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Set the wheels in motion, then back off

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in Leaders & Managers

When filmmaker Spike Lee saw that his cousin Malcolm showed promise as a screenwriter and director, he used his influence to help. But after that, Lee refused to micromanage his cousin’s career.

Here’s how it worked:

After reviewing Malcolm’s short films and recent scripts, Lee lined up his cousin with agents.

Next, when Malcolm wrote a script about a black wedding, The Best Man, Lee showed it to Universal Studios, which snapped it up. On the first morning of production, Lee dropped by to say “Good luck. Call me if you need me.”

From then on, the big-name director pitched in only a couple of times—and only when asked—to troubleshoot administrative matters. Otherwise, he left Malcolm alone.

That hands-off approach extended to direction. Malcolm remembers that on creative questions, he and his cousin didn’t always see eye to eye. As the director, Malcolm “won.”

“But what I appreciated about Spike’s influence with that project is that he supported me even if he disagreed. He wasn’t trying to make a Spike Lee film; he was trying to help me make a Malcolm Lee film.”

—Adapted from Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It, as told to Kaleem Aftab, W.W. Norton.

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