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Rick McCallum – Reach For the Sky

Veteran producer Rick McCallum’s new film Red Tails is the latest in a long line of collaborative projects with director George Lucas. Here, he explains how nurturing successful working relationships is key to the health of the industry. 

Having produced such films as Pennies From Heaven, Dream Child and Castway and TV series such as The Singing Detective, amongst other collaborations with Dennis Potter and Nic Roeg, Rick McCallum has 30 years of experience under his belt. Since 1990, he has collaborated greatly with George Lucas, producing The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Radioland Murders, episodes one, two and three of the Star Wars serial and now Red Tails, which is inspired by events involving the Tuskegee Airmen during World War Two.

How would you characterise the experience of making Red Tails?
I’d never heard of the story until George told me in 1990. My dad was a B-17 pilot, shot down over Switzerland in 1942. He had heard about the Tuskegee Airmen. When I mentioned the film to him, this was the one film that he really wanted to see that I had made. He said, ‘I sure wish I’d run into those guys!’ The movie took two weeks longer to make than World War Two [laughs]. Our Czech crew was awesome. The first time I met the Tuskegee Airmen I was moved. It was a really wonderful experience, especially for George and I. Our director, Anthony Hemingway, is a very special guy working on his first feature film. He was very collaborative. The film has 1,650 FX shots and we only had 3 actual planes [but] it was an easy film to make and we wanted to take our time on it. After Anthony Hemingway finished shooting, he got approached to do [the TV series] Treme, and ILM were busy with several tent-pole pictures. So, we got opportunities to work with several [VFX] companies in the Czech Republic and in Germany. I think I went to 45 VFX houses across the world. We wanted to do it slowly and cheaply.

How did you come to work with George Lucas?
I met George on the set of Dreamchild [in 1984]. I had met Robert Watts at Elstree and I had a crew of 20 people. We had no money, not even for construction. One day, Robert brought George over during production on Return to Oz. I met George and he was very nice and he stayed for a couple of hours and you could tell he wanted to be on our set and of course we wanted to be on the Oz set where they had kit and a large crew. I could tell, then, that the low-budget world of THX 1138 and American Graffiti was where George felt at home.

You’ve worked with George for many years; what’s the relationship between a director and producer?
The coolest part of any collaboration is that [the director] is with someone who will exhaust the possibilities and sometimes illuminate things that they didn’t know they want. It depends on how you look at producing. Each project is so different but, at a certain level, the line producer is the only job where you have a relationship with the writer and director. You can’t understand the limitations unless you’ve been on the set. With George we just clicked. When there’s one voice, you know what you’re making. Filmmaking traditionally is a blue-collar environment. It’s labour intensive and then you have this other side, this white-collar, unbelievably educated group and both groups need each other and then the producer understands both perspectives.

You began as a producer back in the 1980s. What are your memories of that time?
One of the best things that happened to me was the failure of Pennies From Heaven. I was only 25. Dennis Potter [who had written the script] said, ‘Come to England where failure is a way of life.’ We did a bunch of stuff with Dennis. You could make a movie for a million and recoup. One of the problems was when you had a hit movie. I made Dreamchild, Castaway and Track 29. During that period we also did The Singing Detective and Blackeyes and that was an incredible experience. In the 80s, at the BBC, I remember meeting the head of drama at 8 a.m. and by the end of the day we had a ‘go’. I will always be grateful. I’d go and sit in pubs to do the work so I never got into having overheads. In the 80s my dream was to be able to afford an NPC car park permit so that I wouldn’t have to take the bus from Fulham into central London with work.

What are the challenges confronting independent producers now?
Especially in relation to independent producers, there’s no such thing as taking too long. This is the worst time for film finance. How do you make a movie for something under three or four million or over 150 million? For anyone starting out, trying to get three million is like us trying to get 150 million. It’s very tough to make anything. Look at Box Office Mojo and look at the cost; you can add 50 per cent to the budget they show. If it says 100 million budget, chances are it’s 150 million. One out of 100 films makes money. The interesting thing now is that you don’t have to make a film for the US any more. You can make it for Europe and for Asia. For anyone young, what we all get distinguished by is whether we hold on long enough to make something happen.

Has the evolution of digital technology changed anything?
The great thing is that we really are at a point where you can write anything. Forget about the tent-pole pictures, which are about getting as pregnant as possible. The real next chapter, over the next five years, is serious co-production, especially in Europe. It’s being able to use facilities in central and eastern Europe. Being able to use talent in the most cost-effective way. There’s now a whole generation of VFX guys and they’re filmmakers, too.

What are you most proud of accomplishing with Red Tails?
For me I’m proud that we’ve got at least 10 million people who’ve seen it. For George it’s probably been one of the best experiences for him. He knows how it touched people—that was as important to him as anything he’s done with Indy and Star Wars.

Red Tails was released in the UK on June 6

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 28 (May/June 2012)

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