After taking to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise funds for his pic Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, Spike Lee ventured into new territory again in 2015 with the Amazon Studios release of Chi-Raq. Based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the passionately anti-gun-violence film was the inaugural feature to be fully financed and put in the theaters by the Jeff Bezos company along with Roadside Attractions. Reuniting the two-time Oscar-nominated and Peabody Award-winning director with Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Wesley Snipes, Chi-Raq also captured the zeitgeist as rising body counts and political scandal in the Windy City and mass shootings hit the American psyche.
After a limited theatrical release in December, Chi-Raqnow is available for VOD and online purchase and is set to appear on Amazon Prime next month. Last year also saw Lee become the youngest recipient of an Honorary Oscar at the seventh Annual Governors Awards, and the director will be heading to the Sundance Film Festival later this month to premiere his documentary Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown To Off The Wall documentary. Before heading to Utah and in the middle of awards season, Lee chatted with me about the Amazon agreement, why now is the perfect time for Chi-Raq, diversity in Hollywood and being honored by his beloved New York City
DEADLINE: What prompted the deal with Amazon?
LEE: Look, I’m always open to new, innovative stuff and people trying to do stuff in a different way. And, to be honest, I really had nobody else to turn to. Not only was it a great opportunity but it was the only opportunity. I knew that the theatrical release would be like getting on the launch pad for Amazon Prime, but I was OK with that because I think what Jeff Bezos and Ted Hope are doing is innovative.
DEADLINE: Even as streaming services like Amazon and Netflix leap into features, a lot of established directors seem hesitant to go that route. Yet for you, if you don’t mind me saying, it seemed almost obvious if you wanted to make the kind of films you want to make. Last year at Sundance, we discussed this a bit, but did you see it as a natural progression?
LEE: Well, you know, I’m always open. I try not to have a closed mind. In fact the only reason why I’m able to continue to make films since 1986 is I have been adaptable. If I weren’t flexible I sure wouldn’t be making films this many years as I’ve been doing it. I’ve been making a film a year almost since 1986, and that’s hard. That ain’t easy.
DEADLINE: Chi-Raq isn’t an easy film by any stretch, especially with the shootings and killings that we see now daily on the news. Add a bit of Classic Greek theater and it almost feels more like a documentary on some levels to what’s going on in Chicago and around the country and now with the president’s executive orders to curb gun violence…
LEE: I think the one word is kismet, I really do. My co-writer, Kevin Willmott, and I, we first had this idea six years ago. We couldn’t get it made, but as I’ve learned again and again and again, timing is everything. This film wasn’t ready to be made six years ago. Now is the time. Black Lives Matter, all the stuff that’s happened in the world, this film came out at the right time.
DEADLINE: Did the film change much from the initial idea half a dozen years ago to its final cut?
LEE: Oh, this film is what we saw. This film is a declaration. It’s a scream. It’s a warning. And I can really break it down to one scene. That’s the scene where we have the eulogy and sermon that is given by the great John Cusack.
DEADLINE: The “Life of a Gun” scene where he details how a young girl came to be killed by a stray bullet?
LEE: Yes, that could be Obama’s State of the Union Address speech coming up. That scene, word for word, would work.
DEADLINE: Speaking of casting, I spoke to Wesley Snipes during Comic-Con last year, and he eloquently detailed his joy in working with you again on Chi-Raq as well as the pleasure of being part of such a talented ensemble and how it made him up his game. What was it like for you working with some familiar faces and some new blood like Cusack?
LEE: It was a blessing. You know, Wesley and I worked together before, Sam and I worked together before, Angela and I hadn’t worked together since her magnificent performance as Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X, so it was like almost a homecoming with them. And then like you said, newcomers. I had not worked with Nick Cannon before. I mean, even though I’m not going call John Cusack a new jack, we still had never worked together before.
See, I approach casting a movie the same way a GM will put together his team in sports. You’ve got to have veterans there, but you can’t get too old. You’ve got to have your youth. You’ve got to have the right combination of experience and youthfulness because you can’t have everybody out there that’s doing their first film. You just got to get the right mixture. We definitely had it on Chi-Raq. There’s not a weak performance in this film.
DEADLINE: There’s also a wide range of actors and on that, you’ve long be pushing Hollywood to embrace diversity. What does the industry need to do?
LEE: Well, I think I really said it already in my acceptance speech when I got my honorary Oscar. I just think that Hollywood has a lot of catching up to do. As I stated, the world of sports is so far ahead. That’s how it is. I just think that we just need diversity. Diversity is lacking. Diversity is lacking.
DEADLINE: What’s not lacking is the year you’ve had, from that honorary Oscar, the Chi-Raq release with Amazon, Artistic Director of the Graduate Film Program at NYU and the first New Yorker to be named Grand Marshal of the city’s annual marathon …
LEE: And one last thing. The street, the one block where Do The Right Thing was filmed, New York City renamed that part of Stuyvesant Avenue to Do the Right Thing Way. That’s the first time that’s been done for a film or work of art in the history of New York City, so it was – well, I have no complaints about 2015, except this gun stuff is crazy.