Producing the Galaxy Part 2

In this second and final part to our interview with Star Wars and Young Indy producer Rick McCallum discusses the many challenges facing the Star Wars live action TV series. Rick also provides insight into the world of production and what it means to work for the world’s most successful film maker.

From Young Indy to the Star Wars prequels to the future represented by the currently in development live action TV series set in the Star Wars universe between the two trilogies, Rick discusses what it takes to bring a big budget movie to the silver screen, how his life both professional and personal has been affected by trips to a galaxy far, far away.

On the audience for Star Wars

We knew back when we were making Indy that George had written the back story already and we knew that it started off with an 8 year old kid and we knew that would offend a huge group of older fans but the issue was that it was for another generation. That may hurt the traditional hard core fan base but the reality was it was for another generation who may have never had the opportunity to see the movies in a theatre before.

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On the Redtails cast

We have the strike coming up and we are working truly with all American actors and are all members of SAG and so if everything goes out to strike in June so we are trying to get the film ready for summer and once we are making it and we see what kind of film it is then we’ll can try and figure out when the best time to best release the film. Right now its totally up in the air but I am still going and pushing ahead because I know that if we get this thing going and there is a strike I can still work on the effects sequences.
95 % of the cast is going to be 18 -23 year old kids obviously some will have had experience but for all practical purposes it will be all new kids.

On red tales release date

We’re hoping, barring the strike to make it for 2009.

On the challenges of producing the Young Indiana Jones series and the Star Wars Prequels

To not be on drugs for that long (laughs). That was the hardest part because it’s such a relentless…I’ll digress…. Indy started off very gently we started off with let’s just see the first year and see where it goes and we ended up shooting it for five years. The first year we started on Indy we started off and shot for 56 weeks non-stop, through Christmas, through every holiday with the same crew and we loved the experience, it was 4 or 5 months to get the right crew finally locked in and finally that became the crew for the next 15 years for us. Once we started Star Wars we knew this wouldn’t be a 5 year thing this would be a 12 year process. How do you keen that group together? How do you keep them excited?

The biggest challenge was always technically, we had to start making the film without any clue. Once you get a film even if your independent, even if you’re really successful, even if you’re at the top, even if your financing it yourself..there’s a release date and you have to know that release date on a film like star wars. You’re locked in because you’re competing with 100 other films that are released over a 3 month period and every bit of real estate on that calendar is precious, so you have a date, your locked into it, you can’t change it. You’re going out with 15.000 or 20.000 prints in 20.000 theaters, your opening worldwide day and date all the dubbing has to be done, all the translations have to be done so you have a reality that you have to live to.

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Imagine building a building 100 stories high but you don’t have all engineering things, you don’t know what the weight of the building is, you take a guess at what the foundation is and then, half way through making it you decide to make a 200 story building. That’s what it was kind of like, we had no idea how far we could push. We knew we had the hardware but we didn’t have the talent or the software.

It had taken us 4 years of turning ILM from an optical company into a digital company which was really done because of Young Indy and then we had an enormous amount of pressure of pushing it to the next limit with a group of talent that didn’t really exist. We had to train and bring together and find the software tools that didn’t exist. A lot of the proprietary software had to be written just to be able to do some of the things we knew we wanted to do in Episode 1. We had this date, so you kind of back in, take a deep breath and jump into it and hope you can make it and we barely did, we only finished the film about 4 days before it was released. That was a seriously major challenge.

On the anticipation for The Phantom Menace

It’s weird, if it was a one off thing you know I could have had a chance to really enjoy it, I really had a great time, we had a fantastic experience making it, every day we were faced with a challenge were we were lucky enough to get through. Especially in relationship to the time we had available to us. You know we had to make the movie for a budget, we were financing the film and a lot of people don’t realise with the 3 prequels we made each one cost 10 % less than the previous one, over a 12 year period which has never been done in the fim industry before.

We live or die…the company lives or dies on the success of the movie so we can’t do what a studio would. Superman cost 300 million dollars, Pirates of the Caribbean cost 315 million, the last Harry Potter cost 290 million dollars, if we make that kind of movie, even with our huge grosses, we don’t survive. Again, that cost is only two third of the actual cost, each one of those films spent another 150 million dollars on prints and ad’s but we can’t spend that. A studio has huge write offs, its owned by a parent company, there’s not a single studio that represents more than 3 or 4 % of the total gross earnings of its parent company. The parent company can offset its profits in real divisions and use the films as losses, we don’t have that reality, we can’t play in that world. That’s why there are studios who haven’t made a dime in years.
You think you hear that Star Wars grosses a billion dollars but in reality I think it’s only about 17 % of the total revenue that come from a film come from the theatrical side. It’s not a pretty business in a lot of ways and that’s why there’s usually only one or two films that go through the roof a year, out of the three or four hundred that are made in the last ten. Even though you hear these spectacular grosses you only get 50 % of that revenue. I am not talking about us personally I am talking about the film company, and then it’s got its distribution…you know it’s a wacky, wacky business.

There are a lot of actors making serious, serious money, there are a few producers and there are maybe 15, 20 directors and the rest…..
You have to make a real choice when you live in Northern California on every level whether you are working at Pixar, PDA, us, Coppola’s place or Saul Zaentz’s place because we don’t have the infrastructure…we actually do actually have the infrastructure, in terms of technically we are so far ahead of Hollywood but we don’t have the networking facilities, its only 550 miles away but it takes 5 or 6 hours by plane to get there door to door and people come up here to live a different kind of life. They want a personal life, it’s very hard to do that in Hollywood because you are always on the make, if you’re an actor your paying 30 to 40 % of your gross earnings to your manager, there’s your business manager, your agent, your lawyer, your publicist so there’s a system, it’s a club, an establishment It works for a lot of people but it’s not a life that’s interesting to me in any kind of way.

You don’t make as much money up here, real estate is much more expensive up here, it’s like London but there is a quality of life.

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On life after the live action TV series

There is a wonderful word, I’ve only read about it, I’ve not actually met anybody who’s actually done it, it’s called retirement.
The Star Wars thing I’m really looking forward to because we have to go back 20 years later and actually start a whole new crew in their early 20s, a whole new cast and we’ll make it as long as people like it. We have the potential of doing 3 or 4 hundred episodes, that’s over a long period of time with simultaneous series going out. It just really depends on people liking it enough, is it dangerous enough? Is it dark enough? Is it character driven enough? We just need to find the right home for it which is really tough to do on American television. It’s going to be interesting and I have such great hopes that network television will implode itself in the next 2 or 3 years by the time we are finished with the first series and it will be a totally different landscape out there anyway.

On being the media face of Star Wars

Again, I live in a different world, George is by nature a shy person but once you get him onto a subject that he wants to talk about he’s totally into it. One of the great things is that there is a part of the job, not that he doesn’t want to know about because he does know about it, but that he doesn’t want to have to deal with and that’s what you call collaboration. That’s when he…as I said before it’s perceived as a director’s medium and it is when the day you start shooting you have to hand everything over, the cast, the crew but you guys can see well enough that there has been this unbelievable focus towards one individual being the absolute creator of a movie. You can see when you look at the credits on a film, you can look at Superman, suddenly it’s the story by the director even though there are ten writers on the project the director has the screenplay credit and its produced and directed by him. That’s partly to do with the media, the Hollywood media trying to create stories out of things but there isn’t a lot of generosity out there but that is not an issue that George has what so ever. The big thing that we have is that we truly believe there are a lot of deeply talented people out there.

I’ll give you an example even talking to you guys, one of you is from Brighton one of you from Devon, that’s not traditionally a place where if you are part of the film business you would be but it doesn’t matter where you are now. It doesn’t matter where you write from but there are a lot of people in this country where if you’re from Kansas City or Columbus, Ohio and you’re not a member of that club or don’t have access to it your fucked, even though your deeply talented.

One of the things that George had especially was he wasn’t a social being, he’s got lots of friends, an incredible family, and he’s got his company but he wasn’t into the schmoozing, and he’s not good at and there are a lot of people out there and he was incredibly lucky because Francis discovered him. He was incredibly lucky that he didn’t have to go through that because if he had to he probably wouldn’t have got his first film made.

The only way you can really control your life on any level is to be independent, there are certain times in your life, sell out is the wrong word, where you have to be hired. First of all it’s a challenge because it’s a craft and you have to learn your craft. Second of all like most people you get married, you get divorced, you get a car, it breaks down, you get a mortgage, you lose it with your first wife, you go to your second wife there is just the ebb and flow of life that everybody experiences but you need money for that. You have huge periods of your life where you’re not working, you are developing but you have still got all the accoutrements that need money.
One of the great things now and one of the things we have tried is to de mystify and de mythologize the business in a sense that if you have the talent you will find your way. Right now for the first time you can actually express yourself with a Mac computer or final-cut pro and your own HD camera all those are reachable. When we were growing up you couldn’t do that. A camera cost 8 thousand dollars a week to rent.

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They learn about blocking, they put it together, it sucks and they can make 8 or 10 or 15 films, that’s one of the dilemmas about the business. You’ve got people who can bullshit really well, they get on well with actors but they do nothing technically, they never get a chance to actually learn their craft and that’s why I can’t wait to set up the series because everyone else that we have we have been working with has moved on, their into their third marriage now. Their into their golden moment and I have to hope that the group of young kids I have to get together, is going to have to have the skill set that nothing can stop them. That’s part of the absolute, real impact of Star Wars, the impact is what’s extraordinary. After I finished episode 1, for 10 weeks while we were prepping episode 2, I had 10 weeks to go around the world to 40 countries and I got to see the impact, especially between 8 and 12 year old boys the impact was huge, it was monumental and they have grown up with us and kids who were 8 and 10 years old with episode 1 are 18 now and they have stuck with us and they have phoned us. We try to get as much information out to them of what it’s like and we have 4 or 5 exhibitions going on all the time around the world, we just had Star Wars Celebration in London. Here’s what goes on behind the scenes…you’re not good at being a cinematographer but you like building props? Here’s where you can go to school, here’s where you can learn, here’s the guys who can teach you. You like making costumes?
That’s one of the amazing things about Star Wars it taps into something deep for people.

I don’t know if you ever saw the Simpsons parody on it, it was fantastic. It was about episode 2 and the kids were saying that was the worst Star Wars…that was the worst one, but I gotta go Dad ‘cos I gotta get in line to see it again. There is just something about it that goes deep.

As a company we have always tried to make that accessible to everybody, we have every single thing that we can do for everybody around the world that writes us, they get a letter back, they get advice where to go to school, We have a huge internship at ILM anything because most of our people want to get into the technical side.

We shot 800 hours of making the whole three films and the painful moments not just ‘oh I love working with George because he is so talented’ and ‘Rick is such a nice guy and I have to say that because he won’t hire me because he is an alcoholic and he is addicted to ecstasy’ (laughs) but it’s the real stuff where I am on ecstasy and freaking out and stuff. We are trying to get that DVD out for everybody where it becomes like a miniature free film school, DVD is too expensive to make it work but we are trying to get online. Lots of stuff that we are trying to do, with the screenings and trying to get everybody involved, our website is huge and we spawned after 2 and a half years since episode 3 we will still do a billion dollars worth of toys this year without any product out there, it goes deep.

For Him (Lucas) obviously it’s an incredible blessing but it’s also a little bit of a curse because its, you know, 30 years. One of the things we really wanted to do, the subtext once episode 3 was done and was successful was we wanted to make sure the rest of the company was setup properly that now they really are on their own and each year they’ve got to find the water, where they didn’t have to find the water before.

Basically George..I don’t know if you remember Citizen Kane that wonderful line with Orson Wells where he was spending a million dollars on his paper and his accountant came up and said we are going to spend a million dollars running this paper, and Orson Wells looked down at him and said based on that rate we could keep on going for the next 60 years. I think basically George has enough of a war chest to go off and once he is ready to, and that probably won’t be for another couple of year, but once things have settled down he can go off and make 20 films that don’t work. That will be made for him, his family, his friend and hopefully there will be an audience out there but if there isn’t it doesn’t matter.

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On keeping the Star Wars concept fresh

That’s the major challenge and that’s the toughest, the million dollar question. First of all this would never be a network television show, this would be cable. You have got to remember the dynamics of cable are completely different. If we were on network TV and I didn’t have 15 to 20 million viewers we would be considered a failure. But on cable we get 2 million to watch Star Wars were a hit and also we don’t have advertising we have to deal with or advertisers . WE have to provide something where people want to join that cable company. I think that’s where we can, whether its HBO or Showtime whatever one’s out there, our audience, especially our traditional audience or the younger audience is exactly what those cable companies need to survive.

But lets say the business is so imploded I believe we have enough that I believe we can make it.

The goal is the same that we had on Indy, how do we find the real characters to make this, because this can’t work on effects and plot, this has to work on character development. This has to be challenging enough to get 2 million adults to pay whatever it is to go see it. That’s the real challenge, can we not be goofy enough, can we be dark enough, and dark enough and exciting enough. Its all different characters, its based between episode 3 and 4 in that 20 year period where luke was growing up and we don’t see anybody from the original movies now that’s a challenge. We have a darker story, we like to think of it as Deadwood in space, its totally character driven. Can we make that work, that’s no 1.

The world we will be in 2009, 2010 its like the unreality that’s going HD and Blue-ray right now, I don’t think either one of them will become significant formats because I think we are going jump right to downloading. The challenge for us is how do we make it look like a feature film on a television budget which is exactly what we did with Young Indy, is the template for Star Wars. We have to go back and we have to try and now bend the technology that we created to the point where we can make the tools, the software easy enough for young people to learn who are on a different scale of earning power but have the opportunity to do things they could never do until they have been in the business 10 or 15 years.

How do we stop this nonsense of films costing…we are going to see a 400 million dollar film soon, I don’t know who its going to be, there were 6 to 8 films last year that cost close to 300 million dollars and over. That’s serious fucking money, that’s so out of control money. If you have a film like Pirates that does a billion dollars. It takes home 500 million dollars, it cost 315, 320, it has 150 million dollars in print and ads it doesn’t take much accounting to realize that picture’s not going to break even. That’s based on the unreality of the stock market the perception is that if the stock price goes up by 3 dollars, the companies worth 3 billion more, even though the film doesn’t work ,but if your independent you can’t like in that reality. If you want to stay outside of the system even making what the system does you have to make it for half of the system does to actually make real money at it, and that’s one of the biggest challenges. If we go off and do Georges films we want them to look like they cost 100 million dollars but we want to make them for 20 and the fun part for me specifically how can we actually get a hold and a handle on the talent and use talent from all over the world to be working on our shots. We want to bid out our shots to kids who while they are in school could do wire removal and we say maybe we give you 300 bucks to get the wires out of that and if you do it well you get the next shot. That’s the only way we can get to the next level.

On the terms of ‘How do we make it different…that’s the really big one’

The real problem is I’m not going to know that until we sit down at the end of November when we sit down with all the writers. We have an idea of where we’re going but it’s so vague. The real thing is now how do we bring a group of people in who can stir us up, challenge everything and turn it into something. That’s the beautiful part of the process. Here’s what we want to do. This is the basic overall plot of what we want to do and the kind of characters we want to create now lets start at page 1 and work it through.
Sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days but if that group really clicks it’s amazing.

The only thing I learnt was taking in taking television to film because the film business is so bloated. So deeply in need of implosion. Think of it this way… take a series like Life on Mars, you have something that has to be shot in 5 days, 8 pages of dialogue, probably anywhere from 8 to 10 move a day, they’ve got 1 million pounds to make it, probably less 750 thousand, 800 thousand pounds to make it. You’ve got good actors who have to do literally anywhere from 6 to 8 pages of dialogue a day and you’ve got 5 days to do 50 or 60 pages. Then you go over to a film set, you go to Shepperton, you go to Pinewood and look at a big budget movie being made. Look at the call sheet, an eighth of a page is going to be shot. You have got a film that’s going to take 125 days. But remember Life on Mars as soon as they finish that five days they go into another five days and they go into another five days after that and in 15 days they have done almost 3 hours worth of entertainment that could be cut down into a feature film, it has twice as many production values on a certain level in terms of location it has a depth of story and character that goes deeper than any movie…probably deeper is the wrong word but more complicated. Then you look at the film that ends up costing 150 million dollars where you have got 2 million dollars in 3 episodes of Life on Mars. The irony is the camera man who’s working on the movie makes five times as much money as the guy doing the television show, the actor makes 500 times less than the guy who’s only got to remember a page of dialogue. It’s a totally different business and there is no reason why the business should be that bloated


It goes back to when you have a project you have an idea of what that audience is going to be, that determines roughly the budget and you have to live within that commitment otherwise you have films like we’re having now and like we have had for the last 10 or 15 years that are being made for 80 to 100 million dollars where there was only an audience that 2 million people could have gone to.
Again, you Little Miss Sunshine that breaks through but what gives it incredible profit would mean a different to all the film makers was if it had been made for 50 million dollars it wouldn’t have made anything. My whole life I have never understood it, I started in feature films and went into television and I said this is fucking nuts. I want to pay the camera man who can shoot 8 pages of dialogue in a day the money that the film cameras making because why wouldn’t I? I don’t to be sitting around a set shooting for 14 hours a day getting a page and a half of dialogue. Its bullshit. Everything is so serious; film has become this whole thing where the director, and I don’t have anything with the director being the god, but the whole things has become so out of proportion to what it is. At the end of the day truly most people don’t give a shit the set design, the cinematography..they don’t even care about the blocking all they care about is do I like this actor and do I care about him.

Young Indy is the best thing we have ever done, it’s the most fun we have done doing anything. We got to shoot in 40 countries which was amazing, we managed to somehow, now me personally, but all of us got to stick together for that 5 year period, we didn’t loose anybody we were tied to the hip. Once you are away from the family for 50 weeks a year, the kids are in school and you are working with a group like that it’s a pretty amazing experience. Also I had the most incredible opportunity of working with 25 amazing directors. Usually If you are doing a film by the time you have started it and finished it, if you are the sole producer it takes 2 and a half or three years. If you are really lucky you do 10 films and you work with the same director a couple of times you only get to experience maybe 5 or 6 different directors. This was brilliant because you had Billy August, David Hair, Nick Roeg, Mike Newell and just an incredible group of directors who came in and didn’t take it too seriously. They said this is going to be fun I am going to learn about the tools of cinematography and digital effects and on that level it was just fantastic.

Depending on what happens with the storyline and everything else if the nature of the story lends itself to that then we will definitely try and do that and if it doesn’t then we will try and get 2 or 3 directors who can really work on doing 3 or 4 episodes during each season and maybe have a few guest directors who want to come in because believe it or not there are a lot of directors out there, especially film directors who say oh my god I can go in for two weeks, I can prep for a week and come in and learn some new things about technology and see how they are making it and why they are able to do this so cheap. Then we edit it and they come in and give their final cut and make their changes so for a 3 or 4 week involvement they don’t get brain damage in between projects and a lot of directors go and do commercials everything else and this is kind of a lark and on that level this is really great. The trouble again for a director just like all of us, for everybody it’s your shot now, because the films are so expensive if you blow that shot, if you’re a young director and you can go off….and you can look at the history of English directors they do one little film that’s great…what was that film that was a huge hit….the Full Monty. He made one of the most successful films in English history and the pressure, I don’t know him personally he made a good movie for very little money that did 250 million dollars worldwide…what happened?

This is so fucking tough, you’re a young director you suddenly make a movie and then your offered 5 million dollars to go to Hollywood and make your own movie where you know in your heart you should do but everybody thinks you’re so great for that moment and Meryl Streep wants to work for you but its just not your culture or whatever it is and then you eat it and you eat it so bad that it takes you years to get back up. It takes you three years to get your next project, it’s a really, really tough business.

When Peter was doing the first Lord of the Rings, imagine the pressure. He had been fucked every which way and he stood his ground about one thing, he was only going to do this if he could make all three. That battle was years in the making, first Miramax and then New Line then the budget issues and the whole thing he stood his fucking ground. In the middle of all this he does this extra ordinary thing, he has been shooting for 7 months he has had every fucking thing go wrong in terms of weather, the New Line relationship the whole thing and he has got a week off before he finished the last two months of the movie. The cast are exhausted, they are all on location, they have had unbelievable weather and what does he do for his week off, he fly’s to Sydney and sits down on the set and watches us making Star Wars for a week. Its incredible, it was such a pleasure to see him but that was his holiday after two and a half years and seven months of the worst kind of film making, when I say the worst, the hardest kind of film making and all he wanted to do with his five days off was come to Sydney and watch us shoot.

There is a lot of people who are interested but everybody wants to see the script now, you can’t even go off and do a TV show, it’s got to work on some level. If we aim for that cable market or two or three million downloads or whatever its going to be by the time we get this finished instead of this kind of weird monster hit you have got to have.

On reaction to the prequels

There were things that I cringed about that I still continue to cringe about, but here is one of the unique things about George especially in relationship to Star Wars and the only time I have ever seen it is in Spielberg and Lucas. That despite their unbelievable success and despite this incredible jetstream they live in, they still both look at the world….Usually when you are blocking out a scene you have a lens attachment and you are doing it from your height.

Usually the camera operator will come over with the key grip and boom the camera is right at eye height. Those guys look at it from exactly the height of what a 9 and 10 year old boy is and they look up, and it’s always about the wonderment and the amazing thing that is going on in front of them. Despite they are both in their 60s they will at through the camera or lens they will look at the operator and then bend down and say here is where I want the camera. It’s not conscious either. I have seen George and he doesn’t even think about it, it was where that moment, that epiphany was.

Things like Jar Jar, or whatever it may be, and Jar Jar who is considered one of the most polarizing creatures on the planet..other than have got to remember that in that day when it came out people who were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s Jar Jar was everything repugnant to him but Jar Jar is one of the most popular characters. But you had to be an 8 to 10 year old boy or girl to enjoy Jar Jar. That’s what drove that movie to a billion dollars.

Part 1 of Producing the Galaxy can be found here.

Discuss this topic here.

  • Russell Sheath Russ Sheath is 33 and teaches at an FE College in North Devon. After a stint in the regular and reserve armed forces and helping a pal run a comic shop Russ decided he would become a comic celebrity stalker and has interviewed, amongst others, Todd McFarlane, J. Scott Campbell, Marc Silvestri and Tim Sale for Fractal Matter.