Director Joseph Kosinski on piloting the Tom Cruise sequel, the difference between Top Gun and a Netflix movie, and bringing back Val Kilmer.
In the long-awaited Top Gun sequel, in theaters now, Tom Cruise is reunited with his co-star Val Kilmer from the original 1986 fighter plane flick. Another reunion takes place behind the camera, as Top Gun: Maverickis directed by Joseph Kosinski, who directed Cruise in 2013 sci-fi flick Oblivion.
Kosinski already had experience of updating a 1980s classic, having made his directorial debut with Tron: Legacy in 2010. And producer Jerry Bruckheimer also told me the long-gestating Top Gun 2 finally came to fruition when Kosinski came up with the idea of focusing on the relationship between Cruise's hotshot pilot and the son of Maverick's best friend, Goose, who died in the original movie.
I met Kosinski in London shortly before the film's release to talk about how he balanced nostalgia with a new story, shooting the film's eye-popping aerial combat scenes for real, the bittersweet scene with Kilmer (who can barely speak following throat cancer), and Kosinski's upcoming film, Netflix sci-fi chiller Spiderhead starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CNET: What was your relationship with Top Gun, and how did you come up with the sequel story?
Kosinski: My initial relationship was the same as most people. I saw it in a theater in 1986 as a 12-year-old kid, and obviously, it blew me away. It was the definition of what a summer movie should be. But at the same time, it was so beautifully made -- Tony Scott [the original film's director] came from art school out of UK, like his brother Ridley, and Jerry [Bruckheimer] made a career of hiring super-visual people and putting them on bigger movies. So it wasn't something that I watched like a thousand times, but it was certainly a movie I remember seeing.
Then in 2017 Jerry sent me an early version of the script [for a planned sequel, which had been stalled by Scott's death in 2012]. I think coming at it from the outside and looking at what they had, thinking about what I remembered from the first film, what resonated with me was that friendship between Goose and Maverick and how powerful that was, and to me that felt like that was ripe for mining in terms of an emotional story. So that's what I pitched to Tom as the core of the film and, you know, I could see as soon as I said that, Tom's wheels started turning in his head. And now here we are five years later.
Having worked with Tom Cruise previously on Oblivion, did you ever talk about his old movies?
Kosinski: I was certainly always trying to extract knowledge from him, because he worked with Stanley Kubrick, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, all my heroes. So you're always asking him for stories about making those movies, which he's happy to share. I don't remember hounding him about Top Gun, but he says we did talk about it during Oblivion. And our Oblivion crew shirt was the Top Gun logo with "Oblivion" instead. So maybe it was there subconsciously.
The original film has a lot of iconic quotes and moments, but I thought the sequel was surprisingly restrained in not throwing in these catchphrases constantly. Did you film everything and then take some out?
Kosinski: Yeah, there were moments we felt obligated to at least try, but if it didn't feel right, we just cut it out in the editorial process. You have to do what's right for this story, and it was balancing how much to look backward and how much to look forward and tell a new story with new characters. You just never know until you put it in front of an audience.
Did you hold test screenings?
Kosinski: We did have tests but never with the finished version. They're always works in progress, and you're trying different things and experimenting. But in Las Vegas [at CinemaCon] was the first time we had the collective experience of being in a packed auditorium that's so important for this film.
What was the reaction to the scene featuring Cruise and Val Kilmer?
Kosinski: You just felt the emotion in the room. It does everything we hoped it would. I think Jerry and I both remember that day being very emotional, being there and witnessing it and watching these two masters work together. It was great to see the audience felt the same.
Obviously it's a touching scene, but also I was quite surprised by how funny it is. What were the conversations about how to play the scene?
Kosinski: We had different versions, we worked on the script over and over trying to get it just right. The performances were amazing. It was actually not a hard scene to edit because of the performances. But yeah, the sense of humor is important because these two characters have so much history and we love the rivalry, and to see that they've now become friends looking out for each other is really what the fundamental theme of the film is.
I saw Maverick on an Imax screen, and it's such a spectacular film, clearly designed for the biggest screen. But you've since made Spiderhead, a streaming movie [which premieres June 17 on Netflix]. Did you approach that differently?
Kosinski: My approach to every film is the same, you know? But yeah, that's a story that's not based on any known IP, it's definitely more idiosyncratic in terms of its tone, so I think that's the kind of movie that probably is better for streaming where you don't have the pressure of a huge opening weekend. It's different horses for different courses.
What was the what was the hardest day on set? Was it the aerial scenes or something else?
Kosinski: There's so many challenges, and the hardest day, honestly, for me, this sounds weird, but the sailing sequence. That was a challenge because there's so many things out of your control. Like, you need wind. So we tried to shoot that scene two different times with no wind and were completely unsuccessful. So we moved the whole scene up to San Francisco and shot in the San Francisco Bay where apparently it blows most days. And everything you see is real -- that's Jen [Jennifer Connelly] steering the boat, that's Tom stumbling around on top, you know, I'm in a boat next to them holding on to my DP [director of photography] for dear life, trying to look at the monitor and listen to the scene at the same time. That was intense, but a really important scene for Jennifer's character.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, we can just go and greenscreen this?
Kosinski: No, we weren't gonna give up. When you see what you get out of live-action filmmaking, you get like -- for instance, I remember Jerry and I were sitting behind the camera when the DarkStar [the test plane in the opening sequence] flies over Admiral Kane [played by Ed Harris]. We blew the roof off the set. That was not planned. It was a one-take thing because we destroyed the set! You'd only have that experience if you shot it for real. What we set out to do with this movie was shoot a classic film in-camera, but use the latest technology to show people things they've never seen before.