The offices of Spike Lee's Brooklyn-based production company "40 Acres and a Mule," are buzzing -- dozens of people working, eating, talking and taking pictures. The walls are covered in movie and sports collectibles, signs and artwork. There are abstract portraits of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali; a framed Sal's pizza box from Spike's seminal 1989 film, "Do the Right Thing"; a collage of Michael Jackson photos; a Reggie Miller-signed Indiana Pacers jersey (seriously); and a street sign with the N-word prominently printed in the center with a giant red strike through it.
Overwhelming as these surroundings are, I have one thought going into my Q+A with Spike: "Will he be the interview subject everyone says he is? The controversial, ornery, take-no-prisoners filmmaker?" The atmosphere at his office only reinforces the notion that this is his place, and whatever he says, goes.
However, the Spike Lee I meet, in a white jacket sitting in a director's chair, is nothing like the one I was warned about. Instead, he is humble, gracious and in high spirits -- even when discussing things that likely piss him off (a lack of studio funding, the "Inside Man" sequel not getting greenlit, etc.).
Here the filmmaker speaks about a range of topics, from "The Wire" to his adaptation of "Oldboy." We also discuss his newest film, "Red Hook Summer" -- about a teenager who spends the summer with his grandfather, a bishop, in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn -- its very controversial scene and how Mookie, his character from "Do the Right Thing," ended up in the film. (WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW)
There are a lot of issues at play in this film: gentrification, religion, gang life. Do you think "Red Hook Summer" has one driving message?
I wouldn’t say there’s one driving message. Initially, the thought that [co-writer] James McBride had was this grandfather meeting his grandson for the first time. That was the foundation and we just built everything on top of that.
Was the religion aspect in it from the beginning?
No, that came on later when we decided that the grandfather be a Baptist preacher.
So why Red Hook?
Well, we’ve done Coney Island for “He Got Game,” Bed-Stuy for “Do the Right Thing” and “Crooklyn,” “Clockers” was Boerum Hill. Red Hook is a very strange neighborhood. You can’t just end up in Red Hook [laughs] -- it’s a destination. There’s one bus, the train station is far away... Also, James McBride grew up in Red Hook. And when Carmelo came to the Knicks he had signed a Boost Mobile deal, so I did a ten-minute digital film on Carmelo's journey. So all that stuff came together.
Melo gets a lot of love in this film.
Well he’s from Red Hook. His family moved to West Baltimore from Brooklyn. You know who [else] was born here? Albert King, Bernard King, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan -- all born in Brooklyn. And that’s the thing that Chazz [one of the main characters] is bragging about in this movie: “I live in an apartment where Carmelo used to live, apartment 1C, 79 Lorraine Street."
Red Hook's isolation really came through when Chazz said that she had only been to Manhattan twice.
Here’s the thing, though. There’s something very strange that I found out. The black and hispanic people in Red Hook, they don’t even go into Red Hook. They go across the street and come back. That’s it. They don’t venture out into the outer reaches of Red Hook. It’s a village mentality. They don’t even go to Steve’s Key Lime Pie! That’s the best key lime pie in the world. If you like key lime pie, you gotta go to Steve’s Key Lime Pie!
I think when people first heard about this film -- that Spike Lee is “headed back to Brooklyn," that there is going to be a cameo from your character Mookie -- they automatically thought “Do the Right Thing” sequel and started making comparisons.
And I understand that. I wasn’t hating. I saw how people could make that. At the end of “Do the Right Thing,” Sal and Mookie had their toe-to-toe talk in the smouldering embers of the pizzeria. [But] if Sal had have known Bed-Stuy was going to blow up [like it has today], he would have stayed! So [this is what happened:] he took the insurance money and moved to Red Hook, and Sal built the new Sal’s Pizzeria up from the ground. But he was having a problem with the Mexicans he was hiring, they were delivering the pizza to the wrong address, so he finally broke down and called Mookie. And Mookie said, I will come back, but you have got to have brothas up on the wall! So Sal said, “Not only will I have brothas on the wall I will have sistas on the wall!” So they worked it out and Mookie is now delivering pizza for Sal’s Pizzeria in Red Hook. Sal is a businessman. He saw that, and said, “Look, I was killing myself. I had African-American clientele and I only got Frank Sinatra on the wall.” That’s not good business. So it’s all good.
You also have Isiah Whitlock Jr. reprising his “She Hate Me” and “25th Hour” role as Detective Flood. He even does the famous Clay Davis “Sheeeeeeit” quote from “The Wire,”
Here’s the thing, though. He first said that in “She Hate Me.” So, sorry David Simon [laughs]. But we wanted to break the record for longest “Sheeeeeeit” in this one.
***MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. IF YOU DON'T WANT TO BE SPOILED, KEEP SCROLLING DOWN***
The film takes a powerful and disturbing turn in the third act, with a flashback scene that depicts Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) molesting a child. When did you decide to include that in the story?
All I can really tell you is that moment, that was a key thing [in the film].
I assume that scene was very difficult to shoot.
Oh that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever shot in my life -- even harder than that scene [in “Do the Right Thing”] with Rosie Perez and the ice cubes [laughs]. But look, all joking aside, because you’re talking about a very serious subject, it was difficult for Clarke and the kid -- a great kid. His name is Sincere Peters. I spoke to him, I spoke to his grandmother and his mother in a way to make everyone feel comfortable [about that scene]. But that was a very hard scene.
How do you best explain what's happening in this scene to a kid?
Tell the truth. I mean, these kids know about that stuff. Today’s 10-year-old kid knows more than what I knew when I was 18. They are just being exposed to so much stuff that we weren’t privy to -- and not all of it's good.
Did you expect that scene to get the reaction it got at Sundance?
Well, it’s something that’s very difficult, and we deal with stuff that’s difficult. There’s not going to be one unanimous uniform take on it, and we knew that going in. James McBride, he grew up in the church, and we had some discussions whether that scene should be in there. But I thought that if you’re going to have that, you can’t skirt around it. You have got to have some balls to go through with it. But at the same time, you have to understand it’s very delicate -- it can tip with one misstep either way, and it’s curtains.
That scene hits you like a gutshot.
I knew it would take an actor of Clarke’s humanity, grace, skill [and] understanding of the craft to pull it off. But not even talking about Sundance, we’ve had several little screenings -- people come out of the movie theater kind of torn, because...they have sympathy for someone they feel like they shouldn’t have. And I think that’s a testament to Clark. He’s a great actor. I know he’s [known] from “The Wire” and “Treme,” but I hope they really see him in this. In “Red Hook Summer” he’s out front, and he’s one of the greatest actors today. I know that for sure.
***END SPOILER ALERT**
Did you know going into this movie, even before you included that scene, that this film was not going to get studio financing?
From the very beginning I knew that I was going to finance this film. But, if I had taken the time to think this out clearly, I would have come to the realization that I was going to distribute this myself, too. The studios weren’t going to make this film and distribute it. And it’s not a condemnation of it. That’s just the way it is.
And that’s tough, because less people end up seeing the film.
Hey, that’s better than not having “Red Hook” out there at all. The movie exists, and I am confident people will see this film. I am tired of people asking when the next film is coming out. I mean, I just walk the streets here in New York: “Yo Spike, it’s been a long time!” What year was “Miracle At St. Anna”? ‘08? That’s a long time. I’ve done other stuff since -- documentaries -- but as far as feature lengths, that’s the longest span I’ve ever had before of not having a feature film out.
Why did it take you so long?
I couldn’t get financing. One of the biggest signals to me that I was going to have to write the check [for “Red Hook Summer”] myself was when I couldn’t get the sequel to “Inside Man” made. If that’s not a sin I don’t know what the f-ck is.
Which must seem crazy to you, because so many films today are sequels or reboots.
There ya go. That film made a ton, and it didn’t even cost a lot.
Can you see yourself making a big studio film like that again?
Oh, yeah. Me doing “Red Hook Summer” is not a separation that I no longer work in Hollywood. I am getting ready to do “Oldboy.”
What about the original “Oldboy” made you want to adapt it for an American audience?
That’s a great film. And this is the first time I am doing something like this, so it’s interesting how you can stay true to the essence of the original source material, but make it something different, and I know that’s what we are going to do with this one.
This movie has a devoted fanbase, too.
Oh yeah, and they have their opinions [laughs].
Fans were already up in arms about the leaked list of cast descriptions.
Yeah, here’s the thing about that. I have to take the blame. I didn’t write it, but it was just worded poorly. So we’ve rectified the situation.
Rectified the situation?
They just uh … we had to take them to the woodshed.
Do you have one particular film that you’re most proud of? One where you’re like, "Yes, I am glad my name is on that film."
I am proud of every film I’ve done -- faults, warts, missteps -- I am proud of them all. Because all that stuff together, it makes up a good body of work. And from the moment I wanted to be a filmmaker, the goal was always to have a good body of work.
"Red Hook Summer" opens in limited release this Friday