How Lake Tahoe became the site of the epic climax of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ – SFGATE

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
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Thousands of visitors fly into Lake Tahoe every year, but very few arrive in a F/A-18E Super Hornet.
That was Tom Cruise’s ride in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the blockbuster sequel to the 1986 classic directed by Tony Scott, which shot much of its climax sequence in the South Lake Tahoe area. Filming took place nearly four years ago in December 2018, with pandemic-related delays repeatedly pushing back the movie’s release until May 27.
The movie used military bases all over the west coast, including North Island in San Diego, Lemoore in Fresno and Kings counties, China Lake in Ridgecrest, and Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, where the real life top gun aviation school is located. Each of those locations offered unique qualities, but none were quite right for the film’s climax.
Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe, as seen from Echo Summit. 
To find the perfect site, location manager Mike Fantasia — who also worked on “Memoirs of a Geisha” in Tahoe — scoured the country researching nearly 200 different sites before settling on the Lake Tahoe Airport, partially due to its unique geography.
“We needed a mountaintop that overlooked the airport,” Fantasia said. “You don’t have mountains close to most airports, but it just so happened there’s a couple of knobs of rock sticking up, called Twin Peaks, that are just sitting south and west of the airport.” 
Jennifer Connelly plays Penny Benjamin and Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Working with the U.S. Forest Service, the crew built platforms on the side of the mountain that helicopters could land on to bring in the equipment needed to shoot an epic scene overlooking the airport, which had been transformed into a military base.
Another element that cinched the deal was the ability to make the area look like a war zone. Due to forthcoming renovations to the airport, the crew were given nearly free rein to do whatever they liked with the site. That meant infrastructure upgrades like adding military hangars that could house fighter jets, but also doing enough damage to make the area look like it had just suffered a tactical air strike.
“First, we pockmarked the runway with potholes,” Fantasia said. “We made it look like there’d been a battle there. We cut down trees that were going to be removed anyway for the construction.”  
Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
The other major location was Washoe Meadows Park, just west of the airport over Twin Peaks. 
“We had another sequence that required a big flat area, where somebody could appear as if they parachuted in and were sort of open to the world,” Fantasia said. The space also had to accommodate helicopters, gunfire and other major special effects. 
Despite the presence of a few nearby homes — whose owners were reportedly quite tolerant of low-flying aircraft — the scenes went off without a hitch, as did a chase scene through a nearby wooded area owned by the Forest Service. But for all the effort from the crew, the fact that they were shooting in December meant there was one element they couldn’t control. 
“It was colder than a son-of-a-bitch,” Fantasia said.
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Dan Gentile is the culture editor at SFGATE. He moved to San Francisco from Austin, TX where he worked as a vinyl DJ and freelance writer covering food and music. His writing has been featured in Texas Monthly, American Way, Rolling Stone, Roads & Kingdoms, VICE, Thrillist and more.


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