Spike Lee has amassed a filmography that has put plenty others in Hollywood to shame… and he has done it on his own accord. After the success of Inside Man, the Brooklyn native has returned back to the screen with Miracle at St. Anna. The 40 Acres and a Mule mastermind sits down with The Urban Daily to discuss a few topics, touch upon his new movie and his next life-changing project.
On the difficulties of filming:
There were a lot of challenges for me. I had never done a WWII film. There were sequences in Malcolm X shot in Egypt, and at the end of the movie with Mandela in South Africa. But this movie is basically shot all in Italy, most of it in Tuscany… three months in Tuscany and a month in Rome. Both of them holidays. One was in New York and another in White Castle, Louisiana. And we did some shooting in the Bahamas. I had not done [as many locations] or a film on this big a scale, Malcolm X was the only one prior to this. And I’ve not done a war film, not done battle sequences like this, not done — Spanish, German and Italian, I do not speak those languages. Good crew. Amazing crew. It was 95% Italian. 95% did not speak English but language wasn’t a barrier. I thought so going in but I make films the same way all over the world. And that was an eye-opener for me. It demonstrates how we human beings put up self-imposed barriers to stop us from communicating. This film was a lesson to me.
On working with new actors:
I had seen all their work. Omar in 8 Mile. Derek in his films. Michael Ealy in the Barbershop series and the cable show The Sleeper. All young hard-working, young and talented people. I have to credit James McBride the novelist and screenwriter for writing four rich roles. He made it easy for them because each role was so clearly defined that you saw four different aspects of Negro men, the different viewpoints and backgrounds you would’ve seen when you were alive in 1944. The men who were enlisting, who were fighting for the country when the army was still segregated… lynching was still taking place. A time when they were billed as second-class citizens.
On researching for Miracle at St. Anna:
James [McBride] introduced me to a lot of the guys he first met from working on the book. It was a great honor to meet these men. They are American patriots. They’re heroes. They’re courageous and these men have dignity…even today. In many ways, they have reason to be bitter about the way they’ve been treated by their country but they’re happy because they never thought a Barack Obama would happen. There’s a line in the film where Derek’s “Stamps” character says “I’m doing this for the future” and they were doing the same thing. They wanted to come back to the U.S. and not see the “colored” and “white” water fountains. That wasn’t the case but the country has addressed some of this. Barack Obama is the biggest evidence of that. I never thought I’d live to see an African American in my lifetime on the verge of being the 44th president of the United States. And it’s gonna happen… I think it’s going to happen.
On his filmmaking ability:
I’m confident in my film-making ability. The one thing I thought hard about going into this film, tossing and turning, was the role of that kid. If we didn’t get that right kid, then it would be curtains. We did an open casting call in Florence. Five thousand Tuscan boys showed up. Once my casting director got down to 100, she said, “Spike, I’m ready.” So, I took the train down from Rome… It was a twelve hour train ride from Rome to Florence. Right away I could see this was the kid. Others weren’t sure of the choice so I went back two more times. We were blessed because he’d never acted before and doesn’t speak a word of English, but he translates so well on-screen.
On his favorite war movies:
The Train starring Burt Lancaster, Paris Burning by Berllucci, The Dirty Dozen with Jim Brown… [The Dirty Dozen] was a revelation to me as a young kid. I was ten years old when I went and saw that film.
On the 92nd’s woes compared to black soldiers fighting in Iraq:
I would say number one that, as far as I know, the Army is majority Black and Hispanic. I would also say that the indignities faced by our soldiers coming back are [no longer] based upon race. I mean you’re coming back, no matter who you are, you’re getting f-cked over. You’re coming back and the suicide rate is astronomical. Not just over in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, they’re at a lost when they come back here. The murders of spouses and girlfriends has increased. So, it’s obvious that the U.S. army is not equipped to deal with the mental health and physical health, too, of our soldiers. They’re not being taken care of. It’s a disgrace that they’re coming back having lost limbs.
On his next projects:
Right now, I’m getting ready to end this thing with Nokia. It’s almost done. There’s been a festival where people were invited to send in their pictures and videotapes they captured on a cellphone. Now that all the material’s come in, I gotta make a film out of it. I’m just picking the winners and when all this material comes in with the theme is of humanity – broken into three acts. There have been thousands and thousands of submissions. It’s a challenge. We’re finishing the Kobe Bryant documentary for ESPN. It’s a unique documentary. It’s one game. Last April on the 13th in 2008, the Lakers played the then-championship San Antonio Spurs and Sunday after the televised game we had 30 camera on Kobe. With the help of Phil Jackson, the NBA and the Lakers… they gave us access. We had cameras in the locker room before the game, at halftime and after the game was over. That’s never been done before. We’re doing a musical as well. If it’s good enough, it’ll get accepted at Sundance in January. My next feature film, well… right now, we’re waiting on a script for Inside Man 2. If the script is not better than the first one, myself, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Clive Owen… we’re not doing it.