When you say the name Spike, only one person comes immediately to mind – film director Spike Lee. Is there anyone who needs less of an introduction than him?
For over 25 years, Spike has been carving his own path with his films, documentaries, TV programs, commercials, books, and now he’s recently finished taking on the Broadway stage. And he’s far from finished.
Lee was recently in town to promote his latest film Red Hook Summer, which is self-financed and opens in Chicago on August 24.
In a wide-ranging conversation N’DIGO talked with Spike about his new film, his career, his upcoming projects, the recent Mike Tyson one-man show on Broadway that he directed, and whatever else came to mind.
N’DIGO: Congratulations on the Jaeger-LeCoultre Award you’re getting at the Venice Film Festival this year.
Spike Lee: You don’t get an award. You get one of those Jaeger-LeCoultre watches. Have you seen those watches? Those Jaeger-LeCoultre watches? No joke. This isn’t something you put on your mantelpiece. (laughs) I’m going to have it on my wrist! Know the one you flip it and it has two sides? (Note: Currently going for $14,000.)
You’re getting it in recognition of your contributions to contemporary cinema. But a lot of directors don’t like to get awards like that because they feel as if it’s saying your career is over.
Well, first of all, I was going to Venice anyway for the premiere of Bad 25, the documentary about the making of the Michael Jackson album. The day the film is being screened and I’m getting the watch is on August 31st, which will be the 25th anniversary to the day of when the album was released. So this honor came out of nowhere after the film had been accepted for the festival.
Receiving this honor – do you feel as if you have to live up to sort of an image or reputation?
That’s not the case for me. Awards are nice and I’m very, very grateful for the Venice Film Festival and the Jaeger-LeCoultre watch people to give me this honor. But I don’t need anybody else to make me do what I gotta do…that’s all self-generated.
Well that’s for sure. I mean look at what you’re involved with right now. You have your 20th film coming out, Red Hook Summer, and you start shooting your next film, the remake of the Korean suspense thriller Oldboy with Josh Brolin, this fall.
Then there’s the Bad 25 documentary coming out, the Mike Tyson one man show just recently on Broadway, and now you’re talking about doing a Broadway musical version of Do the Right Thing. A lot of film directors come and go, but after over 25 years, you’re still in the game. That’s remarkable achievement.
We’ve been putting in work since She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. We’re going into our third decade. From the very beginning, the goal, the plan, was to create a body of work. So that was the goal from jump when I was at NYU.
That’s what Woody Allen was doing back then. He’ll have a film in the theaters at the same time he’s either shooting or editing another film. And that was long before he had to go to Europe for financing. He would sometimes do two films a year. And don’t forget at that time he was still writing plays for Broadway. He was prolific, and that’s something that I wanted to do as well.
So what’s the secret of your longevity?
It’s no secret. You’ve got to hustle. You’ve got to be able to grind. You’ve got to keep honing your craft. You have to have a “never say die” attitude. You’ve got to have some luck and talent.
For example, in 1986 She’s Gotta Have It comes out – a film about a promiscuous African-American woman who’s having sex with three different men at the same time. A year or two later that film doesn’t work. Now we’ve got something called AIDS. So that’s luck. If the film had come out one or two years later, s–t don’t happen!
Same year, 1986, we took the film to the Cannes Film Festival and there was the war or something that was somewhere and most Americans were afraid to go, so the star output that year was very low. So I just stepped into that m———-r, you know what I mean?
I filled that right up. I took advantage of the situation. I didn’t plan it, but the French were going crazy over the movie. One of my favorite quotes is by the great Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who signed Jackie Robinson: “Luck is a residue of design.”
The harder you work, the harder you bust your ass, the better chance of luck blessing you. But if you’re sitting on your ass ain’t doing nothing, you ain’t going to get lucky. You’re not putting yourself in the position to be lucky.
Getting to Red Hook Summer, the thing that annoys me from what people are saying about it is that “This is Spike going back to the old Spike,” as if they’re not recognizing the changes and developments you’ve made over the years, which are reflected in the film. It’s like parents saying about their five-year-old child: “Oh if he could just stay this age forever and never grow up.”
You can’t do that because, one, you’ll be stifled; two, you’ll probably go crazy; and three, your work is going to suffer. We see this so often more with singers than with filmmakers.
Oh, why can’t Lauryn Hill do another Miseducation of Lauryn Hill?
She ain’t there! She’s past that! She’s lived a life! I say that because you know, people forget, but there was a horrible backlash against Bad when it came out. That followed Thriller, the biggest selling album to date in the history of modern civilization. “So how come Bad doesn’t sound like Thriller?” Because Michael wasn’t doing the same stuff! How is an artist supposed to grow?
They kind of did that to me after the success of She’s Gotta Have It. I was getting offers to do the sequel. I’m supposed to do She’s Gotta Have It 2? (laughs) That would have been curtains! It would have been over. And you know that film would have sucked! It would be like…WAH WAH! Outta here! Couldn’t do it!
Right, because every filmmaker has to expand their “language” as it were, to experiment, to explore new ways of doing things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to do it.
You can’t worry about that. You just have to do it.
But this leads to another question. N.Y. Times film critic Dave Kehr has a book of his older film reviews called When Movies Mattered. Do movies matter anymore? That 13-year-old character of “Flik” in Red Hook has this iPad he carries with him everywhere to make videos. Does his generation care about films anymore?
The young generation, they’re not the ones making these films, but the studios assume that this is what this generation wants. And the young generation keeps getting fed the same thing over and over again thinking that’s what they want because they haven’t seen anything else.
But the younger generation is going to schools with no art classes, no music classes, no P.E. How are you going to understand film if you’re not being taught art and music in school? And then playing video games where you get more points for shooting people in the head.
So how do you make films that can compete with video games?
That’s the whole problem. You hit the crux of the matter right there.
That’s what’s refreshing about Red Hook. You take your time to introduce and explore the characters in the film.
No one’s flying through the air. Nobody’s transforming. Nobody’s wearing a cape. Nobody’s wearing tights. (laughs) No one’s supernatural.
It’s just people struggling trying to get to the next day, human beings with faults, but also with great gifts. And most people have both of those.
And that’s why James McBride (the co-writer of Red Hook) and I did this film. That’s why I wrote the check. I financed this film. If films didn’t matter I would be doing this film?! They matter to me! And I’m convinced that to the audience it’s going to matter to them, too. We’re seeing something that’s not really being seen in the movie theater. When have you seen a Red Hook that was produced by a studio?
Can’t really think of one offhand at the moment.
That’s why I financed the film. I wasn’t going to waste my time trying to shop this script around to studios. We didn’t do that. James and I had a conversation. I have the money, let’s write this thing. That’s what it was.
Well it would have been pointless for you to go to a studio with your hand out for this type of film.
Right! For this kind of film it would have been a fruitless effort.
Switching to what’s going up next – you’re going to be taking on a remake of the Korean film Oldboy. I love that film a lot. A lot of people do, though everyone is wondering how can one even begin to tackle something so extreme as that?
Well, first of all a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of films today are remakes of Asian films. Scorsese’s The Departed was a remake of an Asian film.
True, and the film Internal Affairs. So was Quentin Tarantino’s first feature, Reservoir Dogs, which was a straight scene for scene remake of the Hong Kong film City on Fire.
Word for word! Has Tarantino ever acknowledged that?
He was asked that at a Cannes Film Festival press conference for the film when it was shown there and he walked out. True story.
He’s never acknowledged it. Just like that French guy Mathieu Kassovitz, who directed La Haine (1995). He claimed that he never saw Do the Right Thing before he made his film. He said that. I heard him say he never saw Do the Right Thing. But compare the two, that’s all I’m saying.
But getting back to Oldboy, people are saying that it’s not going to be as extreme as the original. That American tastes are too tame, too sensitive, for something as strong as the original.
Well first, we’ve got a great lead for the film, Josh Brolin. We’ve got Sharlto Copley from District 9. He’s a bad boy. We’ve got Elizabeth Olsen from Martha Marcy May Marlene, one of the best actresses out there right now. And we’re very respectful of the source.
The original director, Chan-wook Park, has been in continuous dialogue with Josh Brolin even before he came on broad the project and he has blessed this remake. So if the director has blessed the project, then people need to relax.
But at the same time, I understand that people are very, very protective of Oldboy. I understand that. They love this film. But hold your opinions until you see it. I know that there are going to be people, no matter what they do, they’re going to hate us. You can’t worry about it. All you can do is make your film.
When I first heard the news last year that you were going to be directing a remake of Oldboy, I was excited. Here’s another example of you stretching the boundaries of what you’re doing, going off into new uncharted territories, taking a risk.
And the biggest example of that lately is me directing Mike Tyson on Broadway. Mike had never done Broadway before. I’ve never done Broadway before.
I was trying to think, you’ve never done Broadway before? I thought maybe you had.
Never. We had a limited run, only 12 performances, and Mike Tyson is amazing on stage. Just alone by himself telling his story.
You can argue that in effect, he’s been acting all his life in public.
You can say that. What he does when he gets up on that stage and bares his soul, he hasn’t done that.
What was the hardest adjustment doing something for the stage?
Well there are no do-overs. You gotta get it right in the rehearsal process. It was always “Mike let’s do it again.” Repetition, repetition, repetition. He has no problems with it. He got that from Cus D’Amato (i.e. Tyson’s legendary trainer). You’ve got to do something 1,000 times until you get it.
You’re, in a way, saying he’s a natural?
Oh yeah, I saw that when he did The Hangover and that James Toback documentary, Tyson.
Reminds me of what Bill Cosby said years ago, that in order to act in film or TV you just have “to be free.” In other words you can’t be self-conscious and worry what people are going to say about you.
Oh yeah, I’ve never met a person who is so honest about themselves as Mike. I mean, I’ve met many people over the years who would talk your ears off about how great they were and all their great accomplishments, but conversely, their stuff is not that great.
Mike Tyson gets up on the stage and talks about things he’s not so proud of today, but he still shares with the audience – and that addictive gene, too, because Mike talks about that in the play.
So you have now the bug to direct more for the stage?
I’ve always wanted to do Broadway. It’s always a matter of timing and what the play would be. Mike had been doing his show in Vegas for six nights a week and someone told me about it.
I got a DVD to watch it since I couldn’t get out to Vegas before the run ended. So I went to James Nederlander, of The Nederlander Organization who practically runs Broadway theatre, and he had been trying to get me to do something for a while and now I’m on Broadway.
So now it’s fair to say that you are officially what they call a “renaissance man”?
Well, that’s not something I think about. I’m just trying to do the work. Focus on the work.
It’s not thinking, “Oh this will impress people.” It’s about what is interesting to me and will say something …
Yes, and what other means can I continue to tell a story. For me it’s all about storytelling – whether it’s a 30-second TV commercial or my Michael Jackson documentary, or the two Katrina documentaries for HBO, Red Hook, Malcolm X, or Do the Right Thing. It’s all storytelling.