Dec 07,2011 - 12:05 AM
Arsalan Mohammad takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of filming Mission:Impossible in Dubai
In 2009, Hollywood producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk were en route to Kuwait, to present a screening of their latest ‘Star Trek’ film to US troops stationed in the Gulf. On the way, they decided, out of curiosity, to stop over in Dubai, where they took a tour around the city. And whilst prowling about the bustling city, the pair experienced something of a eureka moment…
‘JJ turned to me,’ remembers Abrams ‘And said, “We HAVE to come back here and shoot a movie!” It’s this incredible 21st century city that literally just rises out of the desert.’
Two years later and that spark of inspiration is now the cinematic behemoth ‘Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol’ (MIGP), the fourth outing of the blockbusting series and the Gala screening selected to open the 8th Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday December 7th. It’s the perfect choice for DIFF, articulating the Festivals’ fundamental credo of ‘Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds’, bringing the billion-dollar global brand to this unique, exciting city that buzzes with non-stop energy and vitality.
‘Mission:Impossible Ghost Protocol’ sees Tom Cruise returning as indomitable IMF agent, Ethan Hunt, plunging into the jaws of a gripping story from the get-go. From the start, ‘MIGP’ has us perched on the edge of our seats, with an opening sequence in which our hero finds himself blamed for a terrorist bombing at the Kremlin. Alienated and under suspicion, following the US President’s reaction - invoking the emergency measure ‘Ghost Protocol’ - Russell embarks on a global mission to clear his, and his agency’s name. Raising the stakes higher are Ethan’s fellow IMF fugitives, whose shadowy motives and personal agendas may or may not be in line with our beleaguered hero…
Helmed by director Brad Bird (‘Ratatouille’, ‘The Incredibles’) and driven by an all-star cast that sees mainstay Tom Cruise joined by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Josh Holloway, Anil Kapoor and Léa Seydoux, ‘MIGP’ takes the series global, with a round-the-world chase for the truth. And along the way, in some of the most tense, breath-taking scenes in the movie, we soon find ourselves plumb spang in the heart of Dubai. With the production team taking full advantage of the breadth of locations offered in the city, ranging from desert to ultra-modern metropolis, ‘Mission:Impossible Ghost Protocol’ is the first international movie to portray modern-day Dubai as itself. And given the franchise’s tradition of high-octane drama, suspense and action, where better to set a pivotal scene than with a spectacular stunt-filled sequence filmed near the top of the 828-metre high Burj Khalifa tower?
‘It’s one of the first things you look at,’ says director Brad Bird of the Burj. ‘It’s this gleaming, really quite beautiful building that sticks up like a needle touching space. A lot of the architecture is very imaginative and seems so futuristic. The fact that it’s surrounded by desert is such a surreal sight, because it’s just dunes and flatness, and there’s this city rising up like Oz. It’s understandable why other filmmakers were attracted to Dubai as a visual playground.’ MIGP producer, Andre Nemec agreed the iconic building was simply too tantalising a location to pass up.
‘We were talking about the building sequence and we thought, “What’s the scariest, most bad-ass thing we could imagine?”’ says Nemec. ‘And the answer was, “Let’s make him climb the outside of that building, in the interest of keeping the mission alive.”’
Clearly, the Burj was an irresistible challenge to the 48-year-old actor who, famously, insists on doing all his own stunts. ‘I’m always looking at different structures, thinking, ‘How can I climb that? How can I jump out of that?”’ Tom Cruise says. This attitude, which frequently sees the star cheerfully tackling the most comically-dangerous daredevil feats on-set whilst petrified producers cover their eyes in terror, propelled Cruise up the side of the Burj, despite the director’s begging that they use a safer, saner mini-replica of the Burj’s outside surface for filming. ‘We were going to build this set, have Ethan climb it, and then digitally extend all the shots to show the rest of the building,’ explains Visual Effects Producer Tom C Peitzman. ‘Then we sat down with Tom and, of course, he wanted to climb the real building. That put a whole new spin on things.’
Indeed, Cruise’s determination to perform all his own stunts was legendary, even before shooting began on MIGP. ‘Tom wants to do everything,’ says stunt coordinator Gregg Smrz. ‘Even when he doesn’t have to. There are shots where the producers were really getting nervous, and he wanted to take it further and further. I told him, “Tom, nobody is going to know it’s not you. There’s no reason for you to do this – your double could do it and you can watch.” He just looked at me and said, “But I’m having fun.”’
Instead, the replica Burj was used for the rehearsals and training, with Cruise practising his moves enough times that, by the time he would reach the actual building surface, they would be routine.
Once in Dubai, the crew set up on the Burj Khalifa’s 123rd floor, which was then still unfinished, to bring in camera rigs, cranes and sundry other gear. ‘When we arrived on set, we had rehearsed it so much, it felt like we had been there 100 times’” Smrz explains. ‘We just walked in, and climbed the building. It felt like a military operation.’
What was originally planned as a two-day shoot on the surface of the building, followed by eight days on a mock-up set, turned into four days on the outside of the building. Executive producer Jeffrey Chernov remembers an exhilarated Cruise and Smrz, following the first few days on the Burj, asking for more time to film on location, as opposed to on the mock-up.
Known in the industry for his commitment to mastering stunt techniques that leave even the most grizzled and cynical veterans of the trade slack-jawed in awe, Cruise’s enthusiasm for the scaliest of scenarios had everyone pretty much floored. Not only did he insist on performing his treacherous climbs himself, supported only by a body-harness, in one especially heart-stopping moment, he suddenly drops 30 metres down the surface. Again, it seemed all in a day’s work for the actor. Meanwhile, professional mountaineers were summoned, to tutor Cruise in a particular move that, again, had the production’s insurance team running to the bathrooms with terror. The devilishly-dangerous ‘Aussie Rappel’ saw Cruise run across the face of the building before launching himself back through an open window. ‘You’re basically running face down the building, running towards the ground,’ Smrz explains. ‘It’s quite unique and terrifying.’
But during the team’s 23 days filming in Dubai, there was a lot more to do aside from hop about on impossibly-high skyscrapers. Once down on the ground, Cruise’s pluck didn’t let up as he and the MI crew took full advantage of the diverse range of possibilities offered by the city. Another soon-to-be famous scene sees Ethan Russell haring through the distinctive DIFC buildings near the Burj Khalifa. Caught in a ‘shamal’ (desert storm), the actor gamely rehearsed his sprint repeatedly, zooming across the DIFC district while the crew miraculously conjured up a thunderous storm. At this point, with colossal clouds of dust and grit billowing into that famous visage, one is wondering what further privations the plotline has in store for Cruise.
Luckily, there were some decidedly more congenial locations, in which Dubai got to show off its love of luxury and style, such as in scenes shot in the opulent Zabeel Saray hotel on the Palm. Amidst the glamour and opulence of the new Jumeirah property – which utilised a number of sites across its complex, from the colossal entrance reception to a magnificent ballroom, the hotel more than held its own as one of the stellar supporting cast of Dubai landmarks. This was actually used for scenes set in India, a ball at which Ethan Hunt encounters Brij Nath, one of Ethan Russell’s more suave adversaries.
The entire 23-day shoot saw the biggest foreign production on Dubai soil to date. The 450-strong ground crew utilised around 600 local extras, many of whom were seen in scenes such as the ball at the Zabeel Saray and around a chase sequence set in the Satwa neighbourhood (which itself, was later recreated in Vancouver). With 450 crew members during the 23-day shoot, 600 extras sourced from across the city and one very, very determined star actor, the shoot was not only a major advance in the ongoing story of ‘Mission:Impossible’ – it’s a proud moment for Dubai itself and a cue for further such projects in the city.
The last word goes to MIGP’s Executive producer Jeffrey Chernov, ‘Looking for locations for ‘Ghost Protocol’ was always about finding the most exotic places. That was something that was really important for Tom. What we’re out to do is really deliver entertainment in the most exotic locales.’