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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews - Directors > Feature Interviews - K to O > Spike Lee (2012 interview)

Jules Brown, Spike Lee and Toni Lysaith at the Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks production office for the press day for 'Red Hook Summer.'

Spike Lee

The Director Has His Red Hook Summer

by Brad Balfour

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 18, 2012.

When New York-based director Spike Lee makes a film, it’s almost always an event. That's been the case virtually from the moment he emerged as a hot young indie filmmaker breaking both the color barrier by dealing with subject matter most mainstream directors neither touched or had a feel for. His 1986 film She's Gotta To Have It detailed a Brooklyn based urban life experience that quickly found an audience that had been well served before.

He's still plumbing his Brooklyn world for story ideas and films – the latest being Red Hook Summer – a film that made its debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Lee again draws on his roots this time as a middle-class boy from Atlanta and tells the tale of a kid from this Southern city who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather in the housing projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn. He has his worldview changed as he discovers unexpected and painful things about the people he knows during that summer.

This is truly an indie film – paid for, produced and directed by Lee with a mix of unknowns and established actors working for the love of this film and filmmaker. This Q&A is culled from a roundtable held at Spike Lee's Brooklyn headquarters, the Four Acres and a Mule Filmworks production office, earlier this month.

Your bright young stars – Jules Brown as Flik Royale and Toni Lysaith as Chazz Morningstar – are amazing.

A lot of the credit has to go to their drama teacher, Mr. Ed Robertson, who’s at Ronald Edmonds [Learning Center]. I went to that same junior high school, but it had a different name then. When I went there it was 297.

Jules Brown, Spike Lee and Toni Lysaith filming 'Red Hook Summer.'Over the year you’ve worked with kids. What do you get from working with them?

They teach me patience.

Its important that young kids do a lot with their education.

It’s very important. I’m a teacher myself, I’ve been teaching film at NYU for the last 15 years. I’m artistic director at the graduate film school too. I come from a long line of educators in my family; my parents, my grandparents. Education has always been a key thing in my family.

You had to go outside of the studio system to make this movie.

They weren’t going to make this film. I knew that, James [McBride the co-writer] knew it. The whole thing when James and I sat down I said I’m going to finance it. We were wasting our time.

How empowering is it to make your own film?

First of all, this isn’t something that has never been done before. It’s been done. There are certain projects that hopefully you have the means and way to get it done. But a lot of people have misconstrued that this film is a declaration that I don’t do studio films anymore and that’s not the case at all. I’ve always done both and I will continue to go back and forth.

Some of your NYU students were the crew.

A third of the crew were my students at NYU.

Spike Lee filming 'Red Hook Summer'How was that different from working with a studio crew – was it more communal?

We had a very small crew and there was a lot of learning on the set. I knew that going in. These were not professionals, they were students. But how could I teach NYU and do a film, and not include my students?

You even credited them.

They worked hard and they got paid for their hard work. It would just be a total antithesis of education if I was an artistic director and teacher at NYU and made a film without my students. We’ve done that on big films, they were interns. But on this film they were doing sound, assistant camera, they weren’t just interns, they were working.

Was the filmmaking process as free-flowing as the look of the film?

Everything in the film is important. We’ve been doing this for a while, so everything has been well thought out. It’s not haphazard. James McBride, we worked long and hard on the script together.

Was there a narrative leap in going from film to digital?

It’s filmmaking.

How does Brooklyn influence you as a storyteller?

Brooklyn has changed and I’ve been very fortunate to revisit it. It all started with She’s Gotta Have It. That was 1986 and that was Fort Greene, some downtown by the Brooklyn Bridge, but mostly Fort Greene. Do the Right Thing, that was 1989 in Bed-Stuy. Crooklyn was Bed-Stuy. He Got Game was Coney Island. Half of Jungle Fever was Brooklyn. Bensonhurst, Harlem and now Red Hook.

What’s left?

There’s a lot of stories left in Brooklyn.

Toni Lysaith, Clarke Peters and Jules Brown star in 'Red Hook Summer.'You were born in Atlanta, but raised in Brooklyn. How much of this film is from your past? How much of it is truthful.

It’s all truthful. I was born in Atlanta and a lot of my summers were spent in Atlanta. I went to Morehouse. If you lived in New York… in my generation you lived up north. When school ended, your parents sent your ass down south. “We need a break, get your ass down south, they’ll spoil you.” My summers were spent between Alabama and Atlanta. I remember one summer we went to Atlanta and we had Michael Jackson afros and people in Atlanta looked at us like we were Martians. Back then we would take the train and as soon as my grandfather dumped us off the train he’d march us off to the barbershop and people would come from all around looking in the windows “Who are these black kids?” The barber was cruel, he’d shave us with a Mohawk first and we were crying and crying. It was a cruel, cruel thing.

Were you spoiled by your grandparents when you were down there?

Oh yeah. They do what any grandparents do. We would spend the whole summer there and when it was time to go back they’d take us to get clothes for school.

Did you find it hard to portray this younger generation?

No. My son is 14, my daughter is 17.

How have things changed since She’s Gotta Have It in 1986?

There was no sexting or texting or Facebook, Skype or all that. There was none of that.

Clarke Peters stars in 'Red Hook Summer.'Do you impose what you learned from your own kids?

Yeah, but my kids are like them and like kids in any other generation. They’re savvy when it comes to technology. They turn on the TV for me, the DVD, I have to get them to download stuff for me. It’s not second nature to me.

Was Inside Man the only film you wanted to make a sequel to?

We’re doing Oldboy [a remake of the shocking Korean film by Park Chan-wook] now, but for films I’ve done, that’s the only one.

Will you do more films from other cultures like Oldboy? What do you keep in your version?

I can’t tell you that.

What else is coming up?

We have Mike Tyson on Broadway, which I directed. And we’ve got this new documentary coming up called Bad 25, which is about the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album. August 31 will be the anniversary. Da Brick [a potential HBO series] didn’t get picked up.

What can we expect from the Mike Tyson project?

You gotta go see it. What are you waiting for? He’s great.

Are you and your wife doing another children’s book?

We’ve been very busy, so we haven’t been able to do one. This is my first time on Broadway. I want to do Broadway again.

Do you plan on doing a musical?

Hopefully one day.

CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT SPIKE LEE HAD TO SAY TO US ABOUT HURRICANE KATRINA IN 2006!

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2012 Brad Balfour.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2012.  Courtesy of Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks. All rights reserved.
#3 © 2012.  Courtesy of Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks. All rights reserved.
#4 © 2012.  Courtesy of Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks. All rights reserved.
#5 © 2012.  Courtesy of Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 18, 2012.

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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 18, 2012.