Critically acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee has never been one to shy away from controversial topics. From his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It to his 2006 box-office smash Inside Man, the Brooklyn native has tackled hot button issues head on in his films and placed them in a realm for society to reflect. In the latest chapter of his “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, Red Hook Summer, Lee tells the story of Flik Royale, a sullen young boy from middle-class Atlanta who has come to spend an unforgettable summer with his deeply religious grandfather, Da Bishop Enoch Rouse, in Red Hook– one of Brooklyn’s most notorious housing projects. Through the lens of this teenage boy, Lee explores the culture shock of inner-city life, while examining gentrification, religion and substance abuse. On the eve of his premiere, Life + Times sat down with the award-winning director, at his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks studio, located in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, to discuss his new joint, gun control, his foray into advertising and New York’s new subway series.
Life + Times: If I’m not mistaken, the film was shot in 18 days. What challenges did you face shooting in such a limited amount of time?
Spike Lee: 18 days, you got to get it done. It was not a lot of time for shuckin’ and jivin’ [because] a lot could go wrong on a film shoot. So you just hope that you’ve done enough preparation. You got to move fast but hopefully not moving so fast that it affects the performance of the actors. That’s something you always have to juggle. That you always have to weigh. And the more pages you shoot a day, the quicker you can go, but there can’t be any fault on the acting. The actors don’t like to feel like they’re being rushed. There has to be enough takes.
L+T: Was the short time frame a decision of yours? Or was it due to unforeseen circumstances?
Spike: The budget. The budget determines how many days you shoot. I had to finance the film myself, so it was roughly three six-day weeks. And we shot everything within a 10-block radius.
L+T: In self-financing the film, the way the film was shot seemed guerrilla. Parts of the film have a grainy effect.
Spike: There was a lot of handle. The grainy stuff was a Super 8 [camera] we shot with. And the rest was a Sony F3 digital camera.
L+T: The film tackles a lot of modern day themes, especially in the African-American community, from gentrification to substance abuse and child molestation. When you first sat down to write the script were those particular topics, subjects you wanted to address? Or did it evolve over time?
Spike: I co-wrote it with James McBride, so we had many meetings and we talked about the stuff we liked to explore and it was like an evolution of the final product, which you saw. There are a lot of buried secrets that a lot of people don’t want to talk about.
L+T: Religion was the common theme throughout the film.
Spike: Well I did not grow up in a religious household, James McBride did. In fact, the church that we actually shot in, his parents founded the church, the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. Also, James grew up in Red Hook and I grew up in Fort Greene.
L+T: This is the sixth installment in your “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, with Red Hook being the featured neighborhood. Did Carmelo Anthony becoming a member of the New York Knicks serve as an inspiration for you to explore Red Hook?
Spike: Yeah, because it was crazy. The Knicks make the trade for Carmelo. He signs a deal for Boost Mobile. The guy I know that works there calls me up and says, “we’re going to do a short film on Carmelo that we’re going to put on the Internet.” I said, “fine.” And I remember Carmelo being from Red Hook so I say, “let’s do this: We start at the [Madison Square] Garden. We get in the car. You talk about growing up, your whole life. And then we get out at Red Hook and you greet the people there.” And so, as I said before, James McBride grew up in Red Hook. Red Hook is a very strange neighborhood. Very strange. So all those elements combined dictated where this next chapter of my “Brooklyn Chronicles” should take place.
L+T: When did you decide to reprise your role as Mookie from Do The Right Thing in Red Hook?
Spike: I can’t really tell you. But somewhere before we started writing I thought to myself it might be good. We bring back Nola Darling too.
L+T: Yes, I did notice her character as well, but Mookie’s delivering pizza a long way from Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Spike: Yea, but Sal moved Sal’s Famous Pizzeria from Bed-Sty to Red Hook. [Laughs] But Mookie didn’t want to go, but then Sal was unhappy because he was hiring these Mexicans [laughs] and they were going to the wrong address and people were getting their pizza and the cheese slid to one side, [Laughs] so he had to break down and call Mookie. And Mookie asked Sal if he put any sistas and brothas on the wall, and Sal said yes. Now, there’s sistas and brothas on the wall of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Red Hook.
L+T: So will Mookie make another cameo in a new chapter?
Spike: So he can throw another garbage can through a window? [Laughs] Mookie’s done throwing garbage cans through pizzeria windows. [Laughs]
L+T: You also touch on modern day technology in the film. The iPad was a prevalent tool throughout. You show how technology connects people, but you also explore on how these advancements contribute to people losing touch with one another and/or find it hard to communicate face to face. How important was it for you tackle that topic?
Spike: It was very important, but the biggest influence of technology in the film, was that I have teenage kids. And the stuff they do amazes me. On the phone, computer, headphones…I mean they’re like juggling eight or nine things at a time. Proficiently. It’s second nature. So, I wanted that reflected in the characters of Chazz and Flik.
L+T: When did you discover Jules Brown (Flik) and Toni Lysaith (Chazz)?
Spike: Well, down the block there’s a junior high school called Ronald L. Edmonds, I went there, but the name has changed. They have a wonderful drama teacher; his name is Mr. Edward Robinson. When I wrote the script, I was positive I would find Chazz and Flik there. So I sat in the back of Mr. Robinson class and just checked out his students.
L+T: What stood out to you the most about Juels and Toni?
Spike: They just had what I was looking for. And then once I identified them, I had them in multiple auditions.
L+T: Switching topics, with the release of the film, you’ve probably haven’t had that much time to catch Team USA compete in London. It’s been Melo’s redemption. As the leader of the Knicks, lately, he’s been catching a bad rap. What are your thoughts on it?
Spike: He just needs to carry it over to the season. Just carry it over.
L+T: What are your thoughts on the new subway series (The Brooklyn Nets vs The New York Knicks)?
Spike: I’m going with the Knicks, baby. JAY-Z, orange and blue, baby. [Laughs] It’s going to be fun though. It’s great for New York. It’s great for Brooklyn. It’s great for the NBA.
L+T: Are you going to attend opening night at Barclays on Nov. 1 with the Nets taking on the Knicks?
Spike: I’ll be there.
L+T: Your latest venture is Spike/DDB, a full-service advertising agency. You’ve touched on advertising before with Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon. What made you want to take the plunge into this new arena?
Spike: Well Spike/DDB is 10 years old. And the thing is I was doing commercials, but as a director I was just executing other people’s concepts and I really wanted to have more creativity. The best way to do that is coming up with the ideas for the spots from the beginning.
L+T: Was it a challenge for you? Or was it a seamless transition?
Spike: Oh yeah! Advertising is a big challenge. It’s a hard thing to do…just trying to get those accounts is no joke.
L+T: One issue that you’ve always addressed in your films is gun violence. With the recent tragic events in Aurora, Colorado and Wisconsin, do you think gun control will be a big topic in this coming election?
Spike: Well, I hope so. These guns are out of control. Out of control. People get fed up, man. And in the inner city, if you look at New York, you look at Chicago, New Orleans; it’s young brothers killing young brothers. And when they aren’t shooting straight they’re killing innocent people. We got to stop that.
Red Hook Summer opens this Friday August 10 in New York City and wider on August 24. Click here to find out more about the film.