Doing ‘Top Gun Maverick’: The Navy Captain on Working With the Film

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Captain JJ Cummings served as the first of six Navy advisors for the film, bringing the realities of the US Naval Air Force to the big screen.

NORFOLK, Va. – In June 2017, it all started with a phone call.

“Hey, you want to take the director of ‘Top Gun 2‘ on the USS Theodore Roosevelt for a night to show him around the ship and give him some ideas for the movie? the commander of the US Naval Air Force Pacific Public Affairs Office told Captain JJ Cummings.

Cummings, who is set to retire next month, has been in the US Navy for more than three decades. He has flown F-14 Tomcat Super Hornets, his call sign is “Yank” and he recently commanded the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

“I’m like, absolutely!” said Cummings, who now lives in Virginia Beach. “And she’s like, ‘By the way, it’s a complete secret. Don’t tell anyone that’s what’s going on and keep it low. So, Roger that.

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Thus began a five-year journey that culminated in “Top Gun: Maverick” as it is now called, which premiered last month in theaters around the world. Cummings is listed in the credits as Naval Aviation Advisor.

In a way, Cummings’ connection to film goes back even further.

When “Top Gun” was released in 1986, Cummings was a freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, and remains a loyal Patriots fan to this day. At the time, he pledged to join the navy after graduating.

“I vividly remember going to see it and coming out, yeah I made the right decision to go that route. I remember I went to the Bates Library and they had a magazine there with an F-14 Tomcat on the cover, which I still have. Sorry, Bates College,” Cummings said. “I want some. Lo and behold, I think it was eight years later on my first flight on the Tomcat. And, to this day, I still can’t believe I succeeded.

Cummings was the first of several US Navy officers to work with Paramount Pictures, and the writers, producers and directors of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

Helping Paramount make this film as close to reality as possible were several other officers along the way as well as hundreds of enlisted service members, Cummings said.

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“For the first eight to ten months, it was me – my job was to help writer Eric Singer and the director create a storyline that the Navy could support (physically with planes, carriers, etc.) and acceptance, that is, promoting a positive and accurate image of naval aviation,” Cummings said.

After Cummings went on another mission, he said Commander Tim “Sparky” Charlebois was on board for a short time before heading to Naval Air Station Lemoore to begin his trail for command of the Super Hornet squadron. .

Captain Greg “Chaser” Keithley, who has since retired, was asked by Cummings to lead the project full-time in late 2017 before Cummings became commanding officer of USS Gerald R Ford. Keithley, who flew F-14 Tomcats, worked on the transition from script to filming. Captain Walt “Sarge” Slaughter also provided assistance during this time.

Capt. Brian “Ferg” Ferguson is a Navy reservist who received active duty orders to wrap up filming, according to Cummings. Captain Chris “Pops” Papaioanu assisted as Commanding Officer of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN.

Cummings said his early role was to help shape the story to be as accurate as possible, not to become what he jokingly called “Iron Eagle 7”, referring to imaginary sequels. of a film released a few months before the original Top Gun.

“Iron Eagle” could not use US Air Force aircraft due to script liberties and ended up using Israeli fighters.

“My job was to balance the drama that Paramount was looking for with what was going to be able to cross the line and be approved at the three and four star level to make sure the Navy was represented proudly and professionally,” Cummings said. .

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Early on, Cummings learned from advisers on 1986’s “Top Gun” that it was a sports movie in many ways with the locker room scenes, the competition and the trophy.

So he said to the director, “If you try to make a sports movie after we’ve been at war since 2001, and we’ve all launched missiles on the beach and Afghanistan, Iraq, you’re going to lose the audience. military. .”

He also wanted the film to avoid having relationships between the airmen, because “it just clouds the waters”.

Referring to one of the pilots, Phoenix, played by Monica Barbaro, “I appreciated that they made it clear that Phoenix […] was just hardcore, and a great aviator and pilot. That’s why she was a hero because she’s good at her job.

Cummings has described himself as a realist with films. He said that while working with Singer and Joseph Kosinski, the director, he was stubborn at times, saying something just wouldn’t go that way.

“And finally Eric and Joe pulled me aside and said ‘Yank, we can’t make this the most accurate but boring fighter pilot movie in movie history, we need some drama , just because that’s what sells tickets.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re right.’ »

They also had to ensure that the jargon was not overwhelming to the audience.

“All communication was spot on. But it turned out I was too technical,” Cummings said. “And they were like, ‘Okay, that sounds really cool. But it is not inexplicable for the American public. And they had to back off a bit in the film. So it’s an interesting balance where we’ve crossed the line but then come back to the middle ground to make sure it’s understandable on the street.”

Ultimately, the script that made it to the screen is about 80% of what Cummings said helped.

The filmmakers of “Top Gun: Maverick” said their goal was to have as much live flight as possible and not rely on digital special effects.

After seeing the film four times over the past few weeks, Cummings said about 90% of the film was real stealing. Some setups, like when the F-18 Super Hornets fly perpendicular to the ground to pass under a bridge, are obviously CGI. Originally, the script called for them to fly under high voltage wires.

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Cummings and daughter Mackenzie attended the premiere in San Diego last month where they met actors Miles Teller, Jon Hamm and Rachel McAdams (who was not in the film).

“I’ll never forget that moment, just walking the red carpet. And seeing him in a crowd – people just go crazy – [it was] Very cool.”

For a career naval officer, experience is one of the highlights of his service.

“I’ve commanded a fighter squadron, commanded a deep draft amphibious assault ship, commanded the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the Gerald Ford. And I did. So obviously, command of aircraft carriers and command of a ship or squadron […] there’s no job in the world that absolutely tops that,” Cummings said. “And I’ll never forget the lessons I’ve learned and the experiences I’ve worked with with thousands upon thousands of great sailors, officers, naval aviators and civilians working in the shipyard. So obviously, nothing goes beyond that.

But a close second is really having an influence with my five other good friends on this script and I hope people want to do what we’re doing because it’s important, and it’s dangerous – yes – but it’s is rewarding, it is relevant.

Doug Stewart is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. He can be reached at [email protected].

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