All creatives face moments in their careers when they can't get funding, whether it's in the beginning, middle or end. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Spike Lee is no exception. Most recently, he self-financed Red Hook Summer, a film about an Atlanta boy who visits his religious grandfather in the Brooklyn projects. Before that, Warner Brothers wouldn't increase his budget for Malcolm X, so Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Magic Johnson stepped in. And even when Lee did succeed with his highest-grossing film Inside Man, he couldn't get a sequel made. Last year, Lee even said not enough people of color had the power to get greenlight votes in studios.
For those of you struggling to produce work now, you may have scoffed at Lee's approach to turn to Kickstarter for his next project, just as you may have done at Rob Thomas and Zach Braff's campaigns. Naysayers may even mention Lee's $40 million networth, his estate on Martha's Vineyard or his Absolut Vodka campaign that "sold-out Brooklyn" as reasons you may have not financed his next project.
However, people may be forgetting that Lee has contributed to his own community in many ways through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule. As an educator and art director at New York University's graduate film school for 15 years and a founder of non-profit Project 40, Lee has contributed to the social and educational development of underprivileged youth through after-school sports programs, basketball court renovations, SAT Prep, and a minority scholarship at NYU.
Whether you like Lee's films or not, you can't deny the cultural impact he has made over the last three decades. Rather than looking at Lee's crowdfunding project as a negative, you could have seen it as an opportunity to become a part of a creative project. At the same time, you probably thought Lee's Kickstarter campaign seemed too vague to be nothing more than a publicity stunt for his up-coming $30 million remake Oldboy. During the campaign, I called Lee to ask him what we were in for. And, this is what he had to say about his upcoming film.
Spike, I'm curious to know what this film is about. You say it's about "blood addiction," but what does that mean?
What do you want it to mean?
Is this a vampire flick, a narrative, or documentary? How fleshed out is this story?
No no no- it's not the black Twilight. It's a narrative. I have a script. I'm not gonna shoot a film without a script.
I'd love to know the details.
I'm not going to give you the details. Shoot, Woody Allen doesn't tell you what the film is till it comes out. Woody Allen Fall Project. Woody Allen Spring Project. I'm taking lessons from my man, Woody Allen!
But if people are supporting something, they probably want to know what it's about, right?
The general movie-going audience right now is spoiled by trailers, where Hollywood just shoots the whole movie in the trailer. What's the point of seeing the movie if you've seen it in the trailer? In order for this new film to work at its peak, the audience has to know as little as possible. And that's why in my Kickstarter, I talk about my body of work. So, you bet on the horse.
You mean the mule?
I'm gonna use that. Yeah, you bet on the mule.
(A week later, Lee did end up using the word "mule" to a backer).
Your films range from having a huge cultural impact, to being fun and melodramatic, so what should we be expecting?
Addiction to blood and sexuality. That's good enough right there. Naked people of color...having sex.
Do you really think $1.25 million is needed to make your film, with all the technology that's available?
I'd be a fool to post a number on Kickstarter and that be not enough to make a film. We're going to do it for that amount.
I see Steven Soderbergh donated $10,000.
Yeah and I was really surprised by that. What people don't realize is that he's retiring from feature filmmaking. He's just going to do cable television. Most recently he did that Liberace film Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. No studio is going to do a film with Matt Damon humping on Michael Douglas. My wife and I we were trying to think, what two black actors have done that? (laughs) We couldn't come up with anybody, not of the level of Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. (laughs) So, Steven is stepping back from Hollywood. But it was really symbolic I feel, and a gesture.
(A few days after our interview, Steven Soderbergh explained why he was backing Lee, crediting his unique point of view for helping him find his own voice and success).
What do you think is the value of bringing in the Kickstarter community to your project?
This is something the co-founders have told me, Yancey Strickler and Perry Chen, that people of color haven't gotten around to Kickstarter yet, so I think I'm bringing a whole different audience, a whole different customer who's never even pledged to a Kickstarter before, so that's why I think the argument that I'm hurting young filmmakers is not true because a lot of people who have pledged for me didn't even know about Kickstarter before.
How do you plan on giving back to the community of independent filmmakers out there, other than teaching as you do at NYU? Do you have any tips for them?
Watch movies. Learn your craft.
And what movies do you think helped define your voice?
Breathless, Rashomon, Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd, The Battle of Algiers, Night of the Hunter, On the Waterfront, Chinatown, Cooly High, Sweet Sweet Back.
(Lee later posted his Essential List of Films for Filmmakers on his Kickstarter page).
Do you think your experience at NYU helped you become a better filmmaker?
No doubt. That's how I met the great Ernest Dickerson. It's where I had class with Ang Li. I am where I am today because of NYU. It's a large part of it.
Are your students involved in your campaign and are any of them funding you?
They're very supportive, but I can't ask them to do that. I'm not soliciting my students. If they want to do it, they do it on their own.
Are there plans to announce what this film is about once you get funding?
We'll see. Everything's fluid.
And there's no one tied to the project?
Young great black talent.
People we haven't heard of?
Is 40 Acres and a Mule going to be funding films this way in the future?
We'll see. We haven't done this before. I'm not celebrating till we're funded.
Although Rob Thomas met his $2 million goal within 11 hours after backing only seven projects and Zach Braff was overfunded with $2 million within four days after backing 13 projects, Lee ended up getting funded within a few days after backing up 11 projects. Glad he showed love to other Kickstarter campaigns, just like he has done to his roots in New York. I thought we'd have to end up betting on the mule, but it turns out he's on his way.