July 29th, 2008


1989. A number. Another summer.

I'm reading the companion volume Spike Lee wrote for Do the Right Thing. It's making me excited, reminding me how great a film Do the Right Thing is, and how I haven't seen it since college so I should see it again. (That and more of Lee's work. I still haven't seen Malcolm X, and I've got to correct that.)

The book opens with the journal Lee kept while writing the notes and then the script for the film, at the same time Columbia Pictures was dicking him around on School Daze. (He got caught in the same regime change that added to Terry Gilliam's troubles on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; the studio's new management didn't promote School Daze to anywhere near Lee's satisfaction.)

I'll first say how good a choice Danny Aiello was to play Sal of Sal's Famous Pizzeria; that said, Lee first sought out Robert DeNiro to play Sal. (DeNiro turned down the part because he said it felt too close to characters he'd played before.) Ah, the alchemy of casting: reminds me how Walt Disney had seriously considered Paul Robeson to play Uncle Remus in Song of the South. Robeson's deep, almost gravitational-pull dignity would've made for a great film, probably a different kind of classic than the final film with James Baskett. Lee shuffled between various worthy actors for various Do the Right Thing roles; he thought first of Giancarlo Esposito and then of Bill Nunn for Mister Senor Love Daddy, the DJ. He also briefly considered Laurence Fishburne for Radio Raheem. Nunn wound up as Raheem and Esposito wound up as Buggin' Out, with Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Senor Love Daddy (dispensing Jack the Rapper-style DJ patter with ease: "Doin' the nasty to your ears, your ears to the nasty, playin' only the plattahs that mattah, the mattahs dey plattah, and that's the truth, Ruth").

Remember this: for a time, Spike Lee seemed to be the only filmmaker who knew how to properly use Samuel L. Jackson. Thank you, more of Hollywood, for realizing the way Lee did that Jackson deserved better, cooler films!

Scattered throughtout the diary are notes for moments that made it into the final film. ("[Radio Raheem] never says hello, just points his finger at you to acknowledge you. We might even see a scene where Radio Raheem's box is slow. He stops to pull out new batteries then he's back in action. Radio Raheem's movement should be sluggish when his batteries are dying. He perks up again with frsh Duracells.") There's also an apology to Larry Bird: "I'm sorry, Larry Bird, but your name will be mentioned in a film of mine once again. This time it's in an argument between [Lee's character] Mookie, [and Sal's sons] Pino and Vito. I don't know what the argument will be about yet. But Larry Bird is a god to Pino and Vito. If Mookie talks bad about Bird, his words are fighting words for them." (Later Lee had the one white resident of the block, the guy who bumps into Buggin' Out, wearing Bird's jersey.) Later in the book are production notes, the final script, and the storyboards for Raheem's murder and the riot.

I'm glad to see that when writing Do the Right Thing, Lee wondered if and how he should acknowledge drug culture. Along with getting on his case for making a film about racism in the first place, quite a few people took Lee to task for not dealing with drugs in this film (which he did in Jungle Fever via Samuel L. Jackson's Oscar-nominated performance). But those critics acted as if Lee hadn't thought about addressing the drug issue at all, which wasn't fair, but critics can't know an artist's full thought process. Even diaries like this, after the fact, only tell so much.

Fatboy, you'd probably like this book; I'll let you borrow it.

Later: Turns out Fatboy's read this book several times. He also gave me his recommendations of essential, less-than-essential, and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs Spike Lee films, which I'll include here for reference:

Do the Right Thing (you know I've seen it); Malcolm X; Mo' Betta Blues; Jungle Fever; Crooklyn; Clockers (which I have seen); The 25th Hour

He Got Game (which I have seen); Inside Man; Get on the Bus; Summer of Sam; School Daze

AVOID (which I have, and I will)
Girl 6; She’s Gotta Have It; Original Kings of Comedy; Bamboozled; She Hate Me
Whale fluke

Remembering Heath for free (Terry Gilliam and Dr. Parnassus news)

As seen on this page that cleolinda linked to, director Terry Gilliam praised the three actors who stepped in to complete Heath Ledger's role in the fantasy film The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. He praised not only Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell's performances, but that all three of them donated their entire fees for the film to Ledger and Michelle Williams's daughter.

Gilliam also discusses the movie that's taking shape, with Ledger's final work at its center:
The great thing about it is that when Heath died, and we have a character that wasn't finished in the movie, those three actors came along and saved the day. And so the character is now basically four actors creating one character. And that's...it's very interesting, and maybe even more interesting than it would have been with one actor going all the way through. I'm still not the best judge, because I have in my head what the film was going to be with Heath all the way through, and now there's a different film there. But all I know is, it's very funny.
Note, and a warning (as this might make people uncomfortable): the link includes photos of Ledger taken on the Dr. Parnassus set only a few days before his death.