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Top Gun’s Joseph Kosinski on Tony Scott, Val Kilmer, and green screens

Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski reunited with Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly for Top Gun 2 — he spoke to us about his experience

Joseph Kosinski Top Gun 2 interview

Joseph Kosinski’s filmography is select, but sensational. He made his directorial debut in 2010 with Disney’s sci-fi movie Tron: Legacy. As well as grossing over $400 million worldwide, the Disney movie was nominated for an Academy Award and Grammy among other accolades.

From then on, things have just gotten better for Kosinski, with the director working with Tom Cruise on thriller movie Oblivion and Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly on drama movie Only The Brave. He would then reunite with Cruise, Teller, and Connelly for Top Gun: Maverick, which is undoubtedly one of the movie-maker’s most ambitious projects yet.

With a ‘no green screen’ rule on set, all of the soaring fighter plane sequences seen in the film are real, as are the high-stakes moments filmed straight from the cockpits of F-8 jets. After Covid-19 delayed the production of Top Gun 2, Kosinski will finally be seeing his vision up on the big screen — so we at The Digital Fix chatted to him to see his thoughts on the film.  

The Digital Fix: Why is now the right time for a Top Gun sequel?

Joseph Kosinski: Well, I think we came up with a story that Tom responded to. And, I think we also finally have the technology that allows us to capture these aerial sequences for real. This technology only kind of came about in the last few years.

We fit six IMAX quality cameras in the cockpits of these aeroplanes, so what you’re seeing on screen is real footage, it’s not blue screen or CGI. It took us this long to figure out how to do that.

TDF: You mentioned that getting Tom Cruise on board was key. How did you get him and Val Kilmer to agree to a Top Gun 2?

JK: Well, with Tom, it started when Jerry Bruckheimer sent me an early version of the script. I read the script and had some ideas that I thought would get Tom interested. Having made a movie with him before, I knew the focus for him would always be on story and emotion. That’s the reason to go back. And so Jerry and I flew to Paris, where Tom was shooting Mission Impossible. 

In between set-ups, we got like 30 minutes of his time, so I pitched him the idea of Goose’s son, and that reconciliation between the two of them being the kind of emotional spine of the film. I pitched him the idea of where we would find Maverick 36 years later, the idea of shooting it practically, which obviously, I knew was something that would be a requirement for him.

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And then, I had a title in mind, which was Top Gun: Maverick, which tells the audience that this is a character driven story. And I think that after that Tom finally had something that he could wrap his head around and be emotionally  engaged with. So that’s where we started on this journey. 

With Val, we always wanted to figure out how to integrate Iceman. Val was actually the one who had the idea of how to organically integrate himself into the film. We have great screenwriters that develop the Iceman-Maverick relationship and story, and now you get to see it.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun 2

TDF: It was a really poignant moment seeing Val Kilmer speak a couple of his lines, given all he’s been through off-screen. Was that improvised, or part of the script?

JK: There were multiple versions of that scene, trying to figure out the right tone of it, and how Iceman can help Maverick on his journey. With this film, to see two actors at that level, both at the top of their game together on screen is one of those days that I’ll never forget.

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TDF: How did you balance paying homage to the past without becoming too wrapped up in it?

JK: Certainly, we never wanted to be the cover band version of Top Gun. But at the same time, I wanted the audience to know that we love Top Gun as much as they do, and that we’re taking you back into that universe. So you definitely feel that in the beginning.

But I also think that within that first 20 minutes, the story also goes in its own direction and tells you that Maverick is still pushing the envelope, but he’s doing it on the cutting edge of aviation, so the story is going to go in a new direction. And we also introduce new characters, which is really fun.

TDF: You mentioned a Top Gun universe. Could we be seeing a Top Gun Cinematic Universe? Any sequels on the horizon?

JK: It took us five years to make this one. So I think we’re just going to enjoy getting it out there and showing it to audiences. And then they [the audience] will tell us if they want to see more.

Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly in Top Gun 2

How did it feel stepping into the shoes of Tony Scott as Top Gun 2 director? 

Well, I don’t think anyone can fill his shoes.  I saw the first movie when I was 12 years old, and it made a huge impression on me. I think Tony changed the way that blockbuster films looked with the way he shot this film. So, we wanted it to feel like it was in his unit universe, but also didn’t want to just simply copy what he did.

TDF: With no green screens, what was it like shooting such a complicated movie?

JK: We shot it before the pandemic, so this movie has been on the shelf for the last two years waiting for the pandemic to end. So we shot this in the normal world of 2018 and 2019. Still, it was a massive team effort.

Thousands of people worked on this film. We also worked very closely with the Navy and had real Top Gun pilots flying the planes in this film, which was incredible. So, for me, it was an amazing experience just to get a little peek into their world.

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TDF: What would you say was the most ambitious scene to shoot, and why?

JK: There’s so many difficult scenes in this film. The third act is pretty complicated — we’ve got four aircrafts going into some very extreme terrain. We were shooting on one of the low-level Navy training routes at very low altitude and very high speeds. So that’s some of the most extreme flying I think you’ll see in the film, and the most complex in terms of the editing and the structure and the storytelling. A lot of pieces had to come together for that scene.

Monica Barbaro in Top Gun 2

TDF: What was your favourite moment to film overall?

JK: I had so many. Obviously, the Maverick-Iceman scene was one from a dramatic point of view, but also there was one day where we were out in the salt flats, shooting low levels, where the FAA teams were flying over my head, ten feet above, and the shockwave from the jet would just hit you in the chest. And to me, that’s what practical filmmaking is all about.

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TDF: In your opinion, what makes a good action movie?

JK: I think it all comes down to story. You have to care about the characters in those scenes while the action is happening, otherwise, it’s just action for action’s sake. But if you’re really emotionally invested in each of the characters, it makes it that much more tense. So that’s what we were striving for here.

Top Gun 2 soars in theatres on May 25 in the UK and May 27 in the US.