June 2003
Why We Make Movies : A review and a conversation with the author George Alexander

Why We Make Movies: A review and a conversation with the author George Alexander

Why do we make movies? According to some of the most profound filmmakers in the industry, the reason is very clear: “I wanted to make films to show different aspects of the black experience,” says Spike Lee and continues, “I knew what I wanted to see on screen and wasn’t seeing and I knew there were other people like me who wanted the same thing.”

Making movies is an undeniable passion, which lives in the depths of the creator’s soul and for Black Filmmakers, there was a void in Hollywood – to show our faces, tell our stories and live out a desirable dream. In this book, Filmmakers like Julie Dash (Daughter of the Dust), Robert Townsend (Five Heartbeats) and Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball) share their reasons why, their obstacles and triumphs. George Alexander took a journey into the minds of those we respect, stand in lines to see and the soldiers who provoke thought and keep dialogue flowing in our communities. He shared the mission of Stanley Nelson as he took his audience on the emotional ride of Who Killed Emmit Till? A documentary, which tells the true tale of a racist society, the ramifications and a mother’s quest for justice.

Spike Lee invited us into his world of activism and his plights to empower his peers and direct them on the right path—whether acting, directing or challenging the teamsters to let “us” in the door. While, Keenen Ivory Wayans, the man who keeps us in stitches, shares his heart and need to develop a family empire (and we all know the Wayans family is certainly a force to reckon with in Hollywood)

Yet, we cannot forget the women who’ve paved the way for chocolate & caramel film girls. Like, Kasi Lemmons whose vision of the musical, yet, enchanted bayou took audiences on a spell-bounding journey through a web of deception – a tale that took hard convincing before it was made.

Yes, Why We Make Movies is a classic that all filmmakers and those curious about the industry should have on their coffee table. Indeed, this is a “movie makers” dream—an encyclopedia for others. However, it is an empowering reference tool that teaches one the ins and outs of the business, the skill it takes and the passion one must have before treading this path.

Amazingly, the author had an inspiration to be a filmmaker; my only question is why a book and not a documentary? Perhaps that is yet to come. Until then, grab your box of popcorn and read on.

DM: How did you make your selection of filmmakers to feature?

GA: That was probably one of the toughest parts, although we knew we wanted to interview people like Spike Lee. I knew had to have Spike Lee. Gordon Parks and Julie Dash were certain people that were extremely important to a book on black cinema. Then with each category, solidifying people that had a large body of work or a very important body of work. Films that will not only speak to us today, but films that continue to speak to us in the future and for many generations to come...and also people who may have not done lots of films, but still are very important. We definitely wanted to have documentary filmmakers because they do such incredible work on chronicling the black experience. But it was still tough because you always leave people out. Sometimes it came down to seniority.

DM: Were there some people you wanted to interview but just didn’t get a chance to?

GA: We wanted to do Sydney Poitier, but we never heard back from him…he’s Sydney Poitier I guess…he has his own book “Why I been in Movies” (laughter) so I wasn’t too mad about it…Oprah Winfrey, but she was busy. She was even too busy to go to the Middle East with George Bush, so I didn’t feel too bad.

DM: How did you manage to get so much information out of them?

GA: I really tried to relax each interviewee. I approached each story differently. I try to get them early on and talk about things that are really familiar to them. Things that are really special to them-whether it be, growing up or something challenging. Very personal but not private, and those things segued to other things. I guess also because I’m not a “star-structey” kind of guy…I just treat them as any other interview and make sure they’re relaxed.

DM: I know you have ambition to be a filmmaker as well, so why a book and not a documentary?

GA: Well, I started off as a journalist, and in my journey to break into film; I started writing screenplays. I was in LA shopping a script and in the process became a film journalist for a number of film magazines. I got a chance to interview directors like Forrest Whitaker, Stanley Nelson, Ernest Dickerson and I said, “Wow these guys have some really great stories, it would be wonderful to do a book on them.” It would be amazing stories about childhood and the roles movies played in their lives. After that, I spoke with an editor from Double Day (Janet Hill) at a reception and said: ‘I have a book idea.’ She asked, “What is it?” I said, “a series of interviews with black filmmakers” and she said, “Wow George I wanted to do that book for years-get me a proposal and lets do it!” It was like divine intervention. Imagine pitching a story to an editor and she likes it right away? I got an agent, submitted the proposal and the rest is history.

DM: Do you plan on doing a documentary?

GA: Yes, we’re in the process of getting the proposal together now and have a couple of people interested in it. People can see the vision now that the book is done.

DM: Will you be doing the interviews as well?

GA: I will be the director. That’s exciting huh?

DM: Yes, that’s your dream.

GA: Yes definitely. It’ll be exciting because it’s something I’m really close to and really passionate about. Plus, the producer really believes in me. It’s just a really good fit.

DM: Do you still want to make movies?

GA: Oh yeah, absolutely.

DM: What genre would your movies fall under?

GA: Comedies, but comedies that are smart and celebrate the human condition with complete characters. Three dimensional characters that are still funny; that appeal to lots of people and have black people in them without the buffoonery.

DM: What director has influenced you the most?

GA: That’s a good question…there are so many great directors. I like Francis Ford Cappola. In terms of the most influential, I would say Spike Lee because he had such a profound impact on so many people, including myself. His determination and will is amazing. 4 Little Girls, I loved. I grew up in Alabama and had heard that story all my life and seeing it on film is like wow…he brought you right back to that day.

DM: What do you want your readers to gain from this book?

GA: I’d like them to gain a lot of knowledge about the filmmakers and their journey to filmmaking. But also, the understanding of the perseverance, believing in one’s dreams and willing to pursue your dream at all costs. A great understanding of the African American contribution to film, but also just inspiration…I want them to be inspired by the stories they read.

DM: Out of all the black filmmakers around, who has made the biggest contribution to our society?

GA: That’s a tough question…One of the greatest contributions would be Spike Lee…his timing and his ability to have an impact on a whole generation of people. Now, there were people before him that prepared the turf…long before, but in terms of his impact [coming on the scene during the music video age and all this info coming at you daily-we saw Spike Lee] he was one of us, we saw him on the subway. He became a celebrity so people can identify with a director because most of the time you don’t know who the director is. He was in the movie, directed the movie, in commercials…he was just a big hit. You can’t ask for more. That alone made him a pioneer at a young age. So his ability to use the medium and understand how to make it all work together—he approached it like a business yet, threw hip-hop, music and everything of the day and put it together and made it work. You have to give him credit.

DM: Why do you make movies?

GA: I’ve always loved story telling and never saw myself going into film-but movies are one of the most powerful mediums in the world to hit many people and show the stories you want to tell. Plus, I find it fun. There’s something about writing a script in particularly, making characters and telling a story with pictures…that really excites me. You have to love the whole process or else it’s not worth it otherwise. There’s something beautiful about using a camera to tell a story.

DM: What’s next for George Alexander?

GA: The documentary and another book under consideration.

DM: Can you give us some insight on what the next book will be about?

GA: It’s called “How we Make Movies”…conversations behind the scenes.