Spike Lee: I'll do the right thing

Spike Lee explains why revenge is the last thing on his mind as a jury member at this year's Venice Film Festival
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The Independent Culture

Two months ago, Marco Müller, the Venice Film Festival director, was in New York looking for films to put into this year's festival. We had brunch together and he asked if I wanted to put my new film, She Hate Me, into the festival and also whether I would like to be a jury member. Initially, I was not sure that I wanted to be on the jury because I thought about putting my film into the competition. But when Müller told me that my film could be shown out of competition - and I could also be on the jury - I agreed to do it.

Two months ago, Marco Müller, the Venice Film Festival director, was in New York looking for films to put into this year's festival. We had brunch together and he asked if I wanted to put my new film, She Hate Me, into the festival and also whether I would like to be a jury member. Initially, I was not sure that I wanted to be on the jury because I thought about putting my film into the competition. But when Müller told me that my film could be shown out of competition - and I could also be on the jury - I agreed to do it.

Normally, the reason why I come to film festivals is that they provide a launch pad for the films I am promoting. Even here, showing She Hate Me, I have promoted the film for a worldwide release, so in a lot of ways it's a win-win situation. Plus, I get to be here for the duration of the festival; and it means that I have got a feel for the flavour of the whole festival.

Also, I've never been on any jury before and I thought that it would be a very good experience. I came to the Venice Film Festival with my film Clockers in 1994 and had a good time, so it seemed like the right place to be a jury member. Also, when I looked at my schedule, I thought that coming to this year's festival would be a very nice final summer vacation for my family, before my two children returned to school.

I'm not just here watching films from the perspective of a jury member. I want to learn something from each film that I see, for my own growth as a film-maker and to further my understanding of the craft. Even from the worst films in competition there is something I can take from them, especially when the film-makers have made decisions that I would not have done or thought about.

I must admit, I was surprised at the number of films that we have to see as members of the jury - 22 films in 10 days is a lot. Yesterday, I saw four films, and there was one day that I had to watch five films. When you are fatigued, and you have seen four films already in a day, the last film better be great for you to enjoy it and ensure you do not switch off. I guess it is just the luck of the draw when the films are shown. I sit through all the films, because I know that if I have a film in competition and I heard a jury member had walked out, I would not be pleased.

Usually when I go to see a film I already know what it is going to be about before I go in and although I try not to, sometimes I've also read the reviews. Here, with 95 per cent of the films, I've no idea what I'm going to see. I might know the title, the name of the film-maker and which country the film is from, but other than that, I'm going in completely blind. In a lot of ways that is refreshing as you don't have preconceived notions and you can watch the film with an open mind.

Of course, with some of the films I know the director, such as Wim Wenders and Mike Leigh. But there is nobody on the list who is a close friend of mine, so it's easy to be impartial. There was some talk that this would be payback time for Do The Right Thing in Cannes in 1989, when Wim Wenders was president of the jury and said that he did not award Do The Right Thing the Palme D'Or because he thought that the depiction of the character that I played in the movie, Mookie, was not heroic as a character. I even went on the record as saying that I had a Louisville Slugger [baseball bat] at home with Wim Wenders' name on it. But that was a long time ago. Everyone on the jury is here to do the best job that we can, and we want to be fair.

A great thing about the jury is that you really become friendly with the jury members. I'd met John Boorman, the president of the jury, before; I did not know Helen Mirren was married to Taylor Hackford; Pietro Scalia is a great editor and I've always admired his work, in fact I tried to get him for one or two films. You form friendships and I want to work with some of these people in the future. I've never met Scarlett Johansson before; I did not even know that she lives in New York. More than just getting to know them, you get to know their taste and their aesthetics. The other members of the jury are directors: Wolfgang Becker, Mimmo Calopresti, Dusan Makavejev and Chinese producer Xu Feng.

So far we have had one meeting, we are going to have three all together. We talked about the films that we have seen so far. We decide which of the films should be chucked out all together and which films should be held until the final meeting for consideration. We don't just talk about the films; we talk about the individual performances and cinematography that will help us decide some of the other prizes.

I don't think that the jury forms cliques, or at least it hasn't so far. We don't all go to see all the films together. We all have different schedules and for most of the films we have been given two opportunities to see the film. If I have seen a film and a fellow jury maker has not, I will not tell them what I thought about the film, until after I know that they have seen it. I don't want to colour anyone's opinion. But when we have both seen the film, we definitely talk about it amongst ourselves.

The meeting that we had was very cordial. John Boorman is in control. He is not a dictator, he allows everyone to say their piece but he has to take charge, he can't have too many people speaking all the time and for us to get bogged down in discussion. I think that the final meeting will be heated and that is good, because it means people are being very passionate about what they are going to see. I can't say for sure that it will be so passionate as I've no previous experience on the jury, but from what I saw in the first meeting and what I have been told about other film festival juries I think that will be the case. I guess it is the same for other film festival juries.

There are only seven awards and with 22 films, not everyone is going to get an award.

It is now my belief - and this was not always my belief - that it is the good stuff that will hold up and not simply the films that win awards. I have seen from my experience with Do The Right Thing at Cannes and Malcolm X at the Oscars, that a film-maker must be secure in what they are doing. They do not need validation from an organisation, a film festival, the Academy or Hollywood. It is the good films that hold up and not those that win awards.

A lot of times these awards are not about the work, they are simply popularity contests and the motives for the decision are political. I doubt anyone screens Driving Miss Daisy these days, or there are college courses or university courses that centre on Dead Poet's Society, which won Best Adapted Screenplay over Do The Right Thing. That is the consolation for all the film-makers who lose out, I guess.

Now, about that Louisville Slugger...

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