Tom Cruise and his changing relationship with film directors

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At the outset of his acting career, Tom Cruise worked with some of the biggest directors in the business – but has his pool of filmmakers shrunk as his profile has grown?.

Even by the standards of someone who’s just began his fifth decade of acting in movies, Tom Cruise’s CV has an enviable number of big-name directors attached to it. Nowadays, he tends to work with the same filmmakers more frequently, but there was a heck of a run there through from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

We certainly can’t think of another actor who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley and Tony Scott, Ron Howard, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Neil Jordan, Brian De Palma, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Michael Mann, and (most of all!) Stanley Kubrick.

Cruise started his screen career with a small part in Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love in 1981, but had a run of attention-grabbing roles in 1983, including The Outsiders, Risky Business, and All The Right Moves. Back-to-back collaborations with the Scott brothers (on Legend and Top Gun) kicked off the long-running streak of Cruise playing bingo on working with some of the biggest directors of the 1980s and 1990s.

Alongside this, Cruise was already one of the biggest movie stars in the world even before the Mission: Impossible franchise came along, and he was choosy about directors. His clout in the early 1990s was significant enough that he famously passed on the lead role in The Shawshank Redemption because he didn’t want to work with the relatively inexperienced director, Frank Darabont. Elsewhere, he was offered the director’s seat on the 1993 John Grisham adaptation The Firm. Sydney Pollack was ultimately brought on board to direct, and we’ve covered that story in more detail in an episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:

Notably, The Firm was the last project Cruise headlined before founding Cruise/Wagner Productions with his former talent agent Paula Wagner in late 1993. As well as giving them more of a share of the profits, producing his films also granted the star more creative control.

There are a couple of fairly well-documented watersheds later in Cruise’s professional and personal life that we’re not going to rake over in as much detail here, but what’s clear is that things started changing when he started producing his movies as well as acting in them. (NB: We’re not doing the “Cruise control” pun either, if only because that’s got Film Quiz Friday written all over it.)



Still, when the company went on to make Mission: Impossible for Paramount, Cruise hired Brian De Palma to direct, continuing that interesting run of collaborations. However, rumours abounded that the pair didn’t get on while making the film, with De Palma withdrawing from the press tour and declining an offer to direct the sequel when the first film became a global hit.

Still, this allowed Cruise and Wagner to set up what’s often been called a director’s playground with the Mission movies, bringing in different filmmakers for each instalment. However, M:I-2 (as it was abbreviated) would be one of several projects affected by the lengthy production of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick got Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who were married at this point) to agree not to star in any other films while Eyes Wide Shut was filming. Little did anyone realise that production would take 15 months, earning a Guinness World Record for the longest continuous movie shoot, from November 1996 to June 1998 – Cruise and Kidman relocated to England for the whole of the shoot as well (which was when a Blockbuster Video incident took place)

The protracted nature of the shoot has largely been attributed to Kubrick’s perfectionism, which also extended to the post-production process. It would turn out to be his final film as he passed away in March 1999, shortly after completing his cut of the film and screening it for Cruise, Kidman, and Warner Bros executives, and the film was released posthumously later that year.

It’s not unthinkable that Cruise would spend 15 months working on one movie and no others, because Mission: Impossible 7 has only just wrapped after starting principal photography in February 2020, but then that film’s been variously delayed and shut down because of the pandemic. It’s otherwise hard to imagine Cruise ceding that much time to a filmmaker’s vision nowadays.

When Cruise finally got to collaborate with Spielberg in the early 2000s, a friend since they’d met on the set of Risky Business, it was on two films with quick production turnarounds – Minority Report and War Of The Worlds. Although Cruise didn’t produce either film, I distinctly remember Empire Magazine’s cover story for the former featuring “Cruise And Spielberg”, rather than one or the other.

Spielberg did insist upon one point though, which he’d also done with Tom Hanks on Saving Private Ryan – both he and Cruise eschewed an upfront salary in return for a percentage of the box-office gross. This helped to keep the budget of the sci-fi film around the $100 million mark.

The director explained to The New Zealand Herald: “I haven’t worked with many movie stars—80 per cent of my films don’t have movie stars—and I’ve told them if they want to work with me I want them to gamble along with me. I haven’t taken a salary in 18 years for a movie, so if my film makes no money I get no money. They should be prepared to do the same.”

As his box-office fortunes became choppier in subsequent years, Cruise has made that same deal on various projects, taking a lower salary and some of the risk in exchange for back-end deals. Otherwise, it’s a series of canny choices of collaboration that elevated Cruise to his early 2000s status as a mega-star and producer. Not every project he made with a great director is necessarily a great film, but perhaps from this point on, a Tom Cruise film is more… well, A Tom Cruise Film.


Brand management

Mission: Impossible III was originally slated for a summer 2004 release, but directors David Fincher and Joe Carnahan departed the sequel in succession after disagreeing with Cruise and Paramount over the more grown-up approach they intended. JJ Abrams wound up making his feature directorial debut on the film, because Cruise had binged his TV series Alias and was happy to delay to summer 2006 to accommodate his other projects.

By the time the threequel hit cinemas though, Cruise was having some bother with his media image. Some of that was unwarranted, (with each passing year, it’s harder to back the claim that he should have seen the funny side of Balls Of Steel) but even while Mission: Impossible III was a critical and commercial hit, Paramount was distancing itself from Cruise/Wagner Productions.

Later that year, Cruise and Wagner made a deal with MGM to re-establish the United Artists brand, offering studio management to creative talent in the tradition was eventually tanked by Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Nevertheless, the duo secured $500m of capital to develop and produce up to four films a year.

Cruise starred in the first two projects that came out of the new UA – Robert Redford’s Lions For Lambs and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. The latter of these also marked his first collaboration with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who has since become the star’s go-to writer and director.

However, in the aftermath of these two films, Cruise and Wagner struggled to get their projects greenlit by MGM executives, which is reportedly what led to Wagner parting ways with the studio and Cruise in 2008. Funnily enough, Cruise could be seen playing vulgar studio executive Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder around the same time, which we suppose is another way of venting frustration creatively.

Despite a couple of box-office knocks with Knight & Day, Rock Of Ages, and Oblivion, Cruise has definitely mended his ties with Paramount, returning to front Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (directed by Brad Bird) and also star in Jack Reacher, which was written and directed by McQuarrie.

We’re not sure there are any jokes left to make about Cruise playing Lee Child’s hulking 6’5” military detective, but taken apart from the source material, the film works because it’s a director playing to its star’s strengths. It may not be Reacher to those who already know Reacher, but it’s a character that’s tailored to Cruise’s brand and strengths, which has lent into physical commitment to roles.

In the type of story that’s become typical of Cruise projects since, he performed most of his own pool shots in The Color Of Money, after buying a pool table for his apartment and practising for hours on end to get good enough. The only exception is a jump-shot that Scorsese believed Cruise would take too long to get right, which was completed by technical adviser and professional player Mike Sigel instead.

While most of his latter stunts have been considerably more active and dangerous than a trick pool shot, we get the feeling that we’d never get to hear about someone standing in for Cruise if it happened on any project since. That’s no longer the brand, and he’s working more and more with directors who accommodate that.


Mission accepted



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McQuarrie was first brought onto the Mission series as a script doctor on Ghost Protocol, but has since written and directed two more instalments, Rogue Nation and Fallout. If you’ve listened to his epic but excellent Empire podcasts about those two films, you’ll have heard how reticent he was about disrupting the director’s playground approach.

Talking to Chris Hewitt, he detailed how he agreed to make Fallout on the condition he could direct it in a totally different style to the previous film, hiring a different crew to keep the continuity of distinct entries. Since then, he’s signed up to make two more, with Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 currently due out in 2022 and 2023 after numerous delays.

All protests aside, he’s worked in one capacity or another on most of Cruise’s films since Jack Reacher. Whether it’s doing punch-up on Edge Of Tomorrow or teaming up with his star to tell your dad off about motion smoothing, they’ve stuck together for the better part of the last decade.

Read more: Tom Cruise gets the greenlight to shoot a movie in space

To be fair, McQuarrie is very good at it, and we’re not complaining at all about the high standard of the last two films, but by the time the seventh and eighth instalments are done and dusted, he’ll have directed as many Mission movies as all of the series’ other directors combined.

His style amps up the Cruise factor while maintaining the audacious stunts and the ensemble dynamic that’s come back over time, but he also hammers home why we should care that only the functionally indestructible Ethan Hunt can lead them and save the world. Heck, it’s the sort of thing that really makes us want to see McQuarrie make a Superman movie. But the director’s playground is no longer the unique selling point – Tom Cruise is. We’re not going to see a De Palma or a Woo or a Bird come along and do something brand-new (and Abrams was also there, I suppose) like we might have before.

And when McQuarrie’s not directing, Cruise has largely stuck to people he’s worked with before. When the Jack Reacher sequel clashed with Rogue Nation and Fallout, The Last Samurai’s Edward Zwick got the gig on 2016’s underwhelming Never Go Back. Cruise has also reunited with Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski, on the upcoming Top Gun sequel, and Edge Of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman, on American Made and an upcoming movie that will shoot scenes in actual space.

Meanwhile, Cruise’s reputation as a hands-on filmmaker is a double-edged sword – for every late-night appearance where Bill Hader evangelises about how the star got him wrapped on Tropic Thunder early when his wife went into labour, there’s a heap of trade-paper speculation about how Cruise must have steamrolled The Mummy director Alex Kurtzman (previously a co-writer on Mission: Impossible 3) and personally doomed the Dark Universe.

In any case, although his ongoing collaboration with McQuarrie should yield plenty more entertaining blockbusters, working with a smaller pool of directors has taken out the variety of roles and films that characterised Cruise’s earlier work.

For instance, he’s never worked with a female director before, and it feels as though there’s no chance of him doing so now. But it’s equally hard to imagine him doing a Kubrick or PTA movie these days either, when back in the day, he’d do both of those, in between bouts as Ethan Hunt.

Moreover, all these years after The Firm, he’s still not taken on the director’s chair himself, focusing more on the performance and production side of things. With more risk and fewer movies getting made on the studio level, he remains one of the biggest movie stars AND one of the most powerful producers in the world. It’s obviously a complex operation, but if he ever winds down the action stuff, his next mission (should he choose to accept it) is to put up-and-coming directors over using that Tom Cruise brand. Well, that and making you check your telly’s settings, anyway…


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