The 2014 Cannes Film Festival marks 25 years since Spike Lee brought Do The Right Thing to the Croisette in a premiere that left some journalists labeling it a powder keg and predicting a trail of racial violence for its U.S. release. Lee was invited to celebrate the anniversary in Cannes Classics, but business commitments kept him home. Lee instead is throwing all his chips into the comparatively obscure American Black Film Festival, which moves from Miami to New York next month. There, he’ll celebrate the silver anniversary and launch his new film, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, and he is hoping hard that distributors will come. Lee, who 28 years ago made his feature debut on the seminal indie She’s Gotta Have It, has since made films of every shape, size and genre, way more of them memorable (Malcolm X, Inside Man) than forgettable (Oldboy). We spoke to discuss why he selected ABFF to launch a new film made at the tiniest budget level since his debut, and it turned into a long discussion of how a filmmaker evolves when he is determined to make movies his way. I found our exchange so entertaining I wanted to share it with Deadline readers. Much has changed since Lee blazed on the scene with a lively visual style and subject matter that evolved from playful to provocative. So it somehow seemed emblematic of change last night that Lee, always identified as a Brooklynite die-hard Knicks fan, did part of this chat while trying to direct a cab driver taking him from Manhattan (where he now lives) to Brooklyn, the only place you can watch a New York team play basketball right now. “If you write where I’m going, make sure to say I’m there to root for Jesus Shuttlesworth, because I’ll always be a Knicks guy. I’m not there for the Brooklyn Nets. And please tell those distributors to come and see my film.”
DEADLINE: From its crowdfunding origins to your decision to unveil at the New York-bound American Black Film Festival on June 22, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus seems an unlikely place to entice distributors that go shopping at Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and Venice. Why was the American Black Film Festival the right place to launch?
LEE: I had obligations here that prevented me from being at Cannes, and it just didn’t work out for Do The Right Thing and Cannes Classics. And I don’t want to wait until Toronto for Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. You get a distribution deal in the fall and it takes another four or five months to position the film for release. I just don’t want to have this film sitting on a shelf, waiting, waiting, waiting. I’m friends with Jeff Friday and it’s a big move for that festival to come to New York. I am a New York City filmmaker. They already asked to commemorate Do The Right Thing, and they were looking for a closing-night film. I said, let’s do it.
DEADLINE: You surprised a lot of people getting into crowdfunding. How was it?
LEE: There are two ways to do that. Indiegogo, what you raise, you keep. Kickstarter, you’ve got to raise your goal, or you get nothing. We had to raise $1.25 million in 30 days and we raised $1.4 million and took care of some overages. I’d never heard of Kickstarter until my students started telling me about it. I’ve been a professor of the NYU Graduate Film School for the last 15 years and am also artistic director. A lot of them were using Kickstarter to raise finishing funds for their student films. I called up the founders of Kickstarter, and they were gracious in educating me. Because you just can’t jump into Kickstarter without knowing what you’re doing. It was a full-time job. You have to work.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
LEE: It was like a political campaign. You have to be on it and on it, and I have to thank my staff at 40 Acres & A Mule. Not reaching the goal was not an option. So I had my foot on everybody’s neck.
DEADLINE: Kickstarter filmmakers sign scripts for donors and give tickets to a screening. You enticed donors with a meal and a courtside seat next to you at a Knicks game, in your wife’s seat. How did she feel about that, and how many people did you take?
LEE: Tonya is my biggest supporter, and she knew how important this was to me. The Knicks stunk this year, so she didn’t care. I mean, they were just, horrible [laughs]. Kickstarter lets you give people things for donations from $1 to $10,000. So my $10,000 item was to sit courtside with me at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. We’d have a pre-game dinner and then go to the game. I was able to sell 36 games. I gotta give a shout-out to my man, Steven Soderbergh, the first person to buy a seat. When he made that gesture, it legitimized it for a whole lot of people. Ironically, Steven Soderbergh, if you look 25 years ago in Cannes, it was sex, lies & videotape, and Do The Right Thing, those were the big movies. The time at that game was the most we spent together in 25 years. I got nothing but love for him, doing that. It didn’t matter if the Knicks won or they lost. Most people never sit courtside. When you’re sitting there, talking to the refs, and the players are so much taller than us, everybody said the experience was worth $10,000.
DEADLINE: He quit making movies and he’s launching the Cinemax series The Knick while you’re turning She’s Gotta Have It a Showtime series. Who back then would have figured you for TV guys? What did you talk about?
LEE: Unlike Steven, I never said I wouldn’t work in feature films again, but I respect his decision. We talked about a lot of stuff, from sports to the moviemaking business and how different it was from when we started out.
DEADLINE: What’s the biggest difference?
LEE: It is just so much tougher. I don’t think anyone’s making Do The Right Thing today. For sure. I don’t think Malcolm X would get made, either, and this is not some black white thing. Woody Allen is the only one of us who does what he wants to consistently. Everyone else, it’s such a struggle. I speak to a lot of filmmakers, a lot of these guys are my friends, and we swap stories. It always comes down to, damn, this is a tough fucking business now, when you are not doing a formulaic film. The world has changed. Either you adapt, or you perish. That’s why a film like this had to be done through Kickstarter. I think a studio is going to pick this up for distribution, but they’ll see the final cut. But just reading the script? They would have said, hell no, Spike. Come back with something else. I didn’t want to go through that.
DEADLINE: You were generous with your wife’s Knicks seat, but have been stingy with details of Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. There has been a run lately on faith based movies like Heaven Is For Real, but I am imagining this isn’t one of those. All we’ve been told is about human obsession with blood but that it’s not a vampire movie. What’s the movie about?
LEE: I want to continue to be deliberately vague. It’s the type of film where, the less you know about it, the better it is. I know that is against the religion of film marketing. You see a trailer today, and you don’t have to see the movie. I understand; people really have to have a reason to go to the movie theater. Parking, babysitter, $20 for a bucket of popcorn. I understand the logic behind putting it all in the trailer. But I’m not a Hollywood studio, and so we took a different approach. Time will tell if the choice I made was the right one. It was something I thought about. I wanted some intrigue, some mystery about this film, because it’s not your standard Hollywood movie.
DEADLINE: You say things have changed, but isn’t it similar to when you started out on She’s Gotta Have It almost 30 years ago?
LEE: Yes, and I’m glad you brought that up. I was attacked by a lot of people for going to Kickstarter, which they said should be for young filmmakers. Here’s the thing. I was doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter! The principles were the same ones I used to raise money for She’s Gotta Have It. Only, there was no internet. So my technology at the time was, calling people on the phone. I was writing postcards, actually putting pen to paper. Who does that now? That’s how I raised the money. I’ve been doing that since 1985, way before anyone thought of Kickstarter. She’s Gotta Have It cost $175,000, and went on to make $7.5 or $8 million at the box office. We shot 12 days in 1985, July 1-July 14th, two six day weeks.
DEADLINE: That film’s 30th anniversary is coming up, and it’s 25 years since Do The Right Thing had its Cannes premiere. Do those milestones make you feel good, or good and old?
LEE: Call it a combination. I got out of film school with the goal of compiling a worthy body of work, and I’ve been blessed to have been able to do that.
DEADLINE: Not long ago you backed out of making a Universal film about the 1992 L.A. Riots because you felt $30 million wasn’t enough to do it justice. Here, you made a movie for $1.4 million. Are you content being on this track, as opposed to the big studio canvas the riots movie would have provided?
LEE: I wouldn’t use the word content. I have to be adaptable. There is no way that a film on the L.A. Riots, written by the great John Ridley, could be done for $30 million, not the way I wanted to do it. So, do you sit around and hold your dick, hoping a miracle happens? You have to look at several scripts, with varying degree of budgets. I have big ones and small ones. I am very adaptable and flexible, and depending on the money I get, I do what I can do. It’s not my goal to spend the rest of my film career doing movies that cost $1 million. But I knew I could pull off, and I’m very happy with the result. The DP, Dan Patterson, and the editor, Randy Wilkins, were former students of mine and I like the environment of working with young hungry people. That why I have been teaching for the last 15 years. The lead actress in the film, Zaraah Abrahams, she’s a black Brit, and I saw her in one of my student’s thesis film.
DEADLINE: The teacher learning from the students?
LEE: That’s a lot of why I teach. My students teach me things all the time; they were the one that told me about Kickstarter to which I was not hip!
DEADLINE: I always pegged you as a guy who was hip.
LEE: No! I’m 57 years old. There’s some stuff I don’t know, and these new jacks are teaching me.
DEADLINE: So we come up on the 25th anniversary and the incendiary reaction the film received…
LEE: At Cannes? Oh, I will never forget that night.
DEADLINE: In hindsight, some of those write-ups seem condescending, the idea New Yorkers were so unsophisticated that they would turn on each other based on race.
LEE: But wait, let’s back up. David Denby, Jack Kroll and Joe Klein, what they wrote, they were not talking about New Yorkers. They said, “Black People.” They said black people would riot, and run amuck, after seeing the film. That is what they wrote.
DEADLINE: How did that make you feel?
LEE: Oh! I still get mad about it! It was such a condescending…to think that black moviegoers don’t have the intelligence to discern what is on screen, and that they would duplicate what Mookie was doing, was ludicrous. If you have some time, please, please, please Google those articles by Jack Kroll, David Denby, and Joe Klein. To me, it was pure, uncut, unfiltered racism. Those articles basically said to white moviegoers, please don’t go. If you are in the same theater with black people, it’s not going to end well.
DEADLINE: That movie was a snapshot of a time, a hot day during a period of racial tensions, where ethnic…
LEE: It was New York City, when Koch was mayor…
DEADLINE: It also reflected the growing mix of ethnic groups, people who were brought up apart, and reflected the prejudice they grew up with. You think it’s a moment in time, but then you look at the recent comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, or the Hollywood boycott of hotels by the Sultan of Brunei after he decreed stoning gays to death back home. When it comes to prejudice, has much changed in a quarter century?
LEE: Things have changed. Who’d have thought back in that hot summer of ’89 that we’d have an African American president? What the Donald Sterling thing has shown us is that race is always going to be prevalent in American society. But people don’t want to be honest about it. So it simmers, just below the surface, and it takes an OJ, the Rodney King verdict, or Trayvon Martin, or Donald Sterling, and then it explodes. It goes through this cycle, and then dies down. Until the next explosion. It’s part of our history. I think Do The Right Thing was a very honest portrayal of racism. I think it forecast the L.A. Riots.
DEADLINE: Didn’t your first screening of Malcolm X for Warner Bros chiefs Bob Daly and Terry Semel happen on the day the L.A. Riots erupted? What do you recall?
LEE: That was surreal. Imagine, the first time the two co-heads of Warner Bros see Malcolm X, and it’s the day of the L.A. Riots. To their credit, even as Los Angeles was burning down, they stayed to the end. And that was a four hour cut, too.
DEADLINE: Did you have their undivided attention?
LEE: Well, the secretaries were running in and out with handwritten notes. One said, do you need a helicopter to get out of here? I’m thinking, can you land a helicopter on the Warner Bros lot? [laughs] At a certain point, it just became about getting home.
DEADLINE: What happened, right after the lights went up?
LEE: Everybody got the hell out of there! [Laughs] Me included! I was not screwing around, I got my ass out of there and back to New York!
DEADLINE: How did the Universal executives react when they read those apocalyptic writings out of Cannes about what Do The Right Thing might provoke? Did it make them shy about releasing the film?
LEE: No, but you keep bringing up great points. The hero of Do The Right Thing is Universal president Tom Pollock. He is the hero. He’d just gone through the wringer on The Last Temptation of Christ, the Scorsese film, where he’d gotten death threats. There was tremendous pressure on Tom Pollock to not release the film, or, don’t release the film in the summer. To his credit, Tom Pollock said hell no, we’re putting the film out, I’m supporting Spike and I’m supporting the film. Tom Pollock saved the day.
DEADLINE: That must have been a high anxiety first weekend, even though nothing happened.
LEE: The biggest memory was, we opened the same day as Batman. June 30, 1989. Tim Burton’s Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, and Do The Right Thing. Opened the same day.
DEADLINE: I believe they call that counter programming. You telling these stories is a good reminder. You’ve had a helluva run, you know?
LEE: Well, I’m not ready to hang it up my Air Jordans yet.
DEADLINE: Every time I talk to you, I laugh a lot and walk away thinking, why do they peg him as the angry guy?
LEE: Here it is, seriously. When you want to negate someone’s message and work, you say things like, he’s a racist and hope they catch on and the work gets dismissed. It’s the very old trick they do in politics, and in art. It didn’t happen right away with me. When She’s Gotta Have It came out, I was the black Woody Allen. Spike Lee. The black Woody Allen. Then the next film, School Daze, came out, and it was, well, I don’t know about that black Woody Allen thing. And then Do The Right Thing came out, and, well, that was the last time I heard about the black Woody Allen. They had to let that shit go. And I’m saying that with all respect to Woody, a fellow New Yorker, and long time New York Knicks season ticket holder whose films I love. But Woody never said I was the black him, that was other people. I get it. The glasses. We’re both small. From Brooklyn.
DEADLINE: How did working on a shoestring with Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus compare to the studio stuff?
LEE: Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus was an invigorating, liberating experience, that broke off the shackles of Oldboy. Unless you’re doing Spider-Man 10, you put your art out there having no idea how it will end up. It all can be satisfying. I tell my students this all the time. To me, filmmaking is a big umbrella, under which there can be a three hour film like Malcolm X, or two four-hour documentaries like When The Levees Broke, or a 30 second commercial with Michael Jordan, or a Michael Jackson video we did in Brazil. I’ve enjoyed it all, the big budget movies like Inside Man. People said, you, doing a heist movie? I like heist films, and Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is one of my all-time favorite films. It’s unfortunate that because of films like Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, some people try to put a straitjacket on me, that I can only do films that deal with race. But if people wish to spend the time, they will see the diversity in the work I’ve done.
DEADLINE: It seemed like the studios did that after you had disputes with Warner Bros on the length of Malcolm X, and stood your ground. Any regrets?
LEE: On Malcolm X? Noooo. I had to go to the mat on Malcolm X. Had to.
DEADLINE: What if you hadn’t?
LEE: I’d have lost all respect for myself, if I’d caved in on that. Why make that film, if you’re not going to believe in what you’re doing, and just cave in? That was the whole point of the movie. They had trouble with the length and I understand that. Funny story. They were giving me problems about the length, and I knew that Oliver Stone was in post-production on JFK, also a Warner Bros film. I called Oliver up and said, how long is JFK? He says, it’s over three hours Spike, but don’t tell them I told you that! I can tell that story now, many years later. Back then I could only say to myself, JFK is three hours, then Malcolm X should be three hours.
DEADLINE: How much did standing your ground hurt you?
LEE: There is always going to be some downside to not being the most popular guy. My wife has told me on occasion that I can be my own worst enemy, and she is a smart lady. But I don’t really have any regrets. Check that. You know what my biggest regret is?
LEE: The rape scene in She’s Gotta Have It. If I was able to have any do-overs, that would be it. It was just totally…stupid. I was immature. It made light of rape, and that’s the one thing I would take back. I was immature and I hate that I did not view rape as the vile act that it is. I can promise you, there will be nothing like that in She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show, that’s for sure.