ReelzChannel sat down recently with Spike Lee, to talk about directing Miracle at St. Anna, in which members of a WWII all-black unit become trapped behind enemy lines after saving the life of an Italian boy.
ReelzChannel: Any movie at this time is certainly an ambitious project to take on. How long has this road been for you?
Lee: Since I was in film school, NYU. Once I decided to be a filmmaker, that's when it all started. This film I could not have done 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Now I'm much more confident and have the skills to take on an epic film like this.
RC: So a war movie was never really on the list of things you wanted to do?
Lee: Oh, it was. But I knew I had to get better as a filmmaker. Also knew that I didn't have the story. When I read the novel by James McBride, I knew there was something that I wanted to do.
RC: Timing is everything.
Lee: Always. That's been the case for my film career.
RC: The performances in this movie are so great. For you, was casting the most difficult part of assembling this movie?
Lee: What made it a little more difficult is that I had to cast actors in a language that's foreign to me. I was in Rome for a long time casting Italian actors, and I spent two days in Berlin casting German actors to play the Nazis. I don't speak Italian. Neither do I speak Deutsch. With two very able casting directors by my side, they made sure I saw the best talent in Italy and Germany.
RC: Of the four guys, was one character harder to cast?
Lee: The role of [Private] Train because of the way it's written -- the physicality of this guy's giant. Initially I thought, well let me get someone who plays football or basketball. Then we went another route and the American casting director, Kim Coleman, suggested Omar Benson Miller. I remember Omar from 8 Mile, but I didn't remember him just towering over everybody in the film. We brought him in to read, and he just killed it.
RC: Now a war movie -- violent acts, they can't go unnoticed or untold. But was there a personal line that you didn't want to cross, things you didn't want to show?
Lee: I did not want to show gratuitous violence. Again it comes down to balance -- where does realism turn into gratuitous violence? Trying to find where that space is in-between.
RC: Certainly, some moments in the film turn heads, but they go to the point of the story.
Lee: I would hope that people turn their heads when they see a young infant that's breast feeding on his dead mother's breast, turn their heads when the Nazi solider approaches about to impale that baby with a bayonet.
RC: For that scene in St. Anna, you actually shot on the site of the massacre.
RC: An eerie feeling?
Lee: Very eerie.
RC: Almost maybe we shouldn't shoot here?
Lee: No, we knew we had to shoot there. And we were given permission, we had the blessings of the mayor. And also of the survivors of St. Anna, who were little children and escaped the massacre that took place on August 12, 1944, when 560 innocent Italian civilians, mainly made up of old men and women and children, were slaughtered by the Nazis, the 16th Division of the SS.
RC: It's quite a powerful scene. War movies have a long history of awards and nominations, Oscars. Is this something you're kind of wondering, what's the fate of this movie?
Lee: No, no.
RC: Who did you make this movie for?
Lee: This film is for the world, but it don't necessarily have to be a card-carrying member of the Academy of Motion Picture Awards and Sciences. If the awards do occur, it'll be a beautiful thing. But that's not the reason why I make films.
RC: And we're hearing a sequel to Inside Man is coming?
Lee: Terry George is going to start writing the script.... Well, here's the funny thing: Everybody's heard the pitch but me, the director. I don't even know what the story is.
RC: Well, you're directing it apparently. I'm sure it will be just as good as the first one.
Lee: Well, I've got to find out what the story is first.