Fri. Sep 18th, 2020

Interview: Barry Alexander Brown, Oscar-nominated director and film editor of ‘BlacKkKlansman’

Barry Alexander Brown

Barry Alexander Brown has worked as a Director, Editor and Writer in documentaries and feature films for both film and television for over thirty years.

He was nominated for an Oscar for his first film the feature length documentary, The War at Home, when he was just 19 (the youngest nominee in that category ever). That film has been remastered into a 4K version with a U.S. theatrical re-release this fall after being a part of the 56th New York Film Festival’s Retrospective and Revival section.

He has worked with the acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair on such films as the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay, Monsoon Wedding and most recently Disney’s The Queen of Katwe. He was behind the incredible concert sequences of Madonna’s seminal concert film Madonna: Truth or Dare.

As a director, he has shot music videos and commercials as well as the critically acclaimed features Lonely in America (1990) and Winning Girls Through Psychic Mind Control (2002). His third feature, Last Looks (2008), was shot on location in Turkey and was the centerpiece of a transmedia novel, which he also wrote.

Like many long standing director/editor collaborations (Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker; Michael Kahn and Steven Spielberg), Barry has cut most of Spike Lee’s feature films including Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, 25th Hour and Inside Man.

He joined me for a truly engaging and fun chat to talk about his history with Lee, the convergence of art, entertainment and politics and how he cut this year’s most provocative and visceral film, Spike Lee’s Cannes Grand Prize-winning BlacKkKlansman. Minor spoilers ahead (but not really).

How did you and Spike Lee meet?

Barry and Spike on the set of 1989’s Do the Right Thing

You know, we met in the summer of 1981. I’m from the Deep South. I’m from Alabama. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but now that I’m talking about Alabama this accent begins to come back [it does]. But I didn’t really want to be from Alabama and when I moved to New York they said ‘you got to lose the accent.’

I was sort of at a loss of what to do next after The War at Home. I went back down South to research a project in Georgia, in Atlanta. A friend of mine was working with Spike on a cable show with teenagers, sort of news magazine show. I met Spike that summer in Atlanta. At the time, I helped found a distribution company called First Run Features. I was the president; I was the first president. We needed a part time person to clean the prints that were coming back and get them in order and make sure that they’re ready to get shipped out again. Spike was going to NYU and it was only a few blocks away from our office. I thought ‘this is a really good job for a film student,’ and I asked him, “do you want this job?” And he said, ‘yeah, yes, I’ll do it.’ I mean he didn’t make very much money but neither did I; I think he was making $100 a week. But as president of the company, I was making $200 a week (laughs). Over the course of the next few years, we really got to know each other and if he’d be working on something, an NYU film or something else, if he asked me to help do something, I said yeah.

I did a film at that time about Philippe Petit, called High Wire (1984). Spike helped me out on that a little bit and we would just really got to liking each other and we had a very similar view of entertainment and movies and cinema. A closer point of view than I had was anybody else I knew in the independent film world in New York. I think a lot of the people had a message to deliver and it wasn’t a real love of cinema, you know, I mean, Spike definitely had a message and I think I had messages that I wanted to deliver, but I think the reason why both of us were in film was that we love cinema, we love art, we love the form and we love entertainment.

And sometimes we love entertainment. Just for entertainment’s sake. I remember around that time somebody told me that they didn’t really like entertainment. It really wasn’t worth very much, you know, that they didn’t think it had real value. I showed them Donald Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh.” I said, “You watch this and you’re telling me this doesn’t have worth?” Of course it doesn’t have a political message but it does have worth. A boatload, an absolute boatload of worth.

I remember getting into a fight with somebody about John Wayne. I was at Bard College, which eventually set up The Independent Filmmaker Project, the IFP, and John Wayne died while we were there just before. Somebody had said good riddance and I lit into them, you know? It’s not like politically I agree with John Wayne, but as a figure of cinema, if you don’t understand them, if you don’t respect them; that will probably show up in the kind of movies you make. You don’t care about understanding cinema. And actually, this person did very drab movies and movies that were not very watchable. And I told her that’s the problem with your movie and you’ll never make a good movie because you don’t because you can’t separate it. I don’t have to like Adolphe Menjou’s politics or John Wayne’s politics, or Jon Voight’s but do I admire them? I admire all three of them.

That’s a great perspective. BlacKkKlansman absolutely offers a tremendous amount in the realm of storytelling and politics and how to tell those stories. Right off the bat movie has totally nostalgic titles and Alec Baldwin’s character shooting that weird industrial film about segregation. How important was it to set the tone with that opening sequence?

I think really, really important. Also just to say, ‘where the hell are we going now?’ Right? You have no idea what’s happening. As soon as Spike explains to me what he wants to go after, like it was something like that Baldwin thing; as soon as I understand that I think, ‘okay, I can do that.’

Spike said “I want to show this stuff with Alec trying to get the lines right, you know, and trying to get himself back into it, you know, that stuff was doing with his voice, he has to get his voice back.”, you know, because artifice. This guy is not speaking from the heart, he’s speaking from the heart. He’s got a script, he’s written it out and he’s got a script. This is a manipulation, this piece by this white supremacist. And, and they were trying to get the words right, right. As he says about, you know, he gets one word off and he says to the script supervisor, “Is that right?” and she says, “Yes, that’s right.” You know, it’s the artifice that Spike wanted to show.

                        What was great. I mean, we did replace, for the mix, the the script supervisor’s voice with an actress because script supervisor wasn’t mic’d. He [Baldwin] was really asking the script supervisor at that point. “Is that the right word? Is that the right? Am I right?” And she would say yes would repeat the word, you know, and you can barely hear, but it was like, oh, this is great. So as soon Spike gave me the okay, to use all of this and let’s go for it and show the artifice that I know what to do.

I think what it did was set up not just the elements that we’re going to be comedic but also really uncomfortable and where those two were going to merge.

Oh yeah, exactly. Thank you!

There are many scenes with Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) on phone calls, which for an audience can be pretty dreaded sequences to play out. How did you approach those since they are such an integral part of the entire story?

I felt the same way. I remember when we were in dailies and you read the script, it doesn’t jump out at you that, oh, this is yet another phone call. We have another phone call! I was thinking the same thing. I mean the audience is going to be, “Oh my God, really?”

So it was a matter of is that okay, how do we keep this going and also how do we keep visually interesting. The first few phone calls, it’s like, okay, they stand on their own. This is okay. We haven’t done it so much that people are gonna say, Oh, give me a break. Then the first time I use the split screen, when Walter calls up Ron and says ‘you should be the leader, you know, you should be the leader.’ At the time I didn’t know that Spike was gonna go for this, you know? But Spike was like, “Yes, yes, yes! Where else can we do this?” So then it was a matter of choosing two more phone calls where we were doing. It also feels kind of like the 70s.

I was going to say, there’s something extremely natural about that because of the time period that it takes place.

Yeah, yeah. And then we had yet another phone call in which in which Felix (played by Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen) calls up Ron and says ‘get your ass over here.’ Right. There’s a scene afterwards where Flip (Adam Driver) gets out of the car and walks down the hill with Felix. And that was another time where I said ‘Okay, let’s make this more interesting.’

So we have Flip, getting out of the car and walking into Felix’s garage, basically happens later, you know, I’ve kind of made it seem simultaneous and sometimes the audience will think ‘Oh my God, shit, Felix is talking to Ron and he’s also with Flip!’ And you think, ‘oh shoot, is that a mistake?’ No, it’s the intention of the cut. The intention of the cut is simply to get through this quicker and make the phone call itself more interesting.

One of the most effective sequences in the film is near the end with the Klan meeting that’s cut with Harry Belafonte’s character Can you tell me a little bit about creating that crucial moment in the film?

They had it in the script; that these things were going to go back and forth. But in the script they’re much bigger blocks, which makes sense if you don’t have the luxury of having that footage in front of you but I had all of it.

So I can look at certain moments and say, ‘this ties together and I’m trying to tie the character Harry Belafonte plays to Ron Stallworth.’ I’m trying to make them the observer because most of them are the observer. And so, when Harry talks about having to hide and running up to the second floor above the shoeshine parlor that he works in and looking at that window and then I have this footage of Ron walking through attic space and coming to that window and then looking out upon David Duke and the induction of Adam Driver, and they become sort of emotionally the same person. Belafonte’s telling is really a story that’s happened decades earlier but still everything becomes sort of emotionally one.

As I start cutting, I try to feel for moments in which it just feels right to bring Harry back or go back to the Klan and find where these stories are becoming more and more connected.

Yeah, it’s an extraordinary sequence. The closing of the film features real footage of the Charlottesville protests where Heather Heyer was murdered. What was the discussion between you and Spike on how this was going to be integrated and shown?

Well, you know, it wasn’t in the script because they’d finished the script before Charlottesville. Then Charlottesville happened and I think Spike pretty quickly thought ‘this is the end of the movie.’

He knew the movements that he wanted in that footage. He knew that he wanted the torchlight parade that was Friday night, the fights that broke out the next day. He wanted Trump’s comments and the car ramming into everybody and the murder of Heather Heyer.

But we had a discussion that this cannot be long. It really has to stay tight. It had to be emotionally impactful. And it had to still feel like a part of that movie because if it gets too long, it’s just all of a sudden we’re in a different movie. 

The David Duke speech at Charlottesville is incredible in how it ties together so much in a really macabre way.

Incredible is right. I don’t think either one of us was aware of the David Duke footage. This is the same guy 40, 45 years later. You feel like, wow, this is the same guy. And yeah, you’re right, it’s the David Duke stuff that delivers that connection that it wouldn’t have had without it. But wow, it’s so strong with it and it was an incredible.

It’s a very tight sequence and I think it’s exactly the length that it needs to be. It doesn’t feel tacked on and that inclusion of David Duke and his long-standing impact just is just really shows the reality.

Yeah. Yeah. It does. Another thing that was not in the script about David Duke (played by Topher Grace in the film) was almost every time the Klan guys are in a car, they’re listening to a tape of his [Duke’s] and it’s a constant kind of indoctrination. It was used as a motif throughout the film. These guys are going to be constantly listening to this, constantly being indoctrinated. No, just like if you’re watching Fox, if you watching Fox News and that’s all you ever watch, you’re going to think the world is like what Fox News is telling you. And that’s what they think too, that that’s what they listened to all that. So they think this is the world. So we wrote something up that was a David Duke kind of a kind of a thing, kind of a podcast and then Topher just recorded it one day on the set, like between takes and it was incredibly effective. I mean, far more effective than I would have guessed. It’s one of those happy accidents that come out but you also have to be lucky. You have to be willing to be lucky.

BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters, enjoying a third weekend of strong box office and nearly universal critical acclaim. It’s distributed by Focus Features.

Up next for Brown will be a return to the director’s chair to helm Son of the South from his own script, based on the life of Bob Zellner, a white Alabamian who joined the likes of Rosa Parks and John Lewis in marching and fighting for civil rights in 1960s South. The feature film will be shot on location in Alabama in the fall of 2018.

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