/Film Interview: Spike Lee Talks ‘Oldboy,’ ‘The Sweet Blood of Jesus’ and (Obviously) the New York Knicks
Posted on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
With almost every film Spike Lee makes, he’s trying something different. From college comedy through racial drama, coming-of-age stories, the historical biopic, murder mystery, Hollywood blockbuster, sequel, war film, and sports movie, he rarely attempts the same genre twice. It’s part of the reason he’s remained influential and relevant for so many years.
His latest film, Oldboy, continues his trend of being unpredictable. Lee directs an American remake of a revered South Korean film (originally by Park Chan-wook) about a man mysteriously imprisoned for 20 years, and the aftermath of his release. It’s Lee’s first remake, which posed some brand-new challenges for the man behind such classics as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, 25th Hour, and Malcolm X.
We had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Lee about those new challenges, his upcoming Kickstarter feature The Sweet Blood of Jesus, being a film professor at his alma-mater New York University and, of course, New York sports. Oldboy opens November 27, but read the interview below.
Note: While introducing myself, I told Mr. Lee that I was an alumni of New York University and born and raised in the state. This becomes important later on.
/Film: Tell me about the first time you saw the original Oldboy. Do you have any distinct memories of that?
Spike Lee: I was like “What the fuck is this?” I loved it, but I had never seen a film like that before ever.
Did you see it in theaters?
When we first heard there was going to be a remake of this it was pretty crazy. Everyone was rumored to star. Steven Spielberg was going to direct and then your name came up. You seem like such a great, unconventional choice.
It’s an unconventional movie.
Did they come to you, or did you seek it out?
The script was sent to me. I did not know of the history, so I didn’t find out about Spielberg and Will Smith until after I had signed on.
So what was it that attracted you to it initially?
It’s a great film. Park is a great director. I had never attempted to do a reinterpretation before and working with Josh Brolin [was appealing].
So Josh was attached at the time when you were approached?
Yes, he was.
When you’re making a movie that’s already been made well, there’s a line between paying homage and making it your own. How do you balance those options?
This question really has a lot to do with the screenwriter, because I didn’t write the script. I think Mark Protosevich did a wonderful job, and then once Josh and I came in there were certain things we had to tweak, also Lizzie [Olsen]… But you just know there are signature scenes you have to have, which is the hammer scene… that’s the biggest one. And we weren’t…. Josh was not eating no octopus, so we show wiggles in the fish tank… the octopus. So there are things that are inside and if you’ve seen the film, you can see us tipping our hat.
Josh said the hammer fight took about five weeks of prep and about seven long takes. Where does it rank among difficult shots that you’ve done?
It was up there. Well, as you know, that magnificent scene in Park’s film takes place on one plane from left to right. Ours is on three. So our first thing was that we were going to do it on a spiral staircase going up, but we didn’t have enough money to build that set. But I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
Was it your idea to do it on three levels like that?
When we knew it would be cost prohibitive to build [the spiral staircase] set, then we had to find a location that had different levels.
You haven’t had to deal with the notion of fans scrutinizing your film as a remake, because you’re always doing original movies.
If I was worried about that, I wouldn’t have done the film. Where are you from?
There you go. We’re not scared. People can say what they want to say and also at the same time understand this is a much beloved film, so it’s all good.
Has Park seen the movie yet?
I don’t think so.
Are you guys planning on showing it to him?
They better. He gave them his blessing. They should send him a print.
Recently Steven Spielberg and George Lucas said that they think Hollywood in the next ten years is going to crumble, because of these mega blockbusters. What are your thoughts on that?
I tend to agree, but here’s the thing. They were the inventors of that wave with Star Wars and Jaws. [Laughs] That’s great irony, isn’t it?
Now you’re going the other way with Kickstarter. Was that a reaction to those feelings?
I mean indirectly, because I know what studios want to make and the majors… They have been fruitless endeavors.
To get that script done by a studio?
So what are some of the pluses and minuses of doing the Kickstarter like that?
I don’t see any minuses. It’s all pluses for me and we’re editing it now. The name of the film is The Sweet Blood of Jesus.
You already finished shooting?
Done. We shot in October. Sixteen days with one day ahead of schedule.
Will you take the film to Sundance?
No. Cannes. Hopefully.
As I said, I went to NYU and I know you’ve been a professor in their grad film department for a while.
Fifteen years. I’m artistic director of the film school.
How does that influence your process as a director? Do you get inspired by the kids?
It’s all inspiration. In fact, it’s only through my students that I found out about Kickstarter. I hadn’t even heard of it. I was not hip to crowdfunding. It’s my students who turned me on to that, because that’s how they get their money to finish their films.
Do you have a specific class?
Master directing class. It’s the three year program and I teach the third year students.
In Cinema Studies at NYU they show Do The Right Thing a lot.
Yes. One of the papers I wrote, I don’t remember specifics about it, was about your use of the color yellow in the film.
As a young filmmaker, is that something that you think of or is it just a type of over-analyzation we do?
That’s some cinema student stuff. (Laughs)
Yeah, I overanalyzed for fifteen pages.
On the color yellow? Fifteen pages on that?
I love watching you travel the country with the Knicks.
Did you see the game last night [November 14?]
Carmello [Anthony] hit a three point shot. A continuation wasn’t called. It would have been a four point Larry Johnson play.
Was that something that you always wanted to do as a kid? When did you decide “I have enough money that’ I’m going to start traveling with all of these teams?”
I said “If I ever make any money, I’ll buy a brown stone in Brooklyn, a house in Martha’s Vineyard, and courtside seats at Madison Square Garden for my beloved orange and blue.”
And you got it.
I got it.
I was fourteen in ninety-four with the Reggie Miller thing. There’ve been documentaries about it…
Have you seen “Reggie Miller vs. The World?”
I have. It’s so good. It’s painful, but good.. Now I’m glad that you did that to him, because F-him, but at the same time, do you ever think about “Man, what if I hadn’t jarred with him? What if he didn’t get that extra bump?”
We won that series.
I know, but it’s become this iconic anti-Knick moment now.
People hate the Knicks, so…
(Laughs) That’s true. The Yankees… They hate us all.
They hated New York. They hated us! (Laughs)
But we’re still here.
And going to be here.
Oldboy opens November 27. You can find Spike Lee courtside at Madison Square Garden.