6 Filmmaking Tips from Spike Lee

By  · Published on November 20th, 2013

To watch Spike Lee’s feature narrative films is to only understand a fraction of his career as director. If you count his documentaries, Spike Lee has, when next week’s Oldboy remake hits screens, helmed 32 features in the 27 years since She’s Gotta Have It. And that doesn’t even include the numerous shorts, music videos, commercials, and TV pilots he’s directed. Of all the things that are misunderstood about Spike Lee, his largely under-recognized and uniquely prolific output of work might be chief among them.

As both public figure and producer of culture, Lee has meant many things to many audiences: co-pioneer of the 1980s American independent film renaissance, restless observer of popular culture, connoisseur of African-American popular music, firebrand provocateur, native new Yorker, and brand name. He has also helped define and expand the possibilities for contemporary African-American filmmakers inside and outside Hollywood. It’s difficult to imagine what American cinema of the past quarter century would look like without Spike.

So here’s some free advice (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man behind every Spike Lee joint.

The Richness of Culture Deserves Representation

Growing up, I’d see all this richness of our culture just standing on the corner or looking out the window, but rarely was it reflected on the screen or on television.”

Spike Lee is acutely aware of the enormous gap between the complex richness of American life and the strict categories through which life is repeatedly represented onscreen. In highlighting the lives of multifarious Brooklynites throughout different periods of history as well as in various different economic and political circumstances.

Lee’s filmography (as with his NYC and indie-based contemporaries ranging from Oscar Micheaux to John Cassavetes, from Melvin Van Peebles to Jim Jarmusch) offers not only a corrective for dominant regimes of representation, but removes any suggestion of essentialism or homogeneity in representing underrepresented populations, even when revisiting the same geographical region throughout a career.

And yet, there are so many lives still unrepresented onscreen.

Dedication and Existing Work Means More Than a Degree and Aspirations

In addition to his filmmaking obligations, Lee has been a film production professor at NYU for over fifteen years. Lee has stressed throughout his tenure than writing is essential to becoming a creative voice in filmmaking, but here he points to a more basic but important requirement: drive. A sense of entitlement, laziness, or premature self-satisfaction will not get one far in a demanding and cutthroat trade. It’s an extraordinary and rare thing to be a filmmaker, much less a good one. So don’t pursue it unless you’re willing to step up to the plate.

Also, if somebody who has made as many as three films a year tells you not to be lazy, maybe that person knows what he’s talking about.

Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse

“…I’ll admit it, I’m very stingy over what this film is about. I understand that this film we’re about to do, for it to work for audiences, they have to know as little as possible about the movie. Today’s moviegoing audience wants to know everything about a film before it comes out. A lot of that has happened because of the way trailers are cut today. Rarely you go to a theater and see a trailer where they don’t show you the whole movie. In many cases, you don’t have to see the movie, because you saw the trailer! As a filmmaker and audience member, I hate that.”

This summer, FSR interviewer Jack Giroux spoke with Lee about the fauxtroversy surrounding his Kickstarter campaign, which sought to bankroll Lee’s first horror film (spoiler: it got funded). While there were the usual protestations that Lee should fund the film himself (with the millions he made off of Red Hook Summer, I assume), the most concentrated protestations surrounded the fact that Lee revealed few details about the project, to which Lee responded with the above.

Lee has a good point. In an age defined by information, where details of future projects trickle throughout the web-o-sphere (hi, there!), it’s hard for films with any recognizable associations to come into being with any sense of mystery. And while Kickstarter has been a valuable resource in this economic cinemascape where previous sans-studio funding techniques have disappeared, the Kickstarter formula tends to privilege some degree of familiarity and accessibility over the potential for surprise and invention.

Sure, it’s nearly impossible to pull off what Lee did if you aren’t somebody with the name recognition and pedigree of a Spike Lee, but it’s important to remind all filmmakers that this is a world in which viewers seek to know exactly what the film is before seeing the film, even to the detriment of their cinematic experience. The independent filmmaking movement during which Lee first made his mark would not have seemed so radical if people felt like they had seen She’s Gotta Have It before they even watched She’s Gotta Have It.

In other words, work in a way that acknowledges how difficult it is to surprise people.

More Money, More Compromise

“I think as long as anyone is an independent filmmaker there’s going to be a fight and struggle to finance your films. Even with that money, there’s strings attached. You’re not going to have that creative control when you don’t have your own money. I’m not saying these things to condemn Hollywood. They’re doing what they feel they have to do.”

From that same interview, Lee offers a stark and realistic look of what budgets mean for filmmaking, resigning himself to the reality that this isn’t a scenario which can be changed by filmmakers from the inside. As someone who has worked in narrative and documentary, on major studio releases and micro-indies, Lee should know better than most: there are films that one can make through the studio system, and films that one can’t. People don’t get final cut anymore; this isn’t the ’70s. And no matter where the money comes from, the more it costs, the greater compromises you’ll be expected to make.

It Helps to Be Notorious

Will Leitch: “Would it have been easier or harder to get as many movies made as you have gotten made without being Spike Lee, rabble-rouser?”

Lee: “Oh, it would not have been easier, it would have been harder. Spike Lee is a brand. Even to this day.”

In this July 2012 Vulture interview, Lee discusses with considerable frankness his public image and how it’s been shaped, misconstrued, overextended, and responded to over the years. The filmmaker who first etched himself into mainstream pop culture memory through a series of Nike commercials (and has certainly made the occasional faux pas like tweeting out the wrong address for George Zimmerman’s house) has developed a public personality that’s often risked obscuring his actual body of films. To assert that Lee courts controversy would be reductive, but to say that he hasn’t been received as controversial would be naïve – he has been a prominent voice in American media discourse, and he has a great deal to say both inside and outside of his films.

Yet he’s self-awarely (as the Michael Jordan ads no doubt evince) constructed “Spike Lee” as a brand in order to continue working in an industry that has shown discomfort with his ideas (it still blows my mind that Do the Right Thing is a studio film) and in an occupation that has structurally rejected African-Americans. Contributing to a public identity (even at risk of being turned into caricature and having one’s points misunderstood) can be a shrewd long-term career move. And as Lee elaborates in the interview: have something to say, but that’s not the same thing as responding to everything.

Skip the Mail Room, Learn the History of Your Craft

There seems to be a general misconception that starting out in entry level positions at studios, production companies, or film sets serve as a typical means toward an eventual opportunity in the director’s chair. This hasn’t been the case since the earliest years of the studio system.

Furthermore, studios have had a pretty consistent idea about what the faces in that chair typically look like, so reaching that spot has been particularly difficult for women and persons of color. Here Lee offers what is perhaps his most valuable advice, telling a master class audience that the key to filmmaking is not “film school,” but schooling of some sort: knowing the history of the discipline, who you’re indebted to, the obstacles that lie ahead, and what is yet to be done with it.

What We’ve Learned

It’s a certain type of American received wisdom that says if you work hard enough, the things you strive for will come into place. Spike Lee has never been satisfied with American received wisdom. His advice is better encapsulated as: work hard, but there are no guarantees. For the incredibly vast body of work that he created, Lee still struggles in an industry that sees African-American filmmaking as “niche,” an industry that prefers to pass biopics about Jackie Robinson and James Brown (two figures Lee has fought to bring to screen) off to the directors of A Knight’s Tale and The Help, respectively. Lee recognizes this for being supremely problematic and disappointing, and also business as usual.

One’s reputation or fame is something totally different than their “success” or ability to move on to the next thing. As illustrated by his Master Class lecture and his other pieces of advice, Lee emphasizes that nothing is given away in filmmaking; one’s vision (especially if it defies convention) must be constantly fought over, justified, and even funded by some commercials and self-branding. A career in filmmaking is a lifetime of fighting. Always ready for a challenge, Lee has seen many of his ideas come into being and also broke some serious ground doing it, providing an example that other filmmakers can follow.

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