In his new book, Spike, Mike Slackers & Dykes (Miramax Books/Hyperion), John Pierson opens Spike Lee's chapter with the following paragraph:
Twelve years later in December 1995, John sat down with Spike and Kevin [Clerks] Smith and had the following conversation:
John Pierson: We just saw Girl 6. Spike, you just finished the sound mix?
Spike Lee: We've got some go-backs we've got to do tomorrow.
John: How did the screening feel?
Spike: Good. The picture's locked so we've just gotta do some finagling with the sound, make the answer print, cut the negative.
John: This is your ninth feature film in ten years. We can look at that two ways: 1. What an amazingly productive director, or 2. What's with the missing year? How come there aren't ten in ten years? [laughter]
Spike: Well, there was a break between She's Gotta Have It and School Daze. And also, Malcolm X took two years.
John: That should be eight in ten. I can't figure this out.
Kevin Smith: At the time of the [fifth] book Five for Five, it was five in six.
Spike: We caught up with Girl 6 coming so close after Clockers.
John: They were closer than your normal back to back films?
Spike: That's the closest I've ever done.
John: A few months back when you were thinking about how Girl 6 should be positioned within your own career, I heard you make some comparisons to She's Gotta Have It. Can you talk a little bit about how your first and last features fit together?
Spike: First of all, the main thing is the female protagonist in both films, acknowledged by the opening audition scene where we see Girl 6, played by Theresa Randle, reciting the opening monologue that Nola Darling gave in She's Gotta Have It. A lotta times people try to put me in a corner and say I only do films about the racial climate in this country - films like Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X. But that's only three of the nine films that we've done. I knew Clockers would be finished, knew Jackie Robinson would take at least two years.
John: 1997 is an anniversary, right?
Spike: It's the 50th anniversary of Jackie breaking the color barrier. So we had a little window to do a film smaller in scale than Clockers. I had the [phone sex] idea and found this playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to write the script. In scale I'm also talking about money, because budgetwise this film was $12,000,000. So that's the similarity between the two.
John: Again we don't want to act like film critics here, but what about the portrait of a black woman's sexuality? Was that on your mind?
Spike: Not really. I think that we see much more of Nola Darling's sexuality in She's Gotta Have It.
John: In that film it seems healthy and developed, and she's just gonna do what she's gonna do.
Spike: In Girl 6 she's going to do it because she needs the cash. I look back at She's Gotta Have It and think timing is everything, because if that film had come out two years later... At the time nobody knew what AIDS was, I didn't know what AIDS was. The character's promiscuity wasn't looked down upon. It definitely would've hurt two years later. Look at Girl 6. A lotta people are using phone sex because they're scared of AIDS if they'd gone to a prostitute or had a one night stand.
John: Well that'd be why the callers or "users" do it, but for Girl 6 herself? You don't see much of her outside life, only her friendship with Jimmy, the character you play, and her klepto ex-husband. She seems to have nobody else close to her - and forget about sex in the outside world.
Spike: I think that Debi Mazar's character, which was in the script much more than actually made it into the film, was her running partner. For us it just became ironic because when she finally had enough money to go to LA, she'd become ensnarled in this whole phone sex world. She was enjoying it. She just gets deeper and deeper into it and forgets why she even started working there in the first place.
Kevin: In Girl 6 there's some kind of video effect?
Spike: All of the male callers were shot in hi-definition video and then transferred to film. That was Malik Sayeed's idea. A different look, different feel, different texture for the men who are calling. Just had that distinction between the male callers and the females. I've been telling my wife that it's the female characters that come across as strong, and it's the men that look like idiots. Women are in control in this film because they're listening to these guys, but at the same time they're doing crossword puzzles, doing their nails.
John: What was it like to have a project that you needed to set up somewhere else, and how'd you land at Fox Searchlight?
Spike: Well the process was this. I had a development deal at Universal where the property was developed. I kinda knew they wouldn't touch this at the time. They read the script and said, "You're probably right," then they allowed us to take it and leave.We had it set up with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, and we had a handshake. They said they wanted to do the film, and everything was fine. Harvey said," Let's do Jackie Robinson afterwards, and Spike why don't me and you go in and buy the Pittsburgh Pirates while we're at it." [laugher all around] Not that I believed any of that stuff, but the Weinstein Brothers can talk. So we're getting ready to do the film for Miramax, and I get a call from Harvey saying they had problems with the script. We had a big meeting at Sound One where we were doing the ADR/looping on Clockers. So he came with about four or five of his Jr. VP executives who are probably a couple of months out of NYU Graduate Film School, and they just went down a list of why they didn't feel it worked. We never heard about this before. Not only did they want us to change the script, but they wouldn't go ahead and give us the green light that we felt we'd gotten already until they saw a script. That was definitely not the deal. I told him I wasn't going to do that, that we're going to go ahead and make this picture, and he said,"Fine, still want to work with you again." We knew that Tom Rothman had just started Searchlight Pictures at Fox, called him up, tracked him down - in fact he was in Europe at the time. So he flew back from Europe early, came to New York, had lunch with producer Jon Kilik and myself in a Japanese restaurant, gave him a script, gave him the pitch and right there Tom said, "Let's do the picture." That's how it ended up at Searchlight.
John: You knew Tommy from his days as a lawyer at Frankfurt, Garbus [Spike's firm]. Didn't he play a role with your second film School Daze at Columbia Pictures?
Spike: David Picker brought Tom to Columbia Pictures in the David Putnam year. Tom told both Davids to pick up School Daze. I had one of those mythical three picture deals with Island Pictures, but after She's Gotta Have It the budget for School Daze was too much so they said go ahead and make it somewhere else. That's how School Daze wound up at Columbia.
John: Rothman wound up being the guy who was still at Columbia Pictures after the two Davids, as you just called them, were gone and Dawn Steel had taken over. He was still there when School Daze was released in February, `88.
Spike: Is she coming to Universal?
Kevin: Yeah. Somebody else just went to Universal too that was a real shock to read. It was John Singleton.
John: What's the deal, is he filling your chair there?
Spike: Yeah, when they lose one, they gotta bring another one in [laughter all around]. But that's a joke. [more laughter] John just told me he was very unhappy at Columbia Pictures. Brad Smith who runs John's New Deal Productions is a former agent from CAA - he's tight with Ron Meyer.
John: You had a six year long ride with Universal. I'm not saying you'll never make another film there but for the time being you are making films elsewhere. Jackie Robinson's going to be with Turner Pictures, presumably released by Warners, correct?
Spike: Well we hope so. [laughter all around]
John: Well, you said a few things about them during Malcolm X! I guess they release your big films, your epics.
Spike: It's been awhile since I've seen Mr. Semel and Mr. Daly so if they do read this, I want to congratulate them on running Warners Bros. Records now which is going to put out the soundtrack to Girl 6.
John: Talk about working with Prince.
Spike: The artist formerly known as Prince (TAFKAP).
John: Oh, I'm sorry. I asked you what to call him before that summer screening and you said, "Whatever you do, just don't call him Prince."
Spike: Actually, for this film it's going to say music by Prince.
Kevin: Really, because a lot of it is old Prince tracks? I went nuts when I heard Rasberry Beret.
John: How many new songs?
Spike: Three new songs. She Spoke to Me which is the opening credits, then Don't Talk to Strangers, and the end credit song Girl 6. It was interesting when I wrote, excuse me, had the idea for this script, we knew right away that we wanted to use the music of TAFKAP. So we shot the film, and during the rough cut all his music was cut into the temp soundtracks . Then I just called him up cold and said, "I did this film and I thought of you, thought of your music. And how do you feel about it?" He said, "I'd like to see it." So he flew to NY and he loved the film, and it's been a collaboration ever since. And we hope to do a musical one day.
John: You were very kind to invite me to that screening and when he left he obviously looked very energized but also left his lollipop on the seat. [More laughter] And I thought about taking it but I didn't.
Kevin: thelollipopformerlyheldbytheartistformerlyknownasprince. What is it with the great directors always wanting to do musicals? Everyone wants to revive a musical. The genre is dead.
Spike: I hope not.
John: You went to Radio City Musical Hall at an early age with your mom?
Spike: Bye Bye Birdie, Easter Show.
John: That really stuck in your head?
Spike: I like musicals!
Kevin: It's just a time gone by. Now it has to be animated to be a musical. It just doesn't seem to work, and poor Prince he did the Brooks movie I'll Do Anything.
Spike: That's not his fault. He told me James Brooks didn't tell him Nick Nolte's supposed to be singing those songs. [loud laughter]
John: The last time the three of us were together was outside the Bleecker Street Cinema building when Kevin's Mallrats was a few weeks away from opening. [Kevin starts whistling] You were awaiting the release of your second, studio level feature and Spike said something to you.
Kevin: They build you up to tear you down.
Spike: It's been my experience. They love you the first film. That second film is that sophomore jinx or whatever. The only person that probably hasn't happened to is Quentin Tarantino. But they're gonna nail him his next film!
John: The Coen brothers beat the sophomore jinx. Raising Arizona is arguably their most commercial and entertaining film.
Spike: That's another good case.
John: They don't work as fast as you, but they're in your career-long peer group.
Kevin: I think the problem comes in when you have director as rock star. With She's Gotta Have It you did tons of press and TV. If you come in quietly and you're not ballyhooed, then they don't need to tear you down as much. So now with Pulp Fiction Tarantino was ballyhooed to no end, so of course they'll tear him down the next time.
Spike: No matter what he does.
John: You're a real exception to a lot of the new directors who got started in the mid-80's who had an awfully hard time getting on to the second feature and beyond. Now it seems to be almost like falling off a log to go from a first time success to the land of follow-up opportunities. Kevin, are you glad it's easier now?
Kevin: It's nice, but maybe if it had been a little harder, the second film would have been a little better. Since the opportunity is there you don't think, "Well this better be good. This has to be as good as it possibly can be." If you believe you'll have opportunities to make other movies you say, "Well I'll tell this other story somewhere down the road." There's not the same urgency . In that earlier era you might have felt an urgency to tell it right away, to do the best story possible.
John: Speaking of second features, you wrote one of the most amazing things in the foreword to John Singleton's Poetic Justice book. Do you remember?
Spike: I think I just wrote the same thing I told Kevin.
John: Well it was almost prophetic. I assume you'd seen the film when you wrote it?
Spike: I hadn't.
John: You speculated that it might not be very well received, and your advice to John, who you've known all along, who came to see She's Gotta Have It when...
Spike: ...he was in high school
John: At the Royal in Santa Monica. You wrote, "Maybe it doesn't turn out so great. Don't let them knock you down, it's all about career longevity."
Spike: And growth. It's learning.
John: How do you feel about School Daze now?
Spike: I haven't seen it in awhile. I'm happy with it.
John: It was very ambitious.
Spike: To me that's not even an issue because if I hadn't done those dance sequences and the crowd stuff...that definitely helped me on Do The Right Thing and also Malcolm X. There's a lot in School Daze that was exercise for much bigger stuff in the films that followed.
Kevin: You mention Malcolm X. What determines for you what stays and what goes in a film? Like how long is Girl 6 right now?
Spike: A minute 47.
John: You mean an hour 47 minutes.
Kevin: It's true, you did want to make a short film in between the two. Is it going to lose any or stay this length?
Spike: No, the picture's locked. This screening was just for us to hear the print master because we've been mixing the last eight weeks.
Kevin: Now the film at this length doesn't feel long, like there's any fat on it? There's never a moment when you still felt you could lose this or that?
Spike: We had five research screenings with this film. Something we found out was that the audience became fatigued with the phone sex. We had too much. In writing it, you really can't tell.
Kevin: It would seem like the phone sex is the audience pleasing stuff.
Spike: Yeah, but it becomes very tedious.
Kevin: How many times can you say dick or titty?
Spike: That's why we had to keep cutting, cutting, cutting to try to get to the right balance.
John: Did that feel more necessary on this film than it has for the others?
Spike: No, I think research screenings have been good for me. The only film we didn't have a research screening on was Malcolm X because I just thought it was too important to sit with a recruited audience and those Warner Bros. executives telling me cut it. We always felt that Malcolm X had to be epic in order to tell the story that we had to tell. And we didn't have one on She's Gotta Have It of course.
Kevin: Two movies right there, no research screenings. And both She's Gotta Have It and Malcolm X have those dance sequences where people point and say, "Why doesn't he ever cut that dance sequence"?
Spike: Well, the dance sequence in She's Gotta Have It...[see excerpt]
John: The Roseland sequence in Malcolm X was great.
Kevin: That's the one sequence where everyone thinks, "That's long, what does that have to do with anything." But it lends to the epic feel of the film.
Spike: It really establishes the time and also shows how much charisma Malcolm, even when he was Malcolm Little, had. And you see this bonding between Malcolm and Theresa Randle who plays a character that later winds up walking the streets as a prostitute. The thing I don't like about research screenings is the cards, when they come back with numbers: "Spike, 16% of the audience didn't like this." I really think directors can learn from these screenings, but not the numbers. It's sitting in the audience; and you can tell if you're attuned to the audience, as all directors should be .
Kevin: They still come to you with cards and numbers saying, "Spike, look at this."
Spike: Yeah, afterwards they're clamoring: "Can we get a computer for this stuff?" Everybody's just waiting to see what those numbers say.
Kevin: Ten years later, and you've proven yourself time and time again.
Spike: They do that to everybody. Everybody.
John: Of your films, what tested poorly and played well or vice versa?
Spike: None of my films ever tested well. [laughter] My films have tested OK, average. But the studios don't want to see average. They want to see above average. They feel they put all this money out to make a film, and to justify all the money in prints and advertising they need to have "the numbers."
Kevin: I want to do goofy young filmmaker questions, the kinds of things that I would really like to know too. If you had done Messenger first as planned, would your career have been any different?
Spike: Yeah, I might not have a career. [laughter] It was too ambitious, and it would not have been a good film. It was not a great script. Once again, there've been too many things that have happened in my career that couldn't just be happenstance or coincidence. Something's definitely been guiding me. God, or whoever, knew that [cracks up with laughter] if I'd done that film it would've been suicidal. That's why that film did not happen.
John: A lot of the cast that you wanted in Messenger ended up in School Daze. So some good came out of it.
Spike: Definitely. Larry Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito
Kevin: In terms of your casting, so many times you see familiar faces. Leonard Thomas pops up in Girl 6.
Spike: Yeah, I hadn't used Leonard in awhile. No, actually he had a small part in Clockers.
Kevin: It's amazing you'll see people in one flick that pop up in almost every flick. Giancarlo is in four in a row?
Spike: He hasn't been in one since Malcolm X.
Kevin: He was in that, Mo Better, Do The Right Thing, School Daze. He skipped Jungle Fever.
Spike: He was in Jungle Fever. He was the bum in the scene where Lonette McKee is throwing Wesley's [Snipes] shit outside the window.
John: What, he just came by for the day?
Spike: He was running away with Wesley's stuff.
Kevin: It's funny, because obviously it's not just a work thing. You're casting friends, people you enjoy working with. When we were talking about doing our next film, one of the development execs said, "This isn't about making a movie with your friends; this is business." We brought up the casting suggestions that we wanted, but that comment took the joy out of it. We walked out of the building that day saying, "Really, it's not about making movies with your friends?" But you get away with it time and time again.
Spike: But my friends can act!!! Otherwise I'm not going to put somebody in my movie. Hopefully if my friends can act too, that makes it better. They're also versatile. If you cast somebody that has no versatility, and they keep doing the same role every single time in five, six different films...
Kevin: A perfect example of versatility is Giancarlo. Different role every time.
Spike: Yeah. Buggin' Out in Do The Right Thing, Big Brother Almighty in School Daze, Left Hand Lacy in Mo Better, one of the five assassins in Malcolm X. John Turturro's the same thing. He's the all time champ. He's been in six of my films.
John: That's the leader right there.
Kevin: What about the cops?
John: What about you?
Kevin: Yeah, you and the cops. You probably beat them.
Spike: What, the cops you first see in Do The Right Thing? Yeah in Clockers we didn't get Miguel Sandoval, but we had Rick Aiello. They're going to keep coming back.
Kevin: It's great because it ties things together, creates one universe. These stories are happening all over.
Spike: Yeah, it really works in Jungle Fever where they pull over Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.
Kevin: In the Five for Five book there's a still of Flipper [Wesley Snipes] and your character going into Bensonhurst. What happened?
Spike: That was a sequence that came out of the film.
Kevin: I think I remember reading that these huge gay guys came to defend them.
Spike: The apartment where Flipper moved in with Angela was in the Village. One of Angie's friends tipped them off that one of the guys was coming from Bensonhurst to fuck them up. So we're standing in front with baseball bats, and we ask these guys, who are obviously gay, to help us. So when the Bensonhurst guys come driving down the block , they pull over and see four guys . But it didn't work.
Kevin: How long of a sequence was that.
Spike: Five minutes.
Kevin: Was that ever in a cut, did you screen it for a test audience?
Spike: Yeah, it was in there. But we had to take it out. There's also a scene where Flipper talks my character into going back to Bensonhurst to find Angie, which was even more ludicrous. I remember we were having a read through the script and Wesley told me, "Spike, there's no way in the world that Flipper would go back to Bensonhurst to find Angie." I said, "Look Wesley, I wrote the script so just, just, just do the scene for once." He said, "OK, ok." [he, he, he laughter] You were right Wesly, I had to take that shit out!
John: Let's go back to Quentin for a second since you put him into the very first scene of Girl 6 playing a director.
Spike: Playing himself.
Kevin: You even call him QT in the movie.
Spike: The QT came after, it wasn't in the script. That was John Turturro [who has the film's second scene as Theresa Randle's agent] ad libbing, sort of having fun with the Tarantino phenomenon. Those first two scenes were shot the same day. We really wanted to have a real director.
Kevin: You're such an accomplished filmmaker; you do such great work, such incredible work. Still though, unable to make that guy look like an actor.
Spike: But he's playing a director!
John: Did you talk to Quentin when he was acting for you? Not so much?
Kevin: Yeah you said, "act, act."
Spike: I had lunch with him, John Turturro, and [producer] Jon Kilik where we sat down and talked about filmmaking - about how violence in that kind of [Pulp Fiction] vein is going to be hard to try to do again successfully.
Kevin: By way of the critics or audiences?
Spike: I'm talking about his growth as an artist. I think he cares.
Kevin: So Quentin's a really clever writer but not nearly the filmmaker you are. Let's say you took his script away from him, and he were to direct somebody's else's script. You wouldn't know it was his film, although he might disagree. But you, this is the third time you've directed somebody else's script . I mean you've co-written it, but you're working from a base...
Spike: No, no this is Suzan-Lori's sole credit.
Kevin: This is the first time you're working from somebody's else's script totally. But still it has the flourishes. [Spike's character Jimmy collects baseball cards.]
Spike: You can see my...
John: Oh, is she a big Hammerin' Hank Aaron fan?
Spike: [ raucous laughter] Who's Ted Williams? [more laughter]
Kevin: But you can see, you take the material and it's clearly Spike Lee's film. That goes back to you always talking about `craft.' Clearly you're a filmmaker who's in such control of his craft - every film.
Spike: Quentin has craft. I think he's very talented and you know, I may have problems with how they build him up, but that's not his fault. He's good people. I just hope he stops using the word "nigger" so frequently in his movies.
John: You say it's not his fault that the celebrity-entertainment-film-media system works the way it does now. Let's go back to you in the mid-80's after She's Gotta Have It when you became such a spokesperson. A lot of people keep wondering, "Why does Spike spend so much time being a spokesperson? He's a filmmaker." Well, I was there in 1986. Did you feel like you wanted to grab onto this brass ring of spokesman, or were you thrust into that role?
Spike: I was thrust into it, but I never accepted it. I was vocal, but I always knew that what I was talking about were the views of Spike Lee. I never said I was speaking on behalf of 35,000,000 African-Americans. So often the media thinks they can just pick one person to represent a large group. Often they pick somebody who's not even qualified. I just felt that I was given a platform, so I would speak my mind. It was my opinion at the time. I was not speaking on behalf of every single African-American in this country.
John: So you had an opportunity from which you didn't shy away?
Spike: I think it's like anything when you're new - especially when you're young and naive and sometimes ignorant. I jumped on a lot of stuff. Hopefully over time you can gain some wisdom. I try to pick and choose now, because everytime something happens in the world concerning black people they're calling my office asking, "What do you think, what do you think?"
Kevin: Director as icon. I mean there's no avoiding that.
Spike: That is a detriment because, number one, the reason I did that was because we had to publicize the movie. She's Gotta Have It only cost $175,000 and we came out against Batman.
John: Well that's not true! That was `89.
Spike: Oh, Do The Right Thing was against Batman. [laughter] Anyway, nobody knew who I was so you had to get out there and push the film. Island was not going to spend, nor should they spend, millions of dollars.
John: Although, once again, Island did spend more on She's Gotta Have It over the six months of its release than Columbia Pictures spent on School Daze. Life is funny sometimes.
Spike: You know what I mean though. There's no way She's Gotta Have It would have been a success if I'd just stayed home and not gotten out on the road and publicized it.
Kevin: Was that one of the first cases where the director is the "star" of the film so to speak? It didn't really happen with Jarmusch did it?
John: He didn't want it to happen so much, but he's also not in Stranger Than Paradise.
Spike: Jarmusch is a star though, even more so in Europe.
Kevin: Now it's de rigeur for a first-time filmmaker to go out there and publicize the film.
John: Well, Spike's a character in the film although you, the director, are hardly Mars Blackmon. Obviously you're a performer in your own right which made it that much easier for people to want you.
Spike: The negative is that when you do that "director as icon", or whatever you want to call it, there also comes a danger. When films come out later, rarely do they review the film. They review the persona or what they think, what they perceive as the persona of Spike Lee - and whether they like the Knicks, or why am I sitting on the sidelines baiting Reggie Miller? How does fucking Reggie Miller come into a review of my film?
Kevin: That's true. I had a way smaller degree of success with Clerks and became world famous for a little while in a small arena. Then on the second film, people did not review the movie. Mallrats is kind of a hard movie to review anyway because it's popcorny, but they went after me, the guy. Let's talk about this guy, why isn't he still working in the convenience store? [laughter]
Spike: What, they wanted you to go back to the store?
Kevin: Yes, if they would even give me that much. You have the director as personality, upfront.
John: Now that you're older and wiser, is there one thing you remember that you said back there in your youthful days that you wish you hadn't?
Spike: Number one, a couple of comments that I made about Eddie Murphy. I really regret that. We've become friends, and we squashed that.
John: What if you'd made Vampire in Brooklyn with Eddie?
Spike: The only thing I'm gonna say is that we would have shot it in Brooklyn, not LA.
John: Yeah remember his Harlem movie? Harlem Nights, Paramount lot.
Spike: They keep telling Eddie that it's cheaper to shoot in Los Angeles than in New York, but you can't get Harlem on the lot.
John: I remember he came to see She's Gotta Have It after it opened with his entourage.
Spike: Yeah, Eddie Murphy`s coming, save the last three rows!
John: You thought he was a sell-out?
Spike: People arrive at certain places at different times. Not everybody's going to get to a point, not everybody's going to arrive at the same time. You just have to be patient. People have different agendas and think differently. It's as simple as that. That's something I really didn't know until I found out through time.
Kevin: And talking about through time, this is the tenth year?
John: 40 Acres, one decade.
Kevin: Back in the very beginning, it's you. You want to be a filmmaker, you're hungry, you've got some friends together, and some people who aren't friends who you actually pay , and you make this movie out of the sheer passion - moving forward on the volition of the passion. Now you're between Girl 6 and Jackie Robinson. It would be naive to say it's the same thing. It's not, of course. Life changes. But is the same kind of passion there?
Spike: For film? Oh yeah, it's still there.
Kevin: Is there still a sense of wonderment? Do you still get up every morning and say, "Thank Christ I've got this job, this is awesome."
Spike: Yeah, because before I got married and had a daughter, I had nothing that gave me more joy than making a film. Just being out in the world where 95% of the people go to their grave, and I say this all the time, having slaved at a job they hated all their life, I'm able to make a whole lot of money doing what I love most. So we're definitely blessed, and lucky, that I'm doing this.
John: Hear that Kevin? A whole lot of money??? You used your Clerks money for a Dodge Neon and a condo in Red Bank, NJ. You coulda been buying up Brooklyn.
Kevin: Can one suppose that your next original screenplay will have something to do with family now that you're a family man?
Spike: I really don't know what it's going to be about to be honest. I was a family man before I did Girl 6. [laughter]
John: So you have a one year old daughter now? How has that changed your life.
Spike: I think that when you have a wife and child you just have to be more responsible. You just can't think about yourself all the time - especially if you want to have a healthy marriage and be a good parent. It's all about trying to find the right balance between your wife, your child and your work too.
John: I saw you on a BBC special sitting in front of an editing table...
Spike: Yeah, I liked that.
John: Showing scenes from Malcolm X, and talking about influences. You have a great story about how Billy Wilder's great Ace in the Hole gave you an idea for a shot in which Denzel falls into the camera. Then you show the klan riding off into the moon, and you talk about Steven Spielberg.
Spike: E.T. [big laugh]
John: I never thought I'd hear that. And you describe the difference between stealing something from another film and paying an homage to a filmmaker who's work you respond to on some level. The falling telephones in Girl 6 are reminiscent of...
Spike: Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy. Nobody,or very few people, come up with shit that's never been done before, unless you're D.W. Griffith at that embryonic stage of cinema.
John: Yeah, there's a close-up. That's new.
Spike: There's a lotta people, steal shit, then don't even acknowledge where it's coming from. Didn't some NYU student make a film comparing Reservoir Dogs and some Hong Kong movie? Did Quentin ever own up?
Kevin: It was City on Fire. Quentin says Ringo Lam is his third favorite director.
John: When the three of us were outside the Bleecker building, now Kim's Video, we were talking about young filmmakers now learning off of videocassettes and, especially, laserdisks which they can freeze and replay versus the old days of going to rep houses and seeing movies projected continuously, except when things broke down at the Bleecker, and then having to recall shots. Do you think it's a different world now when a guy like Kevin gets a lot of his film history filled in on disk?
Spike: I don't think it's any different. Young filmmakers today have a greater advantage because they can see all this stuff and study films frame by frame. There wasn't the technology to do that unless your parents owned a screening room and a print of the film.
John: Does that make it harder to make it up from scratch and be original when you have that access?
Spike: No, I don't think it makes it harder. With more available, the danger is a lotta films by film students tend to be a mishmash of movies they've seen.
Kevin: Truly derivative stuff.
Spike: It's OK for one shot or something, but you shouldn't watch a whole film and see fifty.
John: Do you feel like a kind of patriarch over younger filmmakers? As you watch their careers do you think, "I should talk to him, or her?"
Spike: No. I mean if I know the person. But there's a lot of times where it's the same as old ballplayers who see stuff these young guys are doing. They feel out of place if they go up and tell them. A lot of these young filmmakers wouldn't take advice from fucking Hitchcock.
John: [laugher] Oh, that's another chapter in the book where Rob Weiss says, "Hitchcock, who needs him".
Spike: So they'll learn sooner or later.
John: What was the experience like when 40 Acres executive produced Drop Squad, NJ Drive and Tales from the Hood.
Spike: For me, it wasn't really until Tales from the Hood that I really felt comfortable as a creative voice being more forceful with these directors, because I hate executives telling me what to do. So I think that on those first two films I really stood back too much. Maybe I should have had more input since my name's going on it.
John: Are you saying you felt more satisfied with Tales from the Hood?
Spike: Yeah, I think that was the best of the three. I just felt the chemistry between myself and Rusty Cundieff, which is something that didn't happen between me and David Johnson or Nick Gomez. I'm glad I made all three. One thing I learned, it's rough working with first-time filmmakers. David Johnson had never directed a film, Nick Gomez made Laws of Gravity, Rusty directed Fear of the Black Hat. It would be nice to work sometimes with established directors the way Marty [Scorsese] did with me on Clockers or Stephen Frears on The Grifters.
John: Scorsese's worked with younger and more experienced directors.
Spike: Not because I'm giving up on young filmmakers. Just be good to do it both ways.
John: But you still have an instinct to want to set-up 40 Acres in such a way that you can sponsor other people's work?
Spike: Yeah, that hasn't changed at all.
John: Any other filmmakers whose work you've liked that you've wanted to assist where it hasn't quite worked out?
Spike: The only one was really Darnell Martin. That was more of a personality thing. I'm glad I Like It Like That turned out so well. I'm hoping it's not much longer until she goes into production on her next film.
John: In the end credit of Clerks, where you thank Jarmusch, Hartley, Linklater and Lee for leading the way, I sort of jumped to the conclusion that She's Gotta Have It was the Spike Joint that inspired you.
Kevin: No, it was Do The Right Thing. It took place all in the span of one day, in one block. Actually, it was way more than that because Clerks was supposed to be something more than it turned out to be - 90 minutes full of dick jokes with a cute little heart to it. In the original draft, a guy walks in at the end and shoots Dante because I wanted to do that Do The Right Thing twist - a movie that's actually about something , funny all the way through and then it switched on you in the last fifteen minutes. I tried to do that in the last 30 seconds. But you can't do that, especially if you have no message. [laughter] So we wind up lopping that off, and the movie becomes a little different than what was originally intended. It was all because of the example of Do The Right Thing that led me to where I am today. It had the unities: time, place, character.
John: She's Gotta Have It was a short twelve day shoot, but it spanned time and different locations. School Daze is a vastly ambitious film, with a lot of characters covering a lot of ground. What brought your thinking on Do The Right Thing to one block, one hot day?
Spike: That was just a premise: what happens in twenty-four hours, one block, hottest day of the summer - a block filled with people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. To see these people interact, and see how the friction escalates as the temperature rises.
John: Did the social and political themes that you wanted to cover in that film actually precede the story and characters?
Spike: That was there before. I got the impetus for the idea from the Howard Beach incident. I didn't want to do a dramatization of that, but felt we'd use the whole Italian-American/African-American conflict and also keep the pizzeria [from the actual incident] as a setting. A couple of years before, there was a big brouhaha between black and white students at Brooklyn College about the jukebox in the student lounge and what music was going to be played. That's how I got the idea to use music as an element in the film, shown through the use of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" which you hear numerous times on Radio Raheem's boombox.
Kevin: It takes a really a deft hand to create that balance. I remember when I first saw the film, I thought wow this is great. Then I was moved by the end. I started taking it around to show people. I read where you said it was some kind of litmus test for an audience.
Spike: When I said that I was really thinking more of the reviewers.
Kevin: What is an average audience if not lots of critics?
Spike: A lot of the reviewers would harp upon the destruction of Sal's Pizzeria, the destruction of white-owned property, and the same review would never mention the loss of life of Radio Raheem.
Kevin: That's not just critics. You watch it with people, they pick that up. They'll go, "Mookie started everything, why did he have to throw the garbage can through the window?"
Spike: When the critics positioned it that way, they hurt the film - the ones like Joe Klein and David Denby in New York Magazine. The audience that gets New York Magazine reads, "Please hope to god that this doesn't open in your neighborhood." They're just inflaming white hysteria.
John: Time traveling ahead here, how do you feel when critics like David Denby, and almost all the white liberal critics actually, decide that Clockers is your best film?
Spike: I find that very peculiar. It seems to me that the reason why they find it to be my best film is because there's no finger pointing in their face, whereas it might have felt uncomfortable watching Do The Right Thing and especially Malcolm X. But in Clockers, the finger's pointing at African-Americans saying we're the ones that are killing each other and we've got to stop this. It's really no finger accusing white people of anything.
Kevin: Allows the guilty conscience to sit back and say, "Yeah!"
Spike: Yeah, that's why they feel that Clockers is my best film, instead of Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X which I feel are my two best films. I mean I like Clockers a lot, and I think it's an accomplished work. But it's not better. I did find that amusing. I'm glad you brought it up.
John: You've got a real weird situation here. Terrific film. The white liberal press fully embraced a film of yours for once, but the black audience maybe wasn't there for this one. What's that all about?
Spike: Number one, everybody can play Monday night , Monday afternoon armchair quarterback.
John: You calling me a quarterback? [laughter]
Spike: The only thing everybody at Universal Pictures was thinking about was broadening Clockers. And a lot of times when you talk about broadening your picture, at the same time you cannot ignore your base audience. My base audience, my core audience, the African-American audience, I don't think they were courted. You just can't assume that because I'm black and my film has black subject matter that black people are just going to come automatically. That's not going to happen.
Kevin: Nobody came to my second movie. [laughter] And there's a lot of white moviegoers out there. I threw a party and nobody came.
Spike: We had reviews and we had the film, but that didn't neccesarily add up to ticket sales.
Kevin: Do The Right Thing is the definitive Spike Lee film for me, but recently I watched Mo Better Blues again. When I first saw it, I saw it was a great movie, but it didn't come close to Do The Right Thing. I watched it again, and it's such a powerful film, it has such resonance because it's about something that I understand now that I have a job as a filmmaker.
Spike: You're a what?
Kevin: I'm kind of a filmmaker.
Spike: Oh. [laughter] I thought you said you had a job at Filmmaker. [more laughter]
Kevin: It's a story about what happens when you're unable to do that thing which defines you.
Spike: Exactly. You know, I'm a great sports fan and I've always thought about any professional athlete. No matter how much they may be a scrub, you compare them to an average Joe Schmo walking around, they're a great athlete. Anybody on a major league level, for the most part, starting working for that sport at a young age, and everything in their life has been directed towards making the NHL, NBA, NFL or major league baseball. And so, if you devote your whole life to one thing and you attain it, what happens when you have a career ending injury. Great pitcher, Don Gullet guys like that, blow out your arm, blow out your knee, something you worked for all your life, you no longer have it. What do you do? Do you commit suicide? That was the premise. We just wanted to apply it to music.
Kevin: Was there a piece of you in there? What if somebody said, "You can't make movies anymore?"
Spike: I didn't put myself in it. I'm not going to project. I'm not going to ever think like that. But Bleek Gilliam, who's been playing trumpet since he was 5, 6 years old, his lips are important to him. That scene where...
Kevin: She bites his lip.
Spike: He says, "What are you crazy!"
Kevin: That story's powerful enough. Then it takes it a step beyond at the point when his lip's healed, but he's unable to play. He's a broken man, he can't go back to his music, and he comes to Joie's [Lee] character, Indigo.
Spike: This is where me and my wife differ. She says that Indigo's character is weak because she should have never taken him back. It's too late. "Oh, now that you can't play, now you're coming back!"
Kevin: But the beauty is in the leap of faith gesture.
Spike: I agree. [laughter] I'm just telling you what my wife says. "I`m just sick and tired of these weak female black characters."
Kevin: But that's not weak. How much strength does that take?
Spike: I agree with you.
Kevin: But I hear that, that's an argument I get when I watch a movie with chicks. Chicks think, "Ah - I wouldn't take him back." I think it's a beautiful thing. Then they have this incredibly strong marriage, which is well cut to the tune of Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
Spike: Then Bleek changes because he lets his son go out and play whereas when he was young, he really wasn't allowed to do that. He was robbed of his childhood. He had to practice. When you get to that level, talking about Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis, particularly more Wynton than Branford, Wynton was practicing 4,5,6 hours a day since who knows what age, 7 or 8. Every single day. In order to be world class like Edwin Moses, the hurdler, or Pete Sampras , no matter what sport it is or what art form, you got to work at that shit. Even if you got those god given talents you still got to work. For people who think that motherfuckers who just jump out of their bed and do what they do without any...You might see these guys, you might see Michael Jordan performing through the air, but off season he's lifting weights - particularly this summer [laughter] after they lost to Orlando. With filmmaking now, I'm not trying to set myself up as keeper of the gate. Anybody who gets an opportunity to make a film, I'm glad for that. But a lot of people are getting chances now they don't really...
Kevin: warrant or deserve?
Spike: I'm not going to say deserve it; but they don't have the skills. And even after they fuck up their first film, they're not going into the woodshed. You can be an athlete who can't hit the curve ball. Before that next season comes around, whatever your weakness is, that's what you got to work on in your game. I'm not trying to say I'm a grandfather of independent cinema, but a lot of these young filmmakers make one music video, then they're directing a movie.
Kevin: It comes down to a question of craft I think. If you look at the craft of yourself, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, each film has pushed a little further. Even in Crooklyn, hanging you guys upside down.
Spike: You know what I think? We got crucified for that [squeezed] anamorphic sequence.
Kevin: That was pushing the envelope.
Spike: But I would still do that, because I still feel that the first time somebody intercut black and white with color in a movie, they were probably doing the same thing they did with Crooklyn - going up to the projectionist, and banging on the glass.
John: You use that effect again in Girl 6, but in Crooklyn it was a big sequence - 20 minutes, right?.
Spike: It wasn't twenty minutes.
John: It wasn't a whole reel? It just seemed like it. [laughter]
Spike: [laughter] Got me again. That's the point though. We wanted the audience to look at the world through Troy's eyes. And she was brought up in Brooklyn her whole life and now she's down south, they talk funny, you got bugs and mosquitos and whatnot and grass and trees and she's completely out of her environment. Plus she has this crazy ass aunt who was also trying to put all these funny dresses on her. Maybe ten years from now people will catch up with that. I think that was the right choice.
Kevin: That's the hallmark. To try each time to do something different. To be innovative and succeed.
Spike: I don't think Universal should have been handing out flyers, "Please do not get up from your seat and bang on the projectionist's glass." [laughter all around]
Kevin: They should have just handed out glasses, like 3D glasses, that would have corrected the image for people that couldn't handle it.
John: Do you feel like you've been ahead of your time and misunderstood, or just in cases like that?
Spike: No, I'm not going to say that. I'm just saying in that specific case.It's less noticeable in Girl 6 because it's just a couple of shots. And we did the same thing in Clockers with a couple of shots. Maybe I'll have an entire film [laughter]...it wasn't twenty minutes.
Kevin: I have a last question. Do you have a piece of gum? [laughter] I've been sitting here watching you snap the whole time.
John: Spike, you've been very kind about the book. When you read your chapter, you told me there were things I remembered that you'd completely forgotten from ten years ago. Is there anything very important to you that I left out?
Spike: You got them all. You remembered. I'd forgotten all that stuff. So I'm glad that you could document it. I really wasn't aware of everything that was going on because I was in the middle of it.
Kevin: Yeah when you're in the middle of it, you're always looking forward to the next, the next, the next. In your career now do you have a chance to actually appreciate the moment?
Spike: Oh I appreciate it. I feel very good about this whole ten year thing. We've done what we set out to do which was to accumulate a body of good work. Now it's just on to the next decade.