By Iain Blair
Since Spike Lee first burst onto the scene back in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, he’s made over 60 films, documentaries, TV series and shorts, and tackled such timeless — and timely — subjects as racial tension, college fraternities, Malcolm X, the Son of Sam murder spree, jazz, blues and Hurricane Katrina.
Now Lee takes on guns and gangs in his upcoming new film Chi-Raq, an impassioned rap reworking of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, set against a backdrop of Chicago gang violence. Shot by Matty Libatique, who recently shot the equally gritty Straight Outta Compton, it features a large ensemble cast, including such regular Lee players as Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes and Angela Bassett, alongside newcomers to the Lee team Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, John Cusack, Dave Chappelle and Jennifer Hudson. The film showcases the director’s satirical point of view, at its most overtly political, “terrible-state-of-the-union” best.
I recently caught up with with Lee about making the film.
This is the first original movie from Amazon. How did that deal happen?
Last Sundance we tried to sell the film and everyone said no, except Amazon. All it takes is one yes!
How much pressure was there to get big stars in this?
Casting is always down to me. They wanted some names, some stars, but left it up to me. Sam and I go way back and I cast him as a sort of rapping Greek chorus, and then Angela and John Cusack because they bring that gravitas, and their characters are the moral foundation of the film. It was especially brave of Jennifer to play a mother who loses her child to gang violence, considering what she went through in real life —having three family members murdered in Chicago.
You co-wrote the script, with Kevin Willmott, in verse. Any concerns that audiences may find it a bit daunting?
No, as so many kids now have grown up with rap and spoken-word performance, and they know all about rhyming and meter. It’s all very familiar. We actually tried to do this six years ago, and then went back to it and set it in the South Side of Chicago, where we also shot it. That’s ground zero of the gang violence. While we were there, for five weeks, there were 331 people shot and 65 murdered — and it has escalated since then. We rushed to finish this film because we all feel it really can help save lives.
You don’t pull any punches about the terrible situation in Chicago and gun violence in general in the movie.
Look, it’s insane that more people are dying on the streets of Chicago than our soldiers in Iraq and other war zones. And it’s not just Chicago — it’s Baltimore, New York, LA, it’s all over the US. I don’t tell audiences what to think in my movies, but I’ve got to make an exception with this. I want people to think about guns in this country and all the killings. It’s insanity. Don’t come over to my house — I don’t want to take away everyone’s Second Amendment rights — but we need far tougher background checks and tougher laws.
The women in the film and play famously stop the bloodshed by withholding sex from their men.
And it’s pretty effective! (Laughs) Matty and I set out to make the movie look sexy, because how can you sell a sex strike to the men — or the audience — if no one looks sexy? I’ve been told that we’re just objectifying women. I disagree.
Do you like post?
I love it, because shootin’ a film is a motherfucker! (Laughs hard) People have NO idea how hard it is, making a film. It is no joke. The grind, the pressure, the hundreds of questions you get asked every day on the set. So post is when you can finally sit down and actually make your film. You’re like a sculptor, shaping and molding it, cutting out shit, adding shit. Sometimes you change the whole structure and look. You’ve got the footage and now you have to find the film. With anything I do, I end up flip-flopping some scenes, so it never follows the shooting script exactly, but that’s the great thing about post. It’s this journey of discovery.
You always post in Brooklyn, right?
Yes, at my 40 Acres and a Mule office.
The film was edited by Ryan Denmark and Hye Mee Na. Why two editors?
Simple — it made editing twice as fast. They were on the set in Chicago, so they could start cutting while I was shooting, and they’d pick scenes and cut. We didn’t divide it into action scenes and quieter scenes. We just flip-flopped every scene, and it worked out great because it’s pretty seamless. And that way we could accelerate the whole post schedule. We didn’t finish shooting until July 9, and the film’s coming out in December, so that’s very fast. Of course, once we got back to Brooklyn I was there every day working on the edit, and sometimes we worked a seven-day week to get it done. I’m very hands-on, but I’m not there looking over their shoulder while they cut. They cut a scene and then I look at it and give notes.
The film makes great use of all the tweets and other graphic elements that pop up.
Social media. You can’t ignore it, so I wanted to incorporate a lot of that. And apart from those tweets, there are a lot of visual effects in the movie — you just don’t see them for the most part. We had to do a lot of clean-up and removal work, and lots of detail work like bullet holes and so on. We did some of that in-camera, but then we amplified it in post.
Randy Balsmeyer was the VFX supervisor, and he’s worked with me since 1988 on School Daze, doing all my opening credits and title design. The company was Balsmeyer and Everett, but now it’s called Big Film Design, and he’s done a ton of work for everyone from Woody Allen to David Cronenberg and the Coens.
The sound and the music, by Terence Blanchard, are also key elements in this film.
Terence wrote a great score again. He’s done a lot of my films, and never been nominated. How come his score for Malcolm X was never nominated? He’s a magnificent composer, trumpeter, bandleader. I always put as much as emphasis on sound and music as I do on the acting and editing and cinematography and so on. It’s hugely important.
David Obermeyer was the sound designer and Phil Stockton did the re-recording mix. We did it at C5 Sound in New York. We spent quite a long time on the mix, even though we were rushing to finish it.
Where did you do the DI?
At Harbor Picture Company in New York. Matty supervised it and then I came in and made a few small adjustments, but Matty’s a master at all that. I’m not going to get in his way (laughs). [Editor’s Note: Harbor’s Joe Gawler provided color work via the DaVinci Resolve. Additional color was done Roman Hankewycz, and conform was Chris Farfan and Chris Mackenzie.The studio also provided ADR for the film.]
You’ve been nominated for two Oscars and you were just honored with the Governors Award. How important are all the awards?
They all help bring visibility to the films, and the Governors Award also gave me an opportunity to talk about diversity — or the lack of — in Hollywood. So it’s very important.