"This is like 'This is Your Life' meets a job fair," the Museum of the Moving Image's David Schwartz said to Spike Lee as he moderated their discussion at the Apple Store in SoHo last night. The packed event, which reached capacity well before Lee entered the building, saw an eclectic mix of audience members eager to share their six degrees of seperation to Mr. Lee. Two audience members had gone to his Brooklyn high school, one had worked as a production assistant on "Bamboozled," while another thanked him for employing her family on many of his sets.
Additionally - and more prominently - audience members had a wide array of gifts for Lee, from their scripts to their screeners to the posters of their films. Lee politely answered their requests for advice, and would yell over at his long-time assistant, Earl, to collect the gifts. By the end of the discussion, whenever a new audience member would request Lee to see their work, the rest of the audience would announce in unision with Lee, "Earl!"
"I'm not trying to discourage you," Lee said to one aspiring filmmaker. "But you should know what you're getting in to. It's rough for me to get a film made. That's just the world we live in... In order to get your film made you have to write a great script. So, hopefully you can do that."
To another filmmaker who had already completed a documentary on his struggles being disabled after having been shot as a teenager, Lee both advised film festivals and advocated gun control. "That's where your work gets seen, in film festivals," he said. "And it sounds to me like what you've been doing has been the right path. I commend you for what you've been doing. And we have to do something about guns in this country. I mean, we live in the most violent country in the history of civilization. People shooting each other left and right over dumb shit. And it's so easy to acquire guns and, I mean, fuck the NRA. I'm sorry. We need tougher gun laws to stop this madness of people just killing each other. It's crazy."
Lee eventually - and respectfully - requested the questions pertain to the reason he was there: To promote his double dose of Tribeca Film Festival offering - Kobe Bryant-centered doc "Kobe Doin' Work," and his documentation of the musical "Passing Strange."
"The reason I'd never been in the Tribeca Film Festival before is because I didn't have a film," Spike Lee said to an audience member who asked what took him so long to screen work at the festival. "With the way this festival comes in April, usually I have stuff ready for the summer or the fall. So it's a calendar thing. And it just worked out that after eight years I had two films and I'm glad they wanted them to be part of the festival."
With both "Passing Strange" and "Kobe Doin' Work," Lee documents live events (a basketball game and a musical), creating a kind of immediacy that one cannot even get from the actual live experience. "Doin' Work" was inspired by the documentary "Zidane: A Portrait of the 21st Century.' "There was a film in Cannes several years ago about the great soccer player Zidane, and what really struck me about that film is that all the cameras are on him," Lee said. "I liked the film and I said, 'this could work better for basketball. So, Kobe was the first person I thought of. And, also, soccer was his first sport. I gave him a DVD of the Zidane film and said we should do something like this. And he said fine."
The film has Bryant providing commentary over one game that Lee filmed. A one shot deal, Lee was nervous going into it. "This is not scripted, and that's what I love about sports - anything can happen," Lee said. "But it's also kinda scary because if Kobe gets hurt, we don't have film. If he gets two technicals and gets thrown out of the game, we don't have a film. So I told him before we started filming - you can't get thrown out of the game!"
Bryant made it through the game, and "Doin' Work" has its world premiere at Tribeca this Saturday night before screening on ESPN later next month.
While Lee's decision to film a basketball doc is no surprise considering his status as a hardcore fan has been common knowledge for years, his decision to take on a Broadway musical is a bit more surprising. "My mother was taking me to Broadway musicals when I was really little," he said. "So that's where the influence comes from. 'West Side Story' is one of my all-time favorites. And I was glad to see the new revival of it."
"Passing Strange" is a documentation of the 2008 Broadway musical that follows a young black musician who travels on a picaresque journey from South Central Los Angeles to Europe in an attempt to find himself.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful piece," Lee said of the play. "One of the producers of the play, Steve Klein, approached me about documenting this. Because so often when a play is over, when a play shuts down, that's it. You might have some stills or something, but there's not really a living document of what happened. It's just people's memories. And we all felt that this thing was too good - despite the fact that the marketing was terrible. And the usual Broadway audience is maybe not the right audience [for 'Strange']."
Lee criticized the marketers for not reaching out to the black or hispanic communities, and for relying too much on the potential of Tony Awards. "One of the things that got [the marketers] tripped up is that part of the music is rock and roll," he said. "And they just think that rock and roll and black people... they are not gonna come. But come on, we made rock and roll. Little Richard... Chuck Berry... That's us. It got appropriated, but we still claim it... Here's also a dangerous thing when you want to market a film or play. You cannot base everything on 'well, once we get Academy Award nominations, then we 'llget the box office. Or once, I mean ['Passing Strange'] got nominated for seven Tony's, and they were up against 'In The Heights.' They were banking their success - to continue to run - depending on whether they won the Tonys. And they only won one."
So when this resulted in the show closing, Lee and the play's producers decided they would document the last three shows for the film. It debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival to warm notices, and makes its New York City debut May 2nd as part of Tribeca.
Spike Lee was the first in a series of discussions happening at the Apple Store during Tribeca that are co-presented by indieWIRE. For a full schedule of events, click here.