Spike Lee has never been a filmmaker to shy away from a challenge. In face, he thrives on them. All of his “joints” have demanded fierce passion and commitment on his part, while also posing tough questions of the audience. Sometimes he meets the challenge head on and delivers a stunning piece of cinema (Do the Right Thing, He Got Game, and When the Levees Broke) and other times his drive alone isn’t enough to rescue a troubled project (She Hate Me, Get on the Bus). With his latest picture, Miracle at St. Anna, Lee faced another Herculean task: adapting James McBride’s novel about a group of Buffalo Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in the waning days of World War II to the big screen, with its mixture of epic battle scenes, intimate character moments and moments of magical realism intact. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether he succeeded, but no matter how you feel about the film, you gotta admit that Spike Lee remains one of the hardest working guys in show biz.
GIANT: One of the things I admired about Miracle at St. Anna was its use of magical realism. You don’t often see elements of fantasy mixed into contemporary war movies.
Spike Lee: That was all in James McBride’s novel; we wanted to bring the same wonderful mysticism that he wrote in the book to the screen.
GIANT: Could that mysticism be one of the reasons why the film had trouble finding an audience during its theatrical release?
Lee: I don’t know that I’d agree with that. I think the people that saw the film responded to it. The reasons why people didn’t come were due to other factors: marketing, timing, the trailer coming out too late. But I’m not making alibis. I just hope that Miracle at St. Anna will be added to the long list of films that found their audience on DVD.
GIANT: Spirituality also plays a large role in this movie, as it has in many of your films. Why is that a subject that continues to interest you?
Lee: Well, definitely in a war you’re praying to God or Allah or whatever because you don’t know when you’ll be taken down by a bullet or a bomb or step on a mine. So you call upon the Great Almighty so that you can live another day. Look at the plane that just went down in the Hudson. I bet there were people on that plane who hadn’t prayed in a long time!
GIANT: Were there any scenes from the book that you felt disappointed about having to leave out of the film?
Lee: No, the film is already long so we had enough time to get everything we needed. James wrote the script himself and I think he did a fine job. He understood right away what would work in a film and what wouldn’t. We actually added some stuff that wasn’t in the book, like the Axis Sally character [a propaganda device used by the Nazis to convince black soldiers to abandon their regiments] and a flashback to their time in boot camp in Louisiana when they’re not served at an ice cream place, but Nazi POW’s are allowed to eat there.
GIANT: You were able to shoot the film on location in Northern Italy. Was it hard to sell the studio on that plan?
Lee: Actually it was an easy sell because the bulk of the money came from Italy and France. Disney only came onboard as the domestic distributor. But we had to shoot this movie in Italy—we had to. And it was beautiful there. We were in a very remote location and those hills are no joke! We had to do some hiking. We shot the St. Anna massacre at the actual place where it occurred, the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, where the SS slaughtered innocent Italian civilians. It was a very heavy two days—we could feel the souls and spirits of the people that had been murdered.
GIANT: The movie opens with an epic battle scene. Would you say that was the most challenging sequence to shoot?
Lee: It was one of them because I had never done anything like it before. I had a wonderful military adviser named Billy Budd, an English bloke and a former British Marine. He was wonderful and really schooled me in how to make it authentic. He also conducted a two-week boot camp for the actors, not just the ones playing Buffalo Soldiers but the actors playing Nazis too. For me, that whole sequence was a lot of fun. I know it sounds strange to say it was fun shooting a war scene, but I’ve never had that kind of stuff in my movies before—explosions going off and people flying through the air. At one point I had to get up on a hill that overlooked the field in order to see all of what was going on.
GIANT: So you were like a real general, then.
Lee: I’m not saying I was Patton, but I had a great vantage point. [Laughs]
GIANT: You recently acquired the rights to make another World War II film, Now the Hell Will Start.
Lee: That’s a whole different [war film]. It takes place in Burma and it’s about the biggest manhunt put on by the U.S. Army during World War II. Based on a great novel by Brendan I. Koerner.
GIANT: In the meantime, your film version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical Passing Strange just premiered at Sundance to strong buzz.
Lee: Yeah, it came out great. We filmed the last two shows and the performers were really doing a lot of work—you can see them sweating. Not that they weren’t working hard in the other 500 shows they did, but they knew these were going to be preserved forever. We’re still negotiating when and how the film is going to be released.
GIANT: You’re also working on a Kobe Bryant documentary.
Lee: We’re going to premiere it as the All-Star Game in Phoenix this weekend and its going to be on ESPN in May. It follows him during one game. I was inspired by the movie Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait [about the French soccer player], but we did some things differently. We go into the locker room before and after the game and during halftime as well. Also, Kobe was wearing a mic during the game.
GIANT: This year marks the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing. Are there any plans to celebrate the occasion?
Lee: We’re doing a big event at Lincoln Center on February 26th and we’re working on the 20th anniversary Blu-ray version of the film with a whole bunch of new extras. It’s a great film, a landmark film. There’s a lot of stuff that’s still with us today—it still resonates. That’s why people still cherish it and why it is still taught in film study programs all over the world. But I’ve never thought about making a sequel. It would diminish the original piece. It would tarnish it and I don’t want to do that.
Miracle at St. Anna is on DVD now. Read GIANT’s review here. Watch the trailer below and then travel back in time to 1989 with the Do the Right Thing teaser.
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