Playboy: Was it so painful to make?
Lee: Yeah, it was hard. We only shot for twelve days, but every night, after we finished the day's work, I had to think about tryin' to go out and raise money for the very next day. Things have changed so much now, you know. We have money for contingencies, reshoots or whatever. Each picture is a little easier. But also, with She's Gotta Have It, the acting was bad.
Playboy: You don't like the performances?
Lee: No, not at all. They just weren't very good. I didn't really know how to direct. I wasn't good with the actors, in telling 'em what I wanted from 'em. I was just out of film school, and that was my only experience. In film school, you don't really get to work with actors, you never really have much contact with the actors, and so you're kinda intimidated by 'em. You don't deal with 'em much at all.
Playboy: What was your personal life like at the time?
Lee: Everything was wrapped up in getting this film made. We invited the American independent distributors to come to the San Francisco Film Festival, because that's where the world premiere was going to happen. In the middle of the film, there was a blackout in San Francisco. Not the whole city but that particular neighborhood. So for half an hour--the theater was packed, too--people just sat there. I was sitting there in a chair in the dark, on the stage. There was a question-and-answer period while we waited for the lights to come back on. So I answered questions in the dark, and nobody left.
Playboy: Did you start laughing at that point? You'd been through so much.
Lee: No. I said it was an act of God. What is happening? At the beginning of the movie, a blackout. But that's where the bidding war started. We sold it to Island Pictures for four hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars and went on to make eight million.
Playboy: How long before you made your next picture?
Lee: That has been the biggest gap of all my films, between She's Gotta Have It and School Daze. I had to stay with that film a long time. Promote it, get it out there. It came out in '86, and School Daze didn't come out until '88. But since then, we've made a film every year.
Playboy: School Daze sounds like it was overly ambitious, going from a four-character piece essentially in one room to a big musical with lots of production numbers and lots of characters.
Lee: I didn't think that was overly ambitious. I know that has been reflected in some people's reviews of the film. What I wanted to do in School Daze was, in that two-hour movie, was compress my four years of Morehouse.
Playboy: Were you surprised by the response that your next film, Do the Right Thing, got at the Cannes Film Festival?
Lee: That was a big response. You don't know. Sometimes, what might play in the States might not go in Europe, and vice versa. But I knew they would like She's Gotta Have It. It had a very European feel to it, the way it was cut and shot and that kind of stuff.
Playboy: What about what German director Wim Wenders said?
Lee: Oh, yeah, he said that Do the Right Thing was "not heroic"? Yeah, very. I was disappointed. I hold no grudges against Wim Wenders now. I never had anything against Steven Soderbergh [who won the Golden Palm that year], because it was not his doing. He made a very good film with sex, lies, and videotape. It was not his fault that he got the award. I know he's happy he got it, but I had no ill feelings toward Steven, and we're still friends today. [Sex, lies, and videotape] was very, very heroic. Especially this James Spader character, this guy jerking off all the time to the TV. Taping sexual confessions of women. Very heroic.
Playboy: You said that Mo' Better Blues, your fourth film, was consciously noncontroversial. Not only are you dealing with interracial romance in Jungle Fever, but you're also dealing with drugs. Why add two controversial elements?
Lee: I don't know. I might have given it the interracial thing, but how is drugs controversial?
Playboy: Because you purposefully avoided, you said, drugs as a subplot previously in Do the Right Thing.
Lee: Yeah, but I don't think the word is controversy. I'm not gonna let any critic determine my agenda. I find it preposterous that critics would attack me for not having drugs in Do the Right Thing, as if drugs were the complete domain of black people. How could you do a film set in Bed-Stuy without any drugs? Easy. We black people aren't the only people on drugs. The reason you've got drugs on the so-called agenda is because you've got young white kids in middleclass America and white suburbia who are doing crack and whatever. Then it becomes a national problem. As long as it was contained within the black ghettos, you would never see that problem being dealt with on the covers of Time or Newsweek. And if that is the case, which it is, then why have I never read of any white film makers being chastised for not having drugs in their films?
Playboy: Obviously, the critics thought the criticism was valid because of that particular neighborhood.
Lee: Hey, there's as much drugs in Bed-Stuy as there is on Wall Street or the Upper East Side.
Playboy: How did you get hooked up with the Fruit of Islam? Some people criticize that group's militancy and its association with Louis Farrakhan.
Lee: When we did location scouting for Do the Right Thing, we needed a block in Bed-Stuy that had two empty lots on the corner that faced each other. We had to build a pizzeria, and build a Korean fruit and vegetable stand. It turned out there were two or three crack houses on the block, or in the vicinity, so knowing the Fruit--they don't play that--we brought them in. They closed down the crack houses and they stayed on for security for the rest of the film.
Playboy: It seems ironic that the movie doesn't deal with drugs and you had to run the crack dealers off the block.
Lee: I don't find it ironic. Drugs is a part of our society, but I felt they should not be a part of this story. This film was really about twenty-four hours in the life of this block on the hottest day of the summer. It was really about race relations. I didn't want to put drugs in this.
Playboy: You seem very sure of yourself, and yet you've consistently portrayed the characters you play in your films as powerless and ineffectual.
Lee: Yeah, well, I don't see the need to make myself the hero in my movies. What's the point in that?
Playboy: Why do you keep playing the same kind of character?
Lee: I'm not that impressed with myself as an actor. I don't think much of myself that way. I don't have a whole lot of range as far as acting. Mars Blackmon, that was all right. I didn't expect people to like him, the way they did.
Playboy: What makes you continue to act in your pictures?
Lee: It really has to do with box office, with having somewhat of a little appeal with the audience. People will be more apt to come to one of my films if I'm in it.
Playboy: Will you be in Malcolm X?
Lee: Probably. [Laughs] I still need to be in my films.