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A Brief Introduction to Spike Lee
Spike Lee first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white. Over his long and varied career, Spike has often drawn from the well of his own life, which encompass everything from historically Black colleges and universities, colorism in the Black community, culture clashes in Brooklyn, love and jazz, interracial relationships, and addiction. Spike Lee continues to make movies—and make moves: In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Malcolm X for preservation in the National Film Registry, and his most recent film is 2020’s Da 5 Bloods.
How to Make a Movie Like Spike Lee
From Mo' Better Blues to Inside Man, every Spike Lee Joint offers a unique insight into the way Lee views the world. If you’re an up and coming filmmaker who’s inspired by Spike’s iconic filmography and want to create your own cinematic vision, check out the following steps:
- Know what you’re working with. Indie filmmaking is all about compromise, collaboration, and pooling resources. Before you begin writing your script, think about all of the resources that you have at your disposal. Know a friend who owns a coffee shop that would let you film at their location after closing? Consider writing a script that takes place in this space to cut costs. If you have a script idea that you’re passionate about that requires more money than you can reasonably raise, shelve it until you can raise the money needed to make it. Or, be ready to make compromises that will allow you to make the film for a realistic amount of money.
- Write a script. Cinema is about storytelling, and writing the script is a major part of shooting a feature film. Spike Lee’s films are the stories that he wants to tell at that time—the ones that he’s most passionate about. Jot down potential story ideas in a notebook—character names, dialogue, plot points, settings, etc. Once you have fleshed out the most important elements of your story, transfer your notes onto index cards, then order and reorder until you feel like you can clearly visualize your story. This, along with any relevant research, will eventually form your script.
- Embrace your style. As a writer-director, it’s important to have your own voice. This means having a distinct approach, whether it’s via a favored camera angle, lighting, or the city or culture your stories explore. Voice is what gives your work style. One way to have a unique voice is to tell unique stories. Many of Spike Lee’s earliest films were inspired by his personal experiences as a Black man trying to exist in a world built against him. Spike’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), originated from conversations he and his friends had about women. School Daze (1988) was reminiscent of his college days at Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta. Do The Right Thing (1989) recalled a time in New York City when racial tensions were at a fever pitch, particularly between African Americans and Italian Americans. He knew versions of those characters growing up in Brooklyn—how they spoke, their mannerisms—and recognized the growing cultural tension. Stories that originate from your own life will often be the ones about which you’re most passionate and know intimately.
- Fundraise. Independent films don’t get backings from huge motion picture studios—they must often rely on fundraising campaigns, donations, or outside investors. However, even projects that do receive funding from production companies or Hollywood studios may still need extra help. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992)—the biopic of the civil rights leader starring Denzel Washington—is proof that no matter how established you are, or how big of a studio is funding your film, you may still have to pound the pavement to raise more money. Nonprofit organizations may offer a variety of funding opportunities and creative labs for directors, screenwriters, producers, and independent storytellers of all genres. Obtaining grants or using crowdfunding platforms can also put your film on the radar of sales agents and investors, and serve as a proof of concept to potential buyers.
- Cast well. Spike knows the importance of choosing the right cast for your film. These are critical decisions that should not be rushed or taken lightly. Taking time on the front end to audition actors can save precious time and money on the back end, as it can be difficult and costly to fire an actor or edit out a bad performance. Do not be afraid to ask an actor to audition more than once. It is through this process you can witness the actor’s approach over time and ultimately trust them with the role. Don’t be afraid to cast people who might not look the part, as Spike learned with Halle Berry in Jungle Fever (1991).
- Do a read-through. Spike will often have his actors read the screenplay aloud—without acting. A read-through can help the director better know what works in the script and what doesn’t. When Spike does a read-through, he’s listening to hear how the language sounds. Do the jokes land? Does the language seem natural? Take notes, which you will incorporate into the rewrite.
- Hire the right crew members. You may not have the budget to fill every role necessary, but you should hire key team members that you can easily collaborate with during the film production process. A key member every director needs is the cinematographer (also known as a director of photography or DP). They are the person responsible for creating the look of your film. When you find a DP who understands and can capture your vision, it is a relationship worth keeping. A good DP will elevate your vision with cinematography, introducing ideas and concepts you as the director may not have considered.
- Storyboard. Storyboards can be supremely useful when directing big action sequences. Drawing out your shot list can be an organizing principle in the cacophony of producing complicated shoots. Storyboards become a precise map of what’s almost certain to be a hectic shoot day. You want to get this right.
- Good on-set communication. It is important that everyone on the crew is always working towards the same goal. For instance, at the beginning of each shoot day, Spike gathers his crew—the camera person, the first AD, the key grip, gaffer, and script supervisor—to discuss the day’s shooting schedule. This way, everyone is on the same page about what needs to happen and the team can better transition from shot to shot, ensuring that the film set functions as efficiently as possible.
- Capture your story. Film is all about movement. Telling a story isn’t just about recording the action, but how the images are captured. So much can be conveyed through basic camera angles. You can shoot a weak character from above so that they appear smaller. Conversely, you can shoot a strong or heroic character from below to make them appear larger than life. A volleying camera suggests rising tension. A character facing the camera suggests an intimacy with the audience. Take risks and try different techniques to bring your story to life in a new and innovative way.
- Edit. Whether you hire a small post-production team or do the work yourself, editing is a crucial part of the filmmaking process. A good editor can ensure your main story remains the main story and doesn’t get too overwhelmed by subplots. The edit room is also where you can uncover improvised moments that were not scripted or planned, but prove to be hidden gems. Be resourceful in the edit to incorporate these surprises.
- Add music. Music is one of the first elements Spike thinks about in his films, and he uses it to memorable effect. As soon as Spike completes a script, one of his first tasks is to send it to his composers so that they may get a sense of the story. When Spike finishes editing a scene, he sends the scene out to the composers and musical directors so that the tailoring and curating of music and film is happening simultaneously.
- Set the mood. An opening title sequence, also known as opening credits, is the film’s first moments where the audience is fully present, mentally preparing for the journey upon which they are about to embark. The opening sets the mood you want your film to achieve. Elements such as music, color, graphics, animation, and photography offer you an opportunity to be a bit more creative and take a few more chances while foreshadowing what’s to come.
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