Deanna Hensley remembers Christopher McQuarrie, not as a famous Hollywood director, screenwriter and producer, but as an intrepid sixth-grade student she taught at Dutch Neck Elementary in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.
A Bright Light
“He had an incredible memory,” Deanna said. “He would watch the latest episode of Mork & Mindy, then come in the next morning before school and act out the entire show.”
Chris was an underachiever, a bright student who wouldn’t always turn in homework.
“I knew he would be successful once he found his passion,” She said. “And I told him that.”
In fact, Christopher wasn’t at school the day the class picture was taken. The next day, Deanna joked that he was going to be famous one day, and she’d tell people he was in her class, but they wouldn’t believe her because he wasn’t in the class photo.
The pair kept in touch. After Chris moved on to high school (which started in seventh grade), he would come back and visit her after school. Then he moved to Australia after high school, and the two exchanged letters.
Success in Hollywood
After returning to New Jersey, Chris worked at a detective agency for several years before reconnecting with Bryan Singer, who was making a name for himself in film as a director, writer and producer. In 1996, Chris was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan.
“He told me if he won, he was going to thank me in his speech,” Deanna recalled. “Then they called his name and I thought, ‘oh, he’s probably so excited he’ll forget.’”
In fact, in his 35-second acceptance speech, Chris thanked, “Deanna Hensley, the first believer.”
“That was quite an honor!” Deanna said.
Deanna and Chris continued to exchange emails and keep in touch.
“He doesn’t forget a thing,” Deanna said. “I was on the phone with him once and he told me one of the girls from his class had come to California, and they went to dinner. I asked what she was doing now, and he said she was an archaeologist. I commented that I wondered if our Ancient Civilizations unit inspired her. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, The Egypt Game,” Deanna said. “I didn’t know what he was talking about, and then I remembered it was a book I had read to the class for the unit.”
Chris’ talent for remembering small details pops up in several of his films, according to Deanna.
“The idea for the bulletin board in The Usual Suspects came from a bulletin board in the break room of the detective agency,” she said. “Some of his characters are named for friends from school. I was watching The Edge of Tomorrow recently and two characters were talking about where they were from, and one said, ‘Cranberry, New Jersey,’ which is a town near where Chris grew up.”
An Open Invitation
Chris has invited Deanna to come to a movie set for years. He would mention in an email that he would be shooting in Venice, and tell her that she should stop by when she was in the area. Currently filming Mission Impossible 6, Chris again mentioned to Deanna that she should stop by the set if she happened to be in London or Paris during filming. Deanna demurred, saying she had already been to those cities and didn’t have any immediate travel plans. Chris’ reply this time was different.
“Heather and I would like to host you, and we’ll take care of everything, courtesy of Mission Impossible,” Chris wrote.
On May 13, Deanna Hensley set off for Paris on first-class flights to the City of Lights. She spent May 15-16 on location, and returned home on May 17.
“A driver picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hotel,” Deanna said. “Every morning, he would pick me up and take me to set, and drive me home in the evening.”
The hotel was upscale, and her room had a crystal chandelier. David Beckham walked through during dinner one evening, and, because her trip coincided with the premier of Pirates of the Caribbean in Paris, she met Orlando Bloom.
“He came over and introduced himself,” Deanna said. “He’s a real charmer – very handsome.” When they got up to leave, he got up from his seat at dinner to tell them goodbye, she recalled.
Deanna’s other brushes with celebrity included meeting Matt Charman, the screenwriter for Bridge of Spies, and Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize in History for her book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.
On the Set
On her first day on set, the crew was filming an action sequence on the Seine. There were three boats on the river, she said. In the first boat, where Deanna rode, there were support people, including hair and makeup and Chris’ assistant, Peter. The second boat contained extra equipment like cameras and wiring. Chris was in a third boat, closest to the action, with the camera and a large screen.
“The actors were in what everyone called the ‘Hero Boat.’ Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames were in this boat that would come roaring into a tunnel, then turn around and reset for the next take.
While in the boat, Deanna struck up a conversation with Tom Cruise’s on-set dresser. Deanna, an avid University of Kansas fan, was delighted to discover the dresser was also a KU graduate.
“Once we finished shooting, I got to meet Tom Cruise,” Deanna said. “He’s very nice. There was a South African rugby team there holding a big trophy, and he shook everyone’s hand.” (The team beat Scotland 15-5 in the final of the Paris Sevens tournament, bringing their season total to five tournament wins.)
The second day of filming, Deanna watched a dialogue scene between Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, and Rebecca Ferguson who plays Ilsa Faust.
“Rebecca is a lovely, lovely woman,” Deanna said. “She’s so sweet and kind.”
Deanna watched the action on a video screen, and wore headphones so she could hear the dialogue. She sat near the script supervisor/continuity supervisor, whose job it is to ensure continuity from take to take. For instance, if Rebecca was holding her sunglasses in her left hand in one take, she couldn’t hold them in her right in the next take. The shoot was outdoors, so the biggest challenge was making sure the lighting was consistent.
“They would move these big, white screens around to make sure the lighting stayed the same,” Deanna said.
“The crew is amazing. There is a lot of sitting around during filming, but when something needed to be done, it was like kicking an ant hill, the entire crew sprang into action, doing what they needed to do,” Deanna recalled.
Chris’ wife, Heather, squired Deanna around set. She would precede any introductions with, “She is the reason we have all of this,” while gesturing to encompass the entire set.
“I felt like a queen,” Deanna said. “It was an honor just to be asked to come. I would wish for every teacher to have some honor like this from a former student.”