“We’re not very good at what we do. It’s a problem,” says Jerry Bruckheimer. He’s offering this as the reason for the 36-year wait for a Top Gun sequel. He doesn’t need to laugh for you to tell he’s joking. Tom Cruise, star of Top Gun and its follow-up, Top Gun: Maverick, is the world’s greatest movie star and, well, movie industry maverick, too; while Bruckheimer is arguably the world’s greatest producer, and both are on board this project. It’s an industry marriage made in Hollywood heaven.
Bruckheimer has presided over a seriously impressive number of huge successes on screens both big and small over the years making landmark episodic television before streaming was a thing at the same time as spawning a number of mega movie franchises. He’s the man behind the CSI behemoth on television, and the man behind the blockbusting Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not to mention the man that launched Tom Cruise’s career (alongside his much-missed business partner Don Simpson and the equally dearly departed director Tony Scott) into the stratosphere with the OG 1986 smash hit.
Top Gun was a romantic drama, targeting both women and men among its audience, with a sprinkling of aviation action and an interesting dynamic between a disparate set of all-male fighter pilots – and it clawed in a remarkable $356 million off the back of its $15 million budget. Cruise has recently spoken about how there were conversations for a sequel before the original Top Gun had even come out – and Bruckheimer picks up the story to explain why a follow-up didn’t materialise, as he chats exclusively to Fandom.
The Kosinski Method
“We attempted, after the first movie came out, to come up with something and it just never worked,” says Bruckheimer. “And we all went off and did other movies; Tom went off and built this amazing career. We went off and made a bunch of different films and life takes over. About seven years ago, we got more serious and hired a screenwriter and started developing something, but it was really [director] Joe Kosinski who came in and said that he has this idea on how to do it.”
Kosinski had previously directed another legacy sequel, the perhaps unimaginatively titled Tron: Legacy, and had worked with Cruise before on Oblivion and so commanded attention.
“So we flew to Paris — Joe and I — and Tom was filming Mission: Impossible. And we sat down with Tom. Joe brought a lookbook, brought a poster. And he started telling the story about Goose’s son [played by Miles Teller in Maverick and whose story the film traces]. He said, ‘I want to film this movie, for real; I want the actors in the cockpit; I’m going to figure out how to build this plane and do everything real’. And Tom got all excited, he pulled out his cell phone and said, ‘I want to make another Top Gun!’ and called the head of Paramount and said, ‘I want to make it — a new Top Gun’. And that’s how it happened.”
What Happened to Kelly McGillis’s Charlie?
It sounds like it came together just like that, in the end, because here we are in May 2022 on the eve of the product of that meeting’s release. Voila. We’ll get to the issues thrown up by the actual shooting of the aerial scenes in a bit, but what of different iterations of the script? And conversations that inevitably took place over the years about which stories to tell and which characters to bring back. Val Kilmer’s Iceman makes an appearance in Maverick, but one notable absence is Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, the Top Gun instructor, astrophysicist, and ‘age-appropriate’ (McGillis is five years Cruise’s senior) object of Maverick’s affections from the first film.
It’s long been known that McGillis wouldn’t appear in this film, but were there ever any plans to include her in a sequel?
Bruckheimer says that there were never plans to include her or even mention her in any draft of the Maverick script but does concede that “maybe originally” there had been conversations about picking up with her character – I take this to mean in the early days of talks after the release of Top Gun.
So did they talk about the trajectory of Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell’s relationship with Charlie at all? Bruckheimer says not. But we can assume that Maverick wasn’t emotionally available as he continued to beat himself up over the death of his best friend, Goose, and proceeded to marry himself to his job. And she wasn’t going to stick around, with a career of her own to pursue.
“We know what Maverick’s story is… Jennifer Connelly tells you his story in the bar [in Maverick],” says Bruckheimer.
Connolly plays Penny Benjamin, who runs the bar in the movie where several pivotal moments take place and who has a passing mention as an ex- of Maverick’s in the original Top Gun.
“She says, ‘You’re here and then you’re gone, then you went over here, then you went over there’,” explains Bruckheimer. “And when [Top Gun pilots are] on a carrier, they’re gone for six months. So it’s a rough life; a lot of women aren’t going to put up with that kind of man — not around very much.”
Bruckheimer says that Penny lays it out there. “He’s not somebody who sticks around. And that’s his journey through this movie — find somebody that he wants to be with. It’s deliberate when you see him [in the] first shot in the movie — he’s alone. He [has] this kind of life where it’s all about aviation. He doesn’t have much else in his life. And through the course of this movie, he finds something that he wants to be with… someone.”
Like Kelly McGillis, Jennifer Connolly represents another example in the franchise of ‘age-aligned’ casting. In the interest of avoiding the problematic term ‘age-appropriate’, we’re going to go with that. Hollywood continues to cast far younger women love interests to play against their ageing male protagonists and it’s a problem because it reinforces sexism and ageism against women. I can’t tell you what a smile it put on my face to see Connolly cast in this role – 51 years old to Cruise’s 59. Another blockbuster springs to mind as having done similar (without making a big deal of it) this year, and that’s the super-fun The Lost City which pairs a 57-year-old Sandra Bullock with the 42-year-old Channing Tatum.
Bruckheimer says this was a very deliberate decision they made: “Age-appropriate was always the discussion.”
What About Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan?
So what about other characters? Were there discussions around including some of the rest of the OG cast? Tim Robbins appeared in the original as fellow Top Gun recruit Merlin, as did 1980s favourite Rick Rossovich as Slider, while Meg Ryan also had a memorable role as Goose’s wife, Carole.
“We had some discussions but it never quite happened. For whatever reason. Couldn’t tell you why,” says Bruckheimer. He adds that he thinks Tim Robbins was actually interested and admits to having heard from Rossovich who was keen.
I suggest maybe there’s room for them in a possible Top Gun 3, and Bruckheimer responds with: “Let’s enjoy this one … Look, I love working with Tom. I’d work with him on anything. He’s just a terrific individual and great artist and somebody who I consider a friend.”
So, that’s not a no to another Top Gun film.
Cruising Like a Fine Wine
Given that 36 years have elapsed between movies, Bruckheimer addresses how Cruise has changed in that time, noting that the star has improved with age.
“He’s got the same enthusiasm that he had when I first met him when he was 20, 19,” he says. “He just loves what he does. He loves it even more now. And he looks forward to coming onto the set working. I work with so many actors, who will remain nameless, who can’t wait to go home at the end of the day. Not Tom.”
On this film, Cruise participated in all the pilot briefings for the new recruits.
“We had a briefing before they went up, had a briefing after, it was late in the day. And he’d do three sorties in one day. That’s a lot.” Bruckheimer says that the body takes a substantial beating going up there three times in a day. “Especially [with] the manoeuvres they were doing. It was very difficult. So [Tom] is the combination now of all the great writers, the great directors, great actors that he’s worked with. And that is what makes him the movie star that he is today. He keeps getting better. He’s like great wine — it gets better and better with age.”
Actors Dropping Out Like Flies
Speaking of tough manoeuvres, Bruckheimer says that they lost actors through the process of making this movie because of the gruelling training and flying work the cast had to do. And by “lost” he doesn’t mean anything more sinister than dropping out of the film. Bruckheimer, Cruise and the team had learned lessons from the first film about how difficult it was not only to pull off some of the stunts they wanted the actors to carry out but also to film usable footage of them doing it.
“On the first movie, we had what they call a ‘MiG killer’. His name was Pete Pettigrew, who was the Top Gun pilot who was our advisor,” says Bruckheimer. “I guess he shot down a MiG in Korea. He was with us every day. We had a number of Top Gun pilots working with us constantly.”
But despite that, the actors it seems were still underprepared for the sheer toll the flying took. Bruckheimer says that they put the actors in the F-14 at that time, which is the model that Maverick is famous for flying in the film.
“We couldn’t see them,” continues Bruckheimer. “They were bent over throwing up and their eyes are rolling back in their head. We couldn’t use any of the footage, except a little footage with Tom. So that’s what we used, because he could handle it, because he is that guy.”
So when they came back to do this one, and lean into what Joe pitched in terms of doing it for real, they made sure to build in a tough training programme to get the actors fully acclimatized.
The Cruise Regime
“Tom developed a programme — because he’s an aviator. He can fly anything; he can fly helicopters and jets. He said, ‘We’re going to spend three months training these actors’. Part of the condition if you wanted to be an actor in this movie [was that] you had to go up in these planes. And we lost actors who said ‘No chance’.
“So we put them in a prop plane first, then we put them in an aerobatic prop, and then we put them in a jet so they could feel even more [intense] G-forces. And then we put them in the F-18. By the time they got in an F-18, they had what they call ‘G-tolerance’. One-G is your body weight. They were doing six, seven times their body weights filming this movie. So when you see those expressions on their faces, they’re not faking it.”
Bruckheimer says he wasn’t interested in taking part himself – you know, just for the craic, like. And in case we might think he’s a baby, he goes into more detail about why it’s pretty hellish.
“First of all, you have to go through water training in case you bail out over water, which is really… you don’t want to go through that. What they do is they strap you in a cockpit and they blindfold you … and they dump you in the water, [then] you have to figure out how to get out. And every one of our actors did it. Tom didn’t have to do it again. But he did it again. He did it the first time and he did it again. So they went through a really gruelling process to be able to act in this movie.”
Judging by the advance reviews it’s been getting, the film is pretty much unanimously appreciated; the action sequences perhaps above all for a sequel to a romantic drama that leans far more heavily into what’s going on in the sky and on ramping up the tense action than its predecessor. The flying sequences are just exhilarating. It’s a remarkable feat, though perhaps not an unexpected one with Tom Cruise involved, a man intent on pushing both himself and the envelope on jaw-dropping practical screen stunts to extremes. I wonder what the late, great Tony Scott would have made of the finished product.
“I mean, he’s smiling on us right now,” says Bruckheimer. “He’d be so happy with the response that we’re getting, and the expertise in how this film was directed and photographed. And the actors that we picked. And he would be so proud of Tom.”
Crimson Tide Vs Con Air
Top Gun: Maverick is just one of many sequels and follow-ups Jerry Bruckheimer has presided over and there are more in the works, including an American Gigolo series, the original film of which starred Richard Gere as the titular male escort. (“Jon Bernthal is playing the American Gigolo … It’s a whole new story. It’s great. I mean, there’s always bumps along the road, but it’s gonna be terrific.”)
Add to that an upcoming National Treasure TV series as well as a new movie in the franchise, Beverly Hills Cop 4, Bad Boys 4, another Pirates of the Caribbean film, and an Enemy of the State series and there can’t be many movies in his back catalogue that remain un-revisited. And yet, there are some. What would Bruckheimer most like to make a sequel to that he hasn’t yet touched?
“You know, Crimson Tide is a great one. But I don’t know how you make a sequel to that. That’s a really good movie we made,” he says. You can almost hear his brain ticking as he starts to figure how to resurrect the story, which revolves around a nuclear missile submarine. If they can persuade Val Kilmer to come back for the Top Gun sequel, perhaps Denzel Washington and a long-retired Gene Hackman could show up for a follow-up to Tony Scott’s 1995 actioner.
And what about Con Air? Why was there never a follow-up to that? Hugely popular, it’s a concept that seems ripe for additional instalments.
“That’s a good one! I’ll have to start working on one of those,” says Bruckheimer.
You heard it here first.
Top Gun: Maverick hits screens in the UK on May 25, 2022 and in the US on May 27, 2022.
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