Rick McCallum interview: distributing Red Tails and independent filmmaking

With Red Tails out now, producer Rick McCallum talks about the making and distribution of the film, and the collapse of mid-budget movies...

Red tails has long been a passion project for George Lucas, and years since its premise was originally conceived, it’s finally in UK cinemas. To mark its release, James caught up with co-producer Rick McCallum to talk about the historical epic’s long road to the big screen, and the struggle he had in getting a movie about the true-life heroism of Tuskegee airmen onto the big screen…

So much of your recent work has been Star Wars/Indiana Jones related. How refreshing was it to take on something outside of those worlds?

It was such a relief [laughs]. 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.

It took a long time to get this film going. Why was that?

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When I first started working with George he told me about the story and the initial plan was to make this big, epic three or four hour movie. We wanted to start in the United States and show the 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 there was no way to have a three-hour movie in American cinema at the time.

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 why now and why with Anthony Hemingway at the helm?

The reason for Anthony was simple. He actually started working for us as an assistant when he was 17 years old on Young Indy. In the meantime he’d become a 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 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 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. And again he had no problem with that. 

It’s been 20 years since this film was first proposed by George Lucas. How different is this version from the initial version proposed?

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Hugely. Originally George wanted to do the whole story of these guys; the home front stuff, the Eleanor Roosevelt part and then when they got back home. After liberating Berlin these guys were put on a boat, they were all officers remember, 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 for everyone else had passed. Even when they went down the gangplank it was coloreds one-way, whites another. So they were treated like absolute shit.  So there was that whole story which we wanted to tell, but couldn’t tell, although we did do an hour and a half documentary about that which you’ll see on the DVD.

What was it about this story that attracted George?

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.

So who was the target audience?

For George it was always 14-to-16 year-olds. What we didn’t realise 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.

Wasn’t there talk of a Red Tails prequel and sequel?

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No, all we said was, if it works, it’d be great for someone like Spike Lee to do the Civil Rights film or John Singleton or Lee Daniels to do the Eleanor Roosevelt story. The irony was that this story isn’t in a single textbook in the US. I mean, even about 65-70 per cent of African Americans don’t know about them.

Was there a real pressure, then, on you as filmmakers to get the story ‘right’?

No, because we had 25 of the Tuskegee airmen working with us from the minute we started, and then I had three of the best pilots – and also the kindest, most decent gentlemen – who were with us throughout the making of the film.

With a story with this type of scope, was this project ever considered as a possible television show?

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.

Why was that?

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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. Of that $40 million 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]

What about international distribution outside of the UK? Or is the UK it?

 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].

How did it feel when those calls didn’t come?

 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 Star Wars. They want the big tentpole picture, so if you’re in that $30-$50 million dollar range you’re just dead meat.

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 We’ve essentially seen the collapse of the mid-range movie, haven’t we?

Absolutely. Of course, it’s cyclical, and the way films are financed changes every six months depending on who gets a hit, but nowadays there are two real markets. One for films like The Raid, which are made for about $1 million that can then do $30-40 million around the world. That makes a shit load of money for the filmmaker who can then survive, make his next film, stay out of the system and be truly independent. The other one is the $150 million film. Of course, there are anomalies every year. Films like The Help do break through, but that doesn’t happen often.

But you and George are in a unique position. You can get a film made outside of the system, without studio backing and distribution and on quite a big scale.

Yeah, but the trouble is we can do that once. There’s a wonderful moment in Citizen Kane where the accountant comes up to him and screams 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.

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.

Will you go down this self-financed route again?

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We probably will, but on a much lower scale and probably with films in the $3-$4 million range.

Rick McCallum, thank you very much for your time.

Red Tails is out in UK cinemas now. You can read our other interview with Rick McCallum, about the Star Wars TV series, working with Dennis Potter and more, here.

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