For a long time, Alec Baldwin couldn't get Spike Lee on the phone. "He is impossible to reach. He finally called me back and said, 'Hey!' as if nothing happened," Baldwin said at a recent Tribeca Talk at the 2018 festival. On the phone that day, Lee had agreed to do the Tribeca Talk, but put forth a request: that they not talk about Lee's movies. So Baldwin had Lee pick a movie to talk about instead. Lee chose On the Waterfront.
Onstage, they talked about Lee's movies anyway—including his highly-anticipated BlacKkKlansman, which recently premiered at Cannes to great reviews. The film stars Lee's long-time collaborator Denzel Washington's son, John David Washington. The younger Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman in '70s Colorado Springs, who infiltrated the KKK after seeing an ad for membership in the local paper.
Below are a few things we learned from Lee and Baldwin's wide-ranging conversation, which can be viewed in its entirety here.
"The idea that myself or anybody like me could get into the movie business was just absurd to me." —Spike Lee
Lee was a failing student until he picked up a Super 8
For Lee's first two years at Moorehouse College, he was a self-described "C+/D- student." He didn't have a major. Then, at a friend's apartment, he stumbled across a Super-8 camera, and everything changed.
"I never even knew that you could make a film, growing up," Lee recalled. "I shot the blackout in New York City. I shot the first summer discos."
After reviewing Lee's footage, a professor encouraged him to make a documentary when school started up again. Over the course of a semester, Lee made his first-ever film, a short called The Last Hustle in Brooklyn. "He saw something in me I didn’t see," Lee said.
When Baldwin asked what that "something" was, Lee could only shrug. "In this business," Baldwin said, "you look at people who are talented and it humbles you. This man [Lee] is one of the greatest movie-makers in the last 75 years of this country... one of the greatest filmmakers alive."
Spike Lee's 'BlackKklansman'
Don't let your parents kill your artistic ambitions
"Parents kill more dreams than anybody," said Lee, "specifically, if those dreams that their children have to do with the arts." Fortunately, Lee grew up in an artistic family, so when he told his parents he had decided to become a filmmaker, "nobody said, 'You’re crazy! There are no black filmmakers!'"
Baldwin, however, remembers encountering resistance from his parents when he left his ambitions of law school behind in order to go to acting school at NYU.
Lee broke into Hollywood by cold-calling directors
In the late '70s and early '80s, when Lee began trying to break into Hollywood, he would often cold-call young directors whom he admired. "Back then, you called people up," Lee said. "That's how I became very friendly with Budd Schulberg [the screenwriter of On the Waterfront]. I just called him up!"
Lee also received a warm reception when he called up Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder, the latter of whom, according to Lee, said, "Come on over!"
"People don’t realize how much that happens in this business," Baldwin said. "I thought that movie stars were harvested on another planet and they flew them down here. The idea that myself or anybody like me could get into the movie business was just absurd to me [when I was young]."
"You can’t be on the day, filming, and talking about character. Any problems have to be worked out in rehearsal."
On set, if you have to give an actor a note, do it privately
"When something isn’t working [on set]," Baldwin asked, "do you go up to actors and talk to them?"
"Yeah, but it has to be done in a whisper, privately," said Lee. "I can only speak for myself, but if you do that in public, you’re going to lose the actor. They’re going to check out. You try to [get that out of the way] in rehearsal, because you can’t be on the day, filming, and talking about character. Any problems have to be worked out in rehearsal."
Lee almost cast Robert De Niro for Do the Right Thing
"The role of Sal [in Do the Right Thing] I offered to Mr. De Niro," Lee revealed. "He wouldn’t do it."
Although it initially seemed to be a major disappointment, Lee said that in retrospect, he's glad De Niro didn't accept the role. "I love Bob and I wanted him in my film," he said, "but it was meant to be an ensemble piece…. He could have tilted it [in his direction]."
"That’s not the only time where I wanted someone and didn’t get them, but it turned out for the best because I got somebody who just fit better," Lee continued. "[Casting] is like a sports team—one year, the Lakers had five all-star starters, and they were terrible because there’s no chemistry when everyone wants to be a star. It needs to come together as a whole."
Denzel Washington as Malcolm X
For Malcolm X, Denzel Washington went deep
According to Lee, Denzel prepared for over a year for the lead role in Malcolm X. "He told his agent, 'Don’t give me more work!" Lee said. "He learned to pray and speak in Arabic, learned to read the Quran, cut out pork and alcohol... Denzel understands that just sounding or looking like somebody is just surface-level. He knew that if he did this [preparation], Malcolm’s spirit would come into him."
Lee proceeded to tell a story about a time on the set of Malcolm X when Washington seemed to indeed channel the civil rights leader's spirit. "I yelled 'cut,' and he just kept going," Lee remembered. "He didn't even know what he said. That wouldn't have been possible without preparing for the role for a year."
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
Featured image from Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman'