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36 Things We Learned from the Top Gun Commentary

Top Gun
By  · Published on November 18th, 2015

Top Gun turns thirty next year, but the film is on our minds again as discussion about a possible sequel is back in the news. Val Kilmer’s recent Facebook announcement is the main reason for that, but regardless of how much weight his claim holds it was enough to make Top Gun a contender for this week’s Commentary Commentary.

The track is one of those with multiple people recorded in different places and at different times and then edited together, but the variety of talent featured makes for a commentary that covers more than the usual bases.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the Top Gun commentary.

Top Gun (1986)

Commentators: Tony Scott (director), Jerry Bruckheimer (producer), Jack Epps Jr. (co-writer), technical advisors Mike Galpin, Pete Pettigrew, Mike McCabe

1. It took several meetings with the producers before Tony Scott had a clear idea of how he could make the film. “I wanted to make Apocalypse Now on an aircraft carrier, and they said no no no no.” He finally realized this was meant to be a “rock ‘n roll” movie about fighter pilots.

2. Scott shot the opening credits footage aboard a carrier in slow-motion and with graduated filters to capture an “artsy, dark, and esoteric” look. “Paramount saw these dailies, and they panicked and forbid me to shoot another foot of slow-motion footage.” He tried to deceive the suits by shooting one roll normal and one in slow-motion, but someone sent the wrong roll back to Paramount and Scott was subsequently fired.

3. He was fired three times while making Top Gun. One was for shooting the slow-motion, one was for making Kelly McGillis look “beautiful in a whorish kind of way,” and and the final time was for shooting cockpit footage with the helmet visors down thereby obscuring the faces of the lead actors.

4. The idea for the film came about when Jerry Bruckheimer saw an article called “Top Guns” by Ehud Yonay. It was about an issue affecting the military during the Vietnam war regarding the low ratio of enemy kills per pilot. They discovered that the problem was pilots were being overly trained on the technical front while being given too little time learning actual aerial combat maneuvers. This led to the creation of San Diego’s Top Gun school.

5. Bruckheimer says the studio paid Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. “three or four hundred thousand dollars, which was a fortune” to write the script. Shortly after the script was turned in a television series about the Air Force began airing and immediately “died a miserable death.” Paramount took this to mean the public didn’t care about military aviation and decided to shelve the script, but Bruckheimer and Don Simpson made a passionate case for the film to the studio chiefs and were given the green light.

6. Bruckheimer and Simpson were the first producers to look towards television commercial & music video directors for fresh new directorial voices. In addition to Scott they also gave Adrian Lyne his big break with Flashdance. “They were the only guys that had the courage after The Hunger to re-employ me.”

7. The producers were looking for someone familiar with aerial footage and came across Scott’s commercial for Saab featuring a car juxtaposed with the power and speed of a jet. “I think that was the only bit of footage they could find that was contemporary that involved jets, so that’s how I got in the running for Top Gun.”

8. Captain Mike Galpin’s call sign is “Flex” and he flew the MiG-28s in the film. Rear Admiral Pete Pettigrew’s call sign was “Viper,” and he was a technical advisor. Vice Admiral Mike McCabe, call sign “Wizard,” was the Executive Officer of Top Gun during the script-writing and initial production.

9. The three experts disagree slightly as to the realistic nature of the scene where Maverick (Tom Cruise) breaks away from his landing in order to help Cougar (John Stockwell) land. The general consensus is that similar situations have occurred in real life, but “obviously the guys doing the talking and the coaching right now would be the landing signals officer on the ship, and Maverick would not be doing the coaching.” Similarly, they acknowledge the “excessive rocking” of the jet as it lands and that “he never would have gotten aboard.”

10. When Cougar turns in his wings to his commanding officer (James Tolkan) because he feels he’s lost his edge in the air, two of the advisors admit having been on the receiving end of that exact scenario when they were commanders. “It’s not uncommon.”

11. The producers wanted Cruise for the lead role, but he wouldn’t commit even as they sent him updated versions of the script. Bruckheimer arranged for Cruise to take a flight with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels hoping that would change his mind. Cruise had recently finished Ridley Scott’s Legend and still had a long ponytail, “so right away these pilots are ‘Ah we got this hippie coming in here, we’re gonna give him the ride of his life.’” They spun him at 3–4 Gs and flew hum upside down, “but when he got on the ground he went to the nearest phone booth and called me and said ‘I’m doing the movie.’”

12. Cruise was the only cast member attached when Scott came aboard so he had a hand in picking the rest. He thought Val Kilmer would be “the perfect foil against Tom’s character.”

13. The Top Gun school only took 48 pilots per year in the mid-’80s.

14. Epps says the best pilot here is Iceman. Somewhere, a knowing smile crosses Kilmer’s face.

15. The advisors agree that a person can’t give themselves a call sign. Pettigrew recalls one poor fellow who did just that with the call sign “’Shark,’ so of course he was known as ‘Minnow’ for the rest of his Navy career.”

16. The scene in the Officer’s Club has the advisors recalling how the place was far raunchier up until the early ’80s when an admiral’s wife strongly suggested they stop inviting local strippers. They also suggest the pilots wouldn’t be “pounding down shooters and sucking down beers” this time of night as they’d be flying early the next morning. “And they would not be wearing whites, they’d most likely be wearing khakis.”

17. Pettigrew cameos in the film as Charlie’s (Kelly McGillis) date at the club. At the San Diego premiere of the film the first Commanding Officer of Top Gun yelled out at this scene, “And Pettigrew loses the girl, again.”

18. The film shot on San Diego’s Miramar base, but they ran into trouble when one of the officers read the script and objected to its portrayal of Maverick’s and Charlie’s relationship. Bruckheimer was told that they don’t allow their officers to fraternize with enlisted people. Charlie was originally an officer, so they changed her in the script to a civilian tasked with evaluating pilots.

19. The earlier shot of Maverick and Goose flying upside down just a few feet above a MiG is obviously unrealistic, but McCabe does share that American pilots were known to “communicate” back and forth with their Soviet counterparts. They weren’t flipping each other the bird though. “It was always very positive,” and included holding up vodka and Playboy magazines. “They’re doing their job, we’re doing our job, we don’t set the policy, we just execute it.”

20. Scott says the final budget was just over $16 million thanks in large part to assistance from the military. “They really just charged us for fuel,” says Scott.

21. They had to get permission from the FAA to mount cameras on the jets as the speeds they’re flying at meant the equipment could break free and possibly hurt somebody below.

22. A piece of the F-14 falls off and flies past the A-4 behind it at the 31:27 mark. McCabe believes it was an over wing fairing.

23. “Tom is not six feet tall, and Kelly is,” says Scott. They found a pair of cowboy boots that added natural height for the scenes where the two actors stood beside each other. Scott actually kept the boots after the film wrapped.

24. The outdoor volleyball “court” was built at Miramar for the film and immediately dismantled after shooting was completed. The wide shots showing the playing making good hits actually feature professional players standing in for the actors.

25. The volleyball scene is the one Scott struggled with the most. “I just didn’t know what to d with it, but in the end it just became hunky bodies and California sun, but it became a favorite with the women as well as the guys. Especially the San Francisco guys.” Huh.

26. Epps and co-writer Jim Cash worked long distance on their various projects sharing pages via email or fax, and Cash never even moved to Los Angeles choosing instead to stay in Michigan. Epps would go to the meetings and sometimes include Cash via speakerphone.

27. The elevator scene between Charlie and Maverick was shot five months after production wrapped when they decided the characters’ relationship needed to be strengthened. McGillis is wearing a hat because her hair was different due to filming on a different movie, and even Cruise’s hair is noticeably longer. “Kelly had lost like 60 pounds and Tom was actually shooting Color of Money,” says Scott, so they had to shoot the scene in Chicago. They did some pick-ups for the love scene then as well.

28. The jets were housed in Nevada and had to fly twenty minutes to the area where they were actually filming, and each morning the pilots would buzz the “chicken ranches which are whore houses basically” from about thirty feet up. This appears to have pleased Scott greatly.

29. Pettigrew was tremendously impressed by Meg Ryan’s performance, particularly the scene where she had to cry on cue across 22 takes. “I didn’t realize that actors could actually do that, and in fact I’ve lost all faith in actors because I don’t know if they tell anybody the truth because they don’t have to.”

30. They shot a scene in a Navy graveyard after Goose’s (Anthony Edwards) death, but it was deemed unnecessary.

31. Some of the actors chose not to actually fly in the fighter jets, but the advisors refuse to name which ones. They do point out though that of the ones who did fly, Edwards was the only one who didn’t throw up mid-flight.

32. The advisors point out a four issues late in the film. First up is the shot at 1:25:10 of the Maverick watching the jet land. The aircraft’s hook is down, something used for carrier landings but highly unusual for a field landing.

The second issue concerns the pilots at graduation in their whites. “We very proudly graduate in our flight suits, so this is very Hollywood.” Third, there is no way the graduates would receive emergency orders like this right there at their graduation. These guys would have all returned to their individual squadrons, and pilots already in the field would be tasked with such a mission. Finally, in the real world jets that are hit with rounds from the enemy’s cannons most likely won’t be flying for more than a few minutes. Here we see multiple rounds hitting with little discernible effect. “If you got hit like that you’re gonna go down.”

33. Scott recalls the production hosting a party after wrapping the graduation scene, and as there was alcohol involved some guests grew rowdy as the night went on. Don Simpson was visiting, and along with Scott began tossing people in the pool, but when a couple pilots tried to return the favor Simpson put up an intense fight. They eventually succeeded and everyone had a good laugh, but “after three or four minutes we realize that Don’s lying on the bottom of the pool and not coming to the surface. We had to dive in and pull him out, and we discovered that he couldn’t swim. His leather jacket and his cowboy boots were weighing him down.”

34. The enemy at the end was originally meant to be North Korea, but the State Department at the time was attempting to normalize relations with the country and told the filmmakers they couldn’t be used as the bad guys. It’s left vague in the finished film.

35. The multi-craft maneuver at 1:32:54 is called a “rolling scissors.”

36. Bruckheimer seems to believe that the film singlehandedly saved the leather jacket business. “All of a sudden because Cruise was wearing a leather jacket it just exploded. The white t-shirts, the cowboy boots, the jeans, that whole kind of look that Tony created.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

Final Thoughts

Is Top Gun a great movie? Not really, but it captures a time in America that now feels somewhat quaint with its straightforward take on heroes, villains, and patriotic jingo-isms. It’s also just a fun piece of pop entertainment. As mentioned in the intro, the advantage to a mixed commentary like this is a variety of voices and experiences, and to that end it provides a nicely varied look at the production. That said, when Tony Scott’s involved I will always lean towards wanting a commentary featuring just him for its entirety. He was a candid guy and frequently funny.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.