A Conversation with Spike Lee The director of the hit film Inside Man tells Scott Simon about the movie, his long working relationship with Denzel Washington, and the upcoming 20th anniversary of She's Gotta Have It.

A Conversation with Spike Lee

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But he also strikes other combustible themes of social class in America, sexual politics and family. He's now surprised some critics by directing a thriller about a bank heist. Inside Man stars Denzel Washington as an NYPD negotiator and Clive Owen as the bandit who's threatened to kill hostages at the bank.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: All right. Here's where we stand.

CLIVE OWEN: I don't need your status report, Serpico. I tell you where things stand.

WASHINGTON: Sure. Sure. I just meant...

OWEN: Here's where things stand. You give me what I want. I won't kill anyone.

WASHINGTON: All right. I'm on it. I'm on it. Let's just try to keep everybody calm. Okay?

OWEN: Don't I sound calm to you?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. You do. Yeah. You do.

SIMON: The movie also stars Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Spike Lee joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Lee.

SPIKE LEE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And what brings you to a heist movie?

LEE: At one point Ron Howard was supposed to direct it. And Russell Crowe came to him and said, let's do Cinderella Man instead. So the script had been relinquishing for a couple years and I'm just glad that Brian Grazer gave me opportunity to direct it.

SIMON: Now when, we just rattled off a whole list of subjects where we say that, you know, scenes and asides that you're, you're take on some of the issues that we rattled off, do we, is that really in the film or do we just say that because it's a Spike Lee joint?

LEE: Some of the stuff you mentioned was not in the script. But we, we were able to finagle it in, especially like the video game.

SIMON: Not to give away that point, but you have, you have a moment where a youngster's playing with his video game, and somebody who's a criminal takes over the video game and is appalled. Is that, is that a real video game or pretty much based on...

LEE: No. We made up, but they've got worse stuff that's being sold and peddled to kids today.

SIMON: Yeah. You're not in this film.

LEE: Come on. We have Denzel and Jodie Foster, and Clive Owens and Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and many of the great, you know, character actors who were in this film. There wasn't a place for me. I had enough to do, you know, behind the camera.

SIMON: Yeah. You and Denzel Washington have made a number of films...

LEE: This is the fourth film. The first one was Mo' Better Blues, then Malcolm X, He Got Game, and now Inside Man.

SIMON: So you know each other's game pretty well?

LEE: Very much so. I think it's evident by the work we've done. And we have acquired sort of like a shorthand. You know, we do most of our discussion, rehearsals, but we're on the set, we know what we have to do. So there's not a lot of need for a whole lot of talking.

SIMON: Does he ad-lib?

LEE: He's a great, you know, he can improvise. Great.

SIMON: And so you're all right with that. 'Cause some directors...

LEE: No. I mean, if, not everybody, I just, you have to find as a director you have to know who can ad-lib, who can improvise. Same way a coach, you're not gonna let everybody take the last shot when the game is on the line. In a movie, you put the ball in Denzel's hands. You know that. Some other people, they're not getting the last shot. They might pass the ball to Denzel, set him up, but they're not taking the last shot.

SIMON: Yeah. We, let's listen, if we could, to another clip. And here's Denzel Washington and Clive Owen again. Denzel Washington's character is NYPD Officer Keith Frazier. He's been invited, do we say invited by people into the bank...

LEE: That's a good word; very good word.

SIMON: And to make certain that none of the hostages have been harmed; so Denzel Washington and Clive Owen again.


WASHINGTON: There's two ways out of this. The easy way, we walk out the front door together, or the hard boys cut the power, hit you with the teargas and come in strong through the glass. It's your choice. You don't want that. I don't want that. And you know they'd like to do it tonight. You got night vision? You got gas masks?

OWEN: Maybe.

WASHINGTON: I'm this close to ordering it.

OWEN: First, you don't order an assault when no hostages have been killed and there's no immediate threat. Second, if it ends that way, whatever happens, you don't get to the hero.

SIMON: Now that's, that's got a very cool tone to it, as these movies go, so different from the one that you cite, Dog Day Afternoon. Which obviously a lot of people remember Al Pacino leading the crowd and chanting, Attica! Attica!

LEE: Well, there's several homages. I mean, that's one of my favorite bank heist films. If you're talking about this particular genre...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

LEE: And there's several homages to that film, which was directed by the great director Sidney Lumet. And also, his other film, Serpico, is mentioned, too.


LEE: So we definitely want to give a shout out to those two films and Sidney Lumet.

SIMON: I want to ask you about a couple of biographical notes we just came up with.

LEE: Okay.

SIMON: Did Ang Lee once work on the crew of one of your films?

LEE: Yeah, we were, Ang Lee and I were classmates at Duke University Graduate Film School. So we both, same class, and he worked on my thesis film. My thesis film was a film called, Joe's Bed Stuy Barber Shop, We Cut Heads. So I was very happy about Ang. I mean in general, but also with this Oscar as best director on Brokeback Mountain.

SIMON: Yeah. He's done well for himself since he worked for you.

LEE: Yes, he has. Yes, he has. The two Lees.

SIMON: Oh my gosh. You guys aren't related. Are you?

LEE: He's Chinese.


LEE: I'm African-American.


SIMON: Well, in some other ways, though.

LEE: Mmm.

SIMON: You know? A blended family, I think, is what we...

LEE: Yes.

SIMON: ... is what we call that these days.

LEE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Ay, a film biz question for you, Mr. Lee.

LEE: Yes.

SIMON: Do you recall how much it cost to make She's Got To Have It in 1986?

LEE: One hundred and seventy thousand dollars. We shot the summer of 1985, from July 1st to July 14th, two six-day weeks. From the $175,000 it went on to make $8.5 million, but we didn't have the money, though. We only started out with $15,000.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

LEE: So the rest of budget came on, we had a limited partnership. We got some grants. People donated money. And I'm glad you asked that, because this coming May will be the 20th anniversary that She's Got To Have It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. So it's been 20 years.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And Inside Man this year cost?

LEE: Forty-five million. This is the biggest budget I've had to make. And this is Denzel's biggest opening and my biggest opening also. So we did gangbusters at the box office. And we looked to building that this second weekend of the film.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about, since we're getting to the 20th anniversary of She's Got To Have It. You've, I think you've said in past interviews that if there's one thing you would change from one of your films...

LEE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: ... it was the rape scene there.

LEE: Right.

SIMON: What's your thinking? Why would you want to change that now?

LEE: Well, I mean, I've said it. It's nothing I'm going to say here I haven't said in the past. It was just, just it didn't need to be in the movie, it's as simple as that.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

LEE: You know, it was not needed. And if I have do any, of all the stuff I've done, now it will the, that would be the thing that we would cut out.

SIMON: Hmm. Is it possible to cut it now in DVDs, or other, like film festival presentations of the films that are shown?

LEE: Well, that would be the punk move. We did it. I regret it. But I'm not going to take it out. I mean, are you going to go back to Gone With The Wind and cut out the Mammy stuff, you know?


LEE: Go back to the films and cut Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in black face? It's done.

SIMON: Yeah.

LEE: You know, you going to go to Breakfast at Tiffany's and you know, Mickey Rooney with the big teeth impersonating the Japanese person, you know? It's done.

SIMON: You know, not until interviewing you, Mr. Lee, did I realize how much Mickey Rooney truly has to answer for.


LEE: Well, that's just the first thing. I'm not here to attack Mr. Rooney. Just the first thing that came to my mind.

SIMON: Mr. Lee, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

LEE: Thank you for having me on. And really feel good about Inside Man. Hope people come out and see it. Thank you very much.

SIMON: Spike Lee, his new movie is Inside Man. And you can come to our website at npr.org. to hear Mr. Lee talk about his next film project. It's a documentary about New Orleans called, When the Levees Broke.

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