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In Miracle at St. Anna, four African-American soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines in Italy near the end of World War II; caught between indifferent leadership and hostile troops, the four fight to survive -- and protect the Italian villagers they've come to know during their exile. Director Spike Lee spoke with Cinematical from New York about the challenges of film financing in modern Hollywood ("it's hard to get stuff made today that's not superhero, comic-book, TV show, sequel stuff. ..."), shooting in an 800-year-old Italian town (" ... all we had to do was take down the satellite dishes ...") and the challenges his new film faces (" ... historically, women do not run to see, or even walk to see, or even crawl to see World War II films ..."), The Wire ("'Omar's Coming!'"), sequel possibilities for Inside Man and more.
Lee even touched on politics and race in the here-and-now: "I'm optimistic. We're going to have a Black president. The 44th President of the United States is going to be a Black man ... I think this is a definite indication of how far America has moved in how it views race. ..."
Cinematical: I was very curious if you could talk a little bit about the genesis of what brought you specifically to Miracle at St. Anna as a film?
Spike Lee: I needed something to read; I went into my wife's office; looked up on her shelf upon shelf of books (laughs) and the spirit told me to go to this one book -- all the time my head is twisted to the side, trying to read the titles -- read this title, Miracle at St. Anna; that sounds interesting; take the book off the shelf, see the cover of a Black soldier with a young Italian kid, World War II, said "Let me read this. ..." After the first chapter, I said "I want to make this into a film, called up James McBride, we met ... and here we are. That's the abbreviated version. ...
Cinematical: And from that sideways tilt of the head to putting the film together, how difficult was it to assemble the international financing for this picture?
SL: Very difficult, but again, this is the climate that we live in as far as working in-house through the system; I don't think 'They're picking on Spike Lee ... ' or anything like that. Everybody goes through it, unless you're Spielberg, Lucas, on that level; it's hard to get stuff made today that's not superhero, comic-book, TV show, sequel stuff. ...
Cinematical: And that's changed substantially since you started out.
SL: Oh, yeah. My first film (She's Gotta Have It) was in '86; 22 years later, stuff evolves, changes, shifts.
Cinematical: Do you find it annoying that, as you move forward in your career and you feel like you can tackle bigger and bigger films, it's getting harder to get bigger and bigger films made?
SL: Well, it's annoying, but ... it's just the way it is. It's not going to change anytime soon; I just gotta be more creative in circumventing the obstacles that stop me, hinder me from getting the projects I want to get done.
Cinematical: This is also the biggest film you'd shot overseas in several years ...
SL: Biggest film period, no matter where it was shot.
Cinematical: I want to ask you a little about that; the cliché is that 'War is hell, but war films are awesome." At any point, were you able to just go "This is great, because I'm shooting a World War II film?"
SL: No, because no matter what genre it is, you still want it to be good, so we never had a ... state of delusion that said just because we're making a war film, automatically, that's going to be great. It doesn't work like that. In the end, still, with everything we've done in the past, we try to do the best that we can with the preparation, the research, all of that stuff ... and directors can't do it alone, so we had a top-rate Italian crew, and everybody worked together.
Cinematical: When you have that many resources, is it easy to feel like there's a danger of losing sight of what individual scenes are about, that you worry about keeping the emotional line when you're marshaling Jeeps and guns and explosions?
SL: No, no, no, that's the job of the director: Don't let the big, big stuff hinder the smaller things because my movie are not made up of set pieces. You gotta have stuff -- especially in war movies -- you can't have two-and-a-half hours of explosions and battles. That's one of the great things about David Lean, he had that balance. If you look at his epics -- the three I'm talking about, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago -- he knew how to balance those epic set pieces with small, intimate scenes where people just talk in another room. And they're both equally important.
Cinematical: When you prepare to do a film like this, are there movies you watch to get a sense of feel, or things you want to draw inspiration from? Not emulating specific shots, but "I love these war films, and I'd like to have them in my mind while I'm working on this ..."
SL: Well, we looked at The Bridge on the River Kwai, we looked at The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, we looked at Is Paris Burning? ... We looked at a whole bunch of stuff; we looked at the Italian neo-realist films -- Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica .. we looked at a lot of stuff; we looked at Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen, The Tin Drum by Volker Schlondorff, Black Book by Paul Verhoven. ...
Cinematical: What was it like shooting in the town, that Italian city ...
SL: Well, it's called Colognora, that town; it's 800 years old, and it's perfect for what we wanted. We had to do an extensive location scout, but we finally found what we all envisioned. And we didn't have to do a thing ... all we had to do was take down the satellite dishes; people were inconvenienced, but they had to come down.
Cinematical: I want to ask you about specifically your four lead cast members, because they all do terrific and very different work; Michael Ealy, who plays Sgt. Cummings, I was watching the film and thinking "That's kind of the Frank Sinatra part. ..."
SL: (Laughs) I'd have to think about that. What, like From Here to Eternity?
Cinematical: Yes, but even in terms of his demeanor -- the charming casual womanizer who is not necessarily great with authority.
SL: I'm going to see him today; I'm going to ask him about that. I don't know what the answer's going to be. (Laughs) That's something interesting; I'd never thought of that before.
Cinematical: And Laz Alonzo, playing Corporal Negron; did you talk with Alonzo about the fact that his character, from Puerto Rico, was representing a very different experience? Was that something you talked about, or was that all in the script for him?
SL: It was talked about, and he did his own research and sat down with many elderly Puerto Rican men -- he's Cuban -- and he understood that the Hispanic community is not monolithic, and he wanted to be specific about being Puerto Rican man and not Cuban or Mexican; in the book, he's written as Hector Negron from Spanish Harlem, a Black Puerto Rican.
Cinematical: Derek Luke -- He really has that movie-star vibe; was that an element in casting him as the leader of the group, Sgt. Stamps? The fact that he has that charisma?
SL: The studios like that. I'm going for the best actor possible, so -- there's nobody in this film where the biggest concern is if they can open a picture; I was looking it as an ensemble piece.
Cinematical: The last member of the group, Omar Benson Miller, who plays Pvt. Train, and I was thinking about this during the film; I think it's often hard for audiences to wrap their heads around something from the "recent past," because it's so very different. Pvt. Train has a big heart, but he's not a terribly bright man ...
SL: He has mother's wit; he has mother's wit, as they would say. ...
Cinematical: Right, but I found myself wondering would somebody like Pvt. Train be considered qaulified to serve in war? Was that something that was real, but because I have no experience of 1940's ...
SL: Everybody ... soon as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States took that war to Germany and Japan, everybody signed up. Everybody.
Cinematical: Do you find, making a war film, it's tough to get audiences to buy into aspects of American history that we now want to pretend didn't happen?
SL: No, because we do the research; we give people many resources, the materials, films -- not just movies, but documentaries and news, we have magazine articles and newspaper articles -- we have a great researcher, her name is Judy Aley, who gives me stuff and we make it available to everybody. It's an actor's job to know stuff about the time this film was taking place and their character, and how that character fits into this world.
Cinematical: And speaking of the modern world, there's a couple of nods to that in Miracle at St. Anna; the one thing that stood out for me was that the film looked at World War II as not just something between democracies and dictatorships but as something between rulers and ruled, and there's a scene showing sympathies between the American soldiers and some of the Italians and even some of the German soldiers; was looking at that power dynamic something you wanted to do as a different way of looking at the war film?
SL: Yes, and that's why I asked James (McBride, novelist and screenwriter) to do that scene with the prayer. I asked James to write a prayer, and he wrote it in English; I had that prayer translated into German, and it was translated into Italian, and the Buffalo Soldiers said it in English, and the Italians said it in Italian, and the Hans character, the Nazi, he said it in German, and we cut back and forth between all three parties.
Cinematical: To me, that sort of brought point the idea that all these people are only following orders. ..
SL: Also, they're praying to God: "Please, God, let me see the next day." With different Gods, different religions, on opposite sides.
Cinematical: I also couldn't help but notice one scene where the topic came up that the Italian partisans are considered terrorist by the German Officers and therefore not considered eligible for the protections of the Geneva Convention. Was that a nod to current events?
SL: Well, to be honest, I never thought of the thing in Cuba, torturing so-called terrorists, until the Germans (in the film) brought it up; we were just stating what was fact. The Nazis considered the Italian partisans terrorists, therefore that meant that what they did to them did not (have to) adhere to the rules conveyed by the Geneva Convention.
Cinematical: It's very telling that people can find things like that in Miracle at St. Anna, even if they're not there deliberately -- and, just as a brief digression, that's some of the best stuff in Inside Man.
SL: I'll give you another example. Inside Man? I never knew that George W. Bush's grandfather was considered to be dealing with the Nazis and there were questions about him -- and that didn't come up until people were saying "Is that character Christopher Plummer's playing, is this related to the President's grandfather? Then I did my research and I said "Oh, Shit!"
Cinematical: And you're working on a sequel to Inside Man ...
SL: Well, if we get a script everybody likes, and everybody's fine, no problem, we will do it.
Cinematical: And while part of me is enthused by that idea, you can't just do Inside Man 2: Even More Inside; you have to have a great idea; is that the big challenge?
SL: Well, that's the only reason why Denzel, Jodie Foster, Clive, myself, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Donna Langley at Universal would do it.
Cinematical: Getting back to Miracle at St. Anna, you don't strike me as a film maker who has any interest in end-of-year awards season hoo-ha...
SL: Not at all.
Cinematical: Not even in the slightest -- you just want to make the best possible movie?
SL: That's all I can do. That awards stuff, you have no control over.
Cinematical: Do you find that the degree of mania it creates when you have an end-of-year film gets in the way of making and releasing and doing a proper job of supporting an end-of-year film when you have idiots like me asking about if (awards season) matters?
SL: Well, I don't think you guys are innocent -- excuse me, idiots -- for asking about it; I understand that stuff is a big part of the business. End-of-year awards, "Best 10" lists, and whatnot. But that does not really drive me, that's not why I make films, so I don't get annoyed when people ask about that.
Cinematical: It's always very easy to get a sense from your films that you're someone who enjoys the pure art of moviemaking, who enjoys, you know, a great Vincente Minnelli film; what's the last really great film that you saw?
SL: Hmmm. That's a good question -- a new film, or an old film?
Cinematical: Anything that just really sticks out in your mind as something you saw recently and you really enjoyed. ...
SL: I would say, even though I've seen it before ... I had to go to Singapore; that's a long flight. So I watched the fifth and final season of The Wire back to back to back; that's the best way, I feel, to watch shows like that; sometimes, I don't even want to watch them on television, just wait for the DVDs to release so you can watch it all at once.
Cinematical: I think it speaks to the level that The Wire has in our culture that at one point, early in Miracle at St. Anna, I actually cried out, in my head, "It's Omar!" (as actor Michael K. Williams appeared on-screen).
SL: (Laughs, quoting The Wire) "Omar's coming! Omar's coming! Omar's coming!"
Cinematical: I think every fan of The Wire will say that when they see him; did you cast based on that? Did you find a part for Michael K. Williams based on ...
SL: Yeah, yeah; he's a great actor, and I love his part ... I love the role he created. It's a small part, but he had not been abroad; he had not been to Italy, and I'm glad he's came.
Cinematical: In a perfect world, as people are walking out of Miracle at St. Anna after seeing it on the big screen with a proper sound system, because it's a great, big, well-made movie ...
SL: Thank you ...
Cinematical:... In a perfect world, what would you like them to be talking about.
SL: You know what? They're going to say "That's a good film; I'm gonna tell my friends."
Cinematical: And hopefully they enjoy it as an experience.
SL: Yeah, word of mouth; it's all about word of mouth. Especially with the women, because, historically, women do not run to see, or even walk to see, or even crawl to see World War II films; but this is much more than a World War II film, and hopefully word will spread, and we'll get the ladies in the house, too.
Cinematical: And yet you do have this great romantic sequence with Valentina Cervi which is very movie but also as messy and complicated as real life.
SL: We're very happy with her performance, and it's kind of tragic what happens to her -- I don't want to give it away.
Cinematical: The sequence with the "Ice Slop" counter in Louisiana ... it's in the deep South, it's the 1940's, and again, I don't want to give anything away, but I did find myself saying maybe I can't wrap my head around the denouement to that scene, where the four Black soldiers came back ... that felt a little strained. ...
SL: It's not ... well ... Do your research. There are numerous accounts where towns had gun battles, Black soldiers stationed in the South ...
Cinematical: So it would actually make the leap to armed conflict?
SL: Do the research. Do the research.
Cinematical: I certainly will at this point. At the same time, I was more than willing to say "Well, maybe I just can't wrap my head around the reality of it. ..."
SL: I understand that. And a lot of people may not be able to wrap their head around the fact that there were German POW's in the United States of America, the fact remains thousands upon thousands of German POW's were shipped from Europe to America; most of the time, they ended up being in the South sharing the bases with the Black soldiers ...
Cinematical: And often probably getting better ...
SL: Not "often." Not "often." It's clear they got better food, better housing and better health care.
Cinematical: As a final question, obviously the issue of race in modern America is immensely complicated, immensely difficult; when you do a film like this and you have the chance to do research and talk to people, is it heartening to think of how far things have come, or depressing to think of how far they have to go?
SL: No. I'm optimistic. We're going to have a Black president. The 44th President of the United States is going to be a Black man. Like I said, I'm very optimistic; I think this is a definite indication of how far America has moved in how it views race. It's not completely gone ....
Cinematical: But it's getting there?
SL: It's getting there. Obama would not be in this position if only Black people voted for him; how many Black people were in Iowa? This country is changing for the better. A lot of young Americans do not have the views, the prejudice, do not look at things the same way their parents, grandparents and great-grandparent's have when it comes to race. That's a fact.