Spike Lee wants to make one thing very clear: OLDBOY is not a remake. It is a reinterpretation.
Lee has been stressing this throughout the OLDBOY press tour, and he's especially keen to clarify this for cinephile-friendly sites. He knows you loved Park Chan-wook's OLDBOY. He loved it, too. So did Josh Brolin - which is why the actor wouldn't appear in the film unless he received Park's blessing. That blessing was granted, so, at the very least, you can't say this iteration of Garon Tsuchiya's was made in bad faith.
Working from a screenplay by Mark Protosevich, Lee has applied his very specific aesthetic and wit to this twisted tale, but these trademark flourishes are far more muted than they've ever been. Even the hugely commercial INSIDE MAN was unmistakably a Spike Lee joint (how could it not be given it was shot in the filmmaker's beloved hometown of New York City)? OLDBOY, however, has a gritty, despairing energy that isn't buoyed by a soaring Terence Blanchard score or some ingeniously deployed needle-drop cue (I'm thinking of the pulsating, pissed-off charge "Living for the City" gives to the crack house sequence in JUNGLE FEVER). His stunning documentary work aside, this is easily the most unremittingly grim movie of Spike Lee's career.
Grim is exactly what I expected when I spoke to Lee a couple of weeks ago - though this had nothing to do with the tone of OLDBOY. The previous evening, I'd watched the filmmaker lose his mind courtside at Madison Square Garden as his beloved New York Knicks suffered a crushing defeat to the Houston Rockets. The thought that he'd have to get up early for a cross-country flight to Los Angeles and do a day's worth of press was not a comforting one. So imagine my surprise to find a smiling, jovial Spike Lee less than twenty-four hours after the Knicks had blown a winnable game. He was in such a good mood that I decided to open with hoops talk - knowing that if he lamented the state of the Knicks too much, I could swiftly counter with my equally miserable Cleveland Cavaliers fandom.
But there was much more to this interview than OLDBOY and basketball. Nineteen years ago, I saw DO THE RIGHT THING at the Showcase Cinemas in Toledo, Ohio, and it changed my life. I was already a hardcore film buff at the age of fifteen, but this was the first time I'd walked out of a movie and believed it could change the way people view the world. It was also the first time I'd seen a film about race relations that wasn't resolved by the wisdom/sacrfice of good-hearted white people. By that fall, I was reading THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X and memorizing every last Public Enemy lyric (most of IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK is still lodged in my brain). A year later, MO' BETTER BLUES got me obsessed with jazz, while JUNGLE FEVER made me realize there was a hell of a lot more to Stevie Wonder than his '80s output. I read all of the companion books Lee published for his movies, and sought out every movie he recommended - either by reference in his films or a passing mention in an interview.
More than any other filmmaker I can think of, Spike Lee has deepened my understanding of the world. So if this interview seems a little bit scattered, it's because I had damn near two decades worth of questions kicking around in my head. But you don't interview Lee so much as banter with him. There are no rehearsed answers. It's all off-the-cuff. And you'd better be ready for him to turn questions back on you, because he loves a lively dialogue. I hope this interview is as much fun to read as it was to conduct.
Let's start with basketball, Carmelo Anthony and the four-point play that wasn't.
Spike Lee: How are you doing?
Mr. Beaks: I'm doing good. I hope you're well. I saw you last night courtside at MSG. That was a tough one, man.
Lee: (Pauses and shoots me a look of sheer disbelief) What happened to the continuation rule?
Beaks: I thought it was continuation, but the refs are so inconsistent in how they call it.
Lee: What did they say on television? Shaq! What did Shaq say?
Beaks: Steve Kerr thought they got the call right.
Lee: What??? But what did Shaq say?
Beaks: I can't remember. I think he thought it was a good basket.
Lee: I know we're here to talk about OLDBOY, but what I don't understand... (pauses for effect) is how Jeremy Lin can drive down the middle through the whole team and dunk! How does that happen? He drove down the middle of the court and dunked! That should not happen! Also, why did Carmelo foul?
Beaks: That was dumb.
Lee: Under two minutes, you can't do that.
Beaks: He's got to know better than that.
Lee: Did the coach tell him? (Spike shakes his head in disgust.)
Beaks: I get it. I get the misery. I'm a Cleveland fan--
Lee: Oh! Did you burn your LeBron jersey?
Beaks: I gave it to the Goodwill.
Lee: (Laughs) You know, it's not too far-fetched that he comes back to Cleveland.
Beaks: I guess, but we need to get this iteration of the team sorted first.
Lee: Would they accept him in Cleveland? With open arms, right?
Beaks: He's the best player in the world. I'm mostly okay with him. Now.
Lee: Now! (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) Okay, I had to get that out of the way. Now onto OLDBOY. It's always fascinating when established directors take on their first remake.
Lee: (Whispering) Reinterpretation. That's the word we're using.
Beaks: Sorry. Reinterpretation. Because I'm thinking Scorsese with CAPE FEAR, the Coens with TRUE GRIT, Spielberg with ALWAYS...
Lee: He did WAR OF THE WORLDS, too.
Beaks: Have you considered or been approached with remakes in the past?
Lee: I've never been offered a remake. I've never been offered a reinterpretation either. Maybe I never did it because I was only being offered remakes! (Laughs) Never thought about it. But what drew me to this material is that OLDBOY is a great film, Park is a great director and Josh Brolin and I have talking for years about working together. All of those things contributed to it coming together.
Beaks: Was there a conversation with Park about doing the film?
Lee: I was not a part of that, no. The deal was already done. But Josh met with Park, and if Josh hadn't gotten a blessing from Park, he wasn't going to do the film. But Park blessed it. And for all those people out there who are hating on us, Park said, "I bless this project, and just make it your own film. Don't try to do what we did." And I think we were successful at that.
Beaks: There is a certain expectation when you're doing a genre film that you're going to smuggle in thematic elements that make it more personal for you.
Lee: Let me answer that this way: the biggest criticism I think was justified. The criticism that this was going to be another Americanization, where they just take some Asian film and just fuck it up, I think that was legitimate criticism. But we didn't do that! That wasn't our intention!
Beaks: But I'm thinking more in terms of the New Orleans setting--
Lee: But it's not supposed to be New Orleans. There's no way you can say in that film that it's New Orleans. It's supposed to be a nondescript city.
Beaks: I get a New Orleans feel from it.
Lee: From the movie?
Beaks: Here and there, yeah. Certain exteriors and locations. New Orleans can't help but assert itself.
Lee: (Points to the poster) You think that's New Orleans right there??? (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) No, that can be any city, but my point being--
Lee: I love New Orleans anyway.
Beaks: And I just figured because it was shot there that you might try to work a Katrina metaphor in there.
Lee: We got Katrina in there though! And 9/11. And Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech. The inaugurations of William Jefferson Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama.
Beaks: All of which is interesting. Is that a more thoughtful way of Americanizing the film? Giving it a cultural specificity?
Lee: I would not say "Americanization", but I'm glad you brought that up. In no way, shape or form did Josh Brolin and I ever think "We have to make this more American. It's too Korean." Our thing was "How can we make the best film?" That's all it was about. Culturally, it was never "This was too Korean."
Beaks: Aesthetically, the film certainly has a lot of your visual signatures. What interests me is how you've been able to maintain that over the years while working with so many different DPs. How do you decide on a DP?
Lee: Well, sometimes the people you want are not available, but sometimes they are. Sean Bobbitt is an amazing DP. At the time, I'd only seen his work on SHAME and HUNGER, but recently I caught 12 YEARS A SLAVE. He's getting a nomination on that. He's a world-class DP, and we were blessed to have him on this film.
Beaks: You've worked with a lot of world-class DPs. Rodrigo Prieto, Ellen Kuras...
Lee: Matty Libatique.
Beaks: And, of course, Ernest Dickerson. How have these collaborators helped you define your style?
Lee: It's always in concert with the DP. I would say that my years with Ernest Dickerson... I got spoiled by Ernest. And I woke up one day and said, "Ernest came to New York University to direct. He's going to start directing films, so I need to start heightening my visual game." That's how you tell a story: the cinematography, the music, the editing, the costume design, the production design, the acting... those are all tools you have as a filmmaker to help tell a story.
Beaks: This might be the most pure genre film you've made. It's a revenge film, a thriller... I might even call it horror. (Spike laughs)
Lee: You know what the word is? Versatile. Here's the thing: people forget the body of work. DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X, JUNGLE FEVER, and then there's all the other stuff. They forget. And I think the body of work is evidence of the versatility of the films I can do. Also, these are just the types of stories I like.
Beaks: But do you ever think explicitly in terms of genre. Like, "I'd love to try my hand at a horror film?"
Lee: I don't think like that. My agent sent me the script. I was not sitting at home thinking, "Now's the time!" It just doesn't work like that. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I didn't know OLDBOY was being redone. I didn't even know the history about Spielberg and Will Smith. All I knew is the film and the original source material, the Japanese manga.
Beaks: But what about when you're writing for yourself. What does it take to get you to sit down and start writing?
Lee: It's that I want to tell that particular story at that particular time.
Beaks: You often do callbacks to some of your earlier work in your films. In OLDBOY, you do a callback to one of Jim Jarmusch's films. You have your brother playing a bellhop as he did in MYSTERY TRAIN.
Lee: Here's the thing though. I forgot about that! (Laughs) I forgot he played a bellhop in MYSTERY TRAIN!
Beaks: So that was pure coincidence?
Lee: It couldn't be coincidence. It had to be in my subconscious. But I forgot about it, and my brother Cinque didn't remind me! (Laughs) But anytime I can give a shout-out to Jim Jarmusch, I love it. He was two years ahead of us at NYU film school. When STRANGER THAN PARADISE came out, that made everyone under him at NYU graduate school know that it could happen, that it was possible. I will always give love to Jim Jarmusch. Always.
Beaks: I was a kid in Bowling Green, Ohio raiding the video store for these movies you guys were making...
Lee: Bowling Green? Did you go to Bowling Green [State University]?
Beaks: No, I went to Ohio University. You actually came and spoke when I was there.
Lee: When you were a student? What was your major?
Beaks: I wanted to do film at first, but I wasn't crazy about the program so I got my degree in Theatre. But, as you said, the '80s were such an inspiring time because making films seemed possible.
Lee: Especially in New York City.
Beaks: Which got me obsessed with New York City. I knew I had to get to New York City, and I eventually lived there for a while.
Lee: What years?
Beaks: 1997 until December 2001.
Lee: 9/11, huh?
Beaks: And that's why 25TH HOUR resonates for me more than any of your films.
Lee: Oh, man. Here's the thing: no one saw that film when it came out.
Beaks: Your studio didn't promote it.
Lee: You know what their thinking was? "We're going to put it out at the end of the year. Go small. And we'll only spend more money on this film if we get Golden Globe nominations or Academy Award nominations." It didn't happen. But people love that film.
(Getting the last question signal.)
Beaks: I'm just going to go here: being from a small town in Bowling Green, Ohio, between you and Public Enemy and a lot of other hip-hop artists, you got a lot of white kids into African-American culture.
Lee: (Laughs) You know that white boys are the biggest consumers of rap. That's documented.
Beaks: But you also got a lot of us reading THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X and thinking about what was going on in a culture that was absolutely foreign to us.
Beaks: And empathy. For you, at the time, I know you were making films that were close to the bone, but were you also thinking about reaching out to people who had no connection to that culture?
Lee: We had a mission. Still do.
Beaks: What is the mission?
Lee: Storytelling. But that was a special time, with Public Enemy and myself. There are just some times through history that are very special, and that was one of them. But there are more to come!
OLDBOY hits theaters on November 27th. Thanks, Spike.