Nearly 40 years ago, Top Gun made moviegoers feel a small fraction of the thrill that comes with being a fighter pilot — in part thanks to Kenny Loggins’ anthem “Danger Zone,” but also largely due to the talents of the cast and crew, under the direction of the late Tony Scott. Arriving in theaters decades later, Top Gun: Maverick has to do right not just by the fans, but by the first film’s creators. How do you make audiences accustomed to the casual magic of CGI feel like they’re in the cockpit with these pilots in 2022 the way Top Gun did in 1986? For director Joe Kosinski, the answer was: You do it for real.
As his previous films Tron: Legacy and Oblivion prove, Kosinski is accomplished at both making unlikely sequels to decades-old films and delivering blockbuster action starring Tom Cruise. Top Gun: Maverick shows the director combining these talents for a throwback summer blockbuster that feels real in a way big-budget movies haven’t in some time.
In a call with Polygon, Kosinski dove into the way Top Gun: Maverick makes viewers feel like they’re in those jets, how he convinced Tom Cruise to star, and how the right villain for a Top Gun movie might just be no one.
Polygon: Let’s start with your connection to Top Gun. What was your experience like with the first movie?
Joseph Kosinski: I saw the movie for the first time as a 12-year-old kid, and for me, it was the prototype for the ultimate summer movie. It made Tom Cruise a superstar, and [producer Jerry] Bruckheimer and [producer Don] Simpson had done Beverly Hills Cop and Flashdance at that point. When you saw that dual lightning strike at the beginning of a movie, it meant you were gonna have a good time.
But otherwise, it was not necessarily a movie that I had revisited a lot, until Jerry sent over an early version of a script in 2017 that he wanted me to take a look at. I’d made [Oblivion] with Tom at that point, and obviously had an incredible experience doing that.
Was everyone on board for Maverick from the start?
So I read the script, I had some ideas, and Jerry liked those ideas. He said, “You know what, you gotta go pitch this to Tom directly.” So we flew to Paris, where Tom was shooting Mission: Impossible, we got about a half hour of his time between setups. And I basically had 30 minutes to pitch this film, which I didn’t realize when we were flying over. But when I got there, I found that Tom really didn’t want to make another Top Gun.
It’s one of those moments as a director, you have one on every film, where you’re on the spot to make a case for why this movie should be made. I had 30 minutes to do it. And at the end of the pitch, he picked up the phone, he called the head of Paramount Pictures and said, “We’re making another Top Gun.” It’s pretty impressive to see the power of a real movie star in that moment.
How did you pitch it to Tom Cruise? Did he tell you what convinced him?
Well, I worked with Tom, and I knew to start with character and emotion. I just pitched this idea of Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller) growing up to become a naval aviator, and him and Maverick having this fractured relationship that had never been repaired. With Maverick getting called back to train this group of students to go on a mission that he knows is very, very dangerous.
The conflict [is about] the difference between being an aviator who goes in and risks his own life, and someone who’s in a more senior position that has to send others in to risk their lives. I talked to some Navy admirals who talked about that difference. It’s a different sort of pressure, it’s almost harder to send others in rather than go yourself. And to me, it felt like that leveraged the emotion of the past film and those relationships that we all love, but took it in a new direction. So that’s where I started.
I think that was honestly the element that really grabbed Tom, because it gave him an emotional reason to return to this character. The second thing was, what’s Maverick been doing? You know, where do we find him? And this is kind of my own passion, you know, coming through and pitching the Darkstar sequence [in the beginning], just being someone who has always loved airplanes and aerospace and studied aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering and loved The Right Stuff. So the idea of finding him as a test pilot on the bleeding edge of what’s possible seemed to me like the perfect way to find him, and Tom loved that.
He also must’ve loved how you planned to shoot this.
I showed him some videos of Navy pilots who put GoPros in their cockpits, and I said, “You know, this is out on the internet for free. If we can’t beat this, there’s no point in making this.” And he agreed. And then finally, I just had the title, you know, which I think kind of summed it all up. “We aren’t going to call it Top Gun 2, we’re going to call it Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s a character-driven story, a drama with this giant action film around it. And that to me was what a Top Gun movie is.
Let’s talk a little bit about that Darkstar sequence. Jerry Bruckheimer says you were heavily involved in its conception.
Yeah, I mean, it was my dream. Skunk Works is this division of Lockheed that makes these planes that are top secret. They fly at night, no one knows they exist. We find out about them 20, 30 years after they fly.
I had just done a movie that was financed by Fred Smith, who is the founder of FedEx. And he told me he had a contact at Lockheed. He had just done a tour there — it helps to have friends in high places. He set up a meeting between Jerry, I, and Skunk Works, and we drove out into the middle of Palmdale and met with their senior staff. And I just said, “Listen, I want to put an airplane in this film that does this, this, and this. I know you guys have some experience in that area. We’re gonna give people a glimpse of something they’ve never seen before.”
And they said yes. I think the real reason they helped us was so we could make it as real as possible, but not too real, you know? We changed a couple of details so we’re not giving any secrets away, but it has a lot of features and details for people who really are into this world. I think they’ll get a kick out of it.
How do you get people excited about these pilots and the planes? Like other people I’ve talked to about it, I had an experience watching this, like, “Apparently I really like planes. Have I always been this way?”
Our approach is a classic movie approach. The only thing they could do in the ’80s was capture this stuff, at least the exterior shots, for real. You just can’t fake what it feels like to be in one of these jets, the forces, the way the light changes, the vibration, the sense of speed, all of that. There’s just no replacement for that.
I’ve noticed that people see this movie, and they just keep saying the same thing over and over: “It just feels so real.” And it’s funny, because maybe we’ve lost track of that a little bit with fantasy films or superhero films, where they’re creating images that you can’t capture for real. So you rely on CGI. But there’s just something different about capturing it for real. And for this film, we found a way to do it. And it just feels different.
In the original Top Gun, the villains aren’t really named. In Maverick, the pilots are training for a mission against a vague “shadow state.” What went into that decision?
It was specifically designed to be a faceless, nameless enemy, just like the first film. You know, this is a movie about friendship and sacrifice and teamwork and competition, just like the first film. It’s not a movie about geopolitics. We didn’t want it to be. So we designed it that way — the jets are fictional, they’re faceless enemies. The mission itself is about keeping the world safe.
And that was all by design, just because we wanted the focus to be on on the Maverick story, and his relationship with these characters. We made the movie in 2018. We started filming in 2018. And, you know, the world changes constantly. It’s really hard to make something that feels relevant, because the world is always changing.