An (Imaginary) Interview with Spike Lee

spikelee
I’ve also done an (imaginary) interview with Steven Spielberg.  That one is cool too.

White people hate Spike Lee and I have no idea why.  When I was in film school, they brought in this huckster guy to talk to us about producing, and he mentioned Spike Lee, and then, as an aside, he made sure to tell us that he doesn’t think Mr. Lee is talented.  Things like that happen all the time and I don’t get why.

When I was seventeen, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was my favorite movie, if you can believe it.  At that time I was exploring American independent and foreign ‘cinema’. They say the best way to be an atheist is to read the bible. Well, the best way to love real movies like Back to the Future is to watch French movies and American indies. However, in small ways, Do the Right Thing holds up for me. It’s definitely Spike’s most complete movie—it has arcs and a brilliant ensemble.  The compositions and camera movements are mind-blowing, and it does a great job of making you feel like you’re on the block. It’s alive and adventurous—it’s filled with music and color and jokes and fun—not to mention, some very touching human moments. In fact, the only thing it really lacks is clarity. It’s so much of a hang-out movie that you end up having to accuse it of loitering. But, I’ll always have an affection for it, and I’ll never call it a bad movie.

Do The Right Thing lead me to watch all of his movies. Each one is great, and bad, in the same way. They’re all about 30 minutes too long, crowded with excess material that drags the whole experience down. Their strengths lie in their individual scenes. Lee is a stylistic genius who’s pulled off some of the great moments in movies—it’s just a shame that they always get lost in the shuffle.

I could never say, ‘Dude, you gotta watch Mo’ Better Blues!’  And that’s a shame, because there’s a few scenes in it I’d love to show people. Take, for instance, the scene where Denzel is practicing.  He’s on a rotating platform, his face center in the frame, humming and miming his music, really in the zone. You feel him practicing, you’re in his head.  Or how about the introduction of Martin Lawrence in Do the Right Thing—the bright colors and flashy dutch angels.  Or the flames burning an X into the American flag in Malcolm X.  Or the drug addict with AIDS in Clockers.  It’s all brilliant.  He has a way of getting actors to be so over-the-top that you can’t look away and believe every second of it.  And his swooping crane shots, jagged cutting, and wide lenses are like a beautiful milkshake of Scorsese, Stone, and the Coens.

His style is in your face because his movies are in your face and larger than life.  He is jazz, and Brooklyn, and the stoops that he films, and his movies all reek of filmmaking passion.  But they’re just too damn longFor all of his advanced stylistic prowess, he has very little storytelling ability, and sometimes the ratio between the two is just dreadful.

He’s also accused of being a rabble-rousing talking head.  And he is!  But, he’s not an asshole.  He’s a funny guy.  I saw Spike speak at the Apple Store once, back in 2005, and he was hilarious.  Here are a few moments, from memory, from the Q&A:

Twenty-Something Guy: I submitted my film to Sundance 16 times and I always get rejected…

Spike: Dude, there’s other festivals.

Woman: Have you ever considered making an animated film?

Spike: No.

Guy Wearing Beret: [Some pretentious gibberish]

Spike: (Pauses) Only a dude wearing a beret, a scarf, and a striped shirt would ask that.

It was great. Which is why I decided to sit down with him for an (imaginary) interview here at Smug Film:

It is known that Spike prematurely ends any interview or speaking engagement if asked whether Mookie ‘did the right thing’.  He claims that only white people have ever asked this question.

Did Mookie ‘do the right thing’?

No, that’s the point. Mookie is a character, he’s not me. Mookie did what he thought was the right thing—that’s the point.  I thought it was pretty obvious.  So did Roger Ebert.  Dude had my back, he loved that movie.  Also, it’s a fucking joke that it’s not on the AFI 100 list.

Why do white people hate you? 

You tell me.

I don’t know, racism? To be honest, I don’t know why, because your movies are better than most of the other indie movies that have ever come out in this country. I honestly don’t get it. White people I’ve known seem to make a point to talk about how you suck. But whatever, fuck those assholes. Anyway, before we start with real questions—you hate Robert Zemeckis right? (Spike has criticized Back to the Future and Forrest Gump for putting forth that white people started rock n’ roll by influencing Chuck Berry and Elvis, which is stupid, because those are obviously jokes.)

Yeah, I was just being a rabble rouser. It keeps my name out there. Maybe that’s why white people hate me. Actually, Back to the Future is awesome. The only movie better than that is Signs. Everything you say Greg is perfect and I’d like to have you direct my next movie.

Cool! 

I’m 100% serious too.

She’s Gotta Have It is a great title, and that movie really epitomizes the 80s/90s indie movie—

Fuck yeah.

Right, but what I was going to say is, why did you make it so boring?

What the fuck are you talkin’ about?

Well, like, it’s cool, like Mars Blackmon not being able to tie his sneakers is genius, but the movie itself is slow and nothing.

Fuck you.

Well, I guess we won’t discuss School Daze then?

What about School Daze?

Well, I’ve tried to watch it a few times, and I don’t even get what the point is.  I mean, they’re starting college, and there’s like a frat, but then it’s a musical?  The whole thing is a stylistic mess.

Yeah, I mean, that’s true, but fuck you.

Do the Right Thing is a badass movie though. You ‘killed it’.  I feel like I’m speaking with slang because you’re black, but I mean, you do call your movies ‘joints’ and your end titles says ‘sho nuff’ on them and stuff.  

Yeah that’s fine you racist honky motha fucka.

Glad we agree.  So, with Do the Right Thing, I read your notes on it and it’s amazing—it’s almost exactly the kind of movie I would always dream of making.  It has this great feel of just hanging out on the block. You’re right there in the atmosphere, but these story arcs slowly start to percolate and emerge and it’s beautiful.

Yeah, it was a great time back then and it was a fun movie to make. Hard, but fun.  You can achieve a lot with wide lenses, because when you do medium shots and close ups on a wide lens, two things happen—one, the character in the foreground is morphed slightly, which gives them this bombastic, larger-than-life feeling, and two, you see the whole block behind them, so you see all the busy goings-on in the streets.  The problem with a lot of movies nowadays is everything is dead—even when they’re out on the streets shit is dead.  Movies are too static and locked down. Light moves, people move, the world is happening and alive.  Push that camera in their face, whip it around and let’s see the color in the back.

That’s perfect. And you use these amazing dutch angels too, and you also have some really tender moments.  There’s that great scene where father and son, Aiello and Turturro, are talking, and the camera just slowly tracks forward up to them. It’s a really, really long scene too.

In that scene, you have this tender moment of explanation between a father and son and then it explodes at the end when Turturro freaks out on Smiley.  That one scene is kind of a metaphor for the whole movie.  It slowly ramps up and there’s built-in conflict and then the tension simmers and then BAM it explodes in the end.

No doubt.  Now, you followed that up with one of your lesser seen movies but also one of your diamonds in the rough, Mo’ Better Blues. You followed that quickly with Malcolm X which overtook that and also propelled you from celebrity to superstar, but I want to talk about Mo Better Blues.

What about it?

Well, your Dad was a musician and did a ton of amazing work on a lot of your movies.  

Yes, that’s true.

Well, I think you do a great job exploring the stamina and process of a musician.  

I know.  What do you think of Malcom X?

It’s too long dude, all of your movies are too long but that one is like three hours.  There’s good stuff in there but it’s just too much.  I only have one real question about Crooklyn, which I like portions of, but it’s, again, very uneven, and there’s too much nostalgia.  But my question is, what the fuck is up with the squished scene?  I thought my TV was busted. [There’s a sequence where an effect makes the image looked squished top-wise.] 

She was in Virginia or something and she wasn’t happy.

Yeah but why does the audience have to suffer?

Because she was.  The character felt that way.

That’s such a shitty reason to do something that’s gross looking. 

Why?

Because we already know she’s unhappy and out of place and uncomfortable. Having a visual effect tell us that is condescending because we don’t need to be told—you’re doing a good enough job telling us with the performances.  You’re a wonderful stylist, but that sequence was too far.

That’s why you’re directing my next movie Greg!  You know your shit.

Of course I am.  But we gotta talk about Clockers because that movie is awesome!  The drug deal stuff in the beginning is great.  

Yeah the long lenses really makes it look like a stake out.  Not many people had really done that before.  And there’s this great moment in that scene where we suddenly go really wide.  I took a page from the Scorsese book in my visual construction as far as varied lens sizes and composition.

You did, but you ran with it in a way he never did.  You go way wider and it’s jarring in a really refreshing and effective way.  Clockers is a weird movie because it’s a very, very complex murder mystery.  In fact, you’re kind of left never really feeling confident that you know what happened.

Thanks.  You know, that was a tough one to pull off because we were juggling so many narrative balls.  To be honest, I don’t think it all works but it was very fun to try.

It doesn’t work but you can see the fun you were having and I think it’s one of your strongest efforts. You really lazied-out on the Lumiere Project though.  You just filmed your baby’s face.

Who gives a shit, I don’t care about some old ass camera that was probably used by D.W. Griffith or something.

Did you see Lynch’s though?

Yeah, he did good.

What’s the deal with Girl 6?

Don’t ask.  I wasn’t that good around that time.

He Got Game is a weird one.  Like, the movie itself is kinda awesome, but the basic premise is downright silly.  Did that really happen or something?  And the problem is it’s a great father son story with some amazing scenes.  The opening credits are mind-blowingly beautiful—truly one of the great sports-as-visual-poetry sequences.  Your use of music, especially that southern, slavery sounding, operatic stuff, over the slow-motion basketball shots—brilliant!  But why the insane premise, and why all that extraneous stuff with Denzel and the hooker?  And why keep repeating the same scene over and over with Jesus.  Each one is good, but cut all but one of them.

I made the movie the way I wanted it to be.  Fuck you.

You then did a bunch of miscellaneous junk that nobody cares about, including The Original Kings of Comedy, which you looked at as a black pride championing thing because that tour was like the biggest tour on the planet and nobody cared until you filmed it.  Although those guys are dreadfully unfunny besides Bernie Mac, so I guess my question is, why are so many black comedians not funny?

I knew you were racist.

Bamboozled is one of the earliest movies shot on DV.

That’s true.

People fucking loved 25th Hour.  Why?

Because it’s good.

No it’s not.  In fact, it sucks, and that scene everybody likes is awful, where the dude is yelling into the mirror about New York.  It’s over the top garbage.  Also, what the fuck happened with She Hate Me?

You’re an asshole.

After that we kind of return to you making movies with Inside Man, which is by far your most ‘Hollywood’ of all your movies.  Inside Man is interesting.  It’s the kind of movie my Dad can watch and get into.  It’s a twisty caper picture, with an always wonderful Denzel. 

Yeah, that was an interesting project that came to me.  People are stupid, they think Hollywood hates me or something.  I know I’m an asshole, and I say shit to be incendiary—it’s fun, it’s my nature.  You do it too, that’s why we love each other.  The truth is, I’m a good guy, and I’m happy with my movies, and I have fans and friends in Hollywood.  It was just that a project never came my way that I wanted to do.  People think I’m just this crazy, bitter, black asshole with a chip on my shoulder, but I like living in NY and teaching at NYU and doing my projects.  Inside Man was actually a pretty small movie that I could make in NY that they would let me make my way, so I did.  End of story.

Fair enough.

It’s like all this jive lately with me taking heat for using Kickstarter.  Fuck you, it’s a way to promote your movie, and you aren’t just taking free money, you’re giving people tickets and rewards and shit.  That’s shit that they’d have to pay for anyway, but now they can not only get stuff they would’ve bought anyway, they can feel like they’re a part of something, and they are.  So fuck y’all.

With that, Spike stormed out and said Mookie did the right thing—but not before hugging me and telling me how much he looks forward to Hectic Knife.

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2 Responses to An (Imaginary) Interview with Spike Lee

  1. Rick Harper says:

    This was great! Keep ’em coming Greg

  2. Michael Broodhagen says:

    Hello,
    The National Black Coalition Of Canada – Edmonton, is a non-profit community base organization that foster communication and solidarity among Blacks in Edmonton and through out Canada. We offer annual programs including a month of activity for Black History Month. It is our desire to change the focus of our Black Film Festival, into a Red Carpet Affair. The Coalition is requesting your assistance in helping us to get the attention of Spike Lee to give a presentation on “filmmaking”. His appearance will give a much needed boost to our festival and add the prestige and recognition it needs. It is hoped that our request will meet with your approval. Thanks.

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