THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Top Gun
Reassessing “Top Gun” in the Age of Coronavirus
To celebrate the release of “Top Gun: Maverick,” let’s take a look at how pandemic production safety would affect the 36-year-old original. Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Tony Scott, “Top Gun” was released on May 16th 1986 and quickly became the highest-grossing movie of the year. To date, the worldwide box office total for “Top Gun” is $356,830,601.
This movie sent Tom Cruise to the top of the A-list, and he hasn’t left it since. It also stars Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, and Michael Ironside, with early-career turns from Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan.
“Top Gun” is number 455 on Empire Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. It won an Oscar for best song (Take My Breath Away by Berlin). Its iconic line “I feel the need…the need for speed” ranks at number 94 on AFI’s list of the 100 best movie quotes.
The cultural impact of this movie is immense. It led to a massive increase in Navy recruitment, a 40% jump in the sale of bomber jackets and aviator sunglasses, and an incalculable increase in shirtless volleyball. This movie has saturated military aviation culture so thoroughly that nearly every fighter squadron in the military, along with both the Air Force and Navy Fighter Weapons Schools, give out fines for quoting this movie.
Lines like — “Where’d who go,” “Because I was inverted,” “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash,” “That’s right…I am dangerous,” “Hit the breaks and he’ll fly right by,” “Take me to bed or lose me forever,” “Negative ghost rider the pattern is full,” “Watch the birdie,” “Flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog$hit outta Hong Kong,” and “You can be my wingman anytime.” — will cost you a couple hundred dollars at your friendly neighborhood fighter squadron.
While “Top Gun” has many memorable scenes, few are as iconic as the first meeting between Kelly McGillis’s Charlie and Tom Cruise’s Maverick.
In this article, we take a closer look at this hilarious and often-imitated scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into three sections:
- The Danger Zone: Elements that are COVID-19 risks
- Evasive Maneuvers: Tweaks to increase safety
- Post-Flight Debrief: Final thoughts
Last time, we considered a pretty safe scene to identify what issues low-risk scenes add to a pandemic production. This week, we wanted to examine a high-risk scene. From a COVID-19 safety perspective, this scene from “Top Gun” is about as dangerous as you can get.
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the cheesiest (yet iconic) pick-up scenes in film history. Let’s see how risky things get when “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
The Danger Zone: Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
We usually begin by highlighting aspects of a scene that are COVID-19 safe. Well, this time, there aren’t any. When Tony Scott shot this scene in the summer of 1985, he didn’t have to worry about pandemic safety on set. And it’s a good thing because this scene is an outbreak waiting to happen. The entire scene is high-risk, so let’s look at why.
While there are myriad pandemic safety issues with this scene, we want to highlight three:
- Cast Size
- Cast Spacing
As we have said repeatedly in this series, one of the safest ways to shoot any scene during a pandemic is to minimize the number of characters in it. This scene does the exact opposite. With only a few exceptions, every major speaking character is in this scene. On top of that, the room is crowded with extras.
When productions plan large scenes like this one, they often forget that a large group of in-camera people requires an even larger group of behind-camera folks. So, in addition to all the people captured on film, there are several dozens the audience can’t see.
Crowds also require additional corralling space, additional production assistants, and additional attention. Even in a non-pandemic world, large scenes like this are hard to shoot. In a pandemic, they become practically impossible.
Social distancing should be practiced on set—both during takes and between takes—as often as possible. When blocking scenes, we should find ways to keep cast members at least six feet apart if we can. We must also try to space crew members six feet apart from each other and six feet away from cast members.
If this seems like a lot of extra work, well, that’s because it is. But right now, pandemic safety must be our number one priority. Newer variants and sub-variants spread far more easily that previous version of COVID-19. In a pandemic, the consequences of lax on-set safety are not confined to the set; they can, and will, spread far beyond our productions.
In this scene from “Top Gun,” actors are practically on top of one another. Not only are they close, but they are also singing, cheering, and yelling. This maximizes the spread of COVID-19 droplets.
When it comes to COVID-19 safety, the worst place you can be is indoors. The coronavirus spreads far more easily in areas with poor ventilation, with large groups of people in close proximity, who are cheering, singing, and yelling. This scene has every single red flag.
Keeping the cast and crew safe is vital to keeping productions on schedule and on budget. We advise all our clients to minimize the number of indoor scenes as much as possible. The risks of indoor shooting are far higher than shooting outdoors. For more information about choosing locations during a pandemic, please see our article on location scouting.
This scene at the Miramar Officer’s Club from “Top Gun” can easily be made much safer. Let’s look at some ways to do just that.
Evasive Maneuvers: Tweaks to Increase Safety
Our COVID-19 certified risk managers would be sure to highlight this scene during pre-production and ask some strategic questions to help the production maintain proper safety practices. To decrease the dangers in this scene, let’s review the elements that make it high-risk and adjust for safety.
- Cast size: Is it necessary for so many Top Gun pilots to be singing the song? Could we keep it between Maverick, Goose, and Charlie?
- Cast spacing: If we need all the pilots in the shot, can we at least have them farther away from our three principles? Even if we cut down on the size, would it be possible to have Maverick, Goose, and Charlie farther apart from each other as well?
- Location: Can we set this scene outside? We have so many potential opportunities to increase production values on a military base in beautiful southern California. Could we maximize the visuals and maximize safety at the same time? This was already done on several of the briefing scenes, so why not do it here as well? (Insider Tip: pilots do not attend classes at locations like this.)
Regardless of how successful our risk managers might be in getting the production to modify the scene, we would also be sure to mandate that cast and crew wear multiple layers of PPE and that social distancing be practiced on set. We would also, as always, make sure that there is a proper ventilation system in place at this location.
The most important thing we would suggest is that this scene is shot last. “Top Gun” is a movie with few large scenes. Quite a bit of the film involves two guys in the cockpit of F-14 Tomcats. This is the largest scene in the movie and, therefore, has the highest chance of transmission.
As we discussed in our article on shooting schedules, we highly recommend moving complex, high-risk scenes like this to the end of the schedule. This way, if there is an outbreak as a result, we can minimize its effects on the production as a whole.
It is possible to shoot this scene outdoors with fewer people and with greater distances between them without significantly impacting the fun, ballsy nature of it.
Post-Flight Debrief: Final Thoughts
“Top Gun” is one of the most popular movies ever made and the movie that made Tom Cruise a bona fide star. Thirty-six years after its release, it remains a cultural touchstone; simultaneously a time capsule of Regan-era 80’s America and an evergreen action movie with unforgettable scenes and endlessly quotable dialog.
When we look at “Top Gun” through the COVID lens, we see that it is not without its own high-risk maneuvers. A large, indoor singing scene is about as dangerous as a pandemic scene can get. If we minimize the cast in a scene and increase the spacing, however, we can make it a lot safer.
To maximize safety, though, we would need to move it outside. In a movie like “Top Gun”—with so many interesting and beautiful outdoor locations—shooting outside would not only increase safety, it would also increase our production values.
As risk managers who focus on production safety, we would be remiss if we didn’t include one final note: if you watch the film’s closing credits, you’ll see the statement, “This film is dedicated to Art Scholl.”
Art Scholl was a legendary aerobatic stunt pilot who died while filming the flat spin over the ocean in “Top Gun.” His last radio transmission was, “I have a problem…I have a real problem.” The wreckage was never found, and his body was never recovered. This is why “Top Gun” is dedicated to him.
Please join us next time when we look through the COVID lens at “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
UPDATE: This article was updated on May 23, 2022
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.