Helluva Summer

Summer fun? Somebody forgot to tell Spike Lee, whose new movie, Summer of Sam, is a blast from the gritty past. It all takes place during what Lee calls “that crazy, insane, chaotic summer of 1977.” Anyone who lived in the city then can instantly recall the harrowing run of events: a blistering heat wave that seemed to last forever; a citywide July blackout that inspired widespread looting; the slow-motion terror of the .44-caliber killer, later known as Son of Sam, who ratcheted up the hysteria by writing demonic letters to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. It was the year punk broke and Studio 54 boogied open. And in the Bronx, the flamboyant Reggie Jackson arrived in right field, and the Yanks fought all the way to their first Series victory in fifteen seasons. Summer of Sam breathlessly encompasses all these raging currents, but the movie is audacious as much for its timing as for its storytelling. Lee has made a serious, violent, and moral film at a time when the moviegoing Zeitgeist prefers undemanding froth like Austin Powers and Big Daddy. And he’s done it for Disney, no less. The film stars Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, and John Leguizamo, but as with most Spike Lee joints, the real star is the director. It’s his bleakest, harshest film since that other summer sizzler, 1989’s Do the Right Thing, though this time the issue isn’t race. Sam interweaves the terrifying killing spree of David Berkowitz with the sexual and emotional unraveling of a group of low-rent Bronx Italian friends. Lee clearly wants to be considered part of the pantheon of authentic New York chroniclers, people like Pete Hamill and Sidney Lumet, and Summer of Sam bravely invades territory owned outright by Martin Scorsese. With its nearly all-white cast and Italian-American setting, Lee is letting the world know, Nothing in New York is foreign to me.

The city has changed drastically over the past two decades, and so has the life of Spike Lee. The bantam son of Brooklyn now resides in an Upper East Side mansion, which he and his wife bought a year ago from Jasper Johns. The price tag, courtyard and fountain included, was $7.25 million. At the same time, he still refuses to go completely Hollywood, making his movies Kubrick-style, with studio money but without surrendering creative control.

Today, Lee is in the Madison Avenue office of his advertising agency, Spike/DDB. Commercial work (for products as disparate as Domino’s Pizza and the Navy) pays many of the bills and frees Lee from the worst pressures of commercial Hollywood. He has just flown back from the Knicks’ latest win in Indianapolis, landing in a private plane at 3 a.m. Without his trademark baseball cap, he’s showing a bit of gray in his short brown hair. After quickly checking out a rough cut for a new ad, he ejects the tape from the VCR, yawns, and is ready to talk about Summer of Sam, whose grim tone, so out of step with the city’s current fat-and-happy vibe, suggests that he intends it to be a comment on contemporary New York’s misplaced sense of self-satisfaction.

Chris Smith: Why make this movie now? The city feels pretty good about itself –

Spike Lee: Says who? Ask the Louimas. You might believe that Giuliani hype if you want to, but that’s not necessarily the way everybody feels. If you’re the haves, I guess that’s how you feel. But I made the film now because this is the story I wanted to tell.

You open with Jimmy Breslin, in the present day, saying that the bad old days are gone and everything’s different in New York now. Is that meant to be sarcastic?

S.L.: Jimmy’s a good friend of mine, and when I think of New York, I think of him. Not just the fact that he’s a great journalist, but the way he talks, his voice. What he says in the movie is a little tongue-in-cheek.

So you’re saying the city has changed only superficially?

S.L.: New York City is a lot better fiscally than it was in ‘77. It’s a lot cleaner than it was back then. But affordable housing? Forget about it now. The Board of Ed was better back then, and that’s not to slam Rudy Crew, either. If you don’t have any money, it’s a lot rougher to live in New York City now than it was. People say crime is down, but I gotta take that with a grain of salt. In order for crime to be down, we need the Street Crime Unit? I don’t know how that balances. There has to be a way where a police force can protect the community without being seen as an occupying army. And it’s not an exaggeration to say the majority of people of color in this city view the NYPD like that.

You’re making this gritty movie for Disney, and you have Breslin standing in the Disneyfied Times Square – is that irony intended?

S.L.: Forty-second Street today is a lot different than the 42nd Street in ‘77. I liked 42nd Street back then. I don’t think New York City should be a mall. I think there should be sex clubs. I’d rather people do that than go out and rape somebody. Your mayor just wants to wipe all that stuff out. If you’re outside after midnight, that’s an excuse to get shot by the cops. That’s the first thing Police Commissioner Safir said when cops recently shot an unarmed teen: “Well, what are they doing out after midnight?”

Sam seems like a reminder of everything that’s below the shiny surface.

S.L.: Yeah, but that’s not the reason we made the film. I’m a storyteller, and this is a great New York story. It was a summer of extremes, so we wanted the film to reflect that. It’s about the mayhem of that summer. People were just crazy. A large part was due to the hysteria behind Son of Sam, but it was also the heat. It was hot as shit that summer.

Did your family have air-conditioning?

S.L.: Hell, no! Open up the window. When we were little, my father would get everybody out of the house, and we’d just go back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry.

Where were you that summer?

S.L.: I was in Brooklyn. I’d just finished my sophomore year at Morehouse College. I was playing around with a Super 8 camera and figuring out I wanted to make movies. I don’t remember seeing any punks. I never set foot in CBGB until we shot this film. I’d see the club just going home, back to Brooklyn – you take the Manhattan Bridge, you take the Bowery down. But that punk thing was totally foreign to me in 1977.

How foreign is the lower-middle-class white world? Sam has already been dubbed “Spike’s first white movie.”

S.L.: That sounds like a statement from a very ignorant person who hasn’t seen my movies in the past, so they’re trying to make it seem like I haven’t worked with white actors before. We have a predominantly white cast, but nobody said that kind of thing about Penny Marshall when she directed – what was the name of that film? The remake with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington?

Sorry, I missed that one, too.

S.L.: If there was an interesting story about the Chinese taking over Little Italy, that wouldn’t seem foreign to me. When I was in Cannes, Roger Ebert, who has been very kind over the years with the reviews, pointed something out to me which I really hadn’t seen. He said, “Spike, people are gonna say that this film is different for you because it’s not an African-American theme.” But I think it ties into the rest of the stuff I’ve made, because it’s about intolerance. Up to this date, the scapegoats have been African-Americans. This film, it’s somebody who’s gay, who is a punk rocker, somebody who’s seen as eccentric by these Bronx Italian neighborhood guys. And if you don’t fit within that very microscopic space that the local guys think is normal, then it’s “You’re a freak, and we think you’re Son of Sam – we’re gonna put you on a list. And this gives us an excuse to fuck you up, because we just don’t like you, because you’re different from us.”

In Sam, and in most of your other New York movies, the violence comes out of a kind of neighborhood parochialism. Is that mutual mistrust as bad as it was in ‘77?

S.L.: No. The neighborhood where this film takes place, the Country Club section of the Bronx – back in ‘77, if you weren’t Italian-American, you weren’t going to be in that neighborhood. It’s still Italian-American, but not locked down like it was back then. Even Bensonhurst is different. It’s hard for a city like this to stay the same. For the most part, people have gotten out of that village mentality. How can you continue like that when you have the Internet and all this other stuff? It’s a global village now.

Plato’s Retreat also makes a sweaty appearance in Sam. My guess is you didn’t go there in 1977.

S.L.: Shoot, I could barely get a date to go see Star Wars! I don’t think I’d even heard of Plato’s Retreat in 1977. And no way was I getting into Studio 54, either.

I asked John Leguizamo why your recent films have had so many group-sex scenes, and he said, “Well, Spike is 42, he’s married, he’s got two kids. The fantasies have to come out somewhere.”

S.L.: Laughs No, that orgy was in the great original script that Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio wrote. The ratings board tried to tame it some. Hollywood has two different standards about sex and violence. We’re a very puritanical country, and they feel that sex would be more harmful to little Johnny than seeing someone getting their brains splattered.

In 1986, when She’s Gotta Have It came out, you were living in Brooklyn and recycling bottles and cans to help finance the movie. Now you’re worth millions and living on the Upper East Side. Has all of that changed your relationship with the city?

S.L.: No, not at all. My film production office is still in Brooklyn, so that hasn’t changed anything. And anyway, the move was not from Fort Greene to the Upper East Side. We lived in SoHo before that. And we found a great house at a great price. Simple as that. People have jobs in Fort Greene, too. You get up in the morning, they’re going to work, they’re going to the D train, the A train. I get up in the morning on the Upper East Side, people are going to work also, going to the gym, or walking the dog. Same thing. Well, our garbage is picked up three times a week – wasn’t like that in Fort Greene, that’s for sure. White people have more problems with it than black people. Not one black person has said to me yet anything about living where I’m living now.

But over the years you’ve become an insider –

S.L.: Insider? How so? In no way, shape or form am I part of the power structure here in New York City. Even if you want to break it down to entertainment. Power? People with power are people like Tommy Mottola, Clive Davis, Donny Ioner, Puffy. I’m not on that clout level.

I remember an interview several years ago in Playboy where you were adamant about sending your own children to public school.

S.L.: Well, my wife, Tonya, she’s taken over that part. I don’t have a vote.

You said your sister and brothers went to private school and their “negritude got honed or harnessed.”

S.L.: Yeah, well, I wasn’t married then laughs. I learned quick.

Still ride the subway?

S.L.: Nooooo. Can’t do that any more. ‘Cause you’re trapped. Last time I rode the subways was up to Yankee Stadium for a World Series game. People hassle you; they want to sell you screenplays. But I walk the streets all the time. I don’t have any bodyguards, nothing like that. People recognize me as a New Yorker, not just in New York City but around the world.

Do kids today care about movies the way you did?

S.L.: Oh, it’s just as big. But kids today don’t do the things we did. They don’t play in the street – stickball and stoopball and coco-leerio and Johnny-on-the-pony. Eventually those games will get lost. Now it’s just computer games. Which is sad. I just loved when school was out over the summer – you’d just play, run up and down the block, all the time.

So who’s making films that truly capture New York?

S.L.: There was a time when I would have said that Woody Allen’s films are not New York, but I can’t say that anymore, because it’s his New York, and that’s legitimate. Scorsese. Sidney Lumet, back in the day, at least.

Now, when you say “New York film” to most people, the first name they think of is Weinstein.

S.L.: New York? Look at all this Shakespeare stuff they do. And English Patient – how’s that New York? What film are you talking about?

Miramax is perceived as the center of New York filmmaking.

S.L.: What they do, they do very well. They’re beating the studio at their own game, so more power to Harvey and Bob.

So you’d work for Miramax?

S.L.: Sure. But I’m not gonna do it for free laughs. And Harvey’s not going to be in the editing room, either.

That could be a problem. But what about Spike Lee’s New York? What would you want someone to learn about the city from your movies?

S.L.: Just the diversity of it. That it is a true melting pot, and you have all these factions and cultures and languages and all this stuff that you think would be a recipe for chaos – but it works. That’s the amazing thing, that it works.

And today, there’s no serial killer who takes orders from a talking dog.

S.L.: Laughs Right. I still think this is the greatest city in the world.

Helluva Summer