The WhatsApp message arrived on May 10. “I got my call sign,” was all it read, signed “Strike.” And in the weeks that followed, leading up to the release of “Top Gun: Maverick” and after it finally opened, every message from my dad was also signed Strike.
He was hardly alone in his excitement. This has been a summer of dads — and daughters and mothers and brothers and sons — but mostly dads, who can’t get enough of the new “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise.
The classically styled Hollywood tale of a sidelined Navy fighter pilot nearing retirement brought back for one final flight and a shot at redemption is now nearing $700 million at the box office. It’s Cruise’s highest-grossing film ever.
But the director, Joseph Kosinski, never anticipated it would be so popular. Kosinski, whose credits include “Tron: Legacy” (2010) and “Spiderhead” earlier this year, has mostly worked on movies with lots of special effects and on smaller projects. Still, he had loved the 1986 “Top Gun,” and it was some of that movie’s sepia-toned spirit that he wanted to capture in the sequel.
From his home in Santa Monica, Calif., he spoke via video about what it’s been like being behind the biggest movie of 2022. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
I have seen “Top Gun: Maverick” multiple times. And I’m not the only one. Why do you think it resonated so much this summer?
I definitely had my experience of seeing the first when I was 12 in the back of my head. I was aspiring to create that big summer movie experience and a movie that had to be seen on the big screen.
I also wanted to capture the experience of what it’s like to be in one of these airplanes. I think people who have been used to movies where the spectacle comes from CGI imagery — I’ve done those movies — [wanted] to see and feel something real in a movie. I have a lot of people come up to me and say, “I was gripping the edge of my seat for the last 40 minutes.”
More important than that, when I asked people why you went three times, people like you, it’s not flying they talk about. They say I go back for the emotional experience of it. I think it’s because the themes of the film are very universal. It’s family, friendship, sacrifice, regret, mortality, things we all deal with.
Can you talk just a bit more about the flight scenes?
It’s very complicated because it is like three-dimensional chess. Before my meeting with Tom, I saw online that some Navy pilots were putting on YouTube these videos where they would film their training exercises by putting a little GoPro on the canopy next to them.
And so there was this kind of off-kilter angle that was capturing their training flight, and when I saw that, I was like, this is more interesting than any aerial sequence I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. So, [I wanted to] get the choreography of dog fighting, and do it in a two-seat airplane so Tom can be in the back and the [actual] Top Gun pilot can be in the front and [a real] Top Gun pilot is in the same thing that Tom’s wearing.
Then, I can shoot Tom with these cameras, and it’ll look like Tom’s flying it. That was the inspiration. Then we went to Top Gun, and we worked with the best pilots in the world flying these sequences for us.
Tom figured out a training regimen to get all the actors in the same aviation shape that he was. We didn’t know if they’d be able to handle it, and you know what? They all did. They got sick, but they kept shooting, and for all that effort, the result is footage that you just can’t fake.
You just can’t fake what it’s like to be in one of these airplanes. You can’t fake the imagery of what it’s like to be going 600 miles an hour 30 feet above the ground through a canyon. I think, as an audience member, something in your brain tells you it’s real, and there is a visceral response, and so I’m glad we did it. It was a lot of work.
What about the original did you love, and what did you want to do differently with this one?
Tony Scott created this world on the screen that was like a fantasy world. It’s always magic hour. And he has an affair with his teacher, right? It’s a bit of a boyhood fantasy. There’s a timelessness to “Top Gun,” and I wanted this movie to feel the same: It is a contemporary story but there’s very little that actually sets it in 2022. If you look close, the only kind of modern device is Mav’s cellphone, which isn’t even that modern. Everything else, from his plane, to [his girlfriend] Penny’s car, is pulled from different eras.
We approached every day trying to figure out how can we shoot the scene we need to shoot at 5:30 p.m. to get that light. I grew up in Marshalltown, Iowa, and maybe that’s why I was, hopefully, the right guy to do it: I was coming as a person who hadn’t grown up in California and got to recreate the perfect version of it.
There’s a strong sense of nostalgia and patriotism in the movie. Do you think that’s part of the appeal when the country now feels so uncertain?
I certainly was tapping into all that. Listen, it’s not a political film at all, but after pitching the kernel of the idea to Tom, the next thing I did was go onto the Teddy Roosevelt carrier for a few days. The technical adviser — Yank was his call sign — introduced me to all the Navy people. That patriotism is very infectious. You meet amazing Americans who have given their lives to serving, and you start working that into the story very naturally.
What was it like to work with Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer?
This is my second movie with Tom [after “Oblivion,” from 2013], so I knew a little bit what I was in for, and it’s everything you hear. It’s fully committed to the project, invested in every aspect of it, and inspiring to watch. Val Kilmer, someone I always looked up to, and to be able to bring him back in one of his most iconic roles and the scene with him and Tom was one of those experiences I’ll never forget. Just two guys at the top of their game playing a scene that I think was very genuine.
I know it’s vague, but who is the enemy in “Top Gun” supposed to be?
We had that great guidance from the first movie — it’s this faceless, nameless bad guy, which is perfect because, again, we didn’t want to make a movie about politics. You can’t really connect it to any real-world enemies. The mirrored, masked pilots also contribute to this feeling of this being a little bit in an alternate reality. That was a fun exercise as a director, to create a non-traceable enemy.
How do you feel about being called the savior of Dad Cinema?
Being a dad with three kids, I take that as a compliment. I made a movie about firefighters [“Only the Brave”], which is also known to bring grown men to tears. I’ll wear that badge with pride. To see young kids have a great experience, but also to have an experience with their dad and their grandpa or grandma, that, to me, is the most gratifying thing.
You also had a hit this summer with Netflix’s “Spiderhead.” What was it like having these two films out at the same time?
It was five years of work compressed into two movies released three weeks apart. That was unique and will never happen again, I hope. “Spiderhead” was a completely different tone, shot in the middle of the pandemic — a very inward-looking, three-character almost stage play. So from a creative point of view, it was a wonderful experience to be able to make both of those movies. But yeah, from a releasing point of view, it was a lot.