“I wanted to take an audience for a ride at 200 miles an hour and have them live to tell about it. I thought about the sensations of being at the track. The smell of burning rubber … the incredible feeling you get when you’re standing on the turns and the cars come around so fast it almost blows you off the wall. I wanted to get inside this world where success and failure come week to week.”
It’s Saturday morning, and Tom Cruise is in the back booth of a kitschy Fifties-style diner on Los Angeles’s Melrose Avenue, picking at a plate of scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast. Waitresses appear with coffee refills every thirty seconds to get a closer look. Other customers crane their necks to make sure it’s really him. The slightly tousled hair, the boyish features and the white-toothed grin confirm suspicions.
The back room is starting to fill up. But even a baby crying in the booth behind him and a busboy loudly chipping a bucket of ice nearby fail to unnerve Cruise. Memory jogged and eyes opened wide, the actor explains why he decided to make his new movie, Days of Thunder, which is about the daredevils who compete in Winston Cup stock-car racing. “I’ll tell you when the idea came to me, the exact day,” he says.
It was four years ago, and he was going around in circles. Literally. Cruise was driving around the D-shaped racetrack at Daytona International Speedway, home of the annual Daytona 500, where he and his racing mentor, Paul Newman, had come to flex some machismo after finishing The Color of Money.
Cruise toyed with the notion of a racing movie early that morning while he talked to the drivers and crews at the Florida track. Once he got into a car and started pushing hard on the accelerator, he was convinced. He enjoyed mastering the heavy machine.
Roaring down the straightaway while slung low over the asphalt, Cruise felt as if he had entered a different dimension. His vision became clearer and sharper, though every time he blinked, another hundred yards flashed by. And when his car sailed into the sharply banked turns, the G-forces made his head feel like it weighed a ton. In the past, Cruise had driven Porsches and Nissans with Newman. And he once took a souped-up stock car for a drive in Atlanta. But this time something was different. Meeting Daytona’s crews and whipping around the trioval track with its steep curves made an especially powerful impression. Climbing out of the car, he exclaimed, “I’m going to make a movie about this!”
Four years after that panavision epiphany in Daytona, Tom Cruise’s longtime pet project is opening at 2,000 theaters nationwide – just in time for the lucrative Fourth of July weekend. In all likelihood, the picture will rake in millions for its major players: Paramount Pictures, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and the 27-year-old Cruise, who not only stars in the film – for a reported $9 million – but also shares story credit with screenwriter Robert Towne.
Insiders claim that Thunder is merely another high-concept summer picture with topspin: “Top Gun on wheels” is the going put-down. In some respects, they’re right. Top Gun, a navy-flyboy epic that grossed $176 million, was the box-office bonanza of 1986. Thunder is a similar package. Lots of hardware. The same studio, star, director and producers. On the set of Thunder, crew members even wore ‘Top Car’ caps that mocked the incestuous relationship between the films. Cruise brushes off the comparisons. “There are people who like to classify things,” he says, “people who can’t see things for what they really are.”
Cruise sees Thunder in simple terms: a film set against the backdrop of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit that focuses on a rookie driver, Cole Trickle (Cruise), who is forced to reexamine his life and his values after surviving a near-fatal car crash.
Behind the scenes, Thunder seems more complicated. The development process alone exhausted three screenwriters. Production costs shot past a reported $55 million. A five-month shooting schedule was marked by weather delays and dangerous stunt work. Perhaps most daunting, a shortened postproduction period forced editors and sound technicians to scurry to complete the movie so it could open just six weeks after principal photography wrapped.
A month before Thunder‘s debut, offices on the Paramount Pictures back lot hum with round-the-clock activity. The time squeeze is especially hard on the editors, who are working to hack 240 hours down to the film’s final length of just under two hours. “The only way we can get this finished,” says Billy Weber, the chief film cutter, as he tosses back his graying ponytail and hunches over an editing table, “is if we treat every day as a week.”
A different kind of drama takes place across the studio on sound stage 17. Director Tony Scott is filming a pivotal new scene between Cruise and actress Nicole Kidman, Cruise’s offscreen girlfriend, that will preface the movie’s climactic race. Trickle is gearing up for his ultimate confrontation on the track, but he’s nearly undone by self-doubt. His doctor and lover, Claire Lewicki (Kidman), helps him confront his fears. It is a moment when – as Simpson fondly proclaims – the main character learns “the difference between bravery and courage.”
Cast members and crew began setting up the scene early in the day. By late afternoon, they’re still not finished. When Scott insists on doing additional work on the scene, he calls Bruckheimer and Simpson, who are conducting an interview in their office. The producers make no secret of their unhappiness over this turn of events.
“Jerry,” says Simpson, his jaw tightening. “It’s Tony Scott. Do you want to deal with this?”
“You should deal with it,” says Bruckheimer. “Why don’t you talk to him?”
“Jerry, I’m gonna go nuts on this,” says Simpson.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” says his partner. “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
There’s an uneasy pause. Simpson gets up from behind his desk and takes the call in a side room. The producer, who admits he “probably has the most dramatic temper in the crowd,” is not the kind of guy you want to go nuts on you. Born in Alaska, he hunted moose for dinner when he was seven years old.
The two-minute conversation between director and producer ends when Simpson loudly lays down the law. “This is the last shot,” he says. “You’ve got to promise me you’re going to finish tonight!”
Coming back into the main office, Simpson says, “That’s it, Tony walked off the picture.” A producer’s joke. He decompresses, then explains the flare-up.
“Tony is such a talented director that he always wants everything,” Simpson says. “But the problem is everything won’t fit the time frame. That’s the constant dialectic.”