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A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“I’ve been making a film almost every year since 1986,” says Spike Lee, the 58-year-old director of Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game and 17 others. He has been nominated twice for an Oscar (and won a Student Oscar in film school), but at the Governors Awards, he’ll pick up a statuette for his lifetime contribution to cinema.
One of independent film’s most influential filmmakers, Lee will receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy’s Governors Awards on Nov. 14. He’s previously criticized both Hollywood and the Academy’s lack of diversity, but, he says, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has made significant changes since taking the helm in 2013.
“She’s doing a great job. She’s really been active in getting younger and diversified voting members, which I think is needed,” adds Lee, who spoke to THR about his latest project, Chi-raq (which will be Amazon’s first film with a theatrical release; it premieres on Dec. 4), gun violence and the Michael Jackson trilogy he hopes to make.
How has independent filmmaking changed since you started?
That might as well have been a million years ago. Filmmakers like Jim [Jarmusch] and I, the only reason we went to film school was because of the equipment. We didn’t care about the MFA. You went to film school to get the equipment. Now students look at the cost of going to schools and say, “I could use that money to buy my own camera and lighting kit.” It’s a new world.
Is there a project that never got made that you someday hope to go back to?
A lot of them. I was supposed to direct [a film about] Jackie Robinson. I was supposed to direct [one about] James Brown, too. It just didn’t work out. I have a script I wrote with Budd Schulberg, about [boxers] Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. And unfortunately he died before we got it done. I made a promise, so one day we’re getting this film done. We’re doing it for Budd.
Your next film, Chi-Raq, about Chicago gun violence, is going to be Amazon’s first feature release Dec. 4.
They’re a great company. And also everyone else said no.
Why did other companies pass?
They never give you a reason; they just say, “It’s not for us.” My co-writer Kevin Willmott and I wrote the script and went to Sundance and everybody was saying no, no, no, no, no. Amazon said yes. I tell my students, “All it takes is one yes. You get a bunch of motherf—ing nos, but all it takes is one yes.”
How do you think companies like Amazon and Netflix are affecting the industry?
They’re doing a lot. I think studios are threatened. That’s a good thing. I also think there’s enough room for everybody out here. As a filmmaker, artist, the more places there are established that you [can] have your work seen, the better it is.
Chi-raq is planned for an awards run. What’s your goal with this film?
It’s really not about awards. I’m going to save lives. There’s people being shot on the streets of Chicago daily. It’s not just Chicago, it’s happening in cities all over America. It’s happening in L.A., New York — what’s Baltimore called? Bodymore, Murderland. What’s Philadelphia called? Killadelphia. There’s a major part of this film that’s about guns in our country. What is it going to take for we as people, and supposedly the most civilized country on Earth, to stop this madness? The NRA is not bigger than the United States of America.
How can real change happen?
Legislation. How is it that somebody can go in our states, like Oregon, and buy — why is a store selling an assault weapon? You don’t even hunt with an assault weapon. Why are they being sold?
What advice do you give to aspiring filmmakers?
I hope they’re doing it because they love it, not because they want to be rich or famous. Not that those things can’t happen, but the main reason, the focus is, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I love it.” Not to say that you don’t want to make money, but the passion should be driven by your love for that particular thing that you’re doing.
What’s next for you?
We were working overtime [on Chi-raq]. On the side, I’m finishing a documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album, for the Michael Jackson estate and Sony Records. I already did Bad 25, and hopefully the estate will ask me to come back and do Thriller, and then I’ll complete the trilogy.
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