Study Guide

Top Gun Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Tony Scott

    Top Gun was directed by the late, great Brit, Mr. Tony Scott himself, who just so happens to be the brother of the equally famous director Mr. Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, among others.

    Like his brother Ridley, Tony Scott is best known for a slew of fast-paced, high-octane films:

    • Days of Thunder (1990)
    • The Last Boy Scout (1991)
    • Crimson Tide (1995)
    • Enemy of the State (1998)
    • Man on Fire (2004)
    • The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
    • Unstoppable (2010)

    His impressive resume, however, Tony Scott didn't exactly come right out of the gate with big, huge action-packed films. Top Gun was really his first movie in that vein, and his third film overall. Before Top Gun, Scott directed The Hunger (1983), a dark vampire film that was panned by critics but has something of a cult following, and Loving Memory (1971), a strange film about a brother and sister who accidentally kill a cyclist but don't report the incident.

    Top Gun established Scott, and established the style by which he would become known. What style is that, you might ask? It has been described, variously, as a "frenetic" camera style (the way, for example, the cameras constantly shift during the action sequences in Top Gun, from cockpit to cockpit, from cockpit to external shots, etc.) with a "commitment to extreme action…[and] stripped down dialogue" (source).

    In addition to this cinematographic style, Scott's characters almost always have a dark secret or two, as he himself explained in a 2009 interview: "If you look at my body of work, there's always a dark side to my characters. They've always got a skeleton in the closet, they've always got a subtext. I like that. Whether it's Bruce Willis in Last Boy Scout or Denzel in [The Taking of Pelham 123]" (source). Maverick, of course, is no exception to this general rule. He's got a giant family skeleton hanging in his closet, a shame about his father, Duke, who supposedly disobeyed orders and disgraced his family name during Vietnam.

    While still alive and active (Scott committed suicide in 2012), he was known for working with a lot of the same people, and not just his brother Ridley. He worked on five movies with Denzel Washington (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Unstoppable) and at least six with producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Cruise appears in two of Scott's films (Top Gun and Days of Thunder), and numerous other actors have appeared in more than one of Scott's films.

  • Screenwriter

    Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

    We guess good things come in pairs because just as the production of Top Gun was handled by a terrific twosome, another dynamic duo handled the screenplay of the movie: Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

    Like the production team of Simpson and Bruckheimer, these two almost always worked together (up until Cash's untimely death in 2000). The two met when Cash was Epps's screenwriting professor at Michigan State University and stayed in touch even after Epps moved to Hollywood to try to make it as—get this—a director.

    Top Gun was their first screenplay that actually made it to the big screen (the two had written 7 screenplays previously that were never produced), and it wouldn't be their last.

    In addition to their forays into the action-adventure world of Top Gun and Anaconda (1997), Epps and Cash also drafted the screenplay for the cop-comedy-thriller Turner & Hooch (1989, starring another famous Tom, of the Hanks variety), the comic-strip inspired Dick Tracy (1990, starring Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, and Madonna), and the Michael J. Fox comedy The Story of My Success (1987).

    In the 1980's, both Epps and Cash worked for Paramount, which would assist in the production and handle distribution for Top Gun. According to Epps, the idea for Top Gun was one of 8 different ideas Paramount was contemplating. Epps, who had an amateur pilot's license, jumped at the idea, thinking he might get a jet ride out of it.

    Epps got a jet ride, and a whole lot more. As part of his research, Epps went and hung with a bunch of Navy pilots in Miramar, took numerous jet rides, and even went through some of the training exercises.

    Where was Cash during all this? Presumably back in East Lansing, Michigan (Cash and Epps had a more or less long-distance working relationship). As Epps explains it, he (Epps) would do the research, map out the scenes, get all the nitty-gritty details, and then feed those to Cash, who would come up with a draft of a script (and they would go from there).

    Cash and Epps invented most of what became Top Gun: the characters, their individual struggles, the training exercises and dog fights, and so on. It was Epps, for example, who realized (after taking a lot of jet rides) that fighter pilots are essentially athletes, competing both with the enemy and with themselves (this realization explains the importance of the Top Gun trophy, the famous volleyball sequence, and the general competitive spirit among the pilots of Top Gun). It was also Epps who realized that capturing lots of good F-14 footage would be essential to the film's success.

    Now, there are a whole lot of Internet rumors about how much the script changed between Epps and Cash's initial drafts. In 2012, Epps set the record straight: "The first draft was not quite different from the final version of the film. That is a bunch of internet bull----."

    As Epps goes on to note, the biggest change from Epps and Cash's first version had to do with Charlie, Maverick's love interest in the film. In the original drafts, she was another Navy officer. The Navy, however, would have none of it, pointing out that fraternizing among officers (read "relationships among officers") was decidedly not allowed. Other than a few minor changes (the volleyball game was originally a basketball game), the first drafts, as Epps notes, was more or less the film we now have.

  • Production Studio

    Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer

    Dynamic duo alert. And no, we're not talking about Maverick and Goose.

    Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer produced this top movie in conjunction with Paramount Pictures. While Paramount got the rights to the original magazine article from 1983 (Ehud Yonay's "Top Guns") that inspired the film and handled distribution, the real nod goes to Bruckheimer and Simpson.

    Two of a Kind

    Who are they? Oh, just two dudes behind some of the biggest, most explosive action films ever made. Before Simpson's death in 1996, Bruckheimer and Simpson worked together on Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990), Crimson Tide (1995), Bad Boys (1995), and The Rock (1996).

    The success of Simpson and Bruckheimer's partnership earned them Producer of the Year awards in both 1985 and 1988 (given by the National Association of Theater Owners). While still a team, Simpson and Bruckheimer were also honored with: 15 academy award nominations (2 wins), 4 Grammys, 3 Golden Globes, and 2 People's Choice Awards.

    After Simpson's death, Bruckheimer continued to produce blockbuster after blockbuster. The short list of his credits in the action-adventure category is stunning:

    • Con Air (1997) 
    • Armageddon (1998)
    • Gone in Sixty Seconds (2001)
    • Pearl Harbor (2001)
    • Black Hawk Down (2001)
    • Bad Boys II (2003)
    • and National Treasure (2004)

    While Bruckheimer and Simpson made other kinds movies, like 1995's Dangerous Minds, and while Bruckheimer has made a veritable killing in the television arena (his production company is behind all of the different C.S.I. shows, Cold Case, Without a Trace, and The Amazing Race), the duo are best known for action-packed, "high-concept high-octane" films like those mentioned above.

    Simpson and Bruckheimer were responsible for the look, speed, and overall feel of Top Gun, but they were also responsible for a lot of important behind-the-scenes work. It was these two hungry producers who aggressively courted Tom Cruise. They knew they wanted him (and the writers had him in mind the whole time they were working on the screenplay) and they knew that to get him they were going to have to get creative. For some reason, Cruise repeatedly refused to commit.

    So what did they do? They got the Navy involved with the film (a big help) and invited Cruise to El Centro, CA to go for a ride with the Blue Angels. Cruise, who had been waffling, immediately agreed to do the film after his jet ride.

  • Production Design

    The High 80s (Were Low Tech)

    Top Gun was released in 1986. It would about another 12-15 years before digital reality became a viable medium, which means Top Gun was shot using good old-fashioned film. Not only that, most of the footage you see in Top Gun is totally, legitimately, real—real planes, real flight footage, real aircraft carrier decks, and so on.

    The actors all took rides in real fighter jets, and many of the scenes were shot on location in actual locker rooms, bars, hangars, and so on (mostly in San Diego and Nevada). You can check out a list of the different filming locations. Did we mention that the Navy actually helped Tony Scott and Co. out with this film, authorizing two actual missile firings and allowing the crew to film lots of F-14's from both the ground and the confines of a Lear Jet?

    Staging the Basics

    While there is a lot of real footage in Top Gun, there's also some stuff that was staged, and also some stuff that was done in front of the (in)famous blue screen. So, for example, a lot of the cockpit scenes with Maverick, Iceman, and their pals were actually shot in an old cockpit in front of a blue screen, with background features added in later.

    Since the Navy only authorized a few actual missile shots, the Top Gun team had to use them multiple times (from different angles, that is). In some cases, they had to get creative. Model plans and rockets were used for some of the other scenes. The Navy launched a preliminary investigation as the fake shots looked incredibly real.

  • Music (Score)

    If we had one word to describe Top Gun's score, it would be rad.

    Anthemic Guitar Riffs

    There are a lot of greats songs in Top Gun, and a lot of huge, mega hits. First, you've got the "Top Gun Anthem," composed by Harold Faltermeyer. Legendary rock guitarist Steve Stevens handled guitar duties on this one. The anthem starts out with some typical 80's synth-drums, gradually builds, and then reaches a powerful, but contained plateau.

    This song shows up at numerous points in the film. For example, near the end of the pep talk Viper gives Maverick shortly before Top Gun graduation, and just after Maverick saves the day (and while he's throwing Goose's dog tags into the ocean). The song is associated with flying—with F-14's going into battle, and with Maverick's big decisions (opting to graduate with his Top Gun class, making peace with Goose's death). Like the film in which it appeared, the "Top Gun Anthem" was immensely successful, winning a Grammy in 1987 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

    Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" (written by Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock) is another recurring song in the film. It is by far the most rocking tune in the movie, and that's the way director Tony Scott wanted it. He conceived of Top Gun as a sort of rock-and-roll film, which also explains the inclusion of Cheap Trick's "Mighty Wings" (written by Faltermeyer and Mark Spiro).

    "Danger Zone" gets our blood pumping and makes a point about flying an F-14 for the Navy: you're heading into a danger zone. This big hit appears throughout the film, usually during scenes of great excitement (like the initial sequence, which is a montage of planes taking off and landing or shortly after Maverick and Goose learn they're going to Top Gun). Apparently the producers and co. liked Loggins so much they had him contribute another song to the soundtrack, "Playing With the Boys," which can be heard during the famous volleyball scene.

    All 80s Movies Need a Power Ballad

    The other mega-hit from Top Gun is, without question, Berlin's "Take my Breath Away" (also written by Moroder and Whitlock). Consider this Maverick and Charlie's song. We heard it toward the very end of the movie, and it signals that Charlie is coming back to Maverick. This song was a smash hit, winning both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1987. Give it a listen. It still holds up.

    In addition to these original songs, Top Gun breathed new life into a lot of great classics, such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" (the song that Maverick sings to Charlie when he first meets her, and the song she puts on the jukebox at the end when they rekindle the flame) and Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of a Bay" (playing during Maverick and Charlie's first date at Charlie's house).

    To sum it all up, Top Gun has a little bit of everything. Powerful, 80's instrumentals (the main theme, and this cool little tune that's playing during the nightclub scene), original rockers ("Danger Zone," "Playin' With the Boys," and "Mighty Wings"), bombastic power ballad-love-songs ("Take my Breath Away"), and classic songs that hit you right in the heart ("Sittin' on the Dock of a Bay," "You've Lost that Loving Feeling").

  • Fandoms

    Where to begin? It's thirty years later and people are still talking about Top Gun.

    Heck, the film was one of the most popular films of the 80's, and the highest grossing film of 1986. It makes sense that people are still talking about it. It has so many memorable lines, so many memorable characters, that there was even a fleeting shout-out in Meet the Parents.

    Somebody has even decided to arbitrarily establish one day out of the year to be Top Gun day (it's May 13th), where all you do is quote the movie for the entire day. Oh, and don't forget there's still a Top Gun store, just in case you want to wear a bomber jacket with patches you didn't earn. On top of this, you can also check out this priceless board on Pinterest.

    While the realm of Top Gun fan sites isn't as developed and involved as those for, say, Lord of the Rings, there's plenty of stuff out there. There's this cool Top Gun wiki to help you get to know the characters and, oh, every detail you could possibly imagine.

    On top of that, there's a whole lot of fan fiction, in which fans make up their own stories using Top Gun's characters. In addition, there are all sorts of Top Gun swag available for purchase on Amazon and just about everywhere else. It even seems like people need to mention Top Gun whenever they talk about something remotely related to the film (Navy pilots, F-14's, aircraft carriers, and the like), as you can see here.