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Spike Lee on Oldboy, Bringing Do the Right Thing to Broadway, and Working with Justin Timberlake

Spike Lee wants to stress that his version of Oldboy is not a remake, but a reinterpretation. For starters, the main character was imprisoned in the source material for ten years, in the 2003 Park Chan-wook film for fifteen years, and in Lee's film for twenty years. But the biggest change is why. How justified you think his jailer is will color your experience of the explosion of violence at the end. Is it senseless? Tragic? Even if you know a twist is coming, it has a different impact than in the Korean original. Without giving too much away, Lee chatted with Vulture about revenge, redemption, and remakes.

Josh Brolin said that he prefers the three-hour director's cut. What's in that version that we didn't get to see here?
Let's clear that up: There never was a three-hour cut. What Josh was shown was like two hours and 25 minutes. But it's a tough business. That's all I'm going to say about it.

You chose not to go there with the octopus scene, although there's a reference to it.
We have several homages to it, but we didn't want to do everything. Josh went to meet with Park Chan-wook and ask for his blessing, and one of the things Park said was, "Make your own film. Don't do everything I did."

Was there ever a concern that if you had the octopus scene, you wouldn't get the "no animals were harmed" label?
No one ever cared about the American Humane Society. [Chuckles] It never got to that. And Josh had enough of eating those dumplings as it is. But Josh, he's game, though. If that had been written, he would have eaten it. Oh, he would have done it.

You also opted for a much more twisted ending. And you escalated the violence.
America's a more violent country. But there are no guns in this film. No guns. And there are many different levels of violence, too. Not just physical. There's mental violence. Emotional, too. Twenty years of confinement, and I don't think he did something to be locked up for. And so that's his dilemma: Who did this to me? Why are they doing it? And then you add in the revenge factor: When I get out, I'm going to find out those answers, and I'm going to kill them.

Of course, the guy who did this to him was committing his own form of revenge. It's a cycle.
It's always good when you have more than one viewpoint in a film. And each has their substantiated grievances.

You also chose to forgo the hypnosis element of the story. Why?
I never understood that, in the original. I didn't understand that.

There are some interpretations that the escape never happened. That it was part of the hypnotic suggestion.
Did you ask Park about this? What did he say? I just think that, sometimes, people come to the end and they go, "Is that a dream?" And then it becomes problematic for me. I don't want to tell people what the takeaway is, but I don't think we needed the hypnosis. What we did need was a strong sense of someone who is trying to redeem himself, while not forgetting that this is a revenge film, too. Someone who comes to the realization that he must make amends for being an absentee father, and he will do anything in his power to connect with his daughter. And he had a big list of who he had to make amends to. Joe was not a nice person. And he had a lot of time to think about it. A lot of times, you might think what you did was not a big thing, but then it's a big thing. It may not have a big thing to you, but it is to another person. It's hard to measure slights.

Do you keep track of slights?
Mmm-hmm. [Laughs uproariously] Mmm-hmm.

Without the hypnosis element, you needed compelling reasons for these characters to be drawn to each other. The female character had to have a strong personality, and be someone who was young and old at the same time.
We all had input on that, especially Lizzie [Olsen]. That was very important to her that her character be strong, and we backed her up on it: "That sounds great! Let's do it." So we looked for ways to add to what was written, and make her more than a love interest.

The last time you worked with Samuel L. Jackson was on Jungle Fever.
He called me up and said, "I want to be in this film." And when you cast Sam, you have to think about what his hair is going to be like. So I asked, "Have you ever had a Mohawk before?" And he said, "No." And I said, "You can wear one in this film, if you want to." He said, "Let's do it!" There's two different colors, to show the passage of time.

What's your approach going to be for Spinning Gold, the Neil Bogart biopic?
Yeah, because we can't start on that until Justin [Timberlake] finishes his tour in July. Bogart's son, Timothy Scott Bogart, wrote the script, and he has not spared his father's missteps, mistakes, so it's a very honest portrayal of a very specific time in the record industry, and the explosion of disco. And I'm looking forward to working with Justin. At one point, I was supposed to direct Rent, and he was going to play the lead, and then it didn't happen. It wasn't meant to be. But we're ready. Justin knows. Tour's done, we're shooting this.

Do the Right Thing is coming to Broadway — when? Would you want to be onstage yourself?
No. Mookie's way too old now! You need somebody young to play Mookie. And it's going to be hard enough to direct it without trying to be in it, too. It's a big difference to do that in the theater. And I can't sing, either. I'm sorry to disappoint you! Can't do it, won't do it. So that's another reason that's not happening! A lot of people are going to be happy that's not happening, myself included. [Laughs] But I'm working on it now, so hopefully it'll come to fruition. We're in serious talks, but it's still very early. I think it'll take about a year. I'm not going to put a date on it, but it's not going to be "years" with a "s" on it.

Terry George says he has a script for Inside Man 2 sitting in a drawer. Will that ever happen?
I don't care if it is on IMDb. As far as I know, it's on the shelf. That's a question you have to ask the studios, the powers that be: Why hasn't that film had a sequel? They still make sequels.

It's easier for them to push through a sequel or a remake than an original idea sometimes.
That's the operating standard now. Tough business.

How would you feel if someone remade one of your films?
Over my dead body! Here's the thing: Park was okay with it. I'm not. [Laughs]

Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty