There are two movies that Spike Lee wants to make, ambitious period bio-epics of larger-than-life sports heroes Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, movies that have a lot to say about who we are as a society.
When he talks about Budd Schulberg's Joe Louis screenplay, the director's eyes light up. "It has Hitler in it, Goebbels, FDR, Mussolini -- everybody's in this film!" Lee reports, between bites of a burger, poolside at the Mondrian hotel on Sunset. "It's not just about boxing. It's fascism versus democracy."
Yet Lee says he can't raise the money for these big movies. Movies about African-Americans, including famous ones -- even revered ones -- don't play overseas. Malcolm X, at $48 million his highest-grossing studio film, didn't establish him as either a blockbuster cookie-cutter or a big-name auteur with a global following. Still, after seventeen years and sixteen movies, Lee has the reputation, chops, and magnetism to make whatever film he wants -- if he wants it enough to play the studio game a little. It's a choice he almost always declines to make. His most recent feature, the daring digital-video blackface satire Bamboozled, belly-flopped at $2.2 million. He needs a hit.
Plenty of independent directors -- Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, and even Lee's fellow New York outsiders the Coen brothers -- seem to navigate Hollywood with more finesse. "Considering how few of Lee's films have had commercial success," says a producer he's worked with, "it's remarkable how he has retained his position."
When he's making TV spots for Madison Avenue -- he's one of the most sought-after and highly compensated directors in the industry -- Lee's all business. But when it comes to features, what he cares about is art; fellow New Yorkers Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen are his role models. "Because he earns his big-time money in commercials," says Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, "he doesn't feel he has to work on pictures that get him a mass audience."
Producer Tom Pollock, who made six films with Lee when he was chairman of Universal, agrees. "The limitations for Spike are not about race, they're about art," he insists. "The Hollywood studio business has never been more divided about art and commerce." Hollywood, to take one sensational example, looked at Steven Soderbergh a lot differently after he made Erin Brockovich.
Lately, however, at 45, Lee seems willing to meet Hollywood, if not halfway, at least somewhere in the neighborhood. Widely considered his best film in years, 25th Hour has an Oscar-worthy screenplay and features not only a star (Edward Norton) but a lot of Spike's edgy humor. "25th Hour fell out of the sky," Lee says. The story recounts the last day in the life of New York drug dealer Monty Brogan (Norton) before he goes to prison. "I liked it right away, the guy about to do a seven-year bid, his last 24 hours of freedom."
Julia Chasman and her producing partner, Nick Wechsler, had developed David Benioff's adaptation of his 2001 debut novel with Tobey Maguire, who left the project to film Spider-Man. Lee worked closely with Benioff on updating 25th Hour to a post-9/11 New York City. "My fear was that someone who didn't know New York would direct it, so I was thrilled," says Benioff, adding that Lee assuaged his fear that key moments in the novel would fail to make the transition to screen: "When we met, he had the script and the book all underlined -- and he wanted to put the 'fuck you' rant back in the movie." The scene is a diatribe in which Monty vents his rage at virtually every human element of the city he loves, invoking familiar stereotypes in a raw, emotional outpouring that's at least as much self-hate as hate itself. Benioff himself hadn't figured out how to make the monologue work on film, but Lee had Brogan shouting at himself in a men's-room mirror while the camera cuts to images of the offending New Yorkers.
The movie opens with a soaring montage of New York images that will remind many of the beginning of Woody Allen's black-and-white valentine, Manhattan. After 9/11, the Brooklyn-bred Lee was offended by the rash of movies like Spider-Man that had erased all traces of the Twin Towers. "I could not live with myself, being a New Yorker," Lee says, "if I shot this film after 9/11 and went about my business like nothing ever happened."
Indeed, Lee filmed one highly charged scene in an apartment overlooking ground zero. As Monty's pals, played by Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman, walk to the window and look down at the site below, Pepper declares, "Bin Laden could drop another one right next door, I ain't movin'." Says Lee, "To me, that's New Yorkers talking. I know the location enhanced the actors' performances."
Norton says he'd wanted to work with Lee ever since he saw He Got Game, and signed on as soon as he read the script. "I am always amazed at the degree that he is taken for granted by the rest of the filmmaking community," the actor says. "There are not that many people committed to making tough and complicated social-issue films that examine the dynamics of the world we live in. At the same time, he's an incredible stylist."
Not surprisingly, Disney -- which had backed Summer of Sam and He Got Game, and snapped up the package of Lee directing a cut-rate Norton on a bargain-basement budget of $14 million -- was, well, uneasy with the rant. Monty's list of everything he's about to leave behind almost got cut, because among the targets of his fuck-yous are George Bush and Jesus Christ. Disney executives were "leery of offending every group in America," says Benioff, who along with Lee argued heatedly to keep the set piece.
"They thought the scene was too harsh, that it might make the audience not like Monty Brogan," Lee says. "But he's a drug dealer. I did not want to glamorize him. He was dealing serious weight. Why shouldn't he go to jail? The movie is about moral choices and the consequences of choices."
When Disney previewed the movie, there was debate about how to modulate the 9/11 references. But the fuck-you rant inspired early audiences to cheer. Lee and Disney production chief Nina Jacobson also went toe-to-toe on the film's length and stopped speaking for days. Ultimately, Lee trimmed five minutes, but he refused to change the movie's literary, fork-in-the-road ending.
"Some stuff you have to go to the mat on," he says. "I say to studio executives, 'Show me the book where Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Welles say, You can't do this.' Where are these maxims? Who wrote these golden constructs of things you can't do in a movie? There really are no rules."
In the end, Jacobson says, "Spike is a strong advocate for his material and a worthy adversary in disagreement. I'm proud of myself for listening to him. All the arguments I lost, I'm glad that I lost."
Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine is Spike's favorite film of the year. Like Moore, and like Oliver Stone, Lee has strong leftist leanings, authority issues, and a big mouth. Stone may be one of the best-known directors in America, but he's famous for being a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Spike Lee may be one of Hollywood's most visible brand names, but he's also perceived by many as an angry black filmmaker; projects like Get On the Bus and Bamboozled feed this perception.
"He gets labeled as a demagogue, strident, controversial, provocative," says Norton. "If he's anything, he's consistently humanistic. In 25th Hour, he elicits sympathy and compassion for the complex humanity of these people."
Norton, known for being extremely hands-on with his directors, found himself unexpectedly relaxed with Lee. "He doesn't sit back, he gets it and moves on," the actor says of Lee's working style. "He's very demanding; you come in prepared. It's rare to encounter people who are unaffected by the fears or expectations of other people."
Not everyone believes Lee's iconoclasm has been the thing to hurt him; some blame his sensibility. "I don't think the trait of being an agitator impedes one's progress in Hollywood," notes Variety's Bart, "as long as one delivers the hits. Spike's not motivated to do that."
When Lee took over the Malcolm X directing reins from Norman Jewison, he declared that it was only appropriate for an African-American to direct this project. And while he feuded openly with Warner Bros., he angrily allowed the movie to go overbudget. Though the rap has dogged him ever since, getting Malcolm made by any means necessary turned out to be the exception that proves the rule. "The part about Spike nobody appreciates," says Jacobson, "is that he is the most financially responsible filmmaker around. It's amazing that he and Jon Kilik" -- the line producer -- "shot 25th Hour entirely in New York City for $14 million."
Lee's profile as an African-American filmmaker has been deeply affected by his role as a spokesperson for the black community. He's always willing to use his soapbox to advocate change. "The studio system is rigged against people of color," he says, "even after whatever progress last year's Oscar wins may represent. Change is going to be made in this industry when people of color get into positions of power as the gatekeepers. You still have to get somebody to give the green light; those are the people who have the power, who say, 'Yes, this film is getting made.'
"The African-American experience is relegated to three ghettos," he continues. "Lowbrow comedy like Juwanna Mann and Barbershop; romantic comedy like Brown Sugar and The Best Man; and hip-hop-gangsta shoot-'em-ups. That's it. If you have an African-American film outside those ghettos, it's really hard to get a film made."
Lee greatly admires Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape beat Do the Right Thing for the 1989 Palme d'Or at Cannes. But Lee points out that the filmmaker runs Section 8, a production company, with movie star George Clooney, who lends his clout to the enterprise and stars in some of Soderbergh's films. Lee wouldn't mind if 25th Hour scored him some time in that bigger playpen. But he won't compromise his hard-earned freedom -- or his hard-won final cut. Lee gets how the game is played -- and the fact that he must deal with the consequences of his choices.
"I understand that I've never had a film that made $100 million," Lee says, returning to the issue of the big pictures he dreams of making. "I'm not complaining, Oh, Hollywood won't let me make these movies. I'll keep doing what I'm doing, I'll bide my time. Marvin Worth bought the rights to Malcolm X and waited 25 years before it got made. I'll get the money to make these great films."