Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Spike Lee

A Hard Day's Fight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Spike Lee casually slurps down a bowl of the XYZ restaurant's linguini with clams while talking about the pets he had growing up: two Dachshunds named Schnitzel and Baron.

"I hate cats," he says. "My children have a gerbil. They want a dog but they can't take care of him yet."

The subject of pets has come up because of an early scene in Lee's outstanding new film 25th Hour -- easily his best work since Do the Right Thing. The film opens in the Bay Area on Friday, Jan. 10

In the film's opening scene, drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) and his sidekick, the enormous Russian bodyguard Kostya Novotny (Tony Siragusa), discover a dead dog near a garbage pile. Not quite dead, it turns out -- just beaten very badly. Monty takes a liking to the dog, who still "has a lot of fight left in him," and rescues the snarling animal at great personal risk.

The next time we see Monty, he's been "pinched" and has only 24 hours left on the street before he goes to prison. He sits on a pier staring out at the water with his now-healed and faithful dog at his side.

Over the course of the day, he spends time with the most important people in his life: his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), his father, retired firefighter James Brogan (Brian Cox) and his two best friends from childhood, slick Wall Street player Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) and meek high school poetry teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Actor Tobey Maguire first discovered David Benioff's novel and originally hoped to play Monty before he landed the role of Spider-Man. Maguire's interest allowed Benioff to write his own screenplay (his first).

Though Lee loved the script, he decided to make one important change; he wanted to set the story in a distinctly post-9/11 world.

"When he wrote the novel, 9/11 hadn't happened," Lee says. "We just felt that we had to do this. Hollywood blew too many opportunities with CGI, getting rid of the Towers. I think they really underestimate the intelligence of the American movie audience, thinking they won't be able to deal with it. That's bulls---."

Lee opens 25th Hour with a poetic, powerful title sequence featuring the columns of light that commemorated the World Trade Center victims. The rest of the film includes overt references to Osama Bin Laden and the American flag. But the most powerful scene takes place when Jacob meets Francis in the latter's Wall Street apartment and they discuss Monty's future while looking out the window, down onto Ground Zero's smoldering remains.

The shot is powerful enough in its own right, but Lee holds the image much longer than any other director would dare.

Which brings Lee to the subject of editing -- another bone he has to pick. "I'm not trying to say I'm like Orson Welles," he says, "but a lot of this editing today, it's because directors don't know what they want. So they shoot as many angles as they can, shoot as much footage as you can, and then put the s--- together in the editing room."

The director cites Mouline Rouge as a recent example. He says that despite the beautiful art direction and cinematography, the editing nearly gave him an epileptic fit.

"Maybe I'm old style," he says, "but I like the musicals directed by Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli. They took the time to match the camera to the choreography, so you wouldn't have to have a lot of cuts. They showed the human body from head-to-toe so you can see the dance."

"Just because you have numerous angles, doesn't mean you have to use every single angle."

Of course, 25th Hour isn't a musical, but there is something lyrical about the film's brilliant performances. Even Barry Pepper, who has taken a critical beating for his appearances in Battlefield Earth and Knockaround Guys, is exceptional.

"The first thing is casting," Lee says, likening a movie set to a sports team: a good coach can't do anything unless he has the players.

After that, Lee's biggest secret is two weeks of rehearsal before shooting. "Actors love rehearsal. It really helps. I don't want to be on the set with the clock ticking and have to go with some of that philosophical 'what's my character doing now' bulls---. A lot of films, people show up on set and haven't even met the actors who will be playing their wives or husbands or brothers."

Ever the consummate professional, it's almost hard to equate this Lee with the goofy one who played Mars Blackmon in She's Gotta Have It, Lee's unforgettable 1986 feature debut. At the time, black filmmakers were few and far between, but things have changed, thanks to Lee.

On the plus side, he says, more black artists have been working both in front of and behind the camera.

"But," he continues, "I would say, sadly, that African Americans today are relegated to three ghettos in film: the romantic comedies like Brown Sugar, the lowbrow comedies like Friday and Juwanna Mann and the gangsta/hip-hop/ghetto/shoot-em-up/drug movie."

He also cites the critically acclaimed Barbershop, singling out the two bumbling characters who spend the entire film trying to break into a stolen ATM machine. "Those two guys were really 'Stepin Fetchit.'"

But Lee himself remains a paragon, standing virtually alone in his field and ranking art ahead of commerce. "I know there are exceptions to the rule, but that's what we've been relegated to. It really diminishes a lot of other great stories that could be told."

January 1, 2003

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