Jerry Bruckheimer explains why action movies haven’t changed much since Top Gun
Name an object, and a Jerry Bruckheimer film has probably blown it up. For decades now, the prolific producer — often working with longtime colleague Don Simpson — has defined what blockbuster cinema action looks like. Bruckheimer-produced films are nigh-unmissable, even among those who haven’t seen them: The Rock, Armageddon, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and National Treasure all bear his stamp. Simpson died in 1996, but this month, his name appears on screen alongside Bruckheimer’s in Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to one of their definitive 1980s hits.
Maverick is a film with tactile appeal, one that uses every inch of the screen and every speaker in a theater to make audiences feel like they’re in a fighter jet. It’s much like its predecessor in that regard, but it goes further, with copious footage shot by pilots from within their own jets. But in 2022, viewers are going to multiverses and hanging with superheroes on a regular basis. Is a vivid, real-life fighter jet experience enough to make a blockbuster work?
In a conversation with Polygon, Bruckheimer had a simple answer: Yes, it is. Actors threw up to bring you this movie. The Navy got involved. It has Tom Cruise. This is why you go to a theater.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Polygon: It feels like Top Gun: Maverick has a lot of hype behind it for a sequel to a 36-year-old movie. Why do you think that is?
Jerry Bruckheimer: Well, I think there’s the stars here from the first movie. A lot of men have come up to me and said, Look, my dad took me to see Top Gun when I was 10. I want to take my son and my daughter to see [Maverick]. It was a great experience for me when I was a kid, and for my dad. I think hopefully that’ll translate into a lot of people going to see the movie in a theater, which is the way you should see it.
What do you think people are hungry to see specifically?
Well, first of all, it’s a movie that’s very authentic. It’s a great character piece. It’s about the love of aviation. That’s what Tom [Cruise] wanted, the story Tom wanted to tell. But also, we took such care and pains to make sure that we shot it practically. So when Joe [Kosinski, the director of Top Gun: Maverick] talked to Tom, he said, “We’ve got to make this real, we’ve got to figure out a way to get those cameras in the plane.” So Joe had a camera built for the cockpit of the plane. He was able to put six cameras inside the cockpit. And it took 15 months to do that, because you have to go through the engineers and lawyers, because [what if] the camera came loose with the actors? All kinds of things could go wrong. But they figured out how to do it. Then the next question is not What do you do with the actors?We put them in there.
Is this similar to the approach taken on the first Top Gun?
For the first movie, we put [the actors] in an F-14. And everyone threw up, their eyes are all back in their heads, we couldn’t use any footage. We used a little footage on Tom, and that was it. He was the only one that really could keep it together up there, because he was in such good physical shape.
So on the second one, Tom designed a program where the actors had to spend three months on what they call G-force tolerance. We put them in a prop plane, so they could just feel the lightness of being up in the air. And we put them in an aerobatic prop, which they got to feel some of the G-forces. And then we put them in a jet, and the jet — they could really feel some G-forces. And then we put them in the F-18 — and the jump from the previous jets to the F-18s was huge, because they’re so much faster and agile.
It’s quite grueling for our actors. Joe talked to them all and said, “Look, here’s what we’re going to do to get you into an F-18.” And some of the actors said “No, I don’t think so, I’m afraid of flying.” So we lost some talented actors, but the actors that committed to the movie made it wholeheartedly, and gave up so much of their lives to sit in these airplanes.
They had to remember everything — their lines, and to turn the camera on and off. And so since we couldn’t [monitor] the footage up there, when they got back on the ground, we reviewed all the footage. And if it didn’t work, or they didn’t get their lines right, they went right back up and did it again.
One of the things the film makes really clear is how physically challenging it is to be in one of these planes.
I’ll tell ya, the one real trooper — they all were troopers — was Monica [Barbaro], who I think was the only one who didn’t throw up.
There aren’t a lot of movies like Top Gun anymore, so how do you approach getting people excited for a movie about fighter jets?
The Navy was so helpful in giving us their best pilots, and best engineers and crew members to keep these planes up in the air, all the mechanics. They were a big part of the fact that we could show what a fighter pilot goes through. Because without their cooperation, this movie wouldn’t be the same movie that you’re looking at. We’d have to rely on visual effects. Tom didn’t want to do that. So the Navy was our partner in this.
We had to pay them as a paying partner to help us get this movie to the screen, but they were terrific men and women. And we had a lot of female pilots that work with us. They make an enormous commitment to be able to get one of those jets, and you can just imagine what they have to go through, the physical rigors, just like the guys do. But they’re up for it. And they love what they do. And [some of them] joined the Navy because they saw Top Gun. We kept hearing that over and over again.
So coming off of what might be a big blockbuster action film like this — you’ve been producing blockbuster action movies like Top Gun for decades. How do you think action movies have changed? Where do you feel they’re at currently?
It’s always the same. It’s always about your plot, your characters. Your message, if there is one — which I don’t try to do, but its theme, I could say. And that’s where it’s simple. It’s not difficult. You have to have a terrific idea, a great screenplay, fantastic characters. And the characters drive through the plot. And if you get lucky, it’s about the emotion. The reason a Top Gun is effective with an audience is that it’s emotional. It makes you laugh.
I don’t know if you saw [Maverick] with a big audience, but when they screened it for the exhibitors — who are the toughest audience you could ever find — there was laughter, there was applause, there was tears. We used to say that we’re in the transportation business, we transport you from one place to another. My job is to take you for a couple hours and make you forget about everything that’s going on at home, going on in the world. And just focus on what we’re giving you. Just be entertained, get strapped to that seat and go for a ride with us.