Best of Summer 2023: How Editor Eddie Hamilton Cut “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” to the Quick
*It’s our annual “Best of Summer” look back at some (not all) of our favorite interviews from the past few months. This non-comprehensive look back includes the Barbenheimer phenomenon and the wonderful interviews that followed those two history-making films, chats with the talented folks behind Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, our profile of MPA Creator Award Recipient and filmmaker extraordinaire Gina Prince-Bythewood and more.
As it is, Tom Cruise’s new Mission: Impossible movie (now playing) runs a hefty two hours and forty-three minutes, but what people see in theaters actually represents a very slimmed-down version of the original cut that director Christopher McQuarrie screened for his friends. “It ran four hours,” says Cruise’s go-to editor Eddie Hamilton. “We watched it in a screening room with 40 people, and it was two and a half hours to Venice. Then we had snacks and came back for the last hour and a half.”
Hamilton, who earned an Oscar nomination for Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick and cut previous Mission: Impossible entries Rogue One and Fallout, faced an embarrassment of riches in the Dead Reckoning Part One rough cut. High-energy performances, eye-popping stunts, and locations like Abu Dubai, Rome, Venice, and Norway filled the screen. For the seasoned editor, the challenge came in streamlining all that footage into the summer popcorn movie that has so far grossed $370 million and critical acclaim.
Speaking from his home in London, Hamilton explains the tricks of the trade he used to reckon with Dead Reckoning‘s car chases, motorcycle stunts, and multiple character arcs.
Dead Reckoning throws many plates up in the air — new villains, old villains, the “cruciform key” Macguffin, Ethan Hunt’s gang, plus the addition of Hayley Atwell’s new pickpocket femme fatale character Grace. How do you balance all that plot information with emotional beats?
That’s the push-pull we deal with every single day. Especially on a long movie like this, you have to make sure that there’s no air. We discussed it all the time with Chris McQuarrie being like: “I’m feeling air, I’m feeling air.” I’ve been working on the movie for three years, I’ve watched it 700 times and seen it iterate day after day, compressing, compressing, compressing.
You like to keep things moving.
But you can get to the point where you compress it too much. Right at the end of the movie, Ethan Hunt’s talking to the henchwoman Paris, where she’s lying there going, “Why did you spare my life?” We did an ultra-tight version of that scene where I cut all the air out. I came back the next day and watched it again with Chris. We went, “Woah. There’s no emotion at all. I don’t feel anything. It’s just information,” And information is the death of emotion.
The movie’s first big set piece at the airport introduces Hayley Atwell’s character Grace, plus multiple bad guys, surveillance cameras, cutbacks to Luther and his laptop, and you’ve got Benji racing around trying to find a ticking bomb, and Ethan Hunt’s in the middle of it all. That’s a lot of moving parts!
The airport scene was filmed partially at a real airport in Abu Dhabi. It was phenomenally difficult, but Chris doesn’t worry too much about figuring everything out on the page or even on set. The actors give us a lot of flavors, he collects the ingredients, and then we bake the cake in the editing room. That sequence took weeks of work. We had to intercut between Luther and Ethan and Grace and Paris and the buyer while also making sure the graphics on Benji’s laptop are designed so that your eye is guided around the screen. The first time never works. We throw it all out, and it still doesn’t work. It’s an evolutionary process. Honestly, I was working on that scene for two years.
Complex sequences seem to have become part of Mission: Impossible’s DNA.
If you think back to the opera scene in Rogue Nation, there’s all this cross-cutting to keep each character “alive,” so it’s similar in that way to the airport sequence. Chris likes to challenge himself with complicated sequences because he knows that when we sit together in the edit, we will refine it until we eventually get there.
Can you give an example of what it means to “refine” the raw footage?
It often involves going back and getting little close-ups of people, little bits of information. Or in the case of Hayley Atwell, she was finding her character every day. Is Grace scared? Confident? Flirty with Tom? Wily? There were times when she was a bit too confident, a bit smug, and we dialed that down. We modulated Hayley’s performance all the way through.
Were you present on set to make edits during production?
Yes, some of the time. I’d have a feed on my iPad, and on day two of the production, I’m working on day one footage, knowing it’s going to be rough and everything’s going to change. But you’ve got to start somewhere. I went through dailies and watched everything. We had 780 hours of footage on this movie.
The car chases in Rome looked phenomenal. How did you piece that footage together?
I’m thrilled with the way it turned out, but the Rome sequence took weeks of careful work to make sure [the action] landed correctly. You have to understand that Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell are in a two-shot the entire time. You’re not cutting to create chemistry — you’re allowing their behavior to play out in a two-shot. One of our touchstone movies was What’s Up Doc.
The screwball comedy with Barbara Streisand?
Yeah. Chris loved that film and really embraced that approach in the Fiat and, before that, the BMW chase where Ethan’s handcuffed to Grace, and he’s driving one-handed. We filmed so much cool stuff but ended up compressing it because we kept getting feedback from the audience that it was just too long. Tom would always tell us, “You’ve always got to leave the audience wanting more,” so that became our mantra. We said, “Okay, we’re going to dive back into the chase sequence and take out more until it’s the right length.” Chris and Tom listen to the audience very carefully. They want to make mass entertainment for people in every country on the planet.
Can you talk a bit more about editing the action in Rome so it would track for an audience?
The trick is any time you cut to Tom and Hayley reacting in the car, you can then jump to any location without losing the audience, apart from locals. We cut to Ethan, and he turns right; we’re in a different part of the city, and who cares? Sometimes we’d take one chase and combine it with another one, and you don’t even notice that we’re in two different parts of the city. So we do cheat. But we’re constantly trying to keep this dynamic energy going with pressure from the other characters and the gags while we’re balancing all of that with Tom’s precision driving, where he carefully knocks over scooters or drives into some tiny alley. We cut out quite a bit of cool stuff, so we’re going to do a deleted shots reel for the DVD where you can see all these bits in a montage.
For the grand finale, you’ve got Tom Cruise and his motorcycle flying through the air to land on a speeding train – – pretty spectacular. Were you on set when they shot that?
Yeah. In September 2020, I was in Norway when they filmed the jump, but it’s always about the emotional state, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t matter if someone does a stunt if you don’t have an emotional connection to the characters and the stakes, and why people are doing what they’re doing. How much of the story do we see before we see Ethan on the motorbike? How often do we cut to Grace and the White Widow on the train? To get all those pieces balanced correctly, you have to work really hard to make everything smooth and emotional, so you’re not bumped off the ride.
You clearly place a premium on paring the story down to its essence.
You have to be utterly ruthless. Even in the last week of the edit, I’d say to Chris, “We’ve got to cut this; we’ve got to cut that.” This was stuff that Chris was very fond of, but he was like, “If it can go, it must go.” It’s the art of getting the maximum amount of story into the minimum amount of screen time. That’s what you’re aiming for. That’s the holy grail.
For more on Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, check out these stories:
Featured image: Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.