From the start of his career to the height of it, Spike Lee has never had an easy time getting projects off the ground. In some cases it’s because he was ahead of the curve ‐ like when he had hopes to make a Jackie Robinson biopic, but the financing never came together because studios didn’t feel there was an audience for a black baseball film. This year, 42 would beg to disagree.
Of course even though it appears like an order form for free money, the Kickstarter funding route isn’t easy either. For established filmmakers it takes a combination of thick skin for backlash and vulnerability to ask fans for money that studios and financiers won’t give.
Within a few months time, Lee will have taken the trust fall of asking the public to fund a movie for which he’s given very few details and then debuted a high-profile (yet non-mainstream) reinterpretation about proper hammer usage. Facing the contradictions head-on, we spoke to the filmmaker about this new, same-as-the-old chapter in his career:
I understand your response to Kickstarter criticism is the same as Braff’s and Bell’s.
Right. I think as the water rises, the boats in the water also rise. Like what happened with Zac Braff, I have a large following of people of color who had never ever, ever, ever heard of Kickstarter. The people who bring their pledges to me is their first time pledging, which negates the argument I’m hurting the little guy. In addition to that, I’ve always been a strong supporter of young filmmakers. If that wasn’t the case, I would not have been teaching at NYU graduate film school for the last 15 years or served as the artistic director of the graduate film school for the last five years. I’m all about education, teaching film, and helping young filmmakers.
I’m not just some Hollywood big shot coming to Kickstarter and knocking young filmmakers to the side with no regard to their growth in this tough industry.
If I can embellish this a bit more, this is crowdfunding. This is a community-based thing. I don’t expect people who don’t like me, my films, think I’m a racist, or who hate the Knicks to pledge to me anyway. I feel I’ve built up a base during these three decades of filmmaking that will, for as little as five dollars, make a pledge so they can see the next Spike Lee joint in the theater.
Also, we got to get out of this thinking that it’s a donation, because these people get something in return for every pledge. There’s this misconception about how this works.
You’ve always put yourself out there, especially with social media. Is it easier to look past those more harsh detractors or does it ever get to you?
I have to be honest…I can kind of murder them with a response, but I try to be good. I’ll delete them and block them off my twitter page and keep stepping. As you know, there’s a statement that couldn’t be more apropos at any other time than this: haters gonna hate.
I cannot let that negative energy deter me in what my goal is. I can take it, you know? I’m going to tell you something…especially if you’re not a professional athlete, but to have 20,000 people boo you in Chicago, Boston, and Indiana, I mean, I’m used to this stuff [Laughs]. I have thick skin.
It’s funny, and also sad, that you had to list off a good amount of your work on Kickstarter. It’s —
I had to! You know why? People forgot. People have forgotten. It was on purpose to list my body of work. I had to do that, because 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.
Working with the trailer houses, I’ve been careful not to do that. I think we were very successful with the Oldboy trailer, which people loved. When I was growing up, trailers would tantalize or tease you. Nowadays, with so much money being spent on productions and marketing [Laughs], they’re going to put everything and the kitchen sink in it, to ensure they get that opening weekend number. This film is not going to open 10,000 screens across every theater in the United States of America. This is not that type of film, so therefore we don’t need that type of trailer.
Why do you think people forget some of your work?
People got short-memories. That’s just the world we live in today.
If Kickstarter was around in the 80s, would you have done it back then?
Here’s the thing, my man…I was doing Kickstarter before there was a Kickstarter! [Laughs] My first film, She’s Gotta Have It, cobbled together with nickels, dimes, selling bottles, and writing letters and making phone calls was a 1985 version of Kickstarter.
So you still feel like that same filmmaker from 1985?
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.
I hope I can continue to make Hollywood films, but I go back and forth. In my mind’s head, it’s always been that I’m an independent filmmaker that makes Hollywood films too.
And they never seem like “one for me, one for them,” in the case of Inside Man or Oldboy.
Right. Martin Scorsese talks about that a lot. “One for me, one for you! Two for me, one for you!” [Laughs] I think my career has been like that, in a way. I’ve written and financed some films myself, but then I went on to make Oldboy, which is coming November 27th. Now I’m back wearing the independent filmmaker’s hat for this new film.
Why do you think no studio would back this new one?
It’s too small and intimate. This film isn’t something that will open globally and make $400M on opening weekend, which has been the strategy lately. They want all these films to become tentpoles, which is the very reason why my man Steven Soderbergh has retired from making feature films with studios. Now he’s working exclusively for cable television, which, in my heart, is doing the most interesting work.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my man Steven Soderbergh, who was the first person to pledge $10,000 on this film. I’m taking him to do dinner and he’s going to sit courtside with me in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, to watch the beloved New York Knickerbockers. I’ve sold ten of those already.
How do you stay in touch with that experimental side when so many previously prominent filmmakers from the 70s and 80s have fallen by the wayside or shifted completely to studio work?
For one, I have two teenage kids, which that alone will do it. In addition to that, I’m a professor at NYU, so I’m in constant contact with people much younger than me. They keep me up with what’s happening, and I appreciate them for that.
It also helps you surround yourself with great talent. When will we see you work with [DP] Matthew Libatique again?
Matthew Libatique, my man! You know, we just worked together last week. Matty shot for me Mike Tyson’s one man play on Broadway, which will be on HBO before the end of the year.
What do you look for in a DP?
I want someone who’s going to collaborate, bring a visual sense that’s much more advanced than what I have, and someone who is going to help me tell the story, whether it be the DP, the costume designer, or the production designer. All those departments have to work in simpatico to tell the story. Also, I can’t forget music, editing, and all those tools that a director has to tell a story with. The way you become a storyteller is knowing how to pick these department heads, and then knowing how to get them in line with your vision. At the same, you need to give them space to do their thing.
I can’t tell Matty what to do. I can make suggestions, sure. There’s things I want for sure, but I can’t shoot. I’m not a DP. Ruth Carter won two Academy Awards for Malcolm X and Amistad. I can tell her what I want, but I’m not a costume designer. Bruce Hornsby, Terrence Blanchard, my father Bill Lee, and all these great composers who have worked on my films, I can tell them what I feel, but I can’t sit down and write the music. I don’t have the talent.
That reminds me of [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan saying how the auteur theory is meaningless because television and film are such collaborative mediums.
I think there’s some parts of the auteur theory that are true. I think the great auteurs are collaborators. I think that a lot of the time that term is overused. Listing off those people, I cannot forget the screenwriter. I’ve written a lot of my stuff, but there’s a lot of scripts I didn’t write. The great David Benioff wrote a great script out of his own novel, 25th Hour. Now he’s off doing Game of Thrones. I never felt that in order for me to make a film I have to write it. I don’t have to do everything, nor do I want to do everything.
Speaking of which, coming into Oldboy you have to deal with expectations of what people want and don’t want to see from a remake —
Jack, let me just steer you a little way to the other side. We’re not calling it a remake; we’re calling it a reinterpretation. I’ll give you an example. We all love The Sound of Music and Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things.” That was phenomenal, but when John Coltrane sang it, it was a whole different animal. Not to negate the original source, but it’s just a different thing. I mean, when Miles Davis played “The Star Spangled Banner,” it was great, but when Whitney Huston, Marvin Gaye, or Jimi Hendrix did it, they took it somewhere else. Those are examples I’m giving for why this isn’t a remake.
As you know, the original source of Oldboy was not a Korean movie. It was a Japanese manga, an illustrated novel. The second interpretation was the Korean film, but now we have our own film with Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Shartlo Copley, and my man Samuel L. Jackson.
Before Josh Brolin wanted to do this film, he went to the director of Oldboy [Chan-wook] Park who told him to please do a different film and not to remake it. I knew from the script that would be the case.
If you want to see another Spike Lee joint, head over to the man’s Kickstarter page. Oldboy is in theaters November 27th.