Spike Lee's new film Red Hook Summer is, and I'm comfortable saying this, his best film in many years. So naturally we jumped at the chance to speak to the director, even at a roundtable discussion. But as charming as Spike Lee is, in a wry sort of way, and as eloquent as he can be on serious issues many directors wouldn't address very directly, like issues of gentrification, it's a difficult film to talk about considering that the most controversial element comes as a surprise towards the end. Half the conversation wound up being complete spoiler material for a movie most people aren't going to get to see for a long time, so we've focused on the material that won't ruin the film for you… for now.
For now, enjoy hearing from Spike Lee and we hope it spurs you to see Red Hook Summer when it hits your town or, if necessary, your video outlet of choice.
Why Spike Lee wanted to tell this particular “Brooklyn Story.”
Spike Lee: This is the one that I wanted to tell at this moment of time and space. It’s like that, any film I do. It’s the story want to tell at that time. […] It’s the story that James McBride and I wanted to tell.
Did you have religion particularly on your mind lately?
Religion was in Jungle Fever, religion was in Malcolm X, so it’s not that we haven’t touched religion before. Religion was in He Got Game. Jesus Shuttleworth, the savior.
What he hopes viewers leave with after Red Hook Summer.
I don’t answer that question. I don’t do that anymore. James McBride doesn’t tell people, “You should feel this” after you read a book. We don’t do that. We respect the audience’s intelligence, and we’re not gonna dictate or try to make them one way. How to think when they leave the [theater], that’s an exercise in futility. Or as Mike Tyson would say, “It’s ludicwous.” [Laughs] “It’s ludicwous!”
On the fascination of Clarke Peters.
He’s a great actor, number one. Just seeing him and the work he’s done, the great work he’s done with David Simon with “The Corner,” five years as Detective Lester Freamon on “The Wire,” and now in “Treme,” I forget the character’s name he plays, he plays a Mardi Gras Indian. [Editor’s Note: It’s “Albert Lambreaux.”] Amazing actor. And if you know David Simon’s stuff, it’s ensemble, and it’s very democratic. So stuff is spread out, but it’s sometimes to hard to break out of an ensemble. Actors want to do that. I was hoping and praying, and wishing [laughs]… What’s the name? Dusty Springfield, right? That he would look at this opportunity to really be the focus of a film. And they need stuff. Those shows don’t shoot [all year]. They’re looking for films to do during hiatus. So I got his home number, and those guys… you’re doing that, you don’t shoot every day. It’s ensemble, they got 20 people, keep 20 stories going. So he said, “I’m off tomorrow,” I said, “I’m going to come down to New Orleans, I’m going to get on Jet Blue, I’m going to come to your house and give you the script. And look, you gotta try to read it. Two hours. Because I gotta get back to New York.” So I went to JFK, got in a plane, flew down, took a cab, Armstrong Airport to where he’s staying, gave him the script, and then going back in an hour. He said, “Let’s go.” That’s the truth.
On Clarke Peters’ reservations about the character.
He had reservations, but that’s a hard character to play. Even when he said yes, there were still things we had to talk about. One of those things we talked about was how are we going to shoot that scene, which we can’t talk about.
On finding Jules Brown.
Taste alone, I don’t like child actors that have been trained at a young age. I don’t like that stuff. For me, they look unnatural. There’s a drama teacher that’s at my old public high school, his name is Mr. Edward Robinson, a great teacher. So when James and I wrote the script I knew I could sit in his class and find Flik, who is Jules Brown. I knew I could find Chazz, who is Tony Lysaith. I knew I could find the kids, the little kids. His name is Sincere Peters. So I just sat in the class and watched and observed, and those were three that I picked that were in that class.
Does that mean he didn’t go through an audition process?
No, I auditioned them. I picked them, but I didn’t give them the role right away. We had many. I kept bringing them back, bringing them back, bringing them back, but that whittling down process took place with me just sitting in the back of Mr. Robinson’s class.
Did they know who you were?
They know. They didn’t know I was there though. [Laughs]
On the gentrification of New York neighborhoods.
If things don’t turn around, it’s going to mean that we’re all going to be displaced. One of the things that’s rarely talked about, in my estimation, is what happens to the people who used to live in these neighborhoods? Where do they go? Do they move down south, do they keep moving further and further away? For me, it’s something very dangerous in New York, because if no middle class and lower income people live in New York City, there’s not going to be any New York City. […] So hopefully the next mayor is going to focus on affordable housing, education. You gotta have better schools. I can afford to send my kids to private school. Everybody’s not that blessed. You can’t get a couple good schools, there’s only so many spaces for those public schools, and you miss the lottery you’re f**ked. That could be a turning point in a child’s life, because they didn’t get into that school. So that’s my concern, really, and that goes hand in hand with the gentrification.
On the subject of Red Hook.
Red Hook is a very peculiar neighborhood. It’s stuck on the tip of Brooklyn, and it’s very hard to get to. There’s only one bus, and the one subway station that was near it is under repair, so you’ve got to walk fifteen blocks. It’s going through gentrification now, a lot of, again, artists moving in and wine shops and flower shops and that type of stuff. But right in the middle of it you’ve got the projects. What Deacon Zee [Thomas Jefferson Byrd] said in the film, there’s 80% unemployment. Predominantly black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic. Blood’s running. And that’s where Carmelo Anthony’s from [laughs], before his family moved to Baltimore, as Chazz proudly tells everyone in the film. That “I live at 79 Lorraine Street, apartment 1C, where Carmelo Anthony used to live.”
On shooting in Red Hook.
You just can’t go up there in Red Hook and just shoot [a film]. We had to have meetings. We talked to people.
The Bloods! The Bloods!
How did that work?
I had to tell them what we were doing, and said we’re not going to interfere with their business, and said we won’t be there long. That’s what we did.
Who he talked to in order to get Blood approval.
I said, “I need to speak to the guy,” and then I found out who that guy was.
Is the guy coming to the premiere?
The guy is locked up.
On casting Nate Parker as “Box.”
Here’s the thing, I did not want to have another stereotypical image portrayal of a gang member. This kid’s different. This is someone who grew up in the church, and his mother died. [He] was left drifting, and gravitated to the only family he knew that was out there for him. A gang. The Bloods. He grew up in the church. His mother was one of the pillars of the church.
On the media saying Red Hook Summer was a sequel to “Do the Right Thing.”
I never said that.
But Mookie does show up…
It got out. Look, I mean, Mookie’s in the film. I would say it’s a natural assumption to think that was a sequel. No one knew. People didn’t know we were shooting until we were really done. It was quick. Eighteen days.
I have a new documentary coming out called Bad 25. The world premiere is going to be at the Venice Film Festival. Today it was announced that it’s going to be at Toronto. It’s about the making of the “Bad” album, which was the follow up to “Thriller,” the biggest selling album of all time. You see in this film Michael [Jackson]’s genius, how this album was put together. Quincy [Jones] produced it, Bruce Swedien was the engineer, one of the great engineers. Stevie [Wonder] sang a song on it. And we speak to younger people influenced by it: Mariah Carey, Questlove, Kanye, Cee-Lo, Justin Bieber. Then we had access to the archives, Michael Jackson archives. We got stuff in this documentary people haven’t seen before. Ever. Video, his handwritten notes, photographs. Sixty-six songs were done for “Bad,” ten made the final album. For the CD it was eleven, because that song “Streetwalker,” so… How this thing was put together. How did Michael work, because we always just saw the finished product. This shows you that. The hard work he put in, everything, whether it be the choreography, the singing, the production, and you can call them music videos, you can call them short films. Look at those videos. Oops, look at those short films. “Bad,” the record by Martin Scorsese. So we filmed Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker. They hadn’t seen the short film in 20 years. We filmed Marty watching it for the first time in 20 years, commenting. Joe Pytka directed “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Dirty Diana.” And this guy Colin Chilvers directed “Smooth Criminal.” Jim Blashfield did “Leave Me Alone.” So also the short films too, and the people who worked on them.
And then Oldboy?
Yeah, we’re in pre-production now.