A Few Words With Spike Lee

SHIFTed talks with director Spike Lee about history, storytelling and watches.  

 Spike Lee needs no introduction. The creative force behind more than 30 films since his directorial debut in 1986, he has been one of the most influential, at times controversial, voices in American cinema. But while most who get to work with Lee do so in his milieu — film — the gentlemen behind Les Artisans de Genève have been working with him for over a year as the designer of their latest creation. “Cool Hand Brooklyn,” an entirely reimagined Rolex Daytona Ref. 116520 and the newest limited edition piece in their collection, was born of a desire to make a watch that would evoke the spirit of Lee’s oeuvre.  

“Having always had a profound admiration for Spike Lee’s body of work,” say Les Artisans, “creating a timepiece reflective of his image was a great challenge. To keep the features and reliability of a modern timepiece with a marked vintage touch was a crazy bet to make. We wanted to create a watch that blended modernism with tradition — the fine balance between future and past that is one of Spike Lee’s most notable characteristics.” 

SHIFTed recently sat down with Lee to discuss his films, history, watches and the thought process behind Cool Hand Brooklyn.  

SPZK_CLOSEUP_CADRAN-1.jpgThe Cool Hand Brooklyn Rolex Daytona Ref. 116520  (Courtesy of Les Artisans de Genève)

 What makes a good story?                                                                                                 I’ve been asked that question before, and there’s not something I can really describe. I know when I see it or hear it. It’s something compelling. It’s how the story is told. I’m a big fan of storytellers — some of my favorites being James Baldwin, Martin Scorsese, Federico Fellini, Toni Morrison. Musicians, too. Frank Sinatra’s a great storyteller. Miles Davis, Elvis.  

What about your stories? Where do they live, where do they come from? Do they knock around in your brain for a while before they come out?                                                                                                                                  Well, it depends. It’s not just one set thing. A lot of my stories come from what I call Da Republic of Brooklyn — also called, like, Brooklyn Chronicles. Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, He Got Game, She’s Gotta Have It.  

 Is Red Hook in there, too?                                                                                              Yeah. Red Hook Summer, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus  — there are, like, seven or eight. Brooklyn’s a very important part of my upbringing and who I am. And in fact, on Netflix we have 10 episodes — my first film we did again, and it’s a hit. She’s Gotta Have It came out in 1986. We shot it in the summer of ’85, two weeks, July 1 to July 14.  

 You shot it in two weeks?                                                                                             Two, yeah. Two six-day weeks for a budget of $175,000, and here we are 30 years later, 10 episodes on Netflix and it’s a big hit. But back then, when we shot that film in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy and also Fort Greene, there was not really a phenomenon known as gentrification. Today, it’s very much so. So it’s good for people — a lot of people who saw the film, now when they see it they’re able to contrast the two different Brooklyns. 

 Two worlds.                                                                                                                   Brooklyn, two different worlds. The Brooklyn of ’85 versus 2017. 

Why remake She’s Gotta Have It now? It seems that it’s catching with people today just as it caught with people in ’86. What does that mean? What does that tell us about the world between these two Brooklyns, and how it’s changed or stayed the same?                                                                     I have to give the credit to my beautiful wife, Tonya Lewis Lee. She was the one who suggested we work together and try to make She’s Gotta Have It into a series. I was asked to speak at the Pratt Institute during Black History Month, and I just went off about gentrification. My wife said, “You know what? Gentrification means a lot to you, so why don’t you just put that in the work?” She saw we had a vehicle to address not just gentrification, but many things we addressed back in 1985 with the lead character, Nola Darling, who’s juggling three men at the same time. But it’s a different world. There was no Tinder back then. 

"Of the many great films that the late, great Paul Newman did, my favorite is Cool Hand Luke."

Is that why you changed her first line from how it appeared in the original film?                                                                                                                       There are things we changed, but things I also wanted to keep the same. Many people felt Nola Darling was ahead of her time back then. I still think that today. Another thing is that the film was only 86 minutes. Now we have 10 episodes, so there’s a lot of stuff we talked about in the film — about Nola Darling being a graphic artist. We never saw it. With the 10 episodes, we’re able to see Nola make her art. And you see her struggling to make her art. She’s teaching young kids painting, she’s walking dogs. One of the things people are getting in this version is that it is very hard to make it, to live, in New York City. It’s unaffordable! I mean, the rents are just crazy. One of the things I feel has always made New York City the mecca, the magnet for the world, is the artists, but if young artists can’t live in New York, they’re gonna — well, you could buy a house in Detroit for $5. Serious. You go to Seattle, you go to Portland. A young Keith Haring could not afford to live. A young Basquiat. David Byrne. They could not afford to live in New York today.  

That brings me to the new watch, Cool Hand Brooklyn. Why Cool Hand Brooklyn? I heard you saying earlier, “Paul Newman, he’s the king,” and that you’ve got a couple Paul Newman Daytonas yourself.       I gotta be honest. I don’t hide the fact I was not born in Brooklyn. I was born in Atlanta, but my family moved to Brooklyn when I was very young, so I’m a product of New York City public schools. Good or bad, kindergarten to high school. Went to John Dewey High School in Coney Island. So Brooklyn has been a very big part of my life. We were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill, which traditionally was an Italian-American neighborhood. It’s right next to the docks, and those Italian-Americans worked at the docks. My mother got tired of paying rent and said, “Let’s buy a house.” My mother always owned brownstones, so we bought a brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, opposite Fort Greene Park between Myrtle and Willoughby, for $40,000 in 1968. Those houses go for $3 million now. My father still lives in the house. I grew up in Brooklyn. My office is in Brooklyn.  

You could have called the watch Butch Cassidy Brooklyn. Why Cool Hand Luke?                                                                                                                           That’s my favorite. Of the many great films that the late, great Paul Newman did, my favorite is Cool Hand Luke. I saw that when I was a kid, way before I even decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. My parents were very socially aware, so they told me about Paul Newman and Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier going down south with Dr. King in support of the civil-rights movement. Paul Newman was right up in there. I mean, the things he’s done, he’s donated every dime.  

To charity.                                                                                                                         Charity! Who does that? Who’s ever done that? [Newman’s Own] is probably a billion-dollar business over the years. He donated every single dollar of the profits. That’s the type of man he was. That’s my guy, Paul Newman. So the watch is an homage to what I call Da Republic of Brooklyn and also to Paul Newman.  

Spike_Lee_04252017_Rolex_03_437.jpgSpike Lee wearing Cool Hand Brooklyn (Courtesy of Les Artisans de Genève)

Cool Hand Luke, what did he do? He was a guy in a prison, in a system— He was an anti-hero! 

 And he refused to work with the system.                                                                    I loved that. I was drawn to that. I’m not saying that’s me, but as a young kid, seeing that film — it was like, “Right or wrong, I got principles. I’m not gonna compromise my principles.” As a young kid, that shit had an impact on me. So I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film he did with Sidney Poitier called Paris Blues, The Verdict. I can keep going, but Cool Hand Luke, that’s my shit [laughs] 

So, as director, one of the films I did that people like is 25th Hour [2002], which is considered the best film ever to deal with 9/11. I’m not saying that, people said it. Anyway, I wanted the Cool Hand Luke poster to be in the apartment of Monty Brogan, played by Edward Norton. So I was able to contact Mr. Newman. He had an office in New York even though he lived, I think, in Westport, Connecticut. I said, “I’d like to meet you.” He said, “All right, come on, Spike.” I said, “Mr. Newman, will you please, please, please let me put the poster of Cool Hand Luke in Monty Brogan’s apartment?” He said, “Go ahead.” So after we filmed the scene I called him up and said, “Could you please sign [the poster]?” But we were still shooting, so I couldn’t go to his office. So I sent it to him. Came back, “To Spike Lee, who is Cool Hand Luke incarnate. Best wishes, Paul Newman” [laughs]. When I got that back, I said, “Oh, shit. My man!” That’s the type of dude he was. I met him only one time, but I mean, that’s my guy. 

I recently interviewed his daughter, Nell. You know she sold his watch?                                                                                                                                        Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

And the whole story —                                                                                                    Yeah, he gave it to his daughter’s boyfriend. 

James, yeah. He took it off his —                                                                                    Off his wrist! 

 You’ve got Cool Hand Luke, your favorite movie —                                               My favorite Paul Newman film. 

 Pardon me, favorite Paul Newman film. So you’ve got the Daytona, worn by this man, who was a part of your film. I know you’re a big Knicks fan; I get the colorway. But tell me about the inspiration.                As you see: my orange-and-blue Jordans, and my orange-and-blue beads.  

 I’m picking up on a theme.                                                                                       [Laughs] But get to the source: Orange and blue are the colors of New York City. That’s where the Mets got their orange and blue from, and that’s where the Knicks got their colors from. I don’t know who decided orange and blue should be the colors for New York City, but I’ve kind of adopted them. 

"I would say I’m a historian. I’m a baseball historian. I’m a sports historian. I’m a basketball historian. I’m a cinephile."

 So many of your films deal with history. I would imagine you have to approach that history in a certain way. How do you tell the right side of history? How do you tell the right story? 

It’s funny that you say that term. I say it a little differently because I think you can’t always be right, but if you try to be on the side of truth, you will eventually be on the right side of history. That is a pointed thing. Many people were on the wrong side of history, and that’s not something you want to be part of your legacy. History is the reason I wanted to direct Malcolm X. History is why I wanted to direct my World War II film about black soldiers in Italy, Miracle at St. Anna. Growing up I’d hear my father and uncles talk about being in the Red Ball Express. They were the guys that drove the trucks, but I never saw them in the movies! I would say I’m a historian. I’m a baseball historian. I’m a sports historian. I’m a basketball historian. I’m a cinephile. If you go to my office in Brooklyn, you’re gonna see signed posters to me by Federico Fellini, Scorsese. I mean, Prince gave me one of his guitars. I got a trumpet by Wynton Marsalis. My office in Brooklyn is like the Louvre. Brooklyn’s version of the Louvre [laughs]. 

When people look at this watch, what do you want them to think about?                                                                                                                                             I’m glad you asked, because I get asked the same thing about my films. “Spike, when people come out of the theater, what do you want them to think? What do you want them to take away?” And you know what? I don’t do that, because I respect the people who see my films. I respect their intelligence, so I don’t have to tell them what to think. Everybody comes to a film, any film, differently. You all come with different backgrounds, so what you bring into the theater is gonna affect how you receive the film, so people are gonna come with their own interpretations or opinions about the watch. But here it is, boom. You tell me, you know? That’s the way I approach it. 

I like that.                                                                                                                                          I mean, if you’re hip, if you know what’s up [laughs], you’re gonna love it. If you have courtside tickets at Madison Square Garden, you’re gonna want this watch.

Jacob Sotak
Jacob Sotak

Jacob Sotak is the Editor in Chief of SHIFTed. After 10 years in the U.S. Army, he took a job on the national-news desk of the New York Times, for which he wrote often about issues of importance to veterans. Prior to launching SHIFTed, Sotak was Chief Operating Officer of Analog/Shift, focusing his attention on researching and writing about timepieces; his work has also appeared in iW magazine and Gear Patrol.

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