“Here’s the thing: I’ve always been a hybrid,” a jovial Spike Lee said on Monday afternoon in his office at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, hours after the launch of his Kickstarter campaign to raise $1.25 million budget for a planned feature film project.
“I’ve always been an independent filmmaker who does Hollywood-financed films. So I go back and forth. My favorite filmmakers are storytellers, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do, whether it’s independent film on Kickstarter or studio films,” he added, citing the stalled development process of his long-in-the-works “Inside Man” sequel at Universal. “I can’t wait around. I want to make films. In this business, you’ve got to be able to adapt.”
It was at NYU, where Lee has taught a master class in the graduate film program for the last 15 years, that the filmmaker first became aware of Kickstarter after watching various students use the online fundraising platform to solicit finishing funds for their thesis projects. “But I never paid it much attention until one of my students told me about ‘Veronica Mars,’ and then Zach Braff,” he says. “I saw those two things and said, ‘I’ve got to give this a shot.’”
Lee had to decide which of his projects to crowdfund, and how much money to ask for. He eventually settled on an untitled screenplay on the subject of “blood addiction” that he hastens to add “isn’t a vampire movie.”
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“I always tell my students, when they’re thinking about their thesis films, ‘Have an idea of how much money you can raise and then let that be the boundaries of your story,’” Lee says. “If you don’t raise your goal on Kickstarter, you lose everything. So, I picked a number where I felt that we could do it, and where I felt I could make the best film I could for that amount of money. Today is day one of the 30 days we have to raise the money, and if God is willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll be shooting in November or December.”
Citing the performers (including Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez) who first came to attention in his earlier films, Lee plans to cast his new project primarily with unknowns. “I want to find people for this film that, when it comes out, they’re gonna blow up. I love that. There’s so much talent out there, but a lot of people don’t have the vehicle to showcase what they can do, particularly if you’re a minority. If you’re a black woman, it’s really bad. I don’t care if you win an Oscar or not, you ain’t gonna get a ton of roles.”
In a long letter to fans posted on his Kickstarter page, Lee positions the film as an alternative to the current industry vogue for large-scale franchise fare. In person, he elaborated: “I understand now that, with the amount of money it costs to market a film, the studios need films that are going to be tentpoles. But I will go to my grave believing that there are still audiences that want something different. Not to eradicate these type of 3D, blow-up-the-world, ‘Transformers’-type movies. They’re cool, but now it seems like that’s the only thing they’re making.”
Yet, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when Lee was blazing on to the scene with films like “Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Jungle Fever,” he not only enjoyed the full backing of a major studio (Universal), but saw each of those films released at the height of summer movie season.
“That’s why I always tip my hat to [former U heads] Tom Pollock and Sean Daniel,” he says. “Universal would not make ‘Do the Right Thing’ today.”
While he awaits the results of his Kickstarter campaign, Lee has a full slate of other projects, including a feature-length documentary (“Go Brazil, Go!”) about the emergence of Brazil as a global superpower and, for HBO, a film version of Mike Tyson’s one-man show “Undisputed Truth,” which he originally directed for Broadway in 2012.
“We shot it last Wednesday and Thursday, and Mike killed it,” says Lee, who’s headed to L.A. with Tyson in tow for next week’s Television Critics Association press tour. “HBO knows how to promote stuff. We’re very happy.”