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Although "Inside Man," the latest film by Brooklyn-raised auteur Spike Lee, hasn’t even hit theaters yet, Lee tells GO Brooklyn that he and the film’s two-time Oscar winning star, Denzel Washington, are already looking for another project to do together.

A contemporary heist movie set in downtown Manhattan, "Inside Man" - which will be released on Friday, March 24 - is the pair’s fourth collaboration and the first film they have made together as director and actor since the 1998 basketball story, "He Got Game."

"We don’t know what it’s going to be, but we know we want to work together soon," the 49-year-old Fort Greene filmmaker told reporters in Manhattan recently, adding they don’t intend to let so much time elapse between projects again.

Asked if he thinks of himself and Washington as this generation’s Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Lee replied, "We’ve got a couple more films to do. How many did they do together? Let’s count them."

Rattling off the titles "Mean Streets," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Taxi Driver" and "Casino," the die-hard Knicks fan laughed: "Five, right? One more!"

All joking aside, Lee says Washington’s natural talent, coupled with the fact they know each other so well, makes for an excellent working relationship on movie sets.

"A lot of my directing, we do in the rehearsal process. You don’t want to start discussing character motivations and stuff like that on the set. So, we do a lot of that in rehearsal," explained the graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

"Denzel is a wonderful actor," he added. "He’s one of the greatest actors ever, definitely [one of the best] working today. You have to understand that there is a reason why that is, and so I’m not going to be interrupting him all the time, telling him, ’Denzel, do this, do this, do this.’ Also, this is the fourth time we’ve worked together - ’Mo’ Better Blues,’ ’Malcolm X,’ ’He Got Game’ and ’Inside Man’ - so we’re very comfortable working with each other."

"There is a shorthand," Washington agreed. "I like working with Spike. It’s familiar territory. I like going to Brooklyn [where Lee shoots many of his films]. Being able to rehearse and walk around the corner and have the art department and everything there. It’s like coming home for me. I was born and raised [in New York]."

Lee and Washington are so comfortable with each other, in fact, the handsome actor says he feels free to ad-lib some of his dialogue.

"I started improvising with Spike 17 years ago on ’Mo’ Better Blues,’ " Washington recalled. "That’s the first time I can remember, just fooling around and setting the scenario. It was a scene in ’Mo’ Better Blues’ where we were just coming off stage, and I sort of get in an argument with Wesley Snipes’s character. That’s one of the first times I can remember [thinking], ’OK, let’s improvise.’ "

Risky business

In "Inside Man," a film in which he also improvised numerous memorable lines, Washington plays an NYPD detective called in to handle a financial-district bank robbery that quickly escalates into a hostage situation.

"Sin City" star Clive Owen heads the team of robbers, while "Silence of the Lambs" actress Jodie Foster plays a mysterious woman sent into the besieged bank by a wealthy client willing to pay the thieves almost anything to ignore the contents of a particular safe-deposit box and leave the bank.

"The hardest thing, I would say, was keeping the many threads to many different stories going and to try and have it all come together at the end," Lee admitted. "So, when you do something like that, you film it, but the hard part comes in the editing process."

Although Foster plays a basically unlikable character and Owen’s chiseled features are covered by a mask throughout most of the movie, producer Brian Grazer says he never felt "Inside Man" was a particularly risky project.

"I don’t think it’s about taking a chance," said Ron Howard’s long-time producing partner. "I think that what we tried to do was make a very effective thriller that has this red herring, which is sort of this extra component that helps it transcend the genre in some way. But I think that we’re gifted to have these tremendous actors, and I think that having these actors on the one-sheet [poster] or in a 30-second [advertising] spot or the trailer is a virtue that we’re embracing and, of course, people all know that Spike Lee is a master filmmaker."

Describing the movie as a "word-of-mouth" film and stopping short of predicting an opening-weekend, box-office number, Grazer assured: "I think it will do well."

Storytelling tradition

After two decades of making high-profile films, two of which earned him Oscar nominations, Lee insists he still doesn’t regard himself as a "celebrity," nor does he think his peers consider him one.

"I don’t know about the word ’celebrity,’ " he said. "When I think of Denzel and Clive and Jodie and Christopher Plummer, I don’t think of them as ’celebrities;’ I think of them just as great artists. That’s just my problem with the word ’celebrity.’ I don’t think of myself as having elevated status. That’s just not the way I think of myself.

"We’re very happy that, this year, we’re going to do several things throughout the whole year to celebrate 20 years of making film," said Lee. "But it’s not just a celebration of me, it’s a celebration of the body of work and the people who have been part of that over 20 years.

"It’s not just me," he emphasized. "Gordon Parks just passed. Ossie Davis, those are individuals that made it possible for myself. The grand-daddy of them all, Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, those men enabled me to tell a story."

To illustrate his point about his place in the filmmaking pantheon, Lee recalls meeting an enthusiastic moviegoer in front of a Los Angeles movie theater when "She’s Gotta Have It" opened in 1986.

"After the movie let out, this skinny kid with thick glasses said: ’Hello, my name is John Singleton. I’m in high school, and I want to make movies like you.’ True story. So, it’s the evolution. People now make movies inspired by John’s film, ’Boyz N the Hood.’ So, you’ve got to keep it going."

Spike Lee’s "Inside Man" opens in movie theaters on March 24.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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