Before Tom Cruise signed on to star in the original “Top Gun,” he asked to take a test flight in a jet. Cruise wasn’t yet world famous, so when he arrived at the hangar, his long hair still in a ponytail left from “Legend,” the pilots, according to one of the film’s producers, Jerry Bruckheimer, decided to give to this Hollywood hippie the ride of his life. Slipping at 6.5 G – more than double the G-forces some astronauts endure during rocket launches – Cruise felt the blood pouring from his head. He vomited into his fighter pilot mask.
He agreed to do the film.
Cruise continued to fly so fast and so frequently that he learned to clench his thighs and abs to stay conscious. His stomach adjusted to the speed. When director Tony Scott installed a camera in the cockpit, Cruise could smile for his close-ups. Her castmates weren’t as prepared.
“They all vomited and their eyes rolled back,” Bruckheimer said in a phone interview. The original footage “was just a mess,” he admitted. “We couldn’t use any of it.”
‘Top Gun’ made Cruise a superstar – and the experience of filming it impacted him so deeply that he was convinced he should lead a three-month flight course for the cast of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ , a sequel, now in theaters, that has had 35 years to build up the suspense. In the new film, Cruise’s Captain Pete Mitchell (known as Maverick) prepares a dozen young pilots for a dangerous mission to destroy an underground uranium factory in enemy territory. Behind the scenes, Cruise did much the same, gradually increasing the aerial tolerance and confidence of actors, from small propeller planes to F-18 fighter jets. “He’s got every kind of pilot’s license you can imagine — helicopters, jets, whatever,” Bruckheimer said.
Essentially, “Top Gun: Maverick” is a 450-mile-per-hour flying caper. Mission leaders design a series of tough challenges for the pilots: zoom low and fast, climb a steep mountain, turn upside down, dive into a pool, and survive a near-vertical 9G climb while dodging missiles.
Cruise, a contender for most daredevil actor since Buster Keaton, was adamant that every stunt was accomplished with practical effects. Each jet had a US Navy pilot at the controls, while its actor spun like a leaf in a windstorm. The deserts and snow-capped peaks in the background are real, as are many of the performers’ grimaces, squints, gasps and moans.
“You can’t simulate the forces that are put on your body during combat,” director Joseph Kosinski said over the phone. “You can’t do it on a soundstage, you can’t do it on a blue screen. You can’t do that with visual effects.
From the safety of theater seats, audiences face their own challenge: to unlearn the computer-generated complacency that has turned modern blockbusters into bedazzled annoyances. The imagery of the sky and ground spiraling behind the actors’ heads in “Top Gun: Maverick” looks like digital magic. This is not the case.
The film’s aerial coordinator, Kevin LaRosa II, and his aerial unit cinematographer, Michael FitzMaurice, filmed from above using three planes: two types of jets with exterior cameras mounted on wind-resistant gimbals, and a helicopter, which proved best at capturing the speed of parading actors. A specialized jet could film the same scene using two different lens focal lengths to double the images captured in a single flight. Once LaRosa learned that the long-awaited sequel was finally going to come true, he also developed his own plane, a shiny black plane with cameras that can support up to 3G.
“It had never been done before,” LaRosa said in a video interview. As he flew past the cast, LaRosa dodged the trees while keeping an eye on the monitors to make sure FitzMaurice, controlling the cameras from behind the plane, had taken the shot.
Kosinski, the director, also spent 15 months working with the Navy to develop and install six cameras in each F-18 cockpit, which meant passing rigorous safety tests and getting the green light from the military to remove his own equipment. Fortunately, Kosinski said, there were “Top Gun” fans among the commanders. “All the admirals who are in charge at the moment were 21 in 1986, or thereabouts when they signed up,” he said. “They supported us and let us do all these crazy things.”
Usually, the Navy prohibits pilots from flying below 200 feet during training. One of the most stunning images in the film is of Cruise in an F-18 flying just 50 feet above the ground, a height roughly equal to his wingspan. The plane flew so close to the ground that it kicked up dust and rattled cameras on the ground. The pilot landed, turned to Cruise and told the superstar he would never do that again.
Actress Monica Barbaro didn’t know how nervous she must have been when she agreed to play pilot Natasha Trace (nickname: Phoenix).
“When I met Joe on my callback, the first thing he got me to sign was a statement saying I wasn’t afraid to fly,” Barbaro said over the phone. “I just got goosebumps. I was so excited.”
Each flying day began with a two-hour briefing for the pilots and film crew to go over every shot, move and line of dialogue to come. Then the actors and pilots in this sequence would rehearse the maneuvers in a wooden model of the jet’s cockpit until the movements were rooted. Then they took off to film as many takes as possible before the jet, or the performers, ran out of fuel. In the afternoon, they started again.
Rising above the crew, Barbaro and the rest of the cast took on a Swiss army knife of skill. Instead of hitting her target on the ground, she had to hit it in the air. The sun was his projector. A pilot’s kneeboard on his knees displayed his script, necessary movements and coordinates, as well as reminders to check his parachute and suspenders, fix his hair and makeup, adjust his flight visor, turn on the bright red switch that controlled the cameras, and note the time codes. Finally, Barbaro had to do his real job: act.
“Tom really encouraged everyone, if you’re going to vomit, just learn how to do it and move on,” Barbaro said. “We were clapping when someone threw up, so it became famous.” Glen Powell (he plays hot shot Lt. Jake Seresin, who goes by the name Hangman) even held up his puke bag while sliding backwards and giving a thumbs up.
Barbaro saved his lunch. But after her first dailies, she says, her face appeared so calm that it looked like the clouds hissing behind her were just a green screen. Cruise’s training had prepared her too well.
She was sent back to heaven for a revival.