Spike Lee is a spellbinder. I got wrapped up in my conversation with him at the Toronto festival, after the premiere of “Miracle at St. Anna," which opens Sept. 26. This is a very lightly edited transcript, with my questions removed to capture Spike's voice.
Growing up, I was a kid in Brooklyn with my siblings, we loved war films, you know. Three little boys, so it was fun to see the Germans get shot and blown up and stuff like that; we just, you know, we’re kids the same way, you know--you want the Indians to beat the big cowboys. But later as I became an adult, I saw that there was a great omission of the contribution of 1.1 million African American men and women who fought against and contributed the war effort. Even growing up as a kid looking at those war films, I knew that black people were involved in the war because my father’s two older brothers were World War II. They were part of the famous Red Ball Express.
I'll explain that. Patton’s army, the 5th Army, was advancing so far in the drive to Germany they were outdistancing the supply line. So Patton didn’t wanna stop and said, “You guys gotta keep giving me--I need ammunition, I need fuel, and I need food.” So they got this group black drivers that went constantly back and forth, and they drove in very, very dangerous conditions through enemy territory, Nazi territory, and a lot of times they’d drive at night with no lights on. So I knew about that.
But that still did not stop me from enjoying World War II films as a kid. And so, go back a little bit further, I’d been coming to Italy since 1986 with my first film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” to do the press for it and every time I’ve come to Italy, since 1986, Italian journalists would say, “Spike, when you gonna shoot a film here in Italy?” So when I read James McBride’s novel, it was like a gift from above; here was a World War II picture I could do and it took place in Italy.
This film can be corrective to the history of Hollywood films in what I feel is the disrespect and omission of these patriotic men. I think it’s much easier to be a patriot, It’s much easier to pick up a gun and fight for the red, white and blue when you have all the full rights of an American citizen. I think it takes even more of a patriot to fight for the red, white and blue when you’re still being lynched in the Jim Crow south. Because of James McBride, I’ve met many of the men that he used in the research for, men who fought in World War II, guys who were in the 92nd, and said they would do it again. But they still have this bitterness about how they were treated.
For me, Derek Luke’s character in the film thinks like Dr. King. Michael Ealy’s character is more like Malcolm X, so you’re always gonna have those two philosophies that clash. Before that, it was W.E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. You’re always gonna have that. So Derek’s character says, “I’m doin’ it because one day….I’m fighting’ for my country, for my children, for my grandchildren,” which leads us today to possibly Barak Obama being the first African American president of the United States. So what Barak is doin’ is building upon these black men that fought in World War II and fought in WWI; it’s built upon Crispus Atticus, who was the first person who died for this country, against the English Empire.
There’s a scene in the film which is very dear to me and it wasn’t in the novel and I told James, "you have to write this." It's the flashback, when they’re in Louisiana. And here’s the thing. Let’s just try to put ourselves in the shoes of these black men who weren’t enlisted, they signed up. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, black and white men signed up in droves. So here you are, you signed up, you wanna fight for the red, white and blue, most of the black troops were trained in the south. Another little known fact, thousands upon thousands of German POWs were shipped from European Theatre to the states to be imprisoned and a majority of them were shipped in the south, or were based in the south, and they shared the bases with the black soldiers were being trained.
So let’s put ourselves in these men’s shoes. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, United States declares war on Japan and Germany and we're right there. You’re there because you wanna fight for your country; you believe in democracy. You’re being trained to kill Nazi’s. On the same base where you’re being trained you see Nazi POWs who are getting better housing, better food and better health care.
Wow, how’d that make you feel?
These guys today, they still have this bitterness. I mean, they still think about how they treated, and thank God for Eleanor Roosevelt, because if it wasn’t for her prodding FDR, black soldiers would never been allowed to fight in World War II. That was her kicking his ass every night in the White House saying, “you have to let these Negro soldiers fight.” It was Eleanor Roosevelt.
I told him, "You mother******, if you don’t lose 60 pounds, you’re not gonna get the role.” So I paid for a dietitian and a trainer and he lost 60 pounds for the role. He’s a great actor. You know, when you read the book, you say you're gonna have a giant, so automatically I thought of casting a basketball player or a football player but then I said, this role’s too important to do that. So my great casting director, Kim Coleman, said I should think about Omar. I’d seen Omar in “8 Mile." I hadn’t seen the film in a while but I remembered he’s much bigger than everybody else in the film. So then I met him, his audition was wonderful. I said, "you got the role, man, but here’s the date and if you can’t lose 60 pounds by this date, we’re going’ to Italy without your ass." And thank God, he wanted the role. He’s amazing. Also, I’d like to say he’s in this new film coming out, “The Express,” about Ernie Davis who was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. It’s coming’ like a week after so he has two films coming out.
Matteo Sciabordi. Well, Roger, here’s the thing. I’m a competent filmmaker so I knew I could make a good film but if I did not get a kid that could pull this off, the film would be a disaster. So we had open call in Florence and 5,000 kids who lived in Florence and around Florence, showed up to audition. I did not see 5,000; I’m not crazy.
I saw the final 100 and thank God, Matteo came through. I think, maybe I’m biased, but I think his performance is just as good as the kid in “The Bicycle Thief.” And Roger, I’d like to say I feel that this film is in a direct lineage of a post-war Italian neo-realism films like “The Bicycle Thief,” “Rome Open City,” “Paisan,” “Shoeshine,” “Miracle at Milan,” “Bellissimo.” The one thing that connects those great films by DeSica and Rossellini -- one of the key characters is always a kid. And they always show the effect of war on children and the amazing thing, when James McBride wrote the book, he’s not even a cinephile, so the spirit must have been with him to include a kid in the novel.
McBride’s first book, “The Color of Water,” was a huge success. New York Times best-seller list for 2 years. It was about his white mother who raised him and his siblings in Brooklyn as a single parent. And the second book, “Miracle at St. Anna,” he started when he was a kid. He had an uncle that when he used to get drunk, he’d started talking’ all this crazy tales about, “when I was in World War II in Italy, they loved me in Italy; we were treated like kings in Italy.” And as a kid, he didn’t think much of it. In fact, what’s amazing, is that James McBride and I are one year apart; we both grew up in the same neighborhood, Fourth and Brooklyn, but we didn’t know each other. So when he was looking for an idea for his second book, he thought about this crazy uncle he had who fought in World War II and that’s how it started, when he started doing research on the 92nd Division, the Buffalo Soldiers.
What struck me was that thank God I was born in 1957. I was born too early for World War II and too late for Vietnam. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d been in the position where I’d been put in the position where you have to kill somebody. I know they’re trying’ to kill you too. I’ve thought about how heroic they are, how patriotic they are, and also, the dignity and their grace. Two days ago, we assembled a group of Buffalo Soldiers and also two Tuskegee Airmen for a segment we’re gonna have on the DVD. We had a roundtable; we just let these great men talk about their experiences in World War II. I just felt honored to be at the table listening to these men, American patriots talk about their experiences and how by the grace of God they were alive, and their comrades didn’t make it.
So that’s why I free. People have asked me, "so Spike, aren’t you worried about the Iraq war?" A lot of these films about the Iraq war, no one’s going to, no one pays attention. I’m saying the Iraq war and World War II are two entirely different things. It’s my opinion that World War II is the last film where the United States had moral high ground. It was the last war that I feel that we were right about. Korean War, to stem the tide of Communism. Same thing with Vietnam. And this mess in the Gulf War and Afghanistan and Iraq, you know, this whole weapons of mass destruction. So that’s why I feel that audiences feel differently about World War II. Also, if you look at the genres of Hollywood films, this is a staple, the World War II film, and we feel there’s enough of a twist that people come out to see it. because I don’t think there’s been another film like this. And not just the fact that there’s black people in it either; there's a whole lot of other stuff goin’ on with it too.
It was like eight men at the roundtable. And two of ‘em, Lee Archer and Roscoe Brown, was the 8th pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen, which I might add, this spring George Lucas is finally doin’ his Tuskegee Airmen film, “Red Tails." He’s gonna produce it and a young African- American director, Anthony Hemingway, is gonna direct it. He’s done several episodic TVs, and is a young director so I’m looking forward to that and hopefully “Miracle at St. Anna" with “Red Tails” coming’ up will generate more films to show the untold story about the participation. A lot of people know about fact that the Nisei, they were Japanese American unit that fought in Europe, an all Japanese-American unit that fought in Europe for United States of America against the Nazis. That movie’s never been done either so there’s a whole lot of stuff.
We gotta walk up some stoops. We’re walking’ up mountains and a lot of stuff, vehicles, couldn’t get up the mountains so guys had to carry that stuff.. It was great shooting in the mountains of Tuscany for this film. It was great to be able to shoot in actual locations where these events took place; the opening, the battle, the Serchio River, that took place. And also was very spooky, Roger, to shoot this thing in St. Anna’s di Stazzema. We shot at the actual location where that massacre took place on August 12, 1944, there were 560 innocent Italian men and women, elderly men and women, children, slaughtered by the 16th Division of the SS and I’ve never, ever felt, I’ve never, ever shot a scene like that before where you could feel the spirit and the ghosts of those murdered people there. Everybody felt it, and it was hard to do. The hardest shot in doin’ the film, we had to bayonet the baby; that was rough. In fact, the Italian stuntman played that Nazi; his name is Georgio. He’s Italian, he’s one of the lead stuntman; he played that Nazi soldier. That whole day, all the Italian extras, they hated him. They were spitting at him and he was like, ”I’m just an actor!” But it was so real. That was rough, doin’ that shot.
James and I worked hard to do the same thing even for the Nazi characters. We’ve all seen too many films where the Nazis are just like cardboard, one dimensional human beings. Now, I’m not gonna belittle the horror and the brutality that the Nazis did but we felt that we could not portray all the Nazis like that and the German actors really appreciated that too.
I do not speak Italian. I do not speak German. So I spent like weeks in Rome auditioning Italian actors, many of them who could not speak English, and I spent three days in Berlin auditioning the German actors. So I had to rely heavily on my casting directors and they did a great job bringing me the best talent that there was. Everybody knew we were there casting, so we saw the best talent in Germany and Italy and I’m amazed. In fact, to be honest, I think the German and Italian actors in the film are better than the Americans, not to say that the American actors suck, they were great, but the German and the Italian actors, they were kicking’ ass.
The grey hair in my head is a testament to that. But I’d like to say--I want to take this moment and please put this in the interview, if you will. You’ve been very instrumental in my development as a filmmaker and I’ll always remember in Cannes when you said "if this film doesn’t win the prize I'm never coming back." And I said, "Roger, don’t do that!" But I understood the sentiment and I really, really appreciate that because people look back at “Do the Right Thing,” a lot of people don’t understand what actually happened there.
There were several powerful forces who were trying to talk Tom Pollack, then the president of Universal Pictures, not to release this film. It was believed that if this film was released in the United States, especially during the summer, it would incite African- Americans all over the country to riot. And thank God for your support and Tom Pollack, who could’ve easily squash it because previous to that he caught hell “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He caught so much hell he needed bodyguards, so Tom Pollack could have easily said, “You know what, this is too much, Spike, you know, I can’t do this.” But he stood up and so there’s various people who have helped me to where I am today so I wanna thank you for that. And that’s on the real, that’s no BS. I appreciate it.
Now, you can buy a great camera for under $1,000, HD, and I’m certain that in the next couple of years someone’s gonna make a film on their cell phone that’s gonna be great. But I think that no matter what the technology is, you still have to have content and whether we’re in the caves, painting pictures on the wall with mud, or shooting feature films with your cell phone, we still have to tell stories. I’ve always felt that my favorite filmmakers were those who were great storytellers. There’s always gonna a need for great storytellers, always gonna be a need for content. Just because it’s more democratic now, with more people have access to equipment, that doesn’t mean that many more good films, just many more people doing it. I’m of the generation that went to film school, not because we wanted to get a degree film from USC or NYU or AFI. You just went to film school to access to the equipment. Now people don’t have to do that; they just cut their films on the AVID and it’s a lot cheaper than the tuition. You know, film schools, now you have to pay for tuition; you gotta pay for your films also.
It really depends on the film. Some films, I think, lend themselves more to one or the other. Now, my man, George Lucas, I wanna give out a shout-out for George Lucas because he helped us out with this. Industrial Light and Magic did the sets for this and he went way beyond helping’ us. He was a big, big, big help. I’m partial to film, but it’s getting' harder and harder to tell. Especially when a lot of these theatres have digital projection. They’re not even projecting’ films. But we live in a very interesting time now and I’m just glad that we’re here to see it.
You gotta tell a story. You have to engage the audience, you have to tell a story and for me, I don’t even make a distinction between documentary films and my narrative films. People ask, “so Spike, you went from ‘Inside Man’ to ‘When the Levees Broke,’ is that a hard thing to do?” No, it’s not like I had to flip the switch; it’s still storytelling. So you still think of ii. Look, when I did Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, that was a 30-second story. If I do a 4-hour documentary like “When the Levees Broke,” that’s still telling a story, or a feature like “Inside Man,” that’s still telling stories. Whether it’s a commercial or this or that, I don't let that trip me up. That’s why there’s no need for me to say, oh-oh, wait a minute, I have to click another switch in my brain, or put on another hat. It’s not like that at all.