By Marcus Jones
June 18, 2020 at 04:56 PM EDT
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Spike Lee did not have to do much for his film Da 5 Bloods to be the no. 1 streaming film on Netflix this weekend. In a conversation with EW over Zoom, the filmmaker jokes “I never had a film that debuted on Netflix during a pandemic.”

Starring Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Clarke Peters, and Norm Lewis, the movie tells a story of four Black Vietnam War veterans who go back to the former war zone in present day to find the remains of their fallen squad leader (played by Chadwick Boseman in flashback scenes), and the treasure they buried with him.

With it touching on how it feels for Americans to feel their government has failed them, more specifically how Black Americans feel that way, Lee can see why people seemingly rushed toward watching the film. “We tapped into this historical moment that's happening in the United States of America, without knowing it. This film was done before the pandemic, before the murder of King George Floyd,” Lee explains. “The world premiere was supposed to be at Cannes.... I was going to be the president of the jury, but the world changed.”

If there’s a point in the film best representative of such weighty, bittersweet accidents, it is the scene midway through where the group finally discovers their buried treasure. Lee and his co-screenwriters on the film, Kevin Willmott and Danny Bilson, agreed to dissect the scene with EW, elaborating on how the exclusive clip below relates to the films they are inspired by, and the core mission of the movie.

Before Lee ever became involved with the project, the original script written by Bilson and his late writing partner Paul De Meo was titled The Last Tour. While one of the major changes Lee and Willmott made to the script was to center the film on Black veterans, many of the adventure elements remained the same because the screenwriters all connected over their love of one movie Da 5 Bloods is reminiscent of. “From the concept, as soon as we started messing with gold we couldn't help but think about The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” says Bilson, adding the Lindo’s PTSD-stricken character Paul parallels Humphrey Bogart’s role in the 1948 classic about two prospectors who find trouble in the mountains of Mexico while on the search for gold.

When it came time to rewrite Bilson and De Meo’s script, Willmott joined Lee in his office to first rewatch The Treasures of Sierra Madre. “That was really helpful just in terms of getting to the gold fever and getting into how we were going to try to [modulate] it, take the vibe of it, and put it into a modern context,” says Willmott.

The Netflix film’s specificity to the Black veteran experience alone, and the fact it's just as explicitly inspired by Apocalypse Now and The Bridge Over the River Kwai, pulls it away from being a remake of Sierra Madre. However, the screenwriters’ reverence for the pioneering adventure film “drove this whole f—ing movie,” as Bilson puts it.

Where their main cinematic inspiration prioritized the hunt for treasure, the filmmakers say the primary mission of Da 5 Bloods is to find the gravesite of the leader who was both their Malcolm X and their Martin Luther King Jr. “Number one goal is to find Norman's remains,” states Lee. “I thought it had to be that, otherwise, how are they going to be talking about ‘This guy is the best damn soldier who ever lived?’” He adds, “No one is going to turn down a million dollars worth of gold, but they're there to get Stormin' Norman's remains.”

Willmott points to Lewis’ character Eddie saying they are on “hallowed ground,” a line transferred over from Bilson and De Meo’s script, after the group discovers the gold, as what shows “they know that Norman's remains are in that area somewhere, and so it's all one thing in a sense.” 

First though, comes the surprise of how the group finds the gold. “They think they're lost. They think they're screwed, and in that moment, the guy goes, 'F— this, I'm going to go take a sh–,’” explains, Bilson, setting the scene for when Jonathan Majors’ character David strikes gold while digging a hole to do his business in. The setup is inspired by a photo Bilson has of De Meo from a camping trip they took in the 1980s, where he's holding a roll of toilet paper and a shovel. “There's two things I give a sh– about. Why will they care, which Mr. Lee has, is a genius at, and is it surprising? Those are my things that I care about the most when I'm watching something,” he adds.

The comedic premise framing the discovery of the treasure only opens the door to more jokes within the scene. Memorable lines like “Motherf—er I don't dig for the gold, I find the f—ing gold," delivered by Whitlock Jr., which Lee cites himself, were often ad-libbed. 

DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

Part of what made the set a comfortable environment, where the actors and Lee had a shorthand that allowed for improvisation to occur, was the boot camp the director hosted on location in Thailand. “We had the Vietnam adviser there, and we talked about all that stuff, and that kind of built that camaraderie,” recalls Willmott. “Guys were adjusting lines and giving their feelings about things, and it just makes it all real. It's like an osmosis thing, it's real natural after that.”

Another thing within the scene that Lee wants to highlight, that was not something written into the script, is the music cue. The filmmaker does not put “score goes here” into his screenplays, rather “once we have a cut, I sit down with my composer, mainly it's with Terence Blanchard. I tell him where I want music and I tell him the color because instruments have different colors. And what Terence and I like to do is that we have particular themes for people,” Lee states. The director was looking for something reminiscent of the work of Maurice Jarre, a composer who worked with River Kwai director David Lean to make “the scores in those big films growing up,” like Lean’s other epic Lawrence of Arabia. “I could tell Terence knew what we needed for that scene,” says Lee. “I mean, the orchestration is so big and so lush.” 

It’s all these elements added together that make the scene a delight to both the audience, and the people who made the film. “When we had that test audience in L.A., man, the joy that the audience had at that moment, too, it really was a great payoff of everything to that moment,” remembers Willmott. “Each of them has their own kind of depth, they do their own jig and their own kind of reaction to finding the gold.”

Lee himself gets giggly just trying to describe parts of the scene like “where we got one gold brick and then they got the thing, and then they're picking up this treasure chest.” Willmott shares his sentiment, saying “everybody just loves it man. It's such an upper, that moment when they find the gold… They get one win.” “Then a quick, woooooooo,” exclaims Lee, cutting in and using his arm pointed downward to illustrate how the scene is the Bloods's last moment of true happiness within the movie.

“It's everything in this scene. The writing, Terance's score, the acting, gold. What else do you want? It's all there,” says Lee, selling the scene one last time. “The words just lift off the piece of paper.”

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