The film launched a franchise, but also a lot of great filmmaking lessons.
Perhaps my favorite film franchise of all time is Mission: Impossible. At this point, Tom Cruise is off filming the seventh and eighth installments, and I can't wait for them to be released, but I wanted to return to where it all started.
No, not the TV show, the Brian De Palma movie.
In the mid-90s, Paramount decided to reboot Mission: Impossible as a movie. They brought on legendary writers Robert Towne and David Koepp to work on the script and De Palma to direct. What resulted was a blockbuster filled with intrigue, great performances, and a star-solidifying performance from Cruise.
There are lots of amazing lessons to learn from the process, but today we will focus on eight of them. Check out the trailer to De Palma's classic film and let's go over the lessons after.
8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from Mission: Impossible
1. Embrace canted angles
One of the most subtle things in this movie that I don't think a lot of other directors utilize are the canted or "Dutch" angles.
This is a spy thriller, so it's the perfect genre to mess with the camera angle to make the audience feel worried and uneasy. De Palma does this all with a graceful touch.
When it comes time to do your movie, think about shaking up the camera angles from the boring norm.
2. Set pieces must be memorable
One of the best things about the first Mission: Impossible is that it set the standard for set pieces. From the opening mask switch to the break-in at the CIA, these set pieces were all perfect trailer moments. I mean, Cruise hanging from the rafters is one of the indelible images in all of film history now.
When you set out to make your movie, think about how the set pieces stand out. As the story goes, Paramount wanted more of a talky spy movie, but Cruise and De Palma said that the only way the public would embrace it is if the set pieces wowed everyone.
They were right.
3. Write yourself into a corner
My favorite part about the script from Koepp and Towne is that there are multiple times it feels like Cruise is going to lose. The characters are constantly backed into corners with no way out. This kind of writing really makes the audience anxious, in a good way. Aside from having to pull off a heist at the CIA, you also have Cruise being chased by the government and facing double-crosses.
When you write your story, get the character to a place where you have no idea how to get them out of it... and then get them out of it.
4. Stars still have power
In this era, we think about the faces that can sell movies. Whether it's clicking on a thumbnail online or opening at the box office, stars have a ton of power in Hollywood today.
Mission: Impossible works because of the writing and directing, but it opened to huge numbers and shined because of the star power.
Tom Cruise is still one of the most famous people in the world. You might not be able to get him in your movie, but if you are trying to sell it to studios, consider packaging with a star. Or at least someone with a face that has star power.
5. Practical effects hold up
CGI was taking over in the 90s, and there is some use of it in this film. Parts of the train chase at the end of the movie are not as thrilling as when they debuted, but the best parts of this film are done practically.
Think about the scene where the aquarium explodes and sends fish through the windows. That was thousands of gallons of real water they had pouring after him.
When in doubt, do your effects practically. They will stand the test of time.
6. You don't owe the original anything
When Mission: Impossible was released, there were lots of reports that the stars of the original TV show hated it. They were upset that the Phelps character, who was the protagonist of the original show, turned out to be a bad guy in the movie.
Not only did no one in the modern audience care, but the movie actually turns on that reveal in a really exciting way, as we see multiple characters double-crossing each other.
The point here is that when you are adapting an idea, you do not owe anything to the original. You owe the audience the best story you can muster. Focus on that, always.
7. Collaboration is key
As I mentioned earlier, the first movie really was a collaboration between the star, director, writers, and the studio. Everyone had their own agendas going into this movie. De Palma told them his one desire was to keep the audience guessing in every scene. Koepp and Towne worked on different drafts, but Cruise and De Palma listed set pieces they wanted in the story.
The studio pushed back, but eventually put up the $70 million when they saw the vision behind the film. When stunts didn't look real, Cruise offered to do them himself. Everyone acted like professionals and made appropriate concessions for the vision.
The filmmakers delivered the film on time and under budget, a rarity in Hollywood.
8. Know when you've had enough
Mission: Impossible became a very successful series of films, but De Palma only directed one of the installments. In an interview with AP News, De Palma said sequels were about money, and he wasn't in it for that.
“Stories, they keep making them longer and longer only for economic reasons,” De Palma said. “After I made Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise asked me to start working on the next one. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ One of these is enough. Why would anybody want to make another one? Of course, the reason they make another one is to make money. I was never a movie director to make money, which is the big problem of Hollywood. That’s the corruption of Hollywood.”
Is there a lesson here for you? Choose your projects with your heart, not your wallet.
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