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August 2006
WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: An Interview with Director Spike Lee

WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: An Interview with Director Spike Lee
By Wilson Morales

After 20 years in the business, Spike Lee continues to tell and film stories that reflect society. Earlier this year, he gain success with his 4th film with Denzel Washington in “Inside Man”, but while shooting that film, tragedy struck the people of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina came and wiped the state of its glory. Homes were lost, and many people died. The response to get them help was also part of the tragedy. Lee, with the support of HBO, took a team to film the outcome and interviewed many who wanted to express their stories to what they experiences. In “When The Levees Broke”, Lee captures the glory the New Orleans possessed to the aftermath of horror. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Lee talks about filming and talking to those who lost their lives to Mother Nature.


What was your relationship to New Orleans before you went over there to shoot the documentary?

Spike Lee: I have a lot of friends there; one of them is the Grand Marshall for the Mardi Gras. I’m also friends with Terrence Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis, Wendell Pierce.

Spike, was it difficult for you to make this documentary, knowing that there wasn’t really any closure to it?

SL: It was difficult because the story changed everyday. Thursday night, Colonel Strock retired or quit. He’s the guy that runs the core engineers. Everyday something was happening, so we had to make adjustments.

At what point did you decide you wanted to make a documentary and put a team together?

SL: Right away, when I was looking at what everyone else was watching on television.

Were you using your own funds to shoot the film?

SL: It was HBO. I called HBO and they said okay.

How do you identify the people who you want to be in the documentary?

SL: We have a great researcher. Her name is . She made two trips to New Orleans before we got there and she just walked around and met people. She would send me back an email with their stories and I would make the determination whether we should interview them or not.

Were there many people that were not chosen?

SL: Oh yeah, you don’t interview everybody. Some people don’t want to get interview.

There was a lot of footage that we didn’t get to see on the news. How did you go about in getting it? That was some great footage.

SL: Judy Ailee. That’s her job. That’s her profession. She got me everything that we knew and it was our determination of whether or not it would be used, but that’s her job and she found some amazing stuff.

Were you surprised by any of the stuff she dug up?

SL: There were a lot of surprises, but I told her to get everything. I was surprised by the teleconference by Max Mayfield and (President) Bush, where Bush is told early on that the levees might top, and later on he contradicts himself with Diane Sawyer saying that no one knew that this was going to happen. I liked the footage where this man walks in the water and sees through the windshield that the levees just broke. There’s a lot of stuff in there. The big surprise to me is how much humor there is in the film. You would not think going in that this is going to be funny and it’s not a funny subject matter. We captured the characters. There’s a special breed of people, black or white, in New Orleans. My man, Fred Johnson, when he went off and asked me to moved to another subject, you had the whole crew dying laughing.

When you were putting this together, how did you decide which would go first?

SL: It was easy. We needed some structure, so let’s divide them into four acts.

For folks who don’t have HBO, was there a thought to having the film go theatrical?

SL: No. They were not going to do that. It will go to the Venice Film Festival, as well as the Toronto Film Festival. I think a lot of other TV stations like BBC might buy it. I’m hoping for some small releases.

Is the Mackie in the film Anthony Mackie’s brother?

SL: Yep. They’re brothers.

Was there any fear as to how you would show the plight of those less fortunate?

SL: No, but Nagel and Kanye West did. After Kanye said what he said on TV, he thought he would be having his last drink.

Within the footage, we see Sean Penn working and saving lives. A lot of commentary was made on heroics as if he was trying to gain some attention. Did you ask him why he was there?

SL: I don’t think I have to justify that. He’s a great humanitarian. He went down there and he was saving lives, so Sean is genuine. To me, personally, he didn’t want to question why he was there.

What did you walk away with after shooting this?

SL: People will have to do some work. There’s 4 hours there. It’s very complex. It’s didn’t start to be four hours. When we initially approached HBO, it was going to be two hours, but half way in, we said we needed more time and more money and they gave it to us.

“When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts”

Acts I and II of airs Monday, Aug. 21 (9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO, followed by Acts III and IV on Tuesday, Aug. 22 (9:00-11:00 p.m.). All four acts will be seen Tuesday, Aug. 29 (8:00 p.m.-midnight), the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Other playdates on HBO:
All four acts: Sept. 1 (noon), 7 (8:00 a.m.), 11 (11:15 p.m.) and 16 (4:00 p.m.).
Acts I and II: Sept. 3 (2:00 p.m.), 20 (11:30 a.m.) and 26 (4:00 p.m.).
Acts III and IV: Sept. 4 (2:00 p.m.), 21 (11:30 a.m.) and 27 (4:00 p.m.).

Other playdates on HBO2:
All four acts: Sept. 10 (10:00 a.m.) and 28 (midnight).
Acts I and II: Aug. 30 (10:00 p.m.) and Sept. 12 (2:35 a.m.).
Acts III and IV: Aug. 31 (10:15 p.m.) and Sept. 13 (2:25 a.m.).



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