Epps says that doing the research on the ground and in the air was key, with the writer going through some of the same training that the pilots had to undertake. That included having to swim with a heavy pack out of a simulated helicopter crash in the water, and of course going up in the air with the pilots. But Epps, who also interviewed around 25 pilots and Radar Intercept Officers (RIOs) to learn their personal stories, says that the one thing he didn’t get to do was fly in an actual F-14 Tomcat.
“At that time, the F-14 was classified, so I couldn’t even look in the cockpit,” he explains. “So I flew in what they call their aggressor squadron plane, which is an F-5F, and that was an amazing experience. Flying in a Navy jet is like nothing else. You’re off the ground and up there at 10,000 feet in 10 seconds. We went with pilots named Boomer and Hollywood, and they said, ‘We’re not supposed to do this,’ but then they did a bunch of close passes and rollovers and dogfighting while pulling six, seven, eight G’s, gravitational force, which was amazing. We had a blast.”
Epps adds that his experience of flying with the pilots changed his conception of what Top Gun was actually about.
Says the writer, “I called my partner and said, ‘Jim, this is not the movie we thought it was.’ This is a sports movie. These guys are amazing, top-level athletes because you have to be in great shape to withstand all those pressures and to be able to control that. So that became sort of our metaphor—as both of us were athletes in high school and I was in college a little bit—through which we could find our way into the movie to help us personally relate to what they were doing.”
From the start, Epps maintains that he and Cash had Cruise, who was already on his path to stardom at the time thanks to the success of 1983’s Risky Business, in mind for the role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
“I basically dropped the script off to Jerry Bruckheimer and I said, ‘Think Tom Cruise when you read this,’ because we wrote it for Tom,” says Epps. “Tom was in our mind as the perfect young American pilot. He was ascendant in his career, and because Maverick is a bit of a jerk, you need a guy who you’re really going to like even though he’s not acting in his best interest. So two days later, I get a call from Don Simpson, and he said, ‘I will kill to get this movie made.’”