The cast of RED TAILS, a film directed by Anthony Hemingway. Photo by Jiri Hanzl. © Lucasfilm Ltd. and TM. All rights reserved.
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Red Tails (2012)
Opened: 01/20/2012 Wide
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.
Red Tails is a high-flying action adventure film inspired by the heroics of the first all-African American aerial combat unit to serve in World War II.
The action-packed movie places viewers in the cockpits of nimble fighter planes in the thick of aerial combat, takes them into the tension-filled halls of the Pentagon as the military brass debate the risks of using black pilots in battle, and invites them to experience the camaraderie of the young hotshot Tuskegee Airmen as they serve with excellence. It is an inspiring tribute to real American history told in an exciting, fast-paced style.
"It boils down to a bunch of young men thrust into an incredible situation who, against all odds, do a phenomenal job and come out heroes -- they're really the knights of the contemporary age," says George Lucas.
Executive Producer George Lucas developed this story for 23 years, enlisting producers Rick McCallum and Charles Floyd Johnson, writers John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, director Anthony Hemingway and a talented ensemble cast that includes Oscar® winner Cuba Gooding Jr., Oscar nominated Terrence Howard, David Oyelowo and Nate Parker.
In the Lucasfilm tradition of awe-inspiring thrill rides and engrossing storytelling, Red Tails boasts vividly detailed production values, cutting edge visual effects, and all-enveloping sound. Red Tails stands as a rousing tribute to real heroes, and is a film crafted by hundreds of talented people, including Skywalker Sound and the team at Industrial Light & Magic who supervised 7 visual effects houses around the world.
The Inspiration & History
The history of the Tuskegee Airmen began when the Civil Aeronautics Authority selected 13 cadets to participate in an experiment at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, AL aimed at training "colored personnel" to become combat pilots for service in the Army Air Corps. However, fierce discrimination, lack of institutional support and the belief that these men lacked the intelligence and aptitude to be pilots or maintain military aircraft dogged their every step.
When they were finally awarded the opportunity to fight for the Allied forces during World War II, these men flew thousands of missions, and in a two-year period between 1943 and 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen shot down more than a hundred German aircraft, including three of the first German jets ever used in combat. Their planes, P-51 Mustangs painted with distinct red tails, came to be feared by the enemies and respected by allies.
By the end of the war, the Tuskegee Airmen had earned 96 Distinguished Unit Citations and as individual pilots earned several Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and hundreds of other awards and medals.
"I thought their story would make a great film," says Lucas, "An inspirational one that shows the incredible things these men went through to patriotically serve with valor and help the world battle back the evils of fascism. It is an amazing story, and I wanted to memorialize it."
To be as true as possible to the spirit of the Tuskegee Experience would require direct input from the original Airmen themselves. Lucas and producers Rick McCallum and Charles Floyd Johnson spent hundreds of hours with the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, visiting them in their homes, attending the annual Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. National Convention and hosting many of them at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas's production offices in Northern California.
"When I first met many of the Tuskegee Airmen, they were in their 50s and they were captains of industry, educators, entrepreneurs and community activists," recounts Johnson. "They all had a real interest in making sure people knew about their legacy."
Though rooted in history, the story Lucas wanted to tell was not one found in thick, dusty tomes that line a study hall. Lucas envisioned an action-packed inspirational picture about phenomenally skilled and brave young men who fly amazing machines in very dangerous situations.
"This is an adventure movie and not a civil rights movie," says Dr. Roscoe Brown, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen who consulted on the film. "It is about us overcoming the obstacle of racism with excellence and friendship, camaraderie and discipline. Those are the eternal lessons that affect anybody."
George Lucas and his team pored over many scripts over the years as they searched for the right balance between airborne action, grounded drama, and the fellowship amongst young men. "It's a big story and if we attempted to depict everything, we'd end up with a ten-hour movie," Lucas says. Ultimately, screenwriters John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings, Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks) focused their efforts on the exploits of the heroic 332nd Fighter Group based out of Ramitelli Airfield in Italy in 1944, as well as the happenings within the halls of the Pentagon that saw that group put into action.
"I think there was a bit of destiny involved with me being the writer on this film," says Ridley. "My uncle was a Tuskegee Airman. He never talked about it, and when I got to meet the Red Tails, they never talk about it. That was one of my big takeaways from working on this film. You have to remind yourself when you're talking to these 90-year-old men that they were 19 and 20 years old at the time and they didn't think what they were doing was monumental. They thought of it as something that was necessary."
As with many of the people who worked on Red Tails, Ridley found this to be a passion project. "I have a father who was in the Air Force and who lived through the Second World War. I also have a young son, so I was writing for both of them," he says. "I wanted the film to be exciting and inspiring to young people. At the same time, for someone like my father I wanted the film to be engaging on an intellectual level and be realistic in terms of its portrayal of the time and the War."
McGruder came onto the film to add depth to certain characters, to quicken the pace of certain scenes, and add a timeless spark of classic adventure. "I wanted to combine the historic story with the fun, action-adventure vibe that you expect from a George Lucas-produced film," says McGruder. "It has a comic book-feel that only he could bring to a film. Before this, we didn't have our John Wayne, but we now have that kind of larger-than-life treatment, and the Tuskegee Airmen deserve it."
As the script came together, the production needed a director who could balance a mix of multiple, memorable characters as well as the focused drama called for by the story. The acclaimed work of Anthony Hemingway on television series such as Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire drew the producers' attention.
"I got a call from my agent and he said that George Lucas and Rick McCallum wanted to meet me," Hemingway remembers. "I was like, 'Yeah, right. Why me?' He told me that they were doing a film about the Tuskegee Airmen and I was immediately engaged in the conversation."
The thrill of the opportunity to helm his first feature film soon expanded into the humbling realization that he'd been tasked to tell the story of Tuskegee Airmen. "I feel like I'm following in their footsteps as a young black filmmaker," says Hemingway. "I feel a sense of responsibility to make the right moves and work towards becoming what I hope will be an example to anyone, especially young black kids in the world."
The actors had high praise for Hemingway's approach to directing. "He came and spoke to me every take," describes Terrence Howard, who plays Colonel A.J, Bullard in Red Tails. "He manicured what I was doing, because I needed him. That's the whole point of having a great director. I wanted to find the character inside of me that I couldn't see, and so Anthony was really the architect of my character. I think he's done very well with it, because not one time have I left the set and felt that there was something I forgot to do."
David Oyelowo (who plays Joe 'Lightning' Little), was taken in by Hemingway's ability to balance technical proficiency and attention to detail. "He has a very good bird's-eye-view of everything that's going on, and because of that he's secure enough in his ability that he can allow others to bring things to the table."
Elijah Kelley (Samuel 'Joker' George) appreciated Hemingway's trust in the actors. "He allowed us to go beyond the words on the page. As long as we had the foundation, if we felt something would help the scene he allowed us to do it."
A Cast of Characters
With the Red Tails roster of memorable characters, Hemingway was able to flex his ability to work with ensemble casts. When casting began for the movie, nearly every young African American actor was looking for the opportunity to be a part of this film. Hemingway understood this and was eager to accommodate.
"A film like this, especially for black actors, doesn't come along too often." Hemingway says. "And, I didn't want to make any offers, so everyone had their chance to come in and win a role." Hemingway, producer Rick McCallum and casting director Alex L. Fogel held auditions in Los Angeles, New York and London. "It was amazing," Hemingway recalls, "and it was so hard to pare down the list because so many great actors came in front of us."
Furthermore, Hemingway wanted to avoid any actor that had appeared in one of the previously released movies about the Tuskegee Airmen or even any recent war movies. "They are all amazing actors and I'd like to work with them in the future, but I wanted this film to stand alone."
Anchoring the fresh talent of the Red Tails flyboys were two veteran actors filling out the roles of important and inspiring commanders. Golden Globe and Academy Award nominated actor Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow, Iron Man, Ray) plays Colonel A.J. Bullard, while Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire, Men of Honor) plays Major Emmanuel Stance. These actors were the only ones not to audition.
In the case of Gooding Jr., Hemingway made an exception to his own casting rule for Red Tails. "Cuba is always someone I've wanted to work with, but he had been in another film about the Tuskegee Airmen." Hemingway notes. "But he beat down the door to get to us and asked to be a part of it."
"This is such an important story to tell that I wanted to be a part of it, no matter what," says Gooding Jr., a sentiment shared by Howard.
"Colonel Bullard is an incredible character," says Howard, "who is like the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Army Air Corps. George Lucas is standing behind this and it's been his beloved project for over 20 years. He picked a talented young director and gave him all the resources to tell a great American story without the unnecessary hype, but just the real life story about the Red Tails and a more truthful history about America and the contribution that black people have made to it."
While Gooding Jr. and Howard form the inspiring leadership in Red Tails, the emotional core of the movie belongs to the reckless ace Joe "Lightning" Little (played by David Oyelowo) and his squadron leader, Marty "Easy" Julian (played by Nate Parker). "These are great characters because they're two guys who have immense respect for each other and what they're all about, but at the same time they keep butting heads," says screenwriter John Ridley. "They're like brothers and they love each other, but they see the world differently. One of the great things in life and in this story is that they push each other like only two guys who are tight can."
Oyelowo and Parker confidently landed these memorable roles. "Those two came in and it was so obvious right away that they were those characters," says Hemingway. "They killed their auditions and it was really hard to see anyone else in those roles."
Producer Rick McCallum was equally sold on the two. "I had heard of David from a friend of mine who was working on a film with him for the BBC. He came in, didn't say a word, did the reading and walked out. We knew we had cracked it and it was the same situation with Nate Parker."
Oyelowo saw himself as Lightning as soon as he read the script. "I was passionate about this guy from day one," he says. "What I loved about him is that he exuded the confidence and invincibility that you feel when you are a young man. It just seemed to me that Lightning embodied so much of what was necessary in order to be someone in their early 20s who is going to get into a plane that can go between 300-500 miles per hour and be shot at and shoot at other people, and just expect to make it home that night."
For Nate Parker, taking on the role of Easy was an amazing challenge. "To me, he is a very complex character and that excited me." Parker says. "The thing about Easy was that he wasn't just a pilot, he was also a flight leader, and as the leader he always felt the pressure. If someone died, it was his fault. If they failed a mission, lost a bomber or let Colonel Bullard down, it was his fault. It all rested on his shoulders, because he was given this responsibility to lead."
Michael B. Jordan, Clifford Smith (Method Man), Tristan Wilds and Andre Royo were all actors that Hemmingway worked with previously on The Wire. "They didn't get the role because of that," he says. "They all earned the role, but I loved that they were a part of Red Tails."
Andre Royo relished the challenge of playing Coffee, the squadron's crew chief and he automatically got the gravity of his role. "If the mechanic didn't fix the plane properly, then that pilot didn't come back. That's a heavy burden and I wanted to make this character serious and heartfelt."
Hemingway knew of Ne-Yo's talents from Stomp the Yard. "He did a great job on that film, so when we started thinking outside of the box to ensure this cast was really diverse and eclectic, his name came up."
McCallum particularly recalls Ne-Yo's audition. "He was a bit of a stretch, but there are all these music guys that also want to act and we figured we should try to meet them," he says. "Ne-Yo got it. He brought that character of Smokey to the audition. He walked in with a little wad of chewing tobacco (that was really licorice) in his lip. He'd worked out his entire character. It was great."
Ne-Yo was the perfect complement to Elijah Kelley, who played Samuel 'Joker' George. "Both of those guys are from the south, they know the lingo and they bounced off each other," Hemingway says.
Finding just that right blend was vital to the success of the film, Hemingway says, especially since this is an ensemble cast. "We had to study the palette of how these actors looked together, how their chemistry was together and how they affected the story. Looking at how it ended up, I can wholeheartedly say that every one of them were meant to be part of this film."
Meeting the Real Airmen
The characters of Red Tails are fictitious, but their story is not. The pilots seen in the movie are composites of real life heroes. "This is a true story," says screenwriter John Ridley, "but unfortunately, we could not tell everyone's story. What we hoped to do is honor everyone's story, black and white, who worked together to make this moment happen."
To that end, several original Tuskegee Airmen met with the actors, including making the trip to Prague, where the film was in production, to witness and advise as cameras rolled.
"We met Dr. Roscoe Brown, Lee Archer and Bill Holloman before we started shooting," recalls Michael B. Jordan. "They gave us all the facts we needed to know and that gave us the layers we needed to play these men."
"I was on the set in my uniform and I would walk up to one of them and ask if I was wearing it right," says Oyelowo. "Having them there was a constant reminder of the fact that this wasn't just any old acting gig."
"I felt so small at times with them," says Royo. "I'm an actor. I want to make movies. It's a hard job sometimes, but I play pretend. When I got around the Tuskegee Airmen, they had so much energy and spoke so eloquently, that I just wanted to suck as much of that in as possible. I wanted to get them, so that when Anthony said 'action' I could resonate what they were resonating as best I could. As an actor you just don't come across living breathing history very often. For me, meeting those men was probably one of the best feelings I've ever had."
"This is an awesome responsibility," says Ne-Yo, echoing a sentiment heard often in the production. "It definitely makes me want to step up my game. I feel more than privileged to be a part of this. There are almost no words to describe the magnitude of this project. We're going to do the best to make the Tuskegee Airmen proud. I want them to see this movie and say, 'They hit the nail right on the head.'"
To accurately recreate Ramitelli Airbase in 1944, the production scoured the Italian countryside before settling on Prague. Outside of Italy, the production looked at locations in London, Russia, Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria. "We traveled up and down Italy, retracing the route that the Tuskegee Airmen took before they landed in Ramitelli," says McCallum. "We researched the terrain and took into consideration all the looks we wanted in the film."
Not only did the team need enough space to mimic the massive Ramitelli Airbase, they needed to have an actual airfield nearby to bring in a variety of planes, including B-17 bombers, P-40s and P-51s. Producer Rick McCallum also admits, with a bit of a smile, they needed a place where they could take some risks.
"There is a scene when the pilots attack a German airbase that is one of the more spectacular explosions in the film," he describes. "We went through 100,000 liters of fuel for that scene. We got to blow up a base!"
When the actors arrived on location, they did not find a five-star hotel waiting for them. Instead, the men were driven to a warehouse on the outskirts of Prague and shown their accommodations -- a sparsely furnished military style tent with only a small heater to warm them, just like the original Tuskegee Airmen lived in during the war. This was the Red Tails Boot Camp, designed to show the actors what it felt like to serve in the military and get them acclimated to the World War II era. Each actor was stripped of all electronic devices, given a blanket and a bunk. Then the hard work started.
"Boot camp was instrumental," McCallum says. "I needed our actors to feel the isolation, what it was like for the Tuskegee Airmen to come to Europe without knowing a soul. I wanted them to know what it felt like to be total outsiders with none of their comforts. It worked beautifully."
For Hemingway, boot camp was another step on the way to making a film that was authentic. "I really felt that in order for these actors to do it and know it, that they had to go through it," he says. "I do know that we're in the business of art and we pull from here or there, but I think you really have a better understanding when you connect with something and the actors needed that."
"They would wake us up in the middle of the night with these extremely loud firecrackers," remembers Nate Parker. "They created this stressful environment so we could somehow grasp what it must have been like to train. We checked each other. We made sure that we were all in line. It's not 'I,' it's 'we' and it's 'us.' This has nothing to do with individuals. If one goes down and does pushups, we all do pushups. It's totally selfless. It's a lot of different pieces of the machine working together for a common goal."
At the end of the boot camp, the actors went through an emotional "graduation" ceremony with Hemingway pinning wings on them and handing out awards. "I think they all understood at that point that this was serious." Hemingway reflects. "Those guys went into boot camp one person and came out as their character. It was beautiful to witness."
One of the more important meetings the actors had was with Airmen Roscoe Brown and Lee Archer in Nate Parker's hotel room. Roscoe and Lee sat in chairs in front of the actors, and gave them low-tech flying lessons.
"They took us through the take-off, the flight maneuvers, the fighting, using a stick and then through a landing," Parker recalls. "We spent a good hour going through how everything worked and what looked realistic and what didn't, how much power you had to put into jamming the stick when you go into a dive or a roll. When I look back on that, I get the chills -- us sitting in chairs holding an imaginary stick, leaning one way and then leaning another way and then pulling it back. It was like a synchronized dance. It was amazing."
In addition to this hands-on training were flights taken on actual P-51s by the cast at the Planes of Fame in Chino, CA. "It was the most exhilarating experience of my life," Oyelowo says, "in terms of the speed and the acrobatics that these things are able to perform."
Such experience was essential in order to perform realistically when in the simulated cockpit of a P-51 Mustang. The actors would sit in a gimbal-mounted cockpit, rocked back and forth by crewmembers, photographed one-at-a-time in front of visual effects green screen.
"Doing green screen is like your first day in acting class," Parker says. "You feel like the worst actor possible. David described it like someone putting you in a room and saying, 'Pretend you're deep sea diving.' You just have to sell it. You have to believe that all of this stuff is happening around you, and the only way to make it work is to have a childlike imagination."
Advising Hemingway on how to capture the footage necessary to integrate into complex visual effects of piloting scenes was Lucas, who set the hard-to-beat benchmark for such scenes in the Star Wars movies. During the film's lengthy pre-production period, Lucas had envisioned the dogfights, first in his mind's eye, and then realized in low resolution computer graphics developed by animatics artists. This formed essential blueprints in shooting the gimbal action, and developing the amazing visual effects sequences in Red Tails.
"George gave me some really great ideas about how to move the camera to achieve the really big, epic feel that I was trying to achieve when the planes were dropping away," Hemingway recalls. "I hadn't thought about that at all and it was awesome for me to have him there. It was educational, but it was also really supportive, because I knew we were putting this thing together as a team."
When Red Tails principal photography wrapped, the team turned its attention to building the movie in classic Lucasfilm fashion. "All through pre-production we were planning on 350-500 visual effects shots," says McCallum. "But when we finished shooting, we had about 1,600 shots to produce." Fortunately, Industrial Light & Magic, with help from Pixomondo, Rising Sun Pictures, Universal Production Partners, Rodeo FX and Ollin VFX Studio were more than up to the task.
"This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a plane has looked this realistic in dogfights," says Hemingway. "It's really amazing. George and Rick told me early on that they wanted to do the action sequences like they'd never been done before, so we knew that they would never give up until they were done right."
"All this stuff really happened," says ILM visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack, describing the benefits and challenges of making a movie like Red Tails. "We can go and find airplanes to use as reference. Everyone knows what that looks like. At the same time, if you don't get it exactly right, people's minds automatically pick it out as something off in the frame."
To ensure authenticity, the visual effects artists closely studied the performance of real P-51 Mustangs. "It's amazing what these planes could do and the speed they can achieve," says Hammack. "On a dive, they can go up to 450 miles per hour and seemingly turn on a dime. It's pretty amazing to see the flexibility and maneuverability of a plane that was built for combat."
Blending the gimbal and green screen work together proved challenging because many of those scenes captured with the actors were constrained to a relatively stationary cockpit. "If he actors are in action or if there's a lot of action going on around them then you can get away with a lot," Hammack says. "But for a large part of this movie, they are flying in formation, talking over the radios, but there's not a whole lot going on around them. So, you get a good long time to stare at what is computer-generated."
The VFX team had to take great care in those scenes to match sun glints and reflections that would occur with the planes at such altitude. "For most of the shots in the gimbal it was shot without glass, so we had to put that in as well. Therefore, we had to fake the reflections and the glints," says Hammack. "If an actor went in a complete 360-roll, we had to simulate that on the computer-generated stuff, which was relatively easy. But, the actor wasn't going through that light because they couldn't roll the gimbal on set. You cheat the actor by faking some shadows going across them, and then you have to be creative with how you do your computer graphics cockpit, because it has to fit into the same cheats. It got very tricky to be able to make that stuff real."
Then there were the dogfights. "In those wide scenes the planes needed to be doing some pretty dramatic moves and evasive actions," Hammack says. "It needed to be impressive and fast, but there's only so much movement those gimbals can go through and they are certainly not moving fast. For those scenes, we had to go in and manipulate the photography so the actors' faces married into the highly dramatic wide views."
The Sound of Red Tails
Oscar® winning sound designer Ben Burtt spent time on both the visual and audio sides of Red Tails working with editor Michael O'Halloran. "Doing the two jobs together is really great, because I can develop the sound as I'm piecing the images together," Burtt says. "That way, you can structure the timing of things to favor a better sound design."
That combination helped enhance the authenticity of theRed Tails sound and visuals. "We had to go in and figure out what things looked like and sounded like for these World War II pilots in order to construct authentic audio environments in terms of the actual engines that were appropriate for each plane, the weapons, the sounds inside the cockpit," says Burtt. To capture some of those sounds, Supervising Sound Editor Matt Wood and Sound Designer David Acord recorded tracks from two P-51s flown around Novato and Skywalker Ranch.
"I actually got to go up in one of the P-51s and that was really great," Wood says. "I've never experienced anything like that before -- the power of those planes and the control that they have at such high speeds, plus they sound and look so menacing. Such incredible engineering."
For the dogfight scenes, Burtt listened closely to air combat documentaries to establish a basis of what each of the planes sounded like. "I made them all distinctively different so that when you would cut from one group of planes to another, they were different sounds," says Burtt. "Each of the planes' sounds were like musical notes. They had pitch and tone, and we got a chance to play with that in those scenes."
That philosophy also applied when creating the sounds for the planes' weapons, Burtt adds. "Each plane had different sounding guns. Every attempt was made to match up a different type of sonic texture to the different planes and keep it in the realm of credibility. If you do a Star Wars movie with spaceships, you can go wild and make really different sounds because there's nothing to compare it to. For this, though, I was trying to address historical reality as well as getting the mix to make sense to the ear."
Red Tails was mixed at Skywalker Sound with David Acord handling effects and Foley, Juan Peralta on dialog/ADR and Scott R. Lewis mixing music.
In addition to the conventional 5.1 and 7.1 theatrical mixes, Rick McCallum opted to push the envelope and have Red Tails mixed in the all-new Auro-3D 11.1 format. The Auro-3D format adds an additional set of speakers above the audience, adding a new dimension to the sound field.
"It's amazing, especially when we're in a scene where there are planes above you in the shot," Wood says. "We didn't want to overdo it as far as using those speakers, but we wanted to see what shots would benefit from having some wind or planes or music playing up there. It was really another way for us to immerse the viewer into the experience."
Given the historical reach and impact of the Red Tails story, Hemingway sought to find a composer who understood how to subtly add feeling without being overpowering. "I also wanted to keep the soundtrack period, but I wanted to make it contemporary at the same time," he says.
Hemingway selected Terence Blanchard, whose discography of film scores include Inside Man, Cadillac Records and Malcolm X. Blanchard saw Red Tails as an opportunity to stretch. "I knew coming in that the score had to be sweeping and broad, since that is what George Lucas is used to," he says. "The emotions behind the people are probably the most important character in this film. I wanted the soundtrack to convey the emotions that they were going through."
Continues Blanchard, "The thing that's beautiful about working on a film like this for me is that the intensity is in the performance of the actors and I just needed to bring in some music that slightly enhanced what they were doing. I had to stay out of the way, because I didn't want to screw around with their performances."
Final Thoughts on the Red Tails Experience
"I'd like for every person, young or old, to walk away from the film feeling that anything is possible," says Anthony Hemingway. "Dedication, sacrifice, courage, daring and excellence are qualities that the Tuskegee Airmen displayed, but the presence of them are not limited to any group. I'd hope that people see the value in the bond and love that these men shared and that it's possible for us all. Red Tails is a celebration. It's a celebration of life and a celebration of breaking down barriers."