Spike Lee, David Cronenberg Debate Future of Cinema, How Netflix Tracks Bathroom Breaks

David Cronenberg and Spike Lee - Getty - H 2018
Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

During a panel in Venice, Cronenberg teased a possible TV series, and Sandy Powell said the technology behind 'The Irishman' is leaps and bounds ahead of 'Benjamin Button.'

During a panel on innovation and the future of cinema at the Venice Film Festival, filmmakers Spike Lee and David Cronenberg debated the risk of disappearing cinemas, while praising Netflix for paving the road for creating new opportunities for directors.

Costume designer Sandy Powell, meanwhile, discussed her role on Martin Scorsese's Netflix project The Irishman, for which she is creating costumes for leading men over five decades. The film uses de-aging technology, which is said to be unlike anything ever before seen to make Robert De Niro appear as young as 30.

Lee spoke of teaching graduate students at New York University who haven’t seen films like Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rashomon or Lawrence of Arabia. Or if they have, they’ve watched them on their phones. “It kills me,” he said, calling for the need to preserve historic cinemas.

“I think Lawrence of Arabia looks great on an Apple Watch, and it probably sounds better because it would stream directly to my hearing aids by Bluetooth,” said Cronenberg. He spoke of learning the mechanics of drama and suspense as a child by listening to radio.

“That is an art form that is gone," he said. "There are an infinite number of art forms that have come and gone. It’s just the flow of human technology. I just don’t find there to be a problem."

Chimed in Lee: “There was Smell-O-Vision, too." He continued: "Netflix is incredibly disruptive, and I think streaming and Netflix is the future of cinema. You can have access to it anytime and anywhere. That is what people need.”

Cronenberg argued that he thought the idea of hundreds of people having the same, shared experience in a theater was an idealized concept that he never saw much of in reality. He said Netflix series are now the topic of conversation at dinner tables, and he believes that watching a film is now like reading a book in that it’s not unnatural that it can be a solitary experience.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that orgasmic, democratic experience in the cinema. Maybe that’s my problem. I have to talk to some shrink about that,” he said. “My movie The Fly, a lot of people fainted, that was very gratifying,” he admitted though.

Lee disagreed, recalling numerous vivid memories of seeing films in their first week in the theater, including Jaws and Alien. Or with Apocalypse Now, he remembered Walter Murch’s sound design, including the fact that when the helicopter sound effects began, he looked up and around him, looking for real helicopters in the theater. He waited two hours in line to see The Exorcist in subzero temperatures in the dead of winter in New York, he also recalled, saying: “The hype was so great. That came from word of mouth.”

“Someone said we should mourn the cinema,” said Cronenberg. “There are other things we can grieve than the death of cinema. It’s transforming.” The director argued that society will still have theaters, but they will exist in different forms, just as theater today is different than it was in Shakespearean times or in Greek times.

Netflix’s almighty algorithm came up as well, with Cronenberg believing it to be a very powerful tool. "They say they do not choose the films they make according to an algorithm. It’s there to tell the budget of each thing that they make,” he said. “And it suggests things to you. That’s either sinister and creepy or it’s great.”

Lee discussed its use for his series She’s Gotta Have It, which just wrapped its second season. “I also like that because they know when you stop it, start it. They know if you watched a whole episode. It’s no joke,” he said. “They know when you pause to go to the restroom and come back. I’m not exaggerating.”

According to Lee, although he wasn’t given access to the show’s numbers, he said he knew it was a hit from the show’s reaction on social media, as well as when it was renewed for a second season.

Lee also appreciated the freedom Netflix gives to filmmakers. “I told my DP we’re not composing for a TV screen," said Lee. "I told everyone, production designer, costume designer, everyone, we’re making cinema. We’re not shooting a million fucking close-ups. We’re not doing that."

“Netflix is a friend of young filmmakers,” he said. “These people need product. Netflix spent $8 billion this year only for film and series.”

Lee said the original She’s Gotta Have It was 86 minutes with a budget of $175,000, with the first season on Netflix being 10 episodes, each episode with a budget of $1.5 million.

Cronenberg said he’s not at all interested in coming in as a director for hire on a series, which he likened to being a “traffic cop,” but said he would be interested in creating a series. “Let’s say you created it and directed the first two episodes, I think that would be really interesting.”

“When are you doing this?” asked Lee. “I’m not allowed to say,” joked Cronenberg.

The filmmakers also discussed the controversy of Netflix owning all rights to content in perpetuity. “It was different for me, because She’s Gotta Have It is something that I created," Lee said. "I have a good lawyer so they weren’t going to own it." But he added: “If you’re an actor, you’re not getting back end. You’re going to try to get as much as you can, knowing once you’re finished you’re not getting a penny ever."

“Most movies you don’t see a backend,” agreed Cronenberg. “I think the only movie I’ve made I still see money on is The Fly, out of about 21 movies. If you work for Netflix or Amazon, you try to get as much money upfront.”

Costume designer Powell also participated on the panel, discussing her role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film for Netflix, The Irishman, which will feature characters played by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel spanning several decades, appearing up to 30 years younger in the film. The budget of the film has reportedly ballooned to $140 million to account for the new technology.

“I have to de-age the bodies without technology,” said Powell, explaining that the budget only affords de-aging of the faces and hands.

“I have to make guys of a certain age look 30-40 years younger. I’ll do the best I can with clothing. If it doesn’t work and they somehow find the money to work on the bodies, I’d want to work on the postproduction,” she said, however knowing that the costume designer probably wouldn’t be allowed in the visual effects studio.

“It’s a massive risk,” she said of the process of de-aging these actors that we know so well over five decades. “We don’t know if it’s going to work. We hope it’s going to work.”

“I’ve seen a six-second clip and it’s moved on leaps and bounds from Benjamin Button. The bit I’ve seen looks extraordinary,” said Powell. “It’s completely different. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like over the whole film.”

“Netflix, they wrote a check, and it was a check that no other studio was willing to do,” Lee said of The Irishman. “So it’s a decision that if you’re an artist when you get to that level, do you want your film made?”

Cronenberg was also fascinated by the idea that Netflix doesn’t have to promote any of its movies. “When it releases a movie, it releases it in 190 countries at once. That’s unprecedented, and without advertising basically,” he said, describing how the platform shows the film’s description on its thumbnail rather than promoting its director or actors. “Marty’s film will be in 190 countries at once. He’s never had a film like that ever.... That’s a powerful thing.”