Tag Archives: Spike Lee

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.

The A-List: An interview with ‘Chi-Raq’ director Spike Lee

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.

Writer Iain Blair and Spike Lee.

Writer Iain Blair and Spike Lee.

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.

Chi-Raq

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.

Chi-Raq      Chi-Raq

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.Chi-Raq

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.

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.