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The characters of ‘Red Tails,’ George Lucas newest cinematic adventure, 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 David 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 Andre 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 producer Rick 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. 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 director Anthony 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.”