Anthony Hemingway, 'Red Tails' Director, on George Lucas, Air Fights and Selling Young Viewers on the Tuskegee Airmen
Making your debut as a feature film director is already enough of a high-pressure situation, but for "Red Tails" director Anthony Hemingway, it was a once-in-a-lifetime scenario. "Red Tails," a rollicking World War II adventure movie about the Tuskegee Airmen -- the highly decorated all-black aviation unit that ran over 200 successful bomber escort missions and helped desegregate the military -- started as a passion project for "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas. The project sat in development for years, unable to find a major studio willing to fund a blockbuster featuring a predominantly black cast. Lucas eventually put up all the production money himself, and searched for an African-American voice to helm the movie.
Lucas discovered Hemingway in the world of television, where he was gaining attention for his work on the acclaimed HBO drama "The Wire." (He now serves as executive producer / director on "Treme.") Hemingway spoke with Moviefone about his experiences working with Lucas, the pressure of inheriting a high-stakes project from a Hollywood legend, and how "Red Tails" hopes to succeed with modern audiences.
What was the bigger selling point for this movie: filming the story of the Tuskegee Airmen or working with George Lucas?
Knowing that my first film was going to be a story of relevant importance with integrity, and knowing that I have such a personal connection to the Tuskegee Airmen, that was major. That preceded George for me -- but then to work with one of the kings in the industry, I was like a kid in a candy store.
Were you a big "Star Wars" geek growing up?
I'm not gonna lie, I was not a big "Star Wars" geek. It's funny, I remember watching them, but that kind of world was so... I don't know. Over the last five years, I started to really acquire a taste for more sci-fi; I'm a realist, I like real things, not too much fantasy. I grew up watching Westerns.
If you weren't a huge "Star Wars" fan growing up, did you feel relieved from some of the pressure of inheriting his passion project?
It allowed me to have a fresher approach to it. When you sit on something for so long you can't see beyond it. It's all you can see, so you become locked in it. Thankfully I didn't have that problem because I came in from such a different way.
How did George surprise you in the collaboration?
My initial thought was that he was gonna be micro-managing, hands-on; was I going to be able to do my job? "He's going to be looking over my shoulder every day." But it was such an amazing, creative collaborative opportunity where he allowed me to do my job. He was connected and in-tune with what was going on, but he allowed me to come in and do the job he hired me for. And I completely respect him for that.
As a director, how do you convey drama and suspense in an air fight, when it's a single shot on someone sitting in a cockpit?
It's really, really challenging. I had the opportunity to do a process called "pre-vis" which is where you take storyboards for all the action sequences, you give them to a group of computer artists who then animate those storyboards. I was able to build and create all the action sequences before we even started filming. It was a really great opportunity for me to then sit with the actors, and talk about the sequences, so they knew what I was asking. They could connect the dots.
It's a very old-school movie in tone. There's no ironic detachment, the characters are very noble and the movie doesn't assault the viewer with music video-style editing. How do you maintain that spirit without a modern audience rolling their eyes at it?
I put everybody through the paces. Whether it was boot camp or flight training, I wanted to really submerge us back into that period of time the best way I could. You look at a lot of young talent today and everyone is so contemporary. I had to keep reiterating that it's a different time. The mannerisms of back then to now are so different; even the way people talk, the way people sit, the way people walk. I pretty much demanded that they go to boot camp, strip them of everything contemporary. [Laughs] We live in a society today where nobody is connected anymore; everyone's on their phones and Blackberrys and iPhones -- and that was such a different time. People talked and socialized, there was a camaraderie, they bonded. I think all of what we did living together, the environment that George and [co-producer] Rick [McCallum] set up for us, was really effective in keeping us in that mentality.
What's the toughest challenge you have selling "Red Tails" to contemporary young audiences?
Trying to target a younger audience is challenging because I know this a story that they don't know about. Growing up, I didn't really know who the Tuskegee Airmen were. I knew that they existed, but I didn't know their history until that HBO movie came out in '95. That's where it began for me, I wanted to know more. But just trying to find ways to connect with kids: if I check out, then it's not working ... That's the trick, 'cause so many people would quickly check out when you're talking about war stories. But to turn this around and make it about heroics and heroes was very cool.
Trying to make a historically accurate WWII character drama seems like such a departure in current pop culture. What is your take on how Hollywood has to market this movie to modern audiences?
This definitely is not the norm because George couldn't sell it to a studio in the beginning. He had to independently fund this movie himself.
Which is surprising because it's George Lucas.
Exactly. I really hope it helps to bridge a gap and help us refresh ourselves again. Open the door for stories and materials like this. This is a fun roller-coaster ride that is entertaining, that shocks you with inspiration and great hope. It's a really great American story that I think will help our country, as well as kids today, to be engaged and empowered, to be excellent and realize it's cool to be smart. It's not a problem to be great and do good things.