Rather than deal with clueless white studio execs’ comments, Spike Lee decided to make Red Hook Summer, the latest movie in the Brooklyn Chronicles, himself. Chris Lee talks to the acclaimed director.
Spike Lee arrived in Park City with both guns blazing.
On Sunday night, at the Sundance premiere of his faith-based drama Red Hook Summer, the notoriously outspoken writer-director wanted to make a few things abundantly clear:
1) The film follows Flik (Jules Brown), a 13-year-old Atlanta boy with a “fro-hawk” and a ubiquitous iPad 2, who is transplanted to Brooklyn’s Red Hook housing projects to live with his fire-and-brimstone-spouting preacher grandfather for the summer—and potentially find a place for accepting Jesus Christ into his life. Lee said he financed Red Hook Summer himself because he feels the studio system would never let him make “a multidimensional portrait of a young African-American.”
2) Although the movie stands as the fifth installment of what he calls his Chronicles of Brooklyn—with the previous chapters being his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It, the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing in 1989, Crooklyn in 1994, followed up with Clockers in 1995—Red Hook Summer “is not a motherfuckin’ sequel to Do the Right Thing.”
3) That Red Hook Summer represents a return to Lee’s days as an art-house auteur operating on a guerilla budget. The movie cost less than $1 million, relying heavily on labor by graduate students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts—where Lee is a professor of film and creative director— and was shot in just 19 days on a Sony F3 digital camera.
Then came a question from the audience—from none other than fellow Brooklynite Chris Rock, who was at the festival to promote his film Two Days in New York. “You did it, you spent your own money, whatever. What would you have done differently if you had actually gotten studio money?” Rock asked. “What else would have happened? Would he have blown up or some shit?”
Which caused Lee to go off on a tirade. “We said, ‘We’re gonna do this motherfuckin’ film ourselves!” Lee shouted. “I don’t want to hear no note from the studio. They know nothing about Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they’re going to give me notes about what a young 13-year-old black boy and girl are doing in Brooklyn? Fuck no!”
The Daily Beast caught up with the firebrand filmmaker the next day at a subterranean interview space off of Park City’s primary business artery where he elaborated on some of his onstage commentary about Hollywood and the state of black cinema.
So Hollywood “doesn’t know about black people”? How much frustration did you feel working within the studio system? And how much of that led to making this movie?
I was doing fine until Chris Rock fed me that question. He did that shit on purpose! I gotta get him back for that. As I left the hotel this morning, my wife said, “Please, don’t talk anymore about what Hollywood is doing or not doing. Just focus on the film.” So I’m going to take my wife’s advice. What I said last night was impromptu. I took the bait. Chris sent me a big, fat, juicy one down the plate. And I went on a tirade.
I did not come here to condemn Hollywood. We came here to share the film with the Sundance Film Festival and the people who buy films. We’re still confident we’ll get a distributor and have a summer release for Red Hook Summer.
You were at Sundance in 2009 with the documentary Passing Strange. But I understand people around you have been asking, “When are we going to get another feature drama out of you?”
I get stopped on the street a lot. “Spike, when’s your next movie coming out?” Even on Twitter. People have been waiting four years. I been waiting!
What took you so long?
[long pause during which he gives a reporter a look known as the “ice grill”] What took me so long? It’s not like I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs! Meetings, false starts. It’s hard to get a film made in today’s Hollywood climate.
How close did the sequel to your highest grossing film Inside Man come to getting the green light?
You have to ask Universal that. Here’s the thing, I’m not here to talk about Inside Man. That’s that. What happened is that I couldn’t wait anymore, and I got together with [Red Hook Summer co-writer] James McBride. We had breakfast at the Viand coffee shop, 61st and Madison. And we voiced our dissatisfaction, our frustration, not just with black cinema but American cinema as a whole. James said, “How are you going to get the money?” I said, “James, She’s Gotta Have It cost $175,000.” We shot that in 12 days.
I had just bought a Sony F3 camera. I said, “We just gotta write a script and make this film. We’re gonna make it! We’ll do it under the SAG Low Budget Agreement.”
So that means under $1 million.
Yeah. We’ll do it and use the goodwill I’ve accumulated over the years. With Technicolor, my students. I’d like you to know my students did get paid.
Eleven of them worked on this, right?
I’ve been a professor of film at the NYU graduate film school for the last 15 years—for 10 the school’s creative director. And Dee Rees, who was here last year with [the indie drama that screened in Sundance] Pariah, was one of my students. They’re very talented. The editor Hye Mee Na—very fine worker, a hard worker. Young Korean woman—she cut the film, her first feature cutting the film. James and I just had to mobilize the forces and get this thing done.
I was surprised how strong the faith-based element was in the movie. Other faith-based films have been targeted at the African-American community and rode that to the bank. Is that the plan for Red Hook Summer?
I don’t think there’s one specific audience for this. I think this film could work on the levels She’s Gotta Have It worked. It appealed to black audiences and played art houses too. I believe in tomorrow. I’m confident we’re going to get a distributor. And I believe in my heart of hearts that there’s an audience that wants to see this film.
But the trick is—this film could not be made through the studio system. And that’s fine. That’s why you have Sundance! They pick stuff up.
What kind of bullshit notes have you gotten over the years? Them trying to instruct you on how a black character would really act?
Let me tell you, we had a big discussion on Malcolm X about why we had to have Nelson Mandela at the end of the movie. I’m not trying to condemn anybody, but Nelson Mandela has said many times that he was incarcerated for 27 years, it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley that kept him going!
So what did you say?
I educated them. They said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
You won that one but are there other instances where they pulled one over on you?
I just hope that people will take note about what the U.S. Census bureau has said about the population.
There’s not going to be a white majority in the country for much longer.
White America is going to be a minority by 2040. Just in terms of good business sense, how could your work force not reflect the diversity of this great country? Here’s the thing: everything I said, George Lucas said recently. His difficult experience selling Red Tails? I’ve been saying this for years!
Here’s a question—this is very important—did George Lucas not understand that the marketing departments of all these Hollywood studios are all white? He only discovered that for Red Tails?! I’ve been saying this stuff for years. It’s not new!
If you want to make films for everybody and you’re marketing the films to everybody, shouldn’t the marketing department reflect some of that audience? That’s a no-brainer! Where is the problem? And I’m the bad guy because I’m saying this? They might not like it but nobody’s calling me a liar. I’m not lying.
The studios’ recourse is not letting you make the movies you want.
Hollywood and film and television are so behind. They don’t have to do it for altruistic reasons. It makes good business sense! Look at the bottom line! When I go to the studio, for the most part, brother man at the gate! That’s who lets me in. And that’s it.
The plan was always to go around the studios, bring this to Sundance and get a distributor up here. That’s pretty crafty.
I’ve been at this since ’86.
If this works, will the strategy for Red Hook Summer serve as a new business model for you moving forward?
Mr. Lee, I do both. I go back and forth. I have not said—[Spike picks up my digital recorder and places it next to his mouth] “Spike Lee has not said he no longer wants to make Hollywood films. Let’s not get it twisted.” But in this case, I could not wait any longer for something to happen in Hollywood. I couldn’t wait. Couldn’t do it. Had to do it myself.
“But the trick is—this film could not be made through the studio system. And that’s fine. That’s why you have Sundance! They pick stuff up.”
What does it mean to you to return to this Brooklyn milieu? Are these more personal films for you than others you’ve directed?
It’s just the Chronicles of Brooklyn. This is a new installment. This is the fifth one. Brooklyn is an amazing place, a special place.
Does it allow you to tell stories in a more personal way?
I wouldn’t say that. I think Woody Allen’s films—he can’t even get financed. He has to go to Europe to get money for them. Are his films less personal because he can’t shoot them like he shot Annie Hall back in the day? I don’t think so. For me, Malcolm X is a very personal film and so is 25th Hour. A lot of Brooklyn in 25th Hour, but I don’t know that I’d put it in the Brooklyn Chronicles.
James and I had to tell the story now.