Spike Lee is known for film classics like Do the Right Thing, She's Gotta Have It and Jungle Fever. Now, he's taking the funding of his next movie — currently known only as The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint — to the crowd, using Kickstarter.
He spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about some of the criticism he's faced for the decision to find alternate funding, and the state of the film industry today.
On why he chose to crowd fund his latest movie
"It would've been an act of futility for me to try to pitch this to the studios at this present day. ... This is not a film that they're gonna make, and I'm not knocking the studio system. They have the business plan, they have their model. But, as an independent filmmaker, as independent filmmakers we always know — deep down in our hearts — that just because a studio does not want to make your film, that does not mean it can't be seen with the rest of the world. You have to use alternative means of financing, and for this, I'm using Kickstarter."
On the criticism he's faced for going to Kickstarter
"I have been criticized from the get. The image of Nola Darling in She's Gotta Have It was a negative portrayal of African-American women. ... [In] School Daze, Spike Lee was airing African-Americans' dirty laundry to White America. Do the Right Thing, this film was supposed to make black folks run amok when the film was released in the summer of 1989. So this is not something that's new."
On letting movies surprise you
"Moviegoers have been spoiled because the trailers that they see in the movie theater give a way the whole movie. I remember growing up, I loved the Alfred Hitchcock trailers — don't tell anybody the ending, you will not be allowed into the theater, the doors will close once the movie starts. What is wrong with coming to a movie where you discover something, where you don't know how it's going to end?
"They have to know something. ... But they don't have to know everything."
On the changing film industry
"I think it's for the worse ... because Hollywood has always made big-budget films, and they spend a lot of money on them, and they spend a ton of money on them to promote them. So therefore, a lot is riding on these films, and if you come in with a film where they don't see a profit margin of who knows how many times, it's my thinking that they think it's not worth it.
"I don't think Do the Right Thing could be made today. Not as a studio film, I don't think so."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work and their lives, and if you follow film, our guest today is someone who really needs no introduction. He's responsible for landmark films that take on some of this country's most sensitive issues, like "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X" and "Jungle Fever," as well as the acclaimed documentary "4 Little Girls." He's also introduced some of the most enduring catch phrases through characters he's written and performed.
We are talking about director Spike Lee, and now he's got a new project going. And Lee, always an innovator, is funding the project known as "The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint" through the site Kickstarter. That's an online service that lets fans pledge donations to artists working on interesting projects. Here to tell us more about that and, as well, we hope, the rest of his long and illustrious career, is Spike Lee. Thank you so much for joining us.
SPIKE LEE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So "The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint."
LEE: That's a mouthful.
MARTIN: It is a mouthful. I think people who follow your career may remember that you've always been an innovator in funding your films. That - I think some people would say you were a kickstarter before Kickstarter...
MARTIN: ...Was cool.
LEE: I said that, really, but I really have to...
MARTIN: I think I said that. I made that up. You just...
LEE: All right...
MARTIN: ...Copied me.
LEE: ...Well, I got it from you.
MARTIN: OK, you got it from me.
LEE: I'm just cosigning.
MARTIN: Exactly. But you were known for always funding your films, at least at the beginning of your career, outside of the system. So you're, in a way, returning to your roots with this. What caused you to make that decision?
LEE: Well, what caused me to make that decision is the same decision why Steven Soderbergh, one of the most successful Hollywood directors, said he's no longer going to work in Hollywood. He's going to devote his time to doing his art on cable television, where you could make the argument the most interesting work is being done. And this new thing I'm doing, which is about human beings who are addicted to blood, it would have been an act of futility for me to try to pitch this to the studios at this present day.
This is not a film that they're not going to make - I'm not knocking the studio system. They had the business plan. They had their model. But as a independent filmmaker - as independent filmmakers, we always know that. We know, deep down in our hearts, that just because a studio does not want to make your film, that does not mean it can't be seen with the rest of the world. You have to use alternative means of financing, and for this, I'm using Kickstarter, and we're very happy with how we've done so far. And the goal is $1,250,000, and I'm confident we will make it.
MARTIN: You've got a studio film coming out, though, just in a couple of months. It's called...
LEE: ...Starring Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley, Lizzy Olsen, and my man, Samuel L. Jackson.
MARTIN: I'm saying these are - but you've had challenging films before. This doesn't seem like the easiest subject, either. I mean, it's a guy who...
MARTIN: Do you mind if I say what it's about? I mean, people...
LEE: It's a...
MARTIN: ...A guy who's been held in solitary...
LEE: Again, it's a...
MARTIN: ...For 20 years.
LEE: It's a different kind...
LEE: ...Of love story.
LEE: People who are addicted to blood, and I've been doing this for - I've been in this game for over 30 years, and you know what they're going to like. And you know it's going to be like, well, Spike, we'll see you later. And this is the latter, but I still feel that there's a audience for this film, and I'm appealing to my fans who've liked everything from "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues" - a ton of work, you know, a ton of work. And so, I'm appealing...
MARTIN: So you're hoping that fans will support you based on the strength of your work, not because you're giving out too many details, 'cause you really haven't to this point. Is that an impediment? Not - do people want more?
LEE: Well, it is an impediment because it is my belief that today's movie goers have been spoiled because the trailers that they see in the movie theater give away the whole movie. And I remember, growing up, I loved the trailers - the Alfred Hitchcock trailers. Don't tell anybody the ending, that you will not be allowed in the theater before - the doors are closed once the movie starts. What is wrong with coming to a movie where you discover something, where you don't know how it's going to end? How many comedies have you seen, oh, that the trailer looks funny, and you see the movie, and the funny jokes, they put in the trailer. Everything else wasn't funny.
LEE: So this is a type of film where it's going to work best for the audienceses (ph) - that's my Brooklyn-ese slipping in there.
MARTIN: (Imitating Brooklyn accent) Audiences.
LEE: It's going to be best for the audience if they know - they have to know something, but they don't have to know everything.
MARTIN: I take it you don't have a lot of patience for the criticism. There has been some people who are saying that a person of your stature should leave Kickstarter to the startups, the people who don't have your name and your reputation and so forth.
LEE: Well, I have been criticized from the get. The image of Nola Darling in "She's Gotta Have It" was a naked portrayal of African-American women. "School Daze" - "School Daze" - Spike Lee was airing African-Americans' dirty laundry to white America. "Do the Right Thing" - this film was supposed to make black folks run amok, when the film was released in the summer of 1989, and riot. So this is not something that's new.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with director, producer, actor and professor Spike Lee.
LEE: NYU in the house.
MARTIN: NYU in the house. That's absolutely right. That's right. I was going to ask you about that in a minute, but I did want to take us back for just a minute to talk about your debut film "She's Gotta Have It." I just want to play a short clip for those who...
LEE: Oh, no.
MARTIN: I have to do it. I have to do it.
LEE: It's your show.
MARTIN: That's right. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT")
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Nola.
CAMILLA JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) What?
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Nola.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) What?
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Just let me smell it.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) You are ilk.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Please baby. Please baby. Please baby. Baby, baby, please.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Good night.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Good night? Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Is Jamie there?
MARTIN: I had to play the "please baby, please baby," 'cause, I mean, I think there was a time when you really could not, like, walk down the street without hearing somebody say that, so, you know.
LEE: Well, that, combined with that same character, Mars Blackmon, you know, appeared in all those commercials - all those Nike commercials with Michael Jordan. And that was an accident.
MARTIN: It was an accident?
LEE: Quick story. Two men, Jim Riswold and Bill Davenport, who worked - had worked at Nike's advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy, saw the film and they saw this character, Mars Blackmon - never seen anything like him before, saw that he loved Air Jordans, and decided to pair Michael Jordan and myself. That's how it happened.
MARTIN: We were talking about - you had mentioned earlier about how the business has changed - for the better, for the worse or just changed since you got started?
LEE: I think it's for the worse because Hollywood has always made big budget films, and they spend a lot of money on them, and they spend a ton of money on them to promote them. So therefore, a lot is riding on these films, and if you come in with a film where they don't see a profit margin of who knows how many times, it's my thinking that they think it's not worth it.
MARTIN: You think that the kinds of films that you've made throughout your career are getting edged out.
MARTIN: But then...
LEE: I don't think...
LEE: I don't think "Do the Right Thing" could be made today.
MARTIN: You don't.
LEE: I don't - not as a studio film. I don't think so.
MARTIN: But you don't have any problem telling people just to ignore those films. I mean, you famously, last year, made your feelings about "Django: Unchained" clear.
LEE: First of all - whoa, whoa, whoa...
LEE: ...Let's hold up here.
LEE: I never said, Spike Lee says, on behalf of 45 million African-Americans, you should not see this film. That is not what I said.
MARTIN: No, of course not.
LEE: What I said was, I cannot see that film because of my ancestors. That's not - that - I said, I'm speaking for me, myself and I.
MARTIN: Well, but I am asking you about you, yourself and I. And I don't direct my question...
LEE: But the last question...
MARTIN: ...Toward African-Americans per se.
LEE: ...You said was, like, I'm famous for doing - telling people not to go see a film, and that's not true.
MARTIN: Oh, OK, but here - my question more generally...
LEE: All right, let's get off that film.
MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. That wasn't my question, really, 'cause there are a lot of people who feel that the offerings are limited, and not just for reasons of race, but for all kinds of reasons. And so...
LEE: But I never said that what we're talking about is just detrimental to people of color.
LEE: I'm saying everybody.
MARTIN: If you were starting out again today, do you think you'd still want to be doing what you're doing?
LEE: Because I love what I do. I love making films.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, can we ask you to share some of your wisdom for people who aren't lucky enough to study with you at NYU?
LEE: You got to be committed. I think, a lot of times, whatever it is, that you come shucking and jiving and hemming and hawing, and you have to be committed. You got to really - you got to get down in the muck, roll up your sleeves, put in some elbow grease and just work at it and work at it and work and work at it. I think that these reality shows have done a great disservice to American youth, who now think that all you have to do is be famous for being famous, and not having any skills or knowledge or wisdom to - or artistry to back that up, and it's a shame.
MARTIN: That was writer, actor, producer, director, professor Spike Lee. We talked with him about his Kickstarter campaign in support of his latest film "Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint." He also has the film "Oldboy" coming out this fall, and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Spike Lee, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LEE: All right, thank Kickstarter.com. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.