"It's a little strange to release five years of work over the course of three weeks," director Joseph Kosinski chuckles good-naturedly. His last film — the real-life firefighting drama Only the Brave — was released in 2017, the same year Kosinski flew to Paris to pitch Tom Cruise his idea for a Top Gun sequel.
Top Gun: Maverick was originally slated to arrive in theaters in 2019, before being delayed into 2020 and then, due to the global pandemic and ongoing theater closures, pushed again and again. In the end, its release date landed mere weeks before Kosinki's next movie, Spiderhead, was slated to debut on Netflix. The trippy sci-fi thriller is set in a dystopic penitentiary where prisoners volunteer as test subjects for new psychotropic drugs and stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller (who also starred in Only the Brave and Top Gun: Maverick) and Jurnee Smollett.
"They're such different films and in different mediums that I think they're oddly complementary to each other," Kosinski tells A.frame. "Obviously, I'm thrilled that Top Gun has connected with so many people. It's what we hoped and dreamed, but I don't think anyone could have anticipated it would kind of work at the level it has. I think after we get Spiderhead out, there will definitely be a chance to kind of exhale a little bit."
"But I do like to work and I'm already prepping my next film now," he owns up. "So, it's just about keeping your head down and keeping working because the working part is what I enjoy the most."
A.frame: If you learn something new on every movie, what did you take from Top Gun with you into Spiderhead?
Joseph Kosinski: Wow. These are the kinds of things that you have to reflect on it. I'm trying to think from what I learned from Top Gun that go into Spiderhead that feels profound, other than how to shoot aerial scenes. Which on Spiderhead, we kind of knew what we were doing at that point.
It seems obvious and every director will tell you that the most important part of the job is casting, but every time I make a film, it reinforces it and I just realize how much more important it is than maybe I thought on the last one. I almost realized this more in retrospect on Spiderhead, [but] if the actor who's playing Abnesti doesn't commit 100 percent to this character, then the whole movie falls apart. I find it fascinating and interesting but also terrifying, because it is one decision that can make or break your film. Luckily, I think I've chosen correctly and will continue really making sure that I get the right people for the right role.
I was wondering about the aerial scenes while watching the movie. So, Hemsworth in the seaplane, that was all shot practically?
Yeah, he was flying the plane and I was laying in the back on the floor behind him, which is more than I got to do on Top Gun! Because, as you know, on Top Gun, we were sending them up in F-18s. So, there was the Naval aviator and the actor. There's only two seats in the de Havilland Beaver, which is that floatplane in Spiderhead. Chris was in the front flying and I was laying down in the back with a small clamshell monitor and a headset talking to him. That was pretty surreal, considering he'd only had one flying lesson before we did that scene.
You're not only putting faith in Hemsworth to be able to hold your movie up, but you are literally putting your life in his hands.
My life in his hands in a 60-year-old airplane over the Coral Sea. I'll never forget that, for sure.
With Top Gun, filming those aerial sequences practically is something no director gets to do unless you're on a Tom Cruise movie. What was something you were looking forward to tackling with Spiderhead that was outside side your comfort zone or that you knew would challenge you as a filmmaker?
Coming off of Top Gun where you're shooting billions of dollars' worth of hardware and the best pilots in the world flying these incredible sequences for you, to then go to a film where the entire film kind of rests on the shoulders of three performances in one set, that's quite a striking difference to tackle. From a movie that looks up into the sky to one that is very internal and intimate, where the performance is the special effect or the performance is the spectacular action scene, that was the challenge.
Also, the performances in Spiderhead don't follow any rule book of how to act. Often, the emotions they're playing are 180 degrees to the context of the scene. All these are challenges, which are why I wanted to do it. That's why that's why I do the job, is to try something new, try something different, try a different muscle, and learn something new before diving into the next big project.
Hemsworth is someone who looks for roles that give him something new to do.
That is very much one of those roles. What was it that you saw in Chris that you knew was right for Steve Abnesti, or what was it in Steve that you were hoping would push Chris or challenge him as an actor?
I liked the idea of putting an actor in the role who was completely unexpected, because the fun of the watching the film is peeling away the layers of who Steve Abnesti is and seeing what he's truly up to. And to have an actor who hasn't done that before makes for a much more interesting watch. I knew Chris had great comic timing, which is an important part of the role. He obviously has charisma in spades, which is another important aspect of Abnesti, because he really is a salesman. He is constantly manipulating and selling these inmates on acknowledging to the experiment.
But what I didn't know was if Chris was interested in exploring the moral ambiguity and darker side of this character. Because you don't think of Chris when you think of a villain, you know? So when we sent him the script, I was thrilled when he called back right away and said, "This guy's fascinating. There's so many layers here to play." He had a very specific point of view on what he wanted to do with this character to bring him to life and threw himself into it 100 percent. And like I said, that's what I needed for this film to work: Someone who is committed to all the nooks and crannies that this character offers.
This is also your third film in a row with Miles Teller. When you got the script for this, did you immediately know you wanted him for Jeff?
What I liked about Jeff is that it needed an actor who you can empathize with and who can play damaged. Having made two films with Miles, his range and what he's able to do is, I knew he could pull that off. I just think he's one of the most talented of his generation. The thing that Jeff had that I hadn't done with Miles before and haven't really seen him play before, is the idea of a character who's being manipulated for the first half or two-thirds of the film. Miles is an actor who likes to drive scenes. That's just his inclination, and to be in the back seat and being charmed and manipulated by this other character was something I hadn't seen him do before, and I thought would be a fun challenge for him. He luckily agreed and we set off to Australia together to make this.
Now that you've worked with him so many times, was there a time on this that even you were surprised by what he brought or by a choice he made?
When it gets to the really, really difficult scenes — like, I think about the scene where Jeff is finally admitting to Lizzy (Smollett) what really happened in his past — and you're watching someone finally reveal a secret that they are ashamed of and feel very guilty about. It's a very quiet scene, and it's a long, single, pushing-in close-up. I think when you see what Miles does in a scene like that, he makes it look easy. But those types of scenes are often the most difficult, because all you've got is kind of what you're playing in a close-up. That's, I think, where Miles shows why he is who he is.
I'm not sure how much you pay attention to social media, but Miles' Top Gun mustache has really taken off. I can't tell you how many TikToks I've seen of gals showing off their partner's Miles-inspired 'staches. What have you made of that?
Amazing. I mean, I just love, like I said, I have admired Miles' talents for a long time. Obviously, I'm all in on him with three movies. To see TikTok embrace him? Trust me, I couldn't be happier for him, and he deserves all the attention he's getting.
Tom was obviously committed to Top Gun being a theatrical release, and rightfully so, and now it's broken all these records and performed so well. And then Spiderhead is a Netflix streaming release. Are you a filmmaker that carries strong feelings about release models?
I really think it's all about the right medium for the right story. Top Gun is a beloved title that absolutely needs to be seen on the biggest screen to experience what it's like to be in one of these jets. And it is meant to be seen with a massive crowd. That's how we designed it, and that's how I remember my experience watching the first one. Spiderhead, I wouldn't want it to have to compete in the theatrical marketplace with the one or two opening weekends you get.
The landscape has changed and what constitutes a theatrical movie right now is different than maybe it was in 1988, when Rain Man was the top film of the year, which just blows my mind. I think Rain Man was the record we passed for Tom. So, the idea that Spiderhead is going to be available to 220 million people on Friday and is something they can discover feels like the right fit for this story.
You said you're in pre on your next movie. Is that the F1 movie with Brad Pitt?
What's getting you excited as you look ahead to starting that?
It's a fascinating sport. There's only 20 people in the world that get to participate in it, which is pretty exclusive. And it's the only sport I can think of where your teammate can also become your greatest competition, which makes for fascinating drama. Obviously, the glamour and the fantasy of it is spectacular. The machines are the most cutting edge that I've ever been exposed to, even having made a movie with the Navy on a carrier. Walking into the pits and looking at one of these machines up close is just mind-blowing. So, taking everything I learned on Top Gun in terms of practical filmmaking and taking it into that world is going to be a really fun challenge for me.
By John Boone