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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Epps Jr.’

”During another period, [screenwriter Jim Cash] lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., working in a factory and writing all night.”
—Myrna Oliver, NY Times
(Cash was the co-screenwriter of Top Gun)

Tom Cruise and I both graduated from high school in 1980 —and that’s pretty much where the comparison stops. But I only mention that just to show how mind-boggling his rise to Hollywood success was. Just a year out of high school he had a bit part in Taps (1981), followed by a bigger role in The Outsiders, and as the main protagonist in All the Right Moves (both in 1983), and then slid into stardom with Risky Business (1983).

But wait, there’s more! Just six years out of high school he stared in Top Gun, which was not only the top office movie of 1986, but became one of those rare enduring movies that becomes part of the American fabric. (And he finished out the decade with two of the finest performances of his career with Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. He had a full career even before his 10 year high school reunion.)

And while many of the cultural icons of 1980s have faded, crashed, or had tragic ends, here we are in 2022 with a Tom Cruise movie set to be not just the top movie of the weekend, but the top box office movie of his career. In fact, when just this Memorial Day weekend is over for Top Gun: Maverick it will be close to making what the original Top Gun made in total domestically.

I haven’t seen Top Gun (1986) since I completed my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (or maybe even since I started this blog in 2008). But since I plan on seeing Top Gun: Maverick this today I thought it would be fun this morning to revisit the original written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and run it through the first four four aspects of the Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles filter. (I should mention Epps met Jim Cash at Michigan St. where Cash was a professor until he died in 2000. They collaborated via modem (in the days before the internet) with Epps in L.A. and Cash was working on the Top Gun script in East Lansing, MIchigan. Unlikely places….)

CONFLICT: Top Gun is full of conflict from the opening scene. The movie came out during the Cold War ear—just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political tension between the US and Russia was worse then than it even is today. When Tom Cruise was growing up, he and all his classmates (and everyone else has age) did not know a time when nuclear war with Russia wasn’t a real threat. The launch of Sputnik by Russia in 1957 was called the shot heard around the world because of what in symbolized. Though the movie nods to a potential global crisis with an unnamed enemy. (More evergreen and better attracting a worldwide box office I imagine.) Maverick’s conflicts extend to various commanders and supervisors, a love interest, and fellow top gunners, And the movie tosses in some daddy issues for Maverick as well. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

CONCEPT: The origins of Top Gun was an article about this elite jet fighter pilot training program at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Hollywood has along history of making movies centered around airplanes for years, including Wings which was the first best picture Oscar Award winner back in 1929. The concept was that great combination of familiar, yet fresh.

CHARACTERS: The cocky Maverick who has trouble following orders, his comic sidekick Goose, the confident Ice, Charlie (the female instructor and love interest), and the stern Viper may not be the most three dimensional characters, but it’s a action-oriented movie, not an Eugene O’Neill play. The characters have great names and are engaging to watch. But audiences really showed up for that Tom Cruise smile (and sunglasses) and the cool air footage. I’m trying to avoid reading or hearing about Top Gun: Maverick, but what I do know is the aerial footage is worth the price of admission alone.

CATALYST: The skipper around the 15 minute mark has Maverick and Goose in his office and is partly thanking them for saving two lives (and an expensive plane) on a test mission gone wrong, but to also blasts Maverick for his dangerous buzzing the tower stunt.

”Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot—maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I got another problem here. I got to send someone from this squadron to Mirimar. I got to do something here I still—I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot. I’m going to send you up against the best. You two characters are are going to top gun. For five weeks you’re going to fly against the best fighter pilots in the world. You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it. Turned in his wings. You guys are number one. But you remember one thing, you screw up just this much [nods to his stubby cigar] you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.”

Without that scene you don’t have a movie. At least not one with Maverick and Goose going to top gun school. And in that expo dump is the catalyst/inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

For a 2022 high school graduate, parts of the original Top Gun might feel like watching a Wham! concert, but I think it holds up well. There are themes, motifs, and situations at play in Top Gun that are universal to the human spirit no matter the era. One of the things I love about movies is you can be put into a dramatic situation in space in the distant future, or be on a cattle drive in the distant past. For what it’s worth, my five month old puppy enjoyed watching Top Gun with me this morning— and I think she had a moment with Tom Cruise.

Totally unposed photo of my dog watching “Top Gun” this morning (That candle holder was part of a wine barrel that I brought back from a video shoot I did in South Africa about 15 years ago.)

P.S. Another thing that Top Gun (1986) did was change the perception of the military. Many of those raised in the ’60s and ’70s were jaded by Vietnam War. When it ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon there was a solid decade where young people were not flocking to join the military. (Keep in mind there was a military draft in the U.S. from 1964 and 1973.) The PR problem was so bad that in general Hollywood avoided producing many military movies.

And those that did get produced did not put the military in a favorable light. Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) come to mind. But if you ever doubt the impact movies can have, Top Gun could be case study #1. The movie changed the perception of the military and made being a jet pilot cooler than being a rock star. Enlistment exploded.

“According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release.”
—Cathal Gunning, Screenrant

Heck, I’m still dreaming about getting on an air craft carrier just to see a plane land on a ship at sea.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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