[This story contains spoilers for Top Gun: Maverick.]
Top Gun: Maverick is packed with cutting-edge films that transport audiences into the cockpit of an F/A-18. But amidst the thrills, there’s a much more intimate scene that also elicits a strong reaction.
Midway through the film, Tom Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell reunites with Val Kilmer’s Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, who in the years following the events of 1986 Upper gun became Admiral. In his office, during an emotional conversation, Iceman tells Maverick why he brought him back to Top Gun.
For filmmaker Joseph Kosinski, seeing Kilmer and Cruise reunite was a highlight of filming. After all, it was the controversial relationship between Maverick and Iceman that propelled the film into the pop culture consciousness, where it remains decades later.
“To see how much they respected each other as actors and to see a friendship that evolved over 36 years – it really reflected what you see on screen in the scene,” Kosinski said in the episode of this week of THRit is Behind the screen podcast. “It’s just two actors at the top of their game doing this really great scene for the movie that’s so important. It was a very emotional day on set.
Kilmer has been open about battling throat cancer, revealing in his acclaimed 2021 documentary, Valthat her voice has never been the same after a tracheotomy in 2014.
“Val and Tom performed the scene, and then we enhanced Val’s voice by mixing it with another, mostly for clarity, more than anything else,” Kosinski said of when Iceman addresses maverick.
In the new episode of Behind the screen, Kosinski also details filming the flight scenes and how they prepared prototypes of Sony’s Venice extension system, Rialto, to film the F/A-18 actors during flight.
“It was a 15-month development process to figure out how to take a prototype system and put it into an $80 million military aircraft and make it capable of withstanding 7g. force and 35,000 feet altitude, and it had to be clear for an ejection and safe for the pilots,” Kosinski said.
From working with Cruise (they previously teamed up in 2013 Oblivion), notes the director: “He is not just an actor in your film. Obviously, he’s a producer on that, but it’s really a partnership. He’s involved in all aspects of filmmaking, and that collaboration is what he really thrives on and enjoys. … He just has this energy that is contagious.
Below are excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity, followed by a link to the podcast.
Let’s talk about shooting actors in F/A-18s.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and I had tested a prototype of the Venice camera made by Sony, and he told me that they were working on a prototype version of the Venice called the Rialto, which allowed the lens to be separated of the recorder on the body. So you can basically take this very high quality IMAX-certified 6K camera, you can split it into two pieces with a fiber optic cable that connects the two halves, and you end up with a very small lens and a sensor that can adapt to very small spaces.
Claudia sat down with the Navy engineers and walked around the cockpit of the F-18 and pointed to every piece of equipment that was mounted there and asked if they needed it to fly. And every time they said “No”, we asked them if they could take it down. It was surprising how much they were able to pull off, actually. It’s like a Tetris game. We figured out how to fit six of these Venice cameras in the cockpit – four cameras facing the actor, then one on each side shooting over his shoulder looking aft. And then we were able to mount two additional cameras pointing forward above the Top Gun pilot.
It is important to thank Claudio and his team of cameramen for finding this camera system. It was a 15 month development process to figure out how to take a prototype system and integrate it into an $80 million military aircraft and make it capable of withstanding 7g. of force and 35,000 feet of altitude — and it had to be clear for ejection and safe for the pilots… and make it all easy for the actors to use.
Would you talk about shooting the very emotional scene with Val Kilmer?
It’s one of those memories that I’ll never forget, where you have this actor in Val, someone I’ve looked up to throughout his career, and have him play one of his most most iconic characters reunited with one of Tom’s most iconic characters on screen for the first time in 36 years. Just to see how much they respected each other as actors and to see a friendship that has evolved over 36 years. It’s just two actors at the top of their game doing that really great scene for the movie that’s so important. It was just a very emotional day on set. … It’s not often you get to do a scene with so much emotional weight in a summer movie.
What moment of this shoot do you remember the most?
My favorite part of this scene is the button at the end, that sense of competition is always there. Although they’re friends, there’s always this one-upmanship that exists between, I think, all these pilots, and I think also between Tom and Val. I think the competition is what made their relationship in the first movie so electric and real, in that there was a bit of a rivalry as young actors. So just that moment at the end, that hug and that little bit of humor for me, that’s kind of what really makes the scene work.
Unfortunately, Val was diagnosed with throat cancer. I imagine it involved some sort of work on his voice.
Yeah. So for this scene, Val and Tom performed the scene, and then we enhanced Val’s voice by mixing it with another, especially for clarity, more than anything else.
There are many stylistic nods to the original.
There are moments so iconic, stylistically, that really define what makes something look like a Upper gun film. So sure, there are those moments where there’s a subtle stylistic nod, but also the story repeating itself in a way, for example where Maverick, who was one of those students in the first film, is presented as a teacher.
Another nod to the original is the beach soccer scene, reminiscent of the volleyball scene.
When I was prepping the movie, that’s the thing I got asked the most about – will there be a volleyball scene? – which surprised me a bit. So the challenge was, if we’re going to do a beach scene, we have to fit it into the telling of our story. We’re not just going to make one to do that. Our writing team found a clever way to incorporate this scene into Maverick’s line-up. There’s a reason – this notion of dogfighting football attacking and defending at the same time is a nice foreshadowing of what we’re about to see in the third act.
Once it was clear that we could move the story forward and continue the narrative, it was just a matter of having fun and being able to shoot a beach scene for Upper gun and make it the best possible version. Obviously, we have to give a lot of credit to our cast who worked very hard to prepare for this scene.
Could you tell us more about the collaboration with the Navy?
We couldn’t have made this film without this collaboration. The first thing I did after meeting Tom and Jerry [Bruckheimer] and the launch of the project was about going to the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier and integrating with those men and women there and starting to figure out how to tell that story. The navy was really helpful in setting up the whole mission.
They were involved in the design, the ideas and the execution. They were Top Gun pilots flying our actors and these planes doing real-world tactics. They gave us access to all their bases, including some places so secret no one has ever seen them on camera. It was a really, really amazing collaboration with them. I was so impressed with their professionalism, dedication and skill every step of the way.
Would you talk about a collaboration with Tom Cruise?
This is my second film with Tom. He’s not just an actor in your film. Obviously, he’s a producer on that, but it’s really a partnership. He’s involved in all aspects of filmmaking, and that collaboration is what he really thrives on and enjoys. For me, it’s just great to have someone who is so driven and has made 50 films, many of them with my heroes in terms of other directors. There is always something to learn from him. And he just has this energy that is contagious. Everyone on the team feeds off of that and everyone is inspired to do their best, which we obviously do anyway, but you know, that being Upper gun, we all knew the bar was high and we just wanted to do something really special. You can see that there is a lot of care taken in every department of this movie to deliver the best movie possible.
For the complete conversation, the Behind the screen episode follows, below.