Top Gun: Maverick – Exploring the culture and competitive nature of Top Aviators

In the early 80s California Magazine published an article titled Top Guns, which inspired Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr. to write the screenplay for the film Top Gun. Now, 36 years later, Top Gun: Maverick is here, as one of the Navy’s top aviators is where he belongs, pushing the envelope as a courageous test pilot and dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him.

Fresh off Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, Don Simpson and Jerry 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.

In 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.

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 are 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, and 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 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.

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie.

“In Top Gun: Maverick 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 helps 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-of-the-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.

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.”

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 aeroplane. “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.”

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.”

It was the director of Tootsie who first taught Tom Cruise to fly. The legendary double-Oscar-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 evaluate and understand that it’s a different way to tell a story.

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.”

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 who 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.”

Monica Barbaro and Tom Cruise on the set of Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.

The Writing Team

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.

Christopher Mcquarrie (Screenplay By / Produced By) is a writer, producer and director whose credits include The Usual Suspects, Edge of Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible Fallout. He is also known in the industry for his uncredited work as a script doctor, film editor and production consultant across numerous genres. A frequent collaborator of Tom Cruise, he is currently working on the 7th and 8th instalments of Mission: Impossible.

Ehren Kruger (Screenplay By) is an award-winning, genre-hopping American screenwriter and producer of global blockbusters and independent cinema alike. He is the writer of such international hits as The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski, Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, and three instalments of Michael Bay’s multi-billion-dollar Transformers franchise. His other credits include acclaimed suspense dramas, twisty thrillers, and subversive sci-fi and fantasy tales, including Arlington Road, The Skeleton Key, Ghost in the Shell, The Brothers Grimm, and, as producer, Ophelia. Mr. Kruger received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 1996. He is a native of Alexandria, Virginia and a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Eric Warren Singer (Screenplay By) is a highly acclaimed screenwriter who has written movies for such noted directors as David Fincher, Gore Verbinski, Michael Mann, Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Ben Affleck, and Tom Tykwer. His first script, The Sky Is Falling, sold to Sony and made Mr. Singer an in-demand writer. Mr. Singer’s first feature film, conspiracy thriller The International, opened the 59th Berlin International Film Festival in 2009. His follow-up film, American Hustle, won several best original screenplay awards including the New York Film Critics Circle, BAFTA, and Australian Academy Award as well as earning ten Academy Award nominations. After writing the critically-acclaimed Only the Brave, Singer went on to write Top Gun: Maverick, and also created and executive produced the upcoming Apple series, Shantaram, based on the acclaimed novel.

Peter Craig (Story By) is a screenwriter and novelist whose first feature was The Town in 2010. He went on to write Parts 1 and 2 of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay with Danny Strong, then the adaptation of his own novel, Blood Father. Before Top Gun: Maverick, Peter contributed to two other Jerry Bruckheimer productions: 12 Strong and Bad Boys For Life. His most recent feature was The Batman, co-written with director Matt Reeves. This winter, Netflix will release The Mother, written with Misha Green, and directed by Niki Caro.

Justin Marks (Story By) is a screenwriter and television Creator and Executive Producer. In feature film, Justin wrote the Walt Disney Company’s hit film The Jungle Book. A sequel is in development now.  Currently, Justin is writing Netflix’s animated musical The Prince Of Port-Au-Prince based on the life of Wyclef Jean.  Justin also was a writer on the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick. In television, Justin is the creator and showrunner of the FX upcoming epic series Shogun based on the novel by James Clavell. Previously, Justin was the creator and showrunner of the Starz drama Counterpart which ran for two seasons.