M:I:III (2006): Tom Cruise on Mission Impossible Director J. J. Abrams

The instant I went to J.J.’s office, we clicked, both artistically and personally. J.J.’s work has everything I love about movies: characters, personal stories, twists and turns. The first thing that I said to J.J. was, ‘What would you do with this series I want this to be a J.J. Abrams Mission: Impossible.’
Tom Cruise, star and producer

J.J. Abrams, the creator of such groundbreaking TV programs as Lost and Alais, takes on his greatest challenge to date as co-writer and director of Mission: Impossible III. After Brian De Palma and John Woo left their indelible marks on the first two films in the franchise, producers Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise sought out a new, innovative voice for the third segment.

Getting the Job

When Tom Cruise approached me about directing this movie, I said, ‘yes’ before he asked me the question. The promise of a Mission Impossible movie is the ultimate opportunity for a writer and director. You have the chance, especially with someone like Tom and the other actors we have in the cast, to get into some real emotional character portrayals.

Personal and Intimate Story

From the beginning, Tom and I talked about wanting to do a movie that had a surprisingly personal and intimate story. When you hear Mission Impossible, you know you are going to get extreme situation, great action, and incredible stunts. The idea was to take that opportunity, and combine it with an intimate story, a love story, and friendships that were real friendships with characters that you get to know and like.

Unexplored Ethan Hunt

We wanted to probe some parts of the Ethan Hunt character that have gone unexplored. How do you reconcile being a man who does what Ethan does Our approach is not to make a movie about a spy, but to tell a story about a man who is a spy. It may sound like semantics, but when you truly let that guide you, the questions come and the answers that appear are actually relatable, emotional, and fascinating.

Writing Action Sequences for Cruise

Our movie delivers all of the incredible action and breathtaking stunts that moviegoers expect from the franchise. Our writing team, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and me dreamed up new sequences for Hunt to survive. When we started writing the action sequences, we would say, ‘We shouldn’t even write this, because Tom’s going to want to do the stunt himself.’ In the end, we realized, of course, we had to give the best we could. Though it’s a bit hair-raising, it’s inspiring to work with an actor and producer who’s so willing to give everything to make the best movie he can.”

Character at the Center

In our writing, from the beginning, we wanted to do a movie about a character. Not that there isn’t a lot of actionthat goes without sayingbut my favorite kind of spy movie is one where the commitment to the world, as extreme as it is, and as hyper-real as it is, is still emotionally true. You have these characters going through some of the most heartbreaking, most terrifying, most thrilling, most fun moments, and you believe all of them within the context of the genre. That’s what we wanted to bring to M:I:III.

Working With Cruise

Our high-stakes story is the perfect match for Cruise’s on and of-screen intensity. Before we started shooting, Cameron Crowe, who directed Tom in Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky, mentioned to me that Tom was so focused, so professional, and so hard working, that he was going to spoil me foe the rest of my life. Everything Cameron says is absolutely true.

Worthy Villain

Our team took special care to create a villain worthy of Ethan Hunt, one that could match up to the hero. This is the first time that Ethan has come up against an adversary that is a scary, clever, and mysterious as the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Keri Russell

Keri Russell previously starred in my first TV series, Felicity, so I cast her as Lindsey Ferris, the only trainee that displays the high skill level and abilities to be confirmed by Ethan to become a member of IMF. Keri is the absolutely greatest. It’s inspiring, because she’s never done anything like this before, so watching her pick up the gun work and the stunts really showed me that she’s capable of anything. Tom was really helpful in showing her the ropes of action and stunt work: The timing of it, the rhythm of it, and getting the confidence todo it.

Visual Style

In creating Lost and Alias, I have created a personal visual style, because the action derives organically from the human characters. I go for a natural, realistic, and gritty approach over stylized, slow-motion, and highly edited fighting sequences. I wanted to put my own stamp on the action sequences, so I asked legendary action director Vic Armstrong to help realize it.

In order to work out the complicated action shots and sequences, we made full use of pre-visualization capacities at my disposal. Pre-visualization enables me as a director to describe an action sequence as I envision it, to a visual effects editor, who makes a CG representation of it. In this way, each department can see exactly what the specific requirements will be as they prepare to pull it off.

Achieving Effects In-Camera

For me, achieving the effects in-camera, as opposed to with CGI, with Cruise performing as many of his own stunts as possible was a must. All the latest CG technology is great, but if you can do something for real, actually have the actor perform the stunt and not really on head replacement, well nothing trumps that.

Cruise Doing Stunts

In the movie, Tom drops, stopping 18 inches above the concrete, and I found myself talking to someone else between takes. I realized I had become complacent about Tom Cruise, who was entirely my responsibility, dangling from a scene, dropping at breakneck speed, stopping just above the ground. I remember thing, ‘I have to get back to being terrified.’

Exotic Locations

Our movie lives up to the tradition of spy thrillers taking audiences to exotic international locations. However, the locations were chosen because they were specifically part of the story we tell. I didn’t want the audience to get ‘travelogue syndrome.’ The places we chose are integral to the whole story.