The dolly shot, searing social and political commentary and unpredictability are all customary in a Spike Lee joint. As is the music, and since the director’s early efforts with School Daze and Jungle Fever, he’s had a prominent right-hand man in that department; Terence Blanchard. The pair have collaborated a massive 13 times, to great success.
However, BlacKkKlansman is the first film to secure an Oscar nomination for both of them. We chatted to him about his creative process, working with Lee and the movie’s devastating punch.
How does it feel to, finally in my humble opinion, be nominated for an Oscar?
It’s a humbling thing. It’s an amazing thing as well because it started to set in only yesterday when we did the luncheon, and you know they ask you to go up and take a big historic photo of all the nominees. Then when you’re up there with all this great talent, it’s very humbling to know that your peers have voted you in in this category. I’m very appreciative of it.
Having worked with Spike for years, it must be a good feeling that you’re both being nominated for the first time together?
Yeah! Also, Barry Alexander Brown who’s the editor – we’ve been working together, the three of us, for 30 years, and it’s been a great working relationship. I’ve learnt some much from these guys, I’ve been motivated by those guys. The thing I’ve experienced with them is, you know they come to every project man, trying to do their best work and trying to do what’s best for the story. They love making movies, and to have nominations bestowed upon all three of us at the same time, it’s a true honour for me to be sharing this with them.
Similar to the dolly shot, you’re a quintessential member of a Spike Lee joint. How have you built that relationship with him over the years?
I think it’s one of those things where you don’t even think about building a relationship, you know? You think about doing the best work you can do, and Spike is an artist so he’s very appreciative of anyone who’s bringing things to the table that has something to offer. The thing that I tell young musicians all the time is to not think about the relationship part of it – that’ll come. That’s a natural extension of what happens if you do your job, it’s just that simple.
This is probably a standard question for you, but do you have a shorthand with him or is it more like a natural flow now?
Well, I think for us, I already kind of know what Spike likes and what he wants, so there’s not a lot of need for discussion anymore. It’s just at a point now where we’ll talk about a few creative issues – like with BlacKkKlansman, Spike said he wanted an R&B pad to be part of the score, and I said fine, and that was it! [Laughs] So I gave him some thematic material to choose from and he started assigning those themes to situations, and then I went about scoring the film.
The BlacKkKlansman composition has a very distinct feel; it’s very 70s. What was the creative process there?
Well, the thing about Spike is, you know, with all of his films he always wants the score to be kind of universal. So I knew he was going to colour the texture and period with the source material, but within the score we had the R&B pad, and I used an electric guitar because I was inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem at Woodstock, and I thought that would be an appropriate part of the sound for the film. We just kind of went from there man. It’s one of those things when you see the film, and the amount of work that’s been done, you don’t want to be the weak link in the chain [laughs] so it really motivates you.
I read that it was Spike’s decision to bring back the theme from Inside Man for the closing shots of the movie?
Yeah, that was Spike’s decision; he really loved the emotional content of that cue and thought it would play well against that backdrop and a nice track for that montage. And it was, it worked really well. Looking at that scene, I think that’s the start of a wake-up call for a lot of Americans. A lot of people when they’re watching the film for the two hours, they’re in the 70s. And then all of a sudden this montage pops up, and the montage itself is a wake-up call because it brings you back to the reality that we’ve not come as far as we have because we still have these characters talking nonsense. It’s been a staggering thing for a lot of people to experience.
I can vouch for that; when I watched the film in the cinema, there was a really deathly quiet when the credits rolled.
That’s happened at every screening that I’ve been to. When it gets to the flag there’s always a real silence in the theatre.
It definitely brings it back to reality; is there an extra weight to scoring real-life footage?
To me it’s all about the human condition, you know? It’s all about how we treat each other, and that doesn’t have a timeframe to me. If you grew up being a Christian or a Muslim or anybody that believes in something bigger than us, then that’s the core of how you operate – and to me, it doesn’t matter if it’s the 70s or 2018; those attitudes towards race have no place in society. Emotionally, I’d have reacted the same way no matter which period it came from.
The punch the Inside Man theme adds is quite remarkable.
Thank you for saying that, but you know I’m a human being just like you. I react to that footage the same way, and for me, I have to trust my reaction and allow those emotions of hurt, of pain, of disappointment, affect what I do musically.
What is the process between you and Spike; are you given a script or do you work off of the end product?
I’ll have the script, and I’ll work from it, but it really kicks in when you start to see the film. I read the script, that’s the version of the movie in my mind. But seeing the footage, feeling the tempo of the dialogue, the way the film looks, the locations – all of those things go a long way to help what I do for the project.
Do you have a favourite score you’ve composed for Spike out of your 13 collaborations?
I don’t. People ask me that question all the time but I really don’t. I look at all of them as being moments in time, different moments of my development, and all of the stories are different. But I look at them all as being part of the same story actually, which is always evolving.
Throughout the film, outside of the score there are uses of songs from artists like Prince and Emerson, Lake and Palmer – did you have any say in those decisions?
Nah, not really. He’ll come and tell me if it’s important for me to know, for example, if the music is bumping up against the source. He’ll come and include it in the video, but for the most part, no. That’s his love of music, I mean Spike is well versed in music, and he tries to act like he’s not [laughs] but he is. When it came down to the Prince song at the end, I thought that was a brilliant move because when people get to the flag, they’ll literally start crying in the theatre. He didn’t want to leave people that way, so that’s where he decided to come up with Prince singing a hymn, which is quite powerful.
Final question; as this is your 13th collaboration with Spike, do you reckon you have one or two more in the cards?
[Laughs] Oh man I don’t know if he could take anymore [laughs]. One of the things with Spike is he’s a very loyal dude. He understands what we have is special, like he was talking about it yesterday, and said that this is beyond us, this is something bigger. We understand that, and we appreciate it. We’re very blessed to have these relationships with great people, with true talent; it is a great blessing. I look forward to more work.