The biggest indie film ever made

Producer Rick McCallum reveals the filmmaking formula for "The Phantom Menace" -- and hopes Hollywood will follow suit.

Published May 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the beloved 1985 Dennis Potter cult film "Dreamchild," Peter Gallagher plays a scrappy Yankee newsman-turned-agent who deftly plunders the New World on behalf of Alice Hargreaves, the real-life model for "Alice in Wonderland." After meeting the movie's producer, Rick McCallum, you can't help thinking that he was the real-life model for Gallagher. Potter, the British TV writer who achieved a dotty auteur status all his own, engaged this American producer precisely to "show him the money."

McCallum became an expert at getting Potter the fees he wanted while mounting low-budget movies and TV shows -- just the man for George Lucas when he took young Indiana Jones to television. Now, as the sole producer of "The Phantom Menace" (Lucas is credited as executive producer) and the only producer in residence at Lucas' movie company, Lucasfilm, McCallum retains an appetite for ribald talk as well as intellectual promotion. He's Smart Aleck in Wonderland.

"The Phantom Menace" is to "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" as "Psycho" is to "Alfred Hitchcock Presents": That's the message I got when I interviewed McCallum a week before the opening of Episode One of the "Star Wars" saga. While Hitchcock used the team he assembled on his TV show to make his horror blockbuster inexpensively, Lucas and McCallum used the team they assembled for their TV show to make "Phantom" for $115 million -- under half the estimated budget of "Titanic." If Hitchcock's on-the-run effort transformed slasher films into vehicles for personal expression, McCallum vows that "The Phantom Menace" will liberate all moviemakers from Hollywood. It is, after all, the biggest independent film in history.

Lucas hired McCallum for "Young Indiana Jones" to bring to that series the ingenuity that marked his BBC productions, including Potter's brilliant Proust-meets-pulp miniseries, "The Singing Detective," in 1986. The "analog" understanding of talent McCallum had learned at the BBC, along with the digital revolution at Lucas' effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic, made it possible for a sprawling Young Indy episode to cost the same as an hour of "L.A. Law." Along with a tiny big-screen misfire ("The Radioland Murders") and a giant hit ("Jurassic Park"), the series convinced Lucas that it was time to make a special edition of "Star Wars" and follow it up with the prequels.

McCallum's career began while he was a student in comparative literature at Columbia University. In the early '70s, he answered a mimeographed ad on a pegboard and got hired as a driver for producer Ismail Merchant, who was doing a film called "Savages" with director James Ivory. McCallum joined them again on "The Wild Party" (an oddity, based on a Roaring '20s narrative poem, with Raquel Welch as a flapper), then entered the Directors Guild as an assistant director. He toiled on three John Frankenheimer films (the last, in 1979, was the abysmal "Prophecy") and developed Peter Bart's novel "Destinies" when Bart was the head of Lorimar.

But what changed McCallum's life was connecting with Potter while taking a smoke at a London party. Potter suffered from psoriatic arthropathy so ferocious that it periodically covered his skin with lesions and caused all his joints to crack. Wanting to make sure he left some money behind for his family, he began hawking a screenplay version of his breakthrough miniseries, "Pennies From Heaven," as a lavish American movie. (Potter died in 1996, of pancreatic cancer contracted from the drugs that controlled his lifelong illness.) When Potter visited Hollywood with another friend of McCallum's, ace production designer Ken Adam (best known for eight Bond films and "Dr. Strangelove"), the three-way combination clicked. In 1981, McCallum became the executive producer of an audacious $18 million extravaganza starring Steve Martin, with Herbert ("The Turning Point") Ross as director and Gordon ("The Godfather") Willis as cinematographer. The sex-in-the-Great Depression story, now set in Chicago, retained the potent device of characters lip-syncing to old-time crooners doing period songs -- expressing their own yearnings while connecting to the despair and hope of the Zeitgeist.

"Before the movie opened," McCallum remembers, "Pauline Kael, who adored it, told us that in a week we'd either be geniuses or invisible." I recently reminded Kael of that remark; she said, with a laugh, "They were both."

"Pennies From Heaven" flopped -- it bewildered Martin's post-"Jerk" audience (his 1999 audience might have gotten it) and failed to land unanimous critical support. Even Kael, in her 1981 rave, noted that "the lip-syncing idea works wonderfully," but "the dialogue scenes get off on the wrong foot." What McCallum learned is that the goals of a studio can clash with those of moviemakers: "If we'd made it in England, for $10 million less, we might have become a modest hit. But the studio chief, David Begelman, was trying to revive MGM, and he wanted this to be known as a new MGM musical, shot on the MGM lot."

When Potter promised to give McCallum new life as a producer in England, he leapt at the opportunity. You can chalk up part of the production paradigm for "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" and "The Phantom Menace" to McCallum's inside-out view of British TV drama. Despite the elitism of English society, he found no class system in London show biz: "a Judi Dench could go from getting hundreds of thousands for a Bond film to hundreds a week for several weeks on a contemporary BBC play to little over a hundred a week at the National Theater" without tarnishing her luster. With a rich but not overpaid talent pool and a state-funded company with enlightened leadership, a producer in the BBC's '80s heyday could depend on having the resources he needed to fulfill a writer's dream -- provided he could persuade a director that it would be fun to do on a tight schedule and budget.

The key words in this producer's personal jargon are "finger fucking" and "brain damage." "Finger fucking" means useless fiddling -- or the manipulation that puts cast and crew in the proper frame of mind. "Brain damage" is the destruction of gray matter due to status seeking, career jockeying or an over-complicated set -- anything that dilutes a moviemaker's concentration.

In 1990, McCallum bet that the promise of only minor brain damage on "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" would net him major directors with minimal finger fucking. He ended up snagging a slew of them, including Bille August ("The Best Intentions") and Nicolas Roeg ("The Witches"). Some, like August, prepared for months; others flew onto the set and shot. Most fit into the series' young adult mode, although Roeg envisioned starting an episode about Mata Hari from inside her vagina -- a notion he withdrew when he discovered that Bertrand Blier had beat him to the view in "Femmes Fatales."

All were willing to forego perks and protocol. McCallum says that August thought nothing of flying coach to Stockholm on a Sunday because that was the only day Max von Sydow had off from the theater. McCallum also got August to enlist his then-wife Pernilla August (who plays the mother in "The Phantom Menace") for a one-day appearance at a $500 cash fee. And all were happy to have Lucas exploit digital technology that allowed him to create epic backdrops out of bits and pieces filmed in 27 countries during the four-year course of the series. At Skywalker Ranch last week, McCallum showed me a Young Indy reel demonstrating the tricks behind making Wilmington, N.C., look like New York City in the '20s, on the cheap. With computerized ease, a fagade from Prague and an interior from Budapest merged into an entertainment palace on the Great White Way. Digital matte paintings turned a cardboard theater box into gilt and an unexceptional patch of Wilmington grass into Central Park. Sleight-of-keystroke multiplied eight dancers into chorus lines and purged one supporting player who had demanded high payment for extra shooting. This kind of prestidigitation -- taken further by the computer-generated dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" (1993) and the computer-generated environments of "The Radioland Murders (1994) -- persuaded Lucas that he was ready to jump-start the "Star Wars" prequels.

McCallum transferred three concepts from "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" to "The Phantom Menace":

A) Deals were structured so that actors, technicians and crew remained available for new scenes and reshooting. The agreement McCallum struck is like the one Don Corleone makes with the undertaker at the start of "The Godfather": In return for the favor he does them (employing them on a potentially fun, exciting and lucrative project), he will one day exact a service of his own naming. Just one month before the opening of "The Phantom Menace," for example, McCallum and Lucas were back in London shooting Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) telling Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), "We will watch your career with great interest."

B) Costs could be limited through long-term planning, like leasing production facilities for the whole of a film's schedule. Most of "The Phantom Menace" was filmed in a huge old Rolls Royce warehouse outside London -- "a wonderful dump," McCallum says, now known as Leavesden Studios -- which he kept ready for the film's possible return until Lucas said "Cut!" for the last time.

C) "George could direct from the editing room." Satellite transmissions and digital technology enabled Lucas to see footage from all over the world, readjust sequences to his liking and delegate authority from the cutting room -- though he did fly back to London to add that scene with Palpatine. Lucas' use of "animatics" -- defined by Lucasfilm as "low-resolution moving graphics," but also including stock footage, pickup shots and so on -- is precisely like a cartoonist's use of animated storyboards to create a rough cut before the start of principal production. But Lucas collaborates so closely with his "previsualizers" that he set them up not at ILM but at Lucasfilm and turned to them for "postvisualizing" too -- including the computer alteration of an actor so that Anakin glances in the direction of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) instead of looking straight ahead.

It's the efficiency as much as the innovation of Lucas' empire that McCallum hopes will make it a role model. He feels that Lucasfilm will be easy for small-scale indie filmmakers to emulate when it becomes routine to record and deliver pictures into theaters digitally, without ever committing them to film. Eliminating Hollywood's inflated overhead, hiring fewer craftsmen for longer periods and teaching them computer skills (something that already has jolted the art of film editing) sounds like a healthy treatment for an ailing industry.

Still, the proof must lie in the product. When asked whether actors go stale when forced to rely on animatics for context, McCallum says that "trained performers treat it like dress rehearsal in a theater." With the exception of Pernilla August, the bland ensemble in "The Phantom Menace" suggests otherwise. When McCallum says that computers enable writer-directors to realize their conceptions without compromise, you wonder whether employing another writer or a dialogue director might have improved Episode One exponentially. And when he says movies are now "more of a painterly than a photographic medium," you wish that wouldn't mean "cartoon." Lucasfilm has done a lot for moviemaking, but at the end of its latest production, one question remains: "Will the Force be used for good?"

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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