Tag Archives: BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee

By Iain Blair

Spike Lee has been on a roll recently. Last time we sat down for a talk, he’d just finished Chi-Raq, an impassioned rap reworking of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” which was set against a backdrop of Chicago gang violence. Since then, he’s directed various TV, documentary and video projects. And now his latest film BlacKkKlansman has been nominated for a host of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing,  Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Adam Driver).

Set in the early 1970s, the unlikely-but-true story details the exploits of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. The film also stars Topher Grace as David Duke.

Behind the scenes, Lee reteamed with co-writer Kevin Willmott, longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown and composer Terence Blanchard, along with up-and-coming DP Chayse Irvin. I spoke with the always-entertaining Lee, who first burst onto the scene back in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, about making the film, his workflow and the Oscars.

Is it true Jordan Peele turned you onto this story?
Yeah, he called me out of the blue and gave me possibly the greatest six-word pitch in film history — “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” I couldn’t resist it, not with that pitch.

Didn’t you think, “Wait, this is all too unbelievable, too Hollywood?”
Well, my first question was, “Is this actually true? Or is it a Dave Chappelle skit?” Jordan assured me it’s a true story and that Ron wrote a book about it. He sent me a script, and that’s where we began, but Kevin Willmott and I then totally rewrote it so we could include all the stuff like Charlottesville at the end.

Iain Blair and Spike Lee

Did you immediately decide to juxtapose the story’s period racial hatred with all the ripped-from-the-headlines news footage?
Pretty much, as the Charlottesville rally happened August 11, 2017 and we didn’t start shooting this until mid-September, so we could include all that. And then there was the terrible synagogue massacre, and all the pipe bombs. Hate crimes are really skyrocketing under this president.

Fair to say, it’s not just a film about America, though, but about what’s happening everywhere — the rise of neo-Nazism, racism, xenophobia and so on in Europe and other places?
I’m so glad you said that, as I’ve had to correct several people who want to just focus on America, as if this is just happening here. No, no, no! Look at the recent presidential elections in Brazil. This guy — oh my God! This is a global phenomenon, and the common denominator is fear. You fire up your base with fear tactics, and pinpoint your enemy — the bogeyman, the scapegoat — and today that is immigrants.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
Any time you do a film, it’s so hard and challenging. I’ve been doing this for decades now, and it ain’t getting any easier. You have to tell the story the best way you can, given the time and money you have, and it has to be a team effort. I had a great team with me, and any time you do a period piece you have added challenges to get it looking right.

You assembled a great cast. What did John David Washington and Adam Driver bring to the main roles?
They brought the weight, the hammer! They had to do their thing and bring their characters head-to-head, so it’s like a great heavyweight fight, with neither one backing down. It’s like Inside Man with Denzel and Clive Owen.

It’s the first time you’ve worked with the Canadian DP Chayse Irvin, who mainly shot shorts before this. Can you talk about how you collaborated with him?
He’s young and innovative, and he shot a lot of Beyonce’s Lemonade long-form video. What we wanted to do was shoot on film, not digital. I talked about all the ‘70s films I grew up with, like French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. So that was the look I was after. It had to match the period, but not be too nostalgic. While we wanted to make a period film, I also wanted it to feel and look contemporary, and really connect that era with the world we live in now. He really nailed it. Then my great editor, Barry Alexander Brown, came up with all the split-screen stuff, which is also very ‘70s and really captured that era.

How tough was the shoot?
Every shoot’s tough. It’s part of the job. But I love shooting, and we used a mix of practical locations and sets in Brooklyn and other places that doubled for Colorado Springs.

Where did you post?
Same as always, in Brooklyn, at my 40 Acres and a Mule office.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, because post is when you finally sit down and actually make your film. It’s a lot more relaxing than the shoot — and a lot of it is just me and the editor and the Avid. You’re shaping and molding it and finding your way, cutting and adding stuff, flopping scenes, and it never really follows the shooting script. It becomes its own thing in post.

Talk about editing with Barry Alexander Brown, the Brit who’s cut so many of your films. What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was finding the right balance between the humor and the very serious subject matter. They’re two very different tones, and then the humor comes from the premise, which is absurd in itself. It’s organic to the characters and the situations.

Talk about the importance of sound and music, and Terence Blanchard’s spare score that blends funk with classical.
He’s done a lot of my films, and has never been nominated for an Oscar — and he should have been. He’s a truly great composer, trumpeter and bandleader, and a big part of what I do in post. I try to give him some pointers that aren’t restrictive, and then let him do his thing. I always put as much as emphasis on sound and music as I do on the acting, editing and cinematography. It’s hugely important, and once we have the score, we have a film.

I had a great sound team. Phil Stockton, who began with me back on School Daze, was the sound designer. David Boulton, Mike Russo and Howard London did the ADR mix, and my longtime mixer Tommy Fleischman was on it. We did it all at C5 in New York. We spent a long time on the mix, building it all up.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Company 3 with colorist Tom Poole, who’s so good. It’s very important but I’m in and out, as I know Tom and the DP are going to get the look I want.

Spike Lee on set.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Here’s the thing. You try to do the best you can, and I can’t predict what the reaction will be. I made the film I wanted to make, and then I put it out in the world. It’s all about timing. This was made at the right time and was made with a lot of urgency. It’s a crazy world and it’s getting crazier by the minute.

How important are industry awards and nomination to you? 
They’re very important in that they bring more attention, more awareness to a film like this. One of the blessings from the strong critical response to this has been a resurgence in looking at my earlier films again, some of which may have been overlooked, like Bamboozled and Summer of Sam.

Do you see progress in Hollywood in terms of diversity and inclusion?
There’s been movement, maybe not as fast as I’d like, but it’s slowly happening, so that’s good.

What’s next?
We just finished the second season of She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix, and I have some movie things cooking. I’m pretty busy.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

Enhancing BlacKkKlansman’s tension with Foley

By Jennifer Walden

Director Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, has gotten rave reviews from both critics and audiences. The biographical dramedy is based on Ron Stallworth’s true story of infiltrating the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1970s.

Stallworth (John David Washington) was a detective for the Colorado Springs police department who saw a recruitment advertisement for the KKK and decided to call the head of the local Klan chapter. He claimed he  was a racist white man wanting to join the Klan. Stallworth asks his co-worker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to act as Stallworth when dealing with the Klan face-to-face. Together, they try to thwart a KKK attack on an upcoming civil rights rally.

Marko Costanzo

The Emmy-award winning team (The Night Of and Boardwalk Empire) of Foley artist Marko Costanzo and Foley engineer George Lara at c5 Sound in New York City were tasked with recreating the sound of the ‘70s — from electric typewriters and rotary phones at police headquarters to the creak of leather jackets that were so popular in that era. “There are cardboard files and evidence boxes being moved around, phones dialing, newspapers shuffling and applause. We even had a car explosion which meant a lot of car parts landing on the ground,” explains Costanzo. “If you could listen to the film before our Foley, you would notice just how many of the extraneous noises had been removed, so we replaced all of that. Pretty much everything you hear in that film was replaced or at least sweetened.”

One important role of Foley is using it to define a character through sound. For example, Stallworth typically wears a leather jacket, and his jacket has a signature sound. But many of the police officers, and some Klan members, wear leather jackets, too, and they couldn’t all sound the same. The challenge was to create a unique sound that would represent each character.

According to Costanzo, the trickiest ones to define were the police officers, since they all have similar gear but still needed to sound different. “For the racist police officer Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), we wanted to make him noisy so he sounds a little more overzealous or full of himself. He’s got more of a presence.” The kit they created for Landers has more equipment for his belt, like bullets and handcuffs that rattle as he walks, a radio and a nightstick clattering, and they used extra leather creaking as well. “We did the night stick for him because he’s always ready and quick to pull out his nightstick to harass someone. He was a pretty nasty character, so we made him sound nasty with all our Foley trimmings.”

The police officer Foley really shines during the scene in which Stallworth apprehends Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), who just planted a bomb outside the residence of Patrice (Laura Harrier), president of the black student union at Colorado College. Stallworth is undercover, and he’s being arrested by local uniformed police officers instead of Connie the criminal. “The trick there was to make the police officer sound intimidating, and we did that through the sound of their belts,” says Costanzo. “They’re frisking the undercover cop and putting the handcuffs on and we covered all of those actions with sound.”

That scene is followed by a huge car explosion, which the Foley team also covered. While they didn’t do the actual explosion sound, they did perform the sounds of the glass shattering and many different debris impacts. “Our work helps to identify the perspective of the camera, and adds detail like parts hitting the bushes or parts hitting other cars. We go and pick out all the little things that you see and add those to the track,” he says.

Sometimes the Foley adds to the storytelling in less overt ways. For instance, during the scene when Stallworth calls up the head of the local KKK. As he’s on the phone listing all the types of people he hates, the other police officers in the station stop what they’re doing. Zimmerman swivels his chair around slowly and you hear it squeaking the whole time. It’s this uncomfortable sound, like the sonic equivalent of an eyebrow raise. Costanzo says, “Uncomfortable sounds are what we specialize in. Those are moments we embellish wherever possible so that it does tell part of the story. We wanted that moment to feel uncomfortable. Once those sounds are heard, it becomes part of the story, but it also just falls into the soundtrack.”

Foley can be helpful in communicating what’s happening off-screen as well. The police station is filled with officers. In Foley, they covered telephone hang-ups and grabs, the sound of the cords clattering and the chairs creaking, filing cabinets being opened and closed. “We try to create the feeling that you are located in that room and so we embellish off-camera sounds as well as the sounds for things on camera,” says Lara. Sometimes those off-camera sounds are atmospheric, like the police station, and other times they’re very specific. The director or supervising sound editor may ask to hear the characters walk away and out onto the street, or they need to hear a big crowd on the other side of a wall.

Part of the art of Foley is getting it to sound like it’s coming from the scene, like it’s production sound even though it isn’t. When a character waves an arm, you hear a cloth rustle. If people are walking down a long hallway, you hear their footsteps, and the sound diminishes as they get farther away from the camera. “We embellish all those movements, and that makes what we’re seeing feel more real,” explains Costanzo. To get those sounds to sit right, to feel like they’re coming from the scene, the Foley team strives to match the quality of the room for each scene, for each camera angle. “We try to do our best to match what we hear in production so the Foley will match that and sound like it was recorded there, live, on-set that day.”

Tools & Collaboration
Lara uses a four-mic approach to capturing the Foley. For the main mic (closest to Costanzo), he uses a Neumann KMR 81 D shotgun mic, which is a common boom mic used on-set. He has three other KMR 81 Ds placed at different distances and angles to the sound source. Those are all fed into an 8-channel Millennia mic pre-amp. By changing the balance of the mics in the mix, Lara can change the perspective of the sound. Because how well the Foley fits into the track isn’t just about volume, it’s about perspective and tonal quality. “Although we can EQ the sound, we try not to because we want to give the supervising sound editor the best sound, the fullest and richest sounding Foley possible,” he says.

Lara and Costanzo have been creating Foley together for 26 years. Both got their start at Sound One’s Foley stage in New York. “We have a really good idea of what’s good Foley and what’s bad Foley. Because George and I both learned the same way, I often refer to George as having the same ear as myself — meaning we both know when something works and when something doesn’t work,” shares Costanzo.

This dynamic allows the team to record anywhere from 300 to 400 sounds per day. For BlacKkKlansman, they were able to turn the film around in eight days. “The way that we work together, and why we work so well together, is because we both know what we are looking for and we have recorded many, many hours and years of Foley together,” says Lara.

Costanzo concludes, “Foley is a collaborative art but since we’ve been working together for many years, there are a lot of things that go unsaid. We don’t need to explain to each other everything that goes on. We both have imaginations that flourish when it comes to sound and we know how to take ideas and transfer them into working sounds. That’s something you learn over time.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.