How they made TOPGUN: MAVERICK
Top Gun is the film that turned a promising young actor called Tom Cruise into a movie star. In fact, you could say he went supersonic. Which is apt, because a whole 36 years later, he’s back in the cockpit for Top Gun: Maverick, and wait until you cop a load of what he and a new generation of precocious aviators get up to. It is mind-blowing.
Cruise’s return as Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell rather flies in the face of the film’s best remembered line (“I feel the need, the need for speed!”) but, hell, the guy’s been busy in the interim. Not shy of a sequel – Mission: Impossible 8 is currently in production – Cruise nonetheless refused to revisit Top Gun, and when he finally did come round to the idea, the project was derailed by the tragic death of director Tony Scott. So what can we expect? And what finally lured him back?
Over to Chris McQuarrie, one of Hollywood’s top directors, and co-screenwriter on the new film. Some elements had been kicking around since 1987, he tells TG. “By 2011 there were a lot of fun ideas in search of a story, but something was still missing. Being in a room with three of the guys who created the original film, I chose to assume the observer role for much of the meeting, focusing on the feeling I had watching Top Gun as a 17-year-old kid.
“All the while I was asking myself, ‘Why do we love Top Gun so much? Why has it lasted so long? Sure, there’s ‘Danger Zone’, ‘Lovin’ Feeling’, ‘Take My Breath Away’, motorbikes and volleyball, Mav and Goose, Mav and Charlie, Mav and Iceman – forget those things. They’ve all long since been copied and never to greater effect. Why does Top Gun really work? What is its essence?’”
McQuarrie became fixated on uncovering this ‘secret ingredient’. Having wrapped Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 2016, he was still pondering it when Cruise got in touch. “About a month before Top Gun: Maverick was due to start shooting, Tom asked me to read the script. And while I was rewriting a particular scene in my head, I had an epiphany. I knew how to contemporise that secret ingredient now. I pitched it to Tom and was immediately brought on to do a two week rewrite. I stayed with the movie for the next two years.”
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, meanwhile, had been in contact with director Joe Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion). The pair flew to Paris while Tom Cruise was filming there, and Kosinski made his bid. “In a very smart kind of producing move, Jerry didn’t really say that Tom did not want to make the movie,” he tells me. “He’s resisted doing a sequel for years, but he let me have half an hour out of his day to make my pitch. And at the end of it he picked up the phone, called Paramount Pictures and said, ‘We’re making this movie’. It was a surreal meeting. It’s like the Superbowl. On the films I’ve made, there’s always a moment where you have to make the case to the star. This was one of those.”
There’s an emotional arc to the new film that Kosinski reckons got Cruise over the line, a depth to the character that gives it a surprisingly tender tone. But there’s also a whole new group of hotshots, in thrall to Cruise’s (clean-shaven) high-altitude Gandalf and plunged into a crazy high-stakes mission, and most of all there’s the ACTION. Cruise likes flying planes almost as much as he does hanging off the side of them, and the aerial combat sequences are astoundingly realistic.
“Maverick is still Maverick! He’s still the same guy,” Bruckheimer says. “He’s older and wiser – a bit wiser – but he still bucks the system. He’s brought back to train a bunch of pilots, but the movie is really about the love of aviation, the love of flying. That is a character as much as Maverick is. And that’s what this is about, getting Maverick back up in the air – getting Maverick back to doing what he does best. To do so he has to go back to Top Gun, to where he was all those years ago.”
And how. There’s no CGI going on here. Says Kosinski, “I showed Tom some YouTube videos of navy pilots with GoPros in the cockpits of their jets. I said, ‘If we can’t beat this then there’s no point making this movie'. There was also the challenge of what Maverick is doing 35 years later. I was kind of obsessed with the notion of him being a test pilot in the darker areas of naval research, like Chuck Yeager...”
Kosinski got to work, a gargantuan task lying ahead. As well as directing a team of young actors and some older hands – Ed Harris and Jon Hamm are both brilliantly irascible in it, and, yes, Val Kilmer reprises the role of Iceman – he had to figure out how to capture F/A-18 Super Hornets in excelsis. He and his team managed to fit six IMAX quality cameras into each cockpit.
Cruise also personally devised a three-month training regime for the actors. In the original film, he was the only one who could live with the intense g-forces, which meant that most of the scenes were shot on a giant gimbal rig. This time everyone did it for real, and trained until they could cope as their real life navy pilots put them through the wringer. That also meant getting to grips with the camera equipment and learning about the light, as well as remembering their dialogue. “We rehearsed it over and over until it became muscle memory,” Kosinski says. “Things would go wrong, maybe they’d forget to pull their visor down. We’d review the footage immediately, then in the afternoon go up and do it again. We shot more than 800 hours of footage. It was painstaking but it was the only way to get what we got. I think Tom did three flights one day...”
Greg ‘Tarzan’ Davis, who plays Coyote, remembers the drill well. “We weren’t acting, we were living it,” he tells me. “I’m not saying we’re going to be navy pilots but we experienced what they experience. We learned to look at the horizon when you’re pulling gs, how to breathe properly. We learned not to look out to the side, because we needed to keep facing the camera. Tom kept saying, ‘We need to see your face, this is the money maker...’
“And yes it got competitive. I’m not going to puke, I’m going to pull the most gs, you did an hour in the air so I’m going to do an hour and 15... I want to give a big shout out to Monica Barbaro (who plays Phoenix), she really held it down!”
The result, as they say in the movies, is all on the screen. “It’s never been about the money for me. It’s been about how we entertain people, how we take them on a ride. The reason I go to the movies is because of movies like Top Gun,” Bruckheimer says. There are cars and bikes, too. Look closely in one establishing scene and you’ll spot an Aston Martin DBR1 alongside the Kawasaki Ninja that played such a pivotal role in the original. And there’s a cameo from an early Porsche 911.
But ground-based transportation is just a distraction. When you’re not utterly immersed in the aerial sequences, you might find yourself wondering how the hell they pulled it off. Over to Kevin LaRosa, aerial coordinator and lead camera pilot, and one of the movie industry’s very few qualifed jet pilots.
“[Tom] was talking about the next Top Gun. He said, ‘Kevin... we’re going do this.’ And when Tom says he’s going to do something, he’s going do it. Then he said, ‘Kevin, we gotta do it for real. Everything has got to be real for Top Gun. You just can’t fake that experience and performance.’”
LaRosa and his partners spent nine months figuring it out. They devised the Cinejet, a modified L-39 Albatros, a two-seater Czech-made jet used to train pilots. The development team mounted a Shotover camera gimbal on the nose, with a huge field of view. “It can look up, reach back very far both left and right, look straight down and even look under the L-39’s belly at aircraft that are chasing us,” LaRosa explains. “This is how we get those great head-on shots of the F-18. As well as that, we used a highly modified Phenom 300 business jet for our longer range missions, and of course our camera helicopter.”
LaRosa is keen to credit his camera operators, David Nowell and Michael FitzMaurice. “They’re the brave souls who sit in the back seat, while I’m flying, with their heads down, buried in a monitor and composing these shots with silky smooth reflexes as we fly through turbulence or jet wash at 300 knots several feet above the ground.”
As well as the human and technological input, the new film also makes dramatic use of locations, a factor that both Kosinski and LaRosa cite as key to its impact. No spoiler alerts here, but we’ll say this: there’s a sequence that was shot in the Cascade mountain range in British Columbia that will fry your mind.
“Where can we go that will give us the most astonishing background, and how do we fly our aircraft as low as possible there?” LaRosa says. “Anybody can shoot airplanes in blue skies with the ground 10,000 feet below. But when you put these aircraft deep inside some of the most extreme terrain, it adds a whole other level to the action.”
COVID-delayed for two years, Top Gun: Maverick emerges into a world where old-fashioned entertainment is in big demand. Prepare for your speed need to be fully reignited – and satiated. This is a giant film but it’s got heart and soul, too.
“Character and story are the same for me regardless of scale. There’s nothing that says the same film can’t be both epic in scope and emotionally intimate,” Chris McQuarrie says. “There was a time when that was the whole point. So we specifically set out to make the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. And that’s the real secret to Top Gun: Maverick’s sense of nostalgia for me; I’m not just reconnecting with a character and a story, I’m reconnecting with an era in which that kind of character and story were a part of every summer.”
Top Gun: Maverick is now in cinemas