If you're lucky enough to speak with Spike Lee on a good day, you get thoughtful and satisfying answers to your questions. If it's a bad day, or if he's tired out from too many moronic questions or accusations of not being original, you could be in for a tough time.
It was with trepidation that I picked up a ringing phone last week, with a caller ID that read "40 Acres and a." The last word in Lee's production company ("Mule") was missing, but I knew who it was, and I knew that he had just finished a grueling day of interviews for his new film, an English-language take on Korean director Park Chan-wook's twisted 2003 thriller "Oldboy." The grim, violent, and sometimes darkly comic tale of revenge involves a man who is kidnapped and trapped in a sort of hotel room for 15 years, then released to finally meet his captor and try to figure out why this was done to him.
Lee had made it very clear in interviews over the past few months that his film, starring Josh Brolin, isn't a remake but a reinterpretation of the original. "We in no way, shape, or form wanted to do a remake," he said at the top of our conversation. "But we also wanted to honor the great film it is, and we wanted to give respect to the original source, which was the Japanese manga, the illustrated novel."
Lee's "reinterpretation" of "Oldboy" opens in the Boston area on Nov. 27.
Q. Could you share any memories of your reaction to first seeing Park's "Oldboy"?
A. I'd never seen anything like that before. It wasn't just the story that was great, but also the stylistic flourishes. I knew, watching this film, that it was by a master filmmaker.
Q. Steven Spielberg was going to direct the film, with Will Smith playing the lead. Then there were rumors of Matthew Vaughn and Danny Boyle directing. Can you confirm any of that?
A. All I heard was Spielberg directing and Will Smith starring in it. But I didn't hear about that till I was on board for quite a while.
Q. How did you get involved?
A. My agent sent me the script, out of the blue. They were looking for a director after others didn't want to make it, for various reasons, who knows . . . and I guess they got far enough down the list to go to me and Josh. [Laughs.]
Q. You've written most of your films by yourself, but in recent years have been working with other screenwriters: Russell Gewirtz on "Inside Man," James McBride on "Miracle at St. Anna," and now Mark Protosevich on "Oldboy." After working alone for so long, what's your process been as far as collaborating with your writers?
A. You used the right word: collaborate. You try not to come and just take over. You work with them to try to make the screenplay the best it could be. But it wasn't just me. Josh also had input. So did Elizabeth Olsen (who plays a mysterious love interest). People were allowed the freedom to voice what they thought, and I think that's very democratic.
Q. Was there much discussion about what to keep from the original and what to leave out because there were certain subjects and Eastern traditions that Western audiences might not get?
A. I think a lot of discussions went on while Mark was writing the script. But Josh and I never talked about what's Korean that won't work in America. That never came up. We don't think like that. It was only what was best for this film.
Q. Is it true that you shot most of the film in sequence?
A. Yes. I prefer to shoot in sequence and have done it lots of times. Sometimes it's logistically impossible or too expensive. But this film was shot in sequence as much as we could because of the gaining and losing of the weight. At the beginning of the film Josh's character had to be puffy, overweight. And then he loses it. He had gained about 50 pounds, which he had to lose. And you can't gain the weight and lose it, then gain the weight and lose it. You can only do that thing one time.
Q. Josh mentioned in an interview that you were letting some solo takes of him go on for as long as 10 minutes. What was that about?
A. We were trying a lot of stuff. I mean, his character is locked up for 20 years, in a confined space. It's only him, and the pillow, and a TV. So Josh was gung-ho with us trying new stuff, experimenting. If it worked, it's in the film; if it didn't, it's not in the film. So we were not afraid or inhibited to do stuff.
Q. Were you throwing ideas at him while shooting?
A. No, we would talk about it before the cameras started to roll. But I would say, "Look, don't anticipate me calling cut!"
Q. You included a couple of iconic scenes from the original film, including the amazing two-minute hammer fight sequence in a corridor, with no edits. How did you pull that off?
A. That took weeks. Josh had to work with the stunt coordinators, and then the stuntmen. And once that was choreographed, we had to add the cameras on the crane, and work out that choreography. So it was challenging but a very rewarding thing.
Q. You invited Park Chan-wook to your editing suite when he was in New York, but he couldn't make it there. Had you intended to show him what you were doing?
A. I would have shown him something, but it was really just to meet him. I'd never met him before. We had only exchanged stuff through his interpreter. I wanted to say hello and pay my respects, show him some love, which is well deserved. We'll meet one day, and I'm looking forward to that.
Q. You've been a professor of film at NYU for 15 years, and on the first day of class you hand out a list of 86 films that you believe are essential for future filmmakers to see. How come "Oldboy" is not on the list?
A. Since that list first came out, I've had a barrage of films to add. People have been sending in suggestions. A ton of films. "Oldboy" is on the list now.
Q. The opening credits for "Oldboy" list it as "A Spike Lee Film." Is this the first time the phrase "A Spike Lee Joint" hasn't been used?
A. It's the first time for a narrative film. I think my documentary "4 Little Girls" was "A Spike Lee Film." But other than that it's always been "A Spike Lee Joint."
Q. How come "Oldboy" wasn't?
A. It's a tough business. That's the answer I'll give you. [Laughs.]
Q. You've already finished shooting "Da Blood of Jesus." Is that going to be "A Spike Lee Joint?"
A. You know that! [Laughs.] You can put that in the bank, and run with it!
Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.