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The Playlist Q&A: Spike Lee Talks 'Red Hook Summer,' Hollywood, Michael Jackson & More

The Playlist By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist August 9, 2012 at 3:07PM

The Republic of Brooklyn and its ongoing chronicles have taken director Spike Lee all over New York's brightest and best borough (its estimated that if Brooklyn was its own city it would be the third largest in the United States). "Do The Right Thing" took place in Bed-Stuyvesant, parts of "Jungle Fever" took place in Bensonhurst, while Harlem-centric "Mo' Better Blues" homebase was Dumbo, "Clockers" was set among the Boerum Hill projects, "He Got Game" landed in Coney Island and "She’s Gotta Have It" was centered in Fort Greene where Lee lived for many years, to name a few.
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Red Hook Summer
That's interesting because at the end of "Do the Right Thing" it's very ambiguous as to what's going to happen but you sort of subtly explain that.
Well what people are missing is that Nola Darling [actress Tracy Camilla Johns] is in this film. The Jehovah's Witness, that's Tracy Camilla Johns' character from "She's Gotta Have It." We've done this before in "Jungle Fever," two cops almost arrest Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra and one of them is in "Clockers" and in "Inside Man" Sal's pizza is being delivered to the hospitals [ed. note: we discussed much of this in an article charting the cinematic Spike Lee universe, and note: Isiah Whitlock Jr. aka Clay Davis from "The Wire" also reprises his role of Detective Flood in "Red Hook Summer." He was previously seen in "She Hate Me" and "25th Hour"].

"How does it feel to be receiving a lifetime achievement award at 55? Better than when I'm dead."
At Sundance when you discussed the Chronicles of Brooklyn I noticed “Jungle Fever” wasn't mentioned nor “He Got Game” and “Mo Better Blues” which features parts of Dumbo.
Mo' Better Blues,” Denzel's apartment is by the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's not specifically in Brooklyn [parts are set in Harlem]. “He Got Game” is Coney Island for sure. Here it goes: 1986 “She's Gotta Have It,” Ft. Green, Downtown Brooklyn. 1989 “Do The Right Thing,” Bedstuy. “Clockers” is Boreum Hill, “Crooklyn” is Bedstuy again.

What about “Jungle Fever”?
“Jungle Fever” is in Bensonhurst, but a lot of it takes place in Harlem too. It's not exclusively Brooklyn.

You knew “Red Hook Summer" was something Hollywood wasn't going to touch?
Yeah we knew that. From the get-go. From the very moment we had the meeting we knew we would do it. I told them I'm financing it myself, that was the whole plan from the beginning. You've got to have money.

Did you consider well known actors?
This film didn't need stars. Who's going to do a better job then Clarke Johnson? He’s phenomenal in this film. This is a film that from the outset was made with outside the system. I mean stars ain't doing this. Also we wanted to be under the radar.

You shot this on the sly, why so secretive?
I like it...when people have to know something I'll let them know [laughs]. Because we didn't want any distractions, we just wanted to do the work. We shot this three six day weeks, 18 days, last summer.

Bad 25
You’ve done a lot of TV.
I've done a lot of documentaries for HBO and I'm doing another documentary called “Bad 25” which is about the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album and we're going to finish it for the film festival.

And they're giving you a lifetime achievement award.
A nice watch.

How does it feel to be receiving a lifetime achievement award at 55?
[long pause] Better than when I'm dead [laughs heartily].

Speaking of “Bad 25,” I noticed some irony. You have this 1986 New York Times profile framed in your offices and in it you give Michael shit for dating Brooke Shields and Elizabeth Taylor and never having a black woman on his arm.
I've always loved Michael. I mean, all the stuff he did never affected my appreciation for his music and that's what the film's about, his music, the Bad album. [Michael Jackons's estate] wanted to do Bad, they're going to do all three eventually... So the great thing about it if the estate comes I have access to Michael's...they're opening up all of his archives, there's stuff in this film that no one's ever seen before, ever, ever.

Is that going to hit theaters in the U.S.?
Well they're still trying to work it out how it's going to be seen.

It's a landmark album, you’ve got the Scorsese video [he directed the video for “Bad”].
Yeah, we filmed Scorsese watching the video, he hadn't seen it in 20 years.

You shot at least one of his videos.
Two. I did two versions of “They Don't Care About Us,” we shot one in Brazil and one here. Then the one after Michael died, “This is it.” Not the documentary but the video.

Looking back on your body of work, how do you see it? What are your favorites? What doesn’t work for you?
The only thing that makes me wince is “She's Gotta Have It.”

How come?
Just some of the acting and stuff. I could see it in someone who's inexperienced. As a director I didn't feel confident until “Do The Right Thing,” that was my third film. Even the second one, “School Daze,” I didn't feel comfortable doing it.

I was at the 10th anniversary of 25th Hour, that film’s grown in stature like none of your films outside of “Do The Right Thing.” It was really overlooked at the time.
You mean at Lincoln Center. Ed [Norton] was there, Philip Seymour Hoffman was there. The unfortunate thing is that the marketing of the film was based upon Academy Award Nominations, Golden Globes, when it was released at that time. Once we didn't get that...but people love that film and it's really grown in stature. In fact it went out to Blu-Ray now, I've got to approve it. That came out of nowhere. I just did that commentary.

Do you have a favorite besides “Do The Right Thing”? Are they hard to pick?
For me I just look at it as a collective body of work. It's funny, the more films you make the more films people have had as their favorite. “Do The Right Thing” isn't everybody’s favorite, “Malcolm X” isn't everybody's favorite. “School Daze,” “She's Gotta Have It,” a lot of people their favorite film is “Crooklyn.” So it's what people respond to.

This article is related to: Spike Lee, Red Hook Summer, Interviews, Interviews, Features


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