See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Art Changes
Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Spike Lee
Independent Filmmaker

A talk delivered in San Francisco, June 8, 1996

Spike Lee. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.The following talk was given by Spike Lee at the Imagination Conference in San Francsico, June 8, 1996. Billed as a progressive interactive event featuring original multimedia presentations the Imagination conference featured movie producer and director Spike Lee, musician and artist Brian Eno, and performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson. Each of the three presented their work and ideas in their own way. Spike Lee told of his early years as an independent filmaker and some of the efforts to release the movie Malcolm X. He then showed some of the commercials he directed for Nike and Levi's as well as an extended version of music video he did for Michael Jackson. For a brief biography of Spike Lee and a complete listing of his work in film, videos, commercials and books - click here. For Brian Eno's talk click here. Laurie Anderson played music and sang/performed a set arranged for the evening. In Motion Magazine thanks Capretta Communications in San Francisco for all their help in getting us into the conference and providing materials for this coverage. If you'd like to listen to these talks go to HotWired magazine. (Publisher's note: Please note we have no connection to Spike Lee and emails to our magazine will not reach Spike Lee. Thank you.)

I'm glad to be here, and thank you very much. Unlike most filmmakers, I did not see a film when I was four years old and decide that was what I wanted to do. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, we went to the matinees regularly and sat through the film six times every Saturday and drank all the Coca Cola we could drink and ate all the popcorn we could eat and threw stuff at the screen and tried not to get thrown out.

I never knew that people actually made movies. We just went there, and showed up, and the projector was turned on, and stuff was on the screen. In fact growing up I wanted to be a professional athlete, I wanted to play second base in the New York Mets, but genetics conspired against (laughter) that dream happening. So going to college, I went to Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, I'd no idea of what I wanted to do. And like most underclassmen there comes a point where you run out of the elective classes you can take (laughter) and you have to declare a major. I chose mass communications - and that major encompassed film, TV, print journalism, and radio.

I was very fortunate because my parents were very creative. My father is Bill Lee the jazz bassist, and I grew up with him taking me to hear him playing in clubs in the Village. And my mother taught art. We were raised, all my siblings, we were raised in a very creative environment. I remember going to see Broadway plays, The King and I, stuff like that. Now I could see that that exposure was very important, even though I didn't know that that was what I wanted to do, even though I didn't want to see these plays, I did not want to see my father play jazz. Now I see that if my parents didn't insist on it, even with me kicking and screaming, I'd have not become a film maker.

When I chose mass communications..., for me film was the thing I'd think this was what I wanted to do. Mostly because it encompassed all the arts. And in the summer of 1977, which in New York City was the summer of the Son of Sam and also the blackout, I could not find a job and I bought a Super 8 camera and I went around New York City that whole summer just shooting stuff. It was also the first summer of disco. People were having these block parties all around the city and that's when the dance the hustle was out. My first film was a Super 8 film called Last Hustle in Brooklyn, which was really like a highlight film of Black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing.

When school began I showed it to my class and I got a favorable response and that's a great feeling, the initial time that happens, where you do something and people respond to it.

Upon graduation, I still did not have the necessary tools to be a filmmaker. We only had the facilities for Super 8, so I wanted to learn film grammar, learn how to make a film, and I applied to the top three film schools - USC, UCLA and NYU. Unfortunately for me, at USC and UCLA you had to get an astronomical score on the GRE, (and I still feel a lot of those standardized tests are culturally biased). But, luckily for NYU, you didn't have to take a test (applause). All you had to do was submit a creative portfolio, and I was accepted.

For the next three years, that's all I did was make films. We spent very little time in the classroom, without making films. If you're not working on your films, you're working on your classmates' films. And that's where I became a filmmaker -- by just actually doing stuff. I really believe that, if you want to do something, if you want to be a writer, you got to write, if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to make films.

Luckily, my thesis film was a film called Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop and it won a student Academy Award. With that acclaim, with the little acclaim that that award brought, I got an agent, from William Morris. I was very new to the game. My agent said "Look Spike, just leave everything up to me, I know how to handle the studios. Just sit back and wait by the phone." (laughter)

So I waited by the phone, and waited by the phone, and finally got up enough nerve to ask my agent "What's up?" I'm very naive, I don't know the ropes. He said "Look, just take a chill pill, I know what I'm doing. Just wait by the phone. I waited by the phone some more, and waited by the phone. And then Ma Bell turned the phone off (laughter). And then Brooklyn Union Gas followed shortly thereafter. Then I realized that I'm going to have to take some alternative means to becoming a filmmaker. Just writing a script and knocking on some studio's doors is not going to get it.

I said I have to do my own independent film. My first feature film has to be independent. I wrote a script, the script was called Messenger.

I got involved with some bogus producer who said he was going to deliver on the financing of the film. When you do an independent film you have to draw on a lot of favors, so I asked all my classmates, people I went to school with, to crew for me, and also a lot of actors I had met. I said look I got this film.

People were turning down work to work on my film. Cast and crew. After six weeks we waited for this mysterious, miraculous, wire-transfer to come into our production bank account. It never did. Finally I just had to break the news to the cast and crew that they had wasted their summer on a project that was never going to happen. They would not be compensated for it, because there was no money.

As you might imagine, my name was mud, and rightfully so.

A critical moment in me being a filmmaker was one day when I was crying like a baby sitting in my bath-tub. All the water had drained out. I was wrinkled like a California raisin and I was ready to quit. I said 'well let me give it one more try. I'm going to pick myself up off the canvas and try it once again. Just try to re-evaluate where I went wrong.' In retrospect I saw that I committed several key errors all first-time filmmakers do. They try to be over-ambititious, try to do stuff that's beyond their means -- that helicopter shot, all types of stuff. I definitely didn't have the means to raise the money for that script.

So I said to myself, the next script I write I'm not going to make those same mistakes. I'm going to write a script that can be done. There'll be two or three people in a room, going to shoot it in black and white, won't have to worry about the production design that much. And I'll shoot it in a couple of days. Shoot what is possible. That film was She's Gotta Have It -- (applause), thankyou. We raised the money for the film. It cost $125,000, and it went on to make $8 1/2 million. That's when agents really began to call -- but there were no more agents for me up till Malcolm X.

Growing up in this country, the rich culture I saw in my neighborhood, in my family - I didn't see that on television or on the movie screen. It was always my ambition that if I was successful I would try to portray a truthful portrait of African Americans in this country, negative and positive. I've never really tried to get in that hole where everything has to be 100%, - because I think that it's not necessarily true - and it's definitely not dramatic having the subject, the characters in your film be 100% angelic, and god-like.

The character that I played in She's Gotta Have It was named Mars Blackmon and Mars was a b-boy and his favorite athlete in the world was Michael Jordan. Mars was fanatic about Michael Jordan.

Two young men at Wyden Kennedy named Jim Griswold and Bill Davenport saw She's Gotta Have It and they came up with the idea of pairing Mars Blackmon, the character I played in She's Gotta Have It with Michael Jordan. When they called me ofcourse I wanted to do it, but it was really left up to Michael, because at that time he was not a movie goer and he'd never heard of me.

Michael Jordan is the reason why I've done so many commercials, why I've been able to do commercials. Because Michael could easily get his own hotshot guy on Madison Avenue. Mike said 'let me give this young Black filmmaker a chance'. Even though he chose the Knicks every time there was a playoff game, Mike was the one who really hooked me up with the commercials. It was a complete accident that I got into commercials when I did Mars Blackmon. I had no idea that the idea I had of Mars and Michael Jordan, this famous basketball player, would lead into the campaign that Michael and I did for six or seven years for Nike.

As this is a creative conference I will try to say, if I can, what I think about creativity. I think it's something, either you have it or you don't. I know that may sound cruel. But that's what I feel. You can get out there and front like you have it, but the people who know, know. Whether you're Milli Vanilli or whoever (laughter).

Being a commercial filmmaker, it's a great challenge to try to do stuff that's creative. At the same time in film if you don't ... money, you're out of here. It's a high wire act that you're doing -- probably even more than music, because there's much more money at stake in films. I think the average price of a Hollywood film has gone up to $35 million. And because I started out as an independent filmmaker, She's Gotta Have It had no studio behind me telling me what to do. Because I raised the money myself, I had final say. And, once that film became a hit I was able to set a precedent so that from then on I've been able to have creative control. Basically I have been able to do any film I wanted to. Except one and that's Jackie Robinson. For the last two years I've been in trying to get a project made on Jackie Robinson. At this date the project is on hold because we've not been able to get the necessary financing.

I've never really had any struggles with studios telling me what to do, I've been very fortunate. The one time when we really had a scrape ... was on Malcolm X, where we had a big row with Warner Brothers who did not want the film at that length.

As you know we felt that Malcolm's life deserves the three hours plus time that we felt it needed - and Warner Brothers said no. Since I had final cut there was really nothing they could do legally - but since we were over budget, they let the bond company take over the movie and said unless we cut the film to two hours and a half all finance would be cut off from the film. That was one of the worst periods I had in my life. We shot the film, ... and my editing staff each received a Federal Express letter telling them that they had been fired. There's no finance for the film, and I don't got the money.

In doing my research on Malcolm, one of the things Malcolm talked about was self-reliance -- African Americans relying on each other and not expecting other people to bail them out. So taking a lesson from Malcolm, I made a list of prominent African Americans who had some bank (laughter). I don't want to bore you with this, but I'll try to go through this quickly.

At the top of my list was Bill Cosby. I called up Bill Cosby and went through a few pleasantries, asked him how Camille was, his wife - and once he heard that he said "Spike, How much do you need?" (laughter). Since Bill Cosby was the first on a long list, I didn't want to be greedy, and tempt the gods, so when he asked how much, I gave Bill the low number. He said tell me who to make the check out to and you can pick it up from my accountant's office tomorrow.

I took the subway into Manhattan, got the check, and ran to the bank and deposited it. We were very happy about that. The next call was to Ms. Winfrey. Again, we exchanged a few pleasantries, I asked her how Desmond was (laughter), and I said you been really looking slender the last couple of days (laughter), and I told her the predicament we were in, and she said how much do you need Spike. And I told her. It worked with Bill, so I decided 'let me take a chance', and I gave her a high number - and she wrote the check. Then I called Magic Johnson, and Magic came through. Then I called my main man, Michael Jordan, and knowing that Michael was very competitive I told him what Magic gave (laughter). Then Tracy Chapman, and then the-artist-formally-known-as-Prince, and Janet Jackson, all these people came through and wrote six figure checks. Checks that they could not use as tax write-offs, ... but just so we could get the film into the theaters the way we wanted to. They all came through. (Applause).

But I know you want so see some stuff. The first work I'm going to show you is samples of some of the commercials I've done. Some that I'm in, all of them I've directed. You might have seen some of these on TV. People ask me why do I do music videos and commercials. I really don't make a separation between film and commercials and music videos. To me they all come under the heading for me of cinema because I try to have a narrative in all three. The only difference is that the commericals you got thirty seconds, the music videos you have four minutes, and the movies you got three hours - if you're lucky (laughter). Also they pay a lot of money.

You have total creative control , and sometimes it's like that on the music videos - depending who the artist is. With the commercials, for the most part, the scripts are brought to me and then I'm left to enhance them. There's a couple here from Levi's that were a campaign where we just found people. Those commercials are just shot like documentaries. So at this time we're going to see some of the commericals I've done. Can we roll the 3/4 inch tape please. (Shows commercials done for Levi's and Nike as well as a music video for Michael Jackson).

Also see: Spike Lee - Biography/Complete works (1996)

Published in In Motion Magazine July 13, 1996.

Publisher's note.
Thank you for visiting In Motion Magazine,
but please note we have no connection to Spike Lee
and emails to our magazine will not reach Spike Lee.