Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our seventieth guest was the producer of the Star Wars prequel trilogy – Rick McCallum.
Lightsabre – Welcome to Lightsabre.
RM – Thank you.
Lightsabre – You’ve become synonymous with the Star Wars series overseeing the prequels and taking them from concept to the screen. Looking back over the two years since they films finished on the big screen, how proud are you of the prequels and can you believe the times gone so fast?
RM – No it’s been actually weird because it’s been about thirteen years altogether, all three from the time we started prep and everything else until the time we actually finished the final press and everything else, the summer after, probably by September of 2005 was when it was all over for us. You know, thirteen years, it’s long, it goes fast but it was such a fantastic ride, a great experience and you know, I have such fond memories but I don’t have a lot of memories of it because I always move forward. I don’t think too much about the past but it was great, absolutely fantastic, wonderful incredible moments.
How proud am I? Well, I know that there’s the detractors but I know the impact that it had, especially on young kids. It’s an amazing, amazing thing. Especially when you’ve worked a lot before, when you’ve made films that no one wants to see, it’s a nice change.
Lightsabre – Talking about your previous work, you worked with Dennis Potter, notably on Black Eyes and The Singing Detective. What was he like to collaborate with? He was a bit of a character, wasn’t he.
RM – Well, I was with him for ten years, because we did Pennies from Heaven, Track 29, Dream Child, a lot of films we did and he was a seriously real character but one of the really great unbelievable writers I’ve ever met in my life, and just such an extraordinary human being. He was the most demanding of any person I’ve ever worked with, but just a phenomenal, phenomenal character.
Lightsabre – You are closely linked to Potter and to George Lucas as well. Are there any similarities between the two men, in the way they work?
RM – None whatsoever, as people, no. But in terms of kind of obsession and in terms of a vision. You know I’ve also had a really good relationship with a writer named David Hare that I did three films with also and I personally much prefer working with a writer/director: then there’s no kind of misunderstanding whatsoever of what the film is going to be about. Especially when you have somebody like David Hare or Dennis Potter or somebody like George, I’ve been blessed, truly blessed.
Lightsabre – So you enjoy that collaborative effort? You’ve worked with Hare for a while and with Potter for a long time and with George for a long time so you enjoy that collaborative spirit?
RM – Yeah I do, and I think the great thing is I don’t have any misunderstandings of what a producer’s job is. For me if you’re a producer you job is primarily to enable a writer/director like the people I prefer to work with to be able to fulfil whatever it is in their minds eye of what they see the film is, and make sure that they have all the talent, and the schedule and the money and everything else. For me that’s the creative part of being a producer, and I think really when you get down to it television is a producer’s medium – it’s really a writers medium right now, but it used to be a producer’s medium – film is a director’s medium, and the thing is that’s our job, our job is to make sure a director can achieve everything that he’s ever yearned for and dreamed for based on certain parameters, you know money and schedule and everything else. No, when it works it’s fantastic.
Lightsabre – I did a bit of research obviously to do these questions, and I had no idea that your step father was Michael York.
RM – Yes.
Lightsabre – So what’s it like watching your step Dad play Basil Exposition in Austin Powers on the big screen?
RM – It’s a hoot! I think he did a great job, such a send up of what you think Michael is, as a person and an actor. No I think he did a great job.
Lightsabre – I had to ask that, I didn’t know that, was interested to find that out. Back in the early nineties you started working on Young Indiana Jones. When that project was started, was it obvious that from a technical point of view that it was a test bed to see where the effects could go from a budget and technological point of view, not just to help tell the stories but with a view to bringing the Star Wars movies back?
RM – Oh yeah, it was always a blueprint for ‘How are we going to shoot in a whole different bunch of countries’, because most people don’t know realise that even on the Prequels, on the last one we shot in seven countries. And we shoot them very quickly, never more than 55 days each. So, that’s our principal photography period, that’s our limit. George will let us do whatever we need to do but it’s got to be done in 55 days. Because we’re financing the films, not only the production but the marketing and the distribution of the films, so it’s a really big deal for us. We’re a company that makes a film every three years. We can’t afford to make a mistake and we need to make them in the most cost efficient way that we can. To stay independent, to stay out of the establishment, stay out of the system of Hollywood. So you learn very quickly, you have to separate your ego of what things that you’d like to do and what you can do, and you don’t want to limit anybody. The last thing I want to do is limit George in terms of what he sees and what he writes and what he wants to achieve. But you have to figure out a way to do it in a way that most people don’t, spend that effort and time because it really is life or death for us, for the company.
Lightsabre – Yeah, because I think a lot of people misconstrue the fact that Lucasfilm is an independent film company.
RM – It is, I mean we’re a film company with about 1800 people but there’s only five of us in the film division of the company. The rest is ILM, which is a client based company, we’ve got Skywalker Sound which is a client based company and those two companies are in motion and in existence to push the limits of sound and visual effects so that they’ll be ready when we’re ready to make a film. And we want other people to pay for that, to keep them going and living and making a life and having an incredible thing, but we’re still 50 or 60% of the total film effects business worldwide. Their job is to do the biggest and best films that they possibly can and push the elements of digital technology as far as they can go so that when we’re ready with our next script they will have exhausted all the possibilities of their imaginations, be there ready for us and know a way to solve the problems that we’re gonna give them.
Lightsabre – So you guys must have been thrilled with the Oscar for Pirates of the Caribbean then? A long time overdue.
RM – 16th or 17th one, so yes I am because it’s the first time we’ve won in like 10 years, because we dominated it for so long.
Lightsabre – Oh yeah.
RM – And then there was so many other different companies coming up, other great films being made and everything else, but it’s always nice to know that almost anywhere you go and anyplace I go in the world wherever there’s an effects company, there’s somebody from ILM there. But everybody uses what everybody else is doing, so you know if we create some kind of thing, it’s used by somebody else, and then they push it to the next level and then we have to take it and push it to the next level. Because all we’re all trying to do is get it to a place.
We’re kind of in this transitional period, the periolithic period of film effects and we’re just trying to get to a place where we can create absolute photo-realism. That takes an enormous amount of man power, software and hardware to do that, and we’re still not there. These are just the first tentative steps. In the next five, six, seven years nothing will be impossible and it will be done at a level that is commensurate with any kind of reality that anybody wants to achieve on any film.
Lightsabre – So there’s a big step coming up that’s not that far away?
RM – I really don’t, it’s really just a question of finding…there’s a finite amount of talent right now but every year there’s just hundreds of thousand of kids worldwide who are into film effects and sound and engineering who are pushing technology at a level. Because film is so backward right now, we’re so far behind where we should be in relation to the impact that we have on the popular culture and the money that we generate, even the impact that we have worldwide, we should be thirty years ahead of where we are right now. And especially the whole experience of going to the cinema has to change. We have a very conservative business, not us personally, the film business is conservative. Always about five or ten years behind what consumers really want or understand. Digitally we’re so far behind it’s just…
Lightsabre – Oh absolutely. Obviously when Episode 1 came out George was talking about digital projection and cinemas picking up on that and pushing it further and it never seemed to quite happen did it?
RM – No, it’s happening now and nothing will stop it, but in three or four years will be the tipping point, and then it will be ten years, but the problem is the whole collective experience of going to the movies is changing so dramatically for young kids that with gas prices the way they are, the cost of what everything is, the cost of just going to a movie, you know that basically you can wait six or eight weeks and you can go to Walmart and buy the film and own it and have all the extras and you can share with your friends, and once the downloading starts, once that becomes a real reality the film business is in serious deep trouble. Because they haven’t provided the minimal decent experience, plus the whole atmosphere and experience and adventure of going to a cinema on a weekend has changed from most kids now. It just isn’t the same thing, you know the real experience is going to your best friends house when their parents leave and watching the film with ten or fifteen of your friends watching on a flat screen, plasma screen where the sound and picture quality are a hundred percent better than they can get in any local cinema. And then you can smoke pot, you can drink, you can freebase, you can do whatever you want to. That’s the new collective experience, sadly.
Lightsabre – So the whole thing of popcorn and drive-ins…
RM – The trouble is the popcorn costs seven bucks!
RM – Or, you know, if you’re going to school, you don’t have much money, you’re parents are broke it doesn’t work. You don’t get the value of what you paid for anymore.
Lightsabre – It’s true, I mean I live near Birmingham in England and I’m going to see 300 tomorrow night.
RM – Good movie.
Lightsabre – Really looking forward to it, but I know that the ticket will cost me £6.00, the popcorn as you say will cost another £5.00 and the travel will cost £5.00. I’ll be able to buy it on DVD in four months time for less than that.
RM – I know, plus you’ll be able to download it immediately, the quality will be better than any cinema you can see it in, and you’ll be able to watch it with all your friends. Not that I’m suggesting that that is the way, but what I am suggesting is that unless the film business gets its shit together, gets its act together quickly they’re going to face exactly what happened to the music industry.
Lightsabre – Yeah, yeah.
RM – The incomes are more than they were last year, that’s because the price of the ticket has gone up, it’s not about admissions. The average American sees seven films a year, that should be 25 films a year. That’s part of our heritage and we’re losing it.
Lightsabre – More so in the States than in the UK, admissions seem to have been picking up here, but nothing like it should.
RM – So you’ve got a real dilemma going on, so yes, to get back to the original question that is what Indy was about, how do we make it in a way that would allow us to keep a group of people on for a long period of time and make them still interested, and luckily we’ve been able to keep that same group of people for fifteen, seventeen years so it’s been a real fantastic experience.
Lightsabre – This is going to sound like a strange question, do you have any creative input into the films yourself, as a producer?
RM – It totally depends on what film. On Young Indiana Jones, absolutely, on Radioland. You know, everything I’ve done up until Star Wars, but Star Wars is really George’s thing. We obviously have disagreements, we have arguments we have discussions, but at the end of the day it really is his thing. And our contribution comes into ways of solving problems for him. That’s what it is, in the end of the day I wish I could say it was more, but it isn’t. Every project is always different and every director is always different. It just depends, but Star Wars is his unique creature.
Lightsabre – Where would you have, not a conflict, but where would you have a discussion? Is it a tonality thing on the way it’s played, or would it be a design aspect. Where would you not see eye to eye?
RM – Rarely it’s not a design thing. It’s more to do with casting or issues that seem incomprehensible, maybe to me or other people. That’s one of the weird things that people find difficult to understand, is it’s about the quality of the argument because at the end of the day there’s only one person who’s right. It’s not the director, it’s not anybody, it’s the audience. They tell you immediately if you’re right or wrong. You can make a really bad movie and sometimes it really works, because somewhere deep in there was some kind of truth for a lot of people, and you can make a really great movie and it just doesn’t work for people. You just never know. But somewhere it’s usually about some kind of truth for someone.
Lightsabre – Being as immersed with making the prequels as you were did you ever wake up one morning and think “I just want to hire a studio somewhere and put Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in a room and just film a one-camera piece”?
RM – Oh yeah, absolutely, we’re definitely planning to go back to both of our roots making really deeply and uncommercial films. That’s the one thing we’ve earned the right to be able to do. That’s definitely coming down the pipe, once we get through with Red Tails, which is our next film, and really set up the Star Wars TV series, that’s the plan. We’re in a situation where we could make ten or fifteen really highly unsuccessful films and it doesn’t really matter if anybody sees them or not.
Lightsabre – Just to experiment, to do something totally different?
RM – Just to do something completely and utterly different.
Lightsabre – That’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of that.
RM – Absolutely. That’s the thing, God has a funny way of changing your plans. Who knows what’ll happen.
Lightsabre – Well, we’re all waiting here to see it! You had a hand in different aspects of the production, so given the large group of people that were all together during Young Indy and then onto the Prequels, you must feel like an uncle almost. Was there a pleasure in building up that team, and consequently knowing that you did such a good job?
RM – It’s one of those things, it took a long time during Young Indy, it took about a year before we all settled down. And you’ve got to imagine, it was a really unique period in English film at that point. During the eighties you could go off and make a film, because I had a wonderful relationship with a director named Nick Roeg (director of Castaway, starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe) who you may or may not know. If you made a film with Nick you always knew there would be two or three million people around the world who were gonna see it. They’d all pay five dollars, that means you’d gross fifteen million dollars. You only get seven and a half million dollars of that, then there’s the marketing which takes you down. So if you could make a film for two or three million dollars with Nick you could break even, nobody would get hurt, you might make a bit of money if it broke out a little bit but if it didn’t, it didn’t matter because you’d at least have done something reasonable, something good, something people would like or respect. And then you get to make your next movie. But by 1990 that all changed. The eighties were a golden period in a strange way. It was the end of television as we know it in England, at least it was definitely the end for the BBC, especially its drama department. You’ve got to remember, the most successful English film in terms of box office gross in the United States was Mona Lisa, I think it did like six or seven million dollars. Enchanted April, which was made for the BBC in 1990 was the highest grossing film in the United States until that time, twelve million dollars. And then the films that didn’t work that were made with English talent were financed by American studios, so there was this weird dichotomy. 1990 was kind of a turning point, and I started off with a really young group of people and it took a while to get that perfect group that is totally interdependent on each other and worked well together, but the first year on Young Indy alone we shot for fifty two weeks non-stop, six days a week. And I would say by the ninth month we really had the group that stayed. We’ve had the same camera, costume designer, production designer, and they’re teams in terms of props and set decoration have changed very little, basically the whole group, about twenty-eight people, have remained together pretty much since then.
Lightsabre – And you see that relationship carrying on, hopefully?
RM – Absolutely, but everybody’s famous and well-to-do and I don’t know if I can afford them anymore! (laughs)
It was at this point that the conversation was broken up by LFL publicity’s Tracy Cannobio.
TC – Gentleman I’m so sorry to interrupt but I promised that Rick would be available for his 11.30 commitments.
RM – But I’ve got some time, so if you want to do some more, I’m fine.
Lightsabre – You’re ok to carry on for a little bit?
RM – Yeah, absolutely.
Lightsabre – Oh fantastic, I’ll ask you another question then.
RM – Thank you Tracy.
RM – Well, we’re getting into tricky land but I’m sure this is where you’re going anyway. Obviously Episode 3 is my favourite, it’s the most adult. But I knew back in 1991 there was going to be a major storm over Episode 1 and 2. George knew it, “I know I’m going to lose a lot of my hardcore fan base, but this is the story that I want to tell, it’s the saga of a family and it has to start somewhere.” I think anybody who was over twenty-five or thirty years old wanted to see Episode 3 as Episode 1. That isn’t what he wanted to tell, plus he wanted a whole new generation of eight to twelve year old boys to follow the saga. And it’s really interesting; I think Episode 3 brought peace to the two galaxies, the older fans and the younger fans. But they’re two totally different things, they’re two completely different mindscapes, two mental landscapes that are completely different in terms of what the expectations are and everything else. I mean most kids who were eight, nine years old who saw Episode 1, Jar Jar’s one of their favourite characters.
Lightsabre – Oh absolutely.
RM – They relate to Anakin because he’s eight years old, then three years later they were eleven and three years later they were fourteen or fifteen. Those that were ten were eighteen when Episode 3. There’s a whole other generation that doesn’t even like the original trilogy. They’re too slow, the effects are boring. And then obviously you have the hardcore fans who, certainly with Episodes 1 and 2, find them totally repugnant and finally found some solace in Episode 3. Three is my favourite, there’s some scenes in there, I think in the last twenty, twenty-five minutes are as good as we could have ever done. From the moment Anakin and Obi-Wan are having their fight and Anakin’s legs are cut off, it’s just to me perfect.
Lightsabre – I’ve got to say, I think Episode 1 improves with age. I think it stands up as a better movie now.
RM – It improves in direct proportion to whether you have children or not.
Lightsabre – (Laughs) Well, I don’t yet.
RM – If you have an eight year old kid now and you didn’t ten years ago, and you’re watching it with them it is amazing the impact that it has.
Lightsabre – Well I’ve got nephews, I’m trying to introduce my seven year old nephew to Star Wars. We’ll see how it goes.
RM – Let me know what happens.
Lightsabre – I certainly will. Little hypothetical question. Imagine George hadn’t made Star Wars in ’77, ’80 and ’83 and you’d got to Revenge of the Sith and next year you were looking to make A New Hope. How different do you think it would be?
RM – If we were doing it right now?
Lightsabre – Yeah.
RM – The trouble is that’s a really dangerous question for me, because the trouble is we probably would’ve fucked it up. There’s things about Episode 4 and then Episode 5, not 6 necessarily because 6 was more in line with the Prequels, in terms of tone and everything else. But I think you’d have to go into the psychology of where George’s head is at and the impact of young kids, because that’s one of the unique things that he has about him still, even considering all the success and wealth and everything else, he still kind of looks at the world from the height of an eight year old boy, and to him that is the most powerful thing that he has. There’s just a way that he kind of understands what a young boy would like to see, where their heads at. It’s a very unique thing that’s never been spoiled.
The thing that made Episode 4 so perfect was A, the world that we lived in, the unbelievable pressure that was on him, the lack of effects being so locked down. Not the freedom, which is totally counter to what I said at the very beginning of where we’re going digitally. But the issue is, everybody is imposed, everybody has a master, no matter how successful you are, you’ve got the release schedule of a movie. You’ve got the release date, you can’t change it. You have some boss, and if you don’t have a real boss like we do we have the audience. The audience is our boss. You have to report to somebody, and at the end of the day it’s like I said earlier, you can make a great movie and nobody sees it. And the thing about movies is, and you are a filmmaker no matter who it is, you can be Ingmar Bergman, you can be Nicolas Roeg, whatever – you want large audiences. Even if you’ve made the most obscure art film, the impact is people seeing it. You’re not a painter, you’re not a novelist. I don’t think any artist doesn’t want to communicate.
There’s a lot of pressures within the film business, but it’s also time specific. You’re making a film two or three years before it comes out and you have no idea what the zeitgeist is gonna be at the times when it does come out. That movie (Star Wars) hit the perfect moment, and it was such an innocent moment. There’s a beautiful moment when Luke looks out at the twin setting suns of Tatooine, and you see all the yearning of every boy and every girl feels like when they’re seventeen, eighteen and they just wanna get out of the home and start to experience and live their life. And that tapped into a whole culture, it was just after the Vietnam War, nobody knew who they were, where their place was, and everybody had a yearning that life could be good, that there was an adventure to be had.
Lightsabre – And you reference that so neatly in Revenge of the Sith.
And then panic set in because, just before he could reply, the phone ran out of juice and the line to Skywalker Ranch was severed.
Lightsabre – Hello?
TC – Hey Mark, it’s Tracy.
Lightsabre – Hello Tracy, we lost the line there (Laughs)
TC – Yeah, I guess so.
Lightsabre – We were just in mid-flow. (Laughs)
TC – (Laughs). Do you have a couple more questions for Rick?
Lightsabre – Yeah, just one more really, then I just wanted to say thank you very much for giving his time.
TC – Of course, fantastic, well hang on, let me get him for ya.
Lightsabre – Thanks again.
TC – Thanks.
There was a minutes pause as Tracy connected us back to Rick’s office.
TC – Mark?
Lightsabre – Hello?
RM – I don’t know where we lost you. I just thought ‘Oh my God, I’ve just started slagging off Tony Blair and thought he’d probably left.’
Lightsabre – I think the gremlins are out to get us. (Laughs)
TC – (Laughs)
Lightsabre – You can say as much as you like about Tony Blair, I don’t mind one little bit. (Laughs)
RM – I mean where did we lose you?
Lightsabre – You know, I was that flustered that the line went down I can’t remember. (Laughs)
RM – Ahh, let me just think, Jesus Christ. Let’s go back to wherever you can remember.
I quickly excused myself to shoot back upstairs and grab my questions before continuing.
Lightsabre – Serves me right for not paying my phone bill, that’s what it is.
RM – Nice.
TC – (Laughs)
Lightsabre – We were talking about if Star Wars was being made today instead of in ’77.
RM – Yeah, you know I think I’m saying basically that it was just such a special moment, like Godfather One and Two, there’s just a whole bunch of films, going all the way through Europe. You know, Persona, Tom Jones, there’s hundreds of them and they just work and their moment because they took the package as a whole psyche of the world, and now, when it’s so wired when you have day in day releases it’s just amazing, the impact it has. But, I think we would have probably fucked it up because there was a limit to everything.
It was such a hard movie to make, hard in terms of you couldn’t have had a more unsympathetic crew, you couldn’t have had a story that was more bizarre. It’s easy too look back and be a back seat driver when you’re not even in the same car and you look back, and you kind of rewrite history but at that time to have to walk on the set at Elstree, especially within the context of how the film business was run, and have a character like Chewbacca come walking on the set a talking lines with a guy in a black helmet who was a cockney guy who couldn’t…well, I won’t go into it. It must have been so bizarre.
RM – Oh, absolutely it was. I mean it was one of the worst experiences anyone could have gone through as a director. This is a completely unsympathetic crew, there’s probably five people who really understood what he was doing.
Lightsabre – Yeah, but thank God he got through it.
RM – Absolutely, it’s just one of those things. So, you have that dilemma and what happens is you say ‘Well, the stress and not having any money is the worst things for a movie’ and often it isn’t. It just happens to be what happens to that person at the time. Ultimately it was the right story at that right time, and that’s what really makes the huge difference. Because there’s just a simplicity about Episode 4 that was perfect. There’s a plot, a connection where Darth Vader reveals that he’s Luke’s father, that is so powerful. And those two episodes stand out among everything, especially Episode 5.
Lightsabre – Yeah, well I’m hoping to get, if I’m lucky enough, to get an interview with Irvin Kershner so I’d be very interested to…
RM – …well he’s around, we can definitely arrange that.
Lightsabre – Could that be done?
RM – Yeah, absolutely.
Lightsabre – Fantastic, thank you.
RM – He’s such a guy, he really is. I saw him about six months ago and he’s like eighty-three.
Lightsabre – I know, he’s filming a new movie now isn’t he?
RM – Yeah, and he’s so full of life and a wonderful, wonderful human being and he did such a great job, as the script was brilliant and everything was just again an alignment of things that worked out beautifully.
Lightsabre – Serendipity, it all falls into place at the right time.
RM – Absolutely.
Lightsabre – One final question, I can’t keep you here forever as much as I’d like to. Will we be lucky enough to see you over here for Celebration Europe? (Note, this interview was recorded on 22nd March and Rick was officially announced for Celebration Europe on 8th June).
RM – Oh absolutely, definitely, definitely planning it. On fact I’m looking forward more to that, well not more, but as much as Celebration here.
Lightsabre – Would you describe yourself as a bit of an Anglophile then?
RM – Very much so, you know I still have a place there, I’ve lived there since, God…I don’t have a house in America, I live at The Ranch, so yes I love England. And I love Europe and I love Australia.
Lightsabre – Well that’s great and I’ll make sure I buy you a pint when you come over.
RM – Absolutely, it would be great to see you and keep in touch and let me know what happens with your friends, is it your friends kids or is it…
Lightsabre – It’s my sister’s kids, my nephews.
RM – How old are they?
Lightsabre – Sam is four and Adam is just about seven. So he’s the age I was when Star Wars came out.
RM – That’s the ones that we’re after!
Lightsabre – Exactly. Thanks so much for your time.
RM – And if there’s anything that was totally incomprehensible, which is probably most of this, just call Tracy and I’ll get back on to you if there’s anything that needs to be cleared up.
Lightsabre – I appreciate that very much.
RM – Not at all, take care.
Lightsabre – And you Rick, bye.
This interview was originally published on www.lightsabre.co.uk in three parts on 3rd June, 1st July and 5th August 2007.