Joseph Kosinski was 12-years-old when he first saw the original ‘Top Gun’, but the experience never left him. Now, 35 years later, it’s one that has come full circle.
As a boy growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa — a Midwestern city “very, very far away from Hollywood,” Kosinski notes — he fell in love with the whole ‘Top Gun’ vibe, to the point that after seeing the movie he started building radio-controlled model airplanes to fly above the local cornfields. Later, he would even go on to study aerospace engineering at Stanford University.
“In some ways, ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is me coming back around to my first interest, of aviation. Because in order to make this movie, you have to really want to get into the details of aviation, to figure out how we made it,” he said.
Thankfully for cinema audiences, Kosinski’s career in actual aviation never took off, him having changed courses to industrial design and product design, and then a Master’s Degree in Architecture, before blazing a trail in the movie industry. “I realised that I loved using computers to create something,” he’s said of that final career switch, “but being an architect just wasn’t going to keep me interested.”
But while that early fascination with computers — and his passion for electronic music — led to his Daft Punk-soundtracked feature debut, ‘Tron: Legacy’, it was Kosinski’s second and third movies that truly armed him for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’. On the former, he directed Tom Cruise in ‘Oblivion’. On the latter, two of Cruise’s co-stars in this — Jennifer Connelly and Miles Teller — came together in ‘Only The Brave’.
Ahead of the film’s UAE release, Kosinski talks about his dream for ‘Top Gun’ finally taking flight.
The sequel to ‘Top Gun’ is a movie that people have been dreaming of for 35 years. What stage was the project at when you became involved?
There was a script that Jerry [Bruckheimer, producer] had been developing for a couple years. And there were aspects of it that I liked a lot. But the thing that I brought to it was that I had a really distinct idea of what Maverick should be doing when we find him at the beginning of this film, which I don’t think had ever quite been figured out.
So, what has Maverick been doing for all this time?
That was one big question, and I had an idea for a sequence that opens ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, that you will see. And the second big thing was, ‘What’s the emotional spine of this film? What is the rite of passage that Maverick has in this movie? What’s his journey through it?’ And what was not in the script that I read was this notion of his reconnection with Goose’s son [played in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ by Miles Teller]. That felt, to me, like the heart of this story. And for Tom [Cruise], it always comes down to emotion. If he can find that emotional hook into a film, that’s going to be key to him signing on.
So what ultimately convinced Tom Cruise to sign on for the film?
The hardest thing was making a convincing argument to Tom that it was worth doing this movie. Tom will only make movies if he truly believes there’s a reason that it has to be made. So, my first assignment was to go out to Paris, with Jerry Bruckheimer and get 15 minutes with Tom while he was shooting ‘Mission: Impossible — Fallout’.
One of the things I talked to him about was shooting it for real. Because I thought that we actually could. Not only is it Tom’s mantra in terms of all of his filmmaking now — to try to do it himself — but I felt that the technology existed to capture the experience of being in a fighter jet for real, which they weren’t even able to do on the first ‘Top Gun’. They were able to do some great practical filmmaking, but they weren’t able to get inside the jet with the actors, and I felt that we could. I think that resonated with him, and it became our mantra throughout the whole film: ‘Anything we can possibly get for real, let’s shoot it for real.’
Going back to Goose’s son — who has the call sign Rooster in the movie — was it always going to be Miles Teller?
For me it was. I actually showed a picture of Miles to Tom in that 15-minute meeting because I had just worked with Miles and had actually done camera tests with him with blond hair. I photoshopped a moustache on him and showed the picture to Tom, to show him the resemblance — the photographic resemblance was pretty uncanny from the start. But I knew that ultimately it came down to the actor. And having worked with Miles, in his age-range it’s hard to find anyone else who has that body of work, with such a range of characters.
Nonetheless, we did do a wide, exhaustive search process and narrowed it down to the three actors that tested with Tom. I think after that testing process it became clear that Miles was the right choice.
In terms of characters with links to the original movie, what can you tell us about Penny Benjamin? That name rings a bell …
Yes, fans of the first movie — deep, hardcore fans — are going to recognise that name, even though it’s just a name in the first movie; it’s not a character that we ever meet. [Penny Benjamin is mentioned in the original as being an admiral’s daughter and old flame of Maverick’s; in ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, she is played by Jennifer Connelly.]
Again, I had just worked with Jennifer. Amazingly, Jen has worked as long as Tom has, as she started at 10 years old in ‘Once Upon A Time In America’. So, she’s a vet of the big screen, like Tom is. But they’ve never worked together before, which is kind of amazing given the careers they’ve both had.
How did you feel about the legacy of Tony Scott on this movie? As director, his original ‘Top Gun’ has such a distinct look and feel.
His shoes are impossible to fill. He created the aesthetic that has been mimicked in hundreds of movies. He created the ‘Top Gun’ look, the ‘Top Gun’ style.
So, when we approached it, Tom and I both agreed that we didn’t want to do the cover band version of ‘Top Gun’. It couldn’t be a parody or a rip-off. It had to feel like it was in the ‘Top Gun’ universe but at the same time we had to forge our own aesthetic.
You do feel the sunset, though. That magic hour light that we all remember from ‘Top Gun’ is something you have to work very hard to achieve. But I was confident that using our camera system and our technology, it was going to feel like a ‘Top Gun’ movie but have an immediacy and realism and sense of being there that they just couldn’t do in 1986. Our six-camera rig gives this film a different, even more immersive, feeling — that you’re there, with the pilots, in the cockpit.
What’s it like shooting up there, at 37,000 feet?
Coordinating these aerial sequences is like three-dimensional chess at 600 miles per hour. The amount of prep and coordination was tremendous. We would shoot 14 hours and only maybe get a minute of usable material. It was a very slow, methodical marathon to get this footage. But, it does create an image that you can’t replicate using any amount of visual effects because you’re seeing the forces on the actors’ bodies.
It’s something you just can’t act. You feel the reality of it. So, it’s worth the pain. The fact that we were ‘Top Gun’ allowed us to do a lot of this with the Navy because the people who are in charge now are the same guys who were watching the movie in 1986 and joining up. So, we had that going for us.
Which flight sequence in the movie was most challenging?
I mean, every sequence on this movie was more challenging. But the one I’m most proud of — and Tom is too, I think — is a sequence in the movie where Tom pushes the capabilities of the F-18 to its absolute limits, in terms of speed and altitude. He basically pushes this jet to the point that it almost breaks, in order to prove something to his superiors. And that sequence, that Tom did, required so much planning and special permissions that I don’t think anything like it will ever be done again.
It was a confluence of the best pilot in the Navy and Tom at his peak performance being able to pull off a sequence that is all in-camera and is so spectacular in terms of what is actually happening on the screen.
Jerry Bruckheimer has said that he doubts a movie on this scale will ever be made again. What does he mean by that?
Well, first of all, we’ve got our actors in real airplanes. With Tom, I think we’ve all come to expect that he would be able to do something like this. He’s an accomplished pilot, he does aerobatics … You’ve seen him hang on the outside of airplanes, so the idea of getting Tom in an airplane is something that we would expect for him to do, as amazing as it is.
To get the rest of the cast into an airplane is a whole other feat. And then, beyond that, to get all of them in US Navy F-18s, which is the front line of the US Navy’s fighter aircraft, is an enormous undertaking. You can’t just hop in! You need to physically train, for months, to be able to handle the extreme forces on your body. You put most people in an F-18 at seven G’s, they’re just going to pass out and throw up and that would be the end of the ride. Our actors had to, while all this is going on, actually play the scenes.
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‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is out in UAE cinemas on May 26.