Director moves from TV to the big screen in M:I III

By Philip Wuntch The Dallas Morning News (KRT)

Shortly after producer and star Tom Cruise approached J.J. Abrams to direct “Mission: Impossible III,” Abrams had visions of Ashton Kutcher.

“I was in apoplectic shock when Tom first talked to me,” Abrams said in a recent telephone conversation. “I kept expecting Ashton to suddenly appear out of nowhere and say, ‘You’ve been punk’d.’ Why would Tom trust me with a movie like this?”

It’s not as outrageous as the director seems to think. Although “Mission: Impossible III” is Abrams’ first film, he’s a small-screen artistic titan, creating and often directing “Lost,” “Alias” and “Felicity.”

“It becomes a full circle, actually,” says the 39-year-old Abrams. “I loved all the ‘Mission: Impossible’ television shows. Just crazy about them. ‘Alias’ showed the influence of my love for the TV series, and it was ‘Alias’ that influenced Tom. He asked me to do the movie before ‘Lost’ premiered.”

Despite his television renown, Abrams answers questions with appealing modesty. For example, he had not seen any footage of “Capote” when he cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as “Mission III’s” supremely nasty villain.

“I’m glad I hadn’t seen any of ‘Capote,'” he said. “It was such a flawless performance, I would have been too intimidated to expect him to take my direction.”

And he makes you believe he means it. He sounds like a team player, and he sought to return on screen teamwork to the “Mission: Impossible” franchise.

“I loved the way the series itself embraced teamwork,” Abrams said. “That had a huge impact on the series, seeing this group of incredibly sophisticated spies working together. I don’t mean to talk against the first two movies, but the first “M:I” killed off the team early. And the second “M:I” really had no team at all.”

He wanted the new “Mission” to “have humor and humanity. You know more about [Cruise’s character] Ethan Hunt as an individual person.”

“I wanted a personal story, but I didn’t want the movie to take itself too seriously,” he said. “Three of my all-time favorite movies are ‘North by Northwest,’ ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ Part of the fun of ‘North by Northwest’ is that it tells you that it’s OK if you don’t always understand what’s going on. Just have fun watching it. ‘Raiders’ has that quality, too.”

Well, that accounts for “Raiders” and “Northwest.” But “The Philadelphia Story?”

The 1940 classic is a silk-and-satin depiction of the privileged classes enjoying their privileges. No explosions, no special effects and not even one action scene.

“It just flows beautifully,” he said. “It’s based on a very popular play of that era, but it never looks stage-bound. I love the people in it. It’s probably my all-time favorite.”

Mission: Impossible III’s” spectacular action sequences are among the most convincing seen on screen. Cruise, as is his wont, did his own stunts.

“At times I thought I was incredibly stupid to let Tom do his own stunts,” Abrams said. “But he committed himself completely, both physically and emotionally, to the film. And in directing the big action set pieces, I was like the kid in the candy store who then has his first visit to an amusements park. I wanted to taste everything and try everything, and I was having a great time.”

The film’s many locales include Shanghai, Berlin and Rome. In Rome, cast and crew shot outside the Vatican but were not allowed inside. A palace near Naples doubled for the Vatican’s interior.

Advance buzz on “Mission: Impossible III” pegs it as superior to the first two entries, with Abrams emerging as a hot property. He said he would possibly produce two new films and maybe direct one of them. He wasn’t at liberty to name them.