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Spike Lee Speaks, Demystifying The Man

Spike Lee Speaks, Demystifying The Man

Articles - Directing

Lee
directing Get On The Bus (1996).

Starting in 1986
with the release of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee has
made it his mission to provide work and apprenticeship to young
African-Americans trying to break into Hollywood, a process he
calls the "demystification of film." Yet over the course
of the decade he’s spent deconstructing filmmaking myths, the
press has gone about its own business, that of constructing a
persona of near-mythic dimensions for Spike Lee the man. Angry.
Brilliant. Controversial. Outspoken. Maverick. Racist. These
are the words one encounters over and over again when reading
about Lee. Often left out of the discussion is the fact that
he has become one of America’s most gifted and prolific filmmakers.

On the day we met I found him
to be quiet, unassuming, thoughtful, yet somewhat guarded. Though
his films are frequently peppered with expletives, he uses none
in conversation. In his spacious Brooklyn, NY offices our conversation
initially focused on his substantial body of work. But soon the
discussion extended to his persona, the press and the future
of African-American cinema.

ERICH LEON HARRIS (ELH): Get
on the Bus
was your 10th film in 10 years. What was it
about this project that made you come on board?

SPIKE LEE (SL): Bill Borden
and Guy Rosenbush came up with the concept, and they got Rueben
Cannon aboard, then the three of them called me. When they told
me this story about these men on a bus going from L.A. to D.C.
on the way to the Million Man March, it was intriguing. At the
same time, I knew that we could not recreate the march. We felt
that the journey was in a lot of ways more important than the
destination, because everyone had seen the march on TV. The drama
would come from what happens to this unique mix of individuals,
this diversity of men who we feel represent African-Americans
at this time. I still think that a lot of people think we’re
this monolithic group, but we chose to show this isn’t the case.

Spike and Denzel step out in Malcom X (1992).

ELH: We see the breaking
up and coming to terms of a gay relationship, and the mending
of a relationship between an absent father and his son, to name
just some of the characters. How important is it to you for voices
like these to resonate through your film?

SL: It’s important that
we try to be truthful. And we wanted everybody to have their
say on this bus, because in a lot of ways each person has to
stand for some ideology or some aspect of African-American men.

ELH: Reggie Bythewood’s
screenplay was strong and complex, yet I understand that it came
together very quickly.

SL: Reggie has a TV background.
He’s the head writer on New York Undercover. I had worked
with Reggie before. He had written a script for me that didn’t
get produced–but not because of the script; he’s a fine writer.
We needed someone with talent, but also someone who could really
crank it out, and Reggie was the one who did that.

ELH: Xavier, the UCLA film
student, was played by Hill Harper. Manohla Dargis of the LA
Weekly drew parallels between that character and yourself. Was
that your intent?

SL: No! It had nothing
to do with me. She’s off base. The line where Charles Dutton’s
character calls him Spike Lee, Jr. was something that Charles
improvised. The line was funny, so we kept it in. The reason
we had Xavier on the bus was because if he was a filmmaker and
was shooting video, we could use the footage that he’s shooting
to give the film a different texture or look. Also, since he’s
supposed to be doing a documentary, he can ask the guys directly
why they are going to the march, and they can answer to the camera.
To say that I was trying to hype myself up is just off base.

ELH: One thing I did notice
was the development of Xavier’s camerawork. At the beginning
of the story it was all over the place, but by the end he was
lining up his shots a lot better. He was developing his eye.

SL: That actually happened
because the you see in the film is stuff that Hill actually
shot himself while we were shooting the movie. As we got further
and further into the production, his operating got better.

ELH: Was this the first
time you shot with Super 16?

SL: No, She’s Gotta
Have It,
my very first film, was shot in Super 16. Duart
Labs did the blowup for both. I think
that only a trained eye could tell that it wasn’t originally
shot on 35mm.

Denzel Washington as Malcom
X
(1992).

ELH: What was it like shooting
in such a confined space?

SL: It was very difficult.
A large part of the film was actually shot on that bus while
it was moving. The small area was one of the reasons we elected
to shoot with Super 16. I like to shoot two cameras at a time,
but with two 35mm cameras in that space we would have been straining
our necks. Super 16 gave us a lot more flexibility, and we wanted
to experiment with a cinema verité style anyway. A lot
of this film was shot hand-held, so when you add it up, it makes
sense to go Super 16. The cameras were lighter.

ELH: There were a couple
of sequences where the image looked grainy and almost sepia-toned.

SL: What we did there was
to go to a different stock, a color-reversal stock. Then we did
a cross-processing. The first time you see it is when the bus
breaks down. We just felt that at certain times, when they get
off of the bus, we wanted a different look. As if there was one
world inside the bus and another outside.

ELH: One of my favorite
sequences comes when De’aundre Bonds, who plays the estranged
and shackled son, tries to escape into the woods. The sequence
is backlit with smoke, and is very beautiful.

SL: Elliot Davis did a
very good job shooting this film, especially since he only had
about two weeks of pre-production time.

ELH: This whole effort
was, in many ways, a return to your earlier way of shooting.
With all of the budgetary and time constraints, did you expect
it to be more or less difficult than it was?

SL: I knew that it would
be hard, but any film is hard. We had a certain amount of days
to shoot, so we just had to get our pages every single day. The
biggest problem was trying to get the same caliber of performance
in such a short shooting schedule, because even though the film
had a low budget we didn’t want the acting to look that way.
Everyone’s aspirations were high in spite of the budget.

ELH: This was the first
time you got to work with Charles Dutton. How was that experience?

SL: Charles and I have
known each other for a long time. I saw him in Ma Rainey’s
Black Bottom.
We’ve always talked about working together,
but this was the first time that things clicked.

Lee on Do The Right Thing set
(1989).

ELH: You have a talent
for finding brand new people that you may even have to Taft-Hartley,
then bringing them together with talents like Ossie Davis and
Charles Dutton. Is that by design?

SL: I think that each film
dictates who should be cast. But at the same time, I think about
casting movies the same way the great General Managers think
when they put together a ball club. You have to have the right
mix of youth and experience, because the two feed off of each
other and enhance each other. If you go too young, that could
be too much like school where you have to learn too much on the
job. If you use veterans all the time, they could be too stodgy
or set in their ways.

ELH: Who surprised you
in the cast?

SL: The only person who
really surprised me was De’aundre. I had worked with him before
(as executive producer on Tales From the Hood) and knew
what he could do, but since he’s a little flighty he was the
wild card. But he came through with flying colors.

ELH: Are you influenced
by shots you have seen other directors use?

SL: If there’s a shot I
like, the first thing I try to find out is how they did it. Then
I see if there’s a place in the story where the shot will make
sense.

ELH: One of your more interesting
shots is a dolly shot that gives the effect of walking on a moving
sidewalk.

SL: The first time I used
it was in Mo’ Better Blues with my character Giant. To
get that shot you have to lay dolly tracks. Then you put the
camera on the dolly. Then you put the actors on the dolly also.
Then you move the dolly along.

ELH: Would you call that
your signature shot? (Lee shrugs) I mean, Quentin Tarantino has
that shot from the trunk of the car that–

Spike with the cast of Jungle Fever (1991).

SL: Well, I think you have
to have more than two movies before you can have a signature
shot. You haveto have more than two movies before you’re Orson
Wells, don’t you think? (laughs)

ELH: Starting with the
book Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It, and throughout your career,
you have invited your viewers to read up on the making of your
films.

SL: The reason we do that
is because we have always been about the demystification of film.
There has always been this hocus-pocus or magical-mystical thing
associated with the making of film that sort of psyches people
out and makes them think that this cannot be done, that this
is a craft that cannot be learned.

ELH: Who are some of the
people that helped you in the beginning of your process?

SL: My process really began
in film school after a former classmate of mine finished his
first film a year out of NYU–when Jim Jarmusch released Stranger
Than Paradise.
Here was someone I knew, someone who went
to the same school that I did, who now had a hit film. I worked
in the equipment room as a TA and I had checked equipment out
to him, and here was someone who had an international hit. To
me, that’s when it first became do-able. I owe a great deal to
Jim Jarmusch. He showed me and everyone at NYU that we could
do this.

ELH: Do you feel your work
was treated fairly at NYU?

SL: I felt like I was treated
fairly, but at the same time I realized that this world of NYU
was not going to last forever. It was a three-year program, and
the only thing that was going to count was what you had to show
when you finished. Are you going to have a film that’s going
to be a calling card and get you meetings? I was fortunate enough
to have Joe’s Bed Stuy Barbershop. That was my thesis
film.

ELH: It won you the student
Academy Award. Did you think in that moment that your career
would go right into high gear and there would be no more troubles
for you?

SL: I definitely did. I
was naive. From the little acclaim that I did get, and with that
award on my mantle, a couple of agents did call for me and I
signed with one. I felt that I was on my way. But it didn’t happen
that way, and it didn’t happen then. I graduated in 1982, so
for the next three years I was just hell-bent on making a feature
film. The first attempt was unsuccessful. It was a film called Messenger, about
a bike messenger. That was the summer of ’84. In the summer of
’85 we shot 12 days in July for She’s Gotta Have It. Finally
at the end of that year it came out.

ELH: The story of that
$175,000 film is now legendary. It seems like a negligible budget
now, but was it difficult to raise that money at the time?

SL: That was the hardest
money I ever had to try and raise. It was a struggle.

ELH: Do you recommend that
young filmmakers just starting out go to film school?

SL: No. There’s not one
route. I think that you have to make or find a way. What’s best
for Spike Lee, or Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez or Joel
and Ethan Coen may not be the best way for other would-be filmmakers.

ELH: When you were courted
to some extent by Hollywood–

SL: I was never courted
by Hollywood. I had confidence in my agent that he would find
me work, but no work surfaced.

ELH: So what do you say
to other cats who think that getting the right agent is the key
to their success?

SL: You really can’t rely
on an agent for the most part. I don’t want to make a blanket
statement, but when you’re a young filmmaker I think an agent
can only help you once you’ve established yourself. If you haven’t
directed a feature film yet, you basically have to do it yourself.
Or try to align yourself with other people who are going in the
same direction you’re going.

ELH: In your case there
were people like Ernest Dickerson and Monty Ross, who were central
figures.

SL: Well, Monty’s not with
us anymore. His last film with us was Girl 6. He was very
important. People may have read about Spike Lee, but it wasn’t
just me. It was Monty Ross, Ruth Carter in costume design, Robbi
Reed was casting, Ernest Dickerson was shooting, Wynn Thomas
was production design, my father (Bill Lee) was doing the score,
Barry Brown was doing the cutting. This is a team we have.

ELH: Which pictures stand
out in your mind as your favorites?

SL: Do the Right Thing and Malcolm
X.

ELH: Malcolm X was
more than just another picture. Many things about it seemed more
like a war.

SL: Most films are like
that, but it was heightened on Malcolm X because a lot
was riding on it. I looked at it for the first time on laser
disk last Friday night, and that film is going to hold up forever.
But the thing that gets to me is when people like that idiot
Todd Boyd writes in the L.A. Times that the only thing
that Malcolm X is good for is to see Spike Lee lindy hop.
I mean, that’s just insane.

ELH: My personal observation
is that you are the one filmmaker that people, most of whom have
never met you, have volumes of negative things to say about.
Are you the one they love to hate, or the one they hate to love?
Which is it Spike?

SL: I don’t know. I think
that one of the reasons this happens is because I’m in my films–therefore
people know my face–and most directors aren’t. I also do a lot
of things outside of filmmaking, like commercials and videos,
so I have a different life outside my feature films. A lot of
the time I’m just amazed when I read these reviews of my work,
and the review isn’t really about the work as much as it is whether
they like or dislike Spike Lee. I was glad when you said before
the interview that when it comes down to it, it’s all about the
work. I’m amazed at how often the work is never discussed.

When you look at all of the films
I’ve done, you realize a lot of people got shortchanged. People
rarely talk about the great cinematography Ernest Dickerson was
doing, or Ruth Carter’s costume design–although she did receive
an Oscar nomination for Malcolm X. Barry Brown did a great
job of cutting all my films. Robbi Reed’s casting–look at School
Daze,
which is Tisha Campbell’s first film, Jasmine Guy’s
first film, Darrell Bell’s first film. Do The Right Thing, Rosie
Perez’s first film, Martin Lawrence’s first film, Robin Harris’s.
Shall we go on? Jungle Fever: Halle Berry’s first film,
Lucinda Williams, Nick Turturro’s first film. The list extends
behind the scenes as well.

ELH: What’s the biggest
misconception that people have about Spike Lee?

SL: For white people–or
should I say for white men–they have this misconception that
I am a racist or an anti-Semitic.

ELH: What would you say
has created this misconception?

SL: Some of my films deal
with the touchy subject matter of racism, and a lot of people
say that it indicts white America as the culprit. Therefore it’s
putting those people on the defensive.

ELH: When people look at
films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Jungle
Fever,
you can see how they might reach that conclusion.
But that’s less than one third of your filmography, which includes
themes involving music, love, sex–

SL: I think that’s a fair
assessment. People tend to focus on those three films and say
those are my only interests or those are the only films I can
make. I think my first decade as a filmmaker has covered a broad
spectrum of stories. It has also covered the broad spectrum of
the African-American community as a whole, and the different
stories that we share.

ELH: Even at the beginning
of your career you had to defend your work. Didn’t you have to
answer charges of misogyny with She’s Gotta Have It?

SL: I think what I was
guilty of early on was that my male characters were more fully
developed than my female characters, as opposed to any hatred
of women. So those charges that fault my filmic depiction of
women are not as strong as they used to be.

ELH: Do you attribute that
to your growth as a writer?

SL: Just my growth as an
individual.

ELH: Was it your original
intention to release a film a year?

SL: No, but it was my intention
to amass a body of work. The generation of filmmakers above me,
people like Halle Guerima and Charles Burnett and individuals
like that, it seemed like they spent so much time frantically
trying to raise money. Sometimes it would take two or three years
to raise that money. It was hard to do films back-to-back, but
I really wanted to continue working.

ELH: What draws you to
a story so much that you begin to see it, write it, then direct
and produce it?

SL: I think that I usually
have several different ideas I am thinking about, but the one
that I keep thinking about is the one I always make. I’ve got
to mull it over a while.

ELH: In terms of the size
or scope of a project, do you prefer to work on a smaller production
with less people or budget, or with a larger crew?

SL: No filmmaker is ever
going to tell you honestly that they would rather work with less
money than with more money. But the reality of this project was
that we were raising the money ourselves. Even though we raised
$2.4 million, it was not a cakewalk. I think that we really had
a solid plan, and we told people that they could not lose money.
We were going to make this film for "x" amount of dollars,
and sell it to Columbia Pictures on a negative pick-up deal that
will be in excess of what "x" was. The Thursday before
the picture opened, all of the investors received a check for
their original investment, plus eight percent interest–before
the movie even opened.

ELH: How did you do at
the box office?

SL: Terrible. Nobody went,
or the word didn’t get around.

ELH: Why do you think the
audience didn’t support this film?

SL: I don’t know. Maybe
the black audience didn’t want to see a movie like this. Not
now, I mean. They want to see shoot ’em up stuff. I think it
was a combination of things. Some missteps were taken with the
marketing. But I’m not going to put everything on Columbia Pictures.
We could talk about this or talk about that, what Columbia should
or shouldn’t have done, but at the end of the day the African-American
moviegoing audience did not support the film. It’s as simple
as that.

ELH: Is it incumbent on
you as a director to bring people into the tent? Or do you feel
your job is done once the film is cut?

SL: A lot of times I feel
my job is just beginning after the film is done, because you
have to get out there and promote it. A lot of the actors and
I did everything we were asked to promote [Get on the Bus].
The African-American audience for the most part was unresponsive.

ELH: Was it apathy?

SL: That’s a very complex
question, but I think apathy has a lot to do with it. I was speaking
to Branford Marsalis about this the other day, and he said that
black folks think they know what they like, but they only like
what they know.

ELH: So if you try to do
something different–

SL: They don’t want to
hear it. And why people thought this was a documentary, I still
don’t understand. We took care to make sure with the TV commercials
and radio spots that this was an entertaining picture and not
some diatribe about "Let’s uplift the black man!" and
all of that kind of stuff. You have to look at the numbers. We’ve
been out since October 16th, we’ve yet to crack $6 million. Set
It Off
is going to make $30 or $35 million. It’s disturbing
because studio heads are looking at these numbers, and the next
time a black filmmaker tries to make a film with any substance,
they’ll say, "Well, the last time somebody tried a film
like that was Get On The Bus, and nobody came. But you
know, they sure did come to see Set It Off, so we’ve got
to have more shoot ’em ups, more violent pieces." And those
are the films that they’ll continue to make. That’s the sad part.
But while all this is happening, black people will still be crying, "Oh,
they never do us right in Hollywood, and we get hit with the
same stereotypes again and again. Our image is not put on the
screen." If you want something, you gotta bring something.
It’s as simple as that.

ELH: I had a conversation
with Carl Franklin (See MM #22, October ’96), and he echoed some
of your concerns.

SL:About how more black
people should have supported Devil in A Blue Dress? And
that was with Denzel [Washington] in it. We didn’t have a star.
I’m not talking about the caliber of actor, I’m taking about
movie stars.

ELH: How important is having
that movie star to the overall success of a project?

SL: It’s very important.
Movie stars are what opens a film. That’s why some of these bums
are allowed to get $20 million for a movie.

ELH: You’ve been a catalyst
for the latest wave of African-American cinema. What changes
in filmmaking have you seen that have most impressed you?

SL: Even though we didn’t
make the financial return we wished to with Get On The Bus, I
think the way this film was financed was unique and can be used
as a paradigm for other projects. I think that people shouldn’t
sleep on the fact that 15 African-American men from diverse backgrounds
can get together and invest in a film. Black people doing that?
(laughs) Black people getting together to invest in anything?
That’s revolutionary.

ELH: Do you want to talk
about Jackie Robinson?

SL: There’s nothing to
talk about. Ted Turner put it into turnaround, but I still hope
to get that film made.

ELH: What do you need to
make it?

SL: Forty million, to do
it right.

ELH: Forty million? Why
is it in turnaround?

SL: Forty million. (laughs)
The scope of the story is epic.

ELH: More epic than Malcolm
X
?

SL: No. We won’t be shooting
in Mecca, South Africa and Egypt, but it’s a period piece. We
have to recreate Ebbets Field, the Polo grounds, Yankee Stadium,
all those places.

ELH: You have to take us
back in time. Time is money . . .

SL: Time is money, money
is time. Forty million.

ELH: Will the public support
this type of film?

SL: I think so, but what
filmmaker truly knows in his heart of hearts whether the film
is going to make money or not? You just don’t know sometimes.
Who would have thought that Mike Tyson would have lost to Evander
Holyfield? Nobody. The first odds were 12-to-one. I wish I’d
had that bet.

ELH: Where do you see yourself
in five years?

SL: We’re going to executive
produce a lot more films, and I hope to be established in television
also. I’m doing a pilot with Brandon Tartikoff for ABC called L.I.E.,
which is an acronym for Long Island Expressway. It’s a
half-hour drama. Hopefully we’ll be shooting it this spring.

ELH: Didn’t you just get
back from Indianapolis?

SL: I shot a Nike spot
with Reggie Miller. Before that, I directed a spot with Michael
Jordan for the United Negro College Fund.

ELH: Commercial work and
videos, is that how you keep your eye sharp between features?

SL: I consider it all filmmaking.

ELH: What is history going
to say about Spike Lee?

SL: I can’t answer that.

ELH: What would you like
to be remembered for?

SL: All any artist can
ask for is to be remembered by their work. That’s all you leave
behind anyway.

ELH: Do you have any parting
words for young filmmakers who want to follow in your footsteps?

SL: A lot of times people
come up to me and ask, "How have you done it?" and
it’s really hard for me to explain everything in a minute, right
there where they’ve cornered me. I think that we put everything
in that book, the one about She’s Gotta Have It. That really
tells it step-by-step, how to make a film with nothing. So the
knowledge is out there. Robert Rodriquez wrote a book about El
Mariachi.
It’s out there. You just have to go after it.

ELH: You’re a family man
now. You have a daughter.

SL: Yes, her name is Satchel.
She was two in December.

ELH: Would you encourage
her to pursue a career in film?

SL: Yes. I would want her
to be behind the camera, not in front of the camera. That’s where
the power is. MM

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