In the 35 years since its initial release, director Tony Scott’s Top Gun has become a classic of ’80s action cinema: the star vehicle that rocketed a then-24-year-old Tom Cruise to the top of Hollywood’s A-list, triggered a military-recruiting boom, and immortalized the line of dialogue “I feel the need — the need for speed!” But over that time, the action thriller has also developed a secondary prestige: the “gayest movie ever made.” With its lingering shots of cast members — including Val Kilmer, Rick Rossovich, and Anthony Edwards oiled up for a Bruce Weber–esque game of beach volleyball — the 1986 film lays bare the homosocial world of naval aviators and pulses with an undeniable homoerotic energy. The critic Pauline Kael called the movie a “shiny homoerotic commercial: The pilots strut around the locker room, towels hanging precariously from their waists.” Quentin Tarantino, for his part, riffed on Top Gun’s perceived “subversion” and pro-gay subtext in a cameo in the 1994 dramedy Sleep With Me. “You think it’s a story about a bunch of fighter pilots. It is the story of a man’s struggle with his own homosexuality,” Tarantino says in the movie.
Today, Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer will have you know that he is fine with that reading. Ahead of the film’s 35th-anniversary rerelease in cinemas last week — and in anticipation of Paramount’s long-gestating sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (in which Cruise reprises his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell), scheduled to arrive in theaters in November — the blockbuster producer behind the Beverly Hills Cop, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Bad Boys franchises talked to Vulture via Zoom to address some of the lore that has affixed itself to Top Gun, confirming and dismissing years of rumors.
Is it true Scott Baio, Tom Hanks, and Matthew Broderick were up for the Maverick role before Tom Cruise got it?
Somebody’s got a better memory than me. I don’t remember any of that because when we were developing the screenplay, we said the perfect person to play Maverick was Tom Cruise. This was before we had a script. So he was always the first. But there were times we had given it to Tom and we couldn’t get a yes from him.
So I arranged for him to fly with the Blue Angels down in Miramar, California. He pulls up on a motorcycle, and he had a long ponytail because he’d finished another movie with Ridley Scott. And the Navy aviators said, “We’re going to give this hippie a ride.” They gave him the ride of his life: turned him upside down, flipped him, took him to four or five G’s. He got down, walked over to a phone booth, and called me up and said, “Jerry, I’m in.”
There was this story I heard where Tony Scott was shooting on an aircraft carrier with the sun facing a certain direction. The captain wanted to change direction, spoiling the shot. And when Tony asked him to change it back, he said, “No, it will cost $25,000 to change direction.” So Tony supposedly pulled out his checkbook and wrote the captain a $25,000 check on the spot.
It’s a true story. I think it was $10,000. These stories get bigger and bigger. I also think he canceled the check.
Straight out of the Roger Corman school of guerrilla filmmaking! What were the circumstances?
[Scott] wanted it backlit when they were taking off and landing, and they were turning [the aircraft carrier] so it was the front. But Tony said, “It’s going to look ugly. You’re not going to want it this way.” And the admiral said, “Look, we have to conserve fuel. You only have X amount of fuel when you go on these cruises.” And Tony said, “How much will it cost?” He said, “Around $10,000.” He pulled out his checkbook and gave him a check.
I’m sure you must be familiar with Tarantino’s Sleep With Me monologue. What do you make of Top Gun’s secondary renown as a gay film that showcases some decidedly homoerotic content?
When you make a movie, people can interpret it in any way they want and see something in it that the filmmakers had no idea they were tapping. So we’re surprised every time we hear something talked about, or written about, the films that we make that have no real context for the filmmakers or what the filmmakers wanted to do. And yet there’s a relevance to them, because people believe it.
So it sits okay with you.
Tony and Quentin were very good friends. In fact, Quentin came in and helped Tony and myself on Crimson Tide. He came in and wrote a couple of scenes for us. So there was a great camaraderie and respect between Quentin and Tony. Coming from Quentin, it’s always a compliment.
It has been widely reported that Kelly McGillis — who plays Maverick’s flight instructor/love interest in Top Gun — and Tom didn’t get along during or after filming. What can you tell me about that?
That’s Hollywood lore. It’s not truth. Tom distanced himself from her because he wanted the love story to grow and didn’t socialize. He worked on the script with us. He was constantly working. So Tom, for the part of his character, felt it was better to let that love story grow on the screen. There was no disagreement. Kelly was a lot of fun, as were all the young actors who worked on the movie.
Some critics have credited you (and, in particular, this film) with pioneering the “high-concept blockbuster” — that is, a film for which the tagline and the trailer convey the story almost instantly. That involves the visuals, the soundtrack, and a certain simplicity cutting through the cultural clutter. How do you feel about that being part of Top Gun’s legacy, as almost creating a new form of vernacular for film in Hollywood?
I think that vernacular’s been around for a very long time. Don [Simpson, Bruckheimer’s producing partner on Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop, among other films] was always a proponent of it at Paramount. But we always felt if you want to engage an audience, besides the visuals and the story that you tell and the actors that you have, give them a very simple walk-line that you can put into two sentences. And that’s something that we’ve done in a lot of our films. You can’t always do it. But that’s something that’s important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.