When one of the Best Directors in the game right now returns with a film, you better stop everything and pay attention. The legend Spike Lee, who's been giving us cinematic excellence since his debut feature-length film She's Gotta Have It was released in 1986, returns just two years after his Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman with a new joint, Da 5 Bloods. Focusing on the African American experience during the Vietnam War, the film—which stars Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X, Crooklyn), Norm Lewis (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Clarke Peters (The Wire), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), and the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman—finds a crew of black Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam decades later to fulfill some promises they made during their time in the war.
The film, which hits the streaming giant on June 12, is the latest endeavor between Lee and Netflix, who put out two seasons of the reimagined She's Gotta Have It series. As a lifelong fan of Spike Lee (I was old enough to remember when Do the Right Thing hit VHS, although I was young enough to have to turn my head once Mookie pulled out the ice cubes), anything his name is attached to gets immediate interest from me. Lee, putting together this talented ensemble for this intriguing way of looking at the unique PTSD a black vet has after surviving a terrifying ordeal, with the Netflix machine behind him? It's necessary viewing...so necessary that we not only wanted to hit you with the official trailer (which you can check out below), but we hopped on the horn with the Oscar-winning visionary himself to discuss the difficulties of shooting a film like this on location, Delroy Lindo's amazing performance (just trust us), ESPN's The Last Dance, and when Spike thinks he would realistically set foot into a theater in this COVID-19 age.
You've worked with Netflix in the past, doing two seasons of She's Gotta Have It, but what was it like working with them on a film project?
It was a smooth transition. Netflix is great.
Do you think this is a film that you could have made if you'd went the traditional studio route?
Well, all the other studios turned it down.
Were there any films that you watched to get a certain feel for that time or this kind of story?
No, but we do have two homages to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now film.
No doubt. I know this was a film you'd been wanting to make for a while. How important for you was it to tell this story about specifically black soldiers dealing with PTSD?
Well, originally, I didn't write the original script, but once we got the opportunity, it was a chance to show the story of African American Vietnam vets who go back to Vietnam.
I'd seen that the script had been around, I guess, since 2013, 2014. Can you talk about the process of the different changes and everything that you had for the script to make it something that you felt would be suitable for a feature film?
Basically, it was not going to be African American Vietnam vets. And adding Marvin Gaye's songs and album to it.
And just doing my thing, but I like to say that the script was written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. It was a question where my co-writer Kevin Willmott and I had to come in and rewrite from beginning to end. We would not have done it in the first place. It was a great script.
I'm glad you mentioned Marvin Gaye too. I think the use of What's Going On in the film is very important, especially for what the album was about when it came out. How early in the process of you working on the film did you decide to incorporate his music in it?
I knew that from the beginning. First of all, I think that, in my opinion, it's one of the greatest albums ever made. And Marvin Gaye's elder brother, Frankie, did three tours in Vietnam. He would write Marvin from Vietnam, so Marvin was getting a firsthand account from his brother, but also Marvin was seeing the black vet brothers coming back to Detroit from the war all messed up and shot up on drugs and whatnot. I really think that, in my opinion, I think that it's these letters from his brother that gave him the inspiration to speak on it. Which he does.
What would you say were some of the more difficult scenes or moments in the film to really nail down?
The opening battle sequence. There was nothing on this film that was easy. We were in the jungle, a hundred degrees. We were all in it. But we were halfway around the world. It's not a backlot or some Hollywood studio. We were in the jungle, and we knew going in [that] it wasn't going to be easy. We were up for the challenge, cast and crew.
That's why I wondered; when you mentioned the opening battle sequence, that looked like it was very difficult to shoot. That's why I was wondering if there were any films that you kind of studied ahead of time.
Nah, we had a great cinematographer, Tom Sigel. We storyboarded some of the stuff and we had great military advisors. One who was in Vietnam; he was part of Delta Force. So we knew what we had to do.
When it comes to the emotional core of the film, you couldn't have picked two better actors to do it. A legend, Delroy Lindo, who you've worked with a lot, and Jonathan Majors as his son. Delroy, specifically, I feel like this is one of his best performances I've ever seen on film. Can you talk a little bit about his character, how intense he is, and his approach to this type of character on film?
Well, you'd have to ask Delroy about his approach. I don't get into actors, how they work their routine. Delroy, we first worked together...West Indian Archie in Malcolm X, then Clockers. Then he played my father in Crooklyn. He's one of the great actors and I hope that this film really gives him the shine that he truly deserves. Because he's been doing work for years. He's been putting in work.
I mean, I don't want to single out Delroy because the cast, I mean, this was a team. Everybody was doing their thing. But, Delroy, ooh boy. Everybody got that shine on. And that's the beauty of it. People were there for the film. Everybody was a team, a well-oiled machine. We were all there in the jungle. And what happens a lot on films that shoot on location, when people coming together because we're not going home. When we wrap for the day everybody's going back to the same hotel, in the same van.
Would it be fair to say that the experience of shooting this film felt more like a family togetherness than some of the other projects you've done in the past just because of that fact?
Yeah. I think it happens. When you're lucky it happens on location. It happened also when I've shot Miracle at St. Anna in Italy.
Switching gears a little, as we're in this situation with COVID-19 and everybody self-isolating, some states are already opening up theaters. Do you have any thoughts on what you think would be a realistic timeline for people to be going back into theaters?
In my opinion, [and] I'm going to speak for myself, I don't see myself stepping a foot in a theater until November, December. I can't speak for anybody else, but for me, I am not going to any movie theater until November, December. Maybe next January. The beginning of 2021. Who knows.
Definitely. It's weird, I mean, I get people want to get out, but it's weird to see people trying to push it to now. Especially when every film's been pushed back, it just seems odd. It just seems odd.
This whole thing is odd. It's some new shit, you know? (laughs)
A lot of people going crazy is ESPN's The Last Dance. I know you lived through a lot of that stuff, just as a fan and a friend of Michael's, but have you been checking that out?
Oh, every night.
What are your thoughts?
I love it. I love it, love it, love it.
Being someone who's been in the inner circle, are you learning a lot from this documentary?
Oh yeah. Every episode I learn something I didn't know of, so that's great. And also, to me, my bigger takeaway is that Mike historically is not... He's very self-contained, but he let it out. He let out his feelings, even shed some tears. He became...a lot of people that think Michael Jordan's human now. He has feelings.
Were there any favorite moments from the doc that stood out personally?
The Dennis Rodman stuff is insane. Scottie Pippen, too.
You recently shared the Jackie Robinson script and I know you're always on promoting, talk about film anniversaries, but how else have you been spending your non-working hours during quarantine?
Well, almost every night I've been posting suggestions. Films people should check out. I've been reading a lot, listening to music. And my daily bike ride. Watching CNN and not Fox (laughs). And last not least is spending time with my family.
Da 5 Bloods hits Netflix on June 12, 2020.