Risk, creativity are the right things, Spike Lee says

April 06, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

When Spike Lee got a master's degree from New York University and won a prize for his student film, he thought he'd get more job offers than he could count.

"I'd wait by the phone for jobs to come in -- music videos, after-school specials, anything," he told a Randallstown High School audience yesterday.

But his phone didn't ring.

"At this point, I knew I could not sit on my butt and wait for someone to give me work," the filmmaker said, as he urged students with creative talent to strike out on their own, as he did.

"Nine out of 10 people will tell you that you're crazy and should get a job in the post office," he said. "Sometimes you just have to take a risk, take a chance."

Eventually, Mr. Lee became one of America's most influential filmmakers. His goal: "To leave behind a large body of work, good work, and open doors in the process and let other people come through."

But it wasn't easy. Mr. Lee set out to do the feature film "Messenger" in the early 1980s, but the venture was a disaster -- the funding never came through.

"I remember lying in my bathtub, almost near tears," he said.

So he started over with what became his first major feature film, "She's Gotta Have It." After he managed to raise only $12,000, he wrote everyone he knew asking for donations and amassed enough to get the project started.

Money was so tight that whenever anyone in the crew threw away a soda can, they got a browbeating for not recycling. "Those nickels added up to a roll of film. That's the level that we started out," Mr. Lee said.

In the end, "She's Gotta Have It" was completed in 12 days for $175,000. Released in 1986, it grossed more than $8 million.

Since then, Mr. Lee has made eight other films, including "Malcolm X." He said he doesn't expect all Americans to get something out of his movies, which have predominantly black casts and themes.

"There's nothing wrong with African-American filmmakers satisfying a need for us to be seen on screen," he said.

Mr. Lee spoke for an hour to about 600 students in the Randallstown High School auditorium -- about half the student ,, body. The assembly was voluntary, at the end of the school day, and many students left because they had other plans or simply weren't interested.

Yet apathy is an obstacle to reaching goals, the 38-year-old filmmaker said.

He said students -- particularly black students -- should pay attention to academics and not succumb to a peer culture that says doing well in school means forsaking your race.

"There's this dangerous phenomenon where ignorance is championed above intelligence," he said.

He said that if he could start over, he would have taken his own schoolwork more seriously. "I still have some regrets because I did not apply myself as much as I should have," he said.

He suggested that students in the arts work on their writing skills by keeping a journal and consider behind-the-scenes work as well as acting and singing jobs.

Mr. Lee majored in mass communications at Morehouse College in Atlanta before going to film school, where he was one of four black students in a class of 50.

"We looked sort of like freaks at NYU," he said.

But it was all worth it. "I say my blessings every day, because there's nothing that makes me happier than making films," he said.

The Baltimore County Office of Adult Education selected Mr. Lee as one of two speakers in the first year of its Cultural Events program. He was paid $15,000 for two appearances -- one before the students and another before a paying crowd of adults last night.

The first speaker was Thomas Keneally, who wrote the book "Schindler's List" and appeared at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School in the fall.

Dale Rauenzahn, the county's adult-education coordinator, said Mr. Lee's name recognition and his relevance to Randallstown High's communications program made him a good choice as the spring speaker.

Students in the school's technical theater class handled some of the lighting and the sound for Mr. Lee's appearance. Their class meets in the auditorium, and before his appearance, some were speculating about the opportunity.

"You never know," said 18-year-old senior Cory Newton. "He might have some movie openings."

Mr. Lee got a standing ovation before and after the speech, and a cheer of "I love you, Spike," as it drew to a close.

But a few students went away disappointed. "I wanted him to get a little bit deeper," said Chris Hagan, who said he was sure the filmmaker encountered racism that he didn't address in his speech.

Randallstown Principal Clark Powell said he was less than thrilled with the daytime turnout. "It's always disheartening when you plan something special for kids and you don't get the reception you might expect," he said.

Last month, about 200 students walked out of the school in protest amid rumors that school officials were considering canceling the talk because of fears that his speech would exacerbate racial tension. A student asked Mr. Lee what he thought about the controversy.

"It doesn't surprise me, but it's still stupid," he said. "I don't know how I got this image of trying to lead a revolution."

After the talk, Mr. Lee said he hoped that after students saw him in person and heard about the hardships he had gone through, they would understand that success is attainable.

He also had a few promising words about a return to Baltimore. He said he's considering Baltimore locales for a movie about baseball great Jackie Robinson that he plans to film, possibly with Denzel Washington in the lead.

And now that the baseball strike is over, he said: "I will be back. I've never seen a game at Camden Yards."

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