverent tone that doesn't undercut the intensity of the action. That was one of my favorite movies, and I love that sort of yarn-spinny fun that the movie had with its own story.
What kind of insurance do you have to take out to throw Tom Cruise out of a 1,717-foot window?
Since Tom was a producer on the film, if any company said, "We're not going to insure you," he would just go to another company until someone said yes. because there was no way that he was not going to do those stunts. He views those as rare opportunities to push himself and do something extraordinary. He trained for months to be able to do that. He relished every moment of it, as difficult as it was on him physically. He relished it. Because he knew it would always be there. It's that saying: Pain is temporary, film is forever.
Did you relish it?
Yeah, in my own weird way, sure. Because how many stars of Tom's caliber are willing to do something that insane? He was there, and where he was swinging around was higher than the Empire State Building. And we were probably 2/3rds of the way up the building. You are just way up there. The thing that Tom and the stunt coordinator said was that once you get above 50 feet, the results are the same, you just have longer to think about it on the way down if something happens.
Some people still don't believe that he did it. "Oh, they must have just photoshopped his head onto somebody elses body." But I was there, he was doing it. And it was really a rare thing to experience.
What have you learned, working with so many different kinds of super villains?
I don't want to ever sound like that I think I've figured something out. I think that each time you make a film, if you're doing it right, you're somewhat in the dark, you don't know if something is going to work or not. The one thing that I can tell you is you always need to have the audience connect with the characters or you can't really get them engaged. However spectacular your action may be, the audience isn't going to care if they don't connect with the characters. To whatever extent that I can make the audience buy into the characters that are on screen, I think that, that makes the roller coaster aspect work or not work.
Do you think the audience ready for the return of the Bond villain?
I don't know. Well, yeah in some ways the Batman films have Bond style, in that they're very broad and caricatured and not necessarily real, in terms of their graphic quality on screen and the choices their characters make. But I think that if you believe your own fantasy that you're putting up on screen, enjoying it, then I think the audience is more likely to succumb.
My Mom, when I was little, said a wonderful thing about Goldfinger, which is my favorite Bond film. She said that she was home and in bed until she realized the extent to which her leg had been pulled. In other words, the film is really kind of absurd in many ways. You have a guy named Goldfinger. In order to assert his power he dips a woman in gold and suffocates her in gold. It's crazy! But it's all done with a panache and an enjoyment of its own story telling that you have to surrender. You get that great John Berry music going, and you have Sean Connery at his coolest. It's impossible to resist, it's popcorn central.
What it's like for an animated director to have to deal with practical effects and live actors?
It's challenging in its own way physically because you're trying to wrestle things into occurring in front of the lens, rather than just being able to control it on a frame by frame level. I do think that there's something special about the spontaneity that can happen in a live action film. In animation you can only imitate spontaneity you can't really practice it other than maybe recording the sound track. But in live action it's about preparing, and making it conducive to lightning striking and then hoping that it does.
When you get great actors like Tom, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Paula Patton all there together, amazing things can pop up and happen. And if you're lucky enough to have the camera rolling you've got something that's going to be great forever. It's a different kind of way to approach it, but the ultimate goal is still the same. Trying to get characters that the audience connects with and try and make magic whether you're getting it one frame at a time or all at once.
What is your takeaway lightning in a bottle moment from Mission Impossible 4?
There were a lot, more than I can tell you. One that springs to mind though, it's not a jaw-dropping stunt or anything. But one of my favorite scenes in the movie is a scene between Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner that they shot on the jet. Because of the lighting of the scene, where it was bounce lighting where we could light the table and it would light both of them at the same time, we could have two cameras and it would be nicely lit from both sides.
The take that's in the movie is one take, and there's no intercutting of any other takes. It's all one take that happened in real time, I didn't even change the timing of any moment I just flipped from one camera to the other. That whole scene happened in one take. And it's the kind of magic when two actors are completely on their game and they know the material but they're completely relaxed and comfortable with each other. It's just a great little moment between two terrifically talented guys. I'm really happy that I got it preserved on film.
Strange question — lately a lot of animated features are getting translated into musicals or live action films. I'm pretty sure that The Iron Giant and Incredibles would absolutely be something people pitched for the stage?
Jesus I don't know. I sure hope neither. I like them the way they are. Maybe if somebody came up with a brilliant sound score. Musicals are kind of, they're a certain genre that if you do it right they're just the greatest thing. But if you do it wrong, it's just so painful. A bad musical out of a good film idea is just... Didn't they try and make a musical out of Casablanca? Anyway I don't know, I would love to see them just make an original musical. I don't know. That is a bizarre question.
What's the reality of an Incredibles 2 movie, is it ever going to happen? What's getting in the way of that happening?
What's getting in the way is trying to figure out a story that is to The Incredibles what Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 were to Toy Story. I think that you don't want to do something just because it would be easy to market. You want to do it because you, yourself loved to tell a new story. I've got bits and pieces of the story that I would really like to tell. But I haven't had enough time to sit down and really get it all together. But if I could get it together I would love to return to those characters because I just love them so much.
What's the one thing or theme that you'd like to hit [in the sequel] that you didn't get to hit in the original Incredibles?
I had ideas that I wanted to have in the first film, but one of the things you do when you go through writing is at the very beginning any idea is fair game. As you start to define what the movie is, you're also defining… if you go here you can't go there. They're both interesting places to go, you just have to pick. I had some ideas that I wanted to have in the first film, but there just wasn't room for. And some of those would be very fun to get on the screen, but I don't know we'll see what happens.