After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy's top aviators, Pete Mitchell is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him.
After more than thirty years of service as one of the Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. When he finds himself training a detachment of TOPGUN graduates for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, Maverick encounters Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign: “Rooster,” the son of Maverick’s late friend and Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka “Goose.”
Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears, culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
Paramount Pictures and Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films present A Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer Production, A Joseph Kosinski Film, Tom Cruise, Top Gun: Maverick. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger and Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. Based on Characters Created by Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, David Ellison. Executive Produced by Tommy Harper, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Chad Oman, Mike Stenson.
Top Gun: Maverick stars Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Charles Parnell, Bashir Salahuddin, Monica Barbaro, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis with Ed Harris and Val Kilmer.
There’s a line in Top Gun: Maverick that sums up its production maybe more than any other. Appropriately, it’s said in a scene between two of its returning heroes: Tom Cruise’s title character, Maverick, and his old nemesis-turned-wingman Iceman, played once again by Val Kilmer. The pair are discussing their passion for being pilots, looking back on what their careers mean to them. “It’s not what I am,” Maverick tells Iceman. “It’s who I am.”
On Friday September 7, 2018, Tom Cruise returned to Miramar, the military base where much of Top Gun was filmed 33 years previously, in the Spring of 1985. He was there to undergo a full ASTC (Aviation Survival Training Curriculum), to qualify for the extensive flying sequences in U.S. Navy F/A-18s that he had personally insisted were essential to the making of its long-awaited sequel, Top Gun: Maverick.
As he embarked on a training program unlike any other in film history, it was impossible to not note the parallels between Maverick and the person who plays him; two men constantly testing the limits of themselves and their profession. Two men also not averse to breaking the odd rule along the way, if that means pushing their craft further than anyone ever has before, exploring its possibilities, stretching its edges.
“I’d thought about a sequel to Top Gun for all these years,” says Cruise of only now returning, as actor and producer, to perhaps his most iconic ever role. “People had asked for a sequel for decades. Decades. And the thing I said to the studio from the beginning was: ‘If I’m ever going to entertain this, we’re shooting everything practically. I’m in that F/A-18, period. So, we’re going to have to develop camera rigs. There’s going to be wind tunnels and engineering. It’s going to take a long, long time for me to figure it out.’ And I wanted to work with Jerry [Bruckheimer]. I wouldn’t do this movie without him in a million years. For years, people had said, ‘Can’t you shoot [the movie] with CGI?’ And I always said, ‘No. That’s not the experience.’ I said, ‘I need to find the right story. And we’re going to need the right team. This movie is like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. I’m not playing.’”
That Bruckheimer factor is essential in understanding what this movie means to the people who have made it – and what it will mean for the audiences soon to experience it, too. Cruise describes Bruckheimer simply: “He’s a legendary producer. One of the great Hollywood producers.” And he should know. It was on the original Top Gun that Bruckheimer and his late producing partner, the equally legendary Don Simpson, took a then 21-year-old actor who wanted to learn it all under, well, their wing.
“When we started working on this [new] movie, we were working on the script and I looked across at Jerry and I just felt like a kid again, like I was back in 1985, working with him. [Back then] I wanted to learn everything about being a producer,” Cruise remembers. “And Don and Jerry, at a time when I asked to be involved with something, to be in those meetings, were very generous with me. And as we all know, not everyone is like that. Top Gun was the next phase for me [in my career]. For me, like Jerry, I always just wanted to make great stories and entertain the world. That was my purpose.”
On the original movie, although Cruise was filmed in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, his castmates weren’t so successful in their endeavors. “We had other actors up there, flying,” says Bruckheimer. “But their footage unfortunately wasn’t usable because they didn’t have enough experience in training. When we put them in the air, none of them could hack it. Tom was the only one we had usable flight footage for. We had tons of footage of the other actors in the air with their eyes rolling back in their heads. This time, thanks to Tom, all the actors on Top Gun: Maverick became accustomed to the fundamentals and mechanics of flight and G-forces, because of all the training they did months in advance. Unlike the first film, our actors are actually in the cockpits of the F/A-18s in flight, acting and speaking their lines of dialogue.”
That seismic shift is not just about an increase in aviation authenticity, either. Rather, it is part of an amplification of a number of factors that made the original Top Gun resonate so strongly. “In this movie we very much wanted to have a more developed group and a greater sense of the pilots around Maverick,” says writer and producer, Christopher McQuarrie, the Usual Suspects Oscar®-winner who has collaborated with Cruise since writing Valkyrie in 2008, and has since written and directed him in one Jack Reacher and two Mission: Impossible films, with another two on the way.
“One of the things I said to Tom early on was that the original Top Gun was not just about Maverick. It wasn’t just about Maverick and Goose. It was about a culture,” McQuarrie observes. “It was about the culture of these pilots and the competition that they all had with one another, and we wanted to bring some of that in. As a result, all the pilots in this film are more richly drawn. It’s a deeper bench but also a richer canvas. That tapestry of pilots all help to serve an understanding of who Maverick is now. Obviously, this movie takes place over 30 years later. And we didn’t want to stop the movie and reflect upon what those 30 years were. We wanted you to feel that history unfolding while you were watching the movie.”
The director of Top Gun: Maverick, Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, Only The Brave), still vividly remembers the first time he saw the original Top Gun, at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown, Iowa. He’d just turned 12 years old, and thought Maverick was one of the greatest characters he’d ever seen on the big screen. He was so inspired by all the state-ofthe-art machinery on display that he would later study aerospace and mechanical engineering at Stanford before switching gears and moving into the world of filmmaking.
The very first sequence Kosinski shot on Top Gun: Maverick proved to be the ultimate combination of his twin passions. It was a high-speed tracking shot of Tom Cruise on a Kawasaki motorcycle, dressed in Maverick’s leather jacket and Aviator sunglasses, racing an F/A-18 down a runway, framed against a classic Tony Scott sunset. “Top Gun, in some ways, is a fantasy,” says Kosinski of Scott’s beloved original. “The sun’s always setting, there’s volleyball at the beach, and the jukebox is full of classic tunes. That first movie is gorgeous. Tony was making a blockbuster, but he shot it like an art film. The lighting, the gradient filters, the framing. There are moments in this film that are an homage, stylistically, to Tony’s movie. There were days, like on that runway with Tom, the bike, and the jet, that you just had to pinch yourself.”
Like many good things, Kosinski’s part in the production began in Paris. “I flew out there, where Tom was shooting Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” Kosinski remembers of the moment he became involved in the sequel, three decades after falling in love with this world. “I had 20 minutes with Tom to pitch my take on it, and I knew there would be two requirements: One, the story had to be deeply emotional. Two, the film had to be shot practically. The theme that everyone remembers from the first movie, and really holds true in this one, is to never leave your wingman. That notion of a wingman – brotherhood, friendship, loyalty – had to be at the core of our story. At the same time, we’re telling a new tale. It’s a continuation of Maverick’s story, but we’ve brought it into the present day. He is called back to TOPGUN because there is a specific mission that requires the skills of a very special pilot. A type of mission that’s rarely flown and involves extremely low-altitude flying. It’s very risky and requires a high level of skill. Maverick is the only active duty pilot who has flown a mission like it before. So the Navy pulls him back to TOPGUN not to fly it, but to teach a group of young Naval aviators how to pull it off.”
At the heart of this new story is the conflict between Maverick and one of those young TOPGUN pilots, Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller). Maverick and Rooster’s history runs deep: Rooster is the son of Maverick’s late best friend and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer), Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, who was killed in a training accident that forced the two pilots to eject from their F-14 Tomcat, in a scene from the original movie that traumatized a generation to the point that Cruise still has people mention it to him now.
When we meet Maverick again, he is working as a test pilot, pushing incredibly powerful, and occasionally temperamental, new cutting-edge flying machines to their limits for the Navy. “It was very important to us that Maverick still be in the Navy. The Navy is really the only thing he’s ever known. The Navy is his family,” says McQuarrie. “At the same time, Maverick has been in the Navy for over 30 years. Being a test pilot answered the question of how someone would stay in the Navy this long and remain where he is. Because what matters most to Maverick is that he always finds a way to fly. He’s not just there because he is a great pilot, but through a certain amount of guile and ingenuity. Because the system is constantly looking for ways to push Maverick out to pasture. And Maverick constantly finds ways to avoid that.”
On the ground, meanwhile, Maverick once again comes into the life of Penny Benjamin, a character whose name fans will remember being mentioned in the original movie, now brought to life by the Oscar-winning Jennifer Connelly. A single mother and owner of The Hard Deck aviators’ club, Penny is “bright, independent and happy,” says Connelly, reteaming with Kosinski after working with him – as did Teller – on Only The Brave. “An elite sailor, she loves to race and she loves the sea, but she’s found anchor in her community and her family. Penny and Maverick had a brief romance when they were young and have rekindled the relationship a few times over the years. While things always end pretty amicably, they’ve had enough breakups that she’s determined not to get involved again. But, we get the sense that for the first time, they may have finally reappeared in each other’s lives at the right time,” Connelly says. As Bruckheimer notes of the relationship: “Jennifer’s scenes with Tom just crackle with wit and tension as these two very independent people reunite and get to know each other again.”
For Kosinski, “the original Top Gun is a drama wrapped in an action movie, and I wanted to continue that idea. The most important thing to me was the emotional spine of this film; the story of Maverick reconnecting with the son of his wingman, Goose, and watching that relationship, which has been fractured over time, come together. But it was also about where we find Maverick 35 years later. I was intrigued with the concept of him being on the outer fringes of the Navy, in the experimental world, testing aircraft that people don’t realize exist. I liked the notion of finding Maverick on the outside, and then having him called back to TOPGUN and having to confront and reconnect with characters from the original movie. It felt like the right way to get back into this world.”
Maverick has, of course, ruffled more than a few feathers during his time in the Navy. “The future is coming. And you’re not in it,” Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris) tells him in no uncertain terms. But Maverick has got friends in high places, too. Not least Iceman, who is now a 4-star Admiral himself, and knows Maverick is the only pilot with the expertise and daring needed to train this special detachment to complete this crucial mission.
“On the first Top Gun, I was desperate that Val played Iceman,” remembers Cruise. “But at first he didn’t want to do it because he was starring in his own movies. But he was so perfect for that role. So, Tony had to go and pursue him. In fact, I remember calling my agent at the time – I think she represented Val. I said, ‘Look, what do I need to do to get Val on this movie?’”
Kilmer’s reticence was straightforward: “I had only played leads, even in the theater and in the two films I had done,” he says. “But Tony was so enthusiastic and so were Simpson and Bruckheimer, who couldn’t have been nicer. Tony, Don and Jerry really were exactly like advertised, so fun and full of life – pure joy!” And for Cruise, the moment Kilmer eventually did say yes was one that will always stay with him. “When Val finally committed, I remember the four of us in the office – me, Jerry, Don and Tony – all high-fiving!” he says. “On this one, I wanted Val to be in it and he wanted to be in it. He was on the internet, saying, ‘I am ready for Top Gun’! I wanted this movie to be a progression of their relationship. And working with him again was so special. Playing scenes again, me and Val. Just sitting down with him was really emotional.”
Fun, too. “We laughed like children after most takes,” adds Kilmer. “We hadn’t seen each other for many years and it was amazing how quickly we got caught up. Also, perhaps the euphoria of now having our characters be friends, we were just so energized. Tom brings that out in people.”
Maverick’s relationship with Iceman is critical to Top Gun: Maverick, but so too are his with the other key characters in his orbit. “The relationships between Maverick and Iceman, Maverick and Hondo, Maverick and Cyclone and Warlock and, of course, Penny, all of those relationships are built into the story so that you feel this life that this character has been living since you last saw him,” notes McQuarrie.
Ask Bruckheimer if you could make a Top Gun movie without Tom Cruise and his answer is definitive. “No, you couldn’t. Tom is Maverick and Maverick is Top Gun. Maverick carries on a legacy, and Tom Cruise carries on a legacy.” But, according to the man who plays him, there’s another essential ingredient. “A Top Gun movie isn’t a Top Gun movie without Jerry Bruckheimer,” says Cruise. “And getting to produce a movie with Jerry, at this stage… A Top Gun movie. It’s special. You can feel Tony Scott’s inspiration in this film. We’re not imitating a Tony Scott movie – this isn’t a cover album of Top Gun, but it’s very much playing in the same world.”
Speaking of albums, Top Gun: Maverick has something very special up its sleeve musically, too. “The first movie’s soundtrack was iconic,” says Cruise. “When we were looking for the sound of this movie, we were working with Hans [Zimmer]. And Harold Faltermeyer was involved. We knew the pieces. We had the pieces. But finding the music… There was a magical moment where Joe, Jerry, McQ [Cruise’s nickname for McQuarrie], our editor Eddie [Hamilton], we were all working in England. And Hans said, ‘Come over to my music room.’ We went in there and he said, ‘There’s music, from Lady Gaga.’ And he played her song. It was such a moment.”
Wanting to capture not just the romance between Maverick and Penny but also the romance of flying, all the filmmakers had wanted Lady Gaga to add her soul to the soundtrack and were delighted with the results. Written specifically for the film by her and BloodPop, “Hold My Hand” plays in full in the final scenes of the movie but its beats are woven throughout. “Gaga is just a genius. The power,” says Cruise. “I’ve had the good fortune to have seen her perform live. We knew at that point that this was the end of our movie. It inspired the cut. It inspired the tone of what we were able to play with at that point. It was just right in line with what we needed. There are moments when you hear a song in a movie for the first time and you immediately know, ‘That’s it!’ This was one of those moments.”
Like all movies, Top Gun: Maverick is a product of its parts and its people. “And we really do have the best that’s out there in terms of both,” says Bruckheimer. “This has a story, tone, feeling and look that is totally compelling and very much continues what we started in the first movie. But the audience is also going to get a point of view of what it’s really like to be in the cockpit of one of these planes in a way that no film has been able to do, including the original Top Gun. We’re putting you right in there with Maverick.”
Producer David Ellison describes, “Top Gun is the film that ignited my lifelong passion for aviation and like so many others had a visceral and profound impact on my life. The picture is a true love letter to aviation. Being part of Top Gun: Maverick allows me to celebrate two things I truly enjoy, my life-long passion for aviation and working to bring large-scale movies that hopefully resonate with audiences in enduring and impactful ways."
Cruise says there is a “majesty and beauty” in flying an airplane. “It’s both using and defying nature,” he says. “And playing Maverick again, at a different stage of his life, has been an incredible experience for me. Maverick is still Maverick. He still wants to fly Mach 2 with his hair on fire. But you see the transition that Maverick undergoes. The pressure of him losing his best friend, the responsibility he feels about that and how he has carried that with him – and how that incident has changed both his and Rooster’s life forever. Maverick loves Rooster as a son. This film is about family and it’s about friendship and it’s about sacrifice. It’s about redemption and the cost of mistakes.”
And that emotion hasn’t just been up on screen, but behind the scenes, on a journey that has taken the makers of Top Gun: Maverick both back in time and forward, into new frontiers in filmmaking. “What we have achieved with the aerial sequences is genuinely something that people will never have seen before,” says Cruise. “We’ve trained actors to be able to fly and perform in real F/A-18s. And, to do that, we took the greatest fighter pilots in the world [from the U.S. Navy] and we taught them about movies – the pilot and the actor had to work as a team. This is the sophistication of the aerial sequences. No one’s ever done this, ever.”
It’s not just pride that Cruise feels, though. Top Gun: Maverick isn’t just a movie – it’s a destination. A culmination of everything he has learned in his 40 years in this business (Cruise’s debut, Endless Love, was released on July 17, 1981), this is a story he’s been building towards. A love letter to aviation, for sure. But a love letter to movies too.
“Tom is a very experienced pilot. That’s something I learned the hard way on [another] film we did together,” says McQuarrie, who for Mission: Impossible – Fallout had to watch on a monitor as his leading man put a helicopter into a controlled spin in a ravine in New Zealand and then jumped out of a plane moving at 160mph, 25,000 feet over Abu Dhabi. “Aviation has been a part of every film that I’ve ever worked on with Tom, whether it’s on screen or behind the camera. He’s always had an incredible love of and passion for aviation. In fact, one of my earliest meetings with Tom was at his hangar where his beautiful P-51 Mustang [that we see in Top Gun: Maverick] is. How to capture the love of aviation was an enormous challenge for us, finding a way to express Maverick’s passion for aviation in a way that was done visually, as opposed to him just saying it.”
McQuarrie pauses. “I don’t think I’m more proud of a movie that I’ve worked on to date than this film,” he says. “It’s a movie I really can’t wait for audiences to see. This is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. It’s epic in scale, it’s epic in scope, it’s epic in emotional depth, whether you have seen the original movie or not. It’s very much a modern film, but it’s steeped in classic storytelling.”
“It’s every emotion,” Cruise says of how making it has felt. “Top Gun: Maverick is a legacy film for me. For us, me and Jerry. Making this movie has been a very emotional experience. When you ask me about that line, ‘It’s not what I am. It’s who I am’… It’s always been that way, in terms of my work and my life and my passion. And to have started this with Tony… And for it now to be finished… And, also, just the responsibility for the audience, which I always feel. You know, it’s 36 years later. I knew we had the story. I knew it was in the palm of our hand. But the emotion of it? Man, making this movie has been everything you can imagine.”
The Maverick we meet in Top Gun: Maverick is still unmistakably the man you remember from the original movie, but he’s also very much a progression of how we last left him. “At the end of the first movie, Val’s Iceman says to Maverick, ‘You can be my wingman anytime,’” says Cruise. “Me and McQ kept saying that for this movie, ‘He’s got to still be Maverick. But he’s got to have learned something from the first movie. By the end of the first movie, he’s [become] someone who cares about other people, who’s more aware of other people. Of being a wingman.’ But sometimes, even at the beginning of this movie, he’s still, ‘Just a little push…’ That’s him! That’s Maverick,” Cruise laughs. “He can’t help it. In this movie, he is still who he is, but he’s had a life. Maverick is alone at the beginning of this movie. And he’s alone because of the events that happened in the first Top Gun.”
What happened in that first movie, of course, was the training accident that killed one of the most adored characters in movie history, the father of the young boy we will now meet as a man. “And I’ve got to say,” says Cruise of Teller’s performance as Rooster, “that guy showed up. He knew how to play that character. Miles came on set and he had the mustache, had the Hawaiian shirt, had the hair… I kept saying to him, ‘You’re Goose’s son. You’re Anthony [Edwards] and Meg’s [Ryan] son.’ And he nailed it. He’s such a brilliant actor. Let me tell you, to get that tone – in the relationship between Maverick and Rooster – it was threading a needle, tonally. It has to be grounded, emotionally. And you look at his performance and you see Goose’s son.”
The death of his father has also impacted Rooster’s career, echoes from the original reverberating into the story of Top Gun: Maverick. “The thing that Rooster has that makes him different from the other pilots is that he’s a little more conservative in the way that he flies, which is understandable given that his father was killed in an accident in an F-14,” says Kosinski. “But that little bit of caution can be a weakness in combat. Sometimes you need to be more aggressive to survive. That’s something that Maverick is trying to get him to understand.”
Not that that’s exactly an easy process, given the history between the characters. “Maverick keeps telling Rooster he needs to trust his instincts,” says Teller. “Forget the book, trust your instincts, believe in yourself. It’s really these pilots against themselves, against their own kind of inhibitions. It’s them against their skillset, going beyond what they think they’re capable of and testing their own limits. Rooster has been shaped by the death of his father. Now he’s going to find out who he really is.” Teller took the role so seriously he even took seven weeks of piano lessons before shooting, so he could play for real in the scene in Top Gun: Maverick when Rooster, aping his old man in the original, sings ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ in the bar.
“Maverick’s relationship with Rooster, obviously, is a very complicated one,” says McQuarrie. “Bradley Bradshaw was just a child in the original Top Gun and probably wasn’t all that aware of the events that went on around him. And here he is, as a grown man, who clearly has an unresolved relationship with his father and an unresolved relationship with Maverick, and how that relationship complicated his own ambitions.”
More than anyone, Cruise is acutely aware of what the character of Goose still means to people – how his death in Top Gun still hurts. “When you think of it, we killed Goose,” Cruise says. “Can you imagine? Today, you’d have a hard time killing Goose. There would be a lot of discussion about killing Goose. You’d go to test screenings, and they would tell us, ‘They hate it when Goose dies! He’s such a likeable character! You’ve got to cut that out of the movie.’” But, just like Cruise knew back then that Goose’s fate was final – “Goose always died in the script, always” – so too did he realize Rooster was their way back in when it came to finding the story for the sequel.
“Goose permeates just about every frame of this [new] film,” observes McQuarrie. “He’s a character that everybody loved from the first movie, Maverick especially. And it was a real challenge because we didn’t want to take audiences out of the movie and ask them to remember another film. So we had to reintroduce Goose as a character. We had to introduce him as a spirit in the story. And that very much came through, even down to the line, ‘Talk to me, Goose.’”
Such was the attention to detail on Top Gun: Maverick, the finely tuned calibration between newness and nostalgia, that that was a line that very nearly didn’t make the final cut. Until, “we were all struck, when we had a screening to watch the original film,” remembers McQuarrie, “that Maverick’s first line in the original Top Gun is, ‘Talk to me, Goose.’” The line made it, and the result is very much a sense that via Top Gun: Maverick, Goose lives on. “Throughout the movie,” says McQuarrie, “you have this feeling that Goose is watching over Maverick and watching over Rooster, hoping that these two characters will find reconciliation. Because in many ways, they’re two people without a family. And this movie is really about how they find it.”
It was 1984 when Tom Cruise first found Anthony Edwards, who would go on to play Goose to such perfection. Back then, the paintballing craze had just hit Los Angeles, to the point that, for a time, it became the pastime of choice for actors of a certain age. “I went to this paintball thing,” remembers Cruise. “And there was Anthony. And he was so engaging, charismatic, funny and personable. That night, I called Jerry. I remember, it was a Sunday. And I said, ‘We’ve got to get Anthony Edwards. Anthony Edwards has got to play Goose.’ It was late, and Jerry was like, ‘Okay…’ And I was like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand. He has got to play Goose. He is Goose!’”
The casting of Edwards is crucial to understanding how Tom Cruise approaches his work on any given movie. For one, as the paintballing story showcases, when Cruise is working on a movie, he’s always working on the movie. Second, as the following story illustrates, for Cruise, the movie is the most important thing. It’s the only thing. He sees his job, and everyone else’s, as being in service to that movie.
And so it was that on the day that Cruise and Anthony Edwards were walking down the aircraft carrier, preparing to shoot the scene containing one of the most remembered, repeated lines in cinema history, Cruise decided to shake things up.
“‘I feel the need. The need for speed.’ That was actually my line,” says Cruise. “But Anthony is just wonderful. So, when we were setting up, I said to him, ‘We’ve got to split this line up. What do you want? Do you want to say, “I feel the need” and I do the other part? How do you want to switch it up?’ And we did a bunch of different takes. That’s how we came up with the high and low slap that we do [to accompany the line], together.”
If you’re wondering at this point if that happens often on movies, actors happily handing over their lines to their co-stars, the answer is that it doesn’t. Especially lines as good as that one. “But it’s about the movie,” explains Cruise. “It must only ever be about that. On a movie, I want every diamond to be polished. They’re the kind of movies I like to see. When I go see a movie, I love being invested in the world and the characters. So, I was constantly looking at every aspect of that storytelling. How can we do it? How can we make it better?”
It’s a philosophy Cruise has carried with him over the course of his career – and one that factored directly into the casting process for Rooster on Top Gun: Maverick. Ultimately won by Teller, the role was coveted by many young actors in Hollywood, including Glen Powell, who now plays Hangman.
“Glen tested for Rooster and he wasn’t right for Rooster. I offered him [the role of] Hangman and he passed on it. He was a huge fan of Top Gun and was so disappointed [at not getting the Rooster role] so he said he wasn’t interested,” says Cruise. “So, I said, ‘Look, I’m in a production meeting. I want to talk to you about it, personally. I’m not here to convince you to do something or not do something. I understand that. That’s your personal choice. But I want you to come down and see, to be in the production meeting.’ We were doing an aerial production meeting and he sat in the corner and watched. After the meeting, I pulled him aside and he said, ‘I just don’t understand the Hangman character.’ And I said, ‘It’s not written. The role’s not written. The script’s not written.’ He kept saying, ‘The script’s there.’ I said, ‘We have words on a page and I have a structure. From that structure, I can create a budget and know how many days and the room that I have, the basic tone that we’re trying to accomplish. But it’s an idea. And it’s an idea that we’re formulating and we’re continuing. When you cast an actor, you write for the actor. You don’t just box it in.’”
Powell looked at Cruise, digesting this information. “I said to him,” remembers Cruise: “‘What kind of career do you want?’ And he said, ‘I want your career.’ I said, ‘Okay. How do you think I did it?’ And he said, ‘Well, you chose great characters.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t. I chose movies and I created the characters in them. I would evaluate whether you want to do the movie or not. I just don’t want the film to come out and you didn’t explore the process enough.’ Whatever you do, on the movies you make and the movies you don’t make, do your research. Even before I made a film, I studied every aspect, from the cinematography, the director, the producer. I didn’t go to film school. But I knew movies. I wanted to understand why they worked and why they didn’t work – the elements involved. It is a collaborative artform. Period.”
Passing on what he has learned across his years in the business is important to Cruise. Essential, even. “I said to Glen, ‘You need to understand who the people are who are involved and what kind of movies you want to make, and what kind of film this is. And see if you want to be part of it. We’re going to get you a great role and it’s going to be tailored for you. That’s what we do. But I never chose a role because I thought, ‘That’s a great character.’ I chose a role because I wanted the movie.’”
For Powell, it was a conversation he’ll never forget. “Top Gun is literally the reason I became an actor,” he says. “I first saw Top Gun when I was 10 years old, with my dad, on VHS. I feel like for most fathers and sons it’s sort of a rite of passage. It’s something that fathers hold onto, and, ‘I cannot wait to show my son this.’ And that’s how it was with my dad. After seeing the movie, that’s when I asked him to start taking me to acting classes. So, when I found out they were making a sequel, I even talked about it like I was already on the movie. It’s the only movie I’ve ever been this passionate about. And it happened, which is great, because it almost didn’t. And to get to work with Tom, building out this character of Hangman, I mean, it’s the kind of opportunity you never think you’re going to get…
“Do you remember that movie Last Action Hero, where the kid literally gets to step into the movie that he has always wanted to do?” Powell says. “It feels like that.”
“Personally, I wouldn’t let an actor walk my dog, let alone fly a plane,” laughs Miles Teller. Alongside Teller and Powell as Top Gun: Maverick’s new generation of hotshot pilots are Greg Tarzan Davis as “Coyote”, Jay Ellis as “Payback”, Danny Ramirez as “Fanboy”, Monica Barbaro as “Phoenix” and Lewis Pullman as “Bob”.
In the Navy, call signs can come about in different ways. They can be a play on your last name or based on something that happened to you. “I know a guy named “Frogger” because he got hit by a car crossing the street,” says Captain Brian ‘Ferg’ Ferguson, Top Gun: Maverick’s Naval Aviation Technical Advisor and Aerial Coordinator, by way of example. Barbaro, meanwhile, alludes to a heavy night out with her co-stars, and their amazement that she made it into work on time the next day, when explaining where her moniker “Phoenix” is derived from. “It was something about rising from the ashes,” she remembers. Pullman, meanwhile, says his WSO (Weapons System Operator) is called Bob “because he’s just kind of quiet and unassuming… Although eventually it becomes a lot more meaningful than that and his name stands for “Big Old Balls”. So that’s pretty cool.”
In the original movie, there were no women in the cockpit. “Because, in the mid-‘80s there were no female fighter pilots,” says Kosinski. “In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that started to change. It was important to all of us that we reflect that in this film.” “At the time of the first Top Gun, female pilots were not allowed to fly in combat,” adds Barbaro. The United States Armed Forces lifted the combat ban in 1993. “A few years later they were taking off of carriers like the rest of the pilots. When I’ve spoken to the pilots, what they’ve said is that they do best when there’s less of a divide between male and female, when they can really not be referred to as ‘female pilots’ but just ‘pilots’. I noticed it in some of the [news reports about her casting]. It was, ‘Monica Barbaro has been cast as a female pilot.’ Well, yeah, she’s a pilot. We don’t have to point out that she’s female.” Like the pilots she flew with on the movie, Barbaro hopes for a time when people don’t feel the need to bring gender into job descriptions.
“What was so different now, more than 30 years after the first film, was that, thankfully, the world of naval aviation has changed, and those changes gave us a great opportunity to cast a wide net into the pool of talented actors,” Bruckheimer states.
TOPGUN veteran Captain Ferguson echoes Bruckheimer’s sentiments stating, “You know, twenty-five or thirty years ago, we all looked exactly the same. We all looked like we came out of the same machine, and now we are a cross-section of America. So you have people from every conceivable demographic. We have strength in diversity.”
When it came to their job descriptions on this movie, the young cast were very much forewarned. “We were very upfront with all the actors we were talking to [in the casting process],” says Kosinski. “We said, ‘Listen, this is not your typical acting job. You’re going to be in Super Hornets flying at 600 miles an hour, pulling heavy Gs. Are you comfortable with flying?’” Greg Tarzan Davis, who actually learned to fly and swim on this production, laughs at the memory. “When I found out, I was thinking, ‘Yes, this is gonna be so cool!’” he says. “And then, once I got in the plane, I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ When people say, ‘Wow. That’s cool. You can scratch that off your bucket list,’ I say, ‘Well, it wasn’t on my bucket list. I didn’t think it was possible for me to fly in a military grade jet.’”
To train the young cast for what they would need to be able to achieve in Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise looked back to his own breakout movie, Taps, for which, in 1980, director Harold Becker and producer Stanley Jaffe put Cruise and his young co-stars Sean Penn, Timothy Hutton and co. through a bootcamp, to immerse them in their new military world. “On the first Top Gun,” says Kosinski, “Tom was just kind of thrown into the F-14 cockpit. I think this time he wanted to make sure that the actors were more prepared than he was, particularly to pull it off in the way we wanted to. The planes have more technology in them now, but the emphasis in this film, as in the first, is on the pilot, not on the machine. It all comes down to the man or woman in the box. It’s not a movie about fighter planes, it’s a movie about fighter pilots.”
As such, Top Gun: Maverick’s new recruits would quite literally have to earn their stripes, in a flight program designed specifically by Cruise himself. “On Taps, Becker and Jaffe created an environment from which we, as young actors, could develop and understand what the film was,” says Cruise. “On Top Gun: Maverick, that was important too, of course. But I also needed my guys to be able to get in an actual F/A-18 and not just pass out.”
So, Cruise and Bruckheimer went to meet Vice Admiral DeWolfe H. Miller III, the Air Boss, Commander of Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet to pitch him their vision for the movie. “We went down and explained the story and said, ‘We’re going to shoot it live. And we’re going to hire the actors and train them, otherwise we’re not going to do it,’” says Cruise. “I said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, I understand. But this is the only way that I can do it.’ Other people were asking, ‘Can’t we just shoot it this way?’ I always said, ‘You can. I can’t.’ And the Navy said, ‘Yes, we will do that. We will take you [guys] up.’ It was us earning their trust, every step of the way. It was a partnership. I said, ‘I’m going to deliver this for you guys.’ Flying means a lot to me. The Navy means a lot to me. They are a different kind of spirit of an aviator – they just are. And I wanted to honor that. I wanted to honor that in the first Top Gun – that’s why I wanted to make that movie. And I wanted to honor that in this movie too.”
With Cruise, Kosinski and cinematographer Claudio Miranda having worked closely with the Navy to develop the cameras needed to shoot inside the cockpit, there was pressure from certain quarters to shoot the movie’s aerial sequences first. Cruise disagreed. “I said, ‘Guys, you don’t know what it’s like, shooting an aerial sequence. I tell you what: We’re going to do a test shoot, to find out what this is going to take.’ So, we did my first test of the low-level run [you see in the movie] with a real TOPGUN pilot. A great pilot, called “Walleye”. And the detail that it took and the level of shit that went wrong, from a cinematic point of view, was huge,” laughs Cruise. “But, the footage we got was amazing. We cut it together and I showed them the runs and also the problems, because I said, ‘Look, I can’t just stick an actor in an F/A-18. They’re not going to get what we need. Not only are they going to pass out, there are so many things happening in that airplane. You have cameras. You have lighting. You have performance. We have to create an entire support system for these guys, so that they get comfortable with it. They’ve got to be pulling Gs. They’ve got to be low. They have to have that experience in that aircraft. You see it. You feel it. You can’t fake it.’”
That support system was built around five months of intense flight training, Cruise creating a training program, writing the young cast bespoke daily targets and enlisting instructors to teach them how to first get comfortable with aviation, then to learn how to fly and then to be able to sustain Gs. Each day they would have to fill out a detailed form about how their day went, so that Cruise could then adjust and tailor each individual program.
“You hear all this, that Tom Cruise is going to personally read these forms you’re filling in every day and you think, ‘There’s no way that Tom Cruise is really doing that – he’s got way more important shit to be doing,’” laughs Pullman. “And then you realize, ‘Oh my word, he actually is. He is giving me personal feedback on each day of my training.’”
The process was painstaking, but essential. “I read every single form, every single night,” says Cruise. “Because I knew that eventually I had to get them into an F/A-18.” The young wannabe pilots started out their flight training in single-engine Cessna 172 Skyhawks. Ramirez recalls that one of the first things he had to do on the movie was to sign a piece of paper confirming he was comfortable with flying. “Which was a little bit of a hiccup,” he laughs, “because I was absolutely terrified of flying. But I signed it anyway and by the end of the first couple of weeks I couldn’t wait for my next flight!”
From the Cessna it was into the Extra 300. “In the Extra it was more aerobatic, so they could start pulling Gs,” says Cruise. “Then I could get another plane close to them, so they could start feeling comfortable in the air while having other aircraft outside. It’s harder to sit in an airplane and pull Gs than if you’re flying it yourself. It’s like if you’re in a car, if you’re a passenger in a race car. The driver knows when they’re about to turn, even if it’s a split second. You’re able to anticipate when you’re driving. Your muscles, your breathing, every aspect of you is getting ready for that turn, for the onset of Gs. So, they [the cast] had to do whole aerobatic maneuvers where they weren’t flying. It’s exhausting and it can be disorienting, particularly in an F/A-18, with so much going on.”
It was G-forces that were behind the decision to shoot as much of Top Gun: Maverick as practically as possible, their effects on the human body being so clear to see that faking flying in these machines was just not an option. But that pursuit of authenticity meant that Cruise and his co-pilots would have to train their bodies to sustain extreme pressure.
“Right now, on earth, there’s one force of gravity on our bodies,” explains Cruise. “Two Gs is twice our body weight. Three is three times our body weight. So if someone who weighs 200 pounds is pulling two Gs, he’s feeling 400 pounds. In this movie, the actors are pulling seven-and-a-half or eight Gs, so if you weigh 200 pounds, that’s going to be 1,600 pounds of force crushing your body, forcing the blood out of your brain. Your vision closes in and it forces all the blood down to your legs. You have to train so you don’t go into something called G-LOC, where you go unconscious. You have to build up that tolerance so that you can actually sustain the levels of G-force and be able to fly. I wanted the audience to see and experience the effect of Gs. You can’t [artificially] distort a face like that.”
But if the process was challenging, it was also one that Top Gun: Maverick’s young cast wouldn’t change for a second. “Tom created the aviation program for us because what we’re doing is very serious,” says Teller. “Everybody thought it would be impossible. And I think that’s what drove it. I think that when Tom hears that something is ‘impossible’ or can’t be done, that’s when he really gets to work.”
For the penultimate stage of training, the new recruits found themselves upgraded again, into L-39 Albatross single-engine, high-performance jets, to get accustomed to the sensation of going through maneuvers in a jet. “They had to get used to filming in a different stage jet because every time I put them in an F/A-18 we had to be filming,” explains Cruise. “The Navy isn’t just available for us [whenever we feel like it]. So, it’s not just budget. It’s respect for the pilots and the people. I knew that every time those guys were up there [in an F/A-18], I had to get the footage. I said to the Navy, ‘I’m going to have my guys ready.’”
Being ready, of course, doesn’t just mean being able to sit in a jet and not pass out or puke. It means being able to do both of those things and then being able to act, while a rotating roster of real Navy daredevils pilot you through a series of jaw-dropping maneuvers.
And that final step up into the F/A-18s genuinely was everything the actors had hoped for, the real Navy pilots taking them on the ride of their lives as they nailed a series of sequences that have to be seen to be believed. “The intensity is so much more palpable in one of those planes,” says Barbaro. “In our first flight there were no cameras. It was just to experience what it was like, with a little bit of BFM [basic fighter maneuvers] and some low-level maneuvers, and what that feels like on the body at the end of the flight. Realizing at that moment that these were the conditions [in which] we would also have to be acting and speaking lines and turning cameras on and off and checking our make-up, fixing our props, and communicating with our pilot, that’s when I started to realize exactly how much the training helped us.”
Or, as Pullman puts it: “It’s hard to translate the feeling of what it’s like to fly in an F/A18. But it’s like sitting on a rocket, or being strapped to a dragon. One of the favorite analogies I’ve heard from TOPGUN pilots is that they ‘strap on’ the plane, because they are in such control and really are the masters of these machines and understand them inside and out. So, for them, in strapping it on they are grounding the source of power.”
“Nothing bonds a cast together more than collective suffering,” laughs Teller. “I think, when you’re going through something and you know how tough it is yourself, and you look to the left of you and to the right of you and you see that person going through it, it kind of pushes you a little harder and further than you would normally go. It’s so unique for us that we will only be able to talk about this with each other for the rest of our lives.”
“I’m so proud of what all these guys achieved,” says Cruise. “You have to think, if they go flying for 45 minutes, I have just 20 minutes with the actor. And these guys had all made other movies, but they hadn’t made anything like this before. I had to show them editing because they had to understand the footage that I needed. Because they don’t have a director up there. No-one’s talking to them. They had their lines written down on a piece of paper and there were so many things they had to do up there. They had to work with the pilot. They had to understand lighting. We had geography they had to match in the shot.”
And that geography really is something to behold, Cruise and his co-stars flying some of the most challenging and picturesque courses in America, including Rainbow Canyon, on the western edges of Death Valley National Park, and Washington’s Cascade Mountains, as well as Cruise actually launching off the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier that the Navy call “The Big Stick” thanks to the famous quote from the President it’s named after.
“Shooting [on the Roosevelt] was some of the most incredible and challenging filming I’ve ever done,” says Kosinski. “It’s an intense work environment but the footage we got there is spectacular. We were able to launch Tom off the catapult in an F/A-18 and get it all in camera. He did four or five launches. No one’s ever done that in a movie before – it’s something only Naval Aviators get to do. And not only a catapult launch, but catching the wire on the landing, all of which you see in the film. It was a remarkable experience. Grueling physically, and tough for the crew, but the footage we got – you just can’t fake. On a small piece of real estate, you’ve got fighter jets, at full afterburner, being launched off one end and trapped on the other. It’s a ballet of machinery to watch it in action. You’re just in awe of what’s happening.”
Like a ballet, it’s a precise process, but a muscular one, too. “It was about exploring the visual language,” says Cruise of the entire aerial sequence methodology. “I had to understand the visual language inside the cockpit and outside the cockpit, and then communicate that visual language to the pilots and to the actors. Each shot was so specific – what is it communicating? I’d say to them [the actors]: ‘I need you to look right here, then look away so that I can cut to another jet and then cut back. And when you look back, don’t look too low – I need you to look right here, right at that mark, when the sun is right here, over that particular point.’ And I also had to get them used to the Gs, and some of the actors never did. They were always vomiting. Sometimes they’d say ‘I vomited. I’m embarrassed.’ And I’d tell them, ‘Don’t be embarrassed. Chuck Yeager [the legendary first pilot to break the sound barrier, portrayed by Sam Shepard in 1983’s The Right Stuff] was vomiting for a month before he got through it. And you’re getting the footage. Thank you. I know it’s painful, vomiting. And you don’t want to vomit. And the maneuvers we’re doing are heavier, more condensed ACM [Air Combat Maneuvers] than a lot of these pilots would ever do in this time period.’ Heavy, heavy Gs we were pulling – non-stop, one after the other. It is brutal on your body.”
Briefings, Cruise stresses, were critical. “A briefing for a flight is several hours – you’re briefing every single maneuver,” he says. “It’s a briefing on temperature, location, light. We study what time we need to be out there and what position in space we need to be. When they’re in the plane, the actors have to get the shots. They can’t go up and come back and the cameras aren’t turned on, or they didn’t do their make-up right, or they didn’t get the line. They have to get it. It also made them a team. I said to them, ‘When it’s your time and you’re flying, I want you to run the meeting. I will sit at the table, but you’re running it – it’s your flight, so you have to run it with your pilot. You know how to do it. Now, brief the flight.’ They took over for themselves – and owned it. I hope that what they walk away with is that they own their own lives and their own careers. To never compromise their own integrity. You realize that, for an artist, the way they shine most is when they’re owning it themselves, not being a robot, doing what I’m telling them to do. I think that harkens back [for me] to Taps and what Harold Becker and Stanley Jaffe did. They got talented people and recognized their talent and then tried to put them in an environment where they would grow.”
These briefings were always attended by Cruise and the actors going aloft, but also by Kosinski, director of photography Claudio Miranda, all the aerial departments, executive producer Tommy Harper and the film’s editor, Eddie Hamilton. “Having the editor in the briefs and debriefs meant Eddie had an understanding of what we were trying to achieve every day,” explains Kosinski. “We are generating so much footage. We’ve got six cameras on each flight. We’re doing four to six flights a day, and often we’ll have a ground-to-air unit shooting simultaneously, so [this way] when the footage comes in at night, he’s got a sense of what it is he’s looking at, and can start to organize everything in a way that makes sense. There were days where I had 27 cameras running simultaneously, so it was essential to have him there.” Or, as Harper puts it: “For this one movie, we basically had as much footage as the three Lord Of The Rings movies had collectively.”
Captain Brian “Ferg” Ferguson, the TOPGUN veteran who was the Air Boss’ representative on Top Gun: Maverick and served as the film’s Naval Aviation Technical Advisor and Aerial Coordinator, is still astonished at the scale of what the whole team has achieved. “It was a challenge and a steep learning curve,” he says. “You have these two massive organizations. You have this enormous scale production company with global movie stars trying to recreate an iconic film. And then you have Naval Aviation, with all its aircraft, ships, personnel and bases. About a billion moving parts collectively between them. And we had to find a way to seamlessly integrate these two robust entities with a lot of strings involved at no burden to the American taxpayer.”
It was the director of Tootsie who first taught Tom Cruise to fly. The legendary doubleOscar-winner Sydney Pollack had first met the star when he was just 18. Cruise, off the back of his success on Taps, had recently hired talent agency CAA, and began embarking on a series of meetings with their roster of writers and directors.
“Every film I chose [in my career] was a development in my education,” Cruise says. “Each time, studying and learning. People say to me, ‘You chose well with directors.’ But it wasn’t just directors – it was the overall projects that I was interested in. That director with that particular material. I never felt that thing of, ‘I must make this movie’ or, ‘I have to do this.’
“The whole thing with movies is, and my whole purpose always was, to entertain. Also, I wanted to make a wide range of films, from fantasy to action to musicals to dramas, but to make each one to evaluate and understand that it’s a different way to tell a story. How do you do it? I was looking at [Alan J.] Pakula with Klute, [cinematographer] Gordon Willis, right there at the time with the Godfathers. Those guys were on fire in terms of storytelling. The French influence was coming up into American cinema, but it still had an American structural sensibility in storytelling. These are the things that always interested me. So, I met with Scorsese and Coppola. All those guys. The important thing to me was absorbing all of this. The first time I met Sydney Pollack, I’d seen all his movies and I just interviewed him. Not as a writer, but as an actor. And we talked about aviation because he knew about my passion for flying, and we became friends.”
Flash forward 13 years and the friends found the movie they wanted to make together: The Firm, their adaptation of the John Grisham bestseller. “I’d worked so much, seven days a week [by the time we made The Firm] that I’d never had any time to learn how to fly,” remembers Cruise. “So, at the end of the movie, Sydney gives me a pack [of flying lessons] and says, ‘You gotta learn how to fly now, or you’re never gonna do it. I know it’s one of your passions – you gotta go do it. It’s gonna take you forever to do this…’”
And this is where the story turns quintessentially Tom Cruise. “So, six weeks later, I took Sydney to dinner…” Cruise laughs. “And he said, ‘You fucker! You did it [learned to fly] this fast?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it was really hard.’ He just said, ‘Fuck you.’”
So then it all became about the IFR. “It was a really fun game between us,” says Cruise. “Sydney said, ‘The IFR [Instrument Flight Rules], which is your next rating, that took me years, it’s gonna take you years.’ So, a little while later, I took him to dinner… And we’re eating and then at the end I say, ‘I’m going to pay the bill’ and I opened my wallet and put it on the table as I got my cash out, and he looked down at my wallet and there was my IFR license in it. He said, ‘You fucker! What are you doing?! You fucker!’” Cruise laughs at the memory. “I said, ‘What’s the deal, Sydney? You’ve just been fucking around, taking years. I don’t have years, man.’”
But while we can thank Pollack for giving Cruise the tools to fly, the man who fanned the flames in the first place was Jerry Bruckheimer. While Cruise had been busily absorbing knowledge, moving from Taps to The Outsiders (Cruise later turning down Coppola for Rumblefish in favor of his first lead, in Risky Business) to Losin’ It with Curtis Hanson, Bruckheimer and his late producing partner, Don Simpson, were fast establishing themselves as the hottest outfit in town.
Fresh off Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, Simpson and Bruckheimer had found the idea for the movie that would send their partnership stratospheric in the May 1983 issue of California magazine. The article, titled ‘Top Guns’ was written by Ehud Yonay and told the story of an F-14 crew going through TOPGUN class. And it was illustrated with stunning aerial photography from former TOPGUN instructor Chuck “Heater” Heatley. “I thought, ‘Whoa! This is like Star Wars, for real.’ I threw the magazine on Don’s desk and said, ‘We’ve got to get this story,’” says Bruckheimer.
By this point, Cruise was making Legend, with Ridley Scott, drawn in by the opportunity to work with “a true master of design and lighting and shots” and to travel. “I wanted to see the world,” Cruise says. “For me to work with Ridley Scott, at Pinewood, in England, meant a lot to me. It was the first time I was overseas and I wanted to see how a British crew worked. It was a real privilege to go there.”
It was also the first time that Cruise had worked with a member of the Scott family. “And Ridley said, ‘You’ve got to meet my brother, Tony.’ At this point, Tony had done The Hunger and you could see he was a true visionary artist,” says Cruise. “So, I read the script [for Top Gun] went to LA to meet with Tony and saw his whole design. I’d spent over a year with his brother, and there’s Tony. And Tony is definitely like the spirited younger brother. And he had this wonderful book [on how the movie was going to look]. And there’s Don and Jerry, in their office, and I just saw – cinematically – what they were going to do. But the script wasn’t great. It didn’t work. There was no real character with Maverick. It was just kind of a world.”
With Cruise always Scott and the producers’ original choice, there was a lot riding on the meeting. But here’s what they didn’t know: They were very much on Cruise’s hitlist too. “I’d been following Jerry and Don. They were the hot producers,” remembers Cruise. “And not just hot but inventive producers. And when you met them, you just knew. So, we started talking about this Top Gun script. And I said, ‘Look, for me, this is a competition film. It’s a film about competition, it’s a film about honor, it’s a film about friendship, it’s about sacrifice and stakes and mistakes, and owning those mistakes.’
“After the meeting, I had to fly to New York. I said to my agent, who had come to pick me up, in a white limo… I mean, it was 1984… Anyway, we drove and I said, ‘I’m going to make this movie, but don’t tell them. Here are the things that I need for this deal: I’m going to develop the script with them for a month. I also want to be in every producorial meeting – that’s got to be a part of it. I want to see how they work, from top to bottom. And I want to fly with the Blue Angels.’”
The Blue Angels are the Navy flight exhibition team that was founded in 1946 and have been wowing crowds across the US ever since. They’re also the only real point of contention in the story as to when Tom Cruise finally said yes to Top Gun.
Ask Bruckheimer and he’ll tell you that he did indeed arrange for Cruise to fly with the Blue Angels, down in Miramar, California. He’ll also tell you that Cruise turned up at the runway on a motorcycle, his long hair from Legend billowing freely in the breeze, and the Navy aviators took one look at this Hollywood “hippie” and vowed to give him a proper roller coaster of a ride. And that Cruise, having been flipped about at four to five Gs, finally landed, walked to a nearby phone booth, called Bruckheimer and told him, “I’m in.” At least, that’s what Bruckheimer says.
“Jerry says that, but that’s not actually what happened,” laughs Cruise when this legendary story is put to him. “I did have the long hair, but the pilots weren’t busting my balls. They were very interested in how passionate I was about aviation. It was a dream of mine to fly with the Blue Angels! It was a great flight. For the first time I felt my paces with G-force. You can read about G-force, but you don’t understand it until you go through it. And it was a great ride. They let me do what I wanted to do – and I just kept going [to about five Gs]. And what Jerry doesn’t know, because I kept them on the hook for months about whether I was going to commit to the movie or not, was that I knew I was going to. I just needed to see how the script was going to change and I wanted that part of my contract with the studio was that I would fly in the F-14. So, it was put in the contract that they had to film me in the F-14.”
The deal was done. And it was one that proved pivotal for all concerned. For Cruise, it marked a key part of his progression, learning the producorial ropes from – appropriately, given the movie’s subject matter – the best of the best. In some ways, he still marvels at how he got away with it. “I was a kid, so it was a bit like, ‘Who do you think you are? Outrageous!’ But, to Don and Jerry and Tony’s credit, they were incredibly generous to me and welcomed me into the process. Very much from the beginning. Every single meeting. It was the next phase for me,” he says now.
Cruise embraced that next phase with typical dedication, and Simpson, Bruckheimer and Scott were true to their word, welcoming him into the process across the board. “My focus in terms of Top Gun,” says Cruise, “was expansive.” From script structure and “story engineering” to lighting to sets to wardrobe to lenses to Scott’s handmade filters, colors and composition, Cruise drank it in. “I went in,” he says, “and I would just listen.”
While his co-stars played in the limelight, Cruise stayed focused. “When I was doing Top Gun,” he says, “all those guys, they had a different experience than I did. I was incredibly excited, but it didn’t change my process. While most people were out at parties, I was home studying. I was training. I was working.”
Where do you begin, when you’re thinking about making a sequel to a movie so iconic that it’s still part of pop culture, 36 years after it was first released? Sometimes, it turns out, the answer has been in front of you all along.
“When we first started working on this [sequel], I said to Tony, ‘We gotta watch Top Gun. You, me and Jerry are gonna watch the first movie,” says Cruise. “We all think we know what Top Gun is. Let’s watch it together. We have to go back and look at it. To feel it.’”
This, of course, was back in 2010, two years before Tony Scott tragically passed away, on August 19, 2012. But that first screening, with those three original creatives sat there together in the dark, nevertheless remains a formative moment in what Top Gun: Maverick would become, that morning’s viewing still embedded in its DNA.
“I wanted us to watch the movie together because people think they know what Top Gun is. But they don’t understand the mechanisms of what the movie really is,” says Cruise. “Everyone goes, ‘Oh my god! It’s such an entertaining movie!’ And I say, ‘Yes, it is. But this guy [Maverick] lost his father, was betrayed and outcast, didn’t make it to the Naval Academy. His friend dies. He’s overly aggressive. He barely made it to TOPGUN. There is serious drama going underneath this film. It has great music and it’s entertaining, but Maverick… He’s not a team player. He’s out there to beat Iceman and to beat everyone else. He’s out there to beat The Navy.’ It’s funny, [over the years] people would come in and they’d start pitching these ideas [for a sequel] and I’d say: ‘It’s not Top Gun.’”
After the screening, Cruise, Bruckheimer and Scott, who had already worked together again on a second collaboration, Days Of Thunder, in 1990, had a debrief. “We watched the movie and felt it as an audience, because we hadn’t watched it since it had been released,” says Cruise. “Since the premiere, we had not all sat in a movie theater together and watched it. Not since 1986. So it was a wonderful moment of us being able to look at it and talk about it, that morning. It took us back, you know? What Don and Jerry and Tony… It was the four of us, really. That was the sauce in that movie. That collision of people. And visually, what Tony accomplished! Tony, his spirit, just as a human being. The energy he brought to Top Gun. That understanding. That storytelling. That vibrancy.”
Bruckheimer agrees. “We were determined,” he says, “that if we were to make a new Top Gun film, it would have to live up to what Tony created. Like the TOPGUN pilots, Tony was the best of the best. We had a lot to live up to.” For Kosinski, meanwhile, when he came on board it would become about creating something that could stand proudly side by side with the Scott original. “His shoes are impossible to fill,” Kosinski says.
For McQuarrie, the legendary status of that original movie was both a help and a hindrance. “One of the things that we kept encountering,” McQuarrie says of the first discussions after he came on board around 2015, “was the power of the original movie and what the original movie had become in people’s minds. Not only what it was but what it had become.”
He too remembers later re-watching Top Gun, sat between Cruise and Bruckheimer. “I was in a very unique position during that screening,” McQuarrie laughs, “with the greatest living DVD commentary you’ve ever had, with Tom and Jerry talking over me about scenes and the day they had shot them. It was the greatest trip down memory lane, but it was also a way to recontextualize our impression of the movie – and allow ourselves to make something new. During the writing of the film and also during the shooting and editing of the film, we found ourselves, time and again, leaning towards recreating moments from the [original] film, as opposed to creating new ground. And we found, time and again, that the more we let go of the original movie and went in our own direction, the film became much more true, and there really was the possibility to make something that stood alone. It’s very important to Tom and I, whenever we make a film, whether we’re making Mission: Impossible or anything else, that you didn’t have to see the original movie to enjoy this one. It was very important to us that you were never taken out of the film and forced to remember something or call back upon the other movie. There’s a great deal of nostalgia in this movie, a lot of mirrors and a lot of reflections to the past. But this film is very much its own story.”
In other words, they knew the tone they wanted to hit. But that didn’t mean that finding it was easy. “It was a balance,” is how Cruise describes finding the right execution. “Having now made sequels, with the Mission: Impossible movies, helped me to really understand how to make Top Gun: Maverick. People had asked for this sequel for years. Kept asking and asking. But Mission was the first time where I thought, ‘You know, if I can do sequels and I can learn something and I can play in this kind of format, as a producer and an artist… Maybe.’
“Also at this point, I realized that there was a challenge to be communicating with an audience over several films. There’s an interesting dialogue I can have with an audience, a progression in terms of story. And it allows the studio room to allow me to push certain areas, cinematically. I produced the first Mission: Impossible and was really proud of it. And after doing three of them I sat back and evaluated all three. And that’s when I was able to really start. Then came Ghost Protocol. Then Rogue Nation. Then Fallout and these next ones [that we’re working on now]. With a Top Gun sequel, the studio wanted it and audiences said they wanted it, but there needed to be the same kind of progression in terms of audience experience. In 1986 [after the original movie was released], I wasn’t interested in doing sequels. I felt I’d done Top Gun. But having made sequels, with Mission, helped me to really understand how to approach Top Gun: Maverick. So, I laid down a template. I said, ‘It’s got to be nostalgic. He’s gotta be Maverick. But he’s older, you know?’ I wanted to give the audience Top Gun, but the next evolution of that.”
All of which meant a complete reversal of how most movies are made. “Every day we’d let go of the things we thought the movie needed to be,” is how McQuarrie describes his and Cruise’s early process on the screenplay.
“You’ve got to be willing to put something there [on paper], to evaluate it emotionally. And then you’ve got to be willing to take it away,” agrees Cruise. “You can’t be stuck on an idea. I’ll give you an example: There was a scene [in an old version of the screenplay] where I had to wear the leather jacket [from the original movie]. I knew it didn’t work.’ I called McQ. I said, ‘I know I need nostalgia in this scene, but I don’t know how to find it in an organic way. I’m wearing the jacket and it’s just not right. I want the jacket, but not in this scene.’ He said, ‘Don’t wear the jacket.’ I said, ‘Fuck, but I gotta wear the jacket.’ He said, ‘We’ll find another way.’
“So, there were a lot of< little things throughout the movie that we removed. Things we thought we needed. We kept pulling things out, but we also kept putting things in, too,” Cruise continues. “I wanted the film to have a nostalgia and I knew how I wanted to begin the movie. I knew exactly how I wanted to open it because I wanted to tell the audience, ‘You’re going to be safe. It’s going to be okay. I’m going to give you this right now, because I know you’ve been waiting a long time. And here it is.’ And we found it there, that balance. That’s the opening of the movie and this is the movie I wanted to make.”
Sometimes the temptation to drift too far into nostalgic waters was high. Bruckheimer talks of his time on this movie as being akin to seeing an old friend you haven’t seen for a while, enjoying just being with them again. But he also recognizes that, firstly, a good sequel always needs to look forwards as well as back, and that – crucially – if you try and manufacture nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, it will just feel false.
“You need to feel nostalgia, but you have to find it within what the story is,” agrees Cruise. “McQ and I talked about it, when we were making Fallout, actually. I said, ‘I think we’ve got the story.’ It wasn’t that we had the whole story – it was the Rooster/Maverick relationship. That was it. There’s the story. And building that from there with the Penny character and the other characters and the world. You know, what is that world, today? It really evolved from that. I said to the studio, ‘Okay, you got it. Here’s the deal. Know what you’re getting in for.’ And I said to the actors, ‘Here’s how we’re going to make it. And we’re going to make it till it works.’ Every film I make is a culmination of everything I’ve learned. Every film is that next phase. I don’t stop pushing. I know there are no absolutes. Perfection is unobtainable. It’s unobtainable. And that’s okay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t go for it.”
Even so, Top Gun: Maverick means more than all that to Cruise. Maybe more than any other movie so far. “To produce this with Jerry was in many ways full circle for me,” he says. “I didn’t have a producer credit on Top Gun, but it was my first real sitting in and observing. My first producorial event was with Top Gun. I don’t know how else to describe it, you know, because I didn’t produce Top Gun. But it was my education. I didn’t discuss what I was doing with people, didn’t talk about it in the press, didn’t talk about it with anyone, ever. I just did it.”
And then there’s Tony. All these years later, having made the first movie with Cruise and Bruckheimer in the early ‘80s, and then sat in that screening room to watch it again in 2010, with a view to making a follow-up, what would Tony Scott make of Top Gun: Maverick? As it happens, that’s a question its makers have thought about a lot. And their answer is unanimous. “He’d love it,” says Cruise.
Cameron Crowe tells a story about Tom Cruise that pretty much sums up his attitude to cinema. It comes from around the time of Jerry Maguire, the 1996 classic that saw them both nominated for Oscars. Specifically, the story centers around the boy who was originally cast in the role of Ray Boyd, the son of Renee Zellweger’s Dorothy. Later, five-year-old Jonathan Lipnicki would take the role over and then win the world over with his wide-eyed delivery of lines like, “Did you know the human head weighs eight pounds?” But for the boy originally cast as Ray, it wasn’t to be. As Crowe puts it, that first boy “ran out of gas” in his time on the set and asked to leave the production.
These things happen, and fairly often. But what Cruise did next, says Crowe, really doesn’t. It’s also, according to Crowe, acutely telling about how much Tom Cruise loves the movies, and wants everyone else to love them too. Concerned for his welfare, Cruise called the kid’s family, asking to speak with him, to make sure that his time on a movie set hadn’t left any scars.
“I wanted him to not feel bad that it wasn’t his purpose to do it,” Cruise says now. “It wasn’t his purpose. I said to him, ‘What do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘I’d like to go to Disneyland.’ So, I sent him and his family.” As Crowe later told Vanity Fair: “Tom said [to me], ‘I just didn’t want that first actor to go to the movies, look at the screen and think he’d failed.’ He said, ‘I wanted him to love movies, his entire life.’”
Twenty-five years later, Cruise’s passion for the medium remains undiminished. “You know, I know the edit when I’m shooting something. I’ll play the movie as we go along, in my mind, because I know the lenses and the shots and everything as we’re going along,” says Cruise. “So, I’ll do different takes for different performances. As we’re shooting, I’ll create different levels. ‘If the edit goes this way, I know [the editor] is going to need this shot. If the edit goes this way, he’s going to need…’ You’ve got to feel the story.”
That knowledge and passion is also why Cruise fights so hard to preserve the medium, in whatever ways he can. He sees his job like this: “I’m going to make you [the audience] sit in that chair, and I’m going to make you nervous. And then I’m going to make you laugh. And you and I are having a conversation while you’re watching that movie.” But if that sounds simple, it rarely is. Not least when you’ve shot a movie and then a global pandemic tries to stop you from finishing it.
“It was intense. There have been many moments in my life when other people have said, ‘It can’t be done.’ Many, many, many times. And there are times when you sit there and go, ‘Maybe it can’t be done. But I’m going to try. I’ve got to figure it out.’”
That’s why, says Bruckheimer, that Cruise is where he is, and why he’s been there for so long. “It’s no accident that Tom is one of the biggest movie stars in the world. If not the biggest,” says Bruckheimer. “The reason his movies do so well and are so good is because he puts so much time and energy and commitment into them.” You get what you give.
“I very much believe that,” says Cruise. “I realize that on the first Top Gun, there were significant things that were valuable to me, in terms of the time people gave to me and the things that I did. And now, on Top Gun: Maverick and beyond, there are things I want to share with other people, if they want it. [Young actors] ask me, ‘How did you do it? What did you do?’ Well, this is what happened. This is what I did. Always for me, I saw when I was growing up there were people who were very generous – and some who weren’t. The ones who weren’t didn’t want you to know what they knew because they had created a mystique around it, so they could have power. To keep you down. Those people don’t want you to know what happens behind closed doors. It’s a point of control. And I don’t feel that way. I want everyone to know everything. I want people to be empowered, to make the movies the best they can be. Like Jerry was with me.”
If you ask Cruise’s co-stars on Top Gun: Maverick, they’ll all tell you he has very much succeeded in that mission, that what he’s given them is a belief in their abilities and a desire to be as generous with them as he has been and Bruckheimer was to him, all those years ago.
“Working with Tom Cruise is better than you can ever imagine,” says Powell. “A lot of times when you’re in the presence of movie stars, they make sure to remind you that they’re a movie star. Tom is exactly the opposite. He’s a guy that immediately wants to take down barriers, talk story, talk emotion, teach, be a mentor, be a friend. He looks at everyone as an equal and a partner and an ensemble. He’ll tell you, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. We may not get it on the first shot, but we’re going to work our butts off to make sure that this movie is something that matches or betters the first one.’ His entire life is built around making sure he can deliver something that no one has ever done before. It’s an immense amount of pressure he puts on himself to make sure everyone gets the movie they’ve been waiting 36 years for.”
McQuarrie remembers the pressure, too. “It’s not often that you are called upon to create a sequel for a film as culturally iconic and era-defining as a film like Top Gun,” he says. “And I made a decision very early on not to try. I wasn’t interested in trying to recreate or recapture any of the magic of the original film, so much of which had to do with the time in which it was released, the music that was popular in the day, the technology that was there, and who Tom Cruise was as an actor and a star compared to who he is now. More than anything, I just wanted to be part of a really good story. And that’s all Tom and I focused on from the very moment that I came on board. We were challenged every day to not focus on the original film, to not be daunted by it or overwhelmed by it. Much in the [same] way that Goose is a spirit that looms over Maverick, the original Top Gun was a spirit looming over us. We knew that we owed fans of that film a film that was just as good, a film that had to stand alone.”
For Cruise, it all goes back to his breakout movie, Taps. “I see myself as a support system and that it’s my job to help them [the actors]. To help them understand what kind of film we’re trying to make. What we’re trying to accomplish. Those are the things I have that harken back to Taps. One day on that movie, I went into town and shaved my head,” Cruise laughs. “I had longer hair, but I’d decided to shave my head, for my character. And I just showed up on the parade ground. I had my cap on, and there’s [director] Harold Becker and we’re rehearsing the whole parade ground thing. And he says, ‘Okay, Cruise, go stand over there…’ And I took my hat off and he shouted, ‘Cruise!’ I said, ‘Yes sir!’ I was raised in the South, so everything was ‘Yes sir, no sir/ Yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ He said, ‘Cruise! Whatever happened to your hair?’ I said, ‘I shaved my head, sir. This is my character.’ He had to sit me down and explain: ‘Cruise, I’m the director. There’s also a producer. It’s okay if you want to cut your hair, but you’ve got to ask someone!’
“I mean, I didn’t know!” Cruise laughs. “There was so much going through my head on that movie. I was trying to understand everything about cinema and storytelling. At night I’d lay there in bed, thinking, ‘If I could just know it all!’ I was so tense. I was sleepless, staring at the ceiling…” He chuckles at the memories. “And I just went, ‘What am I doing?’ I was literally there, in bed, and I started laughing. I said to myself, ‘All I can do is the best I can do. That’s it. That’s it. I know I want to do this for the rest of my life. So don’t take it for granted. But just do the best you can do, man. And stay focused on it.’”
Just as the new recruits of Top Gun: Maverick have learned from Cruise, when he was their age he was also inspired by the stories of Stanley Jaffe, the Taps producer who came from generations of filmmakers. “I’d hear all those stories,” says Cruise. “So I was interested in the history of cinema, the origins of cinema, prior to cinema – vaudeville. What were the different movements in cinema and storytelling? How did Charlie Chaplin develop? Harold Lloyd?” Seen through the Chaplin and Lloyd lenses in particular, Cruise’s much celebrated pursuit of authenticity in terms of doing his own stunts, capturing as much in-camera as possible, finding “a unique kind of staging” can be seen in a new light, born of a desire to grow the artform.
“I’ve always been a physical actor, have always been developing a physical language. But now I’m also an aerobatic pilot,” Cruise says. “I fly warbirds. The P-51 in this movie is mine, the Red Tail [the period silver plane Cruise flies Connelly in, in Top Gun: Maverick]. And I have done more aerial sequences than any other actor, from Top Gun to American Made [in which Cruise played infamous drug-running pilot Barry Seal] to Fallout [that saw him put that helicopter into a controlled spin and perform the first ever on-screen High Altitude Low Open, or HALO, skydive out the back of that C-17].
“On all of those movies,” he reveals, “I’ve worked on developing an aerial language – how to do it visually and from a production standpoint. While I was doing Fallout and American Made, I was always looking towards [this] Top Gun. Even though I hadn’t yet committed to it, I was already developing a visual language of what we could do. I was always developing and studying the rigs. I was interested in making those movies anyway, of course, but it was also a progression in storytelling, in understanding how to do it, from a technical standpoint and a story standpoint. I don’t make a movie just to make a movie. And I’ve been that way my whole life.”
Aged just four years old, Tom Cruise had a dream. “I grew up watching the space race,” he says. “I grew up wanting to fly these jets. Since I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be an aviator.” It was recently announced that Cruise will soon reteam with his Edge Of Tomorrow and American Made director Doug Liman, and collaborate with both Elon Musk and NASA, on a currently untitled movie that will be filmed in Space. But, for now, there are other things that need to be seen to be believed, in Top Gun: Maverick.
Astronaut. Aviator. Pioneer. Not bad for a four-year-old turned 59. “It’s unbelievable, it really is,” Cruise says, sincerely. “I’m living my dreams.”
But is this really the end for Maverick? There’s a line in Top Gun: Maverick that plays with that very question. Appropriately, it’s said by the man himself, in a scene in which he’s sat behind the controls of a state-of-the-art flying machine, on the runway and about to launch off into a voyage that no man has ever dared embark on before. “Come on sweetheart,” Maverick whispers to the plane. “One last ride…”
“What does that line mean? ‘One last ride?’” laughs Cruise, when it’s suggested it might be loaded with subtext as to whether, or not, Top Gun: Maverick is this beloved character’s last hurrah. “I am not going to define that for you. People can and will take that line however they want.” Cruise smiles. “And that’s exactly how it should be.”