It’s 35 years since Tom Cruise and cast shot Top Gun — in California, Nevada and other parts of the U.S. In the 2020 sequel to the late Tony Scott’s movie milestone, California again features as a key location.
Tom Cruise is Captain Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick
The United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (SFTI program), more popularly known as Top Gun, teaches fighter and strike tactics and techniques to selected naval aviators and naval flight officers, who in turn become instructors in these crucial skills.
The 1986 Top Gun movie was based on a real flight school called the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, formerly based at the Miramar Naval Air Station, founded in San Diego in 1969. In 1996, the school merged with the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.
In the movie, navy pilot Pete Mitchell, code-named Maverick and played by Tom Cruise, is sent to Miramar for advanced training. Here he establishes a rivalry with Tom Kazansky (Val Kilmer) for the coveted Top Gun award, at the same time dating civilian consultant Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis). Shaken up by the death of his close friend, Radar Intercept Officer Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka ‘Goose’, Mitchell loses the Top Gun honor to Kazansky. Fearing he may have lost his nerve, Mitchell is given the chance to become a hero during a tense international crisis involving a crippled US vessel and a squadron of enemy planes.
The movie brought 250 cast and crew to San Diego for six weeks, helping boost filming activity there by 40%
As a reward for his heroism, Maverick is given free rein to pick his next assignment: he chooses to be an instructor at Miramar.
In Top Gun: Maverick, almost 35 years have passed and Pete Mitchell is where he belongs, pushing himself to the edge as a test pilot and avoiding the promotion that would confine him to the ground.
When he finds himself training a detachment of Top Gun graduates for a specialized mission, Mitchell comes across Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), aka Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late friend Goose. While confronting his past, he finds himself set to embark on a mission that will demand the ultimate sacrifice from those chosen to fly it.
As with the 1986 original, California plays a key role in the movie, with locations including San Diego, South Lake Tahoe, Los Angeles and the Naval Air Station Lemoore, in Kings County. The movie brought 250 cast and crew to San Diego for six weeks, helping boost filming activity there by 40% year on year.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer describes it as “a competition film, about family and friendship and sacrifice — a love letter to aviation” showing us “what it’s really like to be a Top Gun pilot”.
Cruise is known for his insistence on doing as many of his own stunts as possible for the sake of authenticity. And as a producer on the film as well as its lead actor, he worked closely with director Joseph Kosinski to ensure the extraordinary flying scenes were as real as possible. “You just can’t create this kind of experience unless you shoot it live,” Cruise says. “In order for us to accomplish this we have the greatest fighter pilots in the world with us.” And he insists the effects on pilots and crew from this kind of flying cannot be faked. “It is aggressive,” he says. “You can’t act that, the distortion in the face. They’re pulling 7.5/8gs, that’s 1,600 pounds of force. I’m so proud of them and what they’ve done. It is heavy-duty.”
Monica Barbaro as Phoenix and Tom Cruise as Pete Mitchell, on the set of Top Gun: Maverick
Kosinski worked with brand-new technology that allowed him to put six IMAX-quality cameras inside the cockpit with the actors. “Flying one of these fighter jets is an absolute thrill ride,” Kosinski says. “We wanted to make sure that the audience has the same experience.”
Miles Teller who plays Rooster adds: “Putting us up in these jets, it’s very serious, that’s why everybody thought it would be impossible. And I think that when Tom hears that something’s impossible or can’t be done, that’s when he gets to work.”
“It’s amazing what we see in the cockpit,” Bruckheimer says, adding: “An aviation film like this has never been done and the chances are it will never be done again.”
SHOOTING IN EL DORADO COUNTY
THE JURISDICTION of the El Dorado Lake Tahoe Media Office stretches from the Sacramento county line up to the Nevada state line — with low river canyons right up to dramatic snow-topped mountains. Movies, TV series, and commercials have all shot here but the big blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick don’t show up that often.
But when they do, “we’re prepared for it”, film commissioner Kathleen Dodge says. Big titles hosted here include Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, City of Angels, Memoirs of a Giesha, The Horse Whisperer, Almost Famous and The Bodyguard. “The big movies give us far more than the immediate economic impact,” Dodge says. “They build our cultural history. People come to visit because of that, and it gives our community a sense of pride.” The commission works with local communities to help them see the benefits of welcoming productions to the area. “And the big studios, they do want to give back,” she says. “We usually do something with them. For example after Modern Family shot here they did a charity event with us for the homeless. The benefits of filming, to us, are endless. It’s not just about the numbers.”