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January 2008
An Interview with Director Spike Lee

An Interview with Director Spike Lee

By Wilson Morales

January 14, 2008

In 1986, a young innovative filmmaker arrived on the Hollywood doorstep with an independent film that not only put him on the map but would redefine the film industry and bring about a new crop of talent in the African American film community. The film was called ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and the director was Spike Lee. What’s amazing about this film, which is finally coming out on DVD after 22 years, is that the budget ($175,000) and total gross of the film ($8 million) is still remarkable in today’s world.

According to wikipedia, Nola Darling (portrayed by Tracy Camilla Johns) is a young, attractive, sexually independent Brooklynite who juggles three suitors: the polite and well-meaning Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks); the self-obsessed model Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell); and the immature, motormouthed bicycle messenger Mars Blackmon (Lee). Nola is attracted to the best in each of them, but refuses to commit to any of them, cherishing her personal freedom instead, even though each man wants her for himself.

Mars Blackmon would live on past the film as Lee took the character and made numerous commercial with basketball legend, Michael Jordan.

Not only did this film win many accolades including the "Award of the Youth" Foreign Film at the 1985 Canned Film Festival, but Lee would go on direct a film just every year to this day. ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ also established the film careers of some of the cast (Reginald Hudlin, Ernest Dickerson, and S. Epatha Merkerson).

In speaking with Mr. Lee about the DVD release of his first film, he talks about the long wait, the success it had on his life, and what others can learn from watching the film.

Why did it so take for the film to be put on DVD?

Spike Lee: I really can’t answer that. The company First Island Pictures had it, then they got bought by someone else, and MGM acquired it. There were a bunch of company changes that postponed the release of the DVD.

As you look back 22 years later, what led you to come up with this material for your first film?

SL: I was just trying to get something done. I had finished film school at NYU four years earlier, and when you come out of film school, the goal is to get a feature film made. I had a couple of unsuccessful attempts at getting it done but things finally came together with this film and we shot that in summer of 1985. It was 12 days in July in 1985

Compared to the budget for today’s films, your film was really cheap at less than $200,000. How challenging was it back then to come up with the money?

SL: Well, it’s been documented. I kept a diary and I wrote a book (Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking) about the whole process from beginning to end about the film and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life.

Even in today’s world, with a budget of $175,000 and domestic gross of over $7 million, not everyone can duplicate that achievement.

SL: It made over $8 million worldwide.

Where did the inspiration for Mars Blackmon come from?

SL: Mars is something I made up from a lot of young b0boys that were growing up in Brooklyn and Mars was able to live another life for seven more years in the commercials with Michael Jordan and Nike.

How long after the success of this film did it take for people to start calling you with projects they wanted you to work on?

SL: They were on me right after the success, but I wanted to continue develop my own voice, so I had a script written already called ‘It’s Homecoming’ and that script turned to be ‘School Daze’.

Have you kept in touch with the cast of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’?

SL: Well, I saw Tracy (Camilla) Johns recently, but other than that, that’s about it. Everyone has gone their separate ways.

There were a few who had gone to do other things such as Ernest Dickerson and Reginald Hudln….

SL: S. Epatha Merkeson and Nelson George were in the film as well.

What can aspiring filmmakers can learn today from what watching this film for the first time?

SL: Well, they should have more technique that I had in that film.

Is there anything on the DVD that folks should look out for?

SL: No, this is really lean and mean. I think there’s commentary on it.

Having been in this business for over twenty years, with a film out every year as well, do you help others get their projects get off the ground?

SL: Yeah, I try to do that every day. That’s why I’ve been a professor for the last 10 years at NYU. I proud to be pushing filmmakers Black, White, and Asian every single day.

With the amount of time and years and skills you have learned since this film was released, did you envision that you would be taking and doing films outside of the New York City area as you are with your current film, ‘Miracle at St. Anna’?

SL: Oh year, I envisioned all that. Thank God it was able to be a reality. I just did the hard work I needed to do to make it happen. I would like to say that it’s just not hard work, it’s talent. You have to have vision and have to be lucky. All those atrributes really propelled me to do what I’m doing today 22 years later, and you go back to ‘She’s Gotta Have It’, that’s where it started. It’s the film that put me on the cinematic map.

Could anyone do a remake of the film with same budget and the same shooting schedule today?

SL:I really can’t answer that question. It would hard to do that film in 12 days like we did.

As the DVD is finally coming out, why should anyone pick it up?

SL: People have been asking me for years, ‘When is the movie coming out on DVD’? Well, the day is finally here and there are a lot of people who have only seen Mars Blackmon in the commercials with Michael Jordan. Now they can see where Mars originated from. This was my first film and they can see the growth from there.

Is this the type of film that you would go see?

SL: I try to see a lot of young stuff, young and innovative and different, so I would see this type of film.

‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Available in stores starting January 15, 2008.


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