Spike Lee Interview - Passing Strange

My interview with Spike Lee was far too rushed. I could have spent a few hours with the man behind 25th Hour, Inside Man, and Do The Right Thing. Sadly, a few moments in the hectic Vitamin Water House here at Sundance were all the Oscar-nominated director had free. So that's what we rolled with.

I should mention that our chat got off on the wrong foot, as the documentary he's brought to Sundance, Passing Strange, deals with huge concepts ... which led to me starting off with a question about Spike's personal view of faith. I received a withering look on that front, but the interview got much better as I slowly dug myself out of the hole I'd created. Here's what transpired:

Laremy Legel: There are a lot of big themes in Passing Strange that deal with faith. One of the things I think came up was the question of which is more important: believing in God or God actually existing. Do you have a take on that?

Spike Lee: I think God exists. So what are you saying?

LL: I'm just asking if the faith in something is more important than the actuality.

SL: Look, that's an individual question. Just like religion is an individual question. For me, I believe in God, God is real. I think Stew and Heidi (the writers and performers in the musical) feel that way too but you'd have to ask them.

It should be noted that the main character in the musical at one point says, point blank, that he doesn't believe in God. So the question wasn't completely out of left field... nevertheless, it gets better starting now!

LL: How did you get involved with the production?

SL: I was a big fan of the show. Not when it started, but when it got to New York. It started here in the Sundance lab. I saw it downtown at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and then on the move up to Broadway. And then Steve Klein, one of the producers on the show, asked me to film it.

LL: How difficult was it to film? Because I noticed so many different shots and angles.

Miracle at St. AnnaSL: Well, we had to figure it out. It couldn't just be recording actors on the stage. We had to really think about what myself and the great cinematographer Matty Libatique (could do). He shot for me Inside Man and Miracle at St. Anna, and also Iron Man this past summer. We had to figure out how we were going to bring cinema to a staged musical.

LL: Was it all one show?

SL: No, it was three different shows. It was the last two shows and then we came back the day after it closed and ran through the whole show again without the audience.

LL: How many times have you seen the show?

SL: Twice for the public, four times on Broadway, and after I knew I was going to do it probably another ten times.

LL: I swear in one of your crowd shots I saw Darren Aronofsky.

SL: I don't think he was there. Well now wait, Matty (Libatique) might have invited him. He shot Pi, Requiem, and The Fountain.

LL: So it could have been him there in the front.

SL: Yeah, it could have been him. Matty might have invited him.

LL: When you were choosing which angle to go with, what factored into that decision? How many cameras were there to choose from?

SL: Trying to tell the story. What angles best conveyed what we needed in that moment. We had a lot of choices. We had over ten cameras ... well let me find out for sure. It was shot in high definition (at this point Spike calls for confirmation). Okay, it was fourteen cameras.

LL: Wow. All at once?

SL: (nods) At once.

LL: Was editing it a huge undertaking?

SL: Oh yeah, but I have a great editor, Barry Brown, who has done my films since School Daze.

Synecdoche, NYLL: Have you seen Synecdoche, NY yet? Because Passing Strange sort of reminds me of it in terms of scope.

SL: Not yet. I'm a member of The Academy so I have the screener. I haven't had a chance yet, but I want to.

LL: I appreciated that this film showed the musical's intermission. Was that a conversation you had in the process of making it?

SL: No, I've always wanted to do that. I've been going to Broadway plays since I was six years old -- my mother dragged me -- and I've always wondered, "What do they do during intermission?"

LL: It gives the audience a little break too, and it helped me connect with the performers too.

SL: Yeah, I wanted to break it up into the two acts of the play.

LL: Okay, I know I'm going to pronounce this wrong, but De'Adre Aziza was amazing in this film.

SL: Oh, hold on. (At this point Spike leaves ... to go get her. Since I didn't know she was in area this was quite a shock.) You gotta tell her what you said.

LL: Ah, okay. I was just saying how much you jump off the screen. I was sitting there thinking, "How is this person not up for huge Academy Award-winning type roles?"

SL: Yeah, why is that?

De'Adre Aziza: (laughing) Yeah, that is a good question!

LL: Were you stage trained then?

DA: I was. I studied at Tisch School of the Arts. This was my major segue into film. First I had a part in Miracle at St. Anna and now this. It's like a crash course. It's like film school in a weekend.

LL: Was it hard to deal with all the cameras flying around you?

DA: You get used to it, but you just can't think about it because then you're not thinking about your character.

LL: Everyone in the play also switches modes so much (all the leads play multiple parts), that's got to be tough.

DA: Yeah, but the great thing was we had done the show so much you didn't have to worry about that stuff. Just the camera placement, because you've got the audience in one eye and the camera in the other.

LL: I seem to recollect you actually having a camera at one point ... was that camera live?

SL: Yep, that was her footage.

And with that our time was up. Look for Passing Strange, coming to a small screen near you.