exit interview

Joseph Kosinski’s Vast, Lonely Worlds

The director knew how to sell Tom Cruise on a Top Gun sequel: “Maverick is still Maverick. But he’s alone.”

Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. Photo: Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. Photo: Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Despite making pretty big movies, Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski could probably be considered a cult filmmaker. For some of us, his debut feature, 2010’s Tron: Legacy, is one of the most visually and sonically arresting pictures of recent years; to others, it was empty spectacle. Many of us also adore his moody sci-fi thriller Oblivion (2012), starring Tom Cruise as a soldier in the distant future protecting an empty, devastated Earth; many critics were unimpressed. Both films were marked by their melancholy atmosphere and the way Kosinski uses their immense, desolate spaces to tell stories of characters fighting mysterious, godlike powers. And if you pay attention, those ideas also lie beneath Kosinski’s beautiful, tragic, real-life firefighting drama Only the Brave (2017), in which nature is personified as an all-powerful entity against whom our heroes engaged in doomed struggle.

All of these films did okay business, but now with the visually striking and surprisingly moving Maverick raking in money and getting glowing reviews, the director has finally taken off — just in time for his new feature, Spiderhead, a futuristic prison thriller starring Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth, and Jurnee Smollett that hits theaters and Netflix on June 17. Wouldn’t you know it, Spiderhead is set almost entirely in a complex with large, empty spaces, isolated on an island surrounded by a vast stretch of sea. And it tells the story of a group of prisoners whose emotions and responses are controlled by chemicals being administered by Hemsworth’s godlike but chummy tech bro. While it’s a far more intimate film than his previous efforts, Spiderhead bears all the hallmarks of Kosinski’s sensibility and style.

You worked with Tom Cruise on Oblivion, but that was based on your own graphic-novel concept, so you were in the driver’s seat. Now you’re approaching a character that was hugely important to his career. You’ve got Jerry Bruckheimer, who, with Don Simpson, was the driving force behind the first film. You’ve got Christopher McQuarrie, who works closely with Cruise. How do you navigate all that as the director of Top Gun: Maverick?
This is me stepping into their legacy a little bit. And I felt that pressure. But we all had the same goal, and I think it helped that I was there from the beginning. At the time I came into it, Tom Cruise didn’t want to do the movie, which I found out later. This all started almost exactly five years ago. Jerry Bruckheimer sent me an early draft they were working on and wanted my thoughts. I pitched him my take. He liked it and said, “You’ve got to pitch this to Tom directly.” Jerry and I flew to Paris, where Tom was shooting Mission, and we got about a half-hour out of his time. What I didn’t realize was Tom did not want to make another Top Gun. I got a hint of it when Tom called me after I landed. He said, “Joe, thank you for coming out. No matter what happens, it’ll be great to see you regardless.” And I was like, Oh, wait, he doesn’t want to do this.

But because I had made a film with him before, I knew I had to grab him emotionally. So I opened with the idea that this is a rite-of-passage story like the first film. The first film is a drama, even though it’s wrapped in this glossy action film. This would be the same thing, but it would be Maverick reconciling with Goose’s son set against this mission that would take them both deep into enemy territory. And as soon as I said that, I could see the wheels in his head start to turn. Then I pitched the idea of Dark Star, the opening sequence, what Maverick’s doing when we find him. Which I think was also important because Maverick is still Maverick, but he’s not buzzing the tower at the local air base. He’s on the cutting edge of aviation, pushing the envelope as always. But he’s alone. He’s alone at the beginning of this film. Then I talked about shooting practically, and obviously Tom’s 100 percent in for all that. And then the title. I said we can’t call it Top Gun 2. We’ve got to call it Top Gun: Maverick — a character story. So he pulled out his phone, called the head of Paramount, and said, “We’re making a sequel to Top Gun.” And it was boom, green light.

Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski on set. Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

So it was your idea to make it about the relationship with Rooster?
Yeah. That was not in there. In hindsight, you’re like, Well, that seems obvious, but for whatever reason, that was not what they had at the time. I was actually in post on Only the Brave, this was May 2017, so Miles Teller was on my mind. The relationship in that movie is a very paternal one with Josh Brolin’s character. So I showed Tom a picture of Miles because Miles has blond hair in that film. And I think I’d Photoshopped a mustache on him. I’m like, “I just worked with this kid. He’s really good.” We still went through the audition process, and Miles won the role on his own. I’d worked with Jennifer Connelly as well on Only the Brave. And she had somehow never done a movie with Tom.

Seeing Jennifer Connelly with Tom Cruise onscreen, it felt like two Generation-X icons finally coming together.
I know. It’s amazing that they had never crossed paths. I think Jennifer grew up friends with Mia Sara in high school, which blows my mind. And Mia made Legend with Tom Cruise. There’s a lot of that in the movie. Having Ed Harris play Admiral Cain, you’ve got John Glenn from The Right Stuff chewing out Maverick. It just has to be that person.

The film has a very interesting relationship to the past and not just the specific incidents of Top Gun. It becomes a weird generational thing. You think about how much you’ve changed over the past 35 years and even how the country has changed. 
When we were holding the movie for two years, I was worried that people might lose interest and that it might feel stale. But oddly, post-pandemic, the movie feels more relevant because there is this collective yearning for the way things used to be, which makes sense, considering what we’ve all come through collectively. And the film definitely taps into that. Also just it being a classic summer movie or what I remember my experience was of the first film when I saw it for the first time.

It sounds like shooting the film practically was also your idea?
That was one of the things I presented to Tom at that first meeting because I had done some research and found these videos on YouTube of Navy pilots putting little GoPro cameras on the canopy and shooting their training. And what I was seeing on YouTube was better than any aerial sequence in any film because it was real, and you are getting all the stuff that you can never anticipate if you’re shooting it on a gimbal. Most notably, the forces on their bodies when they’re pulling g’s. But figuring out how to get cameras into a military aircraft was a huge hurdle technically and logistically. Also it’s one thing to get Tom Cruise in a jet, but what about all these other actors? If only Tom’s stuff were real, you’d feel the difference between Tom’s footage and Rooster’s footage or Phoenix’s footage. So getting all the pilots prepped to be able to do these sequences was a lot of work.

What were the logistics of shooting the plane scenes? As I understand, they were operating the cameras themselves?
Well, they weren’t operating them. The cameras were fixed. It was six cameras in the cockpit, two facing forward over the Navy pilot, four facing backward at the actor. Different compositions, different lenses, all wired to one switch that turned them all on and off. Every morning, we’d start with a two-hour brief with all the actors, all the Navy pilots, myself, Tom, the DP Claudio Miranda, the editor Eddie Hamilton, and we’d go through every single storyboard, every single scene, every line of what we needed to achieve that day. Weather, safety, terrain, light placement. It was very tedious — it would bore you to tears. Then I would take the pilot and the actor who was flying down to a mock-up of the F-18 cockpit with a mock-up of the dashboard, the switch, the camera, and everything. They’d sit in their positions, and I’d walk them through the day. “This line, you’re going to look to the right, you’re going to say, ‘Break right.’” That kind of stuff. It’s just, again, very tedious. We’d rehearse for an hour until it was muscle memory. They would go up, fly for an hour, do the footage, come back. We’d load the cards into a monitor; we’d all watch it together. Very high pressure for the actor. And every time they did something wrong, give them a note. When they did something right, we’d cheer for them. When they threw up, we’d cheer. It was a great team-building environment. And we’d send them up again in the afternoon. It felt like we did that for months until we had all the shots we needed.

When you’ve gone through so much work to get shots like that, is there ever a fear you might later have to do a reshoot?
My editor was there at the air base with us for that reason. After we finished the afternoon sortie, I’d go in the trailer with him and watch all the day’s material. Did we get it? It’s very expensive and very hard to mount these shoots, so it was a 24-hour cycle of shooting, reviewing, and going back and getting more. The beauty is they’re wearing masks; if we had to rewrite a line in post, very forgiving. I think for the first movie they actually didn’t do any lines, they just counted to ten because they didn’t know what the story was.

There’s something about the spaces in all your films, and this one is no different. There’s a real emotional charge to watching these vast, desolate locations when they’re flying. 
Those are all the real places. The only place you can fly fighter jets ten feet above the ground is in those military-controlled areas. Also, that Dark Star sequence was shot in an area that is top secret. You’re not even allowed to go there. When I scouted that base, they said, “Take pictures of everything you want, but do not take a picture of that hangar over there.” And I was like, “Well, what is that?” And they were like, “Don’t ask.” And I’m like, “Well, it looks like it could be really right for this sequence. Because I’m doing a sequence about a top-secret aircraft.” And they’re like, “Well, there’s no surprise that you’re interested in that particular building.” But I did convince them, and we did shoot there.

Audiences have a different relationship with military imagery nowadays than they did back in 1986, partly because we’ve been through two horrific wars. Was that ever a consideration? 
It was very purposeful to make the enemy faceless, nameless, and not specific. Because that’s not what the movie is about. It’s a competition film. It’s a movie about friendship and sacrifice and all the same things the first film was. So that was very intentional. Obviously, we made this movie in 2018, and the world changes. But we focused on what a Top Gun movie is — it’s more of a sports film than a war movie.

That element reminded me of Only the Brave — showing us the preparation for something and then showing these characters confronting the actual thing. In Only the Brave, it turns out differently, but it worked beautifully.
It’s funny because some people called Only the Brave “the Top Gun of firefighting movies.” So there are definitely some similarities there. But the mission of this film actually came straight from the Navy. Very early on, when I was working with Eric Warren Singer on the very first draft, we sat down with the Navy and asked, “What is the absolute scariest, toughest, gnarliest mission that you could ever imagine putting together?” And they laid out this exact mission: low-level ingress into enemy territory through mountains guarded by SAMs with a high g-pull laser-guided bomb strike. The one thing they said that we didn’t include was, “And you do it at night.”

Then it was a matter of saying, “Okay, how do we break this mission into training sequences?” And then, of course, every training sequence is a disaster. So this is more complicated than Only the Brave, I think, in terms of the specifics. And that’s where I think Chris McQuarrie and Tom and Eddie Hamilton, the editor, their experience making a lot of Mission Impossible movies really was helpful. Because my initial approach for laying out the brief that Warlock does at the beginning of the movie was to stay very grounded and show grainy satellite photos — more like what real intelligence looks like, which is not very clear. And Chris was like, “No, this is not the time to be realistic. This is where you need to do the 3-D fly-through that shows the audience exactly what the mission is, so that by the time you get to the third act, no one’s asking questions about what the mission is. You’re just sitting back and watching them do it or not do it, which is fun.”

I want to ask about the beach-football scene.
Of course! There would not be an interview that would be complete without a question about that. High pressure. A lot of pressure for me. [Laughs.]

I was shocked you even attempted it. As soon as it started, I thought, Oh my God, are they actually going to have a beach scene? Why try?
Because it was the No. 1 question people asked me when they found out I was working on the movie: “Is there going to be a beach sequence? Is there going to be beach volleyball?” Always the first question. Mostly by women. And after enough people said that to me, I was like, Okay, we’re going to have to do this. How do we do it? How do we work this into the story so that it feels like we’re pushing the narrative forward? It can’t be, Hey, let’s pause and play Kenny Loggins and get sweaty. So the whole notion of dogfight football, I think Ehren Kruger’s the one who came up with that idea, offense-slash-defense at the same time. It hints at what happens in Coffin Corner at the end of the movie. And Cyclone coming in and not understanding what Maverick’s motivations are. It’s just character. It’s story. And then it scratches that itch that you have in a Top Gun movie.

I had a blast shooting it. We just went out and had fun in San Diego in October on the beach at magic hour. I wanted to make sure I was getting those shots that would be worthy of a Top Gun movie. We shot it over a couple of days, two or three days over a couple of weeks, which drove the actors crazy because they wanted to just let go and start eating. For them, it was very stressful preparing for that day. But it was shot far enough into the movie that the camaraderie you see was genuine.

Photo: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

I was impressed with how vulnerable Tom Cruise is in Maverick. He’s obviously given some very good performances in the past, but sometimes, when he has to really break down, it doesn’t always quite land. But in his scene with Iceman, when he’s talking about Rooster, he’s shedding real tears. 
In my opinion, Maverick is the closest character to who Tom is as a real person. This is the jewel in the crown for him, which is why he resisted making a sequel for 36 years. Think about that temptation. He could’ve made it in 1987. And there’s definitely a meta thing going on here with him talking about how he flies and having to consider what the end will be. Tom is a movie star holding on to making these movies in a way that they aren’t made anymore. And what Val was going through in real life, too, had a profound impact on Tom. I don’t think he had seen Val much in recent years. It was a really emotional day. I remember sitting next to Jerry and watching Tom give that performance.

There’s a ghostlike quality to Maverick in that scene and others — in that early bar scene, where the kids almost see past him, and then later, when he shows up in his Navy whites to say bye to Jennifer Connelly. He feels like a ghost.
Absolutely. You can feel it in Tom’s performance that the end is coming. Maverick confronting the end hangs over the entire film because he is willing to die for Rooster. And that’s what the whole film is building to, to that moment, which is the ultimate expression of love: “I’m willing to die for you.” They’ve both been damaged by Goose’s death. And you feel for both of them. You’re just hoping they can find some common ground and resolve it. And when they finally do, in the snow, you can just feel the audience response — the moment when Maverick does the Tom Cruise run and then punctuates it by pushing Rooster and they fight in the snow. Because they finally, at that moment, become father and son. I’ve watched that scene now with an audience four times, and you can feel the release of the tension. I almost worried people weren’t going to hear the lines because there was such a big laugh at that moment.

I think it’s Rooster’s gesture — when he holds up his arms with that baffled look. That moment is such an incredible release every time I see the film.
It’s like, What do you want me to do? And that’s very Miles. That’s him doing what he does best. I’m just glad it worked out. Because when you put actors together, you just never know what the chemistry is going to be.

You’ve worked with Miles Teller in three movies now, including the upcoming Spiderhead. Three extremely different performances. And in Only the Brave, I thought he was a revelation. His performance as Donut felt so out of his comfort zone — pale, weak, broken, humiliated. What was it you saw in him to cast him as Donut?
Miles has been through some real trauma in his life. It’s public knowledge that he was in a really bad car accident. And he’s able to play damaged in a way that feels very authentic. And the survivor’s guilt is also something I think Miles struggles with because he’s lost some friends to accidents. So Miles was actually accessing some real emotions when playing that role. And I agree, his performance there is stunning. Top Gun is obviously a different movie, being a big summer blockbuster. But there are elements of that in the character. I felt like the better actors I put around Tom, the more it would elevate Tom’s performance, which is why I wanted Miles and Jen to be in the movie. But Miles I think is one of the most talented actors of his generation. And with all three movies, I saw an opportunity for him to do something a little bit different.

And Teller’s performance in Spiderhead, in which he plays a prisoner flashing back to a horrific car crash, really gets to that trauma.
What I liked about the character of Jeff in Spiderhead, and what I knew would be a challenge for Miles, was that this is a much more impressionable and vulnerable character than he’s ever had to play. It’s this fuckup who made one mistake and is torturing himself and feels like he deserves to be punished in this facility. And is being manipulated by this very charismatic alpha male played by Chris Hemsworth. That’s a movie all about performance. You got three main roles; we’re shooting it in the middle of the pandemic; we’re essentially in one set for 40 days. It was a really interesting challenge for the actors because they’re used to playing an emotion that fits the context of the scene. Now they have to go 180 from that and play an emotion that has nothing to do with that context.

In the past, Hemsworth has really shined in his cameos and bit parts in comedies. It was nice to see him bring that looseness and unpredictable energy to a bigger role. 
I’d always wondered, Is there a character actor beneath this leading-man exterior? I sent it to him just to see if he would respond to trying something totally different, and he wrote back immediately, “I love how twisted he is. I love how darkly funny he is. I love how verbal the role is. I love the fact that this is a damaged character at its heart.” He was looking for a challenge. Remember, he’s doing this role in his non-native accent, and because of the way that Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese wrote the character, there’s a lot of dialogue. His monologues are long. So for him to play a sociopath who’s as charming as he is, he put everything into it.

Do you feel like Spiderhead would’ve been a different movie had you not had to shoot during a pandemic?
The pandemic definitely gave the making of the movie a particular tone because we all had to do 15 days of quarantine to get into Australia, which was interesting to do before shooting a movie about prisoners. I had to prep the movie in quarantine. I was in a small hotel room with a scale model of the entire Spiderhead. Remember when Jack Nicholson’s staring at the maze in The Shining? By day ten, that was me, just standing over it and seeing things move. So a lot of the way I shot the film I put together while in quarantine with the model.

And again, a very Joseph Kosinski location — a desolate, off-grid, monumental but empty space. 
I know! Now that I’ve made five movies, I’m probably very close to having the parody video. There’s just no way I can do those spaces anymore.

In Tron: Legacy, where did the idea come from to make it a night world? The original is set in that flat, dark space of video games in the 1980s. But in Tron: Legacy, it becomes night, and we see the clouds and the sky. I thought that one little conceptual change opened the world up in a striking way.
You know, when I first met with producer Sean Bailey and he brought up the idea of a sequel to Tron, I had a very distinct image of a world. At that point, there was this idea of a movie that takes place on the internet with Yahoo and Google and all those sites. I was much more interested in a Heart of Darkness story, where Kevin Flynn got trapped in his own creation, isolated away from the internet, and it had evolved on its own like the Galápagos, disconnected from the rest of the world. And the Tron aesthetic that we remember from 1982 became more and more photo-real as the processing power increased. It needed to reflect how dark that world had become. So that’s why I did that initial teaser, which was done before we had a script, that we later showed at Comic-Con and that got the movie green-lit. But it was very much that kind of black, glassy aesthetic.

What happened to the Tron: Legacy sequel? 
I got so close. I really tried. I got close in 2015, and Disney pulled the plug on it. I hadn’t built anything, but I had the whole movie storyboarded and written. I was really excited because it was inverting the idea: It was all that stuff coming into our world, and it was about the blending of the two. But it was a different Disney by 2015. When I made Tron: Legacy, they didn’t own Marvel; they didn’t own Star Wars. We were the play for fantasy and science fiction. And once you’ve got those other things under your umbrella, it makes sense that you’re going to put your money into a known property and not the weird art student with black fingernails in the corner — that was Tron. And that’s okay. Had I made Tron: Ascension, I wouldn’t have made Only the Brave, and I wouldn’t have made the movies I made. But remember, the first Tron was not a hit when it came out. It’s a cult classic. And if Tron: Legacy’s becoming the same thing, I couldn’t be more thrilled.

What went through your mind when you first heard Daft Punk’s music for Tron: Legacy?
I still have all that music, by the way, the early stuff. Here’s the thing. I’d been listening to Daft Punk when I was in architecture school, working in the computer lab at night in the dark with my headphones on, working on my projects. It seems like an obvious idea now: “Of course, those guys are perfect for Tron: Legacy.” But to pitch to Disney at that time that we were going to make a $150 million movie with a first-time director, a first-time production designer, actors that had never been in a big movie before, and a score by a French electronic duo that did dance music and literally dressed up as robots … I mean, I just can’t believe they said yes. I don’t think that movie would get made today. But Thomas and Guy-Manuel just were so ready. They’re filmmakers, they love cinema, and they crushed it. It was everything I’d hoped for.

Joseph Kosinski’s Vast, Lonely Worlds