20 minutes on the phone with one of the greatest film directors the world has to offer, teamed up with the creative director of one of the worldwide leading writing instrument companies. What do Spike Lee and Montblanc’s Zaim Kamal have in common? A collection of old letters from their youth, for example. But there is also their common urge to create, and their hope in the new generation. One thing is for sure: It is always the right moment to acknowledge the relevance of Atlanta-born Shelton Jackson Lee and his work as a film director, writer, producer and actor. Not only has he revolutionized the landscape of independent cinema, but also the role of Black talent in film and the exploration of political issues and racism. His unique style transforms each of his movies into cinematic art pieces. I will never forget the massive influence his 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, had on me, watching it as a young teenager. Who would have thought that this movie would still be so up to date now, 31 years later? The same goes for his iconic music videos for artists such as Public Enemy, Tracy Chapman or Michael Jackson. Recently, on the occasion of Jackson’s 62nd birthday, Lee published a new, breathtaking version of They Don’t Care About Us, to which he added footage from the recent Black Lives Matter movement. His radical approach, his bold statements and his unsparing eye for injustice and contradictions is what this world needs, maybe now more than ever. It is hardly surprising that the German company Montblanc chose Spike Lee to become one of their three new muses to discuss their purposeful journey through life. A conversation about creation, 2020 and magic tattoos, spiced up with Spike Lee’s remarkable sense of humor.
Interview: Sina Braetz
SINA BRAETZ: I would like to start with a sentence that you, Spike, once said in an interview with the Washington Post: “When you put a piece of art in the universe, you have no control after that.” Do you think that the idea of control is an illusion in our modern society?
SPIKE LEE: No, I don’t think so. I mean, there’s limits to control. As a director, you want to have final cut, so whatever you sell to the world is your vision and not someone else’s. But what you can’t control is how the world reacts to your art. You do the best you can and you just give it up.
ZAIM KAMAL: I have to agree on this one with you, Spike. You do the best, you have to have your own tone of voice. How this tone of voice is then heard is based on the individual who picks up on it. But you have to do it to the best of your abilities and to the best of what you want to express.
SL: In my experience, sometimes, the audience doesn’t get a message until so many years later. You know, you can’t control that. With films, this depends on many different things when you release one: Was it pushed right? Is the marketing right? Did it come up with the wrong tone for that particular film? I have no control over a lot of these things. You just have to learn that once a film is done, it is on its own.
ZK: It’s the same with design: Once you’ve created an expression in one single piece that is then replicated many many times, I think it’s the sum of this replication that actually determines how people see it. So I think that is something that’s out of our control.
SB: In this world, there is nothing without creation. We are especially realizing that during this whole pandemic. What is it that makes you keep on creating?
SL: So, for me, I can start by anything, it’s not one particular thing. The reason why I create is because this is what I do. It’s something natural that happens. Being a filmmaker in my life is something I was destined to do, I believe. It’s my life.
ZK: For me, it’s also the way I express what I want to say. It is my tool of communication. So to speak of creation, I chose design and design chose me. This is something that was inherently in there, looking at lines or the expression of colors. I believe it is not a singular motivation or a singular inspiration. It is because we wander through the world with open eyes and open heart, so to speak. You take that all in and you do your interpretation of what you see with the tools that are given to you. This is your means of expression.
SB: What kind of limitations do you experience within your professional creativity as a creator?
SL: Film is a very expensive art form. So if you don’t have the money, it might not be exactly what you want. I had to learn that the bigger the project I wanted to do, I had to put the tools to the side. Just as my grandmother always said: “You have to crawl before you can walk.” The more I did as a filmmaker, the more successful the films became, so I finally got bigger budgets to do them.
ZK: From the design point of view, it’s basically that when you create something, it’s something that you do internally, but it has to be replicated. The designs have to be made; they have to be produced in such a way that other people are able to understand what you want to express without you being present. For me, it’s not a limitation, but over the years, my experience has shown that it is more about how to make sure that people actually understand what you want to do. And you have to speak in the same language, for example, with patternmakers. You need to understand how you want to design so that it can be translated with the tools you or they have. It is something you learn over the years. Also, what Spike mentioned, the budget needs to be considered as well. I mean, design probably isn’t as costly as making a film, but you still need to have this idea of economic reality of what you can create. There is no point in creating something that’s not produceable.
SB: How did your creative approach and process change within the last decades, especially compared to working analogue versus digital? Spike, do you still do handwritten notes when writing a screenplay?
SL: Well, I never learned how to type. So I still write my scripts by hand.
SL: Yeah, and most recently, with my Montblanc pen. [laughs]
ZK: That’s a good one.
SL: A shameless plug, shameless. For me – again, it’s my own personal experience – when I have a pen in my hand and I put it on the paper, there is a flow. If I had to type, I would be too worried about it. It’s not for me; I really need to put a pen to the paper. I can’t type, I don’t want to, and I’m not going to change. Pen to paper.
SB: This is amazing! Can you relate, Zaim?
ZK: For me, the change came because I still draw everything by hand, but the tools of creation changed. In the early days, you had to do everything by hand or with brushes. Now we have the possibility to use digital tools that allow us to be faster in our creation process and to change things quicker. It’s a mix between the analogue and digital that changed.
SB: Do you both remember the most beautiful handwritten letter that you ever received in your life?
SL: Yes. My mother was writing letters to me while I was in college. She had a very beautiful writing and she would cut out articles
from the New York Times, when I studied at the Clark Atlanta University. She would send me art, movie reviews, stuff like that, with her beautiful handwriting. My mother died, but I still have her letters. ZK: For me it’s similar because I went to school also in Europe and my grandmother and I used to write each other aerograms once a week so I could update her on what I was doing. And I used to also always sneak in a little drawing in the aerogram because you couldn’t put any inserts into it. I think because of these exchanges with me in Europe and my grandmother in Pakistan, it allowed us to stay very close.
SL: Who writes letters anymore?
ZK: I do.
SL: You don’t write emails? You write letters?
ZK: I write both. Once a week, when I travel, I start a letter to my daughter every Monday morning and then I send it when I finish.
SL: Oh, I wish I did that. You’re gonna get me start writing letters again.
SB: So you completely stopped writing letters, Spike?
SL: Yes, I write e-mails, I mean… I’m going back analogue. I’m going back analogue!
SB: Do you pay a lot attention to someone’s handwriting? Do you think it reflects their personality?
SL: Oh, for sure. You know, the police have people who study handwriting. I definitely understand that your handwriting can tell a lot about who a person is. I believe that one hundred percent.
ZB: I agree, totally.
SB: There is a movie called Memento in which this guy, played by Guy Pearce, suffers from amnesia, with a short time memory loss every fifteen minutes. So, among other things, he tattoos his body all over and tries to track information that he cannot remember in order to find the murderers of his wife. Do you remember that movie?
SL: Yeah, was that this Christopher Nolan movie?
SL: Yeah, vaguely, a sort of mood came up. I haven’t seen it for many, many years. A great movie.
SB: These words all over his body. Do you have tattoos?
SL: No, I don’t have any tattoos.
SB: You never thought about getting one?
SL: No. Never.
SB: What about you, Zaim?
ZK: I have quite a few.
SL: How many is a few?
ZK: 12. One covers my entire arm.
SB: What kind of tattoos are those, do they have a deeper meaning?
ZK: Basically, they are all very personal tattoos, they’re kind of marks of certain periods or events in my life. They are related to the birth of my daughter, to the change of my work moving forward, to something that I’ve achieved. So my tattoos are like a storytelling for myself. A bit similar to Memento, they kind of remind me of certain events in my life.
SB: Let’s speak about 2020. We are faced with so many intense moments and happenings – the fires in Australia, the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you think that this year will bring us a systemic, permanent change?
SL: The way I see it, BC or AC – not before Christ and after Christ, but before Corona and after Corona – the world has changed and I don’t know if this change is going to be permanent, but the fact is that the world has changed. People died at record numbers all over the world, people lost their loved ones. And especially in the United States, it didn’t have to be like that. And not just me, but many other people have said it: This year will probably be the most important presidential election, at least in the United States. We are living in historic times right now. Many books, movies, art, plays, songs are going to be a cut of this industry, above what happened in the year 2020, I think.
SB: What is your biggest hope for 2020 and for our future?
SL: Well, I hope love triumphs over hate.
ZK: I agree that we are living in times of change. We all woke up and we have to see if this wake-up call is going to be permanent or if it will kind of pass. But I hope for myself that the world will now keep this change, this new attitude. I think it’s time to rethink many things that were normal before. Each of us has to rethink the way we do things. It is a time of change and reflection.
SB: Spike, if you did a new version of Do the Right Thing, what would you change?
SL: The film came out in 1989 and it’s still up to date, I wouldn’t touch a thing.
SB: You grew up in a time with lots of rebellious moments. Is the energy different from today’s energy?
SL: Well, I’d say that I never saw this young, white generation marching all over the world, chanting Black Lives Matter. That is giving me hope – the young generation. They don’t want to continue or go down the road of their parents, grandparents and generations before them.
SB: Zaim, you as a brand leader, how do you feel responsible for shaping that change in a positive way? Where do you see your responsibilities?
ZB: Exactly as you say, you have to look at the positive message that is around. Change is always a time to rethink, to reevaluate and move forward. And the one important thing is to not be afraid of it, but to use the change in order to move forward and to open up the stage for the younger generation. I have a big trust in all the generations that are coming for all the reasons that Spike just mentioned. Because they are there to unite and to make us rethink the way that things have been in the past. And I think it’s very important to reflect that in your work as well, with all positivity.
SB: What would be the biggest dream project you’d like to work on, no matter if realistic or not?
SL: For me, it’s always about exploring different stories and finding different ways to tell a story.
IMAGE 1 & 2 from DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) ˝Universal/courtesy Everett Collection
Photos: picture alliance/Everett Collection
IMAGE 3 from Crooklyn (1994) ©Universal
Photo: picture alliance/United Archives