“Sidney Lumet’s films Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico. A couple of John Schlesinger movies, Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man. Norman Jewison’s Thomas Crown Affair, Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway…” Spike Lee is ticking the festival’s worth of cinema he screened for the cast and crew of his new heist flick, Inside Man. “Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver…” Okay Spike, we get it, you watched a pile of movies.
Despite his fearsome reputation (he’s notorious for clamming up when he’s not on the same wavelength as his interviewer), Total Film finds Spike Lee in eloquent, thoughtful and humorous form, whether talking about what’s on his iPod (“John Coltrane, Springsteen, Sinatra, Bob Marley, Prince, Public Enemy”) to 3-6 Mafia’s Oscar win (“I’m just glad Terrence Howard didn’t get up there and perform that song”).
But after breaking the ice comes the serious business of his new film, Inside Man. It’s a slight departure for Lee, stepping into the unchartered waters of slick pot-boiler that sees Clive Owen’s bank robber pitted against Denzel Washington’s negotiator. Thrown in the mix are Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor as Washington’s partner and Jodie Foster as a mysterious fixer who no one seems to trust.
How did you find yourself at the helm of Inside Man?
Brian Grazer had this script by first time screenwriter Russell Gerwitz and Ron Howard was going to direct it. Then Russell Crowe came to Ron Howard and said, “Let’s do this film Cinderella Man instead,” so Ron Howard left Inside Man. Other directors came in, rewrote the script and messed it up and someone slipped me a copy. I had a meeting with Brian about another project and before I got up to leave the meeting I said, “By the way, I’ve read the script for Inside Man, I’d like to direct it.” He didn’t even know I was aware of the script, so that’s how the project came to be.
It’s a little mainstream for you isn’t it?
No, not if you avoid formula at all costs. You want the film to make money but you want to stay true and we felt there was a way you could satisfy both. If we do it right, you get both.
How did you get Denzel Washington involved?
When you’re dealing with someone like Denzel, you don’t dictate what role he’s going to have. So I said, “Look, the two roles are the bank robber and the good guy.” He said, “Spike, I’ve gotta play the cop because the other guy’s face is covered for the whole movie!” Then it turned out, when I gave the role to Clive that’s the first thing he says to me, “Spike, I wanna do it but my face is going to be covered the whole movie!”
After four movies together, does Denzel keep surprising you?
Yeah, sure. You always know that there’s going to be excellence involved but what’s going to be the manifestation of that excellence you don’t know, because he can always surprise you - just like anticipating the new Prince album that’s coming out! It’s always different from the last time but you know it’ll be great.
And you managed to sign up Jodie Foster, in a role most wouldn’t have thought she could pull off, but she does…
Jodie is a wonderful actress and we didn’t know if she’d necessarily do this part because it’s not a starring role but you never know until you ask. It turned out the reason why she did it was because she didn’t want to star in another film. She said, “Spike, I’ll do this film but I want to be glamorous in it, I want to get dressed up in the Chanel, with the bag and the shoes and all that stuff.”
What did you make of 50 Cent’s movie Get Rich Or Die Tryin’?
I think more damage is done with the music, the Gangsta rap. The thing about it is the subject matter, it never changes - they keep saying “We’re the MTV of the streets” ten years ago you were talking about the same stuff, so where’s your growth as an artist? You’re still talking about - before you were wearing gold, now you’re wearing platinum. Before you had a Benz 09, now you’ve got a Bentley - it’s the same thing, where’s the growth? I mean, how much time does it take to write bitch, ho, bitch, ho…bitch, bitch, bitch…ho, ho, ho?
You kind of make a point about this in the movie. The young boy is playing a Sony PSP Gangsta game…
I figured that this film afforded me the ability to put a little social commentary within the genre of a bank heist film and reading the script I would look at ways I could put stuff in. Having this boy in the movie, it just made sense to me that a young kid would have a PSP game – okay, so what’s he going to be playing? I found this young animation company and we came up with this scenario for the most violent game ever.
Going back to the cinema class you held for the cast and crew…
It wasn’t a cinema class, it was, “We’re screening some movies tonight, come.” The idea is to give us a chance to bond, to talk about cinema and the more cohesive you become as a group, the better the project.
Right, but they’re not going to argue with you, you’re the boss… Did anyone not turn up?
[Spike flashes a stare that could stop a charging rhino in its tracks, and TF knows there really is no need for him to answer that one.]