Top Gun at 36: Producer Jerry Bruckheimer on the Cult Movie, Starring Tom Cruise

Top Gun 1986
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Top Gun opened in the summer of 1986.

The story of a hot shot group of pilots had dazzling aerial sequences, offering audiences a thrilling view of the action, turning Tom Cruise, fresh off his role in “Risky Business” into bona fide star.

Top Gun would go on to make $356.8 million, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and propelling Cruise onto the A-list, where he has remained for two decades. He reprises his role in this fall’s follow-up, Top Gun: Maverick.

To mark the film’s 35th anniversary, Paramount is rereleasing Top Gun in theaters. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer spoke about bringing “Top Gun” to the big screen and why Cruise was the only actor to play Maverick.

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“Top Gun” still popular 35 years later ?

You have Tom Cruise whose career keeps getting bigger. That’s the magic of movies when you get a young actor like that in one of his first films. Then there’s the visual brilliance of Tony Scott. He was iconic filmmaker and his movies hold up.

Actors considered for Maverick?

It was always Tom Cruise. Once we finished the screenplay, he was the only actor we talked to.

Convincing Cruise
It wasn’t easy. We wanted Tom after we saw “Risky Business” and he hemmed and hawed.  We arranged for him to fly with the Blue Angels at the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, California. He drove up there on his motorcycle and he had just finished a movie with Ridley Scott, Legend and his hair was long and in a ponytail.  They took one look at him and thought, we’re going to give this hippie a ride. They took him up on an F-14 and flipped him and did all kinds of stunts to turn him around and make sure he never got back in a cockpit. But it was just the opposite. He landed and called me up: “Jerry. I’m making the movie. I love it.” He became an amazing aviator himself. He can fly just about any plane.

Navy’s participation?
We wanted to make it real, to put the actors in real planes with real aviators. We needed to hang with them and see what it was like. Initially, the admiral of the base where we shot wasn’t a fan. He was worried something would go wrong and that would be a black mark on his career.

Tom and I flew to D.C. and met with the secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. He understood what Hollywood could do for the Navy and he gave us his number and said, “if there’s anything or anyone that gets in your way, you just give me a call.” From that moment on the floodgates opened. But you still had to deal with the navy lawyers about the weight change if you put a camera on a wing, or on the cockpit. It was a negotiation process the whole way through.

Great recruitment tool

The new movie, the sequel we just shot, was completely different because after “Top Gun” came out, the enlistment in the navy went up 500%. They understood it’s a great recruiting tool, so they were more helpful and they embraced the filmmaking.

Paramount response to pitch?

There was a TV show about the Air Force that had just come out and it failed, so they figured that aviation is not what people want to see. But management changed and Ned Tanen came in as chief. We pitched him “Top Gun” and he loved it and said, “go make it.” That doesn’t happen today. There are greenlight committees and all kinds of hurdles to overcome.

Tony Scott as collaborator?
He was an adventurer, a daredevil. We went on a rafting trip in Colorado. One night we camped next to a sheer rock wall and we look up and he’s climbing it with bare hands. You looked at “The Hunger,” the movie he made prior to “Top Gun” and you saw how beautifully it was photographed. On “Top Gun,” he shot all this amazing footage that isn’t even in the movie. He shot some sunsets with the planes against it, gorgeous stuff.

Expecting Top Gun to be Smash Hit?
You never know. We had a preview in Houston, and the audience was muted and it felt like we had a flop. When the cards came back, they rated the film with high score and we couldn’t figure out what happened. How come the audience wasn’t laughing and showing they were enjoying this movie? We didn’t realize that it was two days after the Challenger shuttle disaster, and as we were in Houston, people had friends and relatives involved in that.

Homoerotic film?
Not at all. These pilots, when you look at them, they’re really handsome guys. There are reasons they have nicknames like Hollywood and Maverick. These guys are confident and cool, with amazing hand-eye coordination, otherwise they wouldn’t be top gun pilots. Tony got the their flavor and love of life. That’s what Tom is like, a hard charging, smart, really dedicated actor.