Spike Lee On How All Art Is Commercial So Just Give Up Your Dreams, You Losers

There’s no difference between a film, a commercial, and a video game, Lee says. It’s all storytelling. And you don’t do it for charity.

We all know Spike Lee as the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, and Inside Man. Now add video-game director to his credits. In the past year, Lee both co-wrote and directed the “My Player” storyline of the upcoming NBA2K16–what’s historically been an amusing but meaningless game where you create an NBA player, and over the course of several basketball seasons, become a superstar in your own right. Can Lee, who joins Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro as the latest elite director to try a hand at video games, make it great?


I met up with Lee in May, shortly after controversy erupted around the film he’s currently shooting in Chicago, Chiraq. Here, he talks about everything from creative censorship to directing video games to the inevitable future of virtual reality movies.

Co.Design: Your production company shoots commercials and creative films. Which is NBA2K16? Is this a commercial entity or creative entity?
Spike Lee: It’s both. I mean, Do the Right Thing was a commercial entity. It’s a studio film. You’re not doing it for charity. They’re not going to give me that. Here’s the thing though, for me, I’ve been able to be very successful navigating the whole thing between commerce and art. And I would say that this venture with 2K16 is the same thing.

Is there a difference in autonomy in some of these projects?
Everything’s different. I wouldn’t say it’s a one note thing. My last film, I raised the money on Kickstarter, it’s all different.


Look at what happened with Chiraq–Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked you to change the title of the film, as part of a campaign that claims it stigmatizes our dangerous South Side, which I think is censorship, but the city gave you millions in tax incentives so they might feel like they own a piece of it. But if a client like the video game company 2K asks you to change an element of the story, I assume you would?
It depends. There’s a whole give and take with film. Hopefully most of the time you work out the issues for film and then what happens almost all the time, you get notes from the studio, some you agree with, some you don’t. But this, I’m very pleased with. I don’t think they had any notes.

I’ve played a lot of 2K games, and My Career is generally the same story over and over. I play as some basketball player who looks a lot like me, and I play a lot of basketball games, and I make my way up the ranks to be a superstar.
Well, if it was the same story, you wouldn’t be here right now. They brought me in for a reason: they want something new. They really wanted to expand on a narrative aspect of it. And I do storytelling. That’s why they came to me.


Is it a story that can make someone respond strongly, emotionally? Will people cry playing this video game?
It depends on the type of heart a person has playing the game! It’s very dramatic. Very emotional.

How is telling a story different in a game than in films?
No difference. We don’t see a difference. Our approach is we’re making a piece of cinema, a feature film, even though we knew it’d end up in NBA2K.

You don’t worry about the filmic elements translating to a game?
We’re making a movie. That was the approach.


So you see the storytelling aspect of it transcending the medium.
Any medium. That’s why I can tell stories in 30-second commercials.

I see your public persona in two pieces. One, a guy who sits courtside at a lot of NBA games, and two, the side of you who shoots socially conscious films that irk society in a positive way.
I don’t know how one doesn’t do with the other. I could be a filmmaker and my interests could be opera. You know, we’re human beings, so hopefully, to be a well-rounded individual–some people it’s film film film film film, but that’s not my only interest. And sports–filmmaking came to me late. When my father introduced me to sports, I was 5, 6, 7 years old. It’s something that’s been a passion of mine much longer than being a filmmaker.

An example of NBA2K’s player customization options (from the 2015 edition)Venture Beat/GamesBeat

It’s not strange to you that there’s everything happening with the Chiraq controversy, and we’re here talking about basketball?
No because I have more than one interest, so I do more than one thing at one time. It’s not just like, I did the My Career thing and nothing else is going to happen. Stuff is on top of each other.


Do you need that? Would it be too serious if you were doing mostly serious films?
I, sir, think you need to go to IMDb and look at my body of work. This is not 1986. Everything isn’t Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Kings of Comedy and Inside Man–that’s a pure bank heist drama.

Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X obscure a lot of my interests. And so people just think that’s, you know, all of my life is based upon racism, stuff like that.


Sure, your career has obviously evolved.
For me, I understand your question, I don’t see a contradiction that I’m here in Chicago working on a film, and I’m doing an interview for something that’s coming out in October. I have several major interests so I’m working all the time. I have many projects, and you have to talk, do press work before stuff comes out. This is why you’re here! Originally, I’d be doing this press in New York. I’m not in New York! I’m here in Chicago.

I look at your Kobe Bryant documentary, and that’s total cinéma vérité. It’s just a day in his life. But I feel like it’s not critical. It just paints Kobe as a hard-working guy. Can you bring a critical lens to sports?
We did that. We brought a very critical lens to college basketball with He Got Game. We showed how dirty it is.

Can you do that in a video game?
That’s not the purpose, really. I mean, we do touch upon some stuff, but it’s different–there was no agenda in this, just tell a good story. He Got Game went into an indictment of college sports. Such a big business, and how NCAA takes advantage of the student athlete.


I feel like you can’t make a game about basketball right now because the sport isn’t in a critical place. I feel like if you were to make a game about NFL, and you were to tell a narrative, you’d have to talk about a lot of the other stuff.
Yeah, nobody’s beating their wife in this. There’s none of that marital abuse, spouse abuse. There’s no need for that in this.

James Devaney/GC Images/Getty Images

How do you get involved day-to-day on a game? What’s your logistical involvement look like. Do you direct it as you do a film?
My man, as I said before, I’m a director, so nothing was different in my approach to this than any of the other stuff I did. The technologies were different. Because we’re shooting on a motion-capture stage where there are very few props, the actors were in costumes, with suits with balls on it. A lot of stuff you have to visualize and it’s put in post-production. But other than that, I’m doing what I do when I’m doing commercials–the stuff a director has to do was no different in this.

A lot of filmmakers have said, with the interactive medium, it’s a bad place to tell traditional narrative stories, because the player wants to be his or her own director.
I don’t see it like that. For me, I knew that one of the things that a game is like is, they do have the option [to sometimes change camera angles]? I’m okay with that. I mean, I’ve seen stuff where DVDs come out and have alternate endings. Same thing.


Fast forward 20 to 30 years, how do you imagine film and interactive media evolving?
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I really can’t look in the future like that. But there’s going to be some stuff that nobody’s thought about. Maybe one person’s thought about.

Is your skillset as a director going to need to change?
I can’t answer that. I don’t have a crystal ball. It’s going be amazing, though. I mean, we all know what’s going to come. It’s going to be where you put something on your head, put some wires on your head and your wrists, and you leave your body and are able to interact in this world. That’s what everybody wants, full immersion in a different world. We’ve seen films like that, where you’re in a film and you’re in it.

You haven’t directed one of those films.
Not yet! It wasn’t Do The Right Thing, that’s for sure.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach