Interview: Scott Altman

One of the reasons why Top Gun still delivers as a guilty pleasure 20 years later beyond on the immense camp appeal is the fact that Tony Scott captured some of the most amazing aerial photography ever featured in a blockbuster. The reason for that is simple. Made long before the CGI era, Scott, Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson and company actually hired real fighter pilots to performer the dogfight ballet featured in the movie (well, aside from the crashes and explosions of course).

One of the top pilots hired to carry about these high octane tasks was Captain Scott Altman, a highly decorated and respected Navy man who went on to join NASA and pilot a few shuttles used in IMAX space documentaries. With the iconic gearhead classic Top Gun making its 3D Blu-Ray debut this week, we got a chance to chat with Altman about his involvement in the film, the challenges of capturing Tony Scott’s high altitude beauty shots, living out a dream by buzzing the tower, and more. It’s not every day you get to talk to a man who flipped off a bogey midair and went to space, so this one is a little special.

Dork Shelf: How did you initially get involved with Top Gun?

Scott Altman: It was basically a matter of timing. Every navy squadron has its primary duty of going on cruise and providing a forward presence. So when the movie guys came to Miramar it was at the end of that process. We had just returned from a seven and a half mouth cruise to the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans in the area of the Persian Gulf before the first Gulf War. So we weren’t tasked with training as heavily as a result. Our squadron was in the perfect part of our duty to have the time to do something like that. Some of the folks in our squadron heard about the movie an expressed interest, including our skipper. So in the end it was being in the right squadron at the right time to be one of the four guys involved with Top Gun. They didn’t want to have to train new guys every time they went out to shoot a scene because the flying was a little different than what you’d normally do tactically. So the idea was to have a core team who understood what the movie guys needed and what we could provide and we were in the perfect position to join the team.

DS: Was there any discussions regarding realism during those scenes or was it just assumed you guys would try to fit the Hollywood fantasy of these flights and fights as closely as possible?

SA: Well, they started out with some ideas that were a little kookier than what ended up in the film. We worked with them to understand what they wanted to tell a story, but tried to make it as realistic as we could so that guys who watched the movie who flew wouldn’t think the filmmakers were completely out to lunch.

DS: Did they ask you to do anything that wasn’t physically or technically possible?

SA: Hmm, I’m trying to remember. As it is there are a few things in the movie that are a little far fetched. The time frame between graduating from Top Gun and being back out on the boat was one of the big ones. The way they showed the radar screen is not exactly how it actually looks in an F-14, but what I liked about it was that the presentation was something easily understandable for the public. John Q could look at that and immediately understand what was going on. So some things they did I understood and endorsed just to make it more accessible.

DS: Were you get involved with choreographing the flights at all?

SA: We would have discussions. The movie guys would come in and talk about things and then the aircrew would say, “I don’t think we can do that” or “how can we make this work.” The problem is that real aircraft maneuvering is really spread out. Airplanes are a mile apart at times in what feels like a dogfight. But you can’t get that in a single frame easily. So we had to work hard to stack the planes on top of each other in what was an unrealistic position, but one that got everyone in a frame.

DS: Did you have cameras attached to your plane personally?

SA: We did everything you can imagine. We did some flights with the cameraman in the back seat looking out, Some flights with cameras in the cockpit looking at us, some with actors in the back seat and a camera on them…(laughs) I was told by the director that none of that footage made it into the movie because the actors all looked a little too green (laughs). Anyways, then we flew some flights with cameras actually attached to the airplane. There was one on the top of the wing looking forward and then there were camera mounts on the belly of the planes as well. It was quite a time. They charged Paramount about $7500 an hour for the planes and about $23 a day for the pilots. So we weren’t getting rich.

DS: Is there any footage of you visible in the cockpit in the final film?

SA: Yeah, there are a few scenes that I know for sure are me. You can’t see me in cockpit in Cougar’s landing at the start, but I did that. They came back to us about four months after we wrapped and said that they needed new footage of Cougar’s landing because it didn’t look any scarier than Maverick’s. So they needed someone to fly a pass that looked frightening and everyone thought of me. So I went out and did that. Other than that, the obscene gesturing to the Mig from the inverted aircraft is me. That was a close up, they had me fly straight and level and gesture like I was upside down and fingering a plane below me. That is definitely my finger (laughs).

DS: Did the pilots and cast mingle much during shooting?

SA: The actors were around shooting interiors at Miramar. So you’d meet them at the officer’s club and things like that. I got to know some of the guys. Tom Cruise was very interested in flying and had a crazy attitude. He’d ask us all sorts of questions about what we were doing and I think he even ended up becoming a pilot after that. So he was fun to be around. But when we were shooting the actors never came with us. That was mostly the crew and the Top Gun instructors. There was a lot of great flying though. Getting to fly low and in close quarters with other airplanes, which you never get to do. I got to buzz the tower, something you’d never get to do with the Navy guys.

DS: Yeah I always wondered about that. Is buzzing the tower something pilots actually do or even talk about or was that just invented for the film?

SA: Well, I’ll tell ya. In the 50s and 60s maybe guys would do some crazy things like that. But after we expanded our safety culture that went away. If Maverick was a real Navy pilot who decided to buzz the tower, when he landed he would be met by his skipper who would take his wings right off on the spot. So that was a real treat to be told, “You have to buzz the tower.” All pilots want to do it, we just hold ourselves in check (laughs).

DS: Do you have any specific memories of working with Tony Scott? He always stuck me as such a warm and funny figure and was very underrated as a filmmaker.

SA: He was a very sweet guy. He had such great notes for each shot. The storyboards were amazing and we always knew exactly what he was looking for. Although, it was kind of funny because every now and then he’d come on the intercom while we were flying and say, “That’s not what I want, stop.” And I’d be like, “I can’t just tell them to turn around and go back, they’re airplanes. You can’t just back up. It’s a little more complicated than that.” But he had a great attitude about it and then he did a phenomenal job in editing. Because some of the things we’d see in dailies and think they’d look a little cheesy, but they way he put them together was amazing. Like Cooper’s landing, even watching that today gives me the feeling of a real carrier landing. The flying scenes came off remarkably well. It came together much better than we expected.

DS: How was the movie received by your contemporaries in the Navy?

SA: There are two reactions. One was the guys who would give us a hard time and say, “why’d you let them do that? That’s not realistic.” They’d pick on the little things. But at the same time there were more guys at Miramar who said they flew in the movie Top Gun than we had in our squadron. It was definitely popular.

DS: I was curious to ask you about flying a few shuttles that captured footage for IMAX films. I always wondered how that worked. Since you obviously couldn’t bring a film crew with you, was your tram essentially shooting and directing all the footage yourselves or were the cameras and shots set up and you just had to flip a switch?

SA: The IMAX filming in orbit actually turned out to be much more involved than I expected when we first signed up for it. It wasn’t a series of shots on a checklist, we had to evaluate the situations as they presented themselves to us and set up the focus, exposure, and composition ourselves. And then the timing of when to turn the camera on was very tricky. We only had 8 minutes of film and 16 30-second shots we could capture. That was it. So you had to pick the most dramatic moment in any pass and worry about the lighting conditions. Plus we were trying to do a mission on and film on the side and you couldn’t ask to someone to wait thirty minutes to open the door to get the right lighting. One time we were trying to shoot the shuttle doors opening and normally it takes a little time for that to happen so we were waiting for first movement to shoot and then it popped open instantly and we were like, “Ok, we missed that shot” and had to restage it later on. It was much more complicated than we ever anticipated.