Thursday, September 18, 2008

Spike Lee: The Miracle at St. Anna Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Miracle of St. Spike

Spike Lee is back with his first full-length feature since Inside Man (2006), the NYC crime caper which netted over $100 million at the box office alone. That picture’s commercial success enabled the Oscar-nominated director to interest Disney in backing Miracle at St. Anna, a big budget WWII saga shot mostly in Europe.

The movie’s script, adapted by James McBride from his own historical novel, is a fact-based adventure revolving around the heroic exploits of four black GIs (Derek Luke, Laz Alonso, Michael Ealy and Omar Benson Miller) who became separated from their unit while fighting behind enemy lines in Italy in 1944. Here, Spike talks not only about his new film, but about the prospect of his beloved Knicks during the upcoming NBA season, and about his feud with Clint Eastwood.

KW: What interested you in making Miracle at St. Anna?

SL: Reading the original source, James McBride’s novel. The man’s a great writer. That’s what drew me to the project.

KW: How was it filming on location in Europe for the first time?

SL: It was a great experience. Practically this whole film was shot in Italy. I’d love to shoot over there again soon, maybe not in Italy, but somewhere else.

KW: What was the most challenging aspect of shooting?

SL: Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and you have to hike that equipment up the mountains and hills to get those shots. But that’s just part of the job. I would love to make another movie there. The light there is wonderful. You can not get that on the back lot in a studio. The small village the soldiers stumble into is 800 years-old. Where we able to shoot at a lot of locations where actual incidents took place, like the massacre. I think it adds something for both the cast and crew when they know they’re standing on the same exact spots as the scenes they’re recreating.

KW: How was it collaborating with James McBride, who also wrote the script?

SL: It was a great working experience, and I think that he would say the same thing. We had disagreements, but we respected each other’s opinion, since we both wanted what was best for the film.

KW: Mr. McBride says Miracle at St. Anna is fiction inspired by real events. Can you tell me some of things in the story that are real?

SL: Well, the 92nd Division, the Buffalo soldiers, they did fight in Tuscany against the Nazis. The massacre in St. Anna di Stazzema on August 12, 1944 where the Nazis’ 16th Division of the SS slaughtered 560 innocent Italian civilians really happened. The statue head, that’s real, too.

KW: Would you say Miracle at St. Anna is more than a war movie?

SL: This film is definitely more than just a war film. Of all the movies I’ve done, this one, by far, has more discussions of religion, faith and hope. That reflects James McBride‘s novel which is all about hope, faith, prayer, belief and God.

KW: What do you expect people to take away from this movie?

SL: I’m not in the business of telling audiences what to think. I respect their intelligence, and they’ll make up their on minds about what they think.

KW: During World War II, America’s armed forces were segregated and the Department of Defense directed embedded cameramen not to film African-American GI’s in action. And no blacks were subsequently featured in any of the early war films from the Forties and Fifties, and none were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in World War II until Bill Clinton belatedly corrected the glaring oversight during his presidency. Was your purpose in making this movie an attempt to rectify the deliberately whitewashed version of history?

SL: Well, that was part of it, because at the time these black men were fighting for the United States, the Army was still segregated. And they not only fought the Fascists and the Nazis for the Red, White and Blue, but they had to fight Jim Crow down South once they got home. But the whole movie isn’t about the Buffalo Soldiers. We spent a great deal of time with the Italians, too, and the story is framed within a murder mystery. But nonetheless, there’s been a great omission here, and the surviving Buffalo Soldiers I’ve spoken to are elated that we’re doing this film.

KW: NYU History Professor Yvonne Latty urged Clint Eastwood, even before he began production on Flags of Our Fathers, to include black soldiers in the film since somewhere between 700 and 900 African-Americans had fought on Iwo Jima. She even sent him a copy of her book about these forever unsung heroes, but to no avail. Is this the basis of your ongoing beef about the movie with Eastwood?

SL: I’m glad you’re saying that, because it needs to be known that there were people saying stuff to Clint even before he shot the film. So, this stuff is on record. I was not the first one to voice those sentiments.

KW: As far as I can tell, you’re the only film director who individually credits every musician who plays on his soundtrack. Why do you do that?

SL: Because I grew up in a jazz household, my father [Bill Lee] is a great jazz bassist, and I value the contributions of the musicians and the composer. My father did the scores for my movies in film school, and for She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. And Terence Blanchard did all the scores for my films since. Musicians are great artists. In my opinion, I think they’re the greatest artists. If somebody gets credit for pushing a dolly or holding a boom mike, why should someone who’s playing the violin, the bass, the trumpet, the French horn or the oboe not get credit too? They contributed as much as anybody else. That’s why I give musicians credit in my films.

KW: I appreciate that, being from St. Albans, which was an enclave of black musicians when I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties.

SL: Yeah, I know it had James Brown… Count Basie… and my man Milt Hinton.

KW: Count Basie lived up the block. We used to swim in his pool as kids. You know who else lived in St. Albans? Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Oliver Nelson, Lena Horne and Illinois Jacquet to name a few off the top of my head. But it was first integrated by Jackie Robinson, along with baseball. Speaking of sports, how do you think the Knicks will do this season?

SL: Well, I hope we have a winning record. [Laughs] Notice I said “hope.”

KW: Where in Brooklyn did you grow up?

SL: We were the first family to move into Cobble Hill, which at the time was primarily an Italian neighborhood. Cobble Hill is right by the Brooklyn docks, and almost all the people that worked the docks were Italian back then when the waterfront was alive and thriving. Funny thing, we got called “nigger” a couple of times, when we first moved in, until they saw that there weren’t anymore black families moving in behind us. We never had any more incidents after that.

KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?

SL: Yeah, very happy.

KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

SL: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.

KW: Who are you supporting for president?

SL: Barack Obama!

KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?

SL: Everybody’s afraid.

KW: What has been your biggest disappointment?

SL: My biggest disappoint so far was when I couldn’t get that Jackie Robinson film made. And then, when I couldn’t get the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling film made, or the James Brown bio-pic.

KW: Do you have a bio-pic in the works?

SL: Yes I do. I just optioned the right to the autobiography of a black physicist and professor at the University of Connecticut named Ronald Mallett called The Time Traveler. He’s drawn up the blueprint for a time machine.

KW: Is there a question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would

SL: Not really.

KW: The Music Maven Heather Covington question: What’s music are you listening to nowadays?

SL: Right now I’m listening to Raphael Saadiq’s new album, The Way I see It, and to Terence Blanchard’s score to Miracle at St. Anna.

KW: How do you want to be remembered?

SL: For my body of work.

KW: Thanks for the time, Spike.

SL: Alright man, thanks.

To see a trailer for Miracle at St. Anna, visit:

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