Spike Lee Embraces Unsigned Hype and The Director’s Learning Curve

Movies Features Spike Lee

Oftentimes when we come face to face with a great artist or a great work of art, we say that such a thing or person is “ahead of their time.” Looking back on Spike Lee’s career, it’s abundantly clear that he is, somehow, both a creator of his time and of the moment, even as his lens prophesies the future. In a conversation about Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, he reflects back on earlier works like 1989’s Do The Right Thing, which became even more significant with last year’s tragedies in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and other places where unarmed blacks were killed by police officers. At times, it seems like it’s still the hottest day in N.Y.C., and Mookie is still posted up on the block—Lee’s stories remain increasingly relevant (the tragedy of a slow-changing world, but a triumph for his craft). But Lee has also moved on from his iconic projects to new works, in very modern, social media-driven times.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, starring Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams, is an independent romantic-comedy horror film (and a reinterpretation of Bill Gunn’s cult movie, Ganja & Hess) that centers on a doctor cursed with an addiction to blood that once took over a long-forgotten tribe in Africa. In addition to using Kickstarter to fund the project, Lee curated the soundtrack using talented, unsigned artists who submitted their work following a major announcement Lee made on social media.

Lee hosted an intimate listening session at the Lightbox in New York earlier this week—intimate not because of the size of the crowd, but because of his insistence that everyone follow along to the songs with a packet of lyrics that were handed out to attendees. Lee reminded us that, back in the day, people read along to the lyrics when they got back from the record store and put on that new vinyl. Before we tuned in to the eclectic soundtrack (featuring everything from dance tracks to hip-hop to old school-inspired R&B), Paste caught up with Lee to talk about his new film, the creative process and the main challenge for new and established black filmmakers.

Paste Magazine: I wanted to first talk about the idea for reaching out to indie artists. Did you think they had something specific to offer the soundtrack?
Spike Lee: Talent! This is something you’re definitely not going to hear on the radio, because the radio basically sounds all the same to me.

Paste: One song that stood out to me was track four. I didn’t get the names of the artists, but the song is called “Coochie Time,” and it was fantastic.
Lee: Nou Ra.
Paste: I’ll remember the name! Is she here tonight?
Lee: No, she’s in Brighton, England.

Paste: That’s interesting, because I was also thinking about the actors in Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams are both British, and we saw some great performances last year from people of color across the pond.
Lee: Black Brits, yeah. There are talented black people all over the world. Let’s not pretend that it’s just in the United States or England!

Paste: Yes.
Lee: Global black talent. All over the world.

When I first saw Zaraah, it was in one of my student’s films at NYU. She was a co-star. She wasn’t even the star, so I told my student, “You got it mixed up.” I asked for her contact information, and she came and auditioned for me, and that’s how she got the part.

Paste: After all these years, do you go into each new project making specific attempts to try something different?
Lee: Yes, I have to. Because I get bored with doing the same thing. When She’s Gotta Have It became a hit, the biggest thing people wanted me to do was make a sequel. So, my second film would have been She’s Gotta Have It, 2! I didn’t want to do that. If you look at my body of work from She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus in 2015, I’ve definitely not been doing the same thing.

Paste:You have so many iconic music moments in your films. Can you talk about the decision-making process with the score and soundtrack? How do you decide on a particular piece of music for a scene?
Lee: I just gotta feel it. I’ve been doing this since 1986, so it just comes down to that instinct—does it fit? A lot of times, people don’t understand how a song can be the complete opposite of what a scene is about. The worst thing you can do is hit too much on the head. But in the editing room, we might put the song in one scene, and then see that it works better somewhere else. So there’s a lot of moving around, and trying to see what’s the best fit.

Paste: I read an interview that you had with Ava DuVernay back when Red Hook Summer was coming out. You both talked about the fact that making a film is difficult for any filmmaker, but black filmmakers obviously have a different kind of “difficult.” Much of that we don’t have any control over, but do you think we need more black filmmakers who are willing to explore other genres, like horror?
Lee: Genre is not the problem. The problem is the money. That’s the basic, fundamental deterrent from more things being made. The bottom line.

Paste: Absolutely. Now, last year was the 25th anniversary of Do The Right Thing.
Lee: [nods] June 30th.

Paste: Because of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and Eric Garner’s in New York, people were able to look back and see that the same film, basically, could be made today.
Lee: When I saw the NYPD chokehold of Eric Garner, I was like, “That’s Radio Raheem.” So my editor Barry Brown and I made a clip cutting the real-life murder of Eric Garner with the scene in the film.

Paste: Do you have any hopes for a future film about Ferguson, or the Eric Garner story—from you, or from another director?
Lee: Oh, yes. But it won’t be me. Someone else has to do it.

Paste: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is another movie where you’re playing around with religion in an interesting way. Do you ever worry about how audiences will interpret, or misinterpret, what you’re trying to do?
Lee: No. I wouldn’t say I’m “playing around” with it. I would use the word “exploring.” To me it just comes down to basic storytelling. Whether you’re dealing with religion or with music, or sexual politics, or racism, first and foremost it must be [about] the story.

Paste: I know you wrote Do The Right Thing in two weeks, just waking up in the morning and writing for a few hours every day. What was your writing process like with this?
Lee: Well, I’m always writing in the morning. That hasn’t changed. But this was different because I was rewriting the script from the original film Ganja & Hess, so it didn’t take too long.

Paste: Earlier you said that a lot of filmmaking comes down to instinct. Would you say that’s something you had to learn over time—to trust your instincts?
Lee: Oh, yeah. I didn’t have that right away. That’s after many, many, many hours [of work]. The process is a learning experience. Trying to hone your craft—how you make the music work, how you make cinematography work, how you use editing, all that stuff. These are all the tools a director uses to tell his story.

Paste: Now that you know to trust your instinct, does that make the filmmaking process easier?
Lee: There’s nothing easy about making a film. Some things are harder than others. But there’s nothing easy about it.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is now available on Vimeo On Demand, ahead of its February 13 theatrical release. The soundtrack (featuring songs from Illegalize, Nou, The Izm, Siedah Garrett and more) is available now on iTunes.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.

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