Opening today is director Anthony Hemingway‘s World War II action-drama Red Tails. Produced by George Lucas and Rick McCallum, the movie is based on the real-life story of the first all African-American squadron and their fight to defend our country. They were given second-hand planes and the most dangerous missions, and it makes their story all the more incredible. Red Tails stars Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston, Brandon T. Jackson, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelly, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Otto, Daniela Ruah, and Michael B. Jordan.
Last week I did an exclusive phone interview with Hemingway. During our wide ranging conversation we talked about how he got involved in Red Tails, what it was like to meet and collaborate with Lucas, how much of the film was “Hollywoodized,” the boot camp for the actors, deleted scenes, test screening, and if they ever think about releasing the film in 3D. In addition, with Hemingway having worked on The Wire and Treme, we talked about both of those series and what it’s like to direct TV. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio or the full transcript is below. Red Tails opens this weekend.
Anthony Hemingway: I feel like I am about to throw up. It is so amazing and it is just overwhelming. I have to be honest, I have been a part of some great things, but this is just magnificent. The whole meaning, relevance, and importance of this film and this story is just so awesome. I can’t even form words to describe the feeling of this. It is beyond anything that I ever imagined.
I’m sure that there were a number of people that were considered for the gig. Can you talk about how you managed to get it and your first meeting with Mr. Lucas?
Hemingway: I got the phone call one day from my agent saying that George Lucas wanted to meet with me and I was like, “Yeah, right. Come on. Me? Why?” and he told me and then it really happened. I went and had a meeting where I was as confident as I can always be. The minute I walked into the building to meet him I lost all composure. I started sweating profusely and it was pretty intimidating I have to say in a way. Just to meet someone of his magnitude and to even be considered to be a part of this project was just already great. To sit down and listen to him convey his vision for the film; I was on board. In my mind, there wasn’t anyone else to be considered. That just went on to a series of meetings where I had a presentation where I presented my vision for the film and things that I felt needed to be strengthened with the script and just how I thought. The day Rick McCallum called me to offer me the job I lost it. I almost wrecked my truck. [laughs] It was just very emotional. To digress a bit, several weeks before even that first phone call it was out of the last writer’s strike. I remember sitting in my living room on my couch talking to a very close friend of mine. This was about the time of not knowing how long that strike was going to last. It was really kind of bouncing off conversations about passion and the type of material I want to do. I really prayed and asked God for my first film. At that time I had been reading a lot of scripts that my agent and managers were sending me and nothing really spoke to me. At that time I really, really wanted to really step into the film world having conquered everything that I could have imagined and dreamed of doing on the TV scale. I prayed and asked for something with integrity, something that means something, and that makes a statement. To get that phone call after several weeks after that – I felt like my prayers had been answered. It has been an amazing ride.
George Lucas has been on this thing for like 23 years. Can you talk about what you suggested in how the script could be adjusted? Can you talk about what you brought to the table and how it differed from what George was thinking and how you worked together to make it all work?
Hemingway: I think with me coming on board and not being a part of this for 20 something years was just a fresh pair of eyes. To really take the material and say, “Hm. How can we focus this? What is the point of view of this story?” I think with that…taking what George’s vision for it was, which was to speak to youth. I honestly and initially had trouble with that. Knowing this story and knowing the history behind it and not even knowing who the Tuskegee Airmen were growing up and knowing that it’s not even part of any school’s curriculum. No kids really know who these men are. They don’t know or care about World War II, and it’s going to be very difficult. My feeling at first was that we have to kind of go at them through the back door. I didn’t know if this was really going to hit them directly. I was really more about focusing on the story and the characters and knowing that we both collaborated on this effort together. In the beginning he told me not to worry. Not that he told me not to worry about the action, but he definitely had my back and that I was completely supported with all of that. So he really wanted me to focus on the other 90% of everything. That is where we came together I think. I really helped shaped character and story and he really helped focus on the…he is a buff on the dog fights, combat, and all of that. That was just a joy even for me to be educated about all of that and even the process. So I think together we, I feel, brilliantly connected and made it happen.
Hemingway: Yeah. He has been living with this for so long. He just breathes it.
How much of the story was Hollywoodized and how much was actual fact? How do you balance telling a movie while also trying to be honest to something that is so important in history?
Hemingway: I think it is a pretty fair balance. First and foremost, telling historical stories is very tricky because it is something that is known. It is not like you can tell a lie or change something that is written in black and white. There was a huge sense of responsibility in telling this story for me about the Tuskegee Airmen. The fact that these men were so courageous and what they did in helping this country and our world and to not be known was something that I felt we had to hit truthfully and really honestly and give them the credit that they deserve. I think that was the foundation. With anything, and especially with the pallet of viewers in watching anything on TV and film, you have to entertain them. I wouldn’t really say it was “Hollywoodized” or “too commercial”. It has the sense of that because of the scale of it and the action. But I think every move we made was backed with “These are true facts” and that “These are true events and that nothing we are telling didn’t happen.” However, yes, we may need to have a creative license here or there to try and pump something up or to make it a little bit more appealing. But I think everything that is there and anything that anyone will see is rooted in reality and truth.
Hemingway: It was my idea. I just felt that in this day and age: 1) A story like this is so important 2) Being true to the story and wanting to…these pilots were very young. They were between 19 to 21 years old and most of our young actors today are very contemporary. So I felt that there needed to be certain steps that we all, including myself, needed to take to make sure that we were representing who these men were at that time and really staying in the time of the period. I had the boot camp instructors research what the Tuskegee Airmen program did and everything they did to prepare them to get to war. So that way everything was about making sure that we did it. It was stripping everything contemporary from these guys. We took their cell phones, Blackberries, computers, iPods, and everything away. I feel like we are in a time now where we have lost contact with each other and there is a huge disconnect. Back then there was a bond. Those guys stuck together. They talked, supported each other, and they depended on each other. I think everything including the boot camp, the pilot training, and all of that stuff…in my opinion, I wanted it to transfix these actors and these young guys and to really give them this sense of camaraderie so that they understood every step and every day what we were doing so that we wouldn’t forget it.
Hemingway: They knew that they were going to do it, but they didn’t know to what degree it was going to be done. It was a huge shock to all of them. But every last one of them will tell you that when they came out of it it made a difference. It was major.
Ben Burtt was involved with this film. Can you talk about working with him? He is a legend in the field.
Hemingway: Ben and I worked a little bit together in the very beginning when I did a process that they call pre-visualization. Before I left to go overseas I had the fortune of doing this process where I was able to really build all of the action sequences before we started shooting, which was a huge contribution because myself and the actors got to connect with what we were doing together in all of the green screen and gimbal process. So he really tried to help me see it largely and to help me open up and to step back and see things. He has been there and done it. So he really helped me take it up a notch.
Hemingway: There are a fair amount of scenes that are missing from what we originally did. It’s only to focus it, streamline it, and make it clearer in getting the point of view across and helping the story focus on the adventure, fun, the combat, and to really show the excellence of what these men did and who they were.
Are you a fan extended cuts? Do you see all of the deleted scenes being on the DVD or Blu-ray? Sometimes things are cut for a reason. Can you go into a little bit more detail?
Hemingway: I would love for the deleted scenes to be on the DVD, but I don’t know. We haven’t talked about that process. So I am not sure when that will come.
Hemingway: There are about 30 minute of scenes that are not there.
That is a healthy number. Are you a fan of the extended cut or is the cut that you realesed the “Director’s Cut”?
Hemingway: I would not call that the director’s cut. There was a huge collaboration in focusing the film in the end in what is being shown.
Were you involved in the test screening process or any friends and family screenings? How did those screenings impact the way the film finally looks?
Hemingway: I don’t believe that there were too many changes from once we started going out and doing these influence or test screenings. What I think was really helping us to see what really was working and what people were taking away and what they were responding to, and for me it really helped me personally really understand what we have, was knowing that this is an amazing story, that it is important, and that I am proud of it. I still think that it is affirming when people tell you and when they walk away being affected by it and empowered. That is to me where it really resonates.
Hemingway: No, we never talked about that in the beginning, or I guess since I was on board.
I’ll be honest, this might have been even cooler in 3D.
Hemingway: It could have been, yeah. Just with my personal taste, I just would not have wanted to have followed suit with everything going 3D just because.
You were the first AD on one of my favorite shows of all time and I’m pretty sure you know what I am going to say – The Wire.
Hemingway: I started directing on The Wire.
I definitely want to ask what you remember about working on that show and the fact that the show never won the awards but everybody who has seen it thinks it’s one of the best shows ever.
Hemingway: I am proud of that show, very much. I had a lot of growth out of that show. I spring boarded out of that show. Everyone there and a part of it is my family. It is a show that is larger than life, really. It is being used at universities such as Harvard for sociological studies. That is another situation where being a part of the show and working on it; so many of us never really knew the magnitude of what it was and how it would speak to people. We knew that we were a part of something great, but I don’t think to that degree. So it is really kind of…it makes me proud to walk around and people know that I am a part of The Wire and even Treme, which kind of follows suit. It is the same thing – people aren’t on it yet. It is different than The Wire, but I still think it is as important and speaking to a larger message.
You’ve worked on Fringe, Falling Skies, Community, and True Blood. You’ve done a ton of TV shows as well as directing Red Tails. How is like bringing the energy and feel that the fans of the show follow without putting too much of yourself in it? Can you talk about the balance of making the show work while putting yourself in it?
Hemingway: It’s a huge balance and a challenge. I think people that are not used to television come to it thinking that they can reinvent the wheel and that is putting yourself in it and not really respecting what has been created. My analogy for that is always that I have been given a circle and I am allowed to color that circle in whatever color I want to color it, but as long as when I return it and give it back it is still a circle. That opportunity at least allows me to bring something to the table. Pretty much every show that I do I am a fan of before I go there. So I feel like I have been a part of that ride the whole time. So I am able to go in there and really speak the same language as all of the actors, producers, and creators. It is always a fun experience. Most of the shows that I do and return to allow us as directors to do our job. In TV you are a visitor. You go, you do your job, and you leave. Sometimes you don’t know what it is going to end up being until you see it on the screen. It is an amazing opportunity and practice because it keeps you loose. It is almost like school because things evolve and things process. For me it has been a really amazing experience to work in so many different genres because I have to really almost start over every time I do a new show and forget what I was just doing. It is a challenge because you get so engrossed in something while you are doing it and it is still with you. When you leave and go to the next project it is like “Wait a minute. That is that show and this is something different.” It is a challenge, but I love that challenge. It drives me.
Hemingway: I’m a co-executive producer/director on Treme still and we are on our third season. So they have given me their blessing, love, and support to come out and continue this journey of this awesome experience of doing Red Tails. I’ll be going right back to New Orleans next week after we do The White House screening and a couple of other press junkets. I’ll be down there and I’ll actually be able to go opening night with my Treme family and watch the film. So that is going to be awesome and really exciting. As far as other films and TV shows that I am passionate about and trying to develop…first and foremost, I love humanistic stories about really remarkable people. Everything that I am doing are things that could be in the same vein as Red Tails. That may be difficult to do and challenging in the eyes of the Hollywood system, but they are important. I really want to champion to get them done.
Red Tails is now playing in theaters everywhere.