As evidenced by the fact that Paramount made a sequel more than 30 years later, Top Gun remains one of the 1980s most popular and iconic movies. These days it is remembered as this watershed film for Hollywood. It was the breakthrough role for Tom Cruise, the first big hit for director Tony Scott, and the production that cemented Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson as major hitmakers. It’s easy to forget all these years later that the movie was not a sure thing, and that it very nearly didn’t happen several different times, and for several different reasons.
At first, Paramount didn’t even want to produce the original Top Gun screenplay written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps. Jr. The project was put into turnaround and basically forgotten for a few years, until there was a change of management at Paramount. A new regime came in and was desperate for new projects. Bruckheimer and Simpson pitched Top Gun to the new boss, Ned Tanen, and he gave them the go ahead.
But Bruckheimer and Simpson still needed a director. The original concept for Top Gun was based on an article Bruckheimer had read in California Magazine about the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School in Southern California. Bruckheimer had been particularly struck by some of the mid-air photographs taken from insight the cockpits of fighter jets. So he and Simpson knew they needed someone who understood jets and could get incredible flying footage to direct the project.
That man wound up being Tony Scott, who eventually garnered a reputation as one of the most stylish directors in Hollywood, but at that time could barely find a job. In the mid-’80s, Scott has only one movie to his credit, a lesbian vampire movie called The Hunger that had been a huge flop in theaters several years earlier. In the 2004 documentary Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun, Scott says he never would have gotten the chance to make Top Gun if not for a commercial he’d shot a few years earlier.
“They were looking for directors who had shot any footage with jets,” Scott said in Danger Zone. “And in my commercial showreel, I had something for Saab. Saab built the cars in Sweden, and they also built the jets, the Viggen. So I had a car racing a jet. And I think I was one of the few directors that actually had shot jets. Based on that, they brought me in to a meeting. And they offered me Top Gun.”
Here is the Saab commercial that got Scott the gig directing Top Gun. It includes shots of a Saab jet soaring over a Saab sports car. There are definitely some stylistic similarities between the two.
Imagine if Scott hadn’t made that commercial. Does Top Gun still get produced? If it does, what does it look like? It certainly doesn’t have that distinctive style that Scott brought to the material. Gone are the auburn skies and incredible dogfight footage. It seems plausible that if enough other pieces — Tom Cruise, the soundtrack — remained in place, Top Gun still might have been a hit without Tony Scott. But it’s impossible to conceive of it being as big as it was — the film was the highest-grossing hit of 1986 — or that decades later, audiences would still be clamoring for the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which opens in theaters on May 27.
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