Ever since 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee has sported a rep as the quintessential straight-talking director. But in his courtside seats at Madison Square Garden, the 41-year-old auteur’s rep is for trash talking — namely, with anyone who dares to show up his beloved New York Knicks. With the release of his latest joint, He Got Game (which reunites Lee with the De Niro to his Scorsese, Denzel Washington), we sat down with him for a taste of both.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A lot of people thought you’d win the best documentary Oscar for 4 Little Girls. Were you disappointed?
SPIKE LEE: No. Because one of the films was a Holocaust film [The Long Way Home]. I think 15 or 16 Holocaust films have won the short and feature-length categories. I’d rather be the Knicks playing the Bulls at the United Center down by 20 with 10 minutes left — those odds are better than going against a Holocaust film.
EW: Did you like Titanic?
LEE: It was all right…. But I don’t understand why [James Cameron] is upset it didn’t get nominated for best screenplay. I think Mr. Cameron is a great technical director, unsurpassed, but he can’t write, and he definitely can’t write dialogue.
EW: Compare Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen [who plays Game’s high school phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth] with that other NBA actor, Shaquille O’Neal.
LEE: What, you didn’t like Kazaam? I can’t believe it. [Laughs] Shaq wants to be a superhero, which is fine. We definitely knew [the actor playing] Jesus had to be from the NBA. We didn’t want someone who we had to cut away from every time the ball left his hands. Travis Best, Walter McCarty, Rick Fox — they all went out for the role, and Allen Iverson came in too. But Ray had a certain je ne sais quoi.
EW: Did you have to keep the cameras rolling all day for Denzel Washington to make those baskets?
LEE: No, Denzel can play. In the final scene, Jesus beats his father 11-0 in the script, but Denzel said, ”F— that.” Those five baskets he got are real.
EW: The female characters in the film aren’t very flattering.
LEE: I think that if people really look at this film, everybody is trying to exploit Jesus. That’s not based on gender or race. And because women…haven’t had the opportunity to be in the same powerful positions [as men], historically they’ve had to use what they have. If you look at how these kids are exploited, it’s cars, money, gold, and women.
EW: How on earth did you get the idea to mix orchestral Aaron Copland music with heavy-duty Public Enemy?
LEE: I know people think that’s insane, but that’s the music I listen to. I play Aaron Copland and Public Enemy and the Beatles and John Coltrane and Steely Dan and Busta Rhymes and Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline. I don’t make distinctions — just the music I love and the music I hate.
EW: How come it took so long to make a movie about your passion for basketball?