Nigerian-born, Philippines-and-Virginia-bred director Julius Onah met Spike Lee as a graduate film student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where the iconoclastic filmmaker is a professor.

After a stint interning with Lee and discussing his ideas for his thesis film, a drug-crime drama entitled The Girl is in Trouble, Lee came on board to executive produce—bringing both instant credibility and expert advice to the young filmmaker.

Though Onah has since been tapped to direct studio films The God Particle and Brilliance, The Girl is in Trouble (starring Columbus Short, Wilmer Valderrama, Alicja Bachleda and Jesse Spencer) is his debut feature, after a string of award-winning shorts. His big-budget future aside, Onah showcases a talent for the kind of scrappy resourcefulness that characterized his mentor’s own early work. What else did he learn from Lee? We asked him to spread the wealth here.


1. Study She’s Gotta Have It and Write Around Locations

When I first embarked on writing The Girl is in Trouble with my co-writer Mayuran Tiruchelvam, we looked at what Spike accomplished in She’s Gotta Have It (1986). There is a brilliant sense of economy in that film when it comes to locations, casting and other components of the production. All that started with his script. Spike knew he couldn’t afford a ton of resources, but he didn’t let that allow him to sacrifice inventiveness. He “wrote smart” and used his limitations to be creative. I think for any low-budget film being made by a first timer, that’s an important guiding principle.

Spike Lee's 1986 classic She's Gotta Have It

Spike Lee’s 1986 classic She’s Gotta Have It

For The Girl is in Trouble, it meant writing the script to take advantage of what was available: our streets and apartments in the Lower East Side, bars and clubs I had access to from my days working in nightlife, and other resources we had at our disposal.

Writing smart also meant the way we wrote allowed us to create just what we needed. For example, we wrote a scene in a way that allowed us to suggest an airport holding room in a very affordable manner—with three flats, a desk and a hanging fluorescent light. This helped us earn our stage day for the New York tax credit.

We also tried to write our locations in clusters in the Lower East Side to move quickly between multiple sets in our neighborhood and get through a lot more material each day. This allowed us to maximize our budget and resources.

2. Take Your Own Personal Approach to Genre

We also looked carefully at Spike’s first three feature films: She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing. It’s incredible that he was able to funnel his voice so authentically into three such different genres. It’s a great way to know what type of film you want to make and to identify an audience you want to reach. Yet it’s your skill in subverting notions of genre that makes your film uniquely yours.

Spike’s first film is a hilarious sex-comedy, his second film a stylish musical, and his third a powerful Greek tragedy-inspired social drama. Spike shaped those films in ways that addressed concerns about race and class he wanted to explore. Each is unequivocally a “Spike Lee Joint.”

3. Be Thorough, and Make Two Shot Lists

Spike considers every step of the process. He has a real 360 degree approach to how he builds his films, from the initial concept, to the writing and casting, the musical choices, the credit sequences, down to marketing. It was really inspiring to observe how he thinks about the film product as a cohesive whole. It’s why his films represent such a singular vision, and it speaks to what’s so amazing about independent filmmaking: Your film can be all yours.

Wilmer Valderrama in The Girl is in Trouble

Wilmer Valderrama in The Girl is in Trouble

Spike’s thoroughness was critical in planning our shoot and thinking through coverage. As much as possible, we tried to prepare two shooting lists for all of our more difficult scenes: one with the optimal coverage we had in mind, and one with the bare essentials to tell the story.

This came in handy during one of our more challenging scenes, which involved a beat-down, stunt work, fake blood and a lot of coordination, all within limited hours at the location we were using. On the day, the electrics ran into some complications getting us power, which meant we had even less time. So having our “bare essentials” coverage plan really saved us. It ultimately made for a better scene than if we’d shot everything we thought we wanted.

4. Be Unabashedly Prolific

I love looking over Spike’s filmography. It speaks to someone who is always expressing and challenging himself, with narrative features, documentary features, TV shows, music videos or commercials. The way Spike constantly produces work and generates ideas reflects why he’s had such a diverse, iconic and long lasting career. That kind of commitment is even more crucial today, as it has become so difficult to mount new work. Developing multiple paths for yourself is the only way to get work made and seen. Each project feeds and informs the next one, which leads to only more discoveries and possibilities.

Zaraah Abrahams in Spike Lee's 2015 Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Zaraah Abrahams in Spike Lee’s latest joint, 2015 Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

5. Be Generous—Help a Younger Moviemaker

Spike’s generosity with his time and talent is mind-blowing. He’s constantly helping students with their scripts and films. Not everyone is so generous with them themselves, but to truly be part of a filmmaking community, a willingness and enthusiasm about other people’s work is absolutely essential. This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from watching Spike work. We all face so many challenges getting independent films made; it’s so necessary to support other filmmakers, so that together we all get to keep on doing what we love. MM

The Girl is in Trouble opens in theaters and on VOD April 3, 2015, courtesy of eOne Entertainment.