“Nothing is More Gorgeous than When Things Get Real in a Movie”: Editor Barry Alexander Brown on Three Decades Cutting for Spike Lee
As Barry Alexander Brown toiled on the editing of School Daze, he was convinced that, at any moment, he’d be found out. That someone would inform director Spike Lee he was no longer working in the indie trenches of She’s Gotta Have It. That he was now working under the auspices of Columbia Pictures and could no longer simply hire his buddies to cut his movies. Recalls Brown, “I was sure somebody was going to come into the editing room and say, ‘What are you doing here?’”
That never happened and, three decades later, Barry Alexander Brown is still cutting movies for his “buddy.” Brown first met Lee through a mutual friend in the summer of 1981. Brown was in Atlanta researching his follow-up to his Oscar-nominated documentary The War at Home. Lee, an NYU grad student, was in town mentoring high schoolers through the production of a local cable show. When both returned to New York that fall, Brown, who also served as president of the distributor First Run Features, offered Lee a job checking 16mm film prints.
A friendship formed and, eventually, so did a long-lasting creative collaboration spanning some of Lee’s most memorable films, from Do the Right Thing to 25th Hour. Their latest work together, BlacKkKlansman, earned each an Oscar nomination—Lee’s first as a director and Brown’s first as an editor.
Ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards, Brown spoke to Filmmaker about bypassing the test screening process on BlacKkKlansman, his favorite “Spike Lee Dolly” shot, and how he made the final cuts to She’s Gotta Have It in a projection booth on opening night.
Filmmaker: You were born in England, but you grew up in the American Deep South. Connect those dots for me. How’d you get from one place to the other?
Brown: My father was in the Air Force, so it was sort of an accident that I was born in England. We moved around a lot when I was growing up—places like Mississippi, the Panhandle of Florida, and Alabama. My mother’s family is from Alabama so when [my parents] finally decided that they were really going to settle down they chose Montgomery, Alabama.
Filmmaker: As a kid growing up in Alabama, what movies had an impact on you?
Brown: Things like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Becket, and The Godfather. I also loved the early Beatles films like A Hard Day’s Night. I was a big Beatles fan. But what also had a big impact on me was touring Broadway shows, particularly musicals. I would go see anything that came to town and I loved them. Actually, one of the things that first drew Spike and I together was our love for Broadway musicals.
Filmmaker: And the first feature you cut for Spike was School Daze, which has musical numbers in it.
Brown: Yeah. Spike made his first movie, She’s Gotta Have It, on a wing and a prayer. Then the very first thing he wanted to do when he had a real budget was a musical. That was a lot to bite off, but I was glad that he did it. I was surprised that he asked me to cut it, quite frankly.
Filmmaker: I haven’t heard this full story, but there was some sort of ratings board snafu and you had to cut some of She’s Gotta Have It in a movie theater projection booth?
Brown: I only cut one scene in She’s Gotta Have It and that very scene—which was Greer and Nola in bed—was the [reason] that the MPAA kept giving the film an X rating over [and over]. Spike and I kept going back and re-cutting the scene and resubmitting it and it would get rejected again. So finally we said, “Okay, listen, just tell us specifically what the problem is.” Because that scene is really just silhouetted figures. That’s the way Spike shot it. He wanted this white bed and to really push the contrast. It was like, “What are you guys seeing?” So we asked them to give us a very specific shot-by-shot breakdown and they did. We made those edits and sent it back [to the MPAA]. Months went by and we didn’t hear back so we thought we had done what we needed to do. Then She’s Gotta Have It opens and the MPAA says, “We never gave you an R rating. You have to cut half that scene.” (laughs) So Spike called me up and said, “Barry, you’ve got to go over to the theater and cut half that scene.” The movie had already opened— there’d been two or three screenings. So I went over, took that reel off of the projector and cut half the scene. The [scene was scored with] this drum solo and I thought, “How is this going to sound, just cutting like this?” but it sounded fine. It was crazy that it worked.
Filmmaker: So it was opening in one theater in New York and you went down there and cut that print?
Filmmaker: Did that footage ever go back in?
Brown: Yeah, at some point we put it back together. I think the DVDs have the whole sequence. But I had to go to the lab right after [I cut the film in the projection booth] and go to the negative and [make the same edits], but they kept the negative and we put it back together years and years later.
Filmmaker: So the story behind you starting to work as Spike’s editor is that he wrote a book about the making of She’s Gotta Have It and in the book he said “Barry is going to cut my next movie”—which he had never mentioned to you. That “next movie” turned out to be School Daze.
Brown: He didn’t tell me anything. I read it in the book. I think I even called him up after and said, “It says in the book you want me to cut your next movie.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll let you know when that is. My dad is writing the music and I want you to cut it.” Then I remember he called me up and he was upset because whatever company it was that was going to make it—I don’t remember which studio, but they pulled out. We were both disappointed. Then he called me back the next day and said, “I’m getting on a plane. I’m going to go out to LA and have a meeting with Columbia Pictures. They want to do it. So cheer up. We’re going to make this movie.” But I tell you for a long time on School Daze I thought somebody was going to say to Spike, “You can’t just hire your buddy to be the editor. You’ve got to get a real editor.”
Filmmaker: But you were already an Oscar nominee!
Brown: But I wasn’t an editor. I mean, I did edit things, but I didn’t consider myself an editor. School Daze was the first time I’d ever cut 35mm. An assistant editor let me into a 35mm editing room [before the shoot] to show me around and I was asking all these questions and finally she said, “I’m sorry, I misunderstood. Somebody told me you were the editor of this movie.” I said, “Yep, that’s right.” (laughs) She gave me this look like, “Oh boy, are they in trouble.”
Filmmaker: Tell me about your and Spike’s way of working together. You don’t start cutting until you’ve watched dailies together and you don’t believe in putting together assemblies.
Brown: That’s right, I don’t assemble it, I cut it.
Filmmaker: With an assembly, you’re putting every scene in, even things that you probably figure will eventually get cut out. Do you cut every scene?
Brown: Absolutely, you cut everything. Every once in a while Spike might say, “You know what, I don’t even know why we shot this scene. Don’t even cut it.” But that’s a rare, rare thing that happens maybe once every other movie or something. But there were no deleted scenes from BlacKkKlansman. Spike had asked me to put together the deleted scenes and I said, “There are none, buddy. There are none.” That just shows how strong the script was.
Filmmaker: And you didn’t do any test screenings for BlacKkKansman. Just because of the shifts in tone, it seems like the type of movie you’d test to see how those shifts are playing with an audience.
Brown: I had two screenings where I showed it to Focus Features and Universal and they were both really disconcerting. The humor seemed to be working, but at the end of those screenings everyone just got up and walked out. I think Jordan Peele [who served as one of the film’s producers] looked at me and said “Thank you” and left. That’s usually a really bad sign. (laughs) But the reason they did that ended up being because they were upset [by the movie’s content] and they needed to go think about it. The [studios] had a handful of notes. We did half of the notes and the half that we did were really, really good notes. And then they said, “Listen, we’re on a timeline here. We’re really trying to get into Cannes. We feel that this film works and we don’t need an audience to tell us that.” Which is amazing. Hats off to them.
Filmmaker: BlacKkKlansman opens with a famous tracking shot from Gone With the Wind and also features footage from The Birth of a Nation. Were those hard to clear?
Brown: The Birth of a Nation is in public domain, but Gone With the Wind is not. Spike was on the phone early on with Warner Bros. trying to get that clearance. The one thing they said that we could not do was use any of the soundtrack. We couldn’t use the score and we couldn’t use Vivian Leigh’s voice, so [composer] Terence Blanchard wrote [new music] for that.
Filmmaker: When I’m watching a Spike Lee movie, I’m always looking forward to the “double dolly” shot where the actor is placed on the dolly with the camera. You’ve cut a lot of those shots into Spike Lee movies. Do you have a favorite? I’m partial to the one from Malcolm X.
Brown: I think that one, and there’s one in Crooklyn that I like a lot. For Malcolm X, Spike had this song in mind [Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”]. I’d cut the sequence without it and then Spike brought the song in and we added the music and everything fell so gorgeously and emotionally together. It floored us and spooked us. If you look at it, you’d definitely think I cut that sequence to that song, but I didn’t.
Filmmaker: Last year was the 20th anniversary of He Got Game…
Brown: It was? (laughs)
Filmmaker: Yeah, time sneaks up on you. (laughs) It came out in 1998. Denzel Washington was on Bill Simmons’s podcast around the time of the anniversary and he talked about how the final game between Washington and Ray Allen was scripted as an 11-0 shutout by Allen. [In the film, Washington’s character is temporarily released from prison in order to convince his son to play college hoops at the governor’s alma mater.] Do you have any stories about cutting that scene?
Brown: I do. I don’t know if Spike ever had it in mind that it was going to be a shutout. It might have said that in the script, but I don’t know if he every really planned on doing it that way. At one point [when they were filming] Denzel hit a few shots in a row and all of a sudden, between those two guys on the court, it wasn’t acting anymore. Ray Allen was definitely not acting. He started saying stuff—this was Ray Allen talking [as himself, not as his character Jesus Shuttlesworth]—“We’re going to shut that lucky shit down now” and he meant it. He wasn’t going to let this middle-aged actor make a fool out of him out there. That was not going to happen. Then Ray Allen was able to get back into the character of Jesus and deliver his lines because for a while he was not delivering lines, he was just playing the game. And I loved that. Nothing is more gorgeous than when things get real in a movie. It was always part of the story [that Jesus thought] “I don’t care about you old man. You can go back to prison.” But during that scene it became, “I’m going to send you back to prison myself. Right now.”
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.