Spike Lee Teaching an Online Course on Independent Filmmaking: The Course Is Now Officially Live

FYI: If you sign up for a Mas­ter­Class course by click­ing on the affil­i­ate links in this post, Open Cul­ture will receive a small fee that helps sup­port our oper­a­tion.

When Spike Lee makes a movie, peo­ple talk about it. Peo­ple talked in 1986 when he made the black-and-white indie com­e­dy She’s Got­ta Have It; they talked even more when he came out with Do the Right Thing a few years lat­er; they talked, with sharply divid­ed opin­ion, about his most recent pic­ture, the crime-themed musi­cal Chi-Raq; and they’re already talk­ing about his upcom­ing Black Klans­man, and not just because of the title. Lee has man­aged to remain cul­tur­al­ly and artis­ti­cal­ly rel­e­vant through­out a career of more than thir­ty years and count­ing, and his new online course at Mas­ter­class just might let us in on how he’s done it.

“When you’re an inde­pen­dent film­mak­er, and mak­ing films out­side Hol­ly­wood, that’s hard,” says the long Brook­lyn-based Lee in the trail­er for the course above. “You have to pray on bend­ed knee at the church of cin­e­ma.” But even as an aspir­ing auteur with a pock­et-change bud­get — Lee remem­bers well when he “was a cater­er, the pro­duc­er, the direc­tor, the screen­writer, act­ed in it, and I was the first AD” on his first fea­ture — you already pos­sess “tools that can help you tell a sto­ry”: height­en­ing dynam­ic cam­er­a­work to height­en the emo­tions, for instance, or writ­ing char­ac­ters with strong beliefs to inten­si­fy the con­flicts of the sto­ry. He used such tech­niques when he start­ed out, and he still uses them today.

Though Lee seems more than will­ing to talk about his meth­ods, you can’t ful­ly under­stand any film­mak­er unless you under­stand that film­mak­er’s influ­ences. And so we offer you Lee’s list of 95 essen­tial movies every aspir­ing direc­tor should see, expand­ed from his orig­i­nal list of 87, drawn up to hand out to the grad­u­ate-school class­es he’s taught. Fea­tur­ing mul­ti­ple works from direc­tors like Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, Alfred Hitch­cock, Fed­eri­co Felli­ni, John Hus­ton, and Stan­ley Kubrick, the first ver­sion of the list runs as fol­lows:

Tak­en to task for that list’s lack of female film­mak­ers, Lee came up with these addi­tions:

  • The Piano — Jane Cam­pi­on (1993)
  • Daugh­ters of the Dust — Julie Dash (1991)
  • The Hurt Lock­er — Kathryn Bigelow (2008)
  • Sug­ar Cane Alley - Euzhan Pal­cy (1983)
  • The Seduc­tion of Mimi — Lina Wert­muller (1972)
  • Love and Anar­chy - Lina Wert­muller (1973)
  • Swept Away - Lina Wert­muller (1974)
  • Sev­en Beau­ties — Lina Wert­muller (1975)

Lee’s Mas­ter­class on film­mak­ing joins the site’s oth­er offer­ings on the same sub­ject from auteurs no less dis­tinc­tive than Mar­tin Scors­ese and Wern­er Her­zog. Though all three became major film­mak­ers at dif­fer­ent times and under dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances — and end­ed up with very dif­fer­ent cin­e­mat­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties — they all, as Lee might put it, pray at the same church.

And just as it takes the per­spec­tive of many the­ol­o­gists to get a sense of the inef­fa­ble essence of the divine, so it takes the per­spec­tive of many film­mak­ers to get an inef­fa­ble essence of cin­e­ma. You could take all three cours­es with Mas­ter­class’ $180 all-access pass, or you could pay $90 for just Lee’s. Either way, you’ll learn how he made She’s Got­ta Have It for a then-dirt-cheap $175,000, but these days you could sure­ly go out and shoot your own film after­ward for not much more than the cost of the Mas­ter­class itself. It’s still hard out there for an indie film­mak­er, mind you; just not quite as hard as it was.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Spike Lee Got His First Big Break: From She’s Got­ta Have It to That Icon­ic Air Jor­dan Ad

Spike Lee’s List of 95 Essen­tial Movies – Now with Women Film­mak­ers

Mar­tin Scors­ese to Teach His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Wern­er Her­zog Teach­es His First Online Course on Film­mak­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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