‘Mission: Impossible’ at 25: behind the scenes of Prague’s first Hollywood blockbuster

Mission: Impossible, the first installment in the long-running film series starring Tom Cruise as secret agent Ethan Hunt, premiered in U.S. cinemas on May 22, 1996. It was largely shot in Prague during the spring of 1995, with studio work at Pinewood in London.

While Hollywood productions like Amadeus and Swing Kids had previously shot in the Czech capital, Prague’s well-preserved architecture often stood in for other locales and during historic periods. Mission: Impossible was one of the first Hollywood features to be both set and shot in contemporary Prague, and certainly the biggest, at a budget in the range of $80 million.

The production reportedly had a troubled time filming in the Czech capital (more on that below), but Mission: Impossible is now considered a classic, igniting a franchise that is now filming its seventh and eighth entries. It also remains one of the best portrayals of Prague in a Hollywood blockbuster, with extensive filming throughout a number of recognizable locales.

Tom Cruise and stunt coordinator Keith Campbell during filming of Mission: Impossible in Prague

Tom Cruise and stunt coordinator Keith Campbell during filming of Mission: Impossible in Prague

Mission: Impossible wastes no time getting to those rich Prague landmarks: a bravura opening sequence set at the United States Embassy in Prague was actually filmed at the city’s historic Liechtenstein Palace (for exterior shots) and National Museum (interiors). The actual U.S. Embassy building in Prague, on Tržiště street, isn’t quite as elegant.

When the mission goes bad and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt flees the scene, he travels through the streets of Malá Strana, witnessing a car explosion on Na Kampě. Hunt memorably ends up on Charles Bridge, where he witnesses Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) tumble over the bridge and into the Vltava.

Unlike later scenes in the film that feature little continuity through Prague locations, you can track Hunt’s journey from Liechtenstein Palace to Charles Bridge yourself and spot many of the locations used in the sequence.

Later scenes in Mission: Impossible showcase locations in Prague’s Old Town, with Prague Castle making a brief appearance in the background, as well as Prague’s Municipal House and exteriors on nearby Na Příkopě street, and interiors in Hotel Evropa at Wenceslas Square.

Filming in Prague reached a peak with the filming of a sequence set at the unfortunately fictional Akvárium restaurant on Prague’s Old Town Square. The restaurant was actually a set built at Pinewood Studios in London, but Cruise runs across the Prague landmark after Hunt blows up the aquarium.

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While Prague looks fantastic throughout the first act of Mission: Impossible, production of the film allegedly turned sour shortly after the crew had arrived in Prague. Prices for renting Liechtenstein Palace, which was managed by the Czech government, had inexplicably grown several times the initial quote given to production.

The incident made waves in the local press in April, 1995. A month later, a notorious piece titled “Prague Leaves Film Makers Feeling Gouged” came out in the New York Times. It seemed a concerted attempt to dissuade future filmmakers from shooting in the Czech Republic.

Producers Rick McCallum and George Lucas, who had nothing but good things to say about filming The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in Prague in the early 1990s, would later speak out against it.

Director Brian De Palma and star Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible in Prague

Director Brian De Palma and star Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible in Prague

“[There was] a very contentious story Paramount put out […] in the New York Times about Prague, which me and George Lucas came out against,” McCallum told Radio Prague in 2017.

“We were very offended by what had happened on Mission: Impossible, so we took up the banner to try and make sure that everybody knew we had a great experience.”

In versions of this story oft retold by local filmmakers, it was Tom Cruise who had taken personal offense at the Czech film industry and warned foreign productions away from Prague.

But the incident always seemed relatively minor and production had otherwise wrapped in the Czech Republic without incident. Mission: Impossible ultimately came in ahead of schedule and under budget, unheard of for a Hollywood blockbuster.

The Times piece reads as if American studios were weary of losing business to production in Prague and other burgeoning locales from behind the former Iron Curtain, which were often considerably cheaper and offered locations that could not be easily replicated elsewhere.

Director Brian De Palma and star Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible in Prague

Director Brian De Palma and star Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible in Prague

It was ultimately unsuccessful. Even producer-star Cruise would return to Prague in 2010 to shoot the fourth film in the series, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. If he did bear a grudge against the local industry, it was short-lived.

While the $80 million Mission: Impossible was the most expensive Hollywood film to shoot in Prague when it arrived in 1995, that title has since been taken by a number of other productions.

In 2021, a new film will take the mantle of Prague’s biggest Hollywood blockbuster, when the $200 million Netflix thriller The Gray Man, starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evan, rolls before cameras in the Czech capital this summer.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

5 Responses

  1. Love the classic Prague locations used at the beginning of the movie. Years later this is still the best of the franchise.

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