Though Anthony Hemingway has had a substantial career in TV, when it comes to features, he’s one of the luckiest guys in the business. What other filmmaker – and fan – gets to make their feature debut with Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen and Lucasfilm’s biggest production since a certain trilogy got wrapped? (And by the way, Nerdist News has your chance to win a Red Tails Blu-ray combo right now -click here.) With a passion for untold history, an affinity of the kind of fast-paced action for which George Lucas is known, and the entire Lucasfilm team behind him, Hemingway – much like the pilots he depicts – was in for the ride of his life. Fanboy to fanboy, he spilled some details when we spoke to him over the phone.
Nerdist: What are you working on right now?
Anthony Hemingway: I’m wrapping up the third season of Treme, which we shoot in New Orleans, Louisiana. So, I’m just in limbo trying to get back to Californ-I-A.
N: Red Tails is one hell of an auspicious feature directorial debut. How did it all come about?
AH: You know, it was just kind of one of those big rainbows that came across the sky and blew up, and a bunch of nuggets came down, and Lucky Charms rained… I’m kidding. It started off with a phone call from George Lucas wanting to meet with me. He’d seen my work on The Wire, and I was part of a host of great directors that he was looking at and interviewing to help with this project. We met, and from a series of meetings and a presentation – that I went in to basically sell my conviction and desire and passion for wanting to helm this project – they hired me.
N: We know it’s always been a dream project of his to do a Tuskegee Airmen movie – was it always a dream of yours too?
AH: It was, because I’d known about these men for so many years. Before the HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen came out, my father was a Vietnam vet, so I’d known a little about them. But clearly, once that film came out, it just completely started to continue my education and knowledge on who they were. And little by little, you hear things, you meet people who were connected to them, and clearly when this came about, it was so amazing and really rewarding, and just an honor to be able to look in the eyes of these special heroes.
N: This movie doesn’t over-sentimentalize the way a lot of historical dramas do – it really focuses on the action aspect. Was it a tricky balance between being reverential to your heroes versus getting quickly to the action and making it kickass?
AH: Well, you know it always is a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with fact and history, and stories that are known for so many years. But it’s one of the things that George said from day one, that he really wanted to tell a story about heroes and not victimization. One of the great benefits was the HBO film, because they kinda set the platform and told the history of it and really the beginning. So we really had the awesome opportunity to just focus on the heroics of them and have fun with it. One of the things that I got to really see, that the surviving airmen really shed light on, when I got to meet them, was the childlike qualities in them. Even to this day, they’re still so vibrant, and have so much energy. Getting that opportunity just to sit and talk to them, I got to delve into who they were, and really connect with them on that level. And I think that really helped channel their spirit, just ignited everything that we wanted to do, which was really make this a fun, awesome experience.
N: Was each character in the movie based on a specific real person, or are some of them composites?
AH: Well, not really specifically. There are a couple of them, like Col. Bullard and the Cuba Gooding Jr. character, but when you look at the film and you know the story, you can tell what identified them, but pretty much the airmen and the pilots were definitely pulled from all of them. We just kind of pulled different characteristics from all the guys and made our characters.
N: Here at the Nerdist offices, our favorite was Junior with his Buck Rogers pistol. Was there a deliberate effort to make him the accessible character to Lucasfilm’s existing fan base who might not think they’d want to see a historical drama?
AH: Somewhat. That’s definitely one of the really cool things for the fans that George got to kind of sprinkle in, one of several little things in there just for the continuing followers of his.
N: We understand you’re a big fan – at one of the meetings, you ended by saying, “May the Force be with you”?
AH: Oh my god, I walked out of that meeting after I said that and completely wanted to jump off the fifteenth floor of that building.
N: How does he react to Star Wars references like that? Is he tired of them, or amused by them?
AH: He got a good laugh out of it. So at least I walked away feeling somewhat at ease, but I still felt like the biggest dork walking out of there, like, okay, I could not have been a bigger geek, saying that phrase. And the funny thing about it… I did not plan to say that. It’s so funny. Growing up in this industry, I know how it is, I know what it’s like, I’m not like that uber – you know, “Oh my god, I’m gonna say this, I’m gonna say that, impress so and so” – I soooo try and avoid all that. And it’s something that just instinctively came out of me. It was weird, because that’s so not me at all. But when George got a good chuckle out of it, at least it helped, though I still wanted to run for the hills.
N: He was talking before the movie came out about maybe doing a trilogy of Red Tails films. Has there been more discussion of that since the movie came out?
AH: I think that statement, with him saying that, was that the hope for this film being successful would allow more Tuskegee Airmen stories to be told, or more minority stories told about many other things that we don’t get to enjoy, or stories that we are passionate about telling, that we have to fight with the studio system to get told. If we all champion and support the efforts of this, we can hopefully in the future be able to tell more stories like it; that’s what that statement meant. I don’t think he was thinking of making Red Tails Episode II or anything else, you know, because one of the harder things about this particular story is it’s so dense and complex; That was one of the challenging things that we found was how we were going to focus it, and what we really wanted to tell. We decided to focus on pilots, because there’s so much more to that story in the beginning, and stories after, like, you know, when they came back home – the story could go on and on and on.
N: How much of the vision of the movie was yours versus his? Was he on set every day pointing things out, or more hands-off?
AH: We connected completely through and through on the story. I think one of the awesome things that I got to experience – that I fear not being able to experience going forward knowing how studios are – is he allowed me to do my job. But we completely got the story to where we wanted it to be at the beginning, and he then allowed me the freedom to flexible and creative, and do my job without being micromanaged or overly white-knuckled, and then we came together again at the end. In terms of shooting, he came over various times while we were shooting in Prague.
N: As you’re obviously a fan of his, was it ever tough if you had to disagree with such an iconic figure?
AH: Not at all. Again, I’d have to say it was a great collaborative effort, and it was definitely working with a group of people who listened but don’t overly control things or micromanage. They have complete respect for everyone’s job. So I was definitely able to have a voice, and to come in and bring a vision, be able to inject something into the story – that was there.
N: And how cool was it to work with editors and sound guys from the Star Wars movies?
AH: Oh my god! I was like a kid in a candy store. From day one! Even right now, talking to you, I need to pinch myself, like, “Has this really happened?” I leave next week to go and have a special screening at Cannes. It’s continuing to be wild moments for me: I get a phone call, we’re going to meet President Obama. Wow. We’re having a screening that Oprah’s hosting. Wow. It’s such an amazing opportunity that just will never be forgotten and completely been cherished, and thankfully I’ve been able to take it all in and enjoy it and really understand what it is that I’m part of, because this is such an amazing part of history that’s been told, and such an awesome service that I think we’ve done for the Tuskegee Airmen, which is really what this is all about, giving them their due and honor and respect.
N: It was cool to see Aaron McGruder was one of the writers. Did you work with the writers at all, or was the script completely formed when you came on board?
AH: Oh, no, from the beginning it was a collaborative experience. Once I came on board I got a chance to first sit down with John Ridley, and we went through the first draft that I came in on, did a couple rewrites on it – John, myself and George. And Aaron came in later on once we really got a chance to sit back and watch the film and see what needed work on. We realized we needed to lighten it up some, and add more of that swagger and humor that these men embodied.
N: The Boondocks used to be pretty harsh on George Lucas. Was there any tension there?
AH: You know, all that stuff is just like every other thing out there that attacks other people. Stuff like that in comedy, everybody gets ragged on. It’s stuff that you can’t take personal; We all do something that is laughable, and it’s business. That’s life. We live to be entertained; We live to do many things, you know, so it’s nothing that George ever took personally.
N: Are you angling at all to get involved in the live-action Star Wars TV series if that happens?
AH: I’m not particularly involved in that at all, no. I’m trying to build a villa in L.A., and not have to go work out of the country any time soon, so I’m not a part of that. But I can’t wait to see it.
N: Are you going to go back to TV now, or are you more interested in pursuing features?
AH: I’m back and forth. I think on the TV scale, on that level, I’m more inclined to doing the cable TV shows that have more substance and more creative narrative to it. There are some network shows that I do like, but I am focusing more on getting more films done.
N: When you mentioned minority stories that haven’t been told, and thinking back to the character of Junior, we don’t really see many black characters in movies who are hardcore sci-fi or comic-book geeks. Would that be one of the kinds of stories you’d be interested in telling that hasn’t been?
AH: Absolutely. I think there are many angles we can tell in minority stories. Because one of the things for me that I hate – not to knock or speak negatively at all about anything that’s out there being done – is so many things focus on stereotypes, what people think they know of someone else, instead of really allowing the story to be told and become educated on so much that we don’t know. There are many stories that I’m becoming connected with, even stories about my own culture that I have never heard of that just amazed me. I continue – I’m reading a story that’s based on Vietnamese culture. There’s so many things that I just love; I love being open to learning. I love living, evolving and progressing in my own life, and finding out more things about myself I never knew, so I am definitely intrigued by being able to get those kinds of stories out.
N: Do you think Red Tails has made it easier for those stories to be told?
AH: I think it definitely turned a page. And that’s all we could ask for, really. Change doesn’t happen that easy, or that fast. But what we can do is just continue to turn pages and continue to move forward. And I really believe that Red Tails has done that.
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