"Red Tails" is not your average studio release. Distributed by Fox, it was wholly produced and financed by Lucasfilms, the first property under that label in years that wasn't "Star Wars"-related. But instead of a Rebel Alliance fighting an intergalactic war against The Dark Side, it deals with an unsung part of history, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American fighter pilots and their ascendance in the ranks. We recently caught up with the cast and producer as they spoke to press in New York City.
Making "Red Tails" was a no-brainer for star Cuba Gooding Jr., who previously featured in the HBO movie "The Tuskegee Airmen" as one of the pilots, but here plays one of their higher-ups, Major Emmanuelle Stance. Better than anyone else on the set, he knew the real struggles facing the black pilots who were allowed into WWII cockpits despite the military's protestations.
"There was a report made by the military," says Cuba, "that said that blacks didn’t have the mental capacity to take the g-force on their cerebrum." But this didn't stop many of the airmen from making it to modern day, where a number of them served as real-life inspiration for the film. "Every day on the set, we had a couple of the real Tuskegee Airmen on the set with us. They’d tell stories and I’d always find out about their accomplishments."
For star Terrence Howard — taking the role Colonel A.J. Bullard who fights military brass for recognition of his men — he considered the fliers a "very select group of legendary people." But Elijah Kelley, who slots in as the lighthearted Joker, was quick to add, "These guys were seventeen and twenty-one, right out of high school. Not only were they fighting for a country that didn’t love them, but they weren’t even considered an option. And they were young, having the time of their lives and saving the world at the same time. I think Huey P. Newton said, 'The revolution will be in the hands of the youth.' "
The making of "Red Tails" was a project long in development at Lucasfilms, with pre-production sessions dated as early as 1990. Director Anthony Hemmingway relates to the sense of drama versus levity in offering, "It took twenty years to find some sort of a balance. The story is so layered, so dense, to find a way to tell this story in the screen was challenging."
Selecting Hemingway, a TV veteran of "Treme," "The Wire" and "Fringe" amongst other shows, was the key. "The best time George and I ever had was working in television," said producer Rick McCallum. "Because it's quick, it's dirty, it's down and out, it's guerilla filmmaking, you've got a small crew, very little money. And if you fuck up, you do it better the next week. We wanted somebody who could understand that language. Who has to do an hour's worth of TV in ten days. He had almost eight weeks to make the movie, double than what he's ever had." Though it helps to know people. Added McCallum, "I met him when he was seventeen, I gave him a job as a production assistant on ['Young Indiana Jones']."
McCallum, a veteran of the "Star Wars" films, also notes the high tech notion of the film. "2300 people worked on the film, and it had 1600 visual effects," he says. "Which is equal to 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' or any visual effects movie you’ve ever seen." A lot of this was done via green-screen effects, courtesy of the state-of-the-art tech that can only be provided by producer George Lucas, who oversaw production and helmed a few key reshoots when Hemmingway was called onto the set of "Treme."
For David Oweloyo who plays the smitten Joe Little, who falls in love with an Italian woman, it was the action that stays fresh in his mind. "We shot on gimbles, so it was a section of the body of the plane that was being operated by these poles, manually jigged back and forth. You literally needed to know what was going on around you. So you were able to do all of that in camera."
Meanwhile, Nate Parker as the breezy Easy, admitted he was more than a little apprehensive about working without a net, riding in half, or sometimes less, of an actual plane and trying to capture the sensation of flying while on the ground. "I remember filming it and seeing it on the monitor and thinking, I don’t know how they’re gonna make this work," Parker said. "All the stuff you see is put in during post. There’s no canopy!" There was versimilitude provided by on-set boot camps, however, as Parker confirms a week-long exhaustive period where chemistry was built. "We were dropped off in this Russian airbase under a tent while it was snowing!" Parker laughs. "We had to do exercise every day, we didn't have our cell phones. We were woken up in the middle of the night by firecrackers to simulate airplanes."
While "Red Tails" is something of a risk for Lucasfilms, featuring a cast of unknowns and telling a little-known historical story, it already has one high profile fan in the elder President Bush, who recently screened the film with his wife. This was more than just a Commander In Chief recommendation, since Bush himself was in the air with the red tails in World War II. "Bush was like, 'Yeah, that was what it was like,' " Howard confirmed. "Remember, he used to sit in the belly of the bomber planes. He was watching, and he was like, this is scary, this is almost real. I was asking him what he thought of the Red Tails, and he was like, God, I didn’t know they were black back then!"
"Red Tails" opens this Friday, January 20th