Spike Lee: Why I Haven't Made a Feature Film in Three Years

Spike Lee Pink Sweater 2011
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Spike Lee Pink Sweater 2011

The filmmaker also reveals why he isn't happy with the Academy, whether he'd ever cast controversial NBA star LeBron James in a project and what he thinks about President Obama's chances of re-election.

NEW YORK -- Spike Lee is not feeling the love from Hollywood’s money men.

“I haven’t made a feature film in three years,” said Lee.

Lee has lately focused on documentary work with two films about post-Katrina New Orleans for HBO. But he had designs on biopics about Jackie Robinson – the Brooklyn Dodgers slugger who broke baseball’s color line – and soul icon James Brown. And he was in discussions a while back for a sequel to thriller Inside Man, which starred Denzel WashingtonClive Owen and Jodie Foster. But he's been unable to secure financing.

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Inside Man was my most successful film,” he said, adding that he had Washington and Foster on board for the sequel. “But we can’t get the sequel made. And one thing Hollywood does well is sequels. The film’s not getting made. We tried many times. It’s not going to happen.”

Lee’s comments came during a free-wheeling Q&A session with public television’s Charlie Rose at PromaxBDA, the annual marketing, branding and design conference here. Lee received the organization's lifetime achievement award for his work in film and television, including a series of groundbreaking commercials for Nike that featured Michael Jordan and Lee as Mars Blackmon, the character he played in his 1986 breakthrough film She’s Gotta Have It.

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“First of all, what in this world does not revolve around money? But money is a big part of film, unlike a lot of other art forms.”

Lee wore a tan seersucker jacket over a T-shirt and a straw pork pie hat. And when Rose’s cell phone rang at the beginning of the presentation, Lee jumped from his seat as the crowd in the New York Hilton ballroom cheered him on.

“I just want you to know,” said Lee, as he walked to the front of the stage. “On my sets, when the camera is rolling and the phone rings: $50.”

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“Will you take $5?” asked Rose, rising from his chair and fishing in his front pockets.

“I’ll let you slide,” Lee laughed. (Later in the presentation, Rose’s phone rang a second time. “I owe you $100,” said a contrite Rose. It did not ring a third time.)

Lee – whose cinematic heroes include Akira KurosawaBilly WilderElia Kazan, Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese – has never won an Academy Award. But he likened Academy voters to basketball referees who attempt to make amends for a bad call with what is known in the sports world as a subsequent “make-up call.”

By way of some examples of this theory, Lee offered Al Pacino and Denzel Washington. Pacino turned in numerous Oscar-worthy performances in Dog Day AfternoonSerpicoThe GodfatherThe Godfather II, etc. But he won his only Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Washington did not win a best actor trophy for Lee’s Malcolm X, though he was nominated. He received his best actor trophy nearly 10 years later for Training Day.

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“In 1989, Do the Right Thing was not even nominated [for best picture],” said Lee, with some mock outrage. “What film won best picture in 1989? Driving Miss Mother F---ing Daisy! That’s why [Oscars] don’t matter,” said Lee. “Because 20 years later, who’s watching Driving Miss Daisy?”

(Lee was nominated for best original screenplay for Do the Right Thing, though he didn't win. And in 1999, the film was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.)

“There are many times in history where the best work does not get awarded," he said. "And I’m not even talking about my own work. So that’s why [the Oscars] don’t matter.”

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Lee also talked about the election of Barack Obama, whether he’d ever work with LeBron James and acting in his own films – something that earned him a comparison to Woody Allen.

On controversial Miami Heat superstar LeBron James:

“LeBron’s having a tough way to go now. And a lot of that I feel he brought upon himself. But I would work with him. I think he’s a good guy. He’s always been very respectful to me personally. And he’s funny. In a comedic role, I think he would do very well.”

On acting in his own films:

“I don’t like acting; not in front of the camera. The only reason I was in She’s Gotta Have It is because we couldn’t afford anybody else. But with the success of Mars Blackmon, I said, ‘I’ll continue to do it.’ At the same time, it was not something I enjoyed doing. Once it got to point where it wouldn’t hurt [the film] if I weren’t in it I [stopped].”

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On actors in general:

“You’re out there buck-naked and that is hard. The reason why actors are f---ed up; can you imagine having a job where someone is, ‘No, no, no. Your butt’s too big. Your heads to big. You’re too skinny. Your nose is too big?'”

On Barack Obama:

“There were people who thought that racism and prejudice would be eradicated [with the election of the first African American president.] The moment he put his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s bible it was going to be abracadabra, presto chango, poof! I was there that night [in Chicago’s Grant Park on Election Night.] It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was swept up in the euphoria; drinking the Kool-Aid like everybody else. And here we are: racism and prejudice have not disappeared.”

On President Obama’s re-election prospects:

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a fight.”


Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com

Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie