Shadowing a Sibling

Sometimes you think you don’t need any help, that you can do it on your own. That’s exactly what I was thinking before I started shooting my new feature, Ur4Given. I should have known better. I had a Sony PD-150 given to me by my brother Spike (yes, Spike Lee) and some tape stock. I wasn’t going to sit around and complain about not having enough funds to shoot, because then I’d have never gotten the film shot.

In coming up with a script idea for a documentary-like feature, I knew I had to follow a few simple rules. I say documentary-like because the term “mockumentary” implies that the subject isn’t serious, and the subject of UR4Given deals with child abuse. So the first rule was that the film should be shot as if it were a two person documentary crew—a director and cameraperson. That took care of my excuse for a no crew or name actor shoot; it was just me (director and cameraperson) and the actors.

Luckily, I had the good sense to ask producer Manabu Nagaoka [Manabu Nagaoka Productions] to come on board before I started shooting. If he hadn’t agreed to serve as a producer, I believe the film would have been a totally different experience. Manabu’s keen feedback helped me to streamline certain themes in the film. I also believe I made a good choice in casting Monica Deo as the lead. Monica has film (documentary and narrative) experience and is an opinionated person, which helped because the character she plays is always questioning everything.

Since the beginning, I’ve had to dip into my dwindling bag of freebies, and one of them was editor Kim Chisholm, who cut the movie on Avid Express, and who in turn pulled a freebie of her own to bring in the sound mixer Jessie Ehredt. Now Manabu is going to pull some sort of hat trick to bring on board a film publicist he knows, and though I’m not altogether sure what a film publicist would do at this stage, it certainly can’t hurt. I asked Lucinda Mellor, wife of the great Joe Strummer (of The Clash), if I could use Joe’s fantastic song “Coma Girl” over the end credits for festival screenings, and she agreed. Favors got this movie completed more than money.

Though it might seem aggravating to have a celebrity filmmaker for a brother—to whom you are bound to be compared—it would be worse if I were trying to make Do The Right Thing 2 movies… or would it? Of course, there have been days when I am in a pitch meeting and the money person will ask, “Is Spike attached?” Or my favorite: “How come you haven’t gone to Spike with this?” I have gone to Spike on several occasions, but am I supposed to throw a project on his desk every time I write a screenplay? And I’ve written a lot of them. As I tell people over and over again, Spike isn’t the only game in town. Why do people think that? Besides which, I don’t remember anyone helping Spike out. He did it on his own. But as a matter of fact, Spike has helped me with all of my films in one way or another—he has bought cameras, drives, lent me insurance to rent equipment and secure locations, and given me the opportunity to work on his films.

I’ve actually worked on just about every one of Spike’s films, going back to his Super 8 stuff in the 70s to his most recent, She Hate Me (2004). He started out by casting me in his short films, but pretty soon I was scribbling out storyboards for his NYU stuff, and then I became his apprenticing editor and a behind-the-scenes archivist on his studio stuff. The behind-the-scenes gigs are invaluable because I have carte blanche access to document the filmmaking process—unbelievable stuff you couldn’t get at any film school. Filming in a real club with real liquor for Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and getting smashed with a bunch of extras; Spike and Ed Norton discussing why a line should stay in or be taken out [for 25th Hour (2002)]; DP Ellen Kuras hiding twelve mini DV cameras to get the right angles for one scene [in Bamboozled]; being kicked off the closed set more times than I can count for the sex scenes in She Hate Me. Okay, maybe I’ve seen more than I’ve learned, but it’s still the only film school I’ve ever had. The only other film schooling I’ve had was at the New York City High School of Art & Design—the “Graffiti Capital” of the world. That’s when and where I started to make my own stuff… surreal, Super 8 black and white films fueled by pin-joints, black beauties, microdot mescaline, rubber cement, and really bad acid.

Being Spike‘s sibling can get you in the door sometimes, but you still better be hot and on the money with what they’re looking for. Just recently he set our sister Joie and me up with a meeting at the William Morris Agency. They very nicely ran us through the gantlet of their departments—books, TV, etc. Great, I thought, I wrote a book, I have a few TV pilot ideas. Alas, it was: “Sorry, but we can’t find anybody here interested enough in you guys.” What? “But I’m Spike Lee’s bro-ther!” Okay, I didn’t say that.

There is still the novelty of: “Spike Lee’s brother made a movie, so let’s check it out.” And I guess it has to be mentioned—it’s the truth and if you didn’t know before, you know now. The reviews of Ur4Given have been mostly kind, if somewhat predictable. In Variety I am credited as “the youngest brother of Spike and co-scripter of Crooklyn (1994).” BET.com said of the film, “It’s clear that Lee and brother Spike share a flare of the provocative and the political.” At least I’ll be able to pull some blurbs from the reviews and slap them across my poster. I can live with “hilarious and horrific” and “a social commentary/ snuff film.”

A finished film is only one part of a filmmaker’s goal. I believe the most important part is getting the film seen by as many people as possible. Though I did make a sixty-five-minute film for myself once upon a crime. But then, who the hell wants to see a black and white, non-tech science fiction movie anyway?

The only way to get exposure for an independent film—and by independent, I mean bottom-of-the-barrel and no-budget, no recognizable actors—is to go the festival route, for the obvious reasons that your film might get picked up by a distributor. You also get to see audience reactions firsthand, and free trips out of the country aren’t bad either. The thing about American festivals that kills me is that they aren’t free to enter—most are about $50 dollars a friggin’ pop. What filmmaker with an already nonexistent budget can afford that three or four or ten times over?

On my feature Nowhere Fast, which I made back in the roaring 90s, I was only able to afford entry fees into a couple of American festivals. But the foreign festivals? Look out. Foreign government subsidizes most of their film festivals, so they don’t need the entry fee money to cover their cost of operating. I went to Brazil, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal. But let me tell you, you don’t want to be a vegetarian trapped in a seaside town in Portugal. Even the rice had pork in it. Bread and alcohol was the only thing I had. No wonder I got into so many fights.

I’m sure one of the reasons Nowhere Fast was selected to screen at the festivals that it did was because it was shot on 35mm. Ur4Given is on digital and I definitely don’t have the funds to pay for a transfer to 35mm, so I’m limited to entering festivals that can screen movies on Digibeta or Betacam. Also, the film is not going to be easy for people to categorize, so Manabu and I are fighting an uphill battle. I’m trying to make films that haven’t been seen before, so I might be shooting myself in the foot. But if you’re not a complete rip-off artist then you’re going to try and be original if you have one bone of integrity in your body. Don’t get me wrong—every filmmaker is inspired by other films, but filmmakers need to make films they want to see, not films they have seen before.

At the time of this writing, a quarter of the festival year has gone by and there are a couple of important festivals that I haven’t gotten into, but there are even more important ones coming up. All you can do is hope your film will get into a prestigious festival, get picked up, and open doors for more opportunities. But if that doesn’t happen… the whole process starts all over again with a different film. Or I get it through my head to give it a rest and get back to the important things in life, like drinking.

Before I—“Spike Lee’s brother,” which people in the Brooklyn neighborhood where we grew up still call me, or as the local toothless drunk would have it, “Give me a dollar Spike Lee Jr.”—finish up my designated word count for this article, I would like to point out that it has been a real challenge for me to tackle the idea of selling myself and my film in the context of being “the younger brother of Spike Lee.” It certainly gets attention, but it does not get the film anywhere—unless people just gave me money to make movies because I’m Spike Lee’s brother. I’d take it in a second. I’m an independent filmmaker and my responsibility is to make films. I’ll take money where I can get it.

Gratefully, Spike is paying for my “In the Shadow of My Older Brother” therapy sessions.

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