Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird reflects on iconic Burj Khalifa stunt 10 years on
The thrilling sequence has become perhaps the quintessential Mission: Impossible set piece.
It's been 25 years since Tom Cruise first took on the role of Ethan Hunt in Brian DePalma's 1996 espionage thriller Mission: Impossible, and the action-star has gone on to reprise the role in a further five movies so far. In that time, he's been engaged in high-powered motorbike chases, opera house shootouts, and brutal bathroom brawls, but perhaps the most iconic set piece of all occurred in the fourth film, Ghost Protocol – which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The centre-piece of that movie was a stunningly tense action sequence that saw the IMF agent scale the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, with help only from a pair of malfunctioning gecko gloves. It was a hugely ambitious sequence, and one which looks every bit as impressive a decade on – so to mark the anniversary of the film, RadioTimes.com spoke to director Brad Bird about the conception and execution of the stunt.
Bird, who was making his debut as a live-action feature filmmaker following huge success in the field of animation, says that he was "diving into the deep end of the pool" when he took on the job – and admits he made matters even more challenging for himself by insisting on using IMAX cameras for the film's standout set-piece.
"I went to Paramount and said I was inspired by Chris Nolan in The Dark Knight," he says. "They were talking about shooting part of it in 3D and I just said, 'No, that's not the thing for me.' I wanted to shoot half an hour of it in IMAX – the fact that Tom wanted to go up on the building himself just kind of suggested that we ought to really do this in the most grand manner that we can. And so they went for it, we shot a half an hour of the movie in IMAX, and I'm really glad we did!"
Franchise films like Mission: Impossible are inherently very collaborative projects, of course (Bird is particularly keen to highlight the work of editor Paul Hirsch and cinematographer Robert Elswit) and you might wonder exactly how the big stunts are initially conceived. Bird explains that when he boarded the project, the producers and writers already had a "sense of what a couple of the set pieces were", but they didn't have the intricacies figured out beyond the basic concepts. With regards to the Burj Khalifa stunt, the original idea had its roots when J.J Abrams – who directed the previous entry in the franchise – and producer Bryan Burk were on a trip to Dubai.
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"I don't know whether they were at a screening or something but they were somehow in Dubai," he says. "And they said, 'We should do something on this building'. So they did have that notion when I got onto the project, but they didn't know why he was on the building or what is involved.
"And what I brought was the idea of the gecko gloves," he adds. "When they invited me on to the film, they said just think of anything that you've ever wanted to see in a spy movie. And I had about five different things that I've always wanted to see and the main idea that I brought up was the idea of the equipment not working, that the super high tech equipment would be failing them all the way through the film, and that then they would have to improvise. And so the gecko gloves became part of that."
Tom Cruise himself had been influential in persuading Bird to direct the film in the first place. Several years before, the actor had invited him over to his house to sing the praises of his work on Pixar's The Incredibles, and explained that he'd be interested in collaborating with him should he ever decide to move into live-action filmmaking. And what really left a mark on Bird was Cruise's knowledge and passion for cinema history.
"The opportunity rolled around with this film, and I was very excited to work with him because we had this really great conversation about movies," he says. "We even got into talking about silent films and Harold Lloyd specifically, because his things often involved dangerous-looking stunts, most memorably in Safety Last where he's hanging from that clock. And the fact that he knew Harold Lloyd and could talk about different films that Harold Lloyd did really impressed me – because a lot of people in the movie industry don't have a memory of anything pre-Star Wars."
It's no secret that Cruise is somewhat audacious when it comes to performing his own stunts. The most recent entry in the franchise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, had to shut down production for several weeks when the actor broke his ankle, and he has reportedly taken on his most outlandish stunt yet in the upcoming seventh entry in the franchise, which is slated for release in 2022. And while that bravura was in many ways a blessing for Bird, it also caused him a couple of sleepless nights.
"I very clearly remember waking up with a start at about two in the morning, with the thought that if anything went wrong this movie was just toast," he says. "Because, it's Tom's movie and if anything happened to him, we were just absolutely toast. So I mean, I woke up going, 'What are we doing?'
"But fortunately, we had a great stunt team," he adds. "Really fantastic, super safe people. And Tom knows a ton about stunts – the stuntmen said that if the movie star thing hadn't worked out for him, he would have been a magnificent stuntman because he understands how to sell a stunt and make it look good for the camera.
"So not only is it his face but he actually knows about stunts and how to twist his body in a certain way so that it looks great on the screen. And Tom was a super collaborative person, I never had to fight him on anything – he wanted to know about everything, but if you had good answers for him he was the first one into school."
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Cruise might not have created any obstacles for Bird, then, but there were some tricky logistical challenges to overcome – notably filming the sequence on the "very cumbersome and noisy IMAX cameras", which meant there was limited time to get everything they needed for the scene. And Bird also needed to secure permission to destroy some of the Burj Khalifa's windows, an idea which the owners weren't initially particularly enamoured with.
"We went in with a plan that we would only, at minimum, get maybe five shots in IMAX on the real building," Bird explains. "And if that is all we can do, then we'll do the rest with just special effects and stuff like that. And at first, we asked if we could take out some windows, and very reluctantly, they said OK – but you've got to put them back and they've got to be exactly the way they were.
"And you really have to break the windows to take them out and then put new ones in – so we did it in about five locations and once we started we said, well, can we break a few more? And we ended up breaking like 35 windows. We did just about everything except the super close-up where you're looking up underneath Tom – those were done on a reproduction of the building because there's no reason to go through all the trouble if you're just going to be in a close-up.
"But everything else... we not only got everything we wanted, we got basically the whole sequence and we ended up breaking like I said 30-something windows. And we just kept adding camera angles and shooting more and more. And this whole sequence is basically IMAX footage shot on that building."
One aspect of the scene which ramps up the tension even further is the threat of an oncoming sandstorm, which is expected to hit imminently while Hunt is scaling the building. Although he eventually manages to complete his task before the onset of the storm, it still leads to a thrilling car chase later in the movie – and Bird explains that the genesis of that particular idea came from producer Jeremey Chernov.
"I was trying to think of ways to visualise how tall that building is," he says. "Because you don't really get a sense of how unbelievably tall it is – I mean, it's almost two Empire State Buildings! And I was trying to think of a way to quickly visualise that and I started thinking of clouds and having the buildings sticking above the clouds. And Jeffrey said, 'Well, instead of clouds you should have a Shamal, like a sandstorm.
"So I'm thinking, 'Wait a Sandstorm... that would be a great thing to have a chase in.' Because it's the middle of the day, like the crop duster scene in North by Northwest, and you plunge everybody into a situation where they still can't see but it's the middle of the day. So I pitched the idea of them having the chase scene in the sandstorm and having the sandstorm hit at a certain moment, and they went with that."
Each entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise so far has attempted to be bigger and better than the previous instalment, and so I ask Bird if he had ever talked with Christopher MacQuarrie – who has directed the two most recent films – about the incredibly high bar he'd set for him with the Burj Khalifa stunt. Bird's answer is that the pair have "been joking about it ever since" but he also reveals that MacQuarrie himself had played a crucial role in Ghost Protocol.
"We were blessed to have him come in and do a little rewriting on the film when we were in production and trying to figure things out," he says. "The funny thing is I was kind of saying, 'How can I go in and start shooting this film if the script is changing all the time?' And basically, since then I've learned that every Mission: Impossible film has been that way, including the first Brian De Palma one.
"And when we had some troubles resolving some issues Chris came in for a few weeks and cleaned up some things that had been kind of pesky, where the character's motivation was shifting a little bit. And I thought that was unique to that film, but I've found out since then that the whole Mission Impossible series been like that!"
Bird has remained a huge fan of the series since the release of his film, and I ask him to pick out some of his other favourite set pieces from the franchise. Two immediately spring to mind for him, perhaps fittingly one in the first film and one in the most recent.
"I love the sequence where Tom is suspended in the vault in the first film," he says. "Where he has to get in the room and get the files out without touching anything. And the fact that Jean Reno is in the thing with the rat, all of that stuff. I thought DePalma did a brilliant job of filming it and Tom did an amazing job physically with selling all of that stuff.
"And I think that one of my very favourites has been the bathroom sequence in the last film, the most recent one. I think that was just one of the greatest things I've ever seen. And what was great was that the fight itself is pretty logical, what's happening and the fact that they use this case as a weapon and suddenly they need the case to function and they just trash it – it's just exactly the kind of humour that I love. Tom and Henry Cavill were physically amazing in that scene – and it was shot beautifully."