Spike Lee Brings His Game to Montclair State for Filmmaking Master Class

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of aspiring Montclair State filmmakers and broadcasting students on Tuesday, March 19, Academy Award-nominated writer-director Spike Lee was greeted with both reverential awe and comfortable familiarity as he spoke to students about his career, the film industry, and what it takes today to be a great filmmaker. Lee conducted this master class at the invitation of Montclair State’s Chiz Schultz, an adjunct professor of Art and Design.

The summer of 1977 was when it all began for Lee as a filmmaker. Heading into his junior year at Morehouse College without a clear focus or a declared major, a box of Super 8 film and a movie camera in a friend’s Brooklyn apartment put him on a path that coincided with one of the New York City’s most memorable summers—blackouts, looting, and the Son of Sam killings. He captured it all on film, which he took back to college and made into an award-winning student film.

“I didn’t find film,” he said. “Film found me.”

From there Lee went on to NYU film school and wrote and directed his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, which was shot in twelve days on a shoestring budget. Other films, commercials, music videos, and documentaries followed. When asked about his approach when moving between different genres, he said the most important thing is having a great narrative.

Lee encouraged the students to “know about everything.” All the elements of filmmaking—lighting, cinematography, directing, producing—help a filmmaker tell the story in the best way possible.

Aspiring filmmakers should expand their knowledge of film and filmmakers, he said, rattling off a list his favorites including Truffaut, Wilder, Kurosawa, Scorsese, and more. He also noted the importance of paying attention to new, first-time directors. As students’ contemporaries, these directors’ films are indicators of where the industry is headed.

“Watch the commentary,” he said, encouraging the students to study how the directors dealt with challenges and what changes they made along the way.

Lee also implored students to “read, read, read books.” And after that, “motivate yourself, roll up your sleeves, and get down to work.”