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Mission Impossible 3 - JJ Abrams interview

JJ Abrams and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission Impossible 3

Compiled by Jack Foley

Mission Impossible 3 director JJ Abrams talks about making the leap from small screen to big and working with an A-list star like Tom Cruise…

Q: Do you enjoy making a film like this on a a day-to-day basis, or is it a retrospective pleasure?
JJ Abrams: Well, there’s both. In retrospect you think: “Wow we just went on that journey and it’s been incredible..” And it is – it’s a 100 day shoot and it’s amazing to go through and I feel lucky to have done it. But day to day, I’ve never laughed more, I’ve never felt more challenged or satisfied or lucky, to get a chance to work on anything.

Q: How does the collaboration with Tom Cruise work?
JJ Abrams: From the beginning there was a mutual appreciation for the genre, a mutual appreciation for a character-first story and somehow a mutual agreement of what was best for that movie. So there was no ego involved in plotting this film, casting this film, directing, editing – the only thing that mattered was the movie. I’m not saying that I don’t have an ego or that Tom doesn’t have an ego but I’m saying that never did someone’s decision or artistic choice supersede what was best for the story at that time.

Q: Is it true that the scene on the bridge, where Ethan is thrown against a car as a missile explodes, that Tom did that stunt himself?
JJ Abrams: Yes that was Tom running full bore and getting ratcheted and slammed into the car. I have to say that the thing that excites me about Tom doing these stunts is not simply the idea that if you see this movie, you get to see him doing his own stunts – because I think although that’s interesting to me, it’s not a compelling reason to see this movie. The difference between Tom doing these stunts and our putting Tom’s face on a stunt man in post-production, is that he is such a good actor that he is not just doing a stunt, he is a performing a scene. So if you look at that scene where he goes slamming into the car, it’s not great because he ran and got slammed into a car, it’s great because if you watch his face, if you watch how he is running with such utter fear, he is selling the idea that a missile is literally about to blow up the car he is in. When he hits that car, his performance as he hits and then immediately after he hits, is as good as it gets.

Q: Is it a heart-stopping moment though, for you as a director when you have the world’s biggest star performing some of those stunts?
JJ Abrams: It is and it isn’t. It is because clearly the last thing you want is for him to do anything that you think is truly risky. And it’s not because we have incredibly talented and wildly capable stunt teams. Vic Armstrong (our stunt coordinator) is a legend and an amazing stunt co-ordinator. He allowed us to feel comforted despite the risks. On the other hand, you can’t prepare for everything and there are variables and some of these things did hurt… It was an incredible thing to behold, watching this guy not just do the stunts but know his body well enough to know he has to warm up for this amount of time. Whatever his regime was, his discipline, he followed it to make sure that he was physically at the peak place he needed to be to perform whatever stunt he had to perform. But he was never a diva about it and never a star. He just wanted to do a great job and then got on with it – and he did, every day.

Q: How did you approach the story?
JJ Abrams: Well, that’s a good question. I just wanted to make a movie that ‘s worth seeing. Just because it’s Mission: Impossible III really wasn’t enough. Of course, I was excited by the opportunity, but when I saw the script that they were going to shoot, as brilliantly written as it was, I knew it wasn’t a movie that I could do justice to. I knew it wasn’t a version of the film that I could deliver – just because it wasn’t what interested me. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a great movie and still couldn’t, it just wasn’t the version that I felt like I could say to them: “‘I’m the guy for this..’ So then I realised that I was in a very awkward position because I was being given an opportunity to direct this movie but I didn’t want to direct the movie they were going to make.

Q: Did you turn it down?
JJ Abrams: I said to Tom: “I get this but this is just not my thing..” And he said: ‘Well, then let’s do your thing, and we’ll wait a year..” Literally, it was shock after shock. So, I got these two friends, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, who I’d worked with on Alias, and we just started outlining this story that for me, made it interesting. It was a story about a man who is this spy but would come home and how that would actually affect him as a person. If he has to live his life undercover, how do you do that? What is that? We hadn’t seen that in the Mission films and that was interesting to me. Who is that guy when the mission is over and he goes back home?

Q: Did you need to find a new enemy, now that the Cold War is over?
JJ Abrams: Sure but there are no shortage of bad guys in the world. The idea of trying to figure out how to tell a story – whoever the bad guy was – from Ethan Hunt’s point of view, not as a spy but as a man, that to me was the way in. Developing who the bad guy was came out of that. There were a number of different options of who we could use as our bad guy, so that wasn’t a hard thing to find, actually.

Q: What was your approach to the action sequences?
JJ Abrams: Well, I was aware that in the first two films, which were directed by Brian De Palma and John Woo, their fingerprints were so clear. I have no idea what my style is at all, or even if I have one. I’m probably bereft of style but I do know that when I looked at these sequences I wanted them to feel real and grounded. As huge as some of them are – and as preposterous as some of the stuff may be – the only way I knew it would feel grounded and real was by treating them that way and by always tracking our characters and what they were going through. So instead of imposing a style arbitrarily, I wanted to be true to the story, making sure I’m tracking the characters at all times. It became very clear very quickly and was a huge comfort, that there was only one way to shoot this movie, and that was to do it as honestly as possible and not try and be cute about it.

Q: How did you cope with the pressure of directing such a big movie and the little matter of looking after a hit television show like Lost?
JJ Abrams: The TV shows are being run by incredibly talented writers and producers, so while a lot of people say: “I love Lost this season…” My response is: “I have so little to do with it really.” I’m so happy but I wish I could take more credit for it than I can. I keep up on it and stuff, and we have a new pilot that is shooting next week in New York, so it’s busy. But working with Tom is the least amount of effort, it has truly been a dream collaboration. He has been so focused and professional and not just collaborative, but deferential. He let me write the movie with my co writers, the movie I wanted to write, he let me cast it the way I wanted to cast it. He let me direct the movie I wanted to direct it, and he let me cut the movie the way I wanted it. I am forever grateful to him for this opportunity.

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