July 6 2011 12:00 AM

MSU alum Jack Epps Jr. talks about the creation of the iconic blockbuster



On the 25th anniversary of the Tom Cruise action movie “Top Gun,” Jack Epps Jr. says he never expected the movie to be the highest-grossing film of 1986.

“It caught everyone by surprise,” confessed Epps, 61, from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. Epps, a 1972 Michigan State University graduate and screenwriter, co-wrote the screenplay to “Top Gun” with the late Jim Cash, his longtime writing partner and a former instructor at MSU.

Originally released May 16, 1986, “Top Gun” grossed approximately $171.1 million by the end of the year. When the home video market was in its infancy, the release of "Top Gun" on videocassette in March 1987 was bracketed by an $8 million advertising campaign, including the famous Diet Pepsi tie-in commercial. It was one of the first movies on video to be priced in the $20 range and it brought in about $79 million in rentals, according to the Internet Movie Database. Its 2004 DVD release further boosted sales, which now total about $354 million worldwide.

The soundtrack included chart-topping hits from Kenny Loggins (“Danger Zone”) and Berlin (“Take My Breath Away”). It also breathed new life into the Righteous Brothers’ 1964 classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Sales of Ray-Ban sunglasses and leather bombers spiked, as did enlistment in the Air Force and the Navy.

The plot of the movie, which was produced by Detroit native Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, is pretty straightforward: Cocky pilot Maverick (Cruise) and his wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards), attend the Top Gun Naval Flying School in California. There, they match wits with fellow cocky pilot Iceman (Val Kilmer) while Maverick romances astrophysicist and civilian adviser Charlie Blackwood (Kelly McGillis).

After Goose dies in a training accident, Maverick undergoes a crisis of confidence. The pilots then battle Russian MiG fighter jets over hostile waters as Maverick regains his nerve and saves the day, then gets the girl at the end.

There seem to be several reasons why “Top Gun” has become a pop-culture icon, according to Epps.

“One reason is that the visuals were very, very exciting. It’s a movie that cannot be made today. It’s a movie they couldn’t make today if they tried because it’d all be computer graphics."

The timing was also important. "In 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president, there was a real resurgence of patriotism, and the movie just hit a national — and an international — nerve,” Epps explained. “I think the guys were really well cast. We had a great cast.

"There were a lot of right elements at the right time. We were the right writers, Tony Scott was the right director, Simpson and Bruckheimer were the right producers, and Cruise was the right star. All of those things came together at the exact time.”

Epps said he and Cash wrote the screenplay with Cruise in mind.

“I thought he was the perfect Maverick: the guy you like, even though he had some dislikable traits,” Epps said. “Tom was reluctant to do the movie. His agent wanted him to do the movie. Bruckheimer really wanted him to do the movie, so they set up a jet ride for him. The pilot took him up and shook him every which way from sideways — that’s their idea of fun. He came back all fired up and said, ‘We gotta make this movie. I’ll do it.’” Epps and Cash actually went to Top Gun to research the movie. Epps, who has a pilot’s license, got to ride in an F-5F fighter jet. For that to happen, he underwent three days’ worth of training.

“That experience changed what the movie was about. Once I went flying, I realized these guys were athletes,” he explained.

“The physical nature of those flights, the sheer exhaustion, what they did was so phenomenal that it changed the story we told. It became more about the sport, which was aerial combat maneuvering. The research really changed the movie. You have preconceived notions of what a pilot is. When you suddenly go out and meet these guys, it changes your concept.”

For 25 years, there has been talk of a sequel, but it hasn’t happened. Last year, a New York magazine article reported that Paramount Pictures made offers to Bruckheimer and Scott to return for a sequel but that nothing has come of it.

Epps isn’t enchanted about a follow-up. “It’s a tough movie to make again because we’ve become a nation of pilots who fly drones. It does raise the question: What would a fighter pilot be today in a movie?” said Epps.

“I’m not so sure if I want to see Maverick years later because I think the movie’s really self-contained. I’m not so sure about recapturing it in a sequel. The movie exists in its own time capsule; I’d just as soon leave it alone. I think a sequel in the late 1980s might’ve worked, but I’m not so sure today it could be revisited properly.”

A quarter-century later, however, the movie “still strikes a chord,” according to Epps.

“One of the things we did that is very different is that it’s a movie about the guys and it’s not about the mission. When you see the movie, you really have fun meeting these guys, getting into this world — you’re a part of this, rather than trying to save the admiral’s boat that’s stuck out in the water. It makes it timeless. It’s an ’80s movie; there’s this fun to it. On the whole, we can relate to the brotherhood in the movie and in the world. It just feels like a place you want to go.”

Remembering Jim Cash

When you mention the name Jim Cash to Suzanne Baranski, a 1987 Michigan State University alumnus, the first thing that pops into mind is his long black hair, blue jeans and buckskin jacket with fringes.

“It was a very distinctive look — very counter-culture,” Baranski recalled. “Yet he was very professional in his demeanor. He had a very strong following amongst the students. Everyone knew who Jim Cash was. People took his class regardless if they were majoring in film — they were in for a treat. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and he’d tell Woody Allen stories. Imagine sitting in a classroom where the instructor talks about having lunch with Woody Allen.”

The late Cash, a Boyne City native, graduated from Michigan State University in 1970 with an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in television and radio in 1972. He taught screenwriting and film history at his alma mater and was considered one of the university’s most popular instructors.

“Jim was a terrific instructor,” Epps recalled. “He loved his students. He was really popular. He loved getting people excited. Anything people wanted to do creatively, Jim was there to support them.” recalled Epps.

The two stayed in touch, and Cash suggested they become writing partners. Cash remained in East Lansing, while Epps relocated to Santa Monica. The two never worked together in the same room and collaborated via computer.

In addition to “Top Gun,” they co-wrote 1986’s comic thriller “Legal Eagles,” which starred Robert Redford and Debra Winger; 1987’s Michael J. Fox comedy “The Secret of My Success”; 1989’s “Turner & Hooch,” with Tom Hanks; 1990’s “Dick Tracy,” with Warren Beatty, Al Pacino and Madonna; the 1997 monster movie “Anaconda,” with Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube; and 2000’s “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.”

“It’s funny,” Epps said. “‘Top Gun’ was a movie I wanted to do because I was a pilot, yet Jim was somewhat reluctant because he didn’t like to fly. ‘Turner & Hooch’ was a movie Jim wanted to do a lot, and I was somewhat reluctant. That was the fun of working together: If one of us was really passionate about something, we both did it.”

Cash died in 2000 at the age of 59; he was being treated for intestinal problems.

“It still remains to this day a hole in all our hearts because Jim was really one in a billion,” said Epps.