Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tom Cruise

The science of survival

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When I heard that Christopher McQuarrie had been hired to write and direct a second movie in the Mission: Impossible series, my initial reaction, curiously enough, was disappointment. I loved Rogue Nation, but I’ve always liked the way in which the franchise reinvents itself with every installment, and it was a little strange to contemplate a film that simply followed up on the characters and storylines from the previous chapter. (When I saw the trailer for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a sequel.”) Now the reviews are in, and they indicate that Fallout might not just be the best of them all, but one of the greatest action movies of all time. This is a tribute to McQuarrie, of course, whom I’ve admired for decades, but the reaction also indicates that the rest of the world is catching up to a central fact about Tom Cruise himself. In the past, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star—like a thetan occupying its host, perhaps—and Mission: Impossible is his unlikely masterpiece. Like one of the legendary moguls of old Hollywood, Cruise has treated it as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable supporting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paula Patton, Rebecca Ferguson), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, McQuarrie). It’s a secret studio that Cruise has built and run in plain sight, with far more skill and success than he displayed at the head of United Artists. Whether or not it’s a breakaway hit, Fallout seems to have awakened critics to the singular nature of his accomplishment. I can’t wait to see it.

Yet there’s a darker element to Cruise’s career, obviously, and I’ve never really addressed it here. There are countless possible approaches to the problem of his relationship to Scientology, but I may as well start with the video—which has been publicly available for over a decade—of Cruise accepting an award from David Miscavage. With a huge medal hanging from his neck, Cruise addresses the crowd at the podium, standing near a huge portrait of L. Ron Hubbard:

I’m really honored to be with you…Thank you for your confidence in me. I’ve personally been very privileged to see what you do to help, to protect, to serve all of us. I’ll tell you something—that I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant or compassionate being outside of what I’ve experienced from LRH. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders, okay. I’ve met them all. So I say to you, sir, we are lucky to have you and thank you—and to you, L. Ron Hubbard, sir, I will take this as a half-ack. I will continue on my way. Okay, these are the times now, people. Okay, these are the times we will all remember. Were you there? What did you do? I think you know that I am there for you. And I do care so very, very, very much. So what do you say? We gonna clean this place up? Okay? Because we’re counting on you. Okay? All right? To LRH!

Apart from “half-ack,” a reference to a concept in Scientology that might count as the weirdest inside joke of all time, I’m struck the most by the offhand familiarity of “LRH.” It isn’t “Hubbard,” or “Ron,” or even “the Commodore,” but his initials. I use the same abbreviation in the notes in my book, because I need to repeat it so often, and its usage here makes it seem as if Hubbard is never far from the minds of his devotees. (In light of the upcoming movie, incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Hubbard once wrote: “Only Scientologists will be functioning in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”)

And given everything else that we know about Hubbard, it can seem incredible that a pulp writer from the thirties—a man who otherwise might be mentioned in the same breath, if he were lucky, as A.E. van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp—dominates the inner life of the world’s last surviving movie star. Yet it isn’t entirely inexplicable. Aside from the details that Lawrence Wright exhaustively provides in Going Clear, I don’t have much insight into Cruise’s feelings toward Scientology, but I can venture a few observations. The first is that the church knew exactly what it had in Cruise. A desire to recruit celebrities, or their relatives, is visible in the earliest days of dianetics, starting with Hubbard’s assistants Greg Hemingway and Richard De Mille, and continuing all the way through the likes of Frank Stallone. Cruise, like John Travolta, was the real thing, and the church has spared no expense in earning and maintaining his favor. He may show a dismaying lack of interest in the welfare of the members who clean the ship on which he once celebrated his birthday, but his personal experience within the church can hardly have been anything but wonderful. The second point is a little trickier. When Cruise says that auditing changed his life, I don’t doubt it. I’ve spoken with a number of former Scientologists, and even those who are highly critical of the overall movement say that the therapy itself was frequently beneficial, which is probably true of any system that allows people to talk through their problems on a regular basis with an outwardly sympathetic listener. As John W. Campbell once wrote to the writer Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Or as William S. Burroughs said more succinctly: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see it works.”

You could say much the same of psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy, but it certainly seems to have worked in Cruise’s case, which leads us to the most relevant point of all. If there’s one theme that I like to emphasize here, it’s that we rarely understand the reasons for our own success. We’re likely to attribute it to hard work or skill, when it might be the result of privilege or luck, and it’s easy to tell ourselves stories about cause and effect. Cruise has succeeded in life beyond all measure, and it’s no surprise that he credits it to Scientology, because this was exactly what he was told to expect. In Scientology: The Now Religion, which was published in 1970, the author George Malko recounts an interview that he had with a church member named Bob Thomas:

“When you’re clear,” Thomas said, “you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power and so on.” Thus becoming an operating thetan is not merely being at cause mentally, but at cause over matter, energy, space, and time in the physical, total sense.” When I suggested that this implied that an operating thetan could levitate, rise right up into the air and hang there, Thomas sat forward in his chair and said, “Right. These are the ultimate goals that are envisioned. I’m saying that these are the ultimate things it is hoped man is capable of, if he really has those potentials, which we assume he has…That’s what’s happening in Scientology: people are finding out more and more about themselves, and the more they find out about themselves, the freer they are. And we envision no ultimate limitation on how free an individual can be. Beyond the state of clear, there are these grades of operating thetans. When you’re clear, you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power as a spiritual being. And that road is a higher road which Mr. Hubbard is researching at this moment.”

When I read these words, and then watch Cruise hanging off an airplane or scaling the Burj Khalifa, they take on another resonance. Cruise may be our greatest movie star and producer—but he also acts like a man who thinks that he can fly.

The man with the plan

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This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Reservoir Dogs, a film that I loved as much as just about every other budding cinephile who came of age in the nineties. Tom Shone has a nice writeup on its legacy in The New Yorker, and while I don’t agree with every point that he makes—he dismisses Kill Bill, which is a movie that means so much to me that I named my own daughter after Beatrix Kiddo—he has insights that can’t be ignored: “Quentin [Tarantino] became his worst reviews, rather in the manner of a boy who, falsely accused of something, decides that he might as well do the thing for which he has already been punished.” And there’s one paragraph that strikes me as wonderfully perceptive:

So many great filmmakers have made their debuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run to Michael Mann’s Thief to Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of midmorning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail.

And while you could nitpick the details of this argument—Singer’s debut was actually Public Access, a movie that nobody, including me, has seen—it gets at something fundamental about the art of film, which lies at the intersection of an industrial process and a crime. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how Inception, my favorite movie of the last decade, maps the members of its mind heist neatly onto the crew of a motion picture: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the set designer, Eames the actor, and Arthur is, I don’t know, the line producer, while Fischer, the mark, is a surrogate for the audience itself. (For what it’s worth, Christopher Nolan has stated that any such allegory was unconscious, although he seems to have embraced it after the fact.) Most of the directors whom Shone names are what we’d call auteur figures, and aside from Singer, all of them wear a writer’s hat, which can obscure the extent to which they depend on collaboration. Yet in their best work, it’s hard to imagine Singer without Christopher McQuarrie, Tarantino without editor Sally Menke, or Wes Anderson without Owen Wilson, not to mention the art directors, cinematographers, and other skilled craftsmen required to finish even the most idiosyncratic and personal movie. Just as every novel is secretly about the process of its own creation, every movie is inevitably about making movies, which is the life that its creators know most intimately. One of the most exhilarating things that a movie can do is give us a sense of the huddle between artists, which is central to the appeal of The Red Shoes, but also Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, in which Tom Cruise told McQuarrie that he wanted to make a film about what it was like for the two of them to make a film.

But there’s also an element of criminality, which might be even more crucial. I’m not the first person to point out that there’s something illicit in the act of watching images of other people’s lives projected onto a screen in a darkened theater—David Thomson, our greatest film critic, has built his career on variations on that one central insight. And it shouldn’t surprise us if the filmmaking process itself takes on aspects of something done in the shadows, in defiance of permits, labor regulations, and the orderly progression of traffic. (Werner Herzog famously advised aspiring directors to carry bolt cutters everywhere: “If you want to do a film, steal a camera, steal raw stock, sneak into a lab and do it!”) If your goal is to tell a story about putting together a team for a complicated project, it could be about the Ballet Lermontov or the defense of a Japanese village, and the result might be even greater. But it would lack the air of illegality on which the medium thrives, both in its dreamlife and in its practical reality. From the beginning, Tarantino seems to have sensed this. He’s become so famous for reviving the careers of neglected figures for the sake of the auras that they provide—John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Keith Carradine—that it’s practically become his trademark, and we often forget that he did it for the first time in Reservoir Dogs. Lawrence Tierney, the star of Dillinger and Born to Kill, had been such a menacing presence both onscreen and off that that he was effectively banned from Hollywood after the forties, and he remained a terrifying presence even in old age. He terrorized the cast of Seinfield during his guest appearance as Elaine’s father, and one of my favorite commentary tracks from The Simpsons consists of the staff reminiscing nervously about how much he scared them during the recording of “Marge Be Not Proud.”

Yet Tarantino still cast him as Joe Cabot, the man who sets up the heist, and Tierney rewarded him with a brilliant performance. Behind the scenes, it went more or less as you might expect, as Tarantino recalled much later:

Tierney was a complete lunatic by that time—he just needed to be sedated. We had decided to shoot his scenes first, so my first week of directing was talking with this fucking lunatic. He was personally challenging to every aspect of filmmaking. By the end of the week everybody on set hated Tierney—it wasn’t just me. And in the last twenty minutes of the first week we had a blowout and got into a fist fight. I fired him, and the whole crew burst into applause.

But the most revealing thing about the whole incident is that an untested director like Tarantino felt capable of taking on Tierney at all. You could argue that he already had an inkling of what he might become, but I’d prefer to think that he both needed and wanted someone like this to symbolize the last piece of the picture. Joe Cabot is the man with the plan, and he’s also the man with the money. (In the original script, Joe says into the phone: “Sid, stop, you’re embarrassing me. I don’t need to be told what I already know. When you have bad months, you do what every businessman in the world does, I don’t care if he’s Donald Trump or Irving the tailor. Ya ride it out.”) It’s tempting to associate him with the producer, but he’s more like a studio head, a position that has often drawn men whose bullying and manipulation is tolerated as long as they can make movies. When he wrote the screenplay, Tarantino had probably never met such a creature in person, but he must have had some sense of what was in store, and Reservoir Dogs was picked up for distribution by a man who fit the profile perfectly—and who never left Tarantino’s side ever again. His name was Harvey Weinstein.

Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

The mummy’s curse

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“Nobody wanted to see Tom Cruise in this movie,” a studio marketing executive was recently quoted as saying of The Mummy. Well, I humbly confess that I sort of did. My fondness for Cruise is a matter of record, and the prospect of a slick, expensive supernatural blockbuster with a contemporary setting, even one that forced itself into the franchise mold, was undeniably enticing. It wasn’t until the result seemed to underwhelm just about everyone who saw it that I realized how much I had been looking forward to the possibility that it might actually be good. Honestly, it feels like a loss. A really strong debut to the Dark Universe, as Universal insists on calling it, might have taken us to interesting places, and its lukewarm reception is a blow not so much to Cruise’s track record as an actor, which doesn’t need additional burnishing, as to his reputation as a superb overseer and packager of talent. Elsewhere, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star, which is an unstoppable combination, and I’ve spent the last two decades regarding his name above the title as the most reliable brand in movies. Cruise seems eerily capable of willing troubled, complicated projects—which covers half the films made in Hollywood—to a successful conclusion. There’s something a little scary about his singlemindedness, which can come off as exhausting onscreen, but it’s also the one indispensable quality in a producer. In his commentary track on Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie makes an offhand observation about Cruise that gets to the heart of his talent: “I’ve never met a more precise actor in terms of matching and continuity, and it makes life extraordinarily easy in the cutting room.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this of, say, Marlon Brando. But for Cruise, it’s a point of pride.

And if The Mummy feels like a movie in which the whole process broke down, it only underlines the fact that every blockbuster is always on the verge of falling apart, and that this represents the one time when Cruise—and McQuarrie, who was brought in for rewrites—failed to save it at the last minute. For proof, we need look no further than Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, an excellent movie that was also a logistical nightmare to write, shoot, and assemble. There was never a finished script, and production got underway with what feels like little more than the assumption that Cruise and McQuarrie would somehow figure it out on the set, in real time, with millions of dollars on the line. Toward the end, they took a long break to rewrite the ending, which was less a sign of desperation than their standard operating procedure. As McQuarrie told Deadline:

It’s the part of the process that Tom and I really love. You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re gonna figure it out. And, usually we do.

That “usually” is a big catch, of course, but McQuarrie has worked with Cruise, credited or not, on ten films over the last decade, and he’s pulled off this sort of thing more consistently than anyone else possibly could. Given the enormous pressure and logistical challenges involved, it’s an incredible achievement. The trouble is that it creates the notion that you can always call in McQuarrie to fix a movie in the rewrite. This even extends to the films that he directs himself, as he revealed last month to the Scriptnotes podcast: “When I came in on Rogue Nation, I said let’s take all the lessons we learned from [Ghost Protocol], let’s have somebody else write a screenplay, and I’ll come in and fix it.” And you can hardly blame him, because until now, it always worked.

As a result, when we read accounts of the travails of The Mummy, with Cruise “trying to save the movie in the editing room,” it’s important to recognize that this was simply business as usual. Rogue Nation was saved in the editing room and at the rewrite stage. So were Ghost Protocol and Edge of Tomorrow. If The Mummy clearly wasn’t, the real question isn’t so much what went wrong in this case as what went right with all the others. But it also provides some intriguing clues. It’s possible that its status as the first chapter in a shared universe put too many cooks in the kitchen, or that its director, Alex Kurtzman, was unable to accommodate himself to Cruise’s control. In the podcast interview that I mentioned above, McQuarrie offers up a fascinating blind item:

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.”

This sounds a lot like The Mummy, which includes a controversial sequence in which Cruise is possessed by the villainous Ahmanet, but even if it isn’t, it points to the problems that can arise when the chemistry with the director isn’t there. (As an aside, this explains why Cruise, after an amazing run in which he collaborated with many of the world’s greatest directors, has now settled for returning repeatedly to the same handful of journeymen, including McQuarrie, Doug Liman, Edward Zwick, and even Joseph Kosinski. Not all of them are masters of the medium, but he knows that he can work with them.)

All of this just makes me more interested in seeing The Mummy, even if the details of its production seem unlikely to ever get the full treatment that they deserve. And it’s a reminder of the fine line between success and failure that afflicts so many movies. One of the most striking case studies is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was beset by production woes—including a script that was rewritten during filming and significant changes in reshoots and the editing room—but emerged as a masterpiece. A decade later, with The Hobbit, the same creative team, presented with virtually identical material, failed to make it happen again. Similarly, Cruise’s improvisational process can yield The Mummy, but it can also give us Edge of Tomorrow. And it doesn’t make me any less excited about the next installment in the Mission: Impossible series. At first glance, it feels vulnerable to the same kind of risk, but McQuarrie, as a director, has a few proven ideas about how to manage it. As he says to Scriptnotes:

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 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.

On some level, this sounds insane, but it also reflects the thought that McQuarrie has invested into figuring out how to enable this kind of revision without getting crushed by the momentum of a big movie. (A lot of it comes down to a few reliable tricks. If you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot. And you always get a shot of Cruise looking at a cell phone, so that you can add an insert later to clarify the story.) Maybe it won’t come together this time. It evidently didn’t with The Mummy. But even if it sometimes fails, the really remarkable thing is that it ever works at all.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2017 at 8:47 am

The secret studio

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Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

A few days ago, Jordan Crucchiola of Vulture wrote a think piece titled “The Best Place for Women in Action Movies is Next to Tom Cruise.” The article makes the argument, which strikes me as indisputable, that the women in films like the Mission: Impossible series have made such consistently strong impressions that it can’t all be an accident. I’ve written here before at possibly excessive length about Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation, who was arguably the best part of one of my favorite recent action movies, and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow speaks for herself. And it’s only after multiple viewings of Ghost Protocol, which is a movie that I’m happy to watch again on any given night, that I’ve come to realize the extent to which Paula Patton is its true star and emotional center: Cruise is content to slip into the background, like a producer paying a visit to the set, while the real interest of the scene unfolds elsewhere. For an actor who has often been accused of playing the same role in every movie—although it’s more accurate to say that he emphasizes different aspects of his core persona, and with greater success and variety than most leading men—he’s notably willing to defer to the strong women with whom he shares the screen. As Crucchiola concludes: “You get the sense that, as he approaches sixty, Cruise is more than happy to share the responsibility of anchoring a blockbuster action movie. It’s almost as if he’s creating a kind of hero apprentice program.

This is all true, as far as it goes, but it also hints at an even larger insight that the article glimpses but never quite articulates. You can start by widening the scope a bit and noting that the best place for a man in a movie is next to Cruise, too. Actors as different as Cuba Gooding Jr., Colin Farrell, and Ken Watanabe have gotten big assists from providing reliable support in a Cruise vehicle, and his filmography is littered with fascinating but abortive experiments, like Dougray Scott, that never quite got off the ground. As a movie star, Cruise has shown an unusual interest—and again, it’s so consistent that it can’t be accidental—in providing meaningful secondary parts for both men and women, some of which are really the lead in disguise. (Eyes Wide Shut is essentially a series of short films in which Cruise cedes the focus to another performer for ten minutes or so, and each one feels like the beginning of a career.) And when you pull back even further, you notice that he’s performed much the same function for directors. At the height of his power, Cruise made a notable effort to work with most of the world’s best filmmakers, but after Kubrick and Spielberg, there were no more worlds to conquer. Instead, he began to seek out directors who were on the rise or on the rebound: J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie. Not every effort along those lines paid off, and it can be hard to discern what he saw in, say, Joseph Kosinski. But you could make a strong case that Cruise has launched more players on both sides of the camera than any other major star.

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

In other words, his track record with actresses is just a subset, although a very important one, of a more expansive program for developing talent. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of Cruise as a great producer who happens to inhabit the body of a movie star, but this doesn’t go far enough: he’s more like a one-man studio. A decade ago, he and Paula Wagner made an undeniably bad job of running the creative end of United Artists, but it’s noteworthy that his shift toward working with emerging directors occurred at around the same time. It’s as if after failing to turn around a conventional studio, Cruise saw that he could put together a leaner, nimbler version on his own, and that it required no permanent infrastructure apart from his stardom and ability to raise money. It would be a studio like Pixar, which, instead of scattering its attention across multiple projects, devoted most of its resources to releasing a single big movie every year. When you look at his recent career through that lens, it clarifies one of its less explicable trends: Cruise’s apparent decision, well into his fifties, to redefine himself as an action hero, at a point when most actors are easing themselves into less physically challenging parts. If you remember how versatile a dramatic lead he used to be, it feels like a loss, but it makes sense when you imagine him as the head of a studio with only one asset. Cruise has chosen to focus on tentpole pictures, just like the rest of the industry, and what makes it unique is how relentlessly he relies on himself alone to drive that enormous machine.

Which only reinforces my conviction, which I’ve held for years, that this is the most interesting career in the movies. Even its compromises are instructive, when taken as part of the larger strategy. (The Jack Reacher franchise, for instance, which the world wasn’t exactly clamoring to see, is a conscious attempt to create a series of midrange movies that allow Cruise to hit a double at the box office, rather than going for a home run every time. They’re the breathing spaces between Mission: Impossible installments. Similarly, his upcoming involvement in the reboot of The Mummy feels like a test case in partnering with someone else’s franchise, in a kind of joint venture.) If Tom Cruise is a secret studio, he’s done a better job of it than most corporations. At a time when the industry is struggling to come to terms with the problem of diversity, Cruise has launched the careers of a lot of attractive, talented performers of diverse backgrounds without ever making a point of it, and he’s done it in plain sight. Outside the echo chamber of Hollywood, and with the significant exception of Disney, audiences aren’t interested in studios as brands. Development executives are nonentities whose anonymity allows them to associate themselves with success, distance themselves from failure, and conceal the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing. Cruise doesn’t have that luxury. He’s made smart, pragmatic decisions for thirty years—and in public. And he makes the rest of the industry seem smaller by comparison.

My alternative canon #7: Vanilla Sky

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I’ve always been an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, less for the actor than for the world’s finest producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star, and after Edge of Tomorrow and the last two Mission: Impossible films, there are signs that the overall culture is coming around to the realization that he’s simply the most reliable brand in movies. Over the last decade, though, he has shown signs of diminished ambition. Cruise seems increasingly content to be nothing but an action hero, and there’s no question that he still delivers great entertainments. But for a while, starting in the late nineties, there were tantalizing hints of something more. Between 1999 and 2004, he made a series of movies that were essentially about being Tom Cruise, beginning with Eyes Wide Shut, a grueling experience that seems to have catalyzed his interest in pushing against his own aura. Stanley Kubrick always knew that he wanted a married couple to play Bill and Alice Harford, and the result is a movie that only becomes more complex and intriguing—at least to my eyes—the more we learn about how that marriage unraveled. Cruise never quite managed to pull off the same trick again, but his performances in movies from Magnolia to Collateral feel like a series of exploratory maneuvers, played out for an audience of millions. After War of the Worlds, the effort faded, and he spends most of his time now leveraging his history and presence in ways that are more obvious, which isn’t to say that they aren’t effective.

But I miss the Cruise of the turn of the millennium, a peerless creation that received its definitive statement in Vanilla Sky, which I still regard as criminally unappreciated and misunderstood. It feels like a snapshot now of a lost moment, both in history—you can see the Twin Towers looming in the background of a crucial shot—and in my own life: I saw it just before moving to New York after college, and it’s my favorite portrait of that city as it existed in those days. I’m not sure what drew Cruise to attempt a remake of Abre Los Ojos, or to recruit Cameron Crowe to direct it, but the sheer impersonality of the project seems to have freed Crowe, who transformed it from a straight thriller into a pop cultural phantasmagoria. It’s really an allegory about how we all construct ourselves out of fragments of songs, album covers, and old movies, and it captured something essential for me in a year when I was building an adult life out of little more than a few precious notions. (I ended up seeing it four times in the theater, a personal record, although it was mostly just so I could listen again to the first five notes of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” as they played over the opening cut to black.) And it wouldn’t work at all without the presence of the world’s biggest movie star. Cruise plays much of it in a mask, a visual device that appears in films as different as Eyes Wide Shut and the Mission: Impossible franchise, but as time goes on, Vanilla Sky feels like the movie in which he comes the closest to revealing who he really is, even if it’s nothing more than the sum of his roles. But isn’t that true of everyone?

Written by nevalalee

June 14, 2016 at 9:00 am

The life of a title

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Track listing for Kanye West's Waves

So I haven’t heard all of Kanye West’s new album yet—I’m waiting until I can actually download it for real—but I’m excited about what looks to be a major statement from the artist responsible for some of my favorite music of the last decade. Predictably, it was also the target of countless barbs in the weeks leading up to its release, mostly because of what have been portrayed as its constant title changes: it was originally announced as So Help Me God, changed to Swish, made a brief stopover at Waves, and finally settled on The Life of Pablo. And this was all spun as yet another token of West’s flakiness, even from media outlets that have otherwise been staunch advocates of his work. (A typical headline on The A.V. Club was “Today in god, we’re tired: Kanye West announces album title (again).” This was followed a few days later by the site’s rave review of the same album, which traces a familiar pattern of writers snarking at West’s foibles for months, only to fall all over themselves in the rush to declare the result a masterpiece. The only comparable figure who inspires the same disparity in his treatment during the buildup and the reception is Tom Cruise, who, like Kanye, is a born producer who happens to occupy the body of a star.) And there’s a constant temptation for those who cover this kind of thing for a living to draw conclusions from the one scrap of visible information they have, as if the changes in the title were symptoms of some deeper confusion.

Really, though, the shifting title is less a reflection of West’s weirdness, of which we have plenty of evidence elsewhere, than of his stubborn insistence on publicizing even those aspects of the creative process that most others would prefer to keep private. Title changes are a part of any artist’s life, and it’s rare for any work of art to go from conception to completion without a few such transformations along the way: Hemingway famously wrote up fifty potential titles for his Spanish Civil War novel, notably The Undiscovered Country, before finally deciding on For Whom the Bell Tolls. As long as we’re committed to the idea that everything needs a title, we’ll always struggle to find one that adequately represents the work—or at least catalyzes our thoughts about it—while keeping one eye on the market. Each of my novels was originally written and sold with a different title than the one that ended up on its cover, and I’m mostly happy with how it all turned out. (Although I’ll admit that I still think that The Scythian was a better title for the book that wound up being released as Eternal Empire.) And I’m currently going through the same thing again, in full knowledge that whatever title I choose for my next project will probably change before I’m done. I don’t take the task any less seriously, and if anything, I draw comfort from the knowledge that the result will reflect a lot of thought and consideration, and that a title change isn’t necessarily a sign that the process is going wrong. Usually, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Track listing for Kanye West's The Life of Pablo

The difference between a novel and an album by a massive pop star, of course, is that the latter is essentially being developed in plain sight, and any title change is bound to be reported as news. There’s also a tendency, inherited from movie coverage, to see it as evidence of a troubled production. When The Hobbit: There and Back Again was retitled The Battle of the Five Armies, it was framed, credibly enough, as a more accurate reflection of the movie itself, which spins about ten pages of Tolkien into an hour of battle, but it was also perceived as a defensive move in response to the relatively disappointing reception of The Desolation of Smaug. In many cases, nobody wins: All You Need Is Kill was retitled Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release and Live Die Repeat on video, a series of equivocations that only detracted from what tuned out to be a superbly confident and focused movie—which is all the evidence we need that title trouble doesn’t have much correlation, if any, with the quality of the finished product. And occasionally, a studio will force a title change that the artist refuses to acknowledge: Paul Thomas Anderson consistently refers to his first movie as Sydney, rather than Hard Eight, and you can hear a touch of resignation in director Nicholas Meyer’s voice whenever he talks about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (In fact, Meyer’s initial pitch for the title was The Undiscovered Country, which, unlike Hemingway, he eventually got to use.)

But if the finished product is worthwhile, all is forgiven, or forgotten. If I can return for the second time in two days to editor Ralph Rosenblum’s memoir When the Shooting Stops, even as obvious a title as Annie Hall went through its share of incarnations:

[Co-writer Marshall] Brickman came up to the cutting room, and he and Woody [Allen] engaged in one of their title sessions, Marshall spewing forth proposals—Rollercoaster Named Desire, Me and My Goy, It Had to be Jew—with manic glee. This seemed to have little impact on Woody, though, for he remained committed to Anhedonia until the very end. “He first sprung it on me at an early title session,” remembers Brickman. “Arthur Krim, who was the head of United Artists then, walked over to the window and threatened to jump…”

Woody, meanwhile, was adjusting his own thinking, and during the last five screenings, he had me try out a different title each night in my rough-cut speech. The first night it was Anhedonia, and a hundred faces looked at me blankly. The second night it was Anxiety, which roused a few chuckles from devoted Allen fans. Then Anhedonia again. Then Annie and Alvy. And finally Annie Hall, which, thanks to a final burst of good sense, held. It’s hard now to suppose it could ever have been called anything else.

He’s right. And I suspect that we’ll feel the same way about The Life of Pablo before we know it—which won’t stop it from happening again.

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that if you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

The heartbreak kid

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808s and Heartbreak

I don’t think there’s another album from the last decade that I’ve played as often as 808s and Heartbreak. When I’m doing chores around the house or just want some music in the background while I’m busy with something else, it’s usually the first thing I cue up on my playlist, but I’ll occasionally just sit down and listen to the first six tracks on headphones, which always seems like the best possible use of my time. Earlier this year, when I was driving my daughter to her toddler play program every morning, we’d often listen to “Heartless” on the way there, to the point where she was able to sing along to most of the chorus. (Beatrix: “Why is he so sad?” Me: “Because he loved a woman who didn’t love him back.”) After I dropped her off, on the way home, I’d switch over to Yeezus, especially “Blood on the Leaves,” which I don’t think she needs to hear just yet. I like Kanye West’s other albums just fine, particularly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its apparent determination to have every track be the one that renders all other music obsolete forever. But it’s 808s that struck me, when I first heard it, as an album that I’d been waiting to hear for my entire life, and that hasn’t changed since.

Still, when it was announced yesterday that West would be performing 808s in its entirety at a “surprise” concert in September, I found that I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect. 808s doesn’t feel like an album that can or should be played live: in many respects, it’s the most writerly collection of songs I know, at least in the sense that it feels like the product of intensely concentrated, solitary thought. Plenty of people worked on 808s and Yeezus, but both albums manage to sound like they were composed in utter isolation, by a man singing to himself in the corner with his laptop. That’s the real genius of West’s use of AutoTune: thanks to samples and synthesizers, we’ve long been able to exclude musicians from the studio, but West was the first to realize that you could dispose of the singers, too, leaving as little mediation as possible between the songwriter’s conception and its creation. In my recent post on Tom Cruise, I described him as a producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and much the same holds true of West, who willed himself into becoming one of the biggest musical acts in the world with little more than the kind of sustained craft and intelligence that can only emerge in private.

Kanye West

This isn’t an approach that would work for most other albums, but it comes across brilliantly on 808s. It was recorded after the death of West’s mother, and it feels like nothing less than a meditation on how unbearable emotion can best be expressed through what seems at first like cold, chilly impersonality. It reminds me, oddly, of the Pet Shop Boys—who were equally determined to exclude musical instruments from their early albums—and their insistence that irony and detachment were the only honest way to get at real unfaked feeling. 808s is like the death scene of HAL 9000 extended over fifty minutes, as he sings “Daisy” to himself as his mind goes away, or, on a lighter note, like the swan song of the robot on The Simpsons who asks despairingly: “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” But that doesn’t even hint at how richly, inexhaustibly listenable the result remains after countless plays. “Heartless” and “Paranoid” are close to perfect pop songs, executed without any room for error, and even in the album’s messier sections, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to music delivered straight from one man’s brain to yours, without any loss in the translation. And it isn’t the kind of effect that you can get at the Hollywood Bowl.

West remains an enigma. He’s a man who punches out paparazzi who wound up marrying one of the most photographed women on the planet; an introvert who only seems satisfied when he has the world’s undivided attention; a songwriter of intense self-awareness, even self-loathing, who can come across all too easily as an unfiltered jackass. The gap between West’s public persona and his meticulous craftsmanship is so vast that it’s easy to disregard the latter, and the number of people who have actually heard Yeezus—it barely even reached platinum status—is minuscule compared to those who know him only from the tabloids. As a result, even when West tries to kid himself, he can’t catch a break. Earlier this year at the Grammys, when he made a show of rushing the stage when Beck won the evening’s top prize over Beyoncé, only to turn back with a grin, it was clearly a joke at his own expense, but it was widely taken as just more evidence of his cluelessness. He’s smarter and more talented than any of his critics, but not in ways that express themselves easily before an audience of millions. For the rest of us, there’s always 808s. It’s just him in a room, and once we’re there, he quietly sets up his laptop, presses the play button, and invites us to listen.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2015 at 9:51 am

McQuarrie’s mission

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Christopher McQuarrie

A few years ago, shortly after the release of Jack Reacher, the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie gave a fantastically interesting interview to Empire about the ups and downs of his long career. The whole thing is worth reading closely, but it’s even more resonant now, in the aftermath of McQuarrie’s first big success, given how obsessively his thoughts seemed to return to one specific number. Here are three excerpts from the interview, which, remember, was given long before he was attached to direct anything with Mission: Impossible in its title:

If [my career] changes, it’ll change because of circumstances beyond my control. It will come not from the movie I am most proud of, but probably from the movie I’m most convinced is going to end my career. And then that movie will make $750 million dollars and I’ll have hit the fucking lottery, because I’m just focused entirely on execution and not on result.

I have directed. That doesn’t mean that in their minds I’m a director. I directed a movie that made money. Did it make $750 million? No.

The sad irony is that if I make a piece of shit movie that I’m ashamed of that makes $750 million, I can suddenly make those movies.

Compare these quotes to the latest box office estimates for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which is projected to earn close to $750 million worldwide, and you have to wonder whether McQuarrie is psychic, insanely lucky, or simply just as shrewd as he’s always seemed to be. (Really, it isn’t all that surprising. As Tom Cruise’s current wingman of choice, McQuarrie probably guessed that he’d get a shot at a genuine blockbuster one of these days, and he didn’t choose that number at random: it’s merely Ghost Protocol‘s global box office take, adjusted slightly upward for inflation.) Whether or not McQuarrie is as ambivalent about Rogue Nation as he was about its hypothetical counterpart, there’s no question that he’s exactly in the position that he once mordantly anticipated: a hit of this scale usually gives a director a punchcard for one free movie, particularly if he clearly deserves full credit for its success. And it’ll be interesting to see what he does with it, especially given the fact that unlike, say, Josh Trank, McQuarrie has arrived at his position after two decades of thinking hard about his role as part of the studio system, and the function that he plays, for better or worse, within that enormous machine.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

McQuarrie’s evolution from an angry maverick to a man the studios trust is a progression that he credits to Tom Cruise, starting from their work together on Valkyrie. His thoughts on the subject, as he describes them to Empire, deserve to be quoted at length:

The first thing I was doing to alienate the business was holding grudges. People are gonna fuck me in this business. There’s no two ways about it. And the first thing you have to realize is that they’re very rarely doing it because it’s personal. The truth is that they’re not thinking about you enough. What I want to tell those people that get so frustrated and bitter about this business is: “No one knows who you are to care enough to deliberately screw you out of anything…”

No one’s interested in making your script. They have a huge mandate on their table: all this product that they have to generate and they need people to help them do it. And so I stopped being a person who looked at them as if they were people who were not giving me a chance and started looking at them as people who were terribly lost and desperately in need of help. And I had a certain set of skills that could be used for that. And by looking at them and saying, “You have a movie to make, how can I help you make it?”, my entire life changed.

McQuarrie quickly qualifies this last statement: “Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I’m working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No.” And even if Rogue Nation might force him to take a slightly cheerier outlook about his prospects, his thoughts are still worth remembering for anyone who wants to make a living as a screenwriter. Elsewhere, in a recent roundtable interview reported by Collider, McQuarrie goes into greater detail about how that life looks:

I went to a meeting one day with an executive…and he said, “So, what do you got?” And I said, “Nothing. What have you got?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m just here to help, man. What do you got?” And he started pitching me his slate, and he started sweating as soon as he started pitching. And I got to sit there and go, “Hmmm, no. What else? Hmmm, no. Not really.” And it wasn’t to torture him, it was me listening to each idea and saying, “Nope, I don’t have anything to contribute to that. I won’t make that better, I’ll cost you more money and I won’t get you there.” And I realized that my role as I walked out of that room was, “I’m here to help. How can I help you make your movie?”

Whether or not this sounds like a life any writer really wants is beside the point. This is the life a successful screenwriter has, or should have, if he or she is realistic about what it takes to survive: a search for missions that are possible.

The intelligence community

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Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

One of the major dividends of the success of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is that it marks the return to public consciousness of the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie, who has a deserved reputation as one of the smartest and most underused men in Hollywood. McQuarrie has been around for a long time: it’s been close to twenty years since he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and more than fifteen since he directed The Way of the Gun, a deeply flawed movie that I haven’t been able to stop watching or thinking about ever since. A fruitful partnership with Tom Cruise, starting with Valkyrie, brought him his first credited scripts in years, and with Jack Reacher and now Rogue Nation, McQuarrie has become hard to avoid. Which is all to our benefit. His commentary track with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects may be my favorite of all time, and I go back and listen to it every couple of years just to hear those voices again. And with McQuarrie making the media rounds this week to promote his first unqualified hit, particularly in a remarkably candid interview with Deadline, we’ve got a rich trove of new insights from a man who, like David Mamet or Robert Towne, seemingly can’t open his mouth without shedding light on some unexpected aspect of filmmaking.

McQuarrie’s reputation is inextricably linked to his years in exile, and there are moments when he can’t help sounding like one of the hard-boiled characters in his own movies. In particular, I’m thinking of James Caan’s “adjudicator” in The Way of the Gun, who delivers a line that I’ve never forgotten: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Deadline describes him as “Cruise’s accomplice in problem solving,” which is pretty much how most screenwriters like to see themselves—as the unheralded, pragmatic fixers who parachute in, like Towne famously did for The Godfather, to save troubled productions for a paycheck before moving on. McQuarrie has benefited, as Towne did before him, from falling in with Cruise, a movie star with the soul of a producer whose track record at mounting and executing deliriously complicated projects has attuned him to the value of the creative resource that a talented writer’s brain affords. As McQuarrie describes it, it sounds less like two moguls overseeing a multimillion-dollar production that a huddle between a couple of canny conspirators: “You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re going to figure it out. And, usually we do.”

Christopher McQuarrie on the set of "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

This is undoubtedly romanticized, and it’s the closest McQuarrie ever comes to sounding like one of the suits that he skewers so expertly elsewhere—including in Rogue Nation itself, in which the venal spies in charge of the intelligence community often play as parodies of studio heads, with their cheerful indifference to the lives or careers that hang on their decisions. (As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, the scariest sentence that a writer can hear from an executive has to be: “We have a special relationship with Tom Cruise.”) But it’s amply borne out by the film, which, more than any of its predecessors, is emphatically a screenwriter’s movie. It lacks a jaw-dropping set piece to compare with the Burj Khalifa ascent in Ghost Protocol, but it has a distinctly better story and structure, and at its best, it’s a marvel of smart, efficient craftsmanship. A few years ago, I drew a distinction between action that seems to have been worked out on the page and the kind that is assembled in the editing room, and I singled out Ghost Protocol, along with Drive and The International, as among a handful of recent movies that have given us coherent, inventive, written action scenes:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way…Each is centered on the personalities of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a series of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And Rogue Nation honors and elevates that standard. I liked it a lot from start to finish, but the scene that sticks in my mind the most is the extended set piece that unfolds place backstage during a premiere of Turnadot at the Vienna Opera House. We’ve seen this exact scene before—there’s never been an opera performance in an action movie that didn’t end in bloodshed—and I settled into it with a slight sense of resignation, wondering if McQuarrie would be content, as Quantum of Solace was, to merely use his location as an attractive backdrop. I shouldn’t have worried. McQuarrie knows his territory, and even as he structures much of the sequence as an explicit homage to the Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he’s determined to show the rest of us how it’s done. The result unspools as an increasingly dazzling series of surprises, reversals, and complications, making inspired use of the setting and of the music itself, and it culminates with a sweet little twist, as Ethan Hunt figures out how to save the Austrian chancellor from no fewer than three assassins. It’s as lovingly hewn and polished as any scene from McQuarrie’s filmography, and it’s only one high point in a film that never takes anything for granted, including the ending, which saw the director and star halting production in an attempt to get it just right. Like just about everything else, it paid off. McQuarrie, like the spies in his movie, spent years as a man without a country. But it’s his nation now.

The art of the impossible

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Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

A couple of years ago, after I saw Jack Reacher, I wrote the following about Tom Cruise, whom I still regard as the most interesting movie star we have: “He’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made.” I didn’t think much of that observation at the time, but when I look back, it seems to explain a lot about what makes Cruise both so consistent and so enigmatic. A producer credit can mean just about anything in Hollywood, from the person who willed an entire movie into existence to the financier who signed the checks to the studio executive who was in the right place at the right time. On the highest level, though, a producer is an aggregator of talent and money, a magnet to whom capable professionals and funding are drawn. By that definition, a major movie star, whose involvement can be all that takes a project out of turnaround and puts it into production, is frequently the only producer who counts. If you start to think of Cruise, then, as less a star than an industry player who can get movies to happen, he ranks among the greatest producers in history. And the Mission: Impossible franchise is the jewel in the crown, a series of sandboxes for five distinct directors to play with the idea of a studio tentpole, linked only by the master orchestrator who assembles the pieces.

This may be why it has taken so long for the series to get the recognition it deserves. The Mission: Impossible movies have always been financially successful, but it wasn’t until Ghost Protocol—and now Rogue Nation, which by all accounts is just as superb—that they began to inspire anything like affection. Most franchises thrive on our fondness for a central character, but Ethan Hunt is nothing but whatever the screenplay happens to require. Cruise is the undeniable creative force behind these films, but he’s also turned himself into a studio executive’s idea of an obedient movie star, a pro who gets to the set on time, always gives everything he has, and defers throughout to the overall operation. Each installment is less a movie in itself than a kind of object lesson, with endless variations, in what a big studio production ought to be. Hence the way Cruise, with a producer’s sure instincts, has used the franchise as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable sidekick or villain performances (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Philip Seymour Hoffman), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, Christopher McQuarrie). The result works precisely to the extent that it gives us our money’s worth, and few franchises over the years have so consistently embodied the basic reasons I go to the movies.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Yet there’s something about the impersonality of the result that can be a little alienating, and I think this has contributed more to the ambivalence many viewers feel toward Cruise than any of his public missteps—which, in any case, are far less damaging than countless transgressions for which many lesser stars have been forgiven. It’s hard to feel much love for him, any more than we feel love for, say, Brian Grazer, and Cruise himself seems increasingly reluctant to build a film around his star power alone. When you look at the trailers for his movies, you find that many of them fall back on the same gimmick: instead of opening on the star, as the ads for most movies would, they establish the story and situation for up to a minute without showing Cruise at all, and when he first appears, it’s as a slow fade into a glowering closeup of his face. (You see the same pattern in the teasers for Mission: Impossible III, Collateral, Ghost Protocol, and Jack Reacher, and there are probably others I’ve forgotten.) It sells us on the movie first, then slides in Cruise toward the middle, as if to seal the deal. It’s a neat trick, but it also has the effect of subordinating the star to the producer. He’s an important piece, even the keystone, but he derives his value solely from the machine he sets in motion. And we might like him better as a human being if he’d stuck to movies like Cocktail or Days of Thunder, in which he coasted on his considerable charm alone.

But the history of popular entertainment is richer and more intriguing thanks to Cruise’s withdrawal into the producer’s chair. At times, he reminds me a little of Napoleon, and not just in terms of stature: both are genetic freaks who were statistically bound to emerge sooner or later, and their success depended largely on being born into a time that could put them to use. Napoleon was a political and administrative genius who also had the physical endurance and luck of a soldier; Cruise was a handsome kid with a knack for acting who also had a relentlessly pragmatic sense of the possible. Which isn’t to say that his instincts are always infallible, any more than they were for Spielberg or Hitchcock. His attempt to become something like a real studio mogul at United Artists fizzled out quickly, and efforts like Lions for Lambs, Knight and Day, Oblivion, and Rock of Ages have revealed something less than a flawless understanding of what the public wants. In recent years, he has seemed content to be nothing but an action star, and he’s proven just as capable of this as might be expected—although I also feel the loss of the actor who starred in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia. As always, his choices serve as a microcosm of the movie industry as a whole, which has moved away from human stories to four-quadrant blockbusters, and Cruise seems determined to demonstrate that he’s as good at this as he was at anything else. And he is. But convincing audiences to love him for it may be the most impossible mission of all.

The Two Jacks

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Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw one of our most anticipated movies of 2014: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. And I’m only slightly joking. Shadow Recruit is the kind of film that seems designed to be seen exactly the way we watched it—streaming on Netflix, in our living room, shortly after the baby had gone to bed. It’s an agreeably modest thriller with correspondingly modest ambitions, and even if it doesn’t end up being particularly good, it’s hard to hate a movie that takes place in some nifty locations, offers up fun supporting roles for the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, and a slew of veteran character actors, including an unbilled Mikhail Baryshnikov, and clocks in at well under two hours. The story is a trifle that falls apart as you watch it; it opens with the villains trying and failing to kill the title character, who has turned up to investigate some financial improprieties in Moscow, when they could have achieved most of their goals by sticking him in a nice office and stalling him for two days. And I spent most of the movie wrongly convinced that the love interest played by Keira Knightley was really a British undercover agent, which seemed like the only way to justify her inexplicable American accent.

Yet for all its mediocrity, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see more often: one that falls squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of spectacle, budget, and even basic competence. Hollywood these days has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with massive summer tentpoles giving way in the winter to smaller prestige films, which often feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine before bedtime. In between, you have the usual slew of bad comedies, cheap horror movies, and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but what’s missing, aside from the occasional Liam Neeson vehicle, is slick, capable junk for grownups. I don’t need every film directed at viewers thirty and older to be The King’s Speech; sometimes I just want to put myself in the hands of a clever director and screenwriter who can do exciting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive movie stars, and without prolonged fistfights between robots. Unfortunately, movies like this don’t lend themselves well to multiple installments, and recent attempts to launch franchises on a more manageable scale have mostly sputtered out. We don’t seem likely to see Chris Pine as Jack Ryan again, and the world isn’t exactly clamoring for a sequel to Jack Reacher, a movie I liked a lot.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

All these decisions make good economic sense, at least to the extent that the studios are capable of behaving rationally. A few big bets, balanced out by Oscar contenders that can play throughout awards season, offer a better return on investment than a bunch of movies in the $50 million range. And I can’t fault them for giving up on a big swath of the population that doesn’t go to the movies anymore: these days, with my regular moviegoing a distant memory, I’m a member of the last demographic they should be taking into account. But it still feels like a loss. Many of the movies we remember most fondly emerged from a system that knew how to crank out decent escapist entertainment for adults; when a studio makes fifty films a year with talented directors and stars, eventually, you’ll get Casablanca. And while the gap between Casablanca and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit might seem laughably large, it’s hard to imagine the former emerging from a world that wasn’t interested in producing the latter. Art, at least of the kind that Hollywood has traditionally been most skilled at making, is a kind of numbers game, with great work emerging when the variables line up just right. And an industry that only releases either heavily marketed franchise fare or equally calculated awards bait seems unlikely to generate many accidental masterpieces.

This isn’t to say that excellent movies can’t arise where you least expect them. Edge of Tomorrow, for one, was fantastic, mostly because everyone involved seemed to care just a little bit more about the result than might have been strictly required. And the kind of storytelling I’m mourning here has migrated, with great success, to television, which does seem capable of yielding surprising triumphs of the form, like Hannibal. (You could even take the difference in quality between Hannibal and everything the movies have tried to do with Thomas Harris over the last fifteen years as a sign of how one medium is overtaking the other.) But just as publishers need a healthy midlist to sustain new voices and support good genre novels, the movies need a place where the contemporary equivalents of Michael Curtiz and Jacques Tourneur can thrive. I can’t help but think of Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar two decades ago for The Usual Suspects, made The Way of the Gun—half superb, half totally ridiculous—and then bounced around endlessly from one unproduced project to another. He was rescued by Tom Cruise, who had done much the same years earlier for Robert Towne, directed Jack Reacher, and now he’s helming Mission: Impossible 5. I’m looking forward to it, but I also miss the dozen movies McQuarrie might have made in the meantime, if he had been lucky enough to work in an industry that had any idea what to do with him.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2015 at 9:05 am

The running man

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Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, before going on to make a persuasive argument that Grant “was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a similarly difficult realization that needs to be reached about Tom Cruise, which is that for better or worse, over the last quarter of a century, he’s been the best movie star we have, and one of the best we’ve ever had. Not the best actor, certainly, or even the one, like Clooney, who most embodies our ideas of what a star should be, but simply the one who gave us the most good reasons to go to the movies for more than twenty years. I love film deeply, and I’ve thought about it more than any sane person probably should, and I have no trouble confessing that for most of my adult life, Cruise and his movies have given me more pleasure than the work of any other actor or director.

And yet it wasn’t until I realized that I loved his movies that I really started to take notice of him in his own right. We’re usually drawn to stars because of the qualities they embody, but in Cruise’s case, I became a fan—and remain a huge one—because I belatedly noticed that whenever I bought a ticket to a movie with his name above the title, I generally had a hell of a good time. That hasn’t always been true in recent years, and while some might say that his movies have taken a hit because Cruise’s own public image has been tarnished, I’d argue that the causal arrow runs the other way. Cruise has always functioned less as a traditional movie star than as a sort of seal of quality: a guarantee that we’ll be treated to a film that provides everything that the money, talent, and resources of a major studio can deliver. As a result, whenever the movies in which he appears become less interesting, Cruise himself grows less attractive. Left to his own devices, he can’t rescue Lions for Lambs or Knight and Day, but if he gives us a big, impersonal toy like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, all is forgiven.

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

It’s worth emphasizing how strange this is. We tend to think of movie stars as supernatural beings who can elevate mediocre material by their mere presence, but Cruise is more of a handsome, professional void, a running man around whom good to great movies have assembled themselves with remarkable consistency. In fact, he’s more of a great producer and packager of talent who happens to occupy the body of a star who can also get movies made. Hollywood consists of many ascending circles of power, in which each level has more of it than the one below, but when judged by its only real measure—the ability to give a film a green light—true power has traditionally resided with a handful of major stars. What sets Cruise apart from the rest is that he’s used his stardom to work with many of the great filmmakers of his time (Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Mann, Stone, De Palma, Anderson) and a host of inspired journeymen, and he’s been largely responsible for the ascent of such talents as J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. If this sort of thing were easy, we’d see it more often. And the fact that he did it for more than two decades speaks volumes about his intelligence, shrewdness, and ambition.

Recently, he’s faltered a bit, but his choices, good or bad, are still fascinating, especially as his aura continues to enrich his material with memories of his earlier roles, a process that goes at least as far back as Eyes Wide Shut. I haven’t seen Oblivion, but over the weekend, I caught Jack Reacher, a nifty but profoundly odd and implausible genre movie that runs off Cruise like a battery. (It’s actually much more of a star vehicle than Ghost Protocol, in which Cruise himself tended to get lost among all the wonders on display.) While most leading men strive to make it all seem easy, much of the appeal of watching Cruise lies in how hard this boy wonder of fifty seems to push himself in every frame, as if he still has everything to prove. Other stars may embody wit, cool, elegance, or masculinity, but Cruise is the emblem of the man who wills himself into existence, both on and off the screen, and sustains the world around him through sheer focus and energy. Real or not, it’s a seductive vision, or illusion, for those of us blessed with less certainty. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner says this week in The New York Times Magazine: “Who has ever worked so hard for our pleasure?”

Ghost in the machine

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I’ve always had a soft spot for the Mission: Impossible franchise, which feels less like a coherent series of feature films than a sandbox for a succession of gifted directors to play with the idea of the spy movie itself. Aside from the title and Lalo Schifrin’s indispensable theme, the movies have little in common with the show of the same name, but these elements, along with a star who seems admirably willing to try variations on his screen persona, have allowed for a wide range of approaches, from impersonal puzzle box to fiery action extravaganza to TV-inspired ensemble piece. And while Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol has the least personal stamp of any movie in the series, it’s perhaps the most culturally significant: along with something of a personal triumph for Tom Cruise, it’s the opening salvo from a generation of Pixar directors who seem destined to shake up the world of live-action film.

To take the most obvious example: the massively hyped action scene at the Burj Khalifa isn’t merely as good as they say, it’s the best use of IMAX I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, it definitively establishes the supremacy of IMAX over 3D as a medium for generating thrills: the entire sequence, with its crystalline cinematography and breathtaking stunts, is as close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve had at the movies. Like Christopher Nolan, Bird knows how to ground sensational action in what feels like reality—there are only a handful of obvious special effects shots in the entire film. And throughout, he shows a preternatural gift for staging and executing the best kind of action scene: one conceived at the script and storyboard stage, with cleanly defined beats and a real beginning, middle, and end, rather than a Michael Bay-style nightmare of second-unit footage assembled after the fact in the editing room. (In recent years, only the Guggenheim shootout in The International comes close to what Bird offers here in terms of inventiveness and excitement.)

If Ghost Protocol has a flaw, it’s that it never manages to come up with an overarching narrative of the same fluency as its individual parts. It’s true that story has never been this franchise’s strong point—the first installment, in particular, plays like an attempt to spin a feature film from the most gossamer of plot threads. But I’ve always thought that the script for Mission: Impossible II, still my favorite, was surprisingly engaging and self-aware, with a central love triangle profitably copied from Notorious and a lot of witty details. Mission: Impossible III, in turn, was a calculated attempt to humanize the franchise, as well as the only time that J.J. Abrams, as a feature director or producer, has bothered to deliver on the twists that he constantly promises. Ghost Protocol has a lot of cute touches, but it lacks that kind of surprise, and the basic elements have been even more casually assembled than usual, with a vaguely deployed threat of nuclear annihilation and an off-the-shelf bad guy. (The absence of a great villain from Bird, who gave us the hateful Syndrome in The Incredibles, is perhaps the film’s only real disappointment.)

In the end, then, Ghost Protocol comes off as the world’s greatest demo reel, a chance for Bird to demonstrate that he has the willingness and technical ability to do almost anything, as if the real drama here was being played out in the context of the director’s résumé. As I watched it, my mind was curiously divided: while my lower brain was tingling with adrenaline, my higher functions remained relatively detached. For all the film’s excitement, its sense of risk is more visceral than narrative: despite an appealing cast—and this is by far the best team that Ethan Hunt has ever had—the movie never really creates any possibility of danger toward the characters themselves. Still, it’s a movie that I’d happily see again and again, and I doubt that many viewers will complain. As Walter Kerr might have said, this is a machine for exciting the audience, a watch that thrills. And it makes me all the more curious to see the next movie from Brad Bird, who emerges here as a director of great skill and assurance. Once he gets a real story, he’ll be unstoppable.

Written by nevalalee

December 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

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