Predominantly known for his collaborative work alongside George Lucas in both the Star Wars and Indian Jones franchises, esteemed producer Rick McCallum has turned his head to World War Two for Red Tails, in what is an action packed depiction of the African-American pilots facing racial adversity and segregation, amidst a time where compatriots were supposed to unite.
We caught up Rick for a fascinating discussion about the state of contemporary cinema, as he admits to the struggles himself and Lucas faced when trying to get Red Tails off the ground due to the themes explored and the potential targeted audience.
The German born producer, who currently abides in Prague, also spoke of his confidence in director Anthony Hemingway and what it is about the story of the Tuskegee airmen that he felt so passionately about, as Red Tails has been a project that has spent over 20 years in development.
So much of you work has been either Star Wars or Indiana Jones based – was it refreshing for you to approach an entirely new project in Red Tails?
It was such a relief. I mean I love the world I’ve just spent 20 years in, but that’s one of the great things about making movies, that you can bounce all over the place; and it was very refreshing, it’s good to get out for a while.
It did take a long time to get this film going – Red Tails was in development for a long time – so why now, and why Anthony?
First of all, when I started working with George he told me about the story as I had never heard of the Tuskegee airmen. What happened was we really wanted to make this big, epic, unbelievable three or four hour movie and we wanted to start in the United States and show people the full racism that the guys had to go to, then go the heroic story that we’re in now and then come back and do the beginning of the civil rights movement. But it was just so unwieldy and at that time there was no way to have a three hour movie in American cinema – every big epic film was a disaster and there just wasn’t an audience that we felt that we could actually get this film out to, and the whole way in which films are being distributed changed enormously. So we then got into Young Indiana Jones and that went on for three or four years and we started the special edition, and then suddenly you get out of it and then once we had finished Episode Three we thought “Oh shit, we’ve got to go and meet everybody in the black community…” and the reason for Anthony was simple, he had actually started working for us as an assistant when he was 16, 17 years old and suddenly he had become this major director in The Wire and other great TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and he was very passionate about it and there seemed to be a certain synchronisity going with it and we really liked him to, we had a lot of mutual friends, and that was it. George never had any desire to direct it so that was another thing.
Was there a clincher in Anthony’s pitch though, something that really nailed it?
Well for me he is such a decent, fantastic, likeable guy and he was the only one who really came prepared and he had a story board and music and he had almost the full cast and it was who we wanted, almost spot on.
It’s been over 20 years since the idea for this film first came about – has there been much changes, and how different was it back then?
Huge changes. Originally I think we really wanted to do the whole story of these guys. The racism part, the Eleanor Roosevelt part which has stirred this and made this happen and then the incredible bit when they get back, because most people don’t know is when those guys left after liberating Berlin they were put on a boat and put in the engine room and sent back to the States. All the white people were in first class, and they were treated like absolute shit. What happened was a group of them tried to get into an officers club and they didn’t get in even though they were officers, and they were arrested and that’s what started the movement which eventually became the civil rights movement. There was that whole story that we wanted to tell, but that’s for somebody else. But we did do a documentary for it, which you’ll see on the DVD.
Was there ever any consideration to turn that into a potential TV series – because there is a lot of scope to that story.
There was, but the problem was HBO had done a movie in 1995 trying to attempt to do that. And the limitations of television is the budget. We had a great script, we took it round to everybody and no-one wanted to do it. Then we had to make it on our own and once we had got it done myself and George were so excited we went down to LA and we showed it to all of the studios, knowing that it was just a matter of whose going to pay the most for it, and there were no calls. Nobody wanted it. There are 37 million African-Americans in the United States, maybe eight-ten million go to movies, but not regularly. You cut that down and you realise you’ll only get $20million back and you think “there is no way to make this movie…” and that’s how they look at it, and there is no international market, apart from the kindness of Britain.
So this is it as far as international distribution goes?
For the moment it is. In Germany obviously this won’t be a picture they’ll be fighting for, but luckily we have enough countries since Bush was president that are fascinated by how badly Americans treat other Americans, so I have a feeling we’ll do really well.
Let’s go back a moment – yourself and George were expecting calls for this film, and they didn’t come. How did that feel?
It felt as bad as it does for everybody else that can’t get through the door. You think you can get in the door always, but you really can’t. Our job is to try and find somebody stupid enough who believes in the same amount of passion that we have in the film that think they can make money out of it, because believe it or not our job isn’t always about the money, we want to tell stories and hope to God they’re successful, not so much for material gain but just so you get another job. If you look at the career span of most writers and directors if you get ten films in a 40 year career you’re lucky – that’s a film every four years. It’s a fun, sad, but difficult profession to keep going all the time. But we did $50 million in the United States and that’s unbelievable for this kind of movie and potential to do $50m around the world, but that’s just not enough profit margin at the end of the day. Everybody is looking for Avengers, or Batman, or Star Wars, they want the big tent pole pictures, and if you’re in that $30-50 million range then you’re dead meat.
Can you see a collapse of the mid-range film?
Oh absolutely, totally. There are two market places – one is films like The Raid, made for a million dollars that could do $30m-40m around the world, and that makes a shit load of money for the film maker, he can continue and he can survive, make his film and stay out of the system and be truly independent. And the other is the $150 million film. Of course there are anomaly’s every year thank God, films like The Help that come out and try and be decent, good films and they break through, but that doesn’t happen very often.
What was it about the Red Tails story that had yourself and George so committed?
There is a whole other subtext to this. We have the only private prison system in the world, we have almost three and a half million people in jail, more than the rest of the world combined. We have this three strike law, and what happens is that it costs between $50-70 thousand a year to keep a prisoner in jail so there is a real conspiracy to keep as many people in prison as humanly possible and the easiest group to target are black people, as the three strike rule is so easy because they bust them on drugs. So this film was to show the hope that you can have if you work hard – there is another way of life you can have, because believe it or not that message is so difficult to get out there. And that’s why the response for the film in the African American community was such a positive thing for us.
There are already rumours of a prequel and a sequel to Red Tails, is there any truth in that?
No, all we said was if it works it would be great for people like Spike Lee and John Singleton to do the civil rights film, or the Eleanor Roosevelt story, because the story is so rich. The irony is this story is not taught in a single textbook in the United States, these guys are not even known. I mean 70% of African Americans don’t know about them.
Do you feel more pressure of yourself as a film maker to get this story across then?
No because I have 25 Tuskegee airmen working with us from the minute we started, and then three of the best pilots, and also the most kind and decent gentlemen, and they were with us throughout the whole film and they didn’t let us get away with a thing, not that we would have, but things that we didn’t know, they were always there the whole time we were shooting.
Let’s talk about the practicality of filming Red Tails, the access to the planes for example?
Well we had three planes for three days and it was a challenge but it was so much fun. I got to take 75 black kids that had never been to Europe, or very few of them had been, and put them in a boot camp in a town that doesn’t have a lot of black people, but is incredibly liberal and very tolerant, and put them in a situation that is an alien landscape for them, and they loved it. They were all great kids and got along fantastically well.