From Pitching To Release: BTS of Top Gun: Maverick

This week, Dom Lenoir welcomes director Joseph Kosinski to the show. His filmography includes Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, Only the Brave and Top Gun: Maverick.

Pitching to Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise

‘It started with Jerry Bruckheimer sending me a script, which is not a bad way to start. He sent me an early draft that they were working on, in 2017, which had a couple of things in it that I liked.

But I had some ideas on what Maverick’s story could be. Where it starts.’

Joseph pitched his idea to Jerry and he suggested travelling to Paris to pitch the idea to Tom Cruise, who was filming Mission Impossible at the time.

‘I pitched him the storyline, which I felt was the emotional spine of the film, and the moment I uttered that I could see the wheels in his head start to turn; because he came into that room thinking there was no way he was going to make another Top Gun. But once I pitched that idea, I could see him start to wrap his head about how he could get back into this character.’

After that, he discussed his idea of shooting the film from the pilot’s perspective, and ‘Tom was like that’s the only way he’d make a Top Gun movie, is if he could capture it for real. And then I said this is his story. We’ve got to call it Top Gun Maverick. And that sealed the deal. He pulled out his phone and called the head of the studio and said we’re making another Top Gun.’

From Only The Brave to Top Gun

Joseph had just finished filming ‘a film that, in my career, was very important and an amazing experience. A movie called Only the Brave is about wild firefighting. 

It was a very emotional experience because it was the true story of 19 firefighters that lost their lives in Arizona when they were trapped by a massive wildfire. I worked with Miles Teller and Jennifer Connolly. It was a really intense, hard film to make from a dramatic and emotional point of view; but for me, as a director, an important one because up to that point I was known for science fiction films.’

Moving from that film to Top Gun meant that he approached the film from the right headspace. ‘To approach it as a drama first, and I cast Jennifer and Miles in Top Gun because I knew they were going to infuse the right energy and give Tom some incredible actors to play opposite.

A Director’s Role

For Joseph, ‘the job of a director is to convince people – crew or cast – to be in your film. You can’t ever approach it with the attitude of you’re so lucky I’m calling you to be in Top Gun. I never approach it that way. It’s always making the best case you can of why they’re right for your film.’

He was involved in some of the castings – the bigger named actors that he was hoping to work with, and then Denise Chamian helped to put new faces in front of Joseph. After shortlisting his favourites for each role, he sat with Tom and Jerry and they chose as a team.’

‘Hearing Tom and Jerry’s gut reactions to the choices that I had selected to narrow it down was really great. And I couldn’t be happier and more proud of the cast we’ve put together for this film.’

Working with the Script

‘The first thing I did was I went onto a carrier for a couple of days with the Navy, experiencing what it’s like to live on a carrier. I got to run my story pitch past the naval aviators and the commanding officer, and I got their feedback.’

It was an invaluable experience for making the film, especially because the ‘whole third act was done in collaboration with them. Writer, Eric Singer, and I put this question to a bunch of them: what is the gnarliest mission that you could ever imagine having to go on?

So that whole sequence was built from their dreaming up the toughest mission. Then Eric laid out the first draft – the structure of the film. Ehren Kruger came in and added a second layer – brought in some essential scenes and some really strong emotional character-driven connections.’

Chris McQuarrie joined them just (a month or two) before they were due to start filming. ‘He’d finished Mission Impossible and he polished up what we had. Chris has this amazing ability to tailor roles to actors, and to the voice that actor has, and really customise each role for each actor in the film. It was an incredible collaboration between three very talented screenwriters.’

His Tips About Working on ‘Big Movies’

‘Working on big movies is a challenge because there’s more money being spent and more pressure for the movie to appeal to the widest possible audience.’

And Joseph recalled what ‘Jerry says all the time: you don’t know how a movie’s going to perform until it comes out. You can have a movie that’s testing off the charts that don’t translate to a successful film. And you can have a movie that doesn’t test well with a test audience but somehow when it comes out, finds a whole new life and succeeds beyond. Ultimately, you’ve got to go with your gut and what you truly believe and make the movie that you set out to make.’

The Script Is Crucially Important

It all starts with the script. Sitting at a table reading, reading through the scene and discussing the story that needs to be told.

‘What do we want someone, who’s watching, to feel? Everyone’s got their ideas or opinions but you want to make sure that you work out the big stuff ahead of time.’

Working With Actors

Having worked with many different actors, he says ‘some actors love to rehearse. Some actors love to block, so they know where they’re moving, but maybe don’t want to rehearse the emotions. Miles, I’ve made three movies with him, doesn’t like them too much in rehearsals because he wants to save them for the day. But every actor’s different.’

Joseph believes that it’s important to create an environment that is safe, prepared and ready for the actors to live their characters.

‘I try to create as much space for the actors to do their thing from the beginning, and only give notes if I feel there’s something else worth trying. I’m not the most heavy-handed when it comes to scripting a performance. I hire actors who bring something to the table and create an environment where they feel free to try things, experiment and mix them up. That makes films.’

Last Words of Advice

His words of wisdom? ‘Don’t give up. It sounds very generic, but when I first moved to Los Angeles, to be a director, in my first 15 months, I pitched on 26 or 27 commercials and got zero.

You’re going to hear a lot of no’s at the beginning because no one wants to take a risk on somebody who hasn’t made anything before, but keep at it, keep pushing, and when that opportunity arrives, be ready and knock it out of the park.’

For more from Joseph Kosinski, listen here.

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