Do the Right Thing's pizza delivery boy Mookie may make an early cameo, but don't call Spike Lee's ambitious, uncompromising, and musically charged return to Brooklyn a sequel. Red Hook Summer, which is set for a limited release on August 10, is about what happens when "fro-hawked" Atlanta teen Flick (Jules Brown) is dumped on his preacher grandpa Enoch (The Wire's Clarke Peters) in the titular Brooklyn projects for the summer, and the generational and ideological clashes that ensue. I sat down with Lee at NYU, where he's taught film for several years, to discuss his summertime indie.
This is your first self-funded film since 1986's She's Gotta Have It. What made you decide to work so fast and loose? Well, I wouldn't use the word "loose" because when you finance them with your own money, the approach is very well thought out. Things were not happening through the Hollywood studio system, and I had just bought a Sony F3 digital camera. James McBride, the great novelist-screenwriter, [and I] were talking and I said, "We should do something ourselves."
What was your connection to Red Hook? Here's the funny thing. I got a job to do a commercial for the wireless service Boost with Carmelo Anthony, when the Knicks signed him, and I knew he was from there. So I said, "Carmelo, let's go visit Red Hook." Also, McBride grew up in Red Hook projects.
So it was kismet. Yeah, that was really the whole genesis. I went to NYU graduate film school, and you can see that poster right there for Strangers in Paradise. Jim Jarmusch — he's my hero, because he was two years ahead of us. When somebody that you go to school with makes it — that's when it became a reality. So, now I'm teaching here. I'm also Artistic Director, and I get a lot of energy from my students because you get that from youth. Most of my crew is my students, and they got paid.
You seemed to shoot the film so secretively. There was no need to publicize. We wanted it to be on the hush-hush, on the low-low, on the QT, and just get it done. So it was three six-day weeks, shot mostly in a 10-block radius. I would say Red Hook is probably the most interesting neighborhood in Brooklyn, plus with the gentrification, you've got the Brooklyn Terminal with the Queen Mary, IKEA, and the Fairway market.
And yet that locale is rarely seen in cinema. There's no transportation there and the B61 bus, I mean . . . If you don't live there, you don't go there. It's hard to get to. It seems like a little island itself. So James and I wrote the script, and I've always been a big fan of Clarke, my man. Called him up. He was in New Orleans working on the third season of Treme. I said, "I'm going to come down to your house, give you the script, and in three hours, I'm coming back." He called me back after an hour and said, "I want to do it. Come over."
Maybe it was for the best that you didn't end up working with a studio. I've always felt, whether I was doing Malcolm X or these other films, at heart I was still an independent filmmaker. At this moment, time and space, for me to get a film made, I had to finance it myself. I'm not bellyaching. I'm not crying. That's just the way it is, and I've always tried to turn the negatives into positives.
Beyond creative freedom, how else did you benefit from not answering to money people? I had to answer to myself! [Laughs] It was great. It's a learning process for my students. They've never been on a feature film set before, and a lot of them make mistakes, which cost me money, but they gotta learn. I know that this experience is going to be invaluable for them in their future as filmmakers. It's really about education. That's why I'm here as their teacher.
The generational disconnect in this film is largely centered around old-time religion, which seems like a new theme for you. James and I went to classic struggles. Full disclosure: I was not brought up in a black church. I was third-generation. If you lived in the north, your parents shipped your ass down south to get rid of you for the summer. [Laughs] For many years of my youth — not just me, but my siblings also — we'd spend half of the summer in Atlanta with my mother's parents, and the other half with my father's mother in Snow Hill, Alabama. Every Sunday down South, we had to go to church. Conversely, James' father was a preacher and, in fact, his parents founded the church we shot at.
Since you're neither age, do you identify more with the tech-savvy youth or the devout elder? I better not be a grandfather! My daughter's 17 and I got a gun. Just joking . . . I got a baseball bat. [Laughs] I'm born in '57, so it's amazing to me how this generation can be doing their homework, headphones on, TV on, computer on. I'm just a dinosaur. I gotta ask my children for anything technical. They say, "You don't know how to do that? It's easy." It's second nature, but they've never held a vinyl record. That's technology — you gain some things and you lose. I have film students here who've never touched film.
Some incorrectly believe that Red Hook Summer is a continuation of Do the Right Thing, but could you discuss the kinship between the films? Here's the problem. It got leaked out that Mookie was in it, so people automatically thought that this was the sequel. Red Hook Summer is another chapter in my ongoing chronicles of the republic of Brooklyn: She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, He Got Game, half of Jungle Fever in Bensonhurst. The two cops who put Radio Raheem in the Michael Stewart chokehold appear in Jungle Fever, and nearly arrest Wesley [Snipes] and Annabella [Sciorra]. They also reappear in Clockers! In Inside Man, when the pizza's delivered to the hostages, the box clearly says, "Sal's Famous Pizzeria."
I caught that one. But you know what people missed? The same guy that delivered the pizza to the hostages in Dog Day Afternoon delivered the pizza in Inside Man.
Speaking of other people's movies, what are you going to watch this summer? I like Christopher Nolan. He's a very interesting filmmaker. So I'll pay my money to see Batman with the rest of humanity.