Spike Lee presented an eight minute clip of his upcoming movie Miracle at St. Anna yesterday, to a handful of Italian journalists in a huge near-empty theater. "Your editor Barry Brown told me a lot about this movie," I said, finding Spike comfortably slouched in his seat under his black baseball cap. "You do know Barry?" I continued. "I mean..." "My editor? Do I know my editor who's edited all my films for twenty years? Or are you telling me there's some anonymous guy who's been doing my films all these years? Of course, I know Barry!"
Below, Barry's comments about what it was like to edit this film, Spike Lee's first shot in Europe, last fall in what both director and editor say was a most pleasurable sojourn in Florence, with an entirely Italian crew. The film, based on the James McBride novel of the same name, is about an all African-American military division during World War II, who fight off fascists and Nazis and save a young Italian boy. The clip was wildly lively, with running soldiers through gorgeous Tuscan hills, a crescendo of music, and a heartfelt ending comment: "I do believe in miracles."
As does Spike Lee himself, he piped up later in a discussion in soft white chairs on the Grand Hotel beach. "Of course I believe in miracles. They happen to me. I mean I haven't seen blood pour from the face of Jesus, but I have had real miracles in my life. For example, the fact that this movie was even made is a miracle. Inside Man was my most successful movie ever made, and I still found it difficult to get financing for this film. So we went to Italy anyway and started shooting. Then the money poured ... well let's say trickled in."
"Miracles ... yes, I notice you're wearing a cross," said a young redhead German journalist, sitting to Spike's right.
Spike Lee touched his silver cross: studded with skulls.
"I hope it's not from Indiana Jones?" I noted. Skull amulets had been handed out at their party.
"Indiana Jones? Indiana Jones! This is from Mexico: the Day of the Dead. A great holiday. They honor their dead."
The conversation quickly turned political -- and stayed that way. Right before our meeting, at the Clint Eastwood press conference, a journalist had asked Clint Eastwood to respond to Spike's controversial comment about him. The moderator had had the microphone grabbed out of the hand of the journalist and yelled that her comment was "absolutely inappropriate" -- that politics had no place in the discussion of Eastwood's (subtly right-wing) film. He cut her off with a wave of his hand, the first time I had ever seen that happen.
What was this controversial comment?
"Controversial? Are you kidding me?" Spike who had seemed reserved, quietly posed in his seat, knees together, suddenly burst out in a bemused laugh. "I just said that in two of his films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. he had no black soldiers. And I wondered why. That was controversial? It was an observation!"
"Today is a very exciting day," he continued. "An exciting day in American politics and in world politics. Obama won the primaries in Kentucky and Oregon, and will have the necessary delegates to run for president. It's important not just for the US, but for the world. After eight years of Bush, this will be a great thing. If Obama wins the presidency, it will do a huge thing for the world -- and, with time, change the image of the US abroad."
How do films connect with politics?
"They are totally political. You think it is a coincidence that Native Americans were portrayed as savages in skirts in Westerns? That was on purpose. Do you think Griffin's degradation of black people in Birth of a Nation was a coincidence? That was thought out. When I was in film school, they talked about Griffin's importance, but they left out the fact that the film was used for propaganda by the Klan. Not to say that a film like that can't also have influential filmic value. Star Wars with a Leni Riefensthal shot: everyone lined up in the frame. George Lucas admitted it."
Back to his work: how would Spike Lee summarize his own style of filmmaking?
"Make do what you got."
Quite a condensed comment...
"Simplicity is great," he said, and then with another spontaneous chuckle, he became serious again and walked off.
....AND FROM BARRY BROWN, SPIKE LEE'S EDITOR
Spike and I go way back. Counting everything -- the features, the commercials and music videos, Miracle at St. Anna is almost our 80th project together as director and editor. We came up through the business together, so after all these years a shorthand has developed between us. But even though it's been many years now, Spike brings an energy to each and every project as if it's one of the first. I just try to keep up.
Miracle was a joy to work on. First there were months on being on location in Italy. That can't be beat. The film itself was a challenge for me and that makes the editing process a lot more interesting. It was a war film which I had never cut before. The cast included great Italian and German actors delivering scenes entirely in a language that I don't speak. And the film has an epic quality to it. The very rhythm of the film therefore has to be different than what I had done before.
My father was in World War II. That war fascinated me and Miracle forced me to think about what the real experience of the war must have been like. Of course, there is no way to know without having lived through it, but somehow Miracle brought me closer. I recently met a 90 year old man who had been a photographer during the landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. I found myself hanging on to his every word as he described that day with emotion and with humor. I'm not so sure I would have been quite as captivated if had not been so deeply affected by Miracle at St. Anna.