Great American filmmaker Spike Lee brought us Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Bamboozled, among others. In his latest film, She Hate Me, Lee takes a snapshot of today's corporate corruption and the "gayby boom." When Spike Lee stopped at San Francisco's Clift Hotel on his press tour, he spoke with me at the end of his long day of interviews.
Groucho: Alright, first of all let me just say I thought the film was excellent; I enjoyed it very much. It seems to me that the central themes in your career are responsibility and moral choice. Would you agree with that?
Spike Lee: Yes, and the reason why I say that is because those are qualities of some of my favorite films, films like On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd, Ace in the Hole.
G: Yeah, and you have a relationship with Budd Schulberg and a project that you're trying to get off the ground, right?
SL: We have a script based on the lives of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
G: Right. Yeah, what's the status of that?
SL: Don't have the money yet.
G: Yeah. In She Hate Me, John Turturro's character says "Survival makes people do things they know in their heart is wrong." What principles, if any, should be non-negotiable?
SL: I don't think you should kill somebody. But I think that what was interesting to me is that, for that-that moment, Turturro's character understands why John Henry Armstrong is doing this because he's been in that position—because he's been in that position too, many times, much more than John Henry has.
G: Um, I watched School Daze again earlier this week—
G: —and enjoyed it again very much. And earlier that same day I read your interview inThe Independent with Rebecca Carroll, and she started her interview by talking about approaching you about Do the Right Thing and she had an agenda with her question, and she ended the interview talking about how she didn't really approve of Bamboozled.
G: Are you flattered by people's passionate responses or are you more frustrated by their lack of understanding?
SL: No, it doesn't frustrate me anymore. I mean, it did at one point, I'm not gonna lie, but people are gonna think what they're gonna think, and I can only state what was my intention and by a statement, I don't think I'm trying to change their minds, but for her to say that the imagery that you see inBamboozled should not be seen anymore, I just don't understand it.
SL: I don't understand that.
G: The reason I brought up School Daze, too, is that one of the ideas of that movie is the tension within the African-American community and seeking unity, and I know you talked about in your Malcolm X book, the New York press, y'know, not supporting you as well. You talked about, it seemed like a lot of the New York publications as opposed to the national press seemed to be going after you at that time.
G: Can you account, at all, for those phenomena?
SL: I, I, y'know, don't know what to say. (Laughs.)
G: Okay, we'll move on to something else. When you refer to, in the production notes of She Hate Me, America's sexual hypocrisy, what do you have in mind?
SL: Well I just say that this country is run by sex and money, and a lot of times they try to hide behind this Victorian type of thing. I know there was a furor with the whole Janet Jackson thing, but you can't watch a football game without having a close-up of some big-chested cheerleader on the sidelines, jiggling up and down. That's a staple of a football game, y'know, and there's many other— I mean, this country is run by sex and money, money and sex, and they're very close and I think those are two engines that drive, y'know, almost everything in this country.
G: Girl 6 explores some of that same thematic area.
SL: I haven't seen that film in a while, I gotta go back and look at it.
G: Yeah. You worked with Michael Genet on this screenplay. Can you explain that collaboration —did he approach you with the idea?
SL: No, I approached him with the idea, and he came up with the story. He wrote the first draft, and I wrote all the drafts after that.
G: Since the financial scandals that the movie addresses, do you think anything has changed? And how do —
SL: I think what it's changed is that people who used to invest in stocks, their confidence has been shaken and people are just very leery of big business in general. Very—you know, they don't trust those guys.
G: Right. How do you think we can re-set the tone in corporate culture?
SL: Well, we should give out long terms. In prison. Lock people up in the hoosegow. That'll, that'll, that'll—And then make them pay their fines, too. I think that even if Ken Lay goes to jail, I don't think justice will be done until every person at Enron who lost their life savings gets that money back, gets their life savings back.
G: In some ways the character of Fatima in the movie reminded me of Nola Darling in She's Gotta Have It.
SL: How so?
G: In that she's drawn to more than one potential mate, and she has to resolve that issue, except obviously the resolution is considerably more complicated. How do you see the change in sexual politics over the years — over the last 20 years?
SL: Well, it's changed a lot. I mean, let me just begin with She's Gotta Have It because, everything is timing. If I'd have waited two years, or longer, for She's Gotta Have It to come out, whereas in '86, I was like this quirky ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, '88, I'd have been seen as the, y'know, unreliable, socially irresponsible filmmaker, how could you put out a film like this, knowing about AIDS. Y'know, a two-year difference was a big swing with the, y'know, general American public learning about AIDS, so timing is everything. But I think that the ending, the way—the new configuration of—one of the configurations of family [I] end this film with, people would not have been able to get with that back in '86. Not as much, no way.
SL: I mean, how many people, how many gays were getting married back in '86?
G: Right, I was just going to say, there's—you get to see a lot of—maybe not a lot, but you get to see some of lesbian domestic life in the movie. Is that something that you had in the design from the beginning with that story?
SL: Oh, that was the design from the beginning, because I mean, you just can't be in there—they gotta argue too, y'know.
SL: Y'know, so.
G: I thought that scene was one of the best in the film—so honest.
SL: Oh, where they had the argument?
G: Yeah. Well, the argument and the make-up.
SL: (Laughs.) Yeah, the makeup, yeah, you do call it that. The make-up. (Laughs.) I've had several of those, being a married man. (Laughs.)
G: I wanted to talk a little bit about the music in the film.
SL: Great score by, once again, longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard.
G: He's so great. His score quotes "Will 'O the Wisp," and I wondered if that was your idea or his idea—
SL: My idea, because I wanted, I really like the sound of Sketches of Spain, so I told— when Terence said, "What do you want this to feel like, sound like?", I said Sketches of Spain, so we used "Will 'O the Wisp," but I mean, we— Terence did his own arrangement on it and he started on that, that's him on trumpet.
G: Is that something you listened to while you wrote the screenplay?
SL: Sketches of Spain? Not really, I mean, I listen to Sketches of Spain all the time.
G: Yeah. How do you and Terence approach the musical needs of each film—how do you tell him what you want?
SL: We're open. We look at the film, and we try to let the film dictate, try to let the film guide us to the sound versus impose a sound on the picture.
G: Your signature camera move is the dolly shot, which represents the characters' mental state—
SL: Not in this film.
G: Not in this film, true.
SL: We couldn't figure out a way, we could not figure out a place to put it.
G: Yeah. I noticed, too—I watched the other day the deleted scenes on 25th Hour, and I saw that there was that montage that really kind of took it to another level with that dolly shot. The—"Sway", the "Sway" deleted scene.
SL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
G: I was curious about that, in particular, actually, how you achieved the effects there.
SL: What effects?
G: Like, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, he seems to be floating around the room, is he—does he have the camera mounted on—
SL: No, he's riding the dolly.
G: He's riding the dolly, yeah—okay, yeah. It just boggled my mind watching that. You have, obviously, a great love of film. I read that The Deer Hunter was actually a real seminal film for you, that that was the day when you said, "This is it, I'm going to be a filmmaker."
SL: Nah, that's not—I mean, I might—I know one of my friends told somebody that, so it's like, he told a reporter and now it's become legend, but it was not really one film, I know that that has happened to a lot of directors: there was one film, they got struck by lightning, that was it, but for me it was more gradual.
G: You encourage the "demystification of film" with your books and your commentaries and whatnot. What do you think it will take to educate the movie audience to reject the worst of the crap and vote with their dollars for the good movies.
SL: (Laughs.) If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be sitting here now. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) I take your point. I guess—I don't know if there's much to say about 'em at this point, but I wanted to talk to you about the Jackie Robinson project and the "Save Us, Joe Louis" project, and—
SL: Well, I just, you know, hopefully, we'll get this Joe Louis thing. I understand Rachel Robinson's decision, she's eighty-something years old, and she wants to get this film made before she leaves and joins Jackie, and she's waited for me maybe longer than they should have—then she should have, and Robert Redford came to her with the deal, with the project, and she made it, so. First of all, it's not like, "Spike, Robert's doing your film." It's not my film, the film always been the property of Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. Hopefully, I would like to do, if they're doing a narrative thing, I would like to do a definitive documentary on Jackie.
G: Yeah, I was going to ask, I know you have the Jim Brown documentary is about to hit home video—
SL: Yeah, what's the date for that, do you know?
G: I don't know, offhand, but I know it's soon, I think it's within a month, about [Ed. Jim Brown: All American streets on August 24, 2004]. I was curious if you had your sights set on any other particular documentary subjects.
SL: Mmm. Well, there's nothing I can really speak about now, but that Jackie Robinson, that would be an opus in itself.
G: How would you describe one of your sets, how do you run a set?
SL: My sets are well-organized. We're like a well-oiled machinery. But at the same time, it's an atmosphere that's loose, and it's conductive to creative people having an environment to do what they need—to have the freedom to do what they want to do.
G: You have—actors love working with you, because they have that—it is collaborative with you and them. Can you give me an example from this film, of a contribution that an actor made that made a difference in a scene?
SL: Hm. There's a lot of them, just, I'm just trying to figure out, off the top of my head, one. Ask me another question, I'll think of it—
G: Sure. For what working filmmakers do you make it a point always to see their films?
SL: Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone.
G: Okay. You give a lot of attention to the various aspects of craft on a movie, all the way around, and you have, obviously, a lot of trusted collaborators that you continue to work with. How much of the artistic process for you is blood, sweat and tears, and how much of it is just common sense trust in that artistry, do you think?
SL: Why don't you say that another way?
G: Sure. Do you think—you talk about, you know, demystifying films, do you think it's easier than people think or harder than people think, to put that together?
SL: I think it's both. I think that sometimes, y'know, the demystification is about letting people know, it's not, none of this hocus pocus, magical mystical society thing. But once you get past that, you still gotta bust your ass, y'know.
G: Yeah. I want to ask you a little bit about the visual look of this film I know you worked with a new DP?
SL: Matty Libatique. Y'know, I love Matty's work—look at Pi or Requiem for a Dream, Phone Booth, Gothika. And now, She Hate Me.
G: And you shot on 16, I know.
SL: Super-16, two Super-16 cameras blew it up to 35 using the digital intermediate process.
G: And you like to shoot with two cameras, so that—does that, I guess that cuts down enormously on the schedule time, right?
SL: Yes, it cuts down on the schedule time, which means you cut down on the coverage. Actors love it because they're never off-screen. They don't have to worry about overlapping dialogue and matching, y'know, actions and that type of stuff, continuity.
G: And the color scheme for this film is maybe the primary visual element. How did you and Matty work that out?
SL: We just went through the script and talked about what would work. Y'know, we tried to have an overall view and wanted some scenes, we wanted to look different, definitely, like the flashback scene and the nightmare, Watergate sequence. We put an extra ProMist filter on the lens, and the Watergate re-creation break-in, the flashback scene where John Henry Armstrong walks in on his fiancée, that has a special look, too.
G: And was it part of the design, or was this my brain running away with me, that a lot of the scenes that have the appearance of the currency, like in the credit sequence.
G: Not only in the color, but in some of the set design, is that something that production design team—
SL: Yeah, we wanted—what you're talking about, though, is like—that look is really for the office, any time in Progeia, we wanted to have a very cold look, we wanted it to look, y'know, have a hint of green in it. And for when you go to John Henry Armstrong's, his law office, y'know, more earth tones.
G: And where John Turturro takes his meeting, there's those pillars that struck me as kind of like something off a dollar bill or something.
SL: Actually we wanted, really like a proscenium, y'know, like a stage. I mean, he regularly takes people out there, to do the scenes from The Godfather, I mean not necessarily that particular scene, but— scenes.
G: You've worked with Turturro more than any other actor—
SL: Yeah, this is his tenth...
G: What can you tell me about his process as an actor?
SL: John's fearless. He's fearless. He will try anything, he wants what's best. I mean, he's very practical. We enjoy working with each other.
G: And the actors in this film, Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington, that are relatively new on the scene. What was it about them—
SL: I just felt they had the qualities I needed for portraying these two complex characters. I had worked with Anthony before, this past summer we shot Sucker Free City here, this pilot I did for Showtime, which hopefully will come out on Showtime late fall, early winter, and I was very impressed by Anthony's performance, so I asked him—I said, "Here, take this script, read it," and he liked it and he got the lead.
G: Is Sucker Free City—is it something that might still go yet beyond the pilot stage?
SL: I doubt it, they— I don't see it happening. The reason why I did it was because I thought that it could be a miniseries—uh, series. I thought maybe it'll be a miniseries, but they—Showtime—to the best of my knowledge has said "We just want it to be a one-off."
G: And you also have a project called Miracle's Boys.
SL: Well, it's not really my project, it's more like my wife's project, Tonya Lee. She's executive producer on it. It's from a book, and it's like a six-part series. It's gonna show on Noggin. And so in a couple weeks I'm going to direct the initial episode.
G: Oh, neat. I also wanted to ask about The Messenger [Ed. Spike Lee's aborted first feature] which—because I just don't know too much about that project. I know it's described as kind of an autobiographical film.
SL: —it's never going to be made. No desire to go back there.
G: Other than the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling project, is there something you have in mind that you—for the future that you really want to look for, or do you just have, kind of, your net open to ideas?
SL: My net is open. You know, stuff for me to write, also stuff for me to accept as a director for hire. I really don't think about what my next original screenplay will be about until I come up with something concrete.
G: And one of the earliest directing experiences you had was at Morehouse, right, doing the—
SL: I didn't direct that. Oh, the Coronation.
G: Right, the Coronation Gala. Did you do—have you done much directing live on-stage?
SL: No, that was the last time. (Laughs.)
G: Not something that interests you particularly?
SL: People do ask me, once in a while, "Would you ever be interested in directing the stage?"
G: And nothing's struck your fancy yet?
SL: I want to do it one day, but I gotta, I gotta, I gotta crack TV first before I do something else.
G: And keep the momentum going, right? With film. What's your greatest hope for this movie, She Hate Me, in terms of its impact?
SL: Mm. It's, I guess, as many people to see it as possible. 'Cause I know if they see it, it's gonna have an impact. I know if people see it they're gonna talk about it. And I know if people see the film, they're gonna discuss it, they're gonna debate it, and they're gonna argue and they'll agree. I mean, there's so much stuff in this film.
G: It's an election year, too. And the credit sequence ends with the smiling face of our president.
SL: On a three-dollar Enron Bill.
G: How do I put this? Would you care to take odds on where the country is headed in this election year?
SL: Well, I know that, if Bush wins, we're headed straight to hell, and I don't want to go there. Not yet.
G: You've got too much to live for.
SL: I do.
G: You have kids, seven and nine, right?
SL: Yes, my son is seven, Jackson, and my daughter is nine, her name is Satchel.
G: And your daughter is interested in acting, right?
SL: She's gonna be an actress.
G: She knows it.
SL: She knows it. She's good, too.
G: How do you find the balance with all of the demands of career?
SL: That's a very good question, you know. I'm still trying to find that balance. 'Cause I definitely do not want to be one of these fathers who looks up and his children are grown. You can't get those years back.You can't get those years back.
G: And that's one of the ideas in the movie, too, that Dr. Schiller talks about: career is kind of an illusion. Is that a particular preoccupation with you now?
SL: No, I mean it really has nothing to do with the movie. I just think that you gotta try to have the right balance. I mean I don't want my children to be adults thinkin' that their father wasn't around enough, or their father—daddy wasn't here when I needed him. I don't want them to say that.
G: Obviously the depiction of lesbians in the movie is going to upset some people because they'll take offense at the heterosexual sex in the movie. You had a consultant on the movie, how does she help you?
SL: Right. Her name is Tristan Taormino, and she was very helpful, and one of the most important things she said to me was that, "Spike, you are not going to be able to make a film that all—that the entire lesbian community is going to like, is going to agree on. That the lesbian community, like African-Americans or anybody else is not one monolithic group. And so once she said that to me, it was like, that's like a breath of fresh air, it was like it gave me freedom. And I know, we knew going in that there was going to be a segment of the lesbian community that's not going to like this film. What's interesting, though is that Tristan had several screeners across the country for lesbian audiences before the film opens—you gotta remember the movie opens August 13th, here in the Bay Area. And interestingly, the film—people liked and disliked was really broken down by race. African-American lesbians, lesbians of color liked the film a whole lot more better than white lesbians. I just think if you're going to do the fact, I think African-American lesbians were much more comfortable with these women getting pregnant by other means than artificial insemination. Whereas the white lesbians, the fact that penis was introduced into the equation, they just can't get with it. Very simple.
G: And, of course, those scenes are—to me, anyway, weren't so much about—I mean they were business, right? They say, "We're not lesbians, we're businesswomen."
SL: Right, I mean, they were comin' there to get pregnant. And for the people to say, "Well, how come there weren't more scenes of procreation using the turkey baster?", I just didn't wanna do it. It's not cinematic to me. Legs up in the air, y'know, and—. I didn't wanna do it. (Laughs.)
G: It seems like people don't want to take a film at face value and examine their own reactions to it; they'd rather ask you to re-make the film.
SL: Well, we just knew goin' in that, y'know, there were going to be some people that were gonna have—would not be happy with the way the lesbians portrayed in the film but we understood that going in. Alright, man.
G: Alright, thank you, sir.
SL: Thank you.
G: A pleasure.
[For Groucho's review of She Hate Me, click here.]