It’s apparently a well noted fact amongst film journos that Rick McCallum, AKA producer of STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, and now the upcoming World War 2 Action-Drama RED TAILS, is one of the nicest guys to talk to. He loves the Press and the Fans (of which we are both). Still, the chance to interview the man himself is, if we’re most honest about this, a truly daunting task but THN’s Matt Dennis took it on and loved every minute, his report:
Have no fear. The rumours are true – Mr. Rick McCallum is one of the most charming, most interesting, most knowledgeable, and most pleasant men this writer has ever had the chance to share a room with (and I’ve fallen asleep on the floor of THN’s very own John Sharp). So without further adieu, let’s get talking with Rick and find out all we can about his latest film:
Hi Rick. In the past few years, Lucasfilm’s output has pretty much consisted of Star Wars and Indiana Jones related fare. What was it like to work on an entirely new project?
It was such a relief. You know, I love the world I’ve just spent 20 years in, but that’s one of the great things about making movies, you can bounce all over the place. So, yeah, it was very refreshing and good to get out for a while.
RED TAILS has had a long gestation period (almost 20 Years). Why did it take so long to get this project off the ground, if you’ll excuse the pun?
When I first started working with George he told me about the story and the initial plan was to make this epic three or four hour movie. We wanted to start in the United States and show the full racism these guys had to go through, then go to the heroic story that we’re telling now and then come back and do the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. But it was just so unwieldy and also at that time, there was no way to have a roadshow three-hour movie in American cinemas. Every epic film had been a financial disaster, and we felt there just wasn’t an audience we could get the film out to. Then we got heavily into YOUNG INDIANA JONES, which ran for three or four years, then the STAR WARS Special Editions and the prequels, but throughout we did continue talking. However, once we finished EPISODE III we decided to go and meet people in the black community.
So how different was the final film to how George originally envisioned it all those years ago?
Hugely. Originally George wanted to do the whole story of these guys: the home front stuff, the Eleanor Roosevelt part, and then the incredible bit when they got back home. After liberating Berlin these guys were put on a boat, and remember they were all officers, and they were put in the engine room, sent back to the States and had to wait on the boat until midnight after the ticker-tape parade until everyone else had passed. Even when they went down the gangplank it was coloreds one-way, whites another. So they were treated like absolute s**t. And then what happened was, a group of them tried to get into a white officers club and they couldn’t get in and they were arrested, and that sort of started the civil rights movement. So there was that whole story which we wanted to tell, but couldn’t, although we did do an hour and a half documentary, which will be on the DVD. That documentary was a lot of fun to do.
What was it about the film that kept George interested in making it for so long?
If you’re 15 or 16 and you live in an inner city in the US…well, there’s nothing that can get you out of there. RED TAILS was designed to show that if you’re not a potential hip-hop star or a basketball or football player, that if you work hard, there is another way of life that you can have. Because believe it or not, that message is so difficult to get out there, and that’s why the response to the film from the African-American community has been such a positive thing. For George it was always for 14-to-16 year-olds. What we didn’t realize was that the real impact was in 8-to-10 year olds. We never thought we’d hit that market. And I also think both George and Anthony wanted to make a film about heroes, not victims. Every film about African-Americans is about victims. They’re either drug dealers, drive-by killers or working for the mob. It’s usually always illegal activity. This film is saying that these guys were college educated and were the best and the brightest of their time. If we could have made the other, longer movie we would have, but that’s the tragedy of American film making now.
The reason for Anthony was simple. He actually started working for us as an assistant when he was 17 years old on YOUNG INDIANA JONES. And then suddenly he’d become this major TV director on shows like THE WIRE and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and when he came in he was not only very passionate about the project, but we also really liked him. He’s such a decent, likable, fantastic guy. And he was the only one who really came prepared. He had storyboards, he had music, he had almost a full cast-list of actors he wanted and it was spot-on. There were other choices he’d made which were interesting, but he was also collaborative, because we knew we’d have about an hour’s worth of aerial dogfight stuff in the film and there are only three or four directors in the world who have the understanding of how to make visual effects like that work. Especially on the timeframe we were proposing, he had no problem with that. So that was a relief too.
Did you ever consider adapting it for Television?
There was, but the only problem was that HBO had done a movie in 1995 trying to attempt to do that. And then the limitations of television are just the budget. But… look, I’ll make this as basic as I possibly can. We had a great script that we took around to everyone in town, and no one wanted to make the movie. Then we had to make it on our own, and then when we got it done, George and I went down to LA where we showed it to all the studios, thinking it was only a question of who was going to pay the most for it and then…there were no calls! That was it. Nobody wanted it.
It’s not racism, it’s greenism! There are 37 million African Americans in the US, maybe eight to ten million go to movies, but not regularly. So you cut that down and that’s maybe three or eight million people and they spend $10 a ticket, so that’s $40 million gross. Then you only get $20 million back, so there’s no way to make a movie. And there’s no international market. It’s only thanks to the kindness of Britain! (laughs).
So is that it for international distribution outside of the UK?
For the moment it is, but we have a huge screening in Cannes coming up, so we hope to get picked up from there. Luckily, since Bush was in power, we have enough countries who are fascinated by how badly Americans treat other Americans, so I have high hopes that we’ll do really well in China! (laughs).
It feels just as bad as it does for people who can’t even get in through the door. That’s the thing, you think you can get in the doors always, but you really can’t. Our job – believe it or not – isn’t about the money, it’s about telling stories. You hope to God it’s successful, not so much for material gain, but just that you’ve got another job! I mean, if you look at the career span of most writers and directors, if you get to 10 films in 40 years of a career you’re lucky. So it’s a blow when there’s no call [laughs]. Not because we thought we were invincible, but because we thought… look, we did $50 million at the box office in the States, which is unbelievable for this type of movie, and we have the potential to do another $50 million around the world. But that’s just not enough profit margin at the end of the day. Everybody’s looking for AVENGERS or BATMAN or even STAR WARS. They want the big tent pole picture, so if you’re in that $30-$50 million dollar range you’re just dead meat.
But surely you and George are in a unique position, some would say? You can get a film made outside of the system, without the studio backing and distribution, and on quite a large scale?
Yeah, but the trouble is we can do that once. Do you remember, there’s a wonderful moment in Citizen Kane where the accountant comes up to him and screams at him that he’s just spent $6 million and you can’t continue do this, and he replies that based on that calculation we can continue to do this for 60 years? But you can’t do that in film. We probably will do it again, but with a much smaller scale film, probably ones in the in the $3-$4 million range. The problem right now is that the film is relatively inexpensive, but it’s the marketing that kills you. To have a film that reaches the rest of the world – just in print costs alone – can be $20-25 million. And then the marketing on top of that, well it’s so outrageous.
Rick, Thank you for your time. RED TAILS is out in UK Cinemas now and you can read our review here.