Impossible’s Iconic CIA Heist Scene

Paula Wagner: I just remember standing there and being terrified [laughs] and understanding that this had to be manually done. It had a ballet-like precision, and everything about it — the timing of it, the timing of the visual, the timing of him dropping — all of that had to be absolutely precise. It’s art and science working together at the highest level, that all of these things have to be so meticulously calibrated. Rhythm and timing. How long does it take? Mathematics comes into it. What is the drop? How many feet? How many inches? And how fast can you go at a certain speed? I mean, you don’t just get up there and do it. And Tom was extraordinary and deeply involved in all the planning and execution of this highly complicated and very daring sequence.

JC Calciano: Everything was done with just pulleys and ropes and stuff. There was no mechanical anything when it came to that. It was also London. It wasn’t as techy. We were in Pinewood, and Pinewood is a very old school studio. So it wasn’t the high-tech thing that you would think it is, especially being “Mission: Impossible.” It was really just in hangars over in Pinewood, this old, classic English studio.

Rolf Saxon: It took about three days to film, surprisingly. Tom insisted on doing most of the stunt himself, and the stunt double came in when they were lighting or they were trying to figure stuff out. But all the time they were literally filming the scene in that room, whenever I was involved, he was always up in that rig.

Keith Campbell: That’s the first time I worked over in London, and at that time, it was the special effects guys that were [pulling the ropes]. It was a manual up and down thing. With counterweight, so it’s not like it was hard — it was a very nice system, well thought-out. And as the stunt department and as his doubles, we’d go in and work out it from beginning to end and then we’d do a show-and-tell with Tom and De Palma and they may give notes and say, “Hey, can we do this? Can we do this?” So we do that until it’s all figured out so Tom doesn’t have to waste so much time doing it himself … He wants to know what’s happening. But he also comes to watch so he knows. This [stunt], it was something that we could talk about as he’s watching me doing it. I’m saying, “Oh, here’s what I do to try and balance this way.”

Paul Hirsch: The idea was to keep it as quiet as possible. This is an incredibly difficult chore for the sound editors, who can’t stand silence — it just drives them crazy. And there was a closeup of the rope going over a little wheel, and they put in a tiny little squeak, and we had to say, “No, take it out, take it out. They wouldn’t go in there with a squeaky wheel. This is ‘Mission: Impossible!’ They get it right.” So we tried taking everything away, and that just didn’t quite work. So there’s a little bit of air going on. 

And then of course, there’s the wonderful, what in England they call “footsteps,” and in America, we call “foley.” I guess it’s named after some guy who pioneered footsteps in the industry here. So we used to joke about the rat foley, these little claws on the sheet metal of the air conditioning duct. There’s very little going on from a sound standpoint.

Paula Wagner: We had to have little rats when Jean Reno was climbing through the vents. There was a great moment with the rat. We had to get little stunt rats [laughs] and set that up.

Paul Hirsch: Reno drops [Cruise] in order to strangle the rat, which we choose not to show. We made a point not to deal with what he did to the rat.

JC Calciano: I remember I was there for the vents, when he’s climbing through the vents, thinking, “Not another f***ing movie where people climb through vents, because could we be a little more clever than climbing through vents? But all right.”

Paula Wagner: In my recollection, it took a long time because it had to be done very carefully and it was very dangerous. At one point, I think that the rope went too far down, and he’s doing the whole thing himself. You can’t stay upside down for very long. So, it had to be done consistently over a period of time, with a lot of starts and stops. Things that seem the simplest are oftentimes the most complex.

Tom Cruise (Producer/Actor, “Ethan Hunt,” interviewed in a 25th anniversary featurette): You look at that shot, I’m going from the computer to the floor, and I remember we were running out of time. I went down to the floor, and I kept hitting my face. Kept — bam! — hitting my face, and the take didn’t work. And we were running out of time. We had a lot we had to do. So I went up to the stunt guys and I said, “Give me coins.” Here in England, they have pound coins. So I put the pound coins in [my shoes] and I hung on the cables to see [if I was] level.

Paula Wagner: This sequence had so much emotional and physical stress that it was really hard for Tom to hang upside down for such a long time. The shooting of it was challenging. It was a lot more difficult than you could imagine, because the key elements in it were real, not digitally enhanced.

Keith Campbell: This was a very fun one to do for me, and for him to figure out how to find his balance point because it’s different for every human. And I would turn upside down on the wires and shimmy one way, or if I was too top-heavy, I would just try and be up and down, straight up and down and just shimmy in the harness a little, try and make it move a little bit, because everything has to be really tight.

Paula Wagner: Tom Cruise was exceptional in creating the terror for the audience, the same terror he was experiencing. Imagine hanging upside down and being slowly lowered from the ceiling and almost to the floor and not a sound could be made. Imagine if the person hanging upside down was dropped! And there were some close calls. I mean, it was really tricky. As a producer, watching this being filmed, I was on edge. I was experiencing what the audience was going to experience, which was, “Oh my God, is he going to make this? Yes, it’s Tom Cruise, but could something happen?”

Tom Cruise: Brian was like, “One more, and I’m going to have to cut into it and [edit the scene a different way],” and I said, “I can do it.” It was also very physical, like straining [when] I’m doing it. So I went down, started at the computer, went all the way down. Beautiful set. De Palma has amazing taste. Went down on the floor and I didn’t touch, and I remember I was there, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t touch.” And I was holding it, holding it, holding it, holding it, and I’m sweating and I’m sweating. And he just keeps rolling. And I just realize [laughs], Brian is like, working it. He’s like, “We did it, we did it, we did it.” Like, I am not going to stop. And I just hear him off camera, and he’s got a very distinct laugh … I could just hear him start to howl. And he goes, “All right. Cut.” [laughs]

Paul Hirsch: There’s a shot of Cruise seen from above, silhouetted against the floor, and the floor is designed to look like a spider’s web, and he’s hanging in the middle of this like a spider on a thread, and he’s as exposed as a bug in a bathtub. He is black against white, and he couldn’t be more visible and obvious in this set. And I thought that was quite wonderful.

Chris Soldo: There was the sound stage floor, where all the technicians were standing. This is Stage A at Pinewood Studios. And the set was built elevated off the ground for a number of reasons, but not the least of which was they had to get lighting underneath the little panels. So it was raised off the ground. So we were standing on the ground where we’re looking at a slight angle up towards the set … when we did the successful take where he fell and kept his balance, it just was breathtaking that it happened and that he pulled that off.

Paula Wagner: It was high pressure and really dangerous, and Tom has always handled it like an absolute pro. It truly was nearly impossible. It required absolute precision timing and execution and almost super strength and dexterity from Tom, and trust in the ones who were controlling from above.

Paul Hirsch: The sequence was much longer than it turned out to be, and the trick was — all the elements were there, everything was available. It was just a question of putting it together and looking at it and saying … it’s the usual editorial process. You look at it and you say, “Well, what’s wrong with this picture? This is taking too long. This is confusing. This should happen faster. This should happen slower. This is unclear. We don’t need this. This is in the wrong place.” And you keep making adjustments until you finally get it to the point where you say, “Okay, I think it’s right now.”

Chris Soldo: In my memory, he held that balancing act for much longer than what’s in the film. In other words, in the film, they cut away from him after some point. I don’t know what the next cut is from a wide shot. They cut away. But my recollection was, and what was amazing was, that he was in the down position and still adjusting. Maybe the editor thought it disrupted the pace, but to me that was the most amazing thing was that he was down, he didn’t hit the ground, and then he maintained it for what felt like forever. Paul Hirsch, who’s the editor, who’s a friend of mine, I never asked him, but if I recall correctly, he could have held on that shot much longer and didn’t.

Paul Hirsch: I thought it was the perfect length.

Leave a Comment