Published at: Sept. 24, 2008, 6:21 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
And y’know what? That exclamation point on the headline feels more appropriate than ever.
I made a very specific and concentrated effort to get as much time as possible with Spike Lee this time around. I’ve been a fan of his since SHE’S GOT TO HAVE IT. I remember reading about that film for almost three months before I got a chance to see it at one theater on the far side of Tampa from where I lived, and it was totally worth the drive. Since then, I’ve loved some of his films, hated some of them, and always looked forward to them because he’s continued to evolve and expand and exercise as a filmmaker.
About a week and a half ago, just before I left town for Fantastic Fest, arrangements were made for Spike Lee to call me at home one afternoon. The last time I spoke to Lee prior to this was in 1990, at a booksigning for MO’ BETTER BLUES. I waited in line at the Samuel French in Hollywood for almost six hours in order to be the first person to talk to him, and when I was finally ushered inside, he looked up at me, puzzled.
SPIKE LEE: They said you were here all day.
ME: Yeah. Pretty much.
SPIKE LEE: So what did you have to say that was so important?
I didn’t. That’s the thing. I just really dug his work and I was brand new to Los Angeles, so the idea I could go to the bookstore and just see Spike DO THE RIGHT THING Lee and actually talk to him... that seemed crazy to me. I was jazzed just to see him. I didn’t really think about what to ask. So I was as surprised by the question that popped out as he was.
ME: In DO THE RIGHT THING, when Radio Raheem does the Love/Hate rap, is that Radio Raheem paying tribute to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, or is that Spike Lee paying tribute to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER?
He smiled at the question, and as he thought about it, he took my book and signed it and wrote a short message, and then handed it back, his smile growing bigger before he finally answered.
SPIKE LEE: Radio Raheem ain’t never heard of Robert Mitchum.
That familiar laugh of his followed me out of the bookstore as the next person stepped up.
So I was excited to get a chance to finally get a chance, all these years later, to ask Lee some questions with a little forethought this time.
Spike Lee: Hello?
Moriarty: Hi Spike, how are you?
Spike Lee: How are you doing?
Moriarty: I’m very good. Thank you for taking the time today. I have to say I really enjoyed MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA.
Spike Lee: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
Moriarty: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways it is the most… “movie” of your movies. It really feels like you are paying tribute to films of various eras, that in a lot of ways you made a real World War II movie. I love the cocktail of influences that seemed to be apparent the film. Can you tell me which films you sort of used as touchstones, no pun intended, as you were working on the picture?
Spike Lee: Well, the film was shot in Tuscany. But our base during pre-production was Rome, and we were on Cinecittà. Ironically, I’d never known that Mussolini built Cinecittà. [Laughs] And we screened many of the great Italian post-war, neo-realism films. A lot of those films I’d never seen projected; I’d only seen on DVD and VHS. So going to Cinecittà vault, we screened for the cast and crew BICYCLE THIEF, ROME OPEN CITY, PAISAN, GERMANY YEAR ZERO, SHOESHINE, and these are films that again, I’d never seen screened before. So those films of Roberto Rossellini’s were a great influence. But also growing up as a kid, my brothers and I used to love to watch World War II films. Some of my favorite films as a young kid in Brooklyn were THE TRAIN starring Burt Lancaster, Frankenheimer’s film. I remember seeing Jim Brown in THE DIRTY DOZEN; that was a revelation to me. Later on in film school, THE CONFORMIST, a Bertolucci film; SEVEN BEAUTIES, a Lina Wertmüller film; TIN DRUM, the Volker Schlöndorff film; DAS BOOT, a Wolfgang Petersen film. Also another one of my favorites is PARIS BURNING. And then of the contemporary stuff, when it came time to look at battle sequences, I don’t think anyone’s gonna top what Spielberg did in the first 45 minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, with the onslaught, the invasion of Normandy, D-Day. So I guess that can be a start. Also, we showed Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL too; there’s a documentary that was done by the war department called, I think Frank Capra was the director, called THE NEGRO SOLDIER.
Moriarty: Oh wow. That was always interesting, how those guys were pushed during World War II into a sort of service as filmmakers.
Spike Lee: Yeah, John Huston did several films too.
Moriarty: And you’ve been equally praised and vilified, depending on who’s doing it, for having very strong political and social views, and you’re certainly not afraid to share them. I’ve heard certain people say that filmmakers or celebrities should keep their opinions to themselves, but when you’re making films about sort of who we are and how we live now, is that even possible? Can you separate yourself from your work?
Spike Lee: Well I can’t, but here’s the thing: for the same people to say that politics should be left out of their work or entertainment, I think that, when you make that decision, that’s a political act in itself.
I mean if you say I’m not gonna have any politics in my songs, I’m not gonna have any politics in my movies, that’s a political act in and of itself. Everything is political.
Moriarty: That’s interesting, because you’ve sort of embraced documentary in the second half of your career. And it’s become a major part, now, of your film vocabulary. I was devastated by WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE, it was a stunning movie, and an important film not just about that incident, but I think in general the shift in what responsibility the government is willing to accept. We’re in the middle, obviously, of another aggressive storm season. Do you think we can learn anything from Katrina?
Spike Lee: Oh I think so. I think that if you look at how the federal, state and local governments reacted to Gustav, versus Katrina, it’s the difference between night and day. Unfortunately, people had to die for this lesson to be learned.
Moriarty: Yeah, it feels like they had to be shamed into be stepping up, you know?
Spike Lee: I feel that Mike Brown was made a scapegoat. I find it amazing that Michael Chertoff still has a job. How does that guy still have a job?
Moriarty: It’s a self-sustaining system that’s shocking at times.
Spike Lee: But I will say many, many lessons were learned, and that’s great. On the other hand, they dodged a bullet, because the levees are still not up to snuff. Ike missed, Gustav barely missed, and the next one might not miss. I don’t know if New Orleans can recover from another Katrina this soon. I don’t know. A lot of work needs to be done.
Moriarty: I love the fact that you work with so many of your collaborators repeatedly, guys where you can almost look at your career in stages of “Okay, this is when you were working with this DP, or this is when you were working with Terence Blanchard,” you know. There are people who really stay with you. And I think that speaks well to you as a filmmaker, obviously, but you really then seem to be freed up. Right now Matthew Libatique is…
Spike Lee: Yeah, that’s my man!
Moriarty: I got to tell you, I’m a big DP geek, like that’s my big thing. I love cinematographers. I love the work you guys did on this picture, and I’m happy to see that you’re continuing to work with him on INSIDE MAN 2, so it looks like down the road you’re gonna keep collaborating.
Spike Lee: Yeah, we are. We hope to.
Moriarty: Can you tell me about when you find somebody like Matthew, and what that process is as a director when you bring somebody in for the first time, and then what it does when you get to work with them repeatedly?
Spike Lee: Well here’s his situation: one of the most delicate and important relationships is between the director, and the director of photography; the director and the cameraperson. And I was very blessed to have the great Ernest Dickerson shooting my early films. Ernest and I were classmates at NYU. He then went on to shoot for me SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SCHOOL DAZE, DO THE RIGHT THING, MO’ BETTER BLUES, JUNGLE FEVER, and MALCOM X, then he went on to direct his first film, being JUICE, the Tupac film. So I know what it means to have a great collaborator as a DP. And with Matty, I’ve found that again; what’s ironic is that Matty said that it was Ernest Dickerson’s work while he was at AFI that inspired him to be a cameraperson. So with Matty, we’ve done numerous commercials, right now we have INSIDE MAN, MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA. We also have a documentary coming out on Kobe Bryant that we did for HBO. Also, we filmed the last performance of this great Broadway musical called PASSING STRANGE.
So Matty and I really have a good vibe going. We get along great, we both love sports. You know every time we do a movie, we have a softball team, so he’s a great shortstop. [Laughs] He has an arm, he has range. And also he, like me, does not like to lose. And that, whether it’s on a softball field or on the set, you know, he is gonna do what it takes to get it right. And he’s a great artist. I love to work with people who are intelligent, who are creative, and also do not try to impose a style on a subject matter. We don’t do that. We let the films dictate to us what the style should be. So that’s why SHE HATE ME doesn’t look like INSIDE MAN, INSIDE MAN doesn’t look like MIRACLE. It was Matty’s wisdom to say “Spike, you know what? Let’s shoot the bookends – the stuff dealing with the murder mystery at the beginning and end of the film – let’s shoot that in 35. All that stuff that’s 1944, World War II Italy, we’re gonna shoot that with Super 16. It’ll give us much more grain, and it’ll also give us flexibility, we’ll be able to maneuver lighter cameras quicker, more time without changing the rolls.” Great, great, great artist. And then he also shot IRON MAN this summer! So look at his range.
Moriarty: He’s had a hell of a run, and even this year, like you said, between IRON MAN and MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, to see one guy do that kind of work, you realize how versatile his touch is, and how remarkably different everything he shoots looks. He doesn’t have just one style.
Spike Lee: And then look at his early work, the films he did with Darren Aronofsky. PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and FOUNTAIN. So he’s definitely, I feel, one of the top DPs working today, and I’m happy that we have the partnership that we have, cause he’s like the core. Like a sports team, you’ve got different positions, but you’ve always got your core. The core is editors Barry Brown, Sam Pollard; composer Terence Blanchard; cinematographers like Matty Libatique; casting director Kim Coleman; Mike Ellis, my first AD, so it’s been over 15 years; David Lee, my brother, he’s the unit photographer; my brother Cinqué was archivist, he was behind-the-scenes stuff. And, you know, you go out there and supplement them with the various positions it takes to make a film.
Moriarty: One of the things that I was drawn to very early on with your work, and I’ve been a fan since SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT…
Spike Lee: That’s going *way* back, 1986.
Moriarty: Yeah, I was in high school when that hit. And you were part of a movement of filmmakers to kind of open my eyes to what American film could be, and it was you, and it was Jarmusch, and it was the Coens, and it was a group of guys that sort of emerged at the same time who I thought it felt like were raised on movies in the best possible way, where you had just internalized them so much, and now they were coming out in the craziest, newest ways. And when I see people talk about various movements in film, I feel like you were more a part of that New York independent film than when people have tried to talk about you as a sort of pioneer of what became sort of “black film” in the early ‘90s. Because I think so much of that was not really the kind of work that you were doing.
Spike Lee: Well, I will say that you’re right in both parts. As far as the black New Wave, I was part of it somewhat because it was SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and Robert Townsend’s film HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE that brought about this movement. But you’re right in the other part of your statement in that my films weren’t MENACE II SOCIETY, BOYZ N THE HOOD, and that type of genre.
Moriarty: Well I’ve always felt like your films were very inclusive. Like DO THE RIGHT THING, to me, is a neighborhood picture. Everybody in that neighborhood is what’s so great about it, and it’s the friction that I find fascinating. It’s not that any one group is the center of the film, it’s how we all live together that makes that movie so powerful. And it’s one of the most quotable movies ever, by the way.
Spike Lee: Thank you, and I would agree. And here’s the thing, because I’ve been thinking about this since it’s been coming up in some of the interviews. Someone should, when they have some time, take four films and look at them in relation to each other: DO THE RIGHT THING, JUNGLE FEVER, and SUMMER OF SAM. I’m talking about the relationship between African-Americans and Italian-Americans here. And then go to MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, which is totally different, you know, with the relationship between the two.
Moriarty: The other part of what made your early movies so fascinating for somebody who wanted to be in film was the books that you published. And you don’t really do that anymore, but those first few films—
Spike Lee: Oh, we got a book coming out for this one though.
Moriarty: Do you really? Cause I gotta say, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SCHOOL DAZE and DO THE RIGHT THING in particular were so confessional about everything you went through behind the scenes as you were trying to work towards getting these films onscreen. And it was the downs as well as actually getting the films made that I thought made the books so valuable, because you really talked about how hard that can be.
Spike Lee: We really wanted the books to be instructional, that – first of all, there’s no one way to do anything, but – here’s how I did it, from A to Z. It might not work for you, but it might too, so here’s what I went through. From the very beginning I’ve always tried to be about the de-mystification of film. Film is a craft; it can be learned. It’s not one of those things, like they try to tell you, where, you know, you gotta get hit by lightning and God has to touch you, and then you can be a filmmaker.
Moriarty: That’s what I heard growing up, that you can’t make films. Only people in Hollywood can make movies.
Spike Lee: Yeah, well that’s why. [Laughs] They want to keep it under wraps. But we were about the de-mystification of that and trying to be more inclusive, and it wasn’t even really based on race either. If you really want to be a filmmaker, here’s how we did it, and we always said that you don’t *have* to go to film school either.
Moriarty: I just loved that, right from the beginning, it felt like you were giving back. Like you were putting the hand out to other filmmakers and saying alright, look, here’s what I had to go through. And DO THE RIGHT THING especially, with the turnarounds, and with how that film almost didn’t happen, and sort of the struggles, it really, to me, crystallized that if it’s worth doing, and if you believe in a project, then keep butting your head against the wall.
Spike Lee: Well that’s part of… I’ve been teaching as a professor at NYU for the last eleven years, the last four or five, I can’t remember exactly, I’m also the artistic director of the non-grata film school, this is where I went to school, where I finished back in 1982, and I try to instill into my students that they have to get up and go, they have to have gumption. They cannot just sit around and think that it’s gonna happen if they don’t make it happen. You have to get off your ass, roll up your sleeves, and make it happen. When I went to Morehouse they always had this speech the first day. [Laughs] They said “Look to your left, and look to your right. There’s a good chance one of those two people will not be there next year when you come back.” Well it’s the same thing in film school, and you have to feel passionate about what you are doing. And you also have to have a thick skin. If you’re a person who can’t take criticism, or is gonna slit your wrists when you get a bad review, then you should try something else. And not everyone is always gonna like what you’re gonna do, but you just gotta strap it up and get out there for the next one. Just try and get the next one. You did one. Alright, you’ve got that under your belt. Now try to do another one. And then the trick is, if you can, try not to repeat yourself, and keep learning and exploring as you go on this journey. Just try to get better as a filmmaker.
That was one of the most important things I learned when I was in film school. I read an interview about Akira Kurosawa. At the time he’d just done RAN, so he was probably 85, something like that. And the person interviewing him said “Mister Kurosawa, a master such as yourself, is there anything that you don’t know about cinema?” And Kurosawa – I’m paraphrasing here, but he said “There is still a universe which I do not know about cinema.” So when someone like Kurosawa says that after making many masterpieces, being one of the master filmmakers of all-time, if he says when he’s 85 years old that there’s still a universe he’s yet to learn, then… me reading that in film school, that was like an atomic bomb went off. It was like “Oh shit… if HE says that, then what do I gotta learn?!” So I mean, just understand that you’ve got to keep learning, got to keep growing.
Moriarty: I love the fact that you have shot for television with things like SUCKER FREE CITY, or you know, some of the documentary work that you’ve done, and I love that you’ve embraced hi-def at times, like you said you used Super 16 and 35 on this film, you shot documentary, you’ve shot narrative, you’ve shot giant films, you’ve shot small films… it really seems to me if you’re not flexible like that, you’re not going to survive the next 15 years of filmmaking, because things are changing so dramatically. I read an interview where Spielberg allegedly said, “I can’t make a film for less than $50 million anymore.” I just don’t believe that. I think he could if he wanted to.
Spike Lee: [Laughs] Well, if he doesn’t have to, why should he?
Moriarty: “Oh, I wish I could just go shoot something for $100,000 with three friends, and just do it.” I think that’s a mindset where you COULD do that if you really felt like it. And film is so... you know, with SUCKER FREE CITY, for example: yes it was a TV project, but these days, does that matter? Doesn’t it all just end up as cable and DVD fodder anyway? Does the first distribution point really define what your film is anymore?
Spike Lee: Well, I did SUCKER FREE CITY because we really wanted that to be a pilot for a show. You know, they didn’t want to do it and that’s their choice, so it was just released as a film. But I think you were right about that first statement: if you don’t adapt, no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, you’re gonna perish, especially in the volatile times we live in. You know I woke up this morning, I turn on the news, and 25,000 people are out of work at Lehman. Just like that. People are coming out of there with all the stuff from their office in a paper box, many people had their life savings wrapped up in 401s and Lehman’s stock… wiped out entirely. It is volatile. If I had been rigid… I mean from the very beginning, we shot SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT in 12 days, two six-day weeks, for $175,000. Now I could have said ‘You know what? I’m gonna need a million dollars to shoot this.’ I think the original budget was half a million, but then I got religion [Laughs], and it became apparent to me that if I was gonna do this, it was gonna be for that amount. And we had to make do; we adapted. So that budget became $175,000. That’s just the way it’s been since the beginning, and you’ve got to adapt.
Moriarty: Well I think that flexibility has always been something that’s defined you, and it’s something that I’ve always liked about the way you’ve worked.
Spike Lee: And I’d like to say also that a lot of it’s not just about adaptability. In my mind, I don’t have a rigid territory about “Yes, now I’m Spike Lee the documentary filmmaker, now I’m Spike Lee the narrative filmmaker.” To me it’s all telling a story, so therefore I don’t have to press a special button, put on a special pair of Nikes, because I’m going from INSIDE MAN to WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE. It’s still just telling a story.
Moriarty: Well I gotta say sir, thank you for taking the time for me this morning. It’s hard to express how much your work has meant to me over the years.
Spike Lee: Thank you. And I want to say I’m glad you liked the film, now let’s get the word on Ain’t It Cool News.
Moriarty: I look forward to INSIDE MAN 2. I’m fascinated that you’re doing a sequel. This is the first time you’ve gone back to a piece of material.
Spike Lee: Well let me tell you, I wanted to do a sequel – not a sequel, but to pick up 25 years later on SCHOOL DAZE, but Sony didn’t like my take. But I still would like to do that one day, because that film has become a cult classic.
Moriarty: I think a lot of your characters have lives that seem to spill off the frame.
Spike Lee: Especially Mars Blackmon?
Moriarty: Mars Blackmon, I am dying to know some of what’s happened with the characters from DO THE RIGHT THING, to see where that neighborhood would be now.
Spike Lee: [Laughs]
Moriarty: I mean seriously, how can you not wonder? I hope that neighborhood re-grew the right way.
Spike Lee: That neighborhood would probably be a victim of gentrification.
Moriarty: It would probably be totally different, yeah.
Spike Lee: Bed-Stuy? Forget it.
I wish I’d had twice as much time with him. Or more. It was a genuine pleasure talking film with him, and I hope you will indeed check out MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA this weekend.
In case you want to check out my review or missed it the first time, here it is.
As I mentioned, I did this interview before I left for Fantastic Fest. I just returned home from it last night, and I’ve got my coverage of the event coming up over the next few days. It was one hell of a run of movies for me, and I’m eager to get into it. For now, thanks to Disney and 42 West, and to Spike Lee for taking the time, as well as Ribbons, transcription elf extraordinaire.