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It’s hard to imagine that Spike Lee, one of his generation’s earliest embodiments of do-or-die indie filmmaking, has never debuted a film at Sundance as a feature director. That will change when his new drama, Red Hook Summer, in which a young man from Atlanta spends a summer with his preacher grandfather in Brooklyn, bows Jan. 22 at the festival. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the New Yorker on his recent trip to L.A. (wearing, of course, his Knicks regalia) to talk about Red Hook, a chat that also had Lee, 54, sounding off about what he sees as a dearth of influence among African-Americans in Hollywood, how working with Eddie Murphy for the first time is “going to be a motherf–er” and why you can’t “bitch and moan” when making independent films.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: So this is your first trip to Sundance as a feature director but not your first time with a film in the festival?
Spike Lee: Yes. I came for the first time with the Broadway musical film Passing Strange in 2009. I had a really good conversation with Robert Redford that year. He was 100 percent cool.
THR: What was the genesis of Red Hook?
Lee: [Co-writer and novelist] James McBride and I are dear friends. We worked together on Miracle at St. Anna. And we had breakfast one morning at Viand, the best coffee shop in New York, at 61st and Madison, across from Barneys. We were talking about the state of cinema, the state of black cinema, how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get the sequel to Inside Man made — my biggest hit ever.
THR: Why couldn’t you get the sequel made?
Lee: You’d have to speak to some other people about that. Anyway, I’d just bought this Sony camera, an F3, and I said, “We’ve got the means and ways and have to make do. We have to make it happen.” We just started talking about stories we wanted to tell. He’s from Brooklyn too — Red Hook, in fact — so we co-wrote the script.
THR: Is the film autobiographical for either of you?
Lee: A little. The church where we filmed is the one James’ parents founded, the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church.
THR: Aside from Clarke Peters, who has appeared on The Wire and Treme, the cast is made up of mostly unknowns. How did you go about assembling the talent?
Lee: I got the best people I could find. I auditioned all over New York City. Also, there is a school in my old Fort Green neighborhood called Ronald Edmonds. I went there, same junior high, but the name has been changed. And there is an acting teacher there, Edward Robinson, a great teacher — they always have great kids. I started hanging out in the class. That’s where I first saw Jules Brown, who plays Flick, and Toni Lysaith, who plays Chaz.
THR: In terms of the budget, you’re revealing only that it was “SAG Low Budget Agreement” (which per 2011 standards puts it between $625,000 and 937,500). What was the most difficult part of making the film?
Lee: I financed it myself, so we had to do it for a price. I just went to the bank, made some draws and wrote some checks! It was very hard, but we made the movie we wanted to make.
THR: Is the film, as many are saying, a return to your roots after more commercial projects like Inside Man and St. Anna?
Lee: I am trying to stay away from this position of me “returning to my roots.” As if my roots are that I’m only comfortable working on low-budget, small films. That’s not the case at all. I think if people looked at my body of work, they’d see a great breadth of work. (Long pause.) But the fact remains that Hollywood does sequels and prequels. What was it, Mission: Impossible 5 just now?
Lee: Right, four. So it was inconceivable to me that we couldn’t get a sequel made to Inside Man. I don’t blame Hollywood — I was naive. Forgive me, I was naive. It was my biggest hit. And we couldn’t get a sequel made? I was f–ing naive. It was like it didn’t even happen.
THR: But who specifically made the decision not to move forward with a sequel? Brian Grazer at Imagine? Donna Langley at Universal?
Lee: You’d have to do some research. Look, I’m not crying over spilt milk or pointing fingers or playing the blame game. We are all grown-ups here. You asked me questions, and I can’t speak for other people. [Editor’s note: Calls placed to Grazer’s office were referred to Universal, which did not immediately return a request for comment.]
THR: OK, on to another topic. There have been a few standout offerings from black filmmakers in the past year, Dee Rees’ Pariah and Steve McQueen’s Shame among them. Do you think opportunities for black directors have improved or worsened since you started making movies in the 1980s?
Lee: Shame is a great film; it’s my favorite film of the year. And Dee was a student of mine at NYU graduate film school. I’m an executive producer of Pariah. Anyway, I think there have been some improvements and some steps taken back. But overall, the variety of films being offered to African-American audiences is not where it was 10, 15 years ago. It’s very narrow.
THR: But doesn’t Tyler Perry’s huge commercial success suggest that at least a good portion of that audience is being served?
Lee: It’s not the same. I just feel the audience doesn’t have as many choices as it did back in the day.
THR: Do you think it’s more that the content is not being written, or it’s simply not being greenlighted, or both?
Lee: Look, take away the big stars — Will Smith and Denzel — and look at the people who have a greenlight vote. Where are the people of color? That’s what it comes down to. How many people, when they have those meetings and vote on what movies get made, how many people of color are in those meetings? That’s not to say that’s the only way to get a film made, but you’re talking about Hollywood specifically here. And if you want to get a Hollywood film made, it has to get greenlit. And I want someone to tell me: Who is a person of color who has a greenlight vote in this industry today? Some can argue, “Will Smith doesn’t need the vote.” Well, if Will wants to do the phone book, they still have to vote on it! He’s not writing the check. Someone still has to write the check for what Will wants to do. I’m talking about the people sitting in the room who have read the script — looking at the full package, who’s in it, how much is it going to cost, how much is it going to make. The people who have that vote, there are no people of color who have that. And people are going to be in trouble. The U.S. Census has said white Americans are going to be a minority in this country by 2040. I just think it’s good business sense to plan for that! The country is changing, and some people just don’t want to understand that. I don’t know how you can’t take that into account. The smart people are going to take that number into account of how they do business.
THR: Hollywood has a tough time looking more than a few years out.
Lee: Yeah, it does. Look, I’m not using this interview to slam Hollywood. I’m just saying, I want to know: Who is a black person in Hollywood who has that vote? If you ask a studio, they aren’t going to tell you.
THR: The only black executive I can think of offhand with definitive power in the film business is Vanessa Murchison at Fox Animation.
Lee: Let’s leave animation out of it. (Laughs.) Let’s stick to live action. Forgive me, I do know her, and she does have great power at Fox, though. But I’m talking about live-action features.
THR: George Lucas appeared Jan. 9 on The Daily Show to promote his Tuskegee Airmen action-drama Red Tails and said the studios he approached had no clue how to market a “black action movie.” How do you feel about this?
Lee: Yeah, I was at the premiere. Here’s the thing: One of the reasons the studios don’t know how to market the film is that they have no black people in the marketing departments! At least any people with say-so. Again, this is bigger than just a marketing problem. What about the greenlight committee? That’s the bigger issue. That’s the heart of the matter. This is not a revelation; this is truth.
THR: Well, it was certainly novel that a white person in Hollywood, especially someone of Lucas’ stature, would be so public on this particular topic.
Lee: Well, George Lucas got “f– you” money. (Laughs.) They’re not going to mess with him. In any case, I watch football, and the Red Tails commercials are hot. The commercials are definitely running on TV.
THR: Looking at the most successful movie of the year to feature black talent, The Help, why do you think the film was able to transcend racial boundaries and be both a commercial and critical hit?
Lee: OK, let me ask you a question: Why did Driving Miss Daisy win best picture in 1989? That’s my answer.
THR: So you’re saying they’re both period films in which the black actors portray servants?
Lee: Stacey, Stacey, Stacey. That’s my answer [above]. I don’t need to elaborate.
THR: Besides Shame, are there other movies or TV shows you’ve seen recently that blew you away?
Lee: Yeah, I loved Attack the Block; it’s a British indie film starring John Boyega, who is also the lead in this pilot I shot for HBO: The Brick, with Doug Ellin from Entourage.
THR: You’re also slated to direct HBO’s film about former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry with Eddie Murphy. How is it that you and Eddie have never worked together?
Lee: I know. Never! We’ve talked about it for many years. We were never able to come up with something we both could agree on. Hanging out together is going to be a motherf–er! (Laughs.)
THR: You’ve never shied away from politics in your films. How does the current landscape make you feel about being black in America?
Lee: Look, I support the president. In fact, my wife [attorney Tonya Lewis Lee] and I are having a fund-raising dinner [on Jan. 19] for Obama at our house on the Upper East Side. We got the call directly from the White House.
THR: Back to Red Hook Summer. How long was your shoot?
Lee: Nineteen days. Roughly three six-day weeks.
THR: That’s fast. Was the schedule the toughest part of the production?
Lee: She’s Gotta Have It was 12 days. (Laughs.) So, no.
THR: Do you prefer that guerrilla pace of filmmaking?
Lee: One of the great things about African-Americans is that we’ve always had this attitude: We make do with what we got. It comes from our ancestors being slaves. You can’t bitch and moan about what you don’t got. It’s, “What can you do with what you got?” I’ve got a minimum amount of money; that dictates the shooting days. And James and I wrote the script. It takes place in Red Hook, and we shot everything within a 10-block radius. We gotta make do with what we got.
THR: Is it true that you reprise your role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing in Red Hook?
Lee: Yeah, but he’s not the focus.
THR: So it’s present-day Mookie as an older man?
Lee: Yes, much older. (Laughs.)
THR: How has your storytelling style changed since you made Do the Right Thing?
Lee: Hopefully I’m better.
THR: What do you think is your signature as a filmmaker?
Lee: Well, I have a signature shot. I like people to look like they’re floating. But as a filmmaker? I think it’s easy to look at Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever and say, “Spike only deals with themes of race.” And I think that’s just from someone who’s lazy, who hasn’t seen the films or gone to IMDb to look at the body of work! It takes 10 seconds.
THR: On the subject of the Web, how much, if at all, do you use social media to promote yourself?
Lee: I’m on Twitter. It’s fun.
THR: What have you learned about your fans from being on the site?
Lee: They’re waiting for the next movie. I have 150,000 followers. I started tweeting on my birthday last year, March 20.
THR: Do you find you get criticized as much as praised?
Lee: Oh yeah. “Spike! The Knicks f–ing suck! Yankees suck! New York sucks! You suck the big one, Spike!” But I just block those people.
THR: You’re now working on an English-language version of the Korean thriller Oldboy, starring Josh Brolin and Clive Owen. Is there another project you’re hoping to tackle someday?
Lee: I’d love to do a musical with Prince, Stevie Wonder or Kanye [West]. That wouldn’t all be one movie! They’re my dream collaborators.
THR: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Red Hook Summer before Sundance?
Lee: We’re looking forward to sharing something with the world. And if God is willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll have a distributor and a summer release. As the great Jets linebacker Bart Scott has been quoted as saying, “Can’t wait.”
FOUR MILESTONES IN A PROVOCATIVE 30-YEAR CAREER
Do the Right Thing (1989): His audacious day-in-the-life portrait of a melting-pot Brooklyn neighborhood affirmed Lee as his generation’s Martin Scorsese, a fearless documentarian of NYC culture. The film earned Lee, also a co-star, an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
Malcolm X (1992): One of four collaborations with star Denzel Washington, Lee’s searing portrayal of slain activist Malcolm X, based largely on Alex Haley’s 1965 biography, earned its star an Oscar nomination for best actor and brought in more than $48 million at the domestic box office.
Inside Man (2006): Ron Howard originally was slated to direct this New York heist drama headlined by Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. The film earned rave reviews and became Lee’s biggest commercial hit with its domestic box-office haul of more than $88 million.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006): Lee’s somber HBO eulogy to victims of Hurricane Katrina melded moving testimonials from the Lower 9th Ward with his open disdain for the government’s handling of the disaster. The series earned three Emmys.
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