BY GLENN KENNY
Photographed by Henry Leutwyler
Spike Lee is a busy man, and he’s busier than usual in February. In his barebones office at New York University, where he serves as the artistic director of a graduate division at the Tisch School of the Arts, he points out that this month happens to be Black History Month. “I speak on college campuses all the time but on Black History Month I’m on the road almost every single day.” He goes out with a message, but it’s not necessarily the message you might expect. “I always try to impart in my lectures that the majority of people on this earth go to their grave having been slaves to the job they hate. So what you gotta do in life is what you love.”
What Lee loves is filmmaking, and he does quite a lot of it. “Cinema, for me, is the feature films I’ve done, the television stuff, the documentaries, the short films, the commercials. For me all that comes under the heading of filmmaking.” His first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, a bold, blunt, serio-comic look at African-American amour put Lee on the map of independent filmmakers. In his subsequent films he’s toggled between studio pictures and smaller-scale projects. And for his body of work and commitment to filming to New York, he was awarded the DGA Honor in 2002.
What hasn’t changed is his knack for hitting nerves as his films examine facets of race, class and sex in America while always maintaining a jazzy, entertaining edge. In the wake of his biggest commercial success, the 2006 thriller Inside Man, which grossed almost $200 million worldwide, Lee is currently completing Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II film on a more epic scale than he’s ever worked before. “What the connective tissue between every form I work in, for me, is that I always try to tell a story, whether a 30-second commercial I did with Michael Jordan or a full-length documentary like When the Levees Broke. For me, it’s still storytelling.”
GLENN KENNY: Let’s talk about when you were starting out. In the early ’80s there were very few black filmmakers. Who did you look to for inspiration?
SPIKE LEE: When I was in film school at NYU, the black filmmakers were Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Warrington Hudlin—those were the black independent filmmakers I looked up to. There was one thing I wanted different though: I didn’t want to make a film once every five years. And I didn’t want to just make a film and visit film festivals all over. No disrespect; they would have made more films if they had gotten the financing. But from the very beginning my determination was to get output going, make a film a year. Make a film, make a film, make a film.
INSIDE TRACK: Lee, on the New York set with Denzel Washington, worked
his usual social commentary into a mainstream bank heist picture and scored
his biggest box office hit with Inside Man (2006). (© Photofest)
Q: Some kids play with cameras and equipment and know at an early age they want to be filmmakers. Was that something you were thinking about when you were growing up?
A: Growing up I wanted to play second base for the Mets. But genetics conspired against that. The summer of 1977 was very pivotal in my development as a filmmaker. That spring I was at Morehouse College in Atlanta, just finishing my sophomore year. And before going home, my advisor told me I had to think long and hard about choosing a major because I had exhausted all my electives. So I went back to New York from Atlanta for the summer. The city was in dire financial straights.
Q: So how did that make you a filmmaker?
A: The previous Christmas, someone had given me a Super 8 camera—and it’s killing me, I can’t remember who. So I had this camera and a box of cartridges and for some reason I said I’m going to spend the summer just documenting it. When the blackouts happened I filmed the blacks and the Puerto Ricans looting. Seventy-seven was the first summer of disco, every block there was a block party, DJs hooking up their turntables and speakers to the street lamps, and they’re dancing the hustle. And I was filming all that.
Q: And that was the Summer of Sam.
Son of Sam was running crazy. So I was interviewing people about that. I came back to school, declared my major—mass communications, which included film. And my first film teacher encouraged me to take this raw footage and give it a narrative. Because I didn’t know what it was for, I was just shooting. So I gave it a narrative and it ended up being 45 minutes. The title was Last Hustle in Brooklyn. When I showed it to my class they loved it. And then I said this is what I want to do.
Q: Was there a point in time when you finally felt you could really do it?
A: The moment that I began to believe I could become a filmmaker, I really owe that to Jim Jarmusch. He was two years ahead of my class at NYU, and when he hit it with Stranger Than Paradise, it became doable. No longer was it daring, or a hope, or a dream, because here was someone that we knew. Here was someone we were good friends with, and he had made it. We’d open up the paper, and see an ad for his film. And that was like a revolution. Once he hit it, everybody was like, we could do it.
Q: One thing that’s very striking about your first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, is the freedom of the filmmaking. Moving between drama and comedy, between black and white and color. How did you arrive at the assurance to do that?
She’s Gotta Have It was really my second attempt at a feature film. The first attempt was a fiasco. It was a film called The Messenger. And it didn’t work out because of money. But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I was ill-equipped to direct that script. I mean, it had helicopter chases, car chases. And thank God I didn’t get the money, because it would have been a total disaster. I was not ready yet. But when it didn’t happen, it was at the most critical point in my development as a filmmaker, and I was getting ready almost to quit. But I thought, let me try to do something that’s not overreaching—which The Messenger would have been—let me just try to do something that’s two or three people in the room. And that was She’s Gotta Have It.
Q: One of the things that was most appealing about She’s Gotta Have It was how it mixed genres.
A: From the very beginning, I always believed that you could do serious subject matter with humor in it. It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve not always been successful in it. There are various degrees of success. Do the Right Thing is a very serious film but I also think it’s very funny too. So I’ve always tried to, no matter what type of genre I’m doing, I try to have some humor in it. Not necessarily comedy but humor.
Q: After She’s Gotta Have It, did you feel like you kind of knew what you were doing?
A: With She’s Gotta Have It and my next film, School Daze, I was winging it. And that was basically because, like most film students, you’re more technically proficient than you are at working with actors. And it wasn’t until Do the Right Thing that I felt comfortable working with actors. I’d rather hide behind the camera than talk to an actor or direct them in the first two films.
Q: Despite the fact that you perform in all those films—you’re part of their ensembles?
A: That was an accident. We couldn’t afford to pay anybody else. She’s Gotta Have It cost $175,000. Shot it in 12 days in July of 1985. Two six-day weeks.
Q: That movie ends with a call to wake up, which is reprised in your next film.
A: The last words of School Daze are ‘wake up,’ said by Laurence Fishburne. And the first words of Do the Right Thing are ‘wake up,’ said by Samuel L. Jackson.
ALL THAT JAZZ: Denzel Washington plays the trumpet and Lee
plays his manager in Mo' Better Blues. (© Photofest)
STREET SMART: Lee stirred controversy with the Brooklyn set
Do the Right Thing. (© David Lee/Universal)
Q: Do the Right Thing created quite a stir in 1989. How did you come up with the idea for the film?
A: It was just a matter of having my eyes and ears open. New York City was racially polarized at the time, helped along that way by [then-mayor] Ed Koch. And you had numerous police killings—Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers—we can go down the line. And I wanted this film to take place on the hottest day of the summer on one block in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. I remember I was watching a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode where a scientist was doing an experiment about temperature and how the murder rate goes up after a certain temperature. But you don’t have to be a scientist to know after 95 degrees here in New York people lose their mind. Ninety-five degrees, 8 million people on top of each other, the heat, the cement, the tar, the air, the stink—people go off. So I wanted to do this film where as the day progressed it got hotter and hotter and hotter until there was just an explosion.
Q: The movie had a large, diverse ensemble cast and everyone had his or her own individual style. Were you more comfortable in your ability to pull off something like that?
A: What gave me more confidence was just the simple fact that I had done two feature films already. Each one was a progression, I felt, in getting to where I needed to be as a director. I remember a quote by Akira Kurosawa, something he said at maybe his 70th birthday. Someone asked him, does he know everything about cinema. And Kurosawa said—and I’m paraphrasing here—there’s a whole universe of cinema I have yet to learn. So one of my favorite filmmakers, one of the great masters of all time, who had made so many great films, says there’s a universe he has still yet to learn. That confirmed something for me. There’s a jazz term, ‘You gotta keep shedding, you gotta get in that woodshed, you gotta shed, man.’ And that’s what I really try and impart to my students. I see lazy students, I jump on their ass. They gotta work. This thing is not going to happen overnight. You gotta shed. You gotta put work in. Now people only see the results. They see my man Michael Jordan, he has natural ability, but he is shedding. He came into the league, he couldn’t shoot. And every summer he’d work on a part of his game that was deficient so that he became the total package. And as a filmmaker, it’s the same thing. You gotta work. Of course the key is, when you love something, it’s not work.
Q: Do the Right Thing, which is now considered a landmark film, was very controversial when it was released. And that controversy seemed to follow you around for some time.
A: Yeah. [Political writer] Joe Klein and [then-New York Magazine film critic] David Denby were writing, in effect, that Universal Pictures was putting people’s lives in jeopardy. That for them to release this film in the summer—subtext meaning black folks go crazy in the summer, most riots happen in the summer—black viewers would not have the intelligence to see what was on the screen and make that distinction, and instead go out and re-enact what they saw on the screen in real life. I get mad still thinking about that. Because it was just ignorant. Plain and simple. So with Do the Right Thing, I’m trying to start riots. And in Mo’ Better Blues, because there are a couple of characters named Al and Nate Flatbush who rip off the jazz musicians in the film, I’m anti-Semitic. Not only is that a nuisance and a pain in the ass, but it detracts from the films, because critics and people start writing about stuff that has nothing to do with the movie. And so the films have suffered from it, I think. But to be honest, though, if you look at my body of work and how a lot of it has been received, I’m not going to sit here complaining. I’m very fortunate.
Q: With Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever and such, you really start painting a much wider social canvas. You just started moving out and going everywhere with race, everywhere with class, and...
A: Sex all over the place.
Q: Sex, yeah.
A: Racial sex.
Q: In Summer of Sam, the relationship between the John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino characters is very intense—not just what they do but the way they talk about sex. And you also have that sexual jealousy going on in Mo’ Better Blues. That’s stuff that a lot of filmmakers just will not touch, ever.
A: If you’re going to do a film like Summer of Sam, you can’t be shy. It’s just that simple. If you have a hang-up, if you’re shy, whatever, then you shouldn’t be doing that film. And that stuff was happening at the time. And it was part of the script. We wanted to show the audiences what it meant to live in New York City at that time.
Q: There’s a shot that occurs for the first time in Mo’ Better that since has become something of a signature in your films.
A: The double-dolly shot!
Q: Yes, the camera’s on a dolly, moving back, and the actor you’re shooting is on another dolly, moving forward, giving the figure a sense of being suspended, floating over the scene.
A: It started out on Mo’ Better. Ernest Dickerson and I came up with it—Ernest was my classmate at NYU and he shot all my films through Malcolm X. There’s a shot where my character, Giant, has to walk and somehow we came up with the idea, let’s just have Giant ride the dolly. And if you look at that scene, I’m up sitting on a dolly as it moves, and I’m moving like I’m walking. And at the very beginning, that was really just show-offy, student film stuff. After that, Ernest and I decided that if we were going to use the shot, there should be a reason for it. And a good example of that is the sequence in Malcolm X where we have Sam Cooke singing the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” In doing the research for the film, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, told me she felt that Malcolm knew he was going to be assassinated when he came to the Audubon Ballroom that Sunday morning. So knowing that, and believing her, I said let’s use this shot. So maybe we can convey to the audience his mental state. Another example of that is in 25th Hour [shot by Rodrigo Prieto] where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s just kissed his student, Anna Paquin. When he does that it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, I crossed that line.’ You can get a transportive, or sometimes alienated feeling, depending on the situation of the scene.
THE DIRECTORS VISION: Lee with NYU classmate
and longtime DP Ernest Dickerson lining up
a shot for Malcolm X. (© Warner Bros)
Q: From Do The Right Thing on your work took on an ever-expanding scale, but Malcolm X brought you into genuinely epic territory. Was that a difficult project for you?
A: Whoo! It was well worth it, but it took five years off of my life. It was funny, though: Denzel [Washington] and I used to have a joke, we would ask each other, ‘Do you have your passport on you?’ Just in case things got hectic, we could leave the country under the cover of darkness. It was a joke, but in a little way we were kind of serious about that. It was no joke because aside from the struggle to get it made on the studio side, people were serious about how that film was going to turn out. People, every day, would tell us, ‘Don’t fuck up Malcolm. Don’t fuck it up.’ It was rough. And as usual, it came down to money, and there came a time where everybody that signed up on it, knew that the money we had was not sufficient. And the day came where you had to pay the piper. And Warner Bros. tried to use that as leverage against me on the film’s length. And I wouldn’t knuckle under and let the bond company take it over.
Q: So how did you get the money to finish the film?
A: Everything was on me. And, in studying Malcolm’s life for the film, he always talked about self-reliance and self-determination amongst people of color, specifically African-Americans. That’s where I got the idea of to make up this list of prominent African-Americans and ask them to write us a check. And these great individuals wrote big checks. That enabled us to continue cutting and postproduction. And eventually things worked out.
Q: Did you and Denzel always have a very solid idea of what the film had to be?
A: Everybody did. Wynn Thomas, the production designer; Ernest Dickerson, cinematographer; Ruth Carter, the costume designer; Terence Blanchard, the composer. We all knew. And we were unified. And we all knew that Malcolm was many different people. He was in constant pursuit of the truth. And he was constantly involved—and to show that evolution, we needed time. I understand that studios want to have as many screenings per day as possible. But that priority should not go above what’s best for the film. We needed three hours to tell the story.
Q: Get on the Bus and your first documentary, 4 Little Girls, were made almost back-to-back in ’96 and ’97. Get on the Bus is a fictionalized piece about the Million Man March of 1995, and 4 Little Girls was about the racist bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963. Did doing Bus give you the impetus to say, ‘OK, now I want to do a real documentary?
A: No, the idea for 4 Little Girls came way before. When I was in film school here, there was a New York Times Magazine cover about violence in Birmingham. I knew about the story, but the way Hal Raines wrote about it really hit home to me. So while I was in film school, I wrote a letter to Chris and Maxie McNair [parents of Denise McNair, one of the four girls of the title]. I said I would like to make a feature film about your daughter. And they never answered, nor should they have, because it’s like a letter from some kook. But from then on I always had it in my mind. And I changed that idea from narrative to a documentary. I wanted to find the people, the parents and relatives, the friends, and tell who these four girls were that got murdered. And also who they might have become had they been allowed to live.
Q: You show, largely in flash-frames, the morgue photos of the girls, which are harrowing. I know you’re saying, ‘You have to look at this. You have to look at what these racists did; confront it.’ But a lot of filmmakers might not have made that choice.
A: Having those pictures there was not a done deal until very long into it. I was going back and forth. It was in the cut, it was out of the cut. And finally after much deliberation, thought and prayer, I said we should put it in there. I remember we had a screening here in New York and I did not tell the relatives and the parents that those morgue shots were going to be in there. Afterwards I asked them, each one of them individually, what did they think about it. And they all agreed that it was hard to look at, but they felt it should be included.
Q: In movies such as He Got Game and The 25th Hour, there are sections where the story becomes subordinate to your observations about the realities surrounding the narrative. The film starts to function as kind of a notebook or journal. So in The 25th Hour there’s quite a bit that’s less about the story and more about New York after 9/11.
A: Yes. David Benioff wrote the novel and the script before 9/11. Still, it was very easy to incorporate this film into post-9/11 New York City. And at the time we were putting 25th Hour together New York was hurting. We were hurting. And I wanted to show the effect 9/11 had, not just ground zero and buildings, but I was concerned about human beings. And the psyche of New Yorkers. David did a great job of making the necessary adjustments, script-wise, to make it feel like it was written right after.
Lee regular John Turturro flirts with Veronica Webb in Jungle Fever.
Lee directs John Leguizamo outside a playground in Summer of Sam.
(© David Lee/Universal; © Photofest)
Q: Did the screenplay change a lot from the novel?
A: There are two scenes I really love in that film. It’s a scene where Edward Norton’s character looks into the mirror, has a brutal dialogue with himself, all ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that.’ I read the script first, and I went back to the novel and that scene was in the novel but not the script. I said to David, ‘This is one of the best scenes in the book, and it’s not in the script.’ He said, ‘Disney didn’t want to do it.’ So I said, ‘I’m putting it in.’ Also the ending, that whole montage of an American journey. I love doing scenes like that, because you’re just shooting a whole lot of stuff and putting it together in the editing room, and we had the glue of Terence Blanchard’s score.
Q: Inside Man got you back into a studio and it got you working with Brian Grazer, a powerhouse producer. How was it getting back into that world?
A: Imagine Entertainment—that’s Brian and Ron Howard—bought it for Ron to direct. Something happened, Ron ended up doing something else and the script was languishing. And a copy was sent to me, I read it, went back to Brian, said I’d like to direct it. At the same time, Denzel was looking for something. It all happened just like that. Clive Owen came aboard, Jodie Foster came aboard. And it ended up being my biggest commercial hit to date. I didn’t write the script but I still made a personal film. There were still ways where we were able to put in some observation even though it was really a straight-ahead thriller, straight-ahead bank heist film.
Q: After the commercial success of Inside Man you went into something a lot heavier, When the Levees Broke, a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. How did that come about?
A: I was in Venice for the Venice Film Festival and my wife called me and said, turn on CNN. I was seeing these horrific images, images that might have been from Africa. But it was the United States of America. Images of people drowning, images of people on roofs holding up signs, waving at helicopters that are flying by. And I said I want to find out: Who are those people on the roofs, how did they end up there? What was their ordeal? All my documentaries, 4 Little Girls, Jim Brown: All-American, When the Levees Broke, we didn’t use narrators. Look, everybody has different tastes, but that’s not our taste. [Producer] Sam Pollard and I, we don’t like narrators and we just rely on letting the people, the witnesses, tell the story.
Q: The film runs over four hours. Was that always your plan?
A: No. At first it was supposed to be two hours but the more we shot, the more we said, this can’t be two hours. And we went back to [HBO president of documentaries] Sheila Nevins and she had to go upstairs for more money and get the time, the broadcasting time. I really made some great friends in New Orleans, and then to have Terence Blanchard, a native of southern New Orleans, who I’ve worked with for so long and who is also one of my best friends, to do the score and share his experiences. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to shoot in my life was where we bring Terence and his mother to their house. They had not seen it because they had evacuated. I asked, ‘Please, would you let us shoot when you take your mother back to the house?’ He said fine. We arranged it, scheduled it and when the cameras followed them inside the house, I stayed outside. I couldn’t take it. It wasn’t even my house or my mother, it was rough.
Q: Your next film, Miracle at St. Anna, is a World War II film. Are you a fan of the genre?
A: Oh yeah. I grew up watching World War II films. I mean I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker back then. But it was always one of my favorite genres. This is based on a great novel by James McBride, who also wrote the script. The story is about the 92nd Division, the “Buffalo Soldiers” who fought in Italy against the Fascists and the Nazis in 1944, a time when the U.S. Army was still segregated. These are patriots who fought for their country, who believed in democracy, at a time when they were still considered second-class citizens. Still being lynched and what not. It’s an epic. Real David Lean territory.
Q: Would you say in terms of scale, this is bigger than Malcolm X?
A: Oh, it’s way bigger than Malcolm X.
Q: Most Italian movies are dubbed in postproduction. How did you deal with all the different languages?
A: Well we’re not going the Hogan’s Heroes route. No Sgt. Schultz, Col. Klink. The Germans speak German, the Italians speak Italian, the Americans speak English. Subtitles. I mean, for me it’s laughable today with these films and Germans are speaking perfect English. I can’t do it.
His debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, was a bold and
sexy take on affairs of the heart. (© MGM)
Lee went to New Orleans to document the destruction of Hurricane
Katrina in When the Levees Broke. (© HBO)
Q: So did your success with Inside Man make this easier to put together?
A: Well, here’s the story. Here I am, Inside Man, my biggest hit ever. $200 million dollars worldwide. Somehow I felt that it would be easier to get my next film financed. I was very naive. I don’t know why, but I was. I kick myself for this. I had a project—James Brown’s story, with Wesley Snipes. Couldn’t get the money. I want to do L.A. riots—could not get enough money. And I was really disillusioned. People said I couldn’t make a commercial film all those years, and now, look—I can. Come on. Average price for a Hollywood film now is $85 million. We wanted like $65 million for both projects. And so I was really discouraged. I said fuck it, I’m going to Europe. We got financing for St. Anna in Europe, and then once we had that, I was able to go to my dear friend, Dick Cook at Disney, and Disney took it on as the American distributor. But the bulk of the money comes from Europe. So it was a great lesson to me. Because somehow I tricked myself into thinking that it would be easier.
Q: Years ago, taking a page from Malcolm X, you coined the phrase ‘Make black films by any means necessary.’ And you’ve found the necessary means, whether it’s been big studios like Warners and Universal or smaller outfits such as Sony Classics.
A: Well, I have not been back to Warner Bros. since Malcolm X. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Especially after I called them ‘the plantation.’ [laughter] But if you don’t find the means, to be honest, how are you going to get better? How was I going to be working my craft if I’m not doing the craft? It goes back to that Kurosawa quote again. You got to get out there and learn and learn. And it’s all right if you stumble. Just keep getting up. Get up. Keep moving.