The man behind Inside Man

After a decade or so in which his movies seemed marginal and often eccentric, Spike Lee is back with his most mainstream project yet—a big-budget heist thriller starring big names Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Opening next Friday April 7, Inside Man has Owen as a British criminal mastermind planning a bank robbery in Manhattan. When the gang takes hostages, a hostage negotiator played by Washington is called in, and all sorts of mind games and power plays ensue.

Lee has long been famous for his dramas focusing on racial issues, and Inside Man filters them into the thriller format, with a distinct dose of post-9/11 consciousness—as in the scene where a Sikh man is assumed to be a terror suspect just because he looks like the clichéd “terrorist”.

Inside Man is, however, primarily a densely plotted heist thriller in which Lee pulls out all the stops to keep his audience gripped.

What attracted you to the heist genre?

The script. Russell Gerwitz’s script was very, very good and that’s where the attraction started. I also knew that, with a script like this, we’d be able to get a very fine cast.

How much input did you have? Was it all there in the script or was there some shaping and remodelling of characters?

Well, it was all there, but we still had to add some stuff, subtract some stuff and, in the editing, shift some scenes around.

It’s very satisfying watching the film, because I was very confused and then everything is neatly tied up. How do you go about creating such confusion and intrigue?

Well, again, I think you had to go back to the script. Russell wrote a fine script so it was a matter of us executing what was on the page.

Could you outline what the film is about?

Inside Man is about a bank robbery which might not be a bank robbery, so what you see is not necessarily what is happening.

Do you have any anecdotes of working with the illustrious cast?

Well, ask any director who has a Mr Washington and Ms Foster, Mr Owen, Mr Plummer, Mr Dafoe or Mr Ejiofor—I mean, that’s a dream cast, and any director would tell you that. Casting is half the battle, so people were committed, people were having fun, and I think it’s evident in the final product.

With such a strong cast in place, what do you concern yourself with if you, as Denzel said, leave people to do their thing?

I just try to make sure that we are going in the right direction. You don’t want to veer left or right, just keep going straight.

With such a confusing script, do you sometimes get confused?

Well, there were moments. At the beginning, when I had to sit down with Russell and ask my questions, he’d explain to me and make sure I understood. We had to work it out because, if we didn’t know what the answers were, how could we expect the audience to know?

Was Clive Owen concerned about having to wear the mask throughout the piece?

Clive Owen was concerned, like any actor would be, because your face is also how you act. I’m not just talking about your mouth and saying the dialogue. Reading his role, he knew that his face would be covered for a large part of the film. Also, it’s hard for actors who are in the scenes with him to do stuff, too, because they’re not getting anything back from him with his face covered. So it was a major concern but, you know, we made him feel at ease and he accepted his part.

How has the relationship between yourself and Denzel developed? Have you developed some sort of shorthand for a way of working?

Well, it didn’t start like that, but after the first film, Mo’ Better Blues, we went on to Malcolm X and He Got Game and now Inside Man. We’ve developed, as you said, a shorthand, and it helps, because sometimes too much talking is no good. You both understand what needs to be done, so let’s just go and do it.

You used two cameras. What are the benefits to a director?

The benefits of shooting two cameras at the same time is that actors absolutely love it. They don’t have to deliver lines off screen, they don’t have to waste energy doing that, there’s a much faster pace. They aren’t in their trailers waiting for the knock on the door to come to the set. They know that when they get out of make-up and hair, we’re ready to shoot.

And pace was a concern to you, wasn’t it, because you had a pretty tight window to get this done?

Well, I really wasn’t concerned about the schedule. The pace I was concerned about was we had a lot of dialogue, a lot of words in this, so we had to keep it moving, you know, pace, rhythm, tempo.

How much improvisation is allowed in a Spike Lee movie, and what are you doing to encourage that?

I like improvisation, but not everyone can do it. So the first job is to find out who can improvise and who can’t, and the ones who can are given the green light, the ones who can’t just say what’s written.

Is there any improvisation?

Well, there is a scene in the film ... it takes place in a café across the street from the bank, where one individual has been freed by the captors and Denzel has this great line. That whole scene was improvised.

Is it the taxi line?

Yes, the taxi, that line is his, which is a great way to end the scene. But the whole scene was improvised.

How authentic do you think the plot and police response are?

Very authentic. We had two consultants on the film. One was with the ESU—they don’t call it Swat here in New York, it’s called ESU—and we also had a New York City detective, Neil Carter. They were by my side in pre-production and while we were shooting—and they saw the film in the early stages. So their job was to tell us what was real and what was fake, and the stuff that was fake, we tried to take out.

Did you learn the dos and don’ts of hostage negotiating?

Yes. Don’t give them any beverage with caffeine, give them water [laughs]. No coffee, no sodas. Water.

No planes either?

Nobody gets a plane.

Inside Man opens at cinemas nationwide on Friday April 7

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