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Talking to Spike Lee’s Editor

Longtime collaborator explores their work and his process


Brown with Spike Lee on the set of Inside Man. Photo by David Lee

Seated at the 1980 Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, Barry Alexander Brown, whose film The War at Home was nominated for Best Documentary, had one thought: “I hope I don’t win.”

Brown, codirector of the film about resistance to the Vietnam War, was 19 years old and believed the Oscar nod was coming too early. “I felt like a fraud,” he remembers.

He didn’t win that night, but his career took off.

Today, Brown wears many hats: director, producer, writer. But he’s best known as Spike Lee’s editor.

Brown and Lee have collaborated for more than two decades, producing narrative and documentary films, television shows, and commercials. Their hits include Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, and Inside Man.

As part of BU Cinematheque, a College of Communication program that screens and discusses work of accomplished filmmakers, Brown will be on campus tonight to talk about how he and Lee work together and to show segments from his projects.

BU Today: How did you get started?
Brown: Instead of going to college, I made my first film, The War at Home. Chuck France was the editor, but because he had a full-time job, he let me edit too. Chuck taught me the basics: be conscious of where your eye is and where you leave the audience.

What led you to an editing track?
Spike and Mira Nair [Salaam Bombay! Vanity Fair, and Amelia] were my friends. Early on we were young and broke, and I don’t think they knew anyone else who had a talent for editing, so they asked me. She’s Got to Have It was my first film with Spike. I was shocked at its success.

I edited only one scene in She’s Got to Have It and did the sound editing, so I was surprised that Spike wanted me to edit his next feature, School Daze. Spike had a real budget, so I expected him to hire a real editor.

You didn’t consider yourself a real editor?
When Spike hired me to edit School Daze, I had cut only 16-millimeter film. But it was going to be shot on 35-millimeter. I remember asking an assistant editor to show me the ropes. I asked a series of basic questions like, “Why do you use these white boxes? Is black ink for film and red for sound? How do you thread one of these 35-millimeter machines?”

Finally, the assistant editor said, “I misunderstood — I thought you were the editor of this film.” When I said I was, I could tell she thought, these people are in trouble.

Why did you take a break from editing?
I did Salaam Bombay! Do the Right Thing, Madonna: Truth or Dare, and Malcolm X all in a row. By the end of those, my phone rang off the hook. That scared the hell out of me.

I had gone into filmmaking to do a lot of things, and I thought I was pigeonholed.

So I quit editing for a number of years. I wrote for a while, including a PBS television series with Spike. I produced a few more documentaries and then directed my first feature. By the end of the 1990s, I returned when Spike asked me to edit He Got Game.

How do you approach a project?
I look at the footage, and ask myself, what’s the scene about? How do I get there? How do I get out? So much of it is rhythm for me.

Years ago, I was on a panel with filmmaker Sam Pollard, who launched into a detailed theoretical idea about editing. He said he reads the script carefully, looks at other films for inspiration, and begins to think about pacing. I was knocked out that people really thought those things out.

How do people describe your films?
They say my films are graceful, and I can see what they mean. There’s gracefulness that I like in editing, how to get to a particular moment. When I’m there, I feel it in the middle of my chest.

To me, a scene is like a dance. The scene could be violent, or it could simply be dialogue between two people. I still see those scenes as dances.

What do you mean?
One of the joys of editing is to find the movement and interaction between people, how we’re getting from one person to another person and back to that first person. Maybe I go into a close-up and then cut back to a wide shot. It’s all movement, like the steps of a dance.

Where do you get your storytelling inspiration?
I look at what writers do, how they move you, keep your attention, and use a nonlinear form. Sometimes I’m inspired by how a paragraph works. I can’t describe how that leads back to editing, but somehow it does.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is so clever. Thackeray keeps so much up in the air at any given time. Then you read someone like James Baldwin, who does almost the opposite. It’s hard to see what he’s doing, it’s so subtle, but he’s keeping your attention.

How did you meet Spike?
In Atlanta one summer in the early 1980s, a friend who went to Morehouse with Spike introduced us. They were working on a cable television project with high school students. I was doing research for a film.

That fall, Spike and I returned to New York. I was the president of a film distribution company called First Run Features and needed someone to check that the prints were clean and ready to go back out. Spike was a student at New York University. I offered him the job, and he took it.

Over the next few years, we became friends.

There was something different about us than the other people I knew in the independent film world. Both of us wanted to make movies that had messages, but we also respected entertainment for entertainment alone. I remember getting into fight with a young filmmaker the day John Wayne died. I said, “You’ll never be a good filmmaker if you don’t understand and appreciate what somebody like that was doing.”

Spike felt the same about pure entertainment.

Describe your collaboration.
We used to work closely in the editing room. Now, because of technology, I can edit on my own and bring DVDs to the set. Spike sees the film’s progress during the shoot and gives me feedback. Within a week after the shoot, the film has already been cut two or three times.

I’ve read that you and Spike have a verbal shorthand.
We do.

Years ago, somebody shot us editing together. As we were working, Spike would say, “I think there was another shot …” And I’d cut in, “No, you’re not …” He’d reply, “Yeah, but I think …” I’d follow, “Well, in that case, why don’t we go around …” He’d cut in, “I think you’re right, we could do something like that.”

Finally, the camera operator said, “This isn’t going to be useful.” He couldn’t edit the material, because we were speaking in half sentences.

Get the Flash Player to see this media.

In the video above, view a scene from Spike Lee’s Kobe Doin’ Work, edited by Barry Alexander Brown.

Your latest with Spike, the documentary Kobe Doin’ Work, about Lakers star Kobe Bryant, was shot in a single day with 18 cameras. How was that to edit?
Man, it was tough.

So much of editing is trying to get the best moment, and you want to be on the right camera at every moment. To make editing easier, I group cameras together. But I could only group four at a time. It was easy to get confused. I’d ask myself, have I seen this already? Is that shot better? Where am I?

When Kobe plays, he’s in possession of the ball most of the time. In addition to being on Kobe, we need to show the game itself. Then we have to decide what we’re doing cinematically. Sometimes we use a moment three to four times, like when he hits a three pointer or drives to the basket. The shot is illustrated in real time, slow motion, and through photographs. Everybody is aware it’s shown more than once, but it doesn’t feel old, because it’s so beautiful.

What advice would you give students who want to break into filmmaking?
Someone gave me advice that I didn’t understand at the time: “Just work.”

As long as you’re working, you’re in the business, and there will be more opportunities.

Barry Alexander Brown will speak and show film clips tonight, Friday, March 19, at 7 p.m. at Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave., Room 102. The event, part of BU Cinematheque, is free and open to the public.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


One Comment on Talking to Spike Lee’s Editor

  • Anonymous on 03.21.2010 at 12:14 am

    Great article – thanks! :)

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