When Spike Lee talks, you listen. So what Spike Lee listens to, you should listen to as well. The legendary director’s latest film, Oldboy, a reinterpretation of the 2003 South Korean hit, has already sparked much conversation. But one thing you can count on is for Spike to go the extra mile to make sure he puts his stamp on it from every angle.
When Spike was tasked with creating a playlist (listen below) to represent the movie and the premise behind it, he didn’t just choose a bunch of songs he wanted to hear. He challenged himself. Typical of the director, whose résumé is bolstering with films that challenge us as an audience and a society. Take a journey into Spike’s mind as we sit down to discuss the challenge of creating a playlist for someone who’s been imprisoned for 20 years, and talk about the film that’s sure to create some buzz come Oscar season.
Interview by Nick Grant (@NicholasGrant)
As I look through this playlist, I remember you saying that you only chose Billboard Top 100 hits. Why is that?
Because I wanted to do an experiment. I wanted to see how many songs I loved that didn’t make the top 100 R&B/Hip-Hop list. And most of the songs I had never heard of. I might know some by hearing them, but not just by reading it. So, once again, I guess my musical tastes aren’t in line with what sells.
Could you go a little bit more into the playlist, how you put it together, and how it may have inspired the music behind Oldboy?
Well, none of the songs are in Oldboy. We didn’t have the budget for it. We just have score, but the way this was presented to me was that, if I was to have a playlist and I was locked up for 20 years, what music would I listen to? So I looked at it another way; I said to one of the people I work with, “Let’s get the list of the top 20 R&B/Hip-Hop songs of the last 20 years.” And she pulled the info for me, and I just went through each song for each of the 20 years and tried to come up with [the best]. And no disrespect to any of the artists, there are probably a lot of artists for the songs I love on that particular album of that particular year that didn’t become a top 100 single. Especially, I mean, look at songs that came off of my films. Look at the Stevie Wonder soundtrack from Jungle Fever, that wasn’t there. A whole bunch of stuff wasn’t there. So, it was an experiment for myself.
You made an interesting point that, if you were locked away for 20 years, where would be the first place you look for music? It would probably be the Billboard Top 100 for whatever years.
Here’s the thing though: if I would’ve had two years instead of a week, I could’ve been a lot more thorough. But that’s a lot of years to go through and a lot of stuff, I had to look through my iPad and I had to take the songs I like and find out the year it was and all that. It just made it easier, simpler to go by Billboard industry-standard. But it’s not necessarily the best music, to me, as I would say. I just wanted to use it as an experiment and go strictly by the Billboard Top 100 R&B/Hip-Hop songs each year for the last 20 years because I couldn’t come up with my own list.
We know there aren’t any tracks in the movie, since it’s all score. But if there were any tracks that don’t have to be on this list, what would represent Oldboy?
Well, the song that we wanted to put in, but couldn’t afford it, was a Frank Sinatra song, “It Was a Very Good Year,” from the classic album, September of My Years.
Let’s talk about the movie a little bit. When did you first see Oldboy?
When it came out [in 2003].
And from the looks of the trailer, which looks amazing by the way, it definitely has that Spike Lee-touch. What types of things did you want to preserve from the original?
Thank you very much. The script was written by Mark Protosevich, and he had the really hard job of finding out the spine for the original but still making it new. That’s a very, very hard thing to do. Because there are just certain things, certain set pieces that you have to have from the first film. So he did a very good job of that. But when you do a film that’s as beloved as this, you know, there are people that think that it’s sacrilege that you’re doing it, so we knew that going in. Josh and I knew that. And Josh, before he even signed on to the film, he met with Park [Chan-wook], the director of the Korean film, and asked for his blessing. And Park told him, “I look forward to seeing the film. Just go out there and make your own film, don’t try and duplicate what we did.” So that’s the spirit in which we did the film.
Yeah, you can definitely see some things from the original that were taken to this, but you can definitely see some pieces that are original to the vision I think we tried to put forth.
If this is even possible, how does the film rank to other films you’ve directed, if you can even compare them?
Well the only comparison I can intelligibly make is that this is the first time I’ve done something like this. And we’re careful, we’re not using the word “remake.” We’re using the word “reinterpretation” because we feel this is something new. And I’m going to give a musical analogy. We’ve all seen and loved, growing up, Julie Andrews singing “My Favorite Things” in The Sound of Music, but the simple melody was John Coltrane expanded. We’ve heard many different versions of “My Funny Valentine” from Miles Davis that became something else. We’ve all heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung 50 billion times, but when Marvin Gaye sang it, or Whitney Houston, or even Jimi Hendrix, they made it different. You respect the source, great respect for the source, that’s why you’re doing it. And at the same time you want to respect the source and make it something new. So that’s the spirit that we did it.
That’s a great analogy and definitely captures “reinterpretation” to its fullest. So what song best represents the character Joe (played by Josh Brolin) and the struggle that he went through?
Oh, I got the song… “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix. (laughs) In fact, I used that song already in Crooklyn, so that was another song that we couldn’t afford. I thought of that and I hummed that to Josh while we were shooting. Josh and I had a great time together. After having spoken and having expressed wanting to work with each other for a number of years, we finally got it done.
Any last words before Oldboy hits theaters?
Here’s the thing… I’m not hatin’ on all the detractors because I know how deeply they feel about this movie. So it’s understandable. And it’s very understandable that there’s fears this will be another watered-down, white-washed version of Asian cinema. But if people give it a chance, they will see that it’s not that at all. Not that at all.