Spike Lee
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Spike Lee
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Spike Lee, whose movie version of the musical Passing Strange opens theatrically on August 21, doesn't remember why he first found himself at the Public Theater in the summer of 2007 to see the stage show. He knew almost nothing about it, and hadn't even heard of Stew, its star, bookwriter and lyricist, nor his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald and their band The Negro Problem. "I think someone told me that it would be a good thing to see and that I'd like it," says Lee.

Did he ever! The iconic director -- known for such landmark films as Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever -- was instantly "obsessed" and back at the show the next night, this time with his wife, and then a third time within the week with actor Wesley Snipes. At some point during the show's off-Broadway run, Lee decided he was interested in making a film of the musical, but he candidly recalls that he knew "the money wouldn't be there" to make a typical narrative feature.

Fast forward to a year later, as the show, which had transferred to Broadway, is about to close after a 165-performance run. "One of the producers, Steve Klein, approached me and said 'You know we have something special here and maybe we should do something about it' and I agreed" Lee says. With that, his team -- armed with 14 high definition cameras -- descended on The Belasco Theatre for the show's final weekend of performances, which played to full houses of the show's fans (including famous ones such as Marian Seldes and Justin Bond). Additionally, Lee's team shot a full performance without an audience to get the trick shots that were part of his vision. The overarching goal was to not simply document the show but to shoot the story, a distinction that guided the director's choices as he watched the show during filming on a bank of monitors in the basement of the Belasco.

Nonetheless, Lee knew exactly what he wanted before the trucks rolled up to the theater to unload the equipment. "I didn't storyboard, but I had a list of shots I saw in my head and I went through them with the cinematographer Matthew Libatique". One of his must-haves was the shot from the back of the stage of De'Adre Aziza dancing during "Keys", just because he thought it would look cool. He also knew he wanted to shoot the curtain call at the closing performance because he "wanted to get the last time that everybody was on stage together."

Stew and Daniel Breaker
in Passing Strange
(© Carol Rosegg)
Stew and Daniel Breaker
in Passing Strange
(© Carol Rosegg)
The decision to shoot more than one performance was especially fortunate when, during the first performance that Lee presided over, a microphone went out on leading actor Daniel Breaker (who played Stew's alter-ego, The Youth) during one of his songs in the second act. "Daniel is the least precious person about his work -- he's the first to make a crack or a comment -- but he stays totally focused," Rodewald says.

Lee asked for some minor changes to the staging, including having the band members lined up downstage for the show's first number rather than seated in their sunken pods on the stage set. "He could have told me to wear a mask and jump up and down and I would have said yes" says Rodewald. "I mean, are you kidding? He's Spike Lee!"

Stew concurs: "Artists respect artists. Producers and business people, that's maybe a different story." Moreover, Stew had counted Lee as an iconic influence ever since he saw the director's Joe's Bed-Stuy. "His movies were so important because they went against so many cultural stereotypes that we were subject to. People were saying at the time that The Cosby Show proved that we'd arrived, but no, I thought that we needed more of what Spike was doing," says Stew. "The changes that Spike wanted were things that Heidi and I wanted anyway."

With the movie about to be released, its creators have been hearing about how the show is evidence that black culture is not monolithic. Are they tired of talking about race? "I'm not tired of talking about it; whether people want to talk about it or not is a different thing," Lee says. "Race is always there in the foreground, whether it's O.J. or now with Professor Gates. Things haven't changed overnight because of the election of Obama."

Stew, who lives much of the year in Europe, believes this focus on race is "an American thing. No one is saying that Europe is a racial paradise, but at least in art, people like Dexter Gordon and James Baldwin could go there and be equals." Still, all of America might be ready for Passing Strange, admits Stew. "During the Sundance Film Festival, we showed the movie in Salt Lake City to a group of blond blue-eyed Mormons, and they formed a line down the block to talk to us after."