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Making 'Top Gun Maverick': U.S. Navy Captain talks about advising on the film

Capt. J. J. Cummings was the first of six Navy advisors for the film, bringing the realities of the U.S. Naval Air Force to the big screen.

NORFOLK, Virginia — In June 2017, it all started with a phone call.

“Hey, do you want to take the director of ‘Top Gun 2’ out to the USS Theodore Roosevelt for a night to kind of show him around the ship to get him some ideas for the movie?” said the commander of the U.S. Naval Air Force's Pacific public affairs office to Capt. J.J. Cummings. 

Cummings, who is preparing to retire next month, has been in the U.S. Navy for more than three decades. He flew F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Super Hornets, his call sign is “Yank” and he most recently commanded the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford.

“I'm like, absolutely!” recounted Cummings, who now lives in Virginia Beach. ”And she's like, ‘By the way, it's a complete secret. Tell no one that this is this is going down and just keep it on the low down.’ So, Roger that.”

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So started a five-year journey that resulted in “Top Gun: Maverick” as it’s now called, which premiered last month in movie theaters around the world. Cummings is listed in the credits as a Naval Aviation Advisor.

In a way, Cummings connection with the movie goes even farther back. 

When “Top Gun” came out in 1986, Cummings was a freshman at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He grew up in Sharon, Massachusetts, and remains to this day a loyal Patriots fan. At the time, he was committed to entering the Navy upon graduating.

“I vividly remember going to see it and walking out going, yes, I've made the right decision to go this path. 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,” said Cummings. “I want some of that. And lo and behold, I think was eight years later on my first flight on the Tomcat. And, I still to this day – I can't believe I pulled it off.”

Cummings was the first of several U.S. Navy officers to work with Paramount Pictures, and the writers, producers and director of ‘Top Gun: Maverick,' helping Paramount get the movie as close to reality as possible as well as hundreds of enlisted personnel, Cummings said.

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“For the first eight to 10 months it was me – my job was to assist the writer Eric Singer and the director in creating a screenplay that the Navy could support (physically with aircraft, aircraft carriers, etc.) and accept, i.e. promote a positive, accurate image of Naval Aviation,” said Cummings.

After Cummings went on to another assignment, he said Commander Tim “Sparky” Charlebois was onboard for a short time before he went to Naval Air Station Lemoore to start his track for Super Hornet squadron command.

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

Capt. Brian “Ferg” Ferguson is a Navy reservist who was put on active duty orders to close out the filming, according to Cummings. Capt. Chris “Pops” Papaioanu helped out as the commanding officer of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN.

Cummings said that his role in the early days was to help shape the story to be as accurate as possible, and not become what he jokingly called “Iron Eagle 7,” referring to imaginary sequels to a movie that came out a few months before the original Top Gun. 

"Iron Eagle" couldn’t use U.S. Air Force planes due to the liberties taken in the script and ended up using Israeli fighters.

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

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

So he told the director, “If you try to make a sports movie after we've been at war since 2001, and we've all been flying missions over the beach and Afghanistan, Iraq – you're going to lose the military audience."

He also wanted the movie to avoid having relationships between the aviators, because “that just muddies the waters.” 

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

Cummings described himself as a realist with movies. He said while he was working with Singer, and Joseph Kosinski, the director, he would dig in his heels at some points, saying something wouldn’t happen that way.

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

They also had to make sure the jargon wasn’t overwhelming to the audience.

“All the communication was spot on. But as it turned out, I was too technical," Cummings said. "And they're like, 'Okay, sounds really cool. But this isn't unexplainable to the American public.' And they had to back that off a little bit in the movie. So it's an interesting balance where we overshot but then came back to the middle ground to make sure it's understandable out in the street."

In the end, the script that made it to the screen is about 80% of what Cummings said he helped with.

"Top Gun: Maverick" filmmakers have said it was their goal to have as much real flying as possible and not rely on digital special effects. 

After seeing the film four times in the past few weeks, Cummings said about 90% of the film is real flying. Some setups, such as when the F-18 Super Hornets fly perpendicular to the ground to go under a bridge, are obviously CGI. Originally, the script called for them to fly under high tension wires.

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Cummings and his 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 movie). 

“I'll never forget that moment, just walking the red carpet. And seeing it in a crowd – people just going nuts – [it was] really neat."

For a career Naval officer, the experience ranks among 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 R. Ford. And I've done that. So obviously, aircraft carrier command and command of a vessel or squadron [...] there's no job in the world that tops that absolutely," Cummings said. "And I will never forget the lessons I've learned and experiences I have worked with thousands and thousands, of great sailors, officers and naval aviators and civilians working in the shipyard. So obviously, nothing tops that. 

But a close second is really having an influence with my five other good friends on that screenplay and then hopefully, folks are going to want to do what we do because it's important, and it's dangerous – yes – but it's rewarding, it's relevant."

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Doug Stewart is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. He can be reached at dstewart@fox61.com.

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