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Finest Hour
The Spike Lee Interview
Spike Lee
Spike Lee
(photo by Seth Kushner)

January 16, 2003 | Spike Lee has been making some of the most New York-centric films around since emerging from Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. Starting with his well-known NYU short Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee has almost always taken the volatile mix of social, political and personal turmoil that New York fosters in its citizens as a cinematic jump-off point.

Among his best films are Jungle Fever, Clockers and his feature debut, She's Gotta Have It, all of which investigate the way people in the five boroughs deal with their differences. His finest film, the endlessly complex Do the Right Thing, threw nearly every -ism and -phobia on the screen and left the bewildered audience to sort the mess out. Lee is often pigeon-holed as a director of "black" movies but its really the movies that he's made outside of his hometown (School Daze, Get on the Bus, 4 Little Girls, all excellent) that are most singularly about the black experience. His NYC movies are more about being a New Yorker, thrown in with every other ethnic group, all packed together, and forced to work out all the world's problems on a tiny stage.

His latest, 25th Hour, joins the list of his best with its depiction of the last free hours of Monty Brogan (Ed Norton) as he prepares for a seven year prison sentence under New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Aside from Norton, Lee packs 25th Hour with a tremendously talented cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and the newly-ubiquitous Brian Cox all do excellent work as real, flawed, damaged people.

The thing that really makes 25th Hour (based on a novel and screenplay by David Benioff) stand out is that it is set in post-9/11 New York, with all that comes with it. Characters somberly refer to the devastation of the World Trade Center and the loss of so many firefighters. One key conversation about the loss Monty faces takes place overlooking the ghostly Ground Zero recovery effort. Even the opening credit sequence, a moving, provocative montage of images from the Tribute in Light, has the sorrowful feel befitting such an austere monument.

But the film isn't a tribute to September 11th. Rather, its a celebration of the persistence of the New York (and American) spirit; tested, bruised but not broken. Monty goes through a crisis over his impending imprisonment that parallels the trauma felt by many New Yorkers following 9/11. Granted, Monty's getting what he deserves but he knows it and the sense of dread and sorrow is there all the same. Characters don't always talk about the attack in explicit detail but they do reference it in the way that everyone in New York does, everyday. Lee's film is the first narrative feature to take place in a world where 9/11 is a fact, a given, an intrinsic part of life. His film isn't about 9/11; It's about a world that's about 9/11.

Cinema Gotham recently had the chance to chat with Lee about his film, working in the city, and even tell him something about Brooklyn that he never knew.

Spike Lee
Spike Lee and Ed Norton on
the set of 25th Hour

Cinema Gotham: I wanted to talk to you a little about the way your movies work with the city. Monty has a complicated relationship with the city. You really bring that out in the scene where he basically tells every ethnic and economic group in the city to fuck off. I know that scene was in the book but I was wondering if that's a sense you brought to the project.

Spike Lee: Well, I think that anyone who lives in New York, who's lived here, who's spent any time here, knows that it's basically a love-hate relationship, you might say. Even though I still think it's the greatest city in the world and I wouldn't live anywhere else there're still things about it one doesn't like. The love far outweighs the negative.

Norton and Doyle
Norton and "Doyle"
CG: How have your feelings changed over the years?

SL: I love New York. I'm just... It's getting very expensive for people to live here. And also, I mean, if I was mayor I really would look out for affordable housing. And also the public education here is terrible. So I mean, you can't afford a place to live and education is terrible. Those are two key things. And I'm just very fortunate that I'm able to pay for my kids to go to private school but everybody doesn't have that. I'm a product of New York City public school education from kindergarten to John Dewey High School in Coney Island. But the public education's gone down since then.

CG: There's a lot of reform going on.

SL: I saw in the paper today where [former CEO] Jack Welsch from GE, they brought him in. I mean, I don't want to be a hater but I don't know what... I'll be interested to see what effect that has.

CG: It's surreal.

SL: If he brings some of those billions with him and they put them into the school system that'll be good. That's not really the way business works.

CG: How do you find working in the city?

SL: 25th Hour, like a lot of my films, takes place in New York City. I've been very fortunate to make films in the city that I live. I mean it's great going home at night instead of being on location. I think the best actors in the world are here in New York City. And this city is just so vibrant the energy is just phenomenal. Great crews here. All the technicians, all the artists that work in this industry. I've just been very happy with the body that we've been able to do, especially those films we shot here in New York City.

CG: You've done some innovative things over the years, too. I remember reading that you created mentoring programs with the unions.

Dawson in 25th Hour
Dawson in 25th Hour
SL: Oh, yeah, we've always been proactive in having mentoring programs, having internships, trying to work with the unions so they can encourage more people of color getting into them. Unions which historically have been closed off to those people. So it's been a process. A long, long, long process.

CG: How do you think the process of making films in city has changed over your career?

SL: I just think that the unions realize they have to be more flexible. The people that live here want to work here but if it's cost prohibitive people go elsewhere. And right now a lot of people are still choosing to go to Toronto instead of shooting in New York City, something I haven't done and something I hope I'll never have to do.

CG: Is that built in to your contract?

SL: Oh, I just tell people I'm not doing it in Toronto. You know? Just very plain.

CG: Also, they probably know if they want to make a New York movie in Toronto you're not their guy.

SL: Oh, they know that. First of all, I'll be vilified if I shoot a film in Toronto for New York. And rightfully so!

CG: Yeah, no one would ever get over it. You seem to have a lot of interaction with the city behind the scenes but you also bring in very real incidents and events from the city's history like the "son of Sam" killing spree and Howard Beach...

SL: Howard Beach, and Bensonhurst with Joey Fama and Yusuf Hawkins, you know, from Jungle Fever. [Fama, as part of a gang of white youths, attacked four black teens in 1989, killing Hawkins and adding to the city's building racial tensions.] I mean, a lot of rich stories here. It's ironic you brought up Summer of Sam but that's why we began Summer of Sam with Jimmy Breslin saying "there's eight million stories in the naked city. And this is several of them." It's true.

The Tribute in Light
The Tribute in Light
(Photo by Donna Joi)
CG: At what point did you decide to bring the story of September 11th into 25th hour? It's not in the book.

SL: Yeah, it's not in the book and it wasn't in David Benioff's script. I mean, the script I read was done before September 11th. I just knew that we were going to do this film, that we were going to be shooting after September 11th. I just thought it would be criminal on my part to not include it. So, I didn't think of it as such a big decision. For me the big decision was how to implement September 11th into the film. We did not want to appear like it was appended or anything like that. It had to feel organic, like it was there from the beginning. And I think that we were successful in doing that.

CG: I think so too. I think is was brave because I'm sure there were people who would accuse you of this, that, or the other thing.

SL: We're very happy with the reviews we got but the head critic for the Washington Post, I read her review Friday and she really had, I think, the most astute comment I've read on the film. She compared it to Rome, Open City, how Rossellini shot that film in Rome months after the Nazis were driven out and World War II was over. And I really think that was kind of a nice correlation of how we shot New York City.

CG: It struck me nowadays when you watch movies shot right before or after September 11th that the filmmakers have often bent over backwards to substitute shots of other buildings for the World Trade Center.

SL: And other people made the choice and it's their choice to digitally remove the World Trade Center and stuff like that.

CG: You also briefly mention the Rockefeller laws. Governor Pataki's been paying some lip service to reforming them lately.

Norton, Hoffman and Lee
Norton, Hoffman and Lee
SL: Well, we really didn't want to get too deep into it but we felt we had to mention it so that's why we have in the interrogation scene one of the DA's brings up the Rockefeller laws. It's something that definitely needs to be reformed. I remember reading like a month ago where Nelson Rockefeller's daughter got herself arrested in protest against these laws. At the time they were made it was thought that it would be a deterrent to drugs. It's been anything but. And for someone to be locked up for "x" number of years for having a piece of crack on them but to have a kilo of coke, whatever, you do less time.

CG: Although Monty's not necessarily the poster boy for the Rockefeller laws because he's not being victimized. He knows exactly what he's doing.

SL: Oh, he's not being victimized but we still were able to implement them into the script.

CG: He's not some abused girlfriend that's being forced to mule stuff around town.

SL: No.

CG: And another element you brought in was the Russian mafia.

SL: Oh yeah, big time!

CG: You get in any trouble over that?

SL: Trouble with them? Not yet! [LAUGHS]

CG: Fingers crossed.

SL: Well, I don't hang out in Brighton Beach that much, so I'll be alright.

Paquin, Hoffman, Norton
Paquin, Hoffman, Norton
CG: It's incredible that every 80 year old Gotti that gets arrested is front-page news but these guys are flying totally under the radar.

SL: They're ruthless. They'll kill people in a second and not even think about it. But you're right. That's something that's yet to be seen, really. The Godfather-type thing on them.

CG: Any stories that you're hoping to tell? Still looking to make the Jackie Robinson story?

SL: Yeah, that's one. And also the Joe Louis - Max Schmeling thing. And both of those films, a lot of it takes place here in New York City.

CG: Ed Norton's character in 25th Hour is named after Montgomery Clift.

SL: That's in the book.

CG: Yeah, but did you know he's buried in Prospect Park [in Brooklyn]?

SL: Montgomery Clift is buried in Prospect Park?

CG: Yup.

SL: I didn't know that!

CG: There's a Quaker cemetery in the middle of Prospect Park. And he's buried in there.

SL: You should have told me that before! I would have put that in the movie! He wasn't born in Brooklyn, was he?

CG: I don't know. I'm not even sure if he was a Quaker, but that's where he's buried.

SL: Well, that's something I'm going to mention on the DVD but that should have been put in the movie, though.

Write to Cinema Gotham at cinemagotham@yahoo.com

LINKS:
25th Hour Official Site
Cinema Gotham review of 25th Hour
Cinema Gotham review of Do the Right Thing
Cinema Gotham review of 4 Little Girls

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