Spike Lee Eyes Another Career Milestone With 'Inside Man' (3/06)

One of the landmarks of recent movie history is a converted firehouse in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York. That's the office of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, the production headquarters for the past 20 years of the prolific Spike Lee. (The name comes from the meager compensation offered to freed slaves after the Civil War.) Enter its doors and you'll find a friendly staff, and rooms, corridors and stairways filled with framed one-sheets from Lee's nearly 20 feature films and personally autographed movie posters and photos from the likes of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, and friends like Michael Jordan and Martin Scorsese. Those mementos are part of the reward for a groundbreaking career that took off in 1986 with the success of Lee's first low-budget feature, She's Gotta Have It, and continued at a relentless pace with School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus, Bamboozled and 25th Hour among the highlights.

Now, Lee is poised for another breakout: a highly commercial thriller starring two Oscar-winning box-office draws, Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster, and fast-rising star Clive Owen. Universal Pictures' Inside Man, Lee's first collaboration with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment, features Washington as a New York cop pitted against a devious bank robber (Owen) in a hostage crisis. Foster plays a mysterious power broker with an agenda of her own. All is not what it seems in first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz's suspense tale, which debuts on March 24.

Minutes into our interview, Lee disagrees with the notion that this star-laden genre movie is a departure for him. "I don't think so. The elements in this film, some of them are similar to what we did with Summer of Sam. And it's my fourth collaboration with Denzel. I will acknowledge we have a lot more firepower with the addition of Denzel, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer. But what you want to do is just look at the film and don't compare it to my other work, just look at it as a standalone piece."

All of Lee's films to date have had an element of social commentary, so it's natural to ask if there's a subtext to Inside Man beyond a traditional thriller. "There's stuff there," Lee cagily allows, "but this is the 20th anniversary of She's Gotta Have It, so I'm beyond...we've all passed the point where I need to explain to audiences what the film is about and what they should think. I respect the audience's intelligence-it's there, you just have to work a little bit..." Then he hastens to add, "Not too hard!"

The Inside Man script was originally bought by Imagine with the intention of having Ron Howard direct it, Lee says. "Then Russell Crowe came in with Cinderella Man and he went off to do that, and a couple of other writers and directors came on. So it was really languishing. Denzel was on Broadway and he had a window after finishing up Julius Caesar and I took it to him and he said: Let's go."

Lee's last film with Washington was the father-son basketball drama He Got Game in 1998. "We always want to work together, it's just a matter of the project," Lee explains. "This is the biggest gap, and hopefully it won't be another eight years."

Washington's first performance for Lee was as a troubled jazz trumpeter in 1990's Mo' Better Blues, followed in 1992 by one of the actor's most dynamic performances in the title role of the epic Malcolm X. How has their relationship evolved over the 16 years? "As far as working together, there's a world of difference," Lee notes, "because Mo' Better was the first time. We've developed a kind of telepathy, we work very well together."

A fan of Clive Owen's Oscar-nominated performance in Closer, Lee met with the British actor several times during last year's awards season to discuss another project. When Inside Man materialized instead, the director immediately thought Owen would be perfect for the role of the smoothly menacing bank robber.

As for his third star, "I have a long connection with Jodie. My brother, David Lee, who is unit photographer on my films, was a classmate and friend of Jodie's at Yale. They've been friends off and on since then. And I always loved her work. You see people in passing, but we were both really genuine when we said, 'I'd like to work with you.' Everything's about timing, and this was the right time for us to work together, and hopefully in the future it will be a much bigger role."

As his devotion to the Fort Greene neighborhood where he grew up reveals, Lee remains very much a New York filmmaker. For Inside Man, he says, "We were very fortunate to find this great bank that was built in the 1920s right there on Wall Street-we used the exterior and the first floor. The vault area we built in the Brooklyn Navy stage that just opened.

"With the new tax breaks from New York City and New York State, hopefully more filmmakers, producers and studios will want to shoot here," he adds. "I've never liked these films that supposedly take place in New York City and shoot in Toronto. I'm very happy to say I've yet to do that, and I don't wanna."

Another city on Lee's mind these days is beleaguered New Orleans-he's in the midst of shooting a feature-length documentary for HBO on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which is scheduled to air on the one-year anniversary of that shocking natural and bureaucratic catastrophe. "We know that Katrina affected the whole Gulf Coast region," Lee explains, "but we hone in specifically on the most unique city in the United States, New Orleans. We look at the aftereffects, race, class, all the components of this part of American history." Lee has been to the city twice with his cameras, and will be returning for Mardi Gras. HBO viewers can expect some typically strong Lee opinions, particularly about administration figures like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, he points out, "was buying Ferragamo shoes on Madison Avenue while people were drowning." He adds, "A lot of people in New Orleans have expressed to me that they're glad I'm doing it. Also like Malcolm X, they remind me: I can't fuck this up. But pressure is good. We have a great responsibility with this project."

Lee has also been seeking financing for a drama about the legendary boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, which he wrote with Budd Schulberg, the 91-year-old screenwriter of On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. "Budd was at the second Louis-Schmeling fight in '38!" Lee laughs. "I've always been a great admirer of his work." Terrence Howard, the acclaimed star of Hustle & Flow and Crash, will play Louis, and Lee wants Hugh Jackman for the role of Schmeling. As for cost, Lee declares, "It's really not an exorbitant budget compared to the going rate."

Lee's relationship with Schulberg isn't his only surprising friendship. "It's funny, when you go to do press worldwide. I was in Rome, and I asked somebody, 'Do you know Fellini?' He gave me his number, I called him up, and he said, 'Come on, let's have dinner.'" The proof is there on his walls-not one but two signed posters, including a giant La Dolce Vita inscribed around the time Lee was arguing with Warner Bros. over the running time of Malcolm X. "Dear Friend Spike," the late maestro wrote, "This was the first film that lasted three hours. Hold on. The latest film must be four hours."

Like many of the directors he admires, Lee has achieved a degree of public celebrity, thanks to his performances in his early films (especially She's Gotta Have It and the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing), commercials, and as a vocal presence at New York Knicks games. Today, Lee says he has "no desire" to act again. "I can't hate on Mars Blackmon [his scene-stealing character in She's Gotta Have It and subsequent Nike commercials]. That was responsible for the whole relationship with Nike and Michael Jordan, and a great deal of visibility that led to my other aspect of filmmaking, which is my advertising agency. People still love Mars, people still like having me in commercials. But that's a caricature. To be honest, I was never really comfortable acting."

Lee would much rather be teaching-he's a film professor and department advisor at alma mater New York University. "I'm seeing great vitality amongst my students. I also see a couple of lazy students. It's been my experience, being a student at NYU so many years ago, that the people who make it aren't the lazy people. You need drive-talent's not enough. You gotta have initiative, drive, hunger. You gotta want it. It's a tough business, and if you're weak of mind or weak of heart, maybe you need to be a cinema-studies teacher...or a film critic. [Editor's note: Ouch!] But to be a filmmaker, that takes a different mettle."

Lee reflects, "I've always felt that directing a good film has to be one of the hardest endeavors known to humankind. There's so many intangibles, so many things have to go right. It's a hard medium. There are many more great records than great movies. Then there are the financial stakes: It's inherent that the more something costs, the more input the moneychangers want. It's hard. But it's what I love."

Over the years, Lee has mentored many aspiring filmmakers and boosted the careers of then-unknowns like Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Martin Lawrence, Mekhi Phifer, Adrien Brody and Rosie Perez. "When it's all said and done, that legacy might even be on par with the body of work: the people who came through 40 Acres and a Mule-not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera too. But that was by design-from the very beginning, we wanted to be a mass movement into what was a somewhat closed art form."