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September 2008
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA | An Interview with Director Spike Lee

An Interview with Director Spike Lee
by Wilson Morales

September 23, 2008

I’m sure if you asked him, Spike Lee would tell you that all the films that he’s done are important, but to others, his latest film to date, ‘Miracle at St. Anna’, will strike more of a chord than any of his previous ones. Rather than seeing them in the background in other war films, it puts Blacks at the front and center of a war and there are plenty of individuals who will relate to this.

‘Miracle at St. Anna’, which comes out on Sept. 26, chronicles the story of four black American soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, and Omar Benson Miller) who are members of the US Army as part of the all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldier" Division stationed in Tuscany, Italy during World War II.

They experience the tragedy and triumph of the war as they find themselves trapped behind enemy lines and separated from their unit after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy.

Directed by Spike Lee from a screenplay written by James McBride, the author of the acclaimed novel of the same name, the film explores a deeply inspiring, powerful story drawn from true history; that transcends national boundaries, race, and class to touch the goodness within us all.

Also featured in the film are Matteo Sciabordi, John Leguizamo, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Kerry Washington, Michael K. Williams, Valentina Cervi and Pierfrancesco Favino.

I spoke to Mr. Lee recently about getting this story told.

When did you decide you wanted to do a war film?

Spike Lee: I’ve been waiting to do a war film for the longest time. Growing up, my sister and I used to love watching war films. So, I read the book by James McBride and I called him up. I did not know him, but got his number and told him that I wanted to make his novel into a movie.

I had read somewhere that your wife had introduced you to the book. Is that because you were looking to do a war film and she suggested this one?

SL: No. It was on the shelf at home, and I pulled it out and read it.

Did this come about after ‘Inside Man’?

SL: This was before ‘Inside Man’. We had to make a deal, but still, it’s not like it was on the fast track. I did ‘Inside Man’ and then ‘When the Levees Broke’ and I was trying to get two other films made; one on James Brown and the other on the L.A Riots, and when I couldn’t those films off the ground, I told James that I was ready to do ‘Miracle at St. Anna’.

Then you went outside of the studio system to get funding for the film, right?

SL: Yes. I went to Italy and France, and the last piece of finance came from Touchstone Pictures, which is a part of Disney.

While the film is a novel from McBride, the importance of the book and film is that it places Blacks at the front and center of the war as opposed to seeing them in the back in other war films.

SL: Or not even at all. They are a major part of the story but it’s not the only story. In the story, you have the Germans, you have the Fascists and the people from the town, and so you have all these people who are part of this story that takes place during War World II.

Were there any parts of the book that were left out?

SL: Any filmmaker can tell you that you can’t put in everything in the film otherwise the film would really be too long. That’s the great thing about DVDs. You can include the deleted scenes or have a director’s cut.

You have worked with a large cast in previous films, but how different was this shooting outside of the states and with an international cast?

SL: It was a great experience for me to work with actors who do not speak English. English is not their first language. I went to Rome and France to cast the kid. Right from the beginning when I read James’ book, I knew that the film would be filled with an ethnic cast.

Did filming outside of the states and cities give you a new perspective on directing?

SL: No, it doesn’t give a new perspective on shooting, but again, it’s something I had not done before and at this level. I had a great production team which included Matthew Libatique, who shot ‘She Hate Me’, ‘Inside Man’, and most recently ‘Iron Man’. He’s a wonderful DP and we really enjoyed the shoot in Italy, especially when 99% of the crew was Italian.

Can you talk about casting the film?

SL: Anytime you put a film together, you want to cast the best people for the role. Initially, Wesley Snipes was supposed to play the Derek Luke part, but that didn’t happen because of his tax issues, and Terrence Howard was to play the character Michael Ealy has. I really believe that things work out for the best. By not having those people in the film, it made the film more of an ensemble piece. It’s not a film with stars per se; it’s an ensemble piece. For example, in ‘Do The Right Thing’, I wanted Robert De Niro in the Danny Aiello role, but with him in the film and him being a tremendous star it would have thrown everything out of balance. That film also was an ensemble film.

Can you talk about casting the boy the film?

SL: That was something I was worried about. I was confident about everything else. I know I never shot a war film but I confident that I could do it. I know that I never shot in a foreign country and never spoke Italian, but what worried me was getting the kid. The kid was the key in the film, and if I didn’t do it right, I knew that it would be a disaster. We look at over 5000 young boys and God bless us for having Matteo Sciabordi come in for it.

You also have some actors who worked with you in the past but in smaller roles.

SL: Yes. Those are my people; John Leguizamo, John Turturro, and Kerry Washington. These are people I love to work with and they were more than happy to help me out if schedules permitted it and it did.

Once you had all in place, was there ever any concern on how much you can shoot and explore and then edit?

SL: No. I’m one of the producers, so I have final cut on the film.

What do you want folks to leave with after seeing the film? Do you want them to remember the story or the history behind the story?

SL: Well, I really don’t try to dictate or tell people what to think. I just hope that they learned something and felt some emotion in watching the film. I hope we have touched people with this film.

Now that you have gone out outside of the studio system and found financing for one film, has this changed your opinion on securing money for future films? Will you consider doing it again for any other project that you have been trying to get off the ground?

SL: Well, my perspective had change even before this film. After coming off my biggest hit ever with ‘Inside Man’, I was able to get the finance I wanted. I’m not complaining. It was a good thing. It just opened my eyes and told me that I have to be more aggressive with films I want to make, and if the studios don’t want to do it, then I have to be more aggressive elsewhere. I can’t rely on the studio system.

What’s going to be your next project? There’s been talk about an ‘Inside Man’ sequel.

SL: I don’t know. As soon as there is a script that everyone like, then maybe.

Why should anyone go see ‘Miracle at St. Anna’?

SL: People have to see it. It takes a lot for people to leave their homes and the comfort of their living room. For me, nothing replaces watching a film on the big screen with other people where you are part of the audience and part of the community. I think we have a story and talent that is attractive for people to come out and see it. That’s my hope.

MIRACLE AT. ST. ANNA’ opens on September 26, 2008


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