Rick McCallum interview: Dennis Potter, Star Wars TV series, George Lucas & Red Tails

We sat down with longtime Lucasfilm producer Rick McCallum to chat about the live-action Star Wars TV series, George Lucas, and more...

In town to promote Lucasfilm’s long-gestating Red Tails, Rick McCallum spared us the time for a chat about his long producing career, collaborations with Dennis Potter, plans for the live-action Star Wars TV series, and what really makes George Lucas tick…

You worked quite extensively with Dennis Potter during the 1980s on a whole range of projects. It’s hard to imagine a film like Dreamchild (the 1985 Potter scripted film about ‘Alice in Wonderland’ author, Lewis Carroll) getting made now.

There’s no way it would.

How does it make you feel about the industry now when it’s hard to even get a film like Red Tails, which has the Lucasfilm brand attached, up and running?

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It’s tough! (laughs) I was 25 when I was lucky enough to work with Dennis, but I met him when I was 23. We shared two things in common: we loved to get drunk and we were the only ones who smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day. I met him in Los Angeles at a party at Ken Adam’s house and he asked me if I could take him to the airport, so I did and on the way I said that what I really wanted to do was produce, but that it was so hard to find good material.

Anyway, he gave me an envelope, which contained the script for Pennies From Heaven. At the time I was doing a film with Neil Simon who was then the highest paid writer. He asked me how much he made and I told him and he said: “If you can get me one dollar more, I’ll give you six months to sell the script. But if you don’t, it reverts back to me.” And three days before that six-month period was over I got a green light on that film. And it was the single biggest disaster in MGM’s history (laughs). 

This is the Steve Martin version?

That’s right. It’s actually a really good film and there are about 12 non-consecutive minutes that are almost perfect! (laughs) But it wiped out MGM and they’ve never really recovered, not just because of us, but because they had a run of 15 or 16 films which underperformed. Anyway, it was just before release and Dennis and I were in New York and we’d had dinner with (the critics) Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael. Both had gone crazy for the film and over dinner Vincent Canby said to me: ‘You’re going to wake up tomorrow and you’re either going to be a genius or you’re never gonna work again.’ And that night the film opened…and it was a complete and utter disaster. So much so that when I flew back to LA the next day they were already painting my name off my parking space (laughs).

What happened after that?

Well, Dennis said: “I want you to come to England where failure is a way of life!’ (laughs)  And so I came over to do Dreamchild and we made it for a million dollars. It did two million dollars so no one got totally burnt and from there we went on and shot a movie every year. We had a film at the BBC we were doing that had Lee Marvin and Sting attached which fell apart, so we were penalized by the BBC and Dennis had to write a film he thought would never happen and that script was The Singing Detective (laughs).

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So we just kept on going, which was fantastic. But then 1990 happened and the world became a very different place. Money suddenly seemed to be of much more importance and it was all over. But it was a golden period where you could go in to see Jonathan Powell, who was then head of series at the BBC, give him an 8 hour script and then 8 hours after the meeting you’d have a ‘Go’. It was unbelievable and there was just no other place in the world where you could do that. But those days are long gone!

So what keeps you working after all these years in the business?

I’ll never forget, Dennis wrote a script called Tears Before Bedtime, which – before it fell apart and the BBC punished us for the money we’d lost – we managed to get Joseph Losey to direct.  He was about 77 at that time and this was his first film, since being blacklisted in the 50s, that he was going back to the US to direct. Anyway, I went to see him at his townhouse off the King’s Road and we went up to his library, which was full of about three or four hundred scripts. But out of these scripts only eight of them were leather bound, so I asked him what all these scripts were and he said: ‘Well, the leather bounds are the films that I’ve done and the ones in white are the ones I still want to do.’

That must have been humbling?

It just breaks your heart, but that’s kind of what being in this business is about. I mean, I love working with writer/directors and I love making it happen for them. And as long as you care about that and as long as you care about them as people you have a fantastic life. But nobody goes to see the movies. None of the films we made here…well, they were great and our friends and critics liked them, but nobody really saw them. But then you end up making popular cinema for young boys, which is phenomenally successful and rewarding…but yeah, there’s lots of stuff I still want to do outside of the Star War/Indiana Jones worlds.

Speaking of which…what’s the status on the live-action Star Wars TV series?

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The TV series we have spent three and a half years on and there are 50 hours totally scripted.

Is the show ready to go then?

Well, they’re all second draft scripts and it would probably take a year of prep before shooting would start, but that’s because they’re all very complex. 

If the development is this far along, why the impasse?

The episodes are too expensive and…well, we’ve got two things going on. Firstly, we’ve got television as we know it about to implode. You’ve got network TV, which is really where we should be because it has the dollars to pay for this and an audience, but you’re burdened by the fact you only get 42 minutes for an hour because of commercials. And then you’ve got cable, which has the most provocative and daring programming, but has audiences of 1 or 2 million people. They also have a very limited amount of money they can spend without wanting some sort of say or control over the material, which is absolutely repugnant to us in terms of the way we work.

So is the argument that you would have less control over Star Wars on television than you would in terms of a theatrical film?

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We could get around that. Our biggest problem is that these stories are adult. I mean…these are like Deadwood in space. It so unlike anything you’ve ever associated with George before in relation to Star Wars. These aren’t for kids. I mean, we hope they’ll watch, but it’s not being targeted at 8-to-9 year old boys. The situation we have is that each episode – or if you put two hour long episodes together – is bigger than any film we’ve ever done.  It’s on the Avatar level and we’ll only have about $5-6 million we can spend on each episode.

What about George’s planned smaller and more personal projects?

Well, George has officially retired now. And I think what that means is that he needs a year off to figure out what he wants to do. It’s a curse and a blessing and I know that sounds weird, but it really is. It’s just like Avatar is for Jim (Cameron). I mean, he’s committed to doing that – not for the rest of his life – but at least for the next 10-15 years. And that changes who you are and what you do and it gives you an incredible lifestyle, but then you don’t have any time to enjoy it because you’re spending all your time working. It’s not really a burden, but it is a bit of a curse. So I think he needs to take time out to really figure out what he wants to do, but also – more importantly – what he wants to say.

Because this is all about do you have a voice?  Can you tap into the zeitgeist or say ‘no, I don’t’. It’s like Francis (Ford Coppola) now. The Francis we knew and grew up with has lost his voice, but he’s having the time of his life by making these films like Twixt.  No one’s going to go and see this stuff, but he makes enough at his winery to pay for it and he treats everyone incredibly well and they’re all just having fun. They’re making little road movies and one might work, but he’s not gearing it towards that.

Will George’s films be in a similar vein?

No, I think his are going to be even more…(pause) If you really want to understand George, it’s THX-1138. It’s that kind of film. That’s when I think he was at his happiest. When I first met him we were making Dreamchild in a warehouse at Elstree and he was over in the UK supporting Walter Murch, the genius editor, who was directing Return to Oz and whom the studio was threatening to fire. So George came over and took on the burden of saying I’ll be there every day and make sure the film is done. Anyway, a mutual friend of ours was taking him round the studio and he came to see us. I had 18 people on our crew and we didn’t have a single piece of gear. All we wanted was to be on Return to Oz because they had a crane and food and were shooting for 60 weeks, while we were shooting everything in 3 weeks!  Anyway, George came in and was very shy and just sat there and watched all day and I could tell he yearned to be on our set and doing our film because that’s really what we likes to do: the small movie.

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From American Graffiti forwards there’s real connecting tissue between the films, but in the overall Lucas canon THX-1138 really stands apart.

Absolutely, but it was Francis – who was his mentor after they met on the set of The Rain People – who told him after THX came out that you’ve got to find a story that’s going to talk to a lot of people. So he came up with a story about what it was like to grow up in his hometown, Modesto, and that was American Graffiti.

Assuming the Star Wars series goes into production and bearing in mind what we’ve said about both George’s ‘retirement’ and his plans to make his own movies, would that mean he’d be very hands-off with the TV show?

No, I think he would do what he did on Young Indy. You hire the best directors, you create the best story you possibly can and then do everything you can to support them in the editorial process. Again, if George wanted to be known as one thing it would always be as an editor. That’s his dream and that’s the part he loves the most. I think I’ve said this before, but writing is so painful for him and he certainly knows there are a lot of you who don’t like his writing (laughs). But they’re his stories and that’s the way he does it, but it’s hard for him.

And directing isn’t the main focus of his life. He wants to gather all the material, but he’d really rather just go into the editing room and do that.  The best thing about Young Indy was that it was like mail-order film making for him. He’d be editing and he’d call me up – and I was always nine or ten hours ahead of him – and say: ‘I just need a wider shot of when he walks out in Shanghai.’ But we were in France now (laughs). We’d finish in a location and then move straight on. So we did composite film making, where we’d do a hallway in Paris, the stairs in Prague, a ballroom in Moscow etc.

Didn’t you use that production model for the Star Wars prequels?

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Yes, because it was the only way we could do it for the money. Again, we had to make it for 60-70% cheaper than a studio would have. And the only way you can do that is by asking people to make a sacrifice and then, if it works, reward them in ways they could never imagine (laughs). 

Rick McCallum, thank you very much!

Red Tails is released in the UK on 6th June.

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