Producing the Galaxy Part 1

It’s rare to secure the opportunity of speaking to people involved in bringing films to the screen that have really meant something to you. Through a dose of serendipity and steadfast organisation we had the chance to interview Rick McCallum, most famously the producer of the Star Wars prequels, and also the former collaborator of two great British writers and fillmakers, Nicholas Roeg and Dennis Potter. Mr McCallum’s credits include Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and Dreamchild.

We scheduled a telephone interview with Mr McCallum for one late September afternoon. The interview lasted ninety minutes and ranged far and wide over Star Wars, Indiana Jones, independent filmmaking and the filmbusiness today and the challenges of being an independent filmmaker. We also had some thoughtful insights into two new Lucasfilm projects being produced by Rick, namely the live action Star Wars tv series and the forthcoming feature film Redtails.

We’d like to thank John Singh in the Publicity department at Lucasfilm for making the organisation of the interview run so smoothly and again a very big thanks to Mr McCallum for his enthusiasm and time spent talking to us and providing a lot of inspiration for any new and emerging filmmakers out there.

Part 1 of the interview by James Clarke (for more on James’ work please visit:, part 2 will be featured in our November issue by Russ Sheath.

Rick on Redtails

Q: How are things developing with the new Lucasfilm feature, Redtails ?

I’ve got a number of things going on right now. We have a wonderful writer (named John Ridley, announced as Redtails writer in August 2007), writing Redtails. I take off in October to scout locations so I’m setting that up to shoot in Europe and in the meantime I’m also getting together our first writers’ conference which I hope will take place in November for the live action Star Wars tv series and we’ll probably shoot that in Australia. We’ve got writers from the UK, Australia and America.

Rick, what is it that appeals to you about the Redtails movie ?

It’s an incredible little slice of American history. I wasn’t involved (with its development) when it started because I was doing Indiana Jones (tv series) but one of the things that always attracted us was there’s this huge scope. It certainly has the potential to be a truly epic movie. As the drafts came through there were so many conflicting ideas and viewpoints (from the the writer and director at that time) and then HBO tried to do a tv version and that was not successful at all as a story or as a film. You know, we were in Star Wars heaven and hell (so) we put it on the back burner at that point. But the core of it is a group of unbelievably talented African American kids, 19 and 20 years old and they got their shot finally being able to perform in the war and what they did, they did it so brilliantly and admirably and that’s really what we’re concentrating on. What was it really like ? How do we create what it was like to fly. We’re trying to push the effects to a whole new photorealism so that people can experience what it would be like to be in a small, little plane and go through that and be nineteen years old.

Does the Redtails movie story take us through recruitment and training of the aviators ?

This starts straight in Tunisia and goes right into the war. It’s more of an adventure story – lots of guys were killed, you learn to like them, to fall in love with them. They go up, they die. It’s more about what they became once they were put in the line of duty. It’s a much more uplifting film than it could have been. The thing that makes the story for us is it’s just an incredible story of the best and the brightest and they just happen to be black. This is totally photorealistic and a low budget picture by our standards. The challenge is not so much the shooting , it’s the story, the characters. We want to go for an Empire of the Sun, Pearl Harbor level (of photo realism) of what it was like to be using those Mustangs.

Rick, what’s the audience for Redtails ?

It’s for everybody. It goes through a long tradition – there’s always been something about fighter pilots in our imagination, they’ve always had the right stuff. There’s a lot of pilots out there when they’re probably wouldn’t if Bush wasn’t president. It’s always been such an integral part of the American psyche and so we have that audience.

We’re really after kids: everything’s a video game now. (Kids) have so much at their fingertips; they have an utterly digital life. Most of the adventures they take on now are virtual, anyway. There’s just something really appealing, if we do it right, of showing was it was like to be nineteen years old and up in a plane. (The Tuskegee Airmen) couldn’t go off and make kills. Their job was to protect the white guys. They were only recognised in May 2006. They never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. Their job was to protect those bombers. There’s no way to express how bad (the racism was) and the racism is inherent in the story. We’ll let the DVD and the documentary – if you loved the film, loved the story – you can find out everything about it. It’s not something that we’re shying away from.

On the forthcoming live action Star Wars tv series.

Rick, what’s the status with the new Star Wars live action series ?

We met with hundreds of writers (over the summer of 2007). I love meeting writers especially when they’ve been locked up on writing something for a long time. (We have) a combination of both (new and established) writers, not anybody who’s been in the business for like thirty years., but people who’ve had stuff made and we’ll have a junior set of writers too.

What do you look for (in a writer) for the Star Wars tv series ?

What we do is we see close to three hundred writers – some are busy. Once a month we go to Los Angeles, and two or three times a year to London and Sydney. You find out if you can connect. Some people have done really successful shows. It’s about who’s talented, who’s got the strength to challenge George and also, much more importantly, what’s the dynamics of the five or six people. If they can let go of their ego and work toward a specific goal. Sometimes you think “I’m sick of writing alone.’ Everyone has their ebb and flow. We’re trying to get everyone in their peak.

So, is it similar to the writing process that took place for Young Indy ?

Yes. On Young Indy we had four writers from England and two from the US. It was just a wacky groip of people, totally different outlooks on life. It’s a casting thing. And that’s down to luck.

The Young Indiana Jones tv series and the man in the hat more generally.

Are you pleased to finally have Young Indy on DVD (released this October 2007)?

I feel great. We also produced 94 documentaries (for the DVD release) - that was a four and a half year fest of incredible people. I couldn’t be more proud of Young Indy. We set up a documentary unit. Everything with Indy has always been - it just was a blessed project. It doesn’t happen often in life, whether it was the first three films, then Young Indy, the documentaries and now Indy 4 – I think that’ll be a brilliant film. It’s just always had a special thing., something about it. Star Wars didn’t have that, Indy always has. George goes down once every week or two (to the Indy 4 production).

On the work of a producer and the challenges of independent filmmaking.

Can you give us some idea of the role of a producer and ways in which it is different to be a producer on the Star Wars films?

That’s a tough question. If you’re producing you’re a producer. If you’re not, you’re not a producer. There’s an old joke in Hollywood that a producer was someone who knew a writer. Producing really depends on what kind of relationship you have with the director. I’ve always been lucky and blessed because I’ve worked almost exclusively with writer-directors and directors who have authenticity to be able to do what they want to do, even if we’re making commercial films, like with George, we’re outside of the Hollywood establishment. I’ve been blessed in having really wonderful directors to work with. I live in a different kind of reality (than many other producers). In my job, and I think it is the fundamental role of a producer and it is not that romantic, but basically our job is to enable a writer-director, because film is a director’s medium. TV is a producer’s medium, a writer’s medium. But film has…at some point you have to let go. My job is to enable that writer-director get every single thing he wrote down in a perfect world and try to get it as close to his respective imagination as it can possibly get to. If you do that – it depends again if you have a great relationship with a director – I love the process of - if you look at the average film now – that’s a world of the quote unquote creative producer and the line producer – so I can’t be involved in that kind of work.

After the terrible failure of my first film, Pennies from Heaven, I wasn’t really able to become part of the studio system so I went to a place where failure was rewarded and that was England – as long as you made the film for a little money and your peers and the critics liked it could make another film. It was a simpler time – I got to make nine movies in seven years. Then the world changed – there was a whole different economic revolution going on.

Then I got the chance to try out – I met George (in the late 1980s) and we kept the relationship going and he had the idea for Young Indy. In the late 1980 the economic reality of filming in Europe got really tough. There are two different worlds: I have the greatest respect for the independent world – anyone who’s striving to control the destiny of the their own personal life and the work that they do, but it’s very very tough. The problem now is you can’t do it now unless you have a success, unless you have millions of people coming to your film. The roll over is very long now. Very tough. In those gentle days , and I don’t mean that England loves failure, if they just broke even and they thought they were ok, and everyone kind of liked them, you’d get enough money to make another movie. But you’d always have to know what that author was in direct relationship to how much money (you could get).

When I used to work with Nic Roeg I always knew there’d be five million, say three million people around the world, who’d always go and see a Nic Roeg film. You knew and you’d take the average ticket price of, like three dollars, so that’s nine million, so you get fifty percent of that and then you’ve got marketing costs so you’d know that if you made the film for a million pounds nobody would get burned. But if you tried to make the film for three million dollars you’d be fucked. The economic realities mean you always had to scrounge around but you had a life.

You have to know which part of the audience you want to go for – we had that issue with the prequels.

From Dennis Potter to George Lucas, Pennies from Heaven to Redtails, Rick McCallum has had one of the most varied and interesting careers in Hollywood. Endlessly passionate about his work, he’s seen and been at the forefront of near seismic change in the industry. And it looks like he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look for part two of Producing the Galaxy by Russ Sheath in our November Issue

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    James's most recent book is The Virgin Film Guide: War Films. He has also written The Virgin Film Guide: Ridley Scott, The Virgin Film Guide: Coppola and The Virgin Film Guide: Animated Films, which was reissued as an updated edition in summer 2007.

    James has also written for the Channel 4 magazine Ten 4, Vertigo magazine, Empire magazine and The Guardian newspaper. He has also written The Pocket Essentials guides to the films of Steven Spielberg and The Pocket Essentials guide to the films of George Lucas and has contributed material to the Wallflower Press Critical Guide to North American Directors and the accompanying volume on British and Irish Directors. His work can also be seen in the very recently published Rough Guide: Film which was published in September 2007.

    As a scriptwriter James has worked on several animated series that have been in development and has also had three stageplays for young people commissioned and toured regionally in the UK. In 2002 he was longlisted as a producer by BAFTA for the short film category with the film Space Dance that was first broadcast on a major UK terrestrial channel.

    Whilst waiting for his next commissioned project to come through, James is currently at work on a novel, a screenplay and a stageplay based on a picture book. Alongside his writing, James teaches Film Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK. For more on James's work please visit