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Tom Cruise’s most death-defying Mission: Impossible stunt, explained

Here’s how to drop Tom Cruise from 2,000 feet in the air without killing him.

Tom Cruise hangs from a cliff in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.
Tom Cruise defies death once again in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.
Paramount Pictures

With each new Mission: Impossible movie, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must go to greater and greater lengths in order to achieve the impossible. The latest installment in the series, Fallout, is no exception to the rule, featuring a car-motorcycle-boat chase through Paris and a show-stopping (and heart-stopping) helicopter chase that calls back to the very first Mission: Impossible film and then amplifies it by a factor of 1,000 or so.

Six films in, the franchise is largely defined by its thrilling action sequences, in no small part because the stunts are executed practically rather than done against a green screen or via motion capture. A crash in the new Fallout, for example, was filmed using a real helicopter body set up on a crane 100 feet in the air, using high-speed winches to simulate the 70 to 80 mph speed at which the crash would occur.

And yes, as you’ve likely heard, Cruise does all his own stunts — including the one in Fallout that resulted in two broken ankle bones and a shooting delay. Cruise’s insistence on verisimilitude has become a major part of the mythology around the Mission: Impossible films, adding an extra dimension to “death-defying” when it comes to the franchise’s biggest action set pieces.

Doing everything for real — or “as real as we could get it,” as the film’s stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood, puts it — while ensuring that the performers and crew aren’t in any actual jeopardy is no easy task. I spoke to Eastwood over the phone to find out exactly how the Mission: Impossible — Fallout stunts came together (and how they pulled off that jaw-dropping finale).

Step 1: figuring out how the stunts fit into the movie

Tom Cruise in a helicopter
The key to the action is basing it on the characters.
Paramount Pictures

The action in Mission: Impossible begins on paper. Before shooting on Fallout even began, Eastwood sat down with Cruise and director Chris McQuarrie — both of whom he worked with on 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation as well as 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow to figure out what could be done, not necessarily based on logistics but on what worked for the characters involved.

“We constantly are pushing ourselves,” Eastwood says, stating the question that is key to all of the film’s stunt planning: “Are we doing the best character-based action here?” As Eastwood puts it, staying with the character and keeping the action subjective is what makes it compelling and builds emotional investment. “We see what drives the action.”

When it came to Hunt, that meant bargaining for just how often the agent’s plans can go awry. Though the stunts must be rigorously planned in order to shoot them, in the context of the film, Hunt is flying by the seat of his pants. “He has no real plan; he just knows that he has to complete the mission,” Eastwood explains. “All this stuff, it’s a little erratic, it’s a little last-minute. When he runs and jumps on that long line on the helicopter, he’s not planning on jumping on it that way. He’s running toward the helicopter, the helicopter takes off, and he’s like, ‘Well, if I let it go, we’re all dead, so I’ve got to do something.’ So it’s always last-minute. [...] He will not give up; he’s relentless. And that’s got to come across.”

Once those character beats were established, Eastwood could move on to the practical magic. He would pre-visualize an action sequence, putting together a rough version and then bringing it back for McQuarrie and Cruise’s inspection. If they decided the sequence suited the movie and the character involved, it was time to figure out how to do it practically.

Step 2: getting the cast ready to shoot

Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible — Fallout
August Walker’s fighting style was developed with Henry Cavill’s physicality in mind.
Paramount Pictures

When it comes to who does and doesn’t get to do their own stunts, it all comes down to their individual abilities, and how hard they push themselves. For instance, according to Eastwood, actress Vanessa Kirby, who plays the White Widow, trained so intensely on the film that she went from flagging in a 2-kilometer run to completing a half-marathon by the end of the shoot.

Eastwood does his best to tailor their action sequences to the respective actors’ strengths. CIA assassin August Walker’s brutal fighting style was developed with actor Henry Cavill’s physicality in mind. (“He’s like a bear.”) The same goes for Rebecca Ferguson as former MI6 agent Ilsa Faust. Her fighting style focuses on her long legs; hence the “killer thigh move” in Rogue Nation.

Then, of course, there’s Cruise. “If Tom didn’t have the ability, he wouldn’t be doing all of his own stunts,” Eastwood tells me. “I’ve always said if he wasn’t an actor, he would’ve made a great stuntman. And Mission: Impossible 6 is like his showreel.”

In the case of Fallout, that ability included Cruise getting a private pilot’s license, a commercial pilot’s license, and a number of ratings in order to be able to complete the helicopter chase at the end of the film, as well as keeping up that training throughout the shoot as the sequence was designed.

The scene provided its own logistical challenges in that respect, as it involved not just Cruise’s helicopter and the helicopter he’s pursuing (which he’s meant to crash into), but also the camera helicopter, all flying through a relatively narrow space. “You can’t just decide, ‘Oh, I’m going to just pull out left here,’ because you’ll go into a wall,” Eastwood says. “You have to be experienced enough to know where your out is.”

That includes knowing what to do in case of an engine flameout or a mechanical failure, which would be harrowing enough without taking the other helicopters into account. “The manual doesn’t say, ‘If you’re going to crash, you ditch it here,’ but if there are two other helicopters around you, or four or five other helicopters, and two rock faces? It would normally say, ‘Well, then, you’re buggered,’” he says.

Cruise had to train in order to be able to get through any emergency, as well as to act while simulating a crash. In the sequence, the helicopter corkscrews, which means dealing with the pull of gravity — Eastwood tells me the dive will take you out of your seat — while ensuring that the increasing speed of the main rotor doesn’t go so high that it comes off completely, leaving the helicopter to drop like a stone. Cruise had to account for all of that while being Hunt, checking to see where the bad guys are going, and making sure he’s caught by the two cameras mounted on either side of the helicopter and looking the right way to catch the light.

Step 3: bringing the stunts to life

Tom Cruise hangs from a helicopter
“I’ve always said if [Cruise] wasn’t an actor, he would’ve made a great stuntman.”
Paramount Pictures

When the day of shooting arrives, it’s imperative that everything is perfectly in place. Little details may shift, but any significant changes mean going straight back to the drawing board and re-rehearsing with the stunt team and then with the actors.

“We’re doing controlled action, but there is still a danger element,” Eastwood explains. “If it’s a large thing, I never change it on the fly; I go back to the drawing board, I get the time I need, I redo it, re-rehearse it and look at all the things that could go wrong, negate that risk as much as possible — obviously within reason, you can’t go to zero — and then we go back and we carry on.”

It’s telling of how carefully Eastwood has thought it all through that he’s able to explain exactly how the final helicopter scene would have been done if they hadn’t done it practically. The sequence begins with Cruise attempting to climb up a rope and into an airborne helicopter. As he’s almost at the top, he loses his grasp, falling 40 feet onto the payload — as the helicopter continues to fly.

“You would normally have a fake helicopter flying on a crane, with a green screen and a wind machine,” Eastwood says, stressing just how different the stakes of filming would be. “We’d have all our rigs, our wires going up through the helicopter and then down to the ground; we’d have our little rigging station with our coffee hut, and everyone would be standing around there having a nice coffee. When [Tom] comes to do his stunt, we would lower the line through the winch, and he would drop down to the bag, and then he would step off and sit in his chair. But we didn’t have that luxury. [...] I think everyone, the audiences, would have known that it was suddenly a cheated sequence, so we went for it for real.”

To go whole hog, Eastwood and his team took the rigging that they’d have on the ground and designed a version that would fit into a helicopter that would be flying 1,000 to 2,000 feet up in the mountains. After almost 20 rehearsals with a stunt double to make sure the stunt was doable, Cruise rehearsed once (“he nailed it straight away”), and shot the scene the next day.

Eastwood estimates that they shot the scene a dozen-odd times, which is a terrifying proposition in and of itself: even with winches in place, it’s bone-chilling to imagine falling so far, and from such a great height. Then again, that’s what makes the scene, and the Mission: Impossible movies as a whole, so thrilling to watch.