Whether taking Clint Eastwood to school for not depicting black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, or sticking it to the Bush administration for its slow response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Spike Lee has a reputation for being outspoken that’s preceded him for years. It’s not surprising, then, that when Lee shows up to New York’s Conrad Hotel to discuss his divisive update of Park Chan-wook’s cult hit Oldboy, he arrives wielding his trademark hubris. The groundbreaking filmmaker pulls no punches in telling it as he sees it, spouting indifference toward all those purist naysayers (“They aren’t coming to see this new movie anyway”), expressing his own skepticism regarding the year’s spate of black cinema, and freely dissing—as he has before—Driving Miss Daisy, the film that beat his 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing, to the Oscar podium.
At once at ease and mercurial, Lee keeps you wondering in which direction his passion might take him, as he can just as easily criticize that Driving Miss Daisy win as he can profess his respect for viewers’ readings of his films. There’s a similar dichotomy present in Lee’s Oldboy, which has a way of tonally teetering, going from balls-out B movie to earnest thriller and, sometimes, back again. Tackling his first remake, which was previously in the courts of director Steven Spielberg and star Will Smith (Josh Brolin eventually stepped in to play Oldboy’s long-imprisoned antihero, Joe Doucette), Lee sprinkles in stylistic breadcrumbs to ensure you know who’s behind the camera, while making other choices that make you curious as to where this artist is headed. Full of laughs, many of the slightly devilish sort, Lee told me his thoughts about post-captivity re-immersion, the potential offensiveness of one of Oldboy’s characters, and how his students at NYU receive his stuff. But, first, a couple thoughts about joints.
I think fans of yours know the difference between “a Spike Lee joint” and “a Spike Lee film,” but in your words, what is it that separates the two?
The only way I can answer that question is with two words: tough business. I’ll leave it at that.
What about Oldboy? Where does that fall on the scale between them?
Well, what does the poster say? It says “a Spike Lee film,” right? The next film’s a Spike Lee joint though! [laughs]
So, “a Spike Lee joint” indicates more creative freedom then?
Here’s the thing: My next film, my Kickstarter film, is a Spike Lee joint. And I’ll leave it at that.
What made you want to direct a remake?
Here’s another thing: We’re not calling it a “remake.” I’m not calling it a “remake”; I’m calling it a “reinterpretation.” That was the mindset going in. We’re making a movie that’s a reinterpretation of a great film, which was based on a Japanese manga.
Some people say it wasn’t necessary to reinterpret the original South Korean movie. What do you say to that?
Well, the people who say that aren’t coming to see the movie anyway, so…
If you were in Joe Doucette’s shoes, what do you think would be the most difficult thing about the confinement, and what do you think might be the most shocking thing about being thrust back into the world after 20 years?
Being thrust back into the world would be a sensory overload, for sure. I mean, to come out today, after 20 years, there’s stuff here that wasn’t even invented. Joe didn’t know what the fuck an iPhone was. We could have done a whole movie just on that: the technology. But that’s a very good question and it’s something that Josh [Brolin] and I talked about all the time. What is the mental state of someone who’s locked up? What would it be? Josh met with one of the West Memphis Three, who was locked up for a number of years. Josh did his homework, and he used that research for the film.
While Josh is doing his research, what are you doing? How do you start after this script comes across your desk?
Well, I had a lot of meetings and discussions with Mark Protosevich, the writer, and even more discussions with Josh. And then there are also a lot of chats with the creative team. There’s the great DP Sean Bobbitt, whose most recent work was on 12 Years a Slave. Amazing cinematographer. He also shot Steve McQueen’s two previous films, Hunger and Shame. He’s a great artist, and I love to collaborate with great artists. We just come up with ways to solve problems. How do you shoot someone who’s locked up in a confined space for 20 years and still make it interesting? That’s a problem that Josh and I had to deal with, and that Sean and I had to deal with: How are we going to shoot this?
Speaking of 12 Years a Slave, as someone who’s arguably the most influential black filmmaker in the business, what do you think about this year’s narrative of so many popular black films being made by black artists? Do you think they’re achieving what they need to be achieving in terms of equality on screen?
Well, I haven’t seen them all. But let me answer the question this way: Every 10 years, it’s the same article. I remember when Denzel [Washington] won the Academy Award for Training Day, and Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball, and Sidney Poitier won the Honorary Oscar. It was all on the same Oscar night [in 2002]. The next day, it’s like, “Oh, African-Americans have arrived!”...and then there was another nine-year drought. So I don’t get excited. I’m not trying to sound like a hater, but history has shown that it’s a feast-to-famine thing. We’ll get our shine for a year—there’s a big new turnaround, a new day has arrived—and then for nine years there’s nothing. Let’s have it two years back to back. How about that?
Do you find it ironic that in a year with so many black-themed films, the one Spike Lee film has virtually nothing to do with black issues at all?
Hey, the Academy had their chance. [laughs] Let’s not even talk about Driving Miss Daisy: “best film of 1989.” That’s some bullshit right there. But history reveals things. I mean, Do the Right Thing is being taught at universities, colleges, and high schools all around the world. Nobody’s checking on Driving Miss Daisy. And you can go down the line like that with the Academy. Raging Bull losing to…what was the name of that Robert Redford film? Ordinary People? Come on, now. No disrespect to Robert Redford, but the Academy gets it wrong sometimes. Raging Bull is one of the greatest films ever made, and its loss did not diminish its greatness.
And you’re still teaching film at NYU, right?
Yes. For 15 years. My daughter’s actually a freshman going to film school there now.
Do your students often talk about your films? Will they go see Oldboy then come in and chat about it with you the next day?
Yeah, sure. I mean, every class is something different, and I gotta plan my classes. And I’ll show and talk about some of my films, but the whole semester can’t be about Spike Lee films. There are classes like that, but I’m not teaching them! [laughs]
There’s a sex scene at the center of the film that ultimately proves disturbing. What steps do you take to ensure a scene like that is approached in the best possible way?
You need to protect the actors so they don’t get exploited. Actors want to know, if there’s a sex scene, what parts of their bodies are going to be nude. Doing a nude scene is hard. I don’t care how many times you do it; it’s hard to do that stuff. And you have to have a closed set—maybe me, my cinematographer, and, say, two other people. Actors have to feel comfortable with the surroundings, and with the person they’re interacting with. And he had that with Josh and Elizabeth [Olsen].
You’re typically a director who’s especially sensitive when it comes to the depiction of stereotypes. Did you have any reservations regarding the way Sharlto Copley’s character is depicted? Because he can come off as this stereotypically queer, social-deviant villain.
Well, I don’t think the right word is “stereotype.” But, I mean, if you look at the film [spoilers ahead], the character was molested as a kid. His whole sexuality is fucked up. Him and his sister. That whole psychology of that character; you could make a film just on that alone. But…well…Sharlto and I don’t think that was stereotypical.
What was the biggest challenge of updating the material?
Well, luckily, before Josh Brolin agreed to do the film, he met with Park Chan-wook and got his blessing. And Park also told us to do our own film, and not try to do the film he did. Still, my mindset going in was to pay tremendous respect to the original—both the original film and the Japanese manga. There are several homages to Park’s film in my film. And I also wanted to respect his wishes: “Don’t do my film. Make your own.”