Unlike many of his contemporaries, Spike Lee didn’t ride coattails or transplant himself to Tinseltown to stamp his mark in the film biz. ‘I didn’t have any relatives in the industry, so that wasn’t going to work,’ said Lee in a recent interview with Internet TV network Babelgum. ‘And it wasn’t going to work to move out to la and work myself up from the mail room; I was not going to move out to la and knock on doors with a script.’
No matter, because his career flourished all the same. Since the early ’80s, Lee has worn numerous hats as director, producer, writer and actor. His body of work includes such memorable fiction features as Do the Right Thing and Summer of Sam, and his strong visual style and ability to unearth remarkable characters have parlayed well into his documentary work. Take When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, his Emmy Award-winning collaboration with HBO that revealed the fallout of Hurricane Katrina. This caliber of work has led to Lee being honored at Silverdocs’ Charles Guggenheim Symposium in June.
The roots of Lee’s career stem back to his days at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His three formative years there were the ones in which Lee says he became a filmmaker, and a few years after his 1982 graduation he made his first feature-length film, She’s Gotta Have It.
In a funding patchwork docmakers will recognize, Lee pieced that 1986 film’s US$175,000 budget together with a mix of grants, donations and a limited partnership. He even saved empty cans and bottles during the shoot to get the nickel deposit. ‘With those empties, we were able to buy two more rolls of film,’ recalls Lee, ‘so that film was literally put together nickel by nickel, dime by dime.’ She’s Gotta Have It went on to gross over $7 million, and set up Lee for his next endeavors. One such venture happened in 1987, when Lee founded New York-based 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks (a prodco celebrated on realscreen‘s Global 100 last year).
From those days on, Lee has backed young talent, often using green-to-the-scene workers in front of and behind the camera on his own films. ‘Any art that wants to move forward, that does not want to be stagnant, has to have an injection of young talent,’ says Lee. He’s been surrounded by such talent for the past 10 years as a professor at NYU’s graduate film school. ‘I’m also artistic director of the film school, so I know what students go through and how frustrating it can be to make a very good film and it not be seen,’ says Lee.
That’s where the Babelgum Online Film Festival, created to showcase new talent, enters the picture. As head of the fest’s jury, Lee says, ‘With film festivals like [this], young people can get their work seen. Technology has really brought a democracy to everything.’ The proof is in the numbers. There were over 1,000 entries from 86 countries for the festival, one-fifth of which were from students. (The winning film in the documentary category was Greater – Defeating AIDS.) Lee is onboard with the festival’s aim to cheer on emerging filmmakers. ‘That’s great because what young artists need more than anything is encouragement, and the place to show the world who they are and what they can do,’ he says.
Even though Lee’s been proving what he can do on-screen for the past 30 years, he isn’t one to downplay the challenges of filmmaking. ‘Film is the art form of the 20th and 21st centuries – it’s alive, and it reaches the masses,’ he says. ‘And on the rare occasions when it works, it’s amazing. As a filmmaker, the reason there aren’t a lot of great films is because it is hard to make a good film. It’s a miracle stuff turns out decent. There are so many factors that go into it… you are working with hundreds, maybe thousands of people.’
Lee’s realist approach also comes across when he describes the film business and how he’s managed to succeed in it. ‘This industry is no joke,’ says Lee. ‘There’re a whole lot of people that are broke, they’re never going to make it and their dreams have been crushed. What I’ve been able to do is really because I have talent, I work very, very hard, [have good] timing and luck.’ And those nickel deposits don’t hurt either.