And More We Learned From Lee & The Commemorative Screening Of ’25th Hour’ At New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center
On September 11th, the Walter Reade Theater in New York City hosted a special screening of “25th Hour.” Still as alive and vital as it was upon its release nine years ago, the film serves as a historical landmark as the first picture to shoot in New York City following the 9/11 attacks (we ranked it very high on our list of best films of 2002 when we did our decade wrap-up in 2010).
On hand for the festivities were director Spike Lee, actors Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman and producer Jon Kilik. While the mood of the evening was relatively somber, Spike found ways to liven the atmosphere, particularly exclaiming, “It still holds up!” at the picture’s close when he came up onstage. Here’s six things we learned from the post-screening Q+A.
Arnold Schwarzenegger could have played Max Schmeling in Spike Lee’s Joe Louis movie.
When sharing anecdotes about where they were on September 11th, Lee revealed he was in Los Angeles developing his Joe Louis biopic. “We were trying to get a film made,” said Spike, clearly emotionally affected by the events of that day. “It was called ‘Save Us Joe Louis’ which I wrote with the great Budd Schulberg. And we were trying to cast Max Schmeling, and we had a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger the day before.” This is interesting, given that Schwarzenegger was still taking starring roles though his appeal had significantly dimmed at that point. Seeing him work with Lee would have been an interesting combination of flavors, to say the least. Along with Lee’s long-gestating James Brown film (ideally starring Wesley Snipes, though others were suggested) and a Jackie Robinson biopic, his unmade Joe Louis film remains a trio of tantalizing unproduced projects centering around major African-Americans icons in entertainment in sports and entertainment. Will they ever come to pass? Let’s hope so (buy those tickets to the “Old Boy” remake now).
The “Fuck You” monologue almost didn’t end up in the movie.
Both Lee and Norton had differing versions as to why the “Fuck You“ monologue, which was in David Benioff’s novel, was absent from early drafts of the script. “One of the most talked about scenes in the film was the ‘fuck you’ montage,” quoth Spike. “And that was not in the script! I said, ‘David, what are you doing, this has to be in the movie!’ He said, ‘Touchstone doesn’t want it.’ I said, fuck that, we’re putting it in!” Lee also reminded the audience while it’s a hateful screed, Monty’s character ultimately understands that his true anger is with himself and if you stay with the film all the way through, you recognize it’s a love-letter to the Big Apple as much as it is a hate-letter (see the film if you don’t understand).
Edward Norton wanted to collaborate with Spike Lee since “He Got Game.”
Edward Norton: Spike Lee superfan. “’Do The Right Thing’ was the first ever film in my young adult life, where I walked to the box-office immediately after it was over and bought a ticket for the next show,” Norton smirked. “As soon as I had the barest possible line to him, I started writing him letters. I was just getting into films myself when I had seen ‘He Got Game’ which is a masterpiece, a film I love, and I started saying, I’ll do anything [to work together].” This was the first of many times during the evening where Norton would call back to the adventures of Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Lee found inspiration in “Koyaanisqatsi.”
Lee ended his rehearsals with screenings of films, a diverse collection of pictures that would inform the mood and tone of “The 25th Hour.” In addition to the William Wyler film “Dead End,” Lee screened classics like “On The Waterfront” and “Midnight Cowboy.” The most surprising amongst these films, however, has to be the moody tone poem “Koyaanisqatsi,” an epic, dialogue-less collection of abstract nature and industrial footage scored by the haunting music of Philip Glass. “Very few people do that, to try to get people on the same frequency,” added Norton, reflecting on those screenings.
The film was somewhat buried upon its release.
“25th Hour“ only grossed $13 million in theaters and received no Oscar nominations. When asked about the film’s smaller profile, Lee was candid. “Here’s the story,” he said with a deep sigh. “The decision was made that the film was going to be released in awards season in limited release. And if lightning struck, and we got some award nominations, they would spend more money, give it a wider release. We did not get any nominations. The Germans have a word for it: kaput. That was it. Tough business.”
Make no mistake about if you’re confused (and spoiler if you’ve never seen this film): Monty absolutely goes to prison at the end of the film.
Despite the end sequence that features Norton’s Monty Brogan living a full life in a quiet town, Lee can confirm that, while that sequence ran so long that Benioff had to write additional dialogue, it’s all just for show. “People ask me, does he go to prison or not?” Lee said, referencing the final shot of the picture, in which the George Washington Bridge is seen in the opposite distance. “To me, we set it up. If he would’ve went over the George Washington Bridge, they were gonna high-tail it.”
Added Norton, “Spike thinks everybody knows what the exit to the George Washington Bridge is.”
Image credit: Film Society Lincoln Center