The Need for Speed
The Locations of TOPGUN:MAVERICK
Tom Cruise is back with his megawatt smile in TOPGUN:MAVERICK—
doing what he does best: flying fast and pulling Gs.
SLM Mike Fantasia/LMGI also pushes the envelope to help make it happen…
by Shaun O’Banion
Photos by Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures
When Top Gun opened on May 16, 1986, the film became an instant global hit. Made for just $15 million, it grossed more than $357 million worldwide, made Tom Cruise a star, won an Oscar for Best Original Song with Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” and increased enlistment in the Navy by a storied 500%.
With that kind of success, you’d think that everyone involved would have tried to make a sequel right away—but it would be 36 years before audiences would once again get to climb back into the cockpit with Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
We catch up with the now Capt. Maverick as a test pilot dodging the advancement in rank that would ground him. Called back to TOPGUN to train a detachment of recent grads for a specialized mission the likes of which no living pilot has ever seen, he meets Lt. Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), call sign: Rooster, the son of Maverick’s late friend and RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) Lt. Nick Bradshaw, aka Goose. Confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick faces his deepest fears as he accepts a mission that will demand the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.
The movie is an impressive achievement on its own, but as a sequel to a nearly 40-year-old film, it has no business being as good as it is. Originally set for release on July 12, 2019, the film flew into cinemas across the globe on May 27, 2022 and grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide at the time of this writing, shattering records and becoming Cruise’s first film to debut with more than $100 million at the box office.
For supervising location manager Mike Fantasia (that’s “Fanta-See-Uh” for those who’ve never met or worked with the legendary SLM), working on the film was “without question, the best experience I’ve had in 31 years in this industry.”
“Don’t Think, Just Do”
“It was a Sunday night and I got a text from the UPM LeeAnn Stonebreaker that read, ‘Are you available?’ I knew she was on TGM (TOPGUN:MAVERICK),” Mike recalls. “So I was like, ‘holy shit!’”
LeeAnn asked Mike if he’d come in to meet with director Joseph Kosinski and executive producer Tommy Harper. It was his first time meeting both and it went well. LeeAnn knew it would.
“I had been talking about retiring,” Mike says, “but I told my wife what it was and she was just like, ‘how could you not take the job?’ I mean … I am a huge fan of aviation and military aviation in particular. My father had flown on a B-24 Bomber in WWII.”
“When I first texted Mike,” LeeAnn says, “we weren’t even fully clear on what we were going to be doing or asking to be doing on the film, but I brought Mike in because he’s rock solid, professional and, even though he’s very … passionate and demonstrative, I needed somebody who was cool under pressure and who would have all his ducks in a row.”
LeeAnn, having known Mike for years, did have one request: “I wanted him to cut his ponytail,” she laughs. “I mean, it’s the Navy, so I thought I might be able to convince him.”
She did not. The ponytail remains.
A couple of days later, Mike got the call that he’d been approved by the producers and the studio. Fortunately for the production, working with the Navy wasn’t new for Mike. “I had done some work with them years back on Godzilla in Hawaii and, to be honest, the process hasn’t changed much since then,” he says.
In the film, the team of pilots that Maverick pulls together are called “Daggers,” and Mike knew he’d need some sharp daggers of his own to pull this one off.
“With a project like this, you’ve got to really trust your team,” Mike says. “I’m pretty anal about things. I have a way I do things and expect things to happen and I had a few new people I hadn’t worked with before so it’s always a little disconcerting when you don’t know how someone works, but I’ve gotta say, they really pulled it all together.”
In the beginning, prep was a bit of a moving target. All they knew for sure was that the shoot would be divided into three chunks: aerial, ground and marine work. That was enough for Mike to start pulling his team together.
“A Series of High-Speed Passes…”
He immediately brought on scouts and a couple of KALMs. “One of the first things I did was ask Donny Martino/LMGI to get me maps for the aerial work.” In fact, Mike was eventually given the call sign “Maps” due to his, let’s call it, obsession with them.
The team had to literally cover all of the bases, so they scouted (and eventually shot) them all in addition to using them as launch points for the jets. Naval Air Station North Island (NASNI) in Coronado, California, Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon, in Nevada, which has been home to the TOPGUN program since 1996, NAS Lemoore, in California’s Central Valley, the Naval Air Facility (NAF) in El Centro, California, the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake in Ridgecrest, California, and Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island (near Oak Harbor, Washington) were all called upon to serve this ambitious mission.
Mike also knew they’d need access to an aircraft carrier at sea.
“Things were changing every day,” he says. “I’d be there with the brain trust and then I’d get on the phone or send an email and say, ‘make this work.’ And, amazingly, most of the time my team did. Everybody else does the work, you know? Donny Martino, Nancy Wong/LMGI, Teddy Alvarez/LMGI, George Alvarezzo/LMGI, Mike Reft/LMGI, Mike Louis/LMGI … there are many more. I schedule, budget and look pretty. I think as we went on, the Navy realized we knew what we were doing.”
Nancy Wong went to look at NASNI (which would become one of the production’s primary hubs), along with Mike Louis, George Alvarezzo and Teddy Alvarez. Teddy would also oversee a shoot at California’s Inyokern Airport which would serve as the site of Maverick’s private hangar, as well as work at Lemoor and Whidbey Island.
With NASNI in-process, Nancy and Donny Martino went up to South Lake Tahoe to find a meadow, forest and airfield locations, all of which feature heavily in the third act of the film. Scout Lori Balton went searching for a number of other critical off-base locations, including the home of Maverick’s new love interest, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), which was found in San Pedro, California, and the home of a certain admiral which would initially shoot in Point Loma and subsequently be re-shot at the Wattles House and Gardens in Los Angeles.
“South Lake Tahoe was another great location,” says Nancy. “The community in general and the Parks Office were a pleasure to work with. I loved working there as much as at NASNI!”
The third act of the film features a practical aerial sequence which may be one of the most extraordinary ever put on film. Where the first film frequently relied on model planes for exterior shots and actors sitting in “buck” cockpits in front of rear-projection screens, the mandate for TGM from the very start was that they were going to shoot with the cast in real F-18s and all of the shots of planes whooshing by would be real—even if the plane was just 30 feet off the deck. That’s where Capt. Brian (call sign Ferg) Ferguson comes in.
A 30-year veteran of the Navy, Ferg would represent the military for the film and ultimately become a key ally for Mike and the team—a job he had turned down multiple times.
“My work with Mike and his team wasn’t necessarily one of my, for lack of a better term, ‘mission objectives,’” says Ferg, “the primary of which were safety and protecting the interests of the Navy, its core values and image. But as I moved into the project and began to work with all of the various departments, including the Location Department, I kind of became a jack-of-all-trades and word got around to everyone like, ‘hey, ask Ferg, he’ll know,’ which is almost never true by the way.”
Ferg soon realized that what Mike and the team were dealing with was probably unlike anything they’d dealt with before.
“I’ve sat at length with Mike and talked to him about some of the other films he’s worked on,” says Ferg, “and there are gargantuan, challenging projects on his résumé, but you throw the federal government and a branch of the military into it and then you start talking about shooting on bases where there are classified materials and machinery all over the place, well, Mike and I ended up working very closely and I was convinced by the end that there was no problem Mike couldn’t solve.”
It seems the admiration is mutual. “Ferg, much like a LM, had to walk a tightrope between production and the Navy but he did an amazing job of working with everyone and trying to get us what we needed. The guy is the real deal, man and a consummate naval aviator,” Mike says.
“They’re Called Orders, Maverick”
To shoot the aerial portions of the film, which in the end amounted to some 800 hours of footage, the team utilized MOAs (Military Operating Areas—in other words, areas totally closed off from the public) or other low-level flying corridors that the Navy uses for training. One of those corridors is in the Cascade Mountains.
“To scout, we’d fly all the routes,” says Mike, “with Joe and Tommy looking at the different story points we needed—and then sometimes we’d fly to get a look at the view from a mountaintop.”
Once they had a spot in mind for the aerial work in the Cascades, they’d do another scout by helicopter. “We took two actually because if one went down, we were gonna have a real hard time finding it,” says Mike, “so it was for safety.
“The challenge on these scouts was reorienting yourself,” recalls Mike. “I’m pretty good with a compass. I’m pretty good with a map. But doing stuff from the air? You’re up there and it’s a couple million acres of jagged peaks, covered in snow. You’ve got a route on a map and you’re trying to check the GPS from the pilot’s read-out and not puke while he’s banking so … finding a safe place to do the low-level stuff and then getting permission to shoot there was difficult.”
These scout flights would last for 2½ or three hours and on each one, they’d narrow things down a bit more until they had fairly precise maps for each run. Then Mike and the team would launch into conversation with the Navy and permitting with the different entities and agencies. In the Cascades, for example, there were five: two federal, three state. In Nevada, it was the Bureau of Land Management and state.
“A lot of it was private land too,” Mike says. In one instance, they would need the jets to fly over a resort known for its wealthy clientele coming in and spending a lot of money for a week or weekend of relaxation. Hard to relax with F-18s whizzing over your head.
At another location for the sequence, there’s a moment where the jets fly through a pair of jagged peaks on the ridgeline of a mountain. The jets then invert, go over the ridge and disappear before reappearing and whipping around a corner, mere feet above a river.
“Cruise saw the scout footage and said, ‘OK, I want cameras on each one of those peaks and then I want a camera on the ground in this valley to catch those planes coming down and around the corner,’ and Mike said, ‘you won’t be putting a camera on the ground in that valley. It’s wilderness land.’ Then he quoted the specific statute that said so, like “it’s the Naturalist Land Act of 1936 or whatever, like he knew it by heart,” laughs Ferg.
“Cruise wanted a Technocrane and what I actually said was, ‘Tom. The Wilderness Act signed by Lyndon Johnson on September 3, 1964, Section 4(C), sub-section blah blah blah…’ Well, Cruise just sort of stopped and everyone looked at me,” remembers Mike, “and I remember thinking, ‘I just said no to Tom Cruise. I’m about to get fired,’ but what could I do?”
The problem was ultimately solved when aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II suggested bringing in his helicopter and hovering just above the ground.
Mike clarified this workaround with the Forest Service in the regional office and asked whether they’d be allowed to do it.
“The woman I spoke with said, ‘I don’t like it, but there’s no rule that says you can’t do that, so yeah, I guess … go ahead,’” laughs Mike. “So that 45-second interaction with Cruise was scary, but the shot with the jets coming around that curve, low to the water and going supersonic with the vapor coming off the wings? It’s incredible. And it’s real.”
The Hard Deck Bar
In the first film, Maverick, Goose and the rest of the aviators let off steam at Kansas City Barbeque, a bar in San Diego’s Harbor District that today advertises itself as the “Top Gun Bar.” Maverick would need a bar as well but when Harper, production designer Jeremy Hindle and the film’s director went to look at Kansas City Barbeque early in the development of the film, it was clear that it wouldn’t work. For one thing, it was connected to the Maverick/Charlie storyline which would not be a part of the new film, but a bigger factor was that it was too small.
“Ultimately for what Joe wanted to do,” says Harper, “we decided to try to find a bar that was much bigger and right on the beach.”
Bigger. And on the beach. “So first it’s like, ‘we need a bar, go find it,’” Mike says, “and my first response was, you know, based on my 28 years in the business and mostly in California, what they needed in terms of specifics just didn’t exist but OK, so Hindle and I hit the road.”
“I think we scouted probably 80 or so bars on every beach up and down the coast,” says Hindle. They drove from Ventura County down the coast to San Diego and then down a bit further to the border with Mexico looking at all of the usual suspects like Paradise Cove in Malibu, but in the end, it became clear that they were going to need to be in and out of that location so many times, it would have to be a build.
“So OK, let’s build it. Well, where do you build it?” asks Mike, “so we go back-and-forth and talk to the California Coastal Commission and you get all of these different restrictions and then there’s the unavailability of space … I mean, there’s a lot of space, but when you look at available open space, a lot of the beaches in California are narrow and subject to flooding, so you have to look at tides, wind. It’s a lot to think about.”
Someone mentioned the beach at NASNI had a large beachfront, so they went to see it and, since they’d already planned to spend a large chunk of the ground shoot on the base, problem solved, right? Well, no.
Negative Ghostrider, the Pattern Is Full … of Snowy Plovers
“We go down to NASNI and find a spot that everyone loves,” says Mike, “and they tell us we can definitely build there but then, oops, there’s a bird called a snowy plover, this little tuft of white feathers that weighs a fraction of an ounce that nests there. And it’s endangered. Well, I used to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, so … what are you gonna do?”
Nancy Wong remembers it all too well. “Finding a location is always a little dance,” she says, “and in this case, we had the environmental folks from the Navy and it took some maneuvering.”
They had hoped to start filming there in September but due to the mating and migration patterns of the birds, they couldn’t start building until September.
In the meantime, the team had all kinds of other environmental work to do, including geological studies and analyzing tide and storm surge patterns because you wouldn’t want to build the thing and have it get blasted by a storm and swallowed up by the Pacific.
“I spent a lot of my time dealing with the Coastal Commission, the Navy’s environmental people, state environmental people and the Fish and Wildlife people,” Mike says. “That’s where my experience from working with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service on these kinds of things really came into play. I speak their language.”
With all of the approvals finally sewn up, Hindle and his team were able to build the bar on the beach—though construction did have to build a road 400 feet out onto the sand and surround the set with decking in order to access it.
From the first scout to shooting on the set was around eight or nine months.
Was it all worth it? Harper thinks so. “When you’re in the bar, you can see out those windows,” he says. “You can see the ocean, surfers and the different background people we had out there and I think you can feel that it’s not a comp or an LED wall. And then when we’re outside, you can see the bar is actually there on the beach.”
In the film, the interior of the Hard Deck Bar is modeled on I Bar, an officers’ club on NASNI that had also been deemed too small. The exterior has a sort of Paradise Cove style in terms of architecture.
“In the end, we built it, shot the shit out of it, tore it all down and you’d never know we were there … but KALM Mike Louis bwas dealing with that for four months,” says Mike.
Being a SLM is all about solving problems, whether it be nesting birds or finding a solution to an iced-over runway—exactly the problem Mike and the team faced in Fallon one morning when Ferg came to tell everyone they wouldn’t be launching planes.
“I was like, ‘guys … this is TOPGUN. You’re in Nevada at like 6,000 feet elevation and you don’t have a way to de-ice a runway? This is the Navy! What the hell?’” laughs Mike.
What Ferg saw next blew his mind. “Mike gets on the phone with people from NASCAR in either Talladega or at the Texas Motor Speedway because they apparently have a big track dryer,” he laughs, “and I go, ‘Mike, that thing’s like, 1,800 miles away,’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘if they’ll rent it to me, I’m gonna get it here.’”
Mike even asked Ferg if they could get Harrier jets to come from Lemoore and hover over the runway to melt off the ice. Ultimately, the easier solution was to turn the cast around and launch them from Lemoore instead, but Ferg was impressed.
“To watch Mike always trying to find a solution,” he says, “that was phenomenal. And the issue in Fallon was a drop in a bucket compared to the stuff they were dealing with most of the time.”
For director Joseph Kosinski, that spirit is what makes Mike great. “He’s a total pro and has the experience to know what we can and can’t do. He also has the relationships with people to know what he can get. He’s absolutely one of the best I’ve ever worked with.”
I Could Tell You but Then I’d Have to Kill You”
One of the trickiest locations by far was the base at China Lake which the team wanted to use for scenes early in the film, featuring an experimental plane—The Darkstar.
“That base is a weapons testing facility,” says Mike. “It’s a quadrillion acres of just shit blowing up. Grumman, Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon … they’ve all got their compounds out there. I don’t know exactly what they do there and they don’t want me to, but I surmise that they test new weaponry and cutting-edge prototypes.”
When they first asked to scout a hangar, there they were told to paraphrase another classic film, “Forget about it, Mike. It’s China Lake.” But at some point that changed and they were told they could.
“It went from ‘don’t go near that hangar,’’ says Hindle, “to ‘OK, you can go inside but don’t take any pictures.’”
Later they got permission to shoot reference photos, but what they could shoot was extremely limited.
“You’d be standing there with your camera and they’d go, ‘tell me what you want to shoot and I’ll tell you if you can,’” says Mike. “I remember at one point, I’m setting up and I said, ‘OK, I’d like to grab this shot.’ A security person came over, looked through the viewfinder and approved it, but after I took the photo, she zoomed in, scrolled around and then she goes, ‘yeah, no … see this thing here?’ And I swear it was, like, the roof of a shack four miles away, and he was like, ‘you can’t show that. Delete it.’”
After several visits, the team really wanted the location because it was by far the most modern space they’d seen. The hangars at NASNI, for example, are probably 50 or 60 years old, but the hangar they saw at China Lake was brand new.
“Once we got in there, it was like, “Whoa, this is fuckin’ cool! I mean, it was obvious we loved it,” says Hindle.
In the end, by some miracle, they were granted permission to shoot there.
“I don’t know whether it was because of Ferg or what but they said, ‘let us know when you want to do it and it’ll take “x” number of days to sanitize it—meaning remove the assets that are in there, cover things up—and then you can shoot,’” Mike says.
“Talk to Me, Goose”
Even the best of the best will inevitably run into one of those “Talk to me, Goose” moments as when, in the first film, Maverick talks to his old RIO to help encourage him—a beat that is repeated in fine form for the new film. It’s a bit like a plea to the heavens and for TGM, one sequence in particular was that moment for the Location Department.
The production was set to shoot on two Nimitz Class aircraft carriers: the USS Abraham Lincoln, used for the opening which beautifully mirrors the opening sequence from Tony Scott’s original and the USS Theodore Roosevelt for scenes in which the cast were on board.
“For us to do any of this, it always had to be in line with whatever the Navy was doing in terms of training,” says Mike, “whether it was aerial training or anything else. For the carriers, we’d go down and load all our gear on a Saturday and then send the cast and crew down on Sunday for them to ‘embark,’ as the Navy calls it, on Monday morning.”
With the cast and crew out for two weeks, the Location Department would have a chance to catch up and keep prepping. At least that was the plan.
“Monday morning rolls around and we get a call,” says Mike, “‘hey, there’s a little bit of a problem. The carrier isn’t going to embark now. Not sure what’s going on, but we’re just sitting here.’”
The issue turned out to be a ‘tooth,’ a piece of the propeller that had broken off and the replacement needed to be flown in from Washington.
“It’s not like fixing a Honda Civic, you know? It takes a while,” laughs Mike.
The team had to quickly figure out what sequences they could pivot to or rework to be shot dockside because they obviously weren’t going to be heading out to sea and launching planes.
The solution that presented itself was to shoot in the hangar bays which are one level below the deck where all the jets would be held … but there were no jets in the hangar because apparently, a carrier typically goes out without them.
“The jets fly out and land, they do their op, then the jets fly home and the carrier comes back,” Mike says. “So we went to look at that hangar bay and it was just packed full of shit … food and fuel and just crates of stuff … but here’s the good part: you’re on a carrier with 5,000 naval personnel, so when you say, ‘hey, can we empty this bay out?’ It happens in like, three hours. Boom. It’s all gone.”
Ferg somehow managed to get a couple of F-18s moved across the base at NASNI—which required Mike’s team shutting down roads on the base with virtually no notice—and then got them craned into the hangar bay. The final scene looks incredible.
“It just showed that when the shit hits the fan,” Mike laughs, “a good combination to have is the U.S. Navy and a great production team.”
“That Lovin’ Feelin’”
Looking back on the making of the film, Mike couldn’t be prouder. “We had so many curveballs thrown at us—everyone did, the whole production—but everyone gave their all. And in terms of locations, I get the glory as the HOD, but I really need to acknowledge my team on this one. They were phenomenal.”
His team is equally effusive about working with him.
“I’ll always be thankful to Mike for his leadership, his mentorship and professionalism,” says KALM George Alvarezzo.
KALM Teddy Alvarez says, “Mike was like a kid in a candy shop on this one and it was great to see his excitement every day.”
KALM Nancy Wong adds, “He hires good people, we get along well and he fosters that. It trickles down, you know? If you don’t have a great boss, you’re not going to have a good team. He just loved this job and seemed at ease with what was needed and it put all of us at ease and helped us enjoy it. It makes me sad he’s retiring. ”
Following TGM, Mike did decide to turn in his papers, but he still had one more in him: He just wrapped Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma with Scorsese. “It’s been a hell of a 31 years and I know how lucky I am. To start with Spielberg and go out with Scorsese? You can’t beat that.”