BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Dogfights and Rewrites with George Lucas

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.

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In January 2012, the movie Red Tails opened nationwide to some pretty decent business. It was a long time in the making. And I’d noticed that a lot of press surrounding the movie had to do with the difficulty George Lucas had getting it produced and into theaters.

Some time ago I did read a version of the script. In fact, I’d been asked to look at it to see if I’d be interested in rewriting it. At the time, Thomas Carter was attached as the director. Of course, the producer of record was George Lucas. My agent set up the meeting.

I’d met Thomas Carter once before. At the time, he was the former-actor-turned-THE-hot-TV director of the moment. Now he was coming off of his first feature, Swing Kids. I’d been told he wanted Red Tails to be his next feature.

I forget how long I waited outside Thomas’ Columbia Pictures office. While I was chatting up the assistants, the office door flew open. I turned to greet Thomas, only to find George Lucas standing there, hand outstretched.

“Doug? I’m George.”

Yeah, dude. I know who you are.

What’s it like meeting an icon? I guess it depends who the icon is or whether or not you view the person as an icon or just another guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time. Truth be told, I’ve never been a sci-fi or comic book geek. Nor was I much of a Star Wars fan—though I did learn to appreciate the series more as a parent of children who knew how to operate a DVD player. I recall a period of time when my house was filled with the distinctive sounds of light sabers thrashing the air.

Still, this was George Freaking Lucas standing in front of me. Hand shaking mine. A man who’d transformed movies right before my generation’s eyes. Okay, Mr. Jaded. Take the moment to be impressed. Oh. And try not to focus on the fact that, if I squinted, George looked like a silver-gray Ewok in a tweed sports jacket.

Thomas Carter was next to say hi. We were joined by the stock, legal-pad-wielding development Twinkie. I don’t remember her name but I recall her young, eager-to-please smile and more white teeth than Justin Bieber. She sat next to me on a stool while I occupied a chair that appeared leftover from the Mos Eisley Cantina. The usual small talk was dispensed with as George, very business-like, wanted to get down to the business of Red Tails.

The script and the resulting movie is the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of black aviators who fought in World War II. I was quite taken with the prospect of working on the movie and expressed as much. The script was full of some incredible aeronautic sequences that, if filmed utilizing the special effects expertise of Lucas’ ILM, would be absolutely eye-popping. My problem with the script was the characters, most of whom seemed rather wooden and devoid of any substantive conflict. It was as if the Airmen were battling only the issues of race and history instead of the practical problems of learning how to manage fighter planes that were more engine than fuselage and working together as a singular fighting unit—not to mention the German air force.

My suggestion was that we should rebuild each pilot from the ground up. Have them wrestling individual demons that only flying a P-51 Mustang would solve. I know. This sounds like screenwriting 101. But sometimes a filmmaker gets lost in the forest. Maybe even George Lucas.

I’d planted a seed. And it sprouted like a weed.

Thomas took on my suggestions. As a former actor, he was quick to internalize the make-believe demon. He began to improvise in the voice of the lead character. George scratched his beard and observed. I wondered if he might be prepping to give Thomas a bit of direction. Instead, George took on the role of the tough-but-fatherly squadron commander, suddenly barking commands. Thomas had himself an improv partner. He stood and began using the small office as his stage.

My instincts sparked. I’d imagined these inner conflicts manifesting themselves during battle sequences instead of through just another tired drill instructor versus cadet scene we’d seen a million times. I made the suggestion and, as if I were James Lipton instructing in a private workshop, George and Thomas shifted gears. Their improvisation instantly took on the lives of two Tuskegee pilots in the middle of an air battle against the Germans.

I must admit. I was absolutely delighted to be a witness. George Lucas and Thomas Carter, roaring around the office, one hand on their pretend control stick, the other on an equally imaginary machine gun trigger. Before the duo had finished their war game, they’d played multiple parts, made up a hundred classic lines of dialogue, and shot down twenty enemy aircraft. Bravo.

That eager D-Girl nudged me, big grin on her face and whispered, “You did it. They love this.”

Yes. I had done it. I’d somehow unglued the mega-mogul and his worthy director. The gig had to be mine. I threw down my final notes onto paper and we wrapped up the meeting. George and Thomas thanked me. We’d be in touch.

As I walked to my car, I performed my usual mental replay. I couldn’t get the images of the producer and director engaging the entire German Luftwaffe in that minimalist studio office. The pair did everything but stick out their arms and zoom between the chairs as if they had wings. And those who might think that such behavior is silly and unbecoming of adults? Yeah, maybe. But who would ever doubt the infinite imaginations of children? Or the financial wisdom of playing out a childish fantasy?

And then, just before patting myself on the back for planting the immature seed, I secretly wished I’d been more of a participant. What had prevented me from taking flight myself? By the time George and Thomas had finished their play acting, I’d been reduced to a fly on the wall.

Once in my car, I phoned my agent. He’d just gotten off a call with that D-Girl with the gleaming white teeth. She’d informed him of how awesome the meeting had gone. And though she hadn’t yet been able to follow up with George and Thomas, she fully expected the job was mine.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“What?” asked my agent. “Were you in a different meeting?”

“Oh, I was there. I started it all.”

“So why do you think…”

“I may have started it, but I didn’t finish it.”

I described the meeting. My instinct was this: When George and Thomas eventually had a chance to unwind, digest, and return to the subject of whether I was the right fit to rewrite Red Tails, what would they most likely recall from our encounter? That they liked me? Appreciated what I had to add to their project? Or their own childlike imaginations, burning up the skies and winning both the wars against the Germans and racism? I was dead certain George Lucas and Thomas Carter would best recall the participants in the meeting more than the observers. All the way home I kicked myself for not getting off my ass, climbing into the cockpit of my own pre-pubescent imagination, and flying around the office with the other Tuskegee Airmen.

My instincts proved correct. I didn’t land the gig. But I surely doubt I’ll ever forget the lesson.

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12 thoughts on “BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Dogfights and Rewrites with George Lucas

  1. jeffguenther

    My instinct would have been to stand in a neutral corner and begin crooning Deutschland Über Alles. At a gap:
    HANS: Today, I saw again that black man in the P-51.
    FRITZ: Good. You got the non-Aryan bastard?
    HANS: Fritz, I have just returned to base on a produce truck.

    But while the others were zooming around the office, I hope I’d have seen the core problem coming at us out of the sun: This is an extremely challenging story about tolerance and acceptance and detente, none of which are intimately related to flying or shooting down Germans. It was probably the lure of special effects that sent this project spiraling to the ground, trailing black smoke.

  2. Pat S.

    I really wanted to like Red Tails. I’ve long felt that their story deserved to be told in a way that was both respectful and honest because those men truly were as much heroes as anyone else that fought in that war.

    Sadly, this movie wasn’t. I guess it as hard enough for Mr. Lucas to get it made as it was, the studios knowing that the larger segment of white audiences would miss it if it were even half as brutally racist as so many people were then. The sad result is that much of what appeared on the screen was trite and cliche with over-the-top comic book battle scenes worthy of Michael Bay.

    The real tragedy, though, is that it will probably be the only half-way major film ever ventured on this subject and those men will not get the recognition they truly deserve.

  3. Tieuel Legacy! in Motion

    Seeing that one of the people asked to write was cartoon creator, I’m wondering if the lack of your participation was really the key. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. Would an extra player have killed the mood? Who knows? Maybe they wanted to see more on paper. Also, keep in mind that Carter wasn’t a part of the final product in the end as far as I know. The project went on for so long that plenty of changes took place.

  4. L.A. Eide

    You win some, you lose some. I have not seen “Red Tails” but from the comments here, I haven’t missed much. There’s a lot to be said for spontaneity but if you’re tense and overly impressed with the people around you, you’re probably not going to act spontaneously. As usual, the ego kills.

  5. Kevin

    For an aspiring writer/producer I have to say that this article realy rings true to me. You have to be willing to get down and dirty with your childlike behaviours when acting out scenes or ideas. It adds life and visual impact to words. As writers we tend to live in our own imagination, and seldom tend to live or act them out. This article shows how important it can be to a producer or director, (who tends to be visual rather than verbal in their approach in my opinion) to get involved visualy/physicaly in their future product, and thus so should we.

  6. Brice LeCarre

    I must say I was disappointed in this movie very much. The story was blend with nothing to hang on to. The flying scenes were well done but would have been spectacular had the aircraft stick to our Newtonian universe laws of physics. .

  7. Duncan

    I wish you had been hired. “Red Tails” was the most shockingly abysmal film I have seen in a very long time. I had the impression that much of the off-screen dialog was added after shooting, and given the poor performances of said dialog, it was probably recorded by the sound guys themselves.

    Lines like “Germans! Let’s go get ’em!” and “Gee, I hope we get those Red Tails to escort us next time” had me literally gasping out loud in the theater.

  8. Ed

    Thanks for that story. Well told and very engaging. I’m sure you’ll have many more opportunties as a result of that meeting; if not, you can dine out on it for many years to come.

  9. Joe Madalena


    I had a similar, but a much less stressful experience with Red Tails. I was called to provide several “foreign” locations for the re-shoots in Northern California. I took the Executive Producer and Production Designer to several promising location sites in Sonoma and Napa Counties. They took a lot of photographs and seemed pleased. However, Mr. Lucas decided to re-write the scenes and not use any of the sites.