Kickin’ with Spike
Famed film provocateur Spike Lee reveals why Kickstarter is his latest producing partner
It takes only a few hours to arrange my interview with Spike Lee. Less than a day after sending an email tentatively asking if he’s available to talk, there he is, with a brightly colored New York Knicks baseball cap bobbing in my Skype window. I’m so used to spending days, if not weeks, bartering with PR folk to get 10 minutes of time with their clients that I’m genuinely astonished that one of the most influential American filmmakers of the last century is so accessible and eager to talk.
“I have to be organized,” Lee says. “I have a goal of one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and [if] I don’t raise that money in the time we have left, I don’t get anything. We have to be prepared.”
Yes, Spike Lee, BAFTA winner, Oscar and Palme D’Or nominee, has taken to Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website where creators both large and small can pitch their dream projects in the hope of finding supporters who will fund it up front, a few dollars at a time. The catch: if a project doesn’t meet its funding goal within a set deadline, all the pledges are canceled. With the clock ticking, Lee is glad of any interview opportunity, especially one from the UK, a country that has always given him “much love.”
So, why Kickstarter and why now?
“The reason why now is that this is the climate I live in with regard to Hollywood filmmaking,” replies Lee. He talks in a staccato rhythm, frequently breaking his sentences with long pauses, not because he’s unsure what to say — that’s rarely been a problem for him — but because he has so often been misquoted and misunderstood that his speech patterns seem to have naturally taken on a transcription-friendly cadence. This is a man who wants to get his point across.
“I’ve always considered myself an independent filmmaker, but I do Hollywood films. This film I want to do, a studio might pick it up for distribution but there’s no way they’d put the money forward to make it. They would see it as too small, not a global tidal wave that will make a trillion dollars across the board. This is a very personal film.”
For the past 15 years, Lee has juggled his own film career with work at the Tisch School of the Arts as a faculty member of New York University. It was here that Lee studied film, graduating in 1982 alongside classmate, Ang Lee. Now he’s a professor and artistic director of the school’s intensive and world-renowned film course, mentoring students in their final year as they make their thesis film.
“Almost all of them have gone on Kickstarter to raise the finishing funds for their films, but the amounts aren’t that big — five thousand, ten thousand — so I never really thought of Kickstarter in that way for me.”
Then, earlier this year, one of his students told him about two huge Kickstarter success stories. In March, producer Rob Thomas and actor Kristen Bell took to the funding site to raise the money to make a movie based on their cult 2004 TV show Veronica Mars. They raised almost $6 million. In April, Garden State actor and director Zach Braff started a campaign to fund his next directorial effort. He raised more than $3 million.
“That really turned my thinking around, that this could be a possible avenue to finance a film with a lower budget. Certainly a film with a budget the studios would not want to finance. So I consulted with the two young guys, Yancey and Perry, who founded Kickstarter, because I wanted to be as informed and educated as possible as I entered this brave new world of crowdfunding. This is not my generation. I need my kids to use the remote to turn on the TV for me.”
But what is this movie that he’s raising funds for? The Kickstarter campaign doesn’t explain, only that it’s “funny, sexy, and bloody” and will be about human beings who are addicted to blood.
“It’s not a vampire film,” is all he will say when I press him for more detail. “We’re not remaking Blacula.”
I tell him that I would actually love to see a Spike Lee take on Blacula, the notorious 1972 exploitation movie about a tragic African prince turned into a bloodsucker by Dracula himself. Lee laughs, a throaty Muttley-esque snicker pitched somewhere between a chuckle and a giggle. He does this a lot — a fact that will come as a surprise to those who only know him from the headlines he creates. I’d expected someone far more intimidating, but far from some frowning didactic firebrand, in person (or as close to in person as Skype will allow) he’s warm, friendly and keen to have a conversation rather than deliver a monologue.
But come on, if you’re asking people to fund a movie up front, shouldn’t you at least tell them what it’s about?
“Here’s where I beg to differ,” he says emphatically. “Most of the people on Kickstarter are unknown. That’s why I stress my body of work. All right, I don’t know what this film’s about, but Spike Lee did Do The Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Inside Man, Summer of Sam, Clockers, the documentary When The Levees Broke so… you gotta bet on the horse. You gotta bet on the horse.
“I’m not really trying to be an asshole,” he continues, seemingly ever aware that there are those who would paint him with a gigantic chip on each shoulder.
“I think over the last decade audiences have been spoiled by Hollywood trailers. A lot of times, [if] you see the trailer, you don’t need to see the movie. I came up in the era where the studios used a different approach. They teased you. They tantalized. For this film to work, they can’t go in the theater knowing everything about it.”
So what can he tell us about it? Is it a project that has been bubbling away in the background for years?
“Not a long time,” he says. “I was actually ready to do it and then Oldboy fell into my lap.”
Oldboy is the upcoming American remake of Park Chan Wook’s ferociously dark and bloody 2003 Korean thriller about a man held prisoner for 15 years for no apparent reason. Once released, his quest to find out why leads him to some very grim revelations. Talk of a Hollywood version had been knocking around for many years and at one point Steven Spielberg was even rumored to be directing Will Smith in the remake. In the end, the project came to Lee who teamed up with actor-of-the-moment Josh Brolin to make it happen.
Have they really kept in all the plot elements from the Korean movie? Those who have seen it will know that it ventures into territory that would seem to be an impossible sell for a mainstream Hollywood movie.
“Oh, here they go, it’s another watered down American version of an Asian film. They’re gonna take out this, they’re gonna take out that. It’s not the case at all,” Lee replies.
I am a little incredulous. You’ve really kept everything from the original movie?
“Everything and more,” he says.
“We don’t see Oldboy as a remake. We see Oldboy as a reinterpretation. You ever see The Sound Of Music, when Julie Andrews sings My Favorite Things? Does that sound the same as when John Coltrane plays it? Or when Miles Davis plays My Funny Valentine, or Jimi Hendrix plays Star Spangled Banner? It’s different, right? That’s how different Oldboy is going to be, while still paying homage to the great original.”
After our interview, Lee’s next order of business is to meet with Oldboy co-star Samuel L. Jackson and polish off some dialogue dubbing for the film. The pair are old college buddies but haven’t worked together since Jungle Fever in 1991. Lee has been vocal in his criticism of the racial language in Quentin Tarantino’s films, and in particular last year’s Django Unchained, in which Jackson played a scheming “house slave.”
Was there any awkwardness reuniting with Jackson after that?
“We never talked about it,” Lee says sharply.
It’s the only time in our chat that his tone hardens and a weariness enters his voice.
“Look, both of us are grown men. Sam has his opinions, I have mine. We both respect each other. Whatever my issues are with that director have nothing to do with me and Sam. We’re cool.”
Lee is finishing off Oldboy now, ahead of its October release in the U.S. If the Kickstarter goes to plan, he’ll then begin production of this new mystery project, but he’s also editing a TV film for HBO of Mike Tyson’s one-man show, “Undisputed Truth,” and is preparing a documentary about the rise of South America as a political force, called “Go Brazil Go.”
In a career spanning 27 years, he’s already clocked up a staggering 52 directing credits. Does he ever stop?
“I’m glad you brought that up. I tell my students this all the time. We do what we love. We are blessed. When you’re given the opportunity to do what you love, it’s not a job. I love filmmaking. My favorite filmmakers are storytellers and I want to tell stories.”
The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint is raising funds on Kickstarter.com until Aug. 21.
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