It was 1984. In a studio in England, a small film called "Dreamchild" was shooting under producer Rick McCallum, with a crew of only twenty people. While they only used one room of the studio space, the rest of the area was taken over by the potential blockbuster "Return To Oz," overseen by George Lucas. When one producer decided to pay a visit to the other, few knew a massively successful partnership would emerge. But did anyone guess that Lucas would be the one to venture over to the smaller set? "I could tell George wanted to be on our set, and we all wanted to be on his!" smiles McCallum, the producer of "Red Tails," who recently sat down with us for an exclusive interview. "Because he had a crew of 150, they had cranes, everything you’d ever want as a filmmaker, and we had nothing."
McCallum eventually joined forces with Lucas and the two of them teamed on "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," a partnership that would lead to McCallum's immersion into the "Star Wars" world as a producer on both the re-releases and the prequels. Now McCallum and Lucas are back at it again, pairing up for the Lucasfilms production "Red Tails," spotlighting the story of the Tuskegee airmen and their struggles during combat in World War II.
Like all George Lucas productions, "Red Tails" began life as a massive production. Apparently, the original plan was to make a trilogy, with the dogfight air battles to be the middle piece of three films that would track the development of the air program in the first film, and the return to a Jim Crow south in the last chapter. "George first told me about it in 1990, he had already been working on it for two or three years," says McCallum. "One of the biggest problems was that we wanted to tell the whole epic story, with Tuskegee, and the war. Every director that came onboard, they wanted to do the big 'Lawrence of Arabia' two-part six-hour version of the story." However, economics and the specter of the "Star Wars" prequels sidelined plans for "Red Tails" until the release of "Revenge of the Sith."
"When we finished 'Episode Three,' George said, you know what? The world we live in is only one story. It’s the middle story. It’s like episode four. And if someone wanted to make episode three and episode five, which is the civil rights movie, and the Tuskegee movie, they could. The problem was, we were just starting the live-action 'Star Wars' series, which took us to 2007." The show, meanwhile, remains in incubation to this day. "I’m hoping one day we can develop the technology," McCallum says of the proposed live-action series. "But right now it’s just too expensive. Each hour episode is bigger than any of the films we’ve done, and we only have $5 million an episode to do them."
Shooting began in April 2009 with director Anthony Hemingway at the helm, but, being independently produced, Lucas and McCallum took advantage of a long post-production period. McCallum believes this is the way everyone should make movies. "We couldn’t get anybody to finance the movie, so we didn’t have a release schedule," McCallum shrugs. "Which meant we could do everything — lock the film down, do the post, and then start the visual effects. One of the biggest problems when you’re doing a massive visual effects film, you have to start the effects when you’re shooting. And that’s millions and millions of dollars. Studios have no choice, because they have a schedule to make. So we got to take our time."
While they were excited about the material provided by screenwriter John Ridley ("Three Kings," "Twelve Years A Slave"), they felt a light touch was needed during post-production. Enter the most unlikely of names, neophyte screenwriter Aaron McGruder, best known for creating the hit comic strip "The Boondocks." "Aaron was one of the first writers I had met," confirmed McCallum. "But he was locked in for 'The Boondocks' [TV series] and couldn’t get out. He had done an episode on the Tuskegee Airman, and back at the University of Pennsylvania, he did a major paper on [the subject]. But at that time, he had never written a film script before, so we went with John, who we loved."
"Once we finished it, Anthony and I spent ten weeks in the editing room," says McCallum. "And we said, 'My god, this got really heavy.' So we needed a bit of levity, and Aaron had just finished ‘Boondocks’ so we called him and asked, 'Would you mind coming in for a couple of weeks,' and he said yes. He was able to hold a mirror up to all of us, to say, 'Lighten up, you guys are getting too serious with this shit.' "
While original plans for the "Red Tails" story were more expansive, it doesn't look like Lucas and company will be revisiting that mileu. "Doing the center part of the story was probably the cheapest part [of our story]," says McCallum. "We only needed our airbase, we needed to be in Europe. But recreating the South, recreating the Civil Rights movement, that would have been very expensive to do." The earlier and later portions of the "Red Tails" story will surface, however, in a couple of lengthy documentaries that recently debuted on the History Channel and will be available on the "Red Tails" DVD.
While McCallum hopes Lucas will now complete his highly-publicized move to smaller, more personal filmmaking, McCallum has no hard answers. "I’m hoping he takes a break from this and gets back to his roots, in terms of small filmmaking," McCallum hopes. "[George] has always been a small filmmaker at heart, which is why I hope he goes on to make his smaller experimental films. Plus, he’s an editor, and that’s what he loves to do." But he cautioned, "This closes the circle for [Lucas]. He’s made every single film he’s developed that he wanted to make."
As for McCallum, he remains an independent producer unaffiliated with Lucasfilms, and he's trying to get financing together for a 3D film set in the world of NASCAR. Written and directed by Dustin Voigt, McCallum, a NASCAR fan, says, "It’s an exciting script. It’s about a bunch of guys who want to get into a NASCAR race but can’t because of various rules and regulations." McCallum says this film, "Gets back to the spirit of what NASCAR was thirty years ago before it became this big corporate monster, when it was a different kind of sport.”
But he's perfectly fine with the fact that all roads lead to "Star Wars," and he'll never get sick of it. "I went to a little town in Morocco ten years ago. It was the camel market, right by the desert," he says. "And they were playing ‘Star Wars Episode One’ on a group of thirty sheets that had been sewn together in the middle of the street. You couldn’t hear any sound whatsoever. And to see the reaction of these guys was so phenomenal. In the middle of the night, seeing an alien world, and they have no concept as to what 'Star Wars' is. There’s nothing worse talking about a movie no one has seen, so I never get tired of 'Star Wars.’ ”
"Red Tails" opens this Friday.