Crew members stand by as Tom Cruise hangs off the Burj Khalifa during filming. Pawan Singh / The National
Crew members stand by as Tom Cruise hangs off the Burj Khalifa during filming. Pawan Singh / The National

Behind the scenes of Mission Impossible

The clips have been circulating for months. There he is, sporting his classic tight black T-shirt, dangling from the side of the world's tallest tower on a piece of rope, occasionally waving at gobsmacked tourists within, while a helicopter hovers dangerously close overhead. But although Tom Cruise's antics on the Burj Khalifa might - quite understandably - be the headline grabbers, the Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol shoot in Dubai didn't simply revolve around one, rather impressively reckless Hollywood A-lister.

There were about 450 crew members driving those 23 days of filming in Dubai, in October last year, more than half of whom were based in the UAE and found through the local co-producers Filmworks. Then there were the 600 extras, almost all sourced locally. More than 800 Dubai-based individuals, in all, who were vital cogs in the great machine that eventually produced the latest instalment of the franchise, due to open the Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday. And each one has their own special story about their time involved.

"I spent three days holding the same glass of ginger ale, which was supposed to look like champagne," says Fiona Menzies, a British expat living in Dubai.

Menzies had been selected as an extra after having applied via the local casting agents MediaCubed. She appeared in a scene filmed in the Zabeel Saray hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, which thankfully hadn't yet opened when production arrived.

"We were there for three days, from about 6am till 9pm. They were really long days, but it was amazing."

Although the city has an important role in the film, Dubai also stood in for other locations. The Zabeel Saray actually played the part of an Indian palace, with Menzies portraying one of hundreds of guests at a glittering ballroom party attended by Cruise and his co-stars Jeremy Renner and Anil Kapoor.

"The place was beautifully decked out with marigolds and jasmine leaves," says Menzies. "We wore these aristocratic full-length dresses, and there were loads of guys in black ties."

As with many who had roles, however minor, in the production, Menzies had her own Cruise moment.

"I was sat with another girl and he walked past, about two metres away, turned to us and mouthed 'hi' in a way that was totally Top Gun," she says. "Whenever I think of it now, it was in slow motion."

James Babb, an American expatriate, was another extra who was "partying" for three days at the Zabeel Saray, and although he didn't get a Top Gun smile from Cruise, he did enjoy wearing a suit.

"It's about as close to James Bond as I'll ever look in my life," he says, adding that he was hugely impressed by the professional environment from the team and the other extras. "I loved the whole experience and would definitely participate again."

On the sidelines, adding a bit of colour to the cheeks of the extras, was Alessia Donato, a Dubai-based make-up artist.

"We were a team of about 10, with a couple of hair stylists," she says. "We were behind the pillars and would take it in turns to watch the shoot." Although Cruise had his own make-up artists and "set etiquette" required Donato and her colleagues not to disturb the actors, she did come close to the star.

"He was just a couple of metres away, it was quite surreal."

Helping ensure that the Zabeel Saray looked suitably Indian and also that the other scenes looked the part, was Andronico Del Rosario, the local head set dresser.

Del Rosario came to Dubai from the Philippines in 1992 at 19 and later started a prop-making business. He explained that many of the Burj Khalifa scenes were filmed on several floors of a fake Burj, which were constructed at the International Media Production Zone.

"It's the same suppliers as the original, using the same material," he said. "I think it was the biggest set ever built in Dubai."

In another scene, Cruise's Ethan Hunt character runs from a shamal, charging from the Dubai International Financial Centre into the neighbourhood of Satwa (clearly ignoring the 10 lanes of the Sheikh Zayed Road in between) with a violent sandstorm in hot pursuit.

"We created a souq in Satwa next to the bus station," says Del Rosario. "But people kept on trying to steal the props. They thought we were having some sort of festival."

Sadly, despite immense efforts and costs, not everything made it into the final cut. Del Rosario says he constructed a huge set by the creek in Deira, which was used for rehearsal but he doesn't believe it was filmed. For the Indian palace scene at the Zabeel Saray, he built giant Indian elephant sculptures and brought in a rather expensive carpet.

"It was about 12ft by 12ft and we rented it for Dh90,000. But I don't think they filmed it."

While it might never been captured on camera, just as important as the props or even the stars was the food keeping everybody going. And on hand to ensure this was available at the right place at the right time was Nick Chapman, the head of the Dubai-based film catering company Full Monty.

"My average day was about 22 hours," he says. "I've been doing this for 26 years, and this was the toughest I've done, but it was a great experience."

Chapman and his team served food - main meals and snacks - across all the film sets, including inside the Burj Khalifa.

"That was a challenge in itself. Just getting from one side to the other would take 45 minutes. It was a constant logistical challenge, but we got food - including 600-700 lunches - to everybody in time and in place."

Ever the star, Cruise predictably travels with his own chef. He also - claims Chapman - has his own personal gym on every set, which Chapman says is "quite big". But while he might not eat the same food as the others, that doesn't stop him helping out when needed.

"At the dummy Burj Khalifa set we got hit by a quite bad storm with very high winds, and my staff said Tom helped push the big display fridges inside."

Chapman also had his own Cruise moment, but it wasn't quite what he might have expected.

"There was this big scene with Tom driving a Landrover and he had obviously come in on site the wrong way. We were busy carrying ice-boxes and he almost knocked me over. I got the Tom Cruise grin."

Faraz Javed - a New Yorker living in Dubai - had a less dangerous encounter with the main star. Working with the assistant director's unit, Javed's role saw him help direct the extras, assist the assistant director on set and help with any other day-to-day activities across the various sets around town. Inside the Burj Khalifa (the real one) one task involved handing water to Cruise while he performed his daredevil monkey business on the outside.

"Certain panels on different floors, right up to the 140th, had been removed," says Javed. "We were assigned floors and when he was going up and down in a safety harness he would stop by and collect a bottle."

And in case you were wondering, of course, Cruise does only drink one type of water - Fiji. But even inside, standing so close to an open panel so high up wasn't entirely safe and Javed, too, had a safety harness attached to stop him being blown out of the window. "I did have a quick look outside and it was a scary sight. I have to take my hat off to that guy." Among the running themes from those across the crew and extras was Cruise's professionalism and courtesy. Despite his lofty presence in various Hollywood "most powerful" lists, it seems Maverick was about as polite as they come.

"On the first day of shooting we were doing a scene by the creek but being mainly Bollywood fans, none of the creek or dhow workers knew who Tom was," says Javed. "By the end, though, he had given them so much respect, acknowledging absolutely everyone, that they had all become fans."

And Javed too can boast his own little Cruise story from the first day.

"Although he had no idea who I was, he walked by and fist-bumped me."

Javed says he's going to try to recreate the fist bump with Cruise on the red carpet, only this time with a camera to capture the moment. It's likely many of the other local residents involved in the film will also be hoping for a chance to see the actor again or to get a golden ticket to the premiere. But with seating at the Madinat Jumeirah limited this Wednesday, it's doubtful all 800-plus names can squeeze in. The film's producers have invited the extras to a special screening on December 13 at Ibn Battuta Mall.

Still, when the film opens theatrically later this month, keep your eyes open. If someone in the cinema gives a whoop, perhaps during a scene that might not seem particularly whoopworthy, take a look closer.

You could well be sitting near one of those extras in the background who spent three days clutching the same glass of ginger ale.

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.

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