Galloway on Film: As 'Top Gun' Turns 30, Jerry Bruckheimer Reveals Secrets of the Film's (and His Own) Success

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Jerry Bruckheimer

Having dominated film in the 1980s and 1990s and TV in the 2000s, Bruckheimer perseveres as the last of Hollywood's mega-producers.

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1986, Paramount Pictures opened a high-octane action movie starring a 23-year-old newcomer with only a handful of movies to his credit, none of them a giant hit. It was a war movie without a war, a glorification of the military at a time when the armed forces were still reeling from the social clobbering they had received during and after the Vietnam War.

That film — about a group of competing fighter pilots in training — proved a sensation. It was No. 1 for the year and earned a massive $357 million worldwide ($783 million in today’s dollars). Even now there’s talk of a sequel, though beyond a couple of meetings nothing has been set in stone.

Top Gun didn’t simply prove a powerful recruitment weapon for future pilots, nor did it merely propel its star, Tom Cruise, to an almost unimaginable height of celebrity; it also helped turn its producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, into superstars whose image was as carefully honed as that of their lead players and who put their stamp not just on a particular kind of sleek, glossy filmmaking, but on a whole era.

The two began to drive identical cars, wear matching clothes and operate out of one office on either side of imposing desks — though it was hard to imagine more different men. Simpson was as flamboyant as Bruckheimer was restrained. Simpson was a high-liver whose career eventually crashed under the influence of various narcotics, while Bruckheimer was so soft-spoken he would not have been out of place in a Buddhist monastery.

They had already made a splash with 1983’s Flashdance, and they would sandwich Top Gun in between such epoch-defining pictures as the first Beverly Hills Cop movie, 1995’s Bad Boys and Crimson Tide, 1996’s The Rock and 1997’s Con Air (the latter two released after Simpson’s death in January 1996). Those movies may not have been to everyone’s taste, but they stamped their times.

Simpson and Bruckheimer weren’t just producers. They were mega-producers.

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It was hard not to think of Bruckheimer’s achievements earlier this month, when it was announced that he and Warner Bros. TV were parting ways and would not renew their production pact when it expires at the end of 2016.

For years, the producer has been even more influential in TV than in the movies, responsible for the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise and The Amazing Race. If the 1980s and 1990s were his definitive days in film (which is not to overlook his Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or movies such as 2001’s Black Hawk Down), the 2000s were the period in which he dominated television.

Bruckheimer’s shows were not as profound as, say, Mad Men or Breaking Bad; but you could argue that even those series would never have been possible without him. He showed us that television could be as stylish and well-made as the movies; that there was no need for second-tier technicians or clunky camerawork. He elevated TV, certainly in terms of its style, if not its content.

He contributed to a blurring of the lines between the two media that brought down the barriers that had kept them separate and unequal for decades.

Despite Bruckheimer’s fame and accomplishments, people have often underestimated him, partly because his personality is so low-key (“I don’t talk much,” he admits), but even more because his work is more commercial than artistic. He has reaped billions at the box office; but the Pirates franchise is a money-maker rather than a critical favorite, and aside from Amazing Race, his shows have tended not to win Emmys.

I was guilty of underestimating him myself and have come to regret it: I remember writing Simpson’s obituary following his shocking death in 1996 — one of those events that everyone who was around at the time remembers, when his heart gave out after years of excess — and arguing that he was the creative partner, while Bruckheimer was the organizing force. Twenty years of watching Bruckheimer succeed on his own have proved me wrong.

But it’s inarguable that the severed Warners deal showed he is no longer quite the essential player that he has been for so many years. (His movie deal at Paramount continues through April 2017.)

And here’s the rub: nor is any producer today.

The towering figures that dominated movies in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s — the Scott Rudins and Brian Grazers, the 800-pound gorillas who could give Harvey Weinstein a run for his money — have lost much of their clout, edged aside by the studios that increasingly have asserted their hegemony, that depend on brands rather than the kind of individuals who come up with ideas and know how to execute them.

These men who could make executives quail and whose names connoted a certain kind of material have been pushed back on their heels. They still create an enormous amount of product but no longer cast the long shadows they once did.

The era of the mega-producer is over.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

***

Sitting in Bruckheimer’s Santa Monica office one afternoon late last month, I’m overwhelmed by its size. It isn’t just big, it’s enormous.

The producer is on a chair angled between a small table that holds his computer and a vast wooden one that he uses for meetings. It’s the height of efficiency: he doesn’t need to go to a conference room; the conference comes to him. Everything here in the big warehouse he has converted to offices is simple, modern and unflashy — rather like Bruckheimer himself.

His only adherence to the past can be seen in the rows of fountain pens he keeps lined up in a container close by him. Some people collect Ferraris, some watches; but Bruckheimer’s fondness for these objects speaks of an affection for history and tradition that you’d never know from his movies.

He remembers how he first got the idea for Top Gun.

“I saw the cover of California magazine and these jets that were inverted, and I said, ‘This is really cool,’ ” he recalls. “I was like, ‘God, what a great idea.’ I threw the magazine on Don’s desk. I said, ‘This is something we should do.’ He looks at it and speed-reads it and calls a woman who was working for us and says, ‘Get in here and get the rights to this.’ ”

The duo pitched it to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was then heading production at Paramount under Michael Eisner and Barry Diller.

“He loved it,” says Bruckheimer. “In fact, it was Jeffrey’s idea to hire Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., who were the two writers. They wrote the first draft. We got very excited about it.”

While Paramount sounded out other directors (David Cronenberg, John Carpenter), Simpson and Bruckheimer went ahead and hired Tony Scott, whom they had met on a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon that Katzenberg had organized, but who had only made one feature, 1983’s The Hunger.

“There was a group of maybe 12 guys,” says Bruckheimer, “and Tony was the most adventurous, fun-loving. One night, we’re at a campfire and the sun is going down, and Don and I look up and there’s this crazy guy climbing a wall — he must have been 30 feet up — with his hands, no ropes, nothing.”

Scott boarded Top Gun, but Katzenberg would soon move on, following Eisner to Disney in 1984 in one of the great upheavals of the business. That was the year when Diller also left Paramount to run Fox.

Ned Tanen was brought in as Paramount’s production chief.

“We go up to Ned’s house in Beverly Hills,” says Bruckheimer. “It’s night. We sit down and Ned says, ‘I got nothing. The [Paramount] cupboard is bare here. I got nothing I can make. Whaddya have?’ We said, ‘We have this thing, Top Gun.’ He turns to Tony and says, ‘Tell me the story.’ Tony had just come in from London. He’s playing with Ned’s dog and he just zones out — he wasn’t a verbal guy to begin with — so he couldn’t tell it. Don jumps in and tells the story. Then he finishes, and Ned turns to me and says, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ I said, ‘$14 [million].’ He says, ‘Go make it.’ He was so decisive. He had balls.”

Bruckheimer didn’t have a star but was eager to land Cruise, who had proved his appeal with 1983’s Risky Business. “We sent it to him right away,” he recalls. “But he kept stringing it out. He said, ‘I’m interested. I like it.’ But he wouldn’t commit.”

Cruise did agree, however, to meet with Scott and the producers. “He came into the office and Tony showed him this [photography] book that Bruce Weber had done on Americana and these great-looking guys,” says Bruckheimer. “We leafed through the book and Tony said, ‘This is what I want you to look like’ — all these guys in white T-shirts, all handsome. Tony was excited and Tom got excited. That’s when I set him up with the Blue Angels.”

The Blue Angels were the U.S. Navy’s famed flight squadron, and Bruckheimer used one of his military connections to get Cruise up in a fighter jet.

“He’d just gotten off Legend [directed by Tony’s brother, Ridley] and he still had a ponytail and long hair. He goes to San Diego on a motorcycle [to the Miramar Corps Air Station]. These guys look at him and say, ‘This hippie, we’re going to give him the ride of his life,’ not knowing what Tom is like, because he’s a thrill seeker. So they take him up and do 3Gs, flip him, turn him — and Tom, his eyes are rolling and he’s throwing up, but he’s loving it. He said, ‘This is the greatest thing ever!’ He lands and walks over to a phone booth — because there were no cell phones other than the ones in cars then — and he calls me and says, ‘I’m doing it. I’m in.’ ”

As pre-production got underway, Bruckheimer juggled the realities of making a movie with the support of a Pentagon that was suspicious of Hollywood. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) had used language that didn’t go down well, and it was only a few years since The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both from 1978) had presented controversial and in many ways critical depictions of the military. Pentagon insiders were dubious.

“This guy John Horton, who was our adviser, got us into the Pentagon,” says Bruckheimer. “Their head of public affairs turned it down and said they didn’t want to do it. So John got deeper into the Pentagon and it eventually got to John Lehman, who was Secretary of the Navy. And we went to Washington — Tom, Don, myself and I think Tony — and spent time with John Lehman. And he said, ‘This is good for us. Here is my home number. If you get caught up in any of the bureaucracy here, call me.’ ”

Bruckheimer never had to, because once Lehman had approved the project, all doors were open and the crew was allowed to shoot even at the Miramar naval base.

It was during filming that Bruckheimer discovered some of the realities of working with the military.

At one point, after the production was given permission to shoot on an aircraft carrier, Scott got frustrated when the ship sailed the wrong way. “The carrier was cruising in the wrong direction for Tony,” says Bruckheimer. “He wanted to have it back-lit and it was front-lit, and the sun was going down. So he went to the admiral on the ship and said, ‘You’ve got to turn the carrier.’ The admiral said, ‘No. It’s too expensive.’ It was about $15,000 just to do that, and Paramount wouldn’t approve it. So Tony wrote him a check, right there.”

The check bounced.

The only incident to mar the shoot (apart from Simpson’s occasional forays into drugs — he once came on set and crashed his car while parking) came right toward the end, when a stunt man was flying the F4s in the film and crashed in the ocean.

“He was on his last run of the day,” says Bruckheimer. “They told him to come in, and he said, ‘Let me do one more run.’ We never heard from him again.”

Top Gun

***

Bruckheimer has lost both Simpson and Scott since then.

He parted ways professionally with Simpson shortly before the latter’s death at age 52, but they remained close. “He was a fun guy,” he says. “He was a friend. When you lose a friend, it’s painful. I’m sure you've lost friends in your life, so you know what it’s like. There’s an emptiness there.”

Scott’s 2012 suicide at age 68 shook him, too. “[It was] brutal,” he says. “I mean, he loved life so much, even though he was always on the edge. I wasn’t aware [that he suffered from depression], to be honest with you. But I think that’s what it was.”

And yet somehow Bruckheimer survives and prospers, his joy in the process unfettered and infectious even at age 72.

Sitting with him in his office, a quarter-century after we first met, it’s hard not to admire the strength that has carried him so far and still keeps him going. Producers may be in a down cycle, but not him. Once upon a time, he may have seemed simply a master of commerce; but now the films he has made stand out as emblems of their era.

“To those of tender sensibilities he is the devil incarnate, the man who helped destroy the movies, and an architect of our cultural stupidisation,” The Guardian wrote in 2000.

But that ignores the full truth: Bruckheimer shaped his time, and his pictures — like objects in a time capsule that is still being filled — remain one of the best representations of it.

He asks me to come closer so that he can show me the pilot for a new series he’s been making, Training Day, starring Bill Paxton and based on the 2001 film.

As he watches it, his eyes light up. He doesn’t ever want it to end.

“Isn’t it great?” he asks.

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