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Mike Fantasia had just wrapped “Top Gun: Maverick.”

In the Auburn native’s 30-plus years as a Hollywood location manager, the Tom Cruise blockbuster was maybe his biggest, most challenging production yet. 

Now, well into his 60s, Fantasia was ready to retire.

He considered hanging up his camera before scouting the deserts and mountains where “Maverick’s” thrilling flight scenes were filmed. But the movie was so satisfying, he decided to make it his last.

“Everything you want in a movie is in that movie,” Fantasia told The Citizen over the phone Tuesday from Los Angeles. “Every day, I wanted to go to work.”

Then he got a call from a friend. Then another call. Then another, and another.

They wanted to know if Fantasia was interested in working on the next movie by Martin Scorsese.

Retirement would have to wait.

“How does a Sicilian guy from New York say no to working with Martin Scorsese?” Fantasia said with a laugh.

The movie, the crime drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” is scheduled for release in November. Due to COVID-19, it took two and a half years to make. Production finished in Oklahoma in September, followed by one scene in May that Scorsese wanted to film during springtime. Amazing as it was to work with the director all that time, Fantasia said, the work itself was arduous. From the delays of the pandemic to the 110-degree heat and unbearable humidity, the production finally made him say to himself, “I’m done.” As soon as it wrapped, he filed his retirement papers.

With that, the 66-year-old Auburn native concluded a career that since 1989 has spanned 36 movies, taken him to 25 states and 20 countries, and brought him into the company of Cruise, Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and more legendary filmmakers. Looking back on his life in Hollywood, Fantasia said it’s the people, famous and non, that he’ll miss the most.

“Making movies is tough. Most of us are just blue collar people,” he said. “It’s a very collaborative process, even with the Spielbergs and Scorseses. It’s our job to help them accomplish their vision.”

After graduating from Auburn High School in 1973 and attending what’s now Cayuga Community College, Fantasia was working for the U.S. Forestry Service in Libby, Montana, when his movie career started. Spielberg came to town to film his 1989 fantasy drama “Always,” giving Fantasia his first credit as the service’s liaison to the production. Meanwhile, he got to know its location manager. Realizing he had the skills for the job — appraising property, reviewing legal agreements — he said he “bugged her for awhile” about helping him break into the industry.

Fantasia resigned from the Forestry Service in January 1991. Most of his first movies were filmed in the Northwest, such as “A River Runs Through It” and “Free Willy,” but before long the world became his workplace. His first production with Cruise was “Jerry Maguire,” he won a California on Location Award for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Ant-Man.”

Among the movies Fantasia is most proud of is “Catch Me If You Can,” one of five collaborations with Spielberg, which the Auburn native called “almost a perfect film.” Other highlights include “Seabiscuit” and “3:10 to Yuma.” The latter required him and the crew to remove hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of a record New Mexico snowfall from what was supposed to be a desert set.

There are some movies Fantasia is less proud of, he said with a laugh, but none he completely regrets.

“If I’m not proud of the whole movie, I’m happy I worked on it for various reasons,” he said. “There’s something about every movie that brings a smile to my face.” 

Between “Always” and “Ant-Man,” the tools of location managers changed greatly with technology. When Fantasia started, he would take photos with a 35 mm camera, paste them into panoramas and FedEx them overnight to the director. He wouldn’t get their feedback for days. With digital photography, cellphones, Google Earth and more, though, that remove would all but disappear.

Likewise, the technology of green screens and LED video walls has been perceived as a threat to the work of Fantasia and his peers. But that perception overlooks just how the technology works, he said. On 2014’s “Godzilla,” for instance, director Gareth Edwards hired Fantasia to spend a year researching and scouting not locations for filming actors, but backgrounds for visual effects.

“You still have to have something to put on top of the green screen,” he said. “So you still need locations.”

Fantasia 2

Mike Fantasia stands on the set of the Hard Deck Bar from “Top Gun: Maverick.” Next to him is a picture of his father, U.S. Army Air Corps Tech Sgt. Emilio Fantasia, that the filmmakers included in the set, which was built on the beach at Naval Base Coronado in San Diego.

For “Top Gun: Maverick,” Fantasia navigated both the older and newer ways of doing his job. He chose the sequel over retirement for a few reasons, he said. Along with him being a major fan of the first “Top Gun,” his father, Emilio Fantasia, flew 33 missions over Europe as a B-24 nose and waist gunner during World War II. Any last convincing he needed came from his wife, Judy.

Once he boarded the production, Fantasia began working closely with the Navy to figure out flight paths. The movie’s story called for specific topography for each aerial scene, he said, and he had to find that topography in a 300-page book of every low-level military training route in the country. So he plotted coordinates in Google Earth, obtained clearance from the Navy and took to the sky in a 120 mph helicopter. A crew on the ground created storyboards using the video Fantasia captured, and sometimes guided the pilot toward geography they thought would look good on screen.

Fantasia’s mission was locating the most visually incredible scenery possible for the production to safely film Cruise and his castmates in flight. That scenery would include Death Valley, China Lake and other parts of central California. The climax was set near North Cascades National Park in Washington, the result of a harrowing wintertime helicopter ride over millions of desolate acres.

For all the technology used to scout those locations, few scenes in the movie used green screens. Cruise insisted on being in the cockpit of his F-18, Fantasia said, at 600 mph.

“I came to really appreciate the kind of filmmaker Tom is. He knows what audiences want,” he said. “I’ve worked with thousands of filmmakers and nobody works harder than him.”

If the work Fantasia contributed to “Maverick” didn’t make it one of the most rewarding productions of his career, the overwhelming response to it did. The sequel has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide so far, and received almost unanimously positive reviews from critics. Friends who work in movies have been approaching Fantasia with raves as well.

He made many of those friends on sets, he said, and as part of guilds and other industry groups. In retirement, he looks forward to seeing them more. He and Judy plan to travel, and split time between their homes in California and Montana. Fantasia also looks forward to returning to the Finger Lakes for the first time in a few years. There’s no better place to be in the summer, he said.

If anyone knows that, it’s a Hollywood location manager.

“I know how lucky I am,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of 66-year-old location managers running around. It’s a young person’s game now.”

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