Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess,” a vampire film in which the term is never used to describe the title characters, premiered in Cannes Critics Week in 1973 and was intended, at least by its backers, to be a “Blacula” redux of sorts; instead, Gunn delivered a brooding and mysterious film that was built more of erotic lyricism and a sustained meditation on the parochial aspects of black American life. A bona fide cult film, the film was taken from him and until a 1996 DVD surfaced, was released in mostly bastardized cuts. Its narrative has been appropriated by Spike Lee for his latest film, the Kickstarter financed “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.”
Lee’s remake draw’s heavily on Gunn’s original script, mirroring the original’s dialogue verbatim in many scenes. Lee shares screenwriting credit with the deceased director, actor, screenwriter, who is perhaps most famous for writing the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s highly regarded 1970 film “The Landlord” and, among some circles, for a somewhat legendary two episode arc on “The Cosby Show” in the eighties. Still, in other respects, Lee’s film departs greatly from Gunn’s. It shifts the focus from a gloomy and sprawling Hudson Valley estate to a modern coastal property in Martha’s Vineyard, where Lee also resides much of the year. The principles in Lee’s version are younger and wealthier and less downbeat. The gauzy super 16mm look of the previous film give way to the brightly lit HD frames of Lee’s cinematographer Daniel Patterson.
Indiewire caught up with Lee to talk about his motivations for resurrecting “Ganja & Hess,” the freedoms and burdens of working outside the studio system and what if any topics and themes he wishes to tackle in the second half of his career.
Bill Gunn’s movie should be a classic, since it’s of the great underappreciated works of African American cinema. What about its themes and about what that movie is trying to do resonated enough with you personally to want to revisit it now?
I saw the film when I was in film school — I don’t know when, but sometime during my time at NYU, which was around 1979 to May 1982. It’s a very strange film. I really identified with Bill Gunn. He was getting money to make a film and the people who gave it to him, the people who financed it, they really just wanted to cash in on the black exploitation craze. Bill Gunn, was like okie-doke, you wanna give me money, okay. They think they’re going to get this but I’m going to slip something in — more than a little something. The people who financed it thought they were getting black exploitation and he was not making that from the beginning.
So unfortunately they took the film from him.
It became “Blood Couple.”
It had three or four different names. How it must’ve hurt him.
His first film was taken from him as well: “Stop!,” which is still somewhere in the Warner Archives collecting dust. Warner has a print of it and they won’t let anybody see it.
It’s a violation. In France, you can’t do that. In France, what the director says, that’s it. Did you know that?
So luckily the film was taken to Cannes and there’s like one print and Bill got a hold of it. The people then were able to see it the way Bill Gunn intended.
The world of “Ganja & Hess” is a world where black protestant notions of Christianity and without using the V-word, immortal blood-sucking individuals exist in the same kind of continuum. You were very faithful to that.
Well, I’m really just repeating what Bill Gunn said, which I believe, that the blood addiction in this film is like in the original. It’s a metaphor, and compared to when that film was made, addiction is at an all-time high now no matter what it is. No one was addicted to prescription drugs back in 1972 the way they are now.
The movie is really faithful in so many ways. A lot of the dialogue is verbatim and yet the departures are very revealing. The movie feels very much like a part of your world. I know that you have a home in Martha’s Vineyard, but you’re very much associated with Brooklyn.
Well, I’m not a billionaire.
What is great is being in those beautiful places. My house does not look like that house either, not at Oak Bluffs. We shot in West Tisbury. And it’s beautiful. I shot commercials there, shot a Jaguar spot there. That’s why I always wanted to do a feature film there. So it was just a matter of, “When it’s the right time, it’s the right time.” I wasn’t going to rush it or force it. The right time will reveal itself. This film was the right time.
In the original film, Hess is a wealthy man, but we assume he’s self-made. Meanwhile, his victims tend to be black prostitutes, a pimp, other individuals that do not have his class status. Except for Ganja. However, in your film —
Wait a minute. I don’t agree with that. As you know, he goes to the Fulton projects. He’s not going to an Upper East Side bar. He knows that he’s not trying to get caught. So a black woman gets killed in the Fulton projects with a child who’s a little sketchy. There ain’t gonna be no front page of The New York Post to find this person. He’s not looking on where he lives Central Park West, overlooking Central Park or the Upper East Side for his victims.
The main actors are younger in this film than Duane Jones and Marlene Clark are in the original.
She’s still alive.
Why doesn’t she work? She’s incredible.
If we get into this, we’ll be here until tomorrow, why people don’t work. Even if you take the gender and the race out of it.
It adds a different dynamic to the story and there relationship, the fact that they’re thirty or so in this film.
Well, here’s the thing. “Ganja & Hess” is one of my favorite films, but I’m not trying to do every single thing the same way. For me to be interested I try to make it my own film. So there’s going to be elements of surprise, there’s going to be some things that aren’t necessarily the same as the original. I mean, I know rap music wasn’t in the original either, right?
Although you did use the song in the church, which is a directly from Sam Waymon’s incredible score from the original.
Oh yeah, I love that song, written by the great Sam Waymon. We tracked him down and he just let us.
Slightly broader question. You’ve been directing movies for over half your life. Thirty years now.
Well, about thirty years.
’86, ’96, 2016.
But if you count “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” —
I’m not counting that.
You’re not counting that?
For me, it doesn’t count.
A student film, sure, but it played New Directors/New Films, and was a celebrated movie. Anyway, fine: 28 years. Half your life. Is there anything you really want to say with cinema that you haven’t yet? Is there something you’re still chasing? I remember Martin Scorsese saying, at some point, that “Gangs of New York” had been the last thing he had spent so long chasing, that whatever urgency he had to tell that story was what he had long been obsessed with, but otherwise he didn’t have stories he was bending over backwards to tell anymore.
I got several projects, but I don’t think it’s like my man Martin. I mean, I want to continue making some films. I’m a storyteller. There’s many, many, stories I want to continue to tell. I probably won’t be making them as long as Kurosawa, but I still have a lot to get done.
But is there perhaps one of your own life or your worldview that you haven’t explored in your other films?
I’m just a storyteller, I want to continue to tell stories, whether they’re documentaries or narratives.
Is there an aspect of your craft that, as a mid-career filmmaker, you most wish you had when you were younger? Or vice versa?
You only have the skills you have at that particular time. I mean, just look at athletes. The Michael Jordan that won six rings is not the Michael Jordan that he couldn’t get past, couldn’t get past, in 1990.
The Detroit Pistons. So I don’t even know how to answer that question. The Spike Lee who made “She’s Gotta Have It” didn’t know how to make “Do The Right Thing,” couldn’t have done it. Could not have done it. I didn’t have the skills. So I don’t want to answer that question.
Is there a magic in youth? Or in the way that you were making movies then that you miss or you wish you could capture?
No, not at all, because I think “When The Levees Broke” is the best thing I ever done. And that was after “Do the Right Thing,” that was after “Malcolm X.” Most of my films were done before “When the Levees Broke.” I really don’t think like that. Are we going to find the magic from when I was a young kid? To be honest, the exception is the “Do The Right Thing” anniversary, because it’s been 25 years. You gotta keep it moving, I have to keep moving. Onward, upward.
At “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” screening I was sitting amongst some fairly respectable-seeming older black women who I think were visibly stricken by some of the sexualized violence in the film.
I have to say to you they haven’t seen all my films.
Do you worry about reaching those women, or women like them, with a film like this?
No. There were black people who didn’t go see “School Daze” because of what it was saying and doing. White people, too. It was put forward as if it was by black people, for black people. Regardless, I’m not worried about that. I understand that the black audience is not monolithic. There are many different types of films that black people want and I’ve never had a feeling that all my films would appeal to all black people. Never, ever, ever.
Was there a freedom inherent in having raised the money the way you did, through Kickstarter? On the studio movies you made, from “Do The Right Thing” through “Bamboozled,” did you ever encounter — even with the amount of control you were afforded — the desires of others in a way that I imagine on this film you were not?
Well, I wouldn’t use the word beholden, because on many of those films I did have final cut. If the film didn’t get financing, and you write the check yourself or get it from other sources like Kickstarter then yes, you have freedom of control that you would not have if somebody else was giving you money. It’s not a revelation.
Sure, but do you personally find freedom in that as a filmmaker? For instance, with “Oldboy,” there’s a sense in some of your public comments about the film that you maybe weren’t in the amount of control you would’ve liked over the final shape of that picture.
Yeah, that’s true. But here’s the thing, it depends who you’re working with. People forget “Do the Right Thing” was a studio film. Tom Pollock said to me he was really onboard with the film. He said, “Spike, you make the film you want. The only caveat: it can’t be over budget.” That was a great deal. On that budget, I got to do whatever I wanted. But that was a different time and we’ve seen what the costs are of trying to grab more control. It’s not just me this is happening to, they’re not just picking on me, it’s like this across the board. There’s always been, from the very beginning of the form, a struggle between commerce and art. And you can’t find a bigger example of this constant battle than with film. That’s the nature of the beast. You’re a painter, it’s not going to cost a million dollars to create great art, but with filmmaking, it’s money that’s the driver.
Do you ever wish you’d been a painter?
No, not at all. I like to be in this right here. I’m thankful every night a that ‘’m filmmaker. It’s what I love. I tell this to my students all the time: If you have a job you love then you’re blessed. I’m sure there are a lot of people on this earth who hate their jobs. So find something that you love, because then it’s not a job anymore. I’m doing what I was meant to do.