The true story behind the legend of Tony Scott personally paying to turn USS Enterprise and shoot F-14 Tomcats back-lit by the sun in Top Gun movie

The true story behind the legend of Tony Scott personally paying to turn USS Enterprise and shoot F-14 Tomcats back-lit by the sun in Top Gun movie

By Dario Leone
Jan 2 2024
Sponsored by: Tomcat RIO
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Top Gun movie

The cool videos in this post feature the memorable Top Gun movie opening scene as well as F-14 Tomcat fighters taking off from USS Enterprise (CVN-65) aircraft carrier for the final dogfight.

The majority of the carrier flight deck shots were of normal aircraft operations and the film crew had to take what they could get, save for the occasional flyby which the film crew would request. While filming, director Tony Scott wanted to shoot aircraft landing and taking off, back-lit by the sun.

Tony Scott paying $25,000 to turn USS Enterprise and shoot F-14 Tomcats back-lit by the sun

During one particular filming sequence, the ship’s commanding officer changed the ship’s course, thus changing the light. According to Top Gun Wiki fandom, when Scott asked if they could continue on their previous course and speed, he was informed by the commander that it cost US $25,000 (equivalent to $59,000 today) to turn the ship, and to continue on course.

Scott wrote the carrier’s captain a US$25,000 check so that the ship could be turned and he could continue shooting for another five minutes.

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A $10,000 guesstimate

But, as Ms Meredith Jordan explains in her book Top Gun Memos, the real story behind this famed episode was quite different.

‘Another interaction with the bridge ensued, this one involving Badalato [Executive Producer Bill Badalato], and a comment came back from the bridge along the lines of, ‘Do you have any idea what it costs to run this ship?’ Badalato doesn’t recall how the exchange led to a $10,000 guesstimate, but allows it was probably his idea.

‘Wherever it came from, Badalato wasn’t going to approve it. The budget constraints hadn’t changed, and potentially had grown worse. The production was there to capture what the Navy was doing on its training mission, and the Navy had more than worked with them. Production paperwork had notations like “2 F-14s, 1 SH3 helicopter” to try to keep up with the special services they were using, which presumably would have an associated cost. Badalato didn’t want to upset the delicate balance, and it was entirely possible at that point for there to be a much bigger bill.

Tony Scott personally paying to turn USS Enterprise

‘He told Scott the production wasn’t paying to turn the ship, and Scott said he would pay out of pocket “Tony did that several times with various things,” Kolsrud [First Assistant Director Dan Kolsrud] said. “He had the reputation for saying things like, ‘I’ll pay for the overtime.’ And he did.” But $10,000 was likely a record.

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‘With the sum agreed, another radio exchange took place. The production would compensate the Navy for departing from its planned schedule. “And then the ship turns, and I am summoned to the bridge,” said Kolsrud. The camera crew returned to getting the shot.

‘The 1st AD knew his way because of his meetings with the navigation officer but this time he climbed the stairs with a degree of trepidation. To that point, he hadn’t even seen the captain, and there he was, sitting in his chair on the bridge. “He was a dignified guy, an enormous guy,” recalled Kolsrud. “I was never in the military, but I stood at attention.”

‘The captain wasn’t happy, and Kolsrud listened as he explained why, nodding and feeling small. It was a humbling experience for the 1st AD, who agreed with the captain, although he didn’t say it “The captain was more flexible than he should have been,” he said.

USS Enterprise captain tired of Tony Scott

‘Semcken [John Semcken, former F-14 pilot and the Navy’s liaison for the movie], who was on deck for the whole exchange, said he thought the captain of the ship got tired of this movie guy barking commands at him and wanted to smack him down.

‘Whether Scott’s check was actually cashed is unclear, but he didn’t end up paying out of pocket for it in the long run. Scott often told people the check bounced. The incident quickly took on legendary proportion and was something people on the movie side of the equation laughed about “The Navy side didn’t think it was that funny,” said Semcken.’

Top Gun Memos is published by Citation Press and is available to order here.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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