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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.
Spike Lee’s 13 Tips for Aspiring Filmmakers
Spike Lee has spent his whole career cultivating and developing his own unique style and voice, bringing his “Spike Lee joints” to audiences everywhere in exciting and immersive ways. Below are some invaluable filmmaking tips from Spike Lee:
- Research your ideas. Research is a fundamental part of the screenwriter’s job. Immerse yourself in the time period—listen to the music of the time, read books and magazine articles, and watch documentaries—completely surround yourself with enough material to inspire and inform your screenwriting.
- Stay organized. Utilize tools like index cards and storyboards to keep your ideas in order. The filmmaking process will be hectic and stressful, so making sure your work is organized and accessible can keep your vision clear throughout the production process.
- Hire the right cinematographer. 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 cinematographer (also known as a director of photography or DP) is key role that every director needs on their team. 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.
- Be ready to 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)—a 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. 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.
- Find 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 early Spike Lee 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 Black Americans and Italian Americans. Stories that originate from your own life will often be the ones about which you’re most passionate and know intimately.
- Take your time auditioning. 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 the casting of Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry in Jungle Fever (1991).
- Work with the actors. Once the cast is decided, Spike strongly recommends any conflicts of approach be handled well before the cameras start rolling; otherwise, these same issues will show up on set. Part of the dance between actor and director is to allow the actor a certain amount of space to breathe within the role, perhaps try something different with the scene than what has been asked. If you are able, give your actors as many takes to get it right as your schedule and budget will allow. Decide which scenes are worth this experimentation, while also ensuring you make your day. If your actors are doing a good job, let them know.
- Keep your crew happy. You may not have a huge craft services budget, but it’s essential to feed everyone lunch and dinner during long shoot days, with snacks in between. A little bit of attentive effort on your part can go a long way in making people feel their work is appreciated.
- Be respectful. When you’re working on location—especially in someone’s home—be respectful. Apply the golden rule: treat a location as if it were your own home. Work quietly so you’re not a nuisance to the neighbors. Otherwise, you may not be able to come back the next day.
- Be prepared. Flexibility and preparation are crucial to independent filmmaking. Losing locations is inevitable, so be prepared with a cover set, which is essentially an alternate location. Extra places to film in case of unforeseen circumstances can save your day and keep your shooting schedule and your budget on track.
- Get everyone on the same page. 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.
- Show story through movement. 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 angle. 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 intimacy with the audience. Take risks and try different techniques to bring your story to life in a new and innovative way.
- Work closely with the editor. Hire an experienced editor, someone who knows more than you, especially if you are an inexperienced filmmaker. The post-production process is where your scenes are put together to complete your vision, and nobody knows your raw footage better than your editor.
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