David James


Why Tom Cruise's Broken Ankle Was a 'Blessing' for 'Mission: Impossible'

“My job is to negate as much risk as possible and still not make the stunt lose its dangerous-looking edge,” Wade Eastwood, stunt coordinator for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, tells Playboy. The film, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is the sixth in the action franchise that stars Tom Cruise as a seemingly fearless IMF agent named Ethan Hunt. This one ups the ante on the previous editions’ action sequences, adding in a helicopter chase through a dense mountain valley with Cruise in the pilot’s seat, along with a tense motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris. The team also shot a HALO jump, a term for high-altitude military parachuting that requires specific training. Cruise ultimately did 105 jumps alongside the camera operators to create the shots, which is just a small taste of the lengths the actor went to for the film.

Eastwood, who has worked with Cruise on numerous films, including Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, helped the actor get all the right training for these literally death-defying moments. “At the end of the day, we’re doing extreme things at an extreme level,” he notes. “Everything was extreme. It was all gray-hair evoking.” We spoke with the stunt coordinator following the film’s successful first weekend about how these sequences came to be—and we learned Eastwood's surprising reaction to Cruise's ankle injury suffered during filming that shut down production for weeks.

What’s your starting place for the stunts when you see the script?
With Mission, we never really have a full script. We have a lot of ideas, and we have a rough draft of the script, so it hasn’t got the action in it yet. It’s a storyline, basically. And then McQ, Tom and I form our little threesome, and we start coming up with ideas that could connect the story and keep it very character-based. We're not just writing in an action sequence for the sake of writing in an action sequence. Normally, I’ll have a bunch of ideas for sequences that would fit around whatever the story is, to take Ethan from one place to another place. We see which ones work with the story best. We want to do things that haven’t been done with Ethan in a Mission movie before, and also things that haven’t been done in film. Or if they have been done, haven’t been done to be remembered.

What’s an example of that?
The helicopter sequence. There’s been one in movies before, but we weren’t really subjectively with the character, with the pilot. You obviously couldn’t because there was always a stunt pilot or a double or something. They also didn’t take you on a story journey—they just took you on an action sequence. What we wanted to do was take you on a journey with the pilot, who happens to be Ethan Hunt, who also happens to be Tom Cruise. We wanted to really get you stuck into him controlling the aircraft so that when you do cut to the outside shots, you know it’s him, and you’re invested in the story of it, rather than just watching the spectacle.
Did Tom know how to fly a helicopter before this film went into production?
Yes. On Rogue Nation, he didn’t. We started chatting about a sequence—because I’m a helicopter pilot myself—and how cool it would be to do. He’s a big pilot. He flies airplanes, he does aerobatics and all that sort of stuff. But he hadn’t flown helicopters. We talked about all these things we could do and thought we could do something in New Zealand. I went ahead and filmed stuff there flying down some canyons and showed it to him. That was the start of the sequence.

So Tom had to get his [helicopter] license. You have to get your private pilot’s license, then you have to get your commercial pilot’s license in order to fly on film, then after that you have to get your mountain rating and other ratings. We had to cram that into a short space of time. During the filming of Jack Reacher and The Mummy, he worked on his license, and then he just flew every chance he got during Mission, trying to get more hours and experience. He got to a place where he felt very confident. He loved every minute of it, and it shows in the film. He became a very experienced pilot in a short space of time.
How many helicopters did you have in the air when shooting that sequence?
A dozen or so helicopters at one time. We had Tom in the black one, and we had Henry Cavill and his pilot in another. And then we had the main-camera helicopter filming as well. We had a MedEvac helicopter. We had the crew being flown up to mountaintops, camera guys being flown over mountain ridges where we couldn’t even land. It was a proper mountain operation.
Were there any moments during that when you felt nervous about what was happening?
Oh, my God—yes. There were so many moments. It’s nervous because I didn’t have full control over what could happen. With any pilot, me flying the helicopter on my own—in the mountains, anything could happen. Something could happen that’s a freak accident. So, to then be filming with helicopters a few feet away from each other in a stunt sequence when those things could happen as well, it’s nerve-wracking to watch. All I could do from my side is to ensure that Tom had the correct training, that all the crew we used were at the top of their game, that rehearsals were done correctly and that all the rigging was done correctly.

Once the helicopters take off, there’s not much more that can be done. You’re down to the pilots flying the aircraft. What was really hard to grasp on that was that when Tom was flying the helicopter in stunt-related sequences in the mountains, he had to act as Ethan Hunt. He couldn’t just put the helicopter in a spin and watch the instruments and be a pilot. He had to find the lens, create his angles and act, on top of being a pilot monitoring his instruments. That made it really hard.

How did you prepare for the HALO jump scene?
HALO was a lot of training. Tom started training sky-diving in England. He sky-dove many years ago doing sports jumps in America, but he wasn’t current. We had to get him current first. I have an ex-military team I use for sky-diving sequences in all my films. They got him into a military program to prepare for the HALO jump. And then to create the sequence, we built the largest wind tunnel in the world, so we could practice in it. We had it built on the backlot of a studio in England. Every break time, I’d get a call, and Tom would meet me in the wind tunnel, and we could fly and work on body positions. We could be in an actual, real environment, flying 40 to 50 feet in the air, and the movement would be correct to proper free-fall speed. So when we did go out and shoot it, we knew what we would doing. It was a very hectic schedule, but by the end of it, Tom was a fully-rated, mountain-commercial stunt helicopter pilot and a fully-rated sky-diver and HALO jumper with all his licenses current.
Tom Cruise told me today, “You’ve got to go to any real cinema and see it with an audience.” He sneaks into cinemas and watches it with audiences because he loves the reaction. For him, that’s the payoff.
So he might be an actual spy.
He’s more than qualified. He has a lot of qualifications because he just loves doing this stuff. People always ask, “Why does he do it? He’s Tom Cruise. He doesn’t have to.” And if I became an actor like Tom Cruise, I wouldn’t want someone else to do the stuff I love doing. Why would I want to give all the fun stuff away? When we’re sitting in long, boring meetings about numbers, it’s like pulling teeth. He knows we’ve got to do it, but you know he’s thinking, “Can we go bike training now? Can we go flying? Can we go do something fun?” He just loves it. And he loves the reaction he gets from it as well. He told me today, “You’ve got to go to any real cinema and see it with an audience.” He sneaks into cinemas and watches it with audiences because he loves the reaction. For him, that’s the payoff. He wants to entertain people. He doesn’t do it for any other reason than that.

It sounds like, all things considered, a broken ankle was not really a big deal.
No! It was more annoying than anything else. For Tom, when it happened, he was more annoyed because immediately it's like, "Ah, shit." He has to change the schedule, it's going to affect the crew. He doesn't think about himself—he thinks about the film, and then all the crew first. We were like, "Oh, my God, we get a couple of weeks off!" We were diving for the holiday. It was a well-deserved rest for a very hardworking crew. And it also gave us a lot of time to prep the movie properly. We needed that break, otherwise we would have been a little bit in trouble with the schedule—so actually, it was a blessing in disguise.

I've done a lot of movies with Tom, and it is all him doing it. The big stunts, like the helicopter and the HALO—yeah, those are big spectacles, but they're generally safer than putting a guy on a wire and ratcheting him across the room into a table. That's the stuff where you knock your head or break an ankle or a wrist, which is what happens to stunt guys often. It was just one of those things. He'd done it a load of times. But the amount of times I've ratcheted and thrown that guy across buildings everywhere in the world and into walls? It's probably 500 different impacts with all the rehearsals. So that was pretty good going.
Were the other actors in the film also doing their own stunts?
Yep. I worked with Rebecca Ferguson and Simon Pegg. Vanessa Kirby did her own knife-fight stuff. It was my first time working with her, and she was an absolute legend. My biggest shout-out is Henry Cavill. He was in our workshop all the time, training. Tom and him both worked as hard as each other. He did nearly all of his own stunts, apart from the HALO sequence. We just didn’t have time to train him. I also didn’t want to have two actors up there to look after, and it was unnecessary for the shot. But that’s really Henry in the helicopter.  

So much of films now is CGI and done in front of a green screen. Why does it feel important to keep doing these real-life stunts?

I think audiences know when they’re being cheated. It suits a certain kind of movie. If you’re doing a Marvel-esque movie, you’re already in that world where you know it’s not the real world. When you know you’re not in the real world, then doing otherworldly effects is not as noticeable. But with Mission, you’re in the regular, everyday world as a human being. If you do it for real, the audience stays connected to the character.

The stuff we get—the cobbled streets of Paris, the textures, the color palette, [you can't replicate] everything you get shooting it. And the feeling you get shooting it, it translates onto the screen way more than you realize. And we’re not cheating anyone, including ourselves.

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