‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Director Joseph Kosinski Says Sequel’s Success Was Far From a Sure Thing

TheWrapMagazine: “People come up to me, not just to tell me that they saw the movie, but to brag about how many times they saw the movie,” Kosinski said

top gun maverick

This story about “Top Gun: Maverick” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

When it comes to movies released in 2022, one film has dominated the conversation, gripping the cultural zeitgeist with fervor and tenacity. That film, of course, is “Top Gun: Maverick.” Looking back, it seems as if it was always destined to be a breakout smash and a critical and commercial darling not only for its many technical merits but for its artistic triumphs too. But it wasn’t always so clear.

This is, after all, a sequel to a Tom Cruise vehicle from a whopping 36 years ago and one that saw its release date constantly shift because of the ongoing pandemic. When it opened in May, it became the No. 1 movie in the country. This was expected. What was less expected was the fact that it would stay in the Top 10 for 20 more weeks and become the fifth-highest-grossing domestic release of all time.

While it might be hyperbolic to say that “Top Gun: Maverick” saved the act of going to a theater, that’s also not far off. As a moviegoing experience, it was evangelized, particularly if the discussion turned to large-format screens or something like ScreenX (where the interior walls of the theater included new footage, creating an immersive wraparound image). People saw the movie multiple times and dragged friends and family members who hadn’t seen it. It was a true phenomenon.

Not that director Joseph Kosinski, whose stylish compositions and insistence on capturing much of the aerial footage for real gave the movie both its emotional and artistic heft, has had much time to bask in the success. (He’s readying a new movie with Brad Pitt for Apple.) “It’s been interesting because people come up to me, not just to tell me that they saw the movie, but to brag about how many times they saw the movie,” Kosinski said. On a flight from Paris last week, he got a handwritten note from the plane’s pilot telling him that he “wasn’t going to do anything crazy like in the movie.” “That’s interesting to get a handwritten note from the pilot halfway across the Atlantic,” Kosinski said.

When it comes to the most times somebody has seen the movie, a flight attendant on a different flight told the director that her son had her take him 12 times. “That’s the highest I’ve heard,” Kosinski said. It does feel fitting that all of these encounters took place in the air.

As to whether “Top Gun: Maverick” singlehandedly saved movie theaters, Kosinski demurred. “I think that’s overstating it,” he said. “I think there were a lot of big movies this year, and hopefully next year the output will increase even more so that theaters can continue theirrecovery from basically beingshut down for two years.”

Kosinski was hard-pressed to describe the single biggest challenge of making “Maverick,” a notoriously difficult shoot that saw many of the actors serving as their own directors, cinematographers and scene partners while up in the jets. “It’s hard to pick just one thing,” Kosinski said. “On any film, the hardest thing is getting the script and telling the story you want to tell and making sure the scenes are doing that, doing the job of propelling the story forward, but also emotionally investing you in the characters.”

But the aerial sequences still took the cake. “They were just a marathon of planning, more than a year of prep and planning how to get these cameras inside and on the outsides of the airplanes, working closely with the Navy to choreograph all of the sequences. I think I did 3,500 storyboards for this film. The amount of planning was massive.”

He describes one sequence that was unbelievably challenging, even though it felt almost lightweight compared to the other, more grandiose action sequences: the moment when Penny (Jennifer Connelly) takes Maverick out on her boat. “That sequence was in some ways the hardest to get because it was largely out of our control,” Kosinski said. “We’re relying on wind to make the sequence great, and we had to go find wind.” He said that they shot it three separate times in order to get the version that was in the movie.

“I think the audience feels that effort when they see the film,” Kosinski said. “That’s why I think people respond to it, because it wasn’t shot on stage. It was a movie where we went out there and tried to capture as much as we could for real. And you can feel that when you’re watching it.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Jeff Vespa for TheWrap