Getting Direct With Directors...
Spike Lee on the set of She Hate Me, with Monica Bellucci
No.21: Spike Lee

Spike Lee is arguably the most enduring talent to emerge from New York's 80s indie scene. After making his mark with urban comedy She's Gotta Have It in 1986, he directed 1989's searing race-relations classic Do The Right Thing. Subsequently, whether working on mid-budget studio movies (Malcolm X, Summer Of Sam, 25th Hour) or lower-budget personal pics (Jungle Fever, Get On The Bus, He Got Game, Bamboozled), his Spike Lee Joints have invariably been contentious but thought-provoking. Now he's back with comedy drama She Hate Me, about a redundant businessman who finds a new revenue stream impregnating lesbians.

Why did you become a director?

I didn't choose film, film chose me. I'm 47-years-old and as I look back on my career, too many things happened together and that can't be a coincidence, you know? Too many things happened for me that led me to be a filmmaker. I was just meant to be a filmmaker. Let me ask you a question: Michael Jordan had other brothers, so why is one brother a regular basketball player and Michael the world's greatest basketball player ever? They had the same parents, the same upbringing, so it's Darwin. It's a Darwinian thing!

If you weren't a filmmaker, what what you be?

Maybe an educator - a teacher. I mean, I teach now, I teach at NYU. I've been there for the last eight years. I'm the artistic director at the film school. So I'd be doing that full time - and making films.

What other director would you like to see at work?

I'd have liked to see [Federico] Fellini on the set. I'd like to see why everybody called him "maestro". Just his flamboyancy interests me, the way he interacted with crew and his cast. Another person I would like to have seen is [Elia] Kazan, to see the way he worked with his actors. I especially would have loved to be on the set of On The Waterfront, or A Streetcar Named Desire - you know what I mean, STELLA!

The Day After Tomorrow

What was the last movie that you paid to see?

The Day After Tomorrow. I took my kids to see it against my wife's... She just said, "Don't take the kids to that movie!" On Saturdays sometimes I take the kids to a movie so she can have a break, so we go to the movie and we come out of the movie theatre and all of a sudden, the wind is blowing like crazy and I grab my kids and start screaming "Oh, no! No! It's coming! It's coming! We gotta go to Mexico! We gotta go now!" [Laughs] And they're all like,"Daddy, daddy, stop, daddy! You're scaring us!"

What was the last movie you walked out of?

Walked out of? I don't walk out of movies. I mean, it's hard for me to walk out, especially premieres. People will read about it in the papers.

Do you believe in God?

Yes. I have faith that there is a higher being. All this cannot be an accident.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Underrated? That's a good question. I can't think of anyone right now.

Elia Kazan is one of your favourite directors. Do you think his part in the McCarthy witchhunts damaged his legacy as a filmmaker?

I think that people have a legitimate grievance with him because he testified, you know? He affected people's... not just their careers, but their lives. And some people say he did it to save his own neck, but I wasn't around for that so I have a different viewpoint. Maybe what he did was wrong, but I can make that separation between the man and his work.

And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?

Overrated? Oh, I'll take the fifth on that one.

Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate

Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Famous? In my address book? Hmm. Probably Michael Jordan, or Denzel [Washington].

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?

Oh, just actors [laughs]. I'm not going to name anybody, but I've had my run-ins with some actors over the years. Actors can be difficult, so that's why directors speak to other directors that have worked with that person before, so you can find out for sure - background checks. I'm serious.

So there's an unofficial blacklist of actors circulating among directors?

Oh, yes. There is a list. [Laughs] The pain in the ass list.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

"How do you find working with white actors?"

Do you believe in test screenings?

I think it's a useful tool - sometimes. Sometimes. What I like about test screenings is the reaction you get from the audience, more so than the cards and the statistics they give you at the end.

How seriously do you take reviews?

I do take them seriously, the critics that I respect: Roger Ebert; Michael Wilmington; people like that.

On The Waterfront

What's your favourite movie quote?

I'll give you one from On The Waterfront, written by a very good friend of mine, Budd Schulberg: "Don't go for the short money."

Which performer would you love to work with?

Sean Penn.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

"Deeds, not words." My father told me that.

And the worst?

Make as much money as you can!

What's your biggest regret?

My biggest regret, as far as cinema goes, is the rape scene in She's Gotta Have It. It was stupid. I mean, it makes light of rape.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

I want to be with my family, my wife Tonya and my two kids.

What film makes you want to spit?

[DW Griffith's] The Birth Of A Nation.


What are your three favourite films and why?

I've got more than three, but I'll tell you... On The Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. That one because of the acting, the story, the dialogue, the score by Leonard Bernstein. Pixote, directed by Hector Babenco. You know, it just shows you this whole other world of kids trying to survive in the ghettos of Brazil. Another one is A Face In The Crowd, again directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. Great movie. Have you seen it? I won't tell you why, you've got to see it. Another one would be Ace In The Hole, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Kirk Douglas. I'm a fan of Kirk Douglas.

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?


She Hate Me is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th September 2004. Read Spike's views on the movie.

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