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Spike Lee on ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’ and Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

'I'm good with titles.'

Spike Lee’s latest horror film, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” is about a couple of bloodsuckers, but don’t call them vampires. “This is not a vampire story,” Lee says from his production offices in Brooklyn. “Vampires can’t go out in the day in the Fort Green Projects. This is about people who are addicted to blood.” His movie was inspired by 1974’s “Ganja & Hess,” directed by Bill Gunn, which Lee first saw in NYU film school. “Bill didn’t think it was a vampire movie either,” Lee says. “Once it was taken from him and recut, it was sold that way to capitalize on the success of ‘Blacula.'”

Lee’s project, which he co-wrote and produced, is probably best known as the one he pitched on KickStarter last year. He says he learned about the crowd-funding site from his students at NYU, where he’s long taught film classes. Lee raised $1.4 million, slightly more than the $1.25 million he asked for, from 5,000 backers to make the homage. He shot the indie in 16 days last fall in Brooklyn and Martha’s Vineyard, and cast unknowns (Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams) as his leads.

On Sunday night, “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” premiered at the Annual American Black Film Festival, where it’s being shopped by ICM Partners for a domestic distribution deal. On Monday, Lee sat down with Variety to talk about the film, why last year’s black Hollywood renaissance isn’t necessarily real and the 25th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.” Excerpts below:

Do you think a studio would have ever made “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”?
Here’s the thing. Me doing this film is not me turning my back on Hollywood. It’s not a ‘fuck you’ to Hollywood. I’m not condemning the Hollywood studio system. There are many different ways to make a film. And not every film is necessarily going to be a studio film. I understand that; I’m a big boy. So “Inside Man” is a studio film. “Do the Right Thing” is a studio film. I do films that are within the Hollywood system, and I do films that are independent. I enjoy both.

And you’ll continue making studio films?
Yeah. People get me confused with Steven Soderbergh. You never heard me say, like Steven did, “I’m out!” Even though we both had a film in Cannes in 1989, “Do the Right Thing” and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” we are not the same guy.

But Soderbergh donated $10,000 to your film.
We don’t really call it a donation. It’s like an investment. Well, it’s not an investment per se: they don’t get money in return, but they get something. For me, my $10,000 pledge was to sit with me at a courtside Knicks game and I take you to dinner before the game. Steven Soderbergh was the first person to do the $10,000 pledge, and that came out of nowhere. For a lot of people that legitimized the Kickstarter campaign. So we were able to sell 36 games.

Who were these people?
They were from all walks of life.

You also used social media for the soundtrack.
I put a call out to all unsigned artists to please submit songs to our film. And then 800 songs were submitted. I listened to each and every one of them. I selected 12 songs, then I went to Epic Records to see L.A. Reid, went to his office, closed the door, turned off the phone. I played him all 12 songs, and we had a deal.

Do the songwriters still get royalties?
Yeah. People need a shot.

How did you come up with the title?
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus”!? How did I come up with “Do the Right Thing”? How did I come up “He Got Game”? How did I come up with “Bamboozled”? I’m good with titles.

Speaking of “Do the Right Thing,” it turns 25 this summer.
June 30 will be the anniversary date. BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music] and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LA are having retrospectives of my work. They are both going to have gala screenings of “Do The Right Thing.”

How do you feel about the movie today?
It still works. It’s still relevant. It’s still great.

How did you find Rosie Perez?
I was in LA at my birthday party. She was dancing on the speakers in this club. I told her to get down.

And she introduced herself to you as an actress?
No, she jumped off the thing and cursed me out.

Last year, there were all these articles about how it was a strong year for—
My man, I know the question you’re going to ask me.

I was going to ask you about the success of “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station.”
I know. These articles come out every 10 years. Every 10 years, I get calls, “Spike, can you speak about this new discovery of black film?” It changes that year, but then there’s a nine-year drought. I do not have a position at the studio. Spike Lee is not the greenlight vote. I think that question has to be directed back at the gatekeepers. Why do we have this renaissance of Hollywood’s infatuation with black people every 10 years? They need to be asked that question.

It still doesn’t seem like enough is changing.
I agree with you. The only way this is going to change is when you have African Americans or minorities who have a greenlight vote at the studios. It’s very simple. These studios decide what films get made. I would like to know who is a person of color that has a greenlight vote. I think a lot of people have not read the U.S. census forecast about what the racial mix of the country is going to be. White America is going to be the minority.

Kevin Hart opened at No. 1 last weekend with “Think Like a Man Too”?
Where is Clint Eastwood? [laughs]

“Jersey Boys” was at No. 4. It’s not very good.
I didn’t see it. For me, I just think it’s good business that you reflect the diversity of this great country. I’m talking about the management. If you compare sports to Hollywood, Hollywood looks like it’s still in the 1940s.

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