As soon as director Spike Lee heard Kelly Rowland's song "The Game," part of the Pepsi-curated compilation Beats of the Beautiful Game, he knew he wanted to make an accompanying short film for the song in Brazil. Why? "The World Cup!" he emphatically tells Rolling Stone.
Lee and what he describes as an "NYU-sized" crew traveled to the favela of Vidigal, near Rio de Janeiro, to make the four-minute clip Pixote's Game. The short film stars a young boy named Luis Eduardo Matos as a soccer-loving child who gets a soccer ball as a present that takes him all over town. Throughout the clip, the ball takes him from the hands of a favela bully to a beach with samba drummers to the inside of a football stadium.
Lee says he was inspired by two other movies when he came up with the concept: the 1981 Brazilian crime movie Pixote and the 1956 French fantasy short The Red Balloon. He calls the former his favorite film and says he was thrilled to learn recently that "pixote" translates to "peewee" from Portuguese; Lee's Pixote's Game is meant as an homage to actor Fernando Ramos da Silva, who played Pixote in the Hector Babenco–directed movie, and was killed by police at age 19. But it's the latter that has more of an overarching influence on Pixote's Game, since Albert Lamorisse's film found a young boy seeing Paris while following around a red balloon. "I remember as a kid watching that movie in school, so instead of a red balloon," Lee says, "our guy is chasing this soccer ball all throughout the favela of Vidigal and then the rest of Rio."
Casting Matos was easy for Lee, who spotted the young actor at an open call in Vidigal. "He had a great face," Lee says. "And he knew how to play soccer and he had done some acting." After his mother said she would be there for every day of shooting – which jives with Lee's teachings at NYU, where he tells his students to always cast parents along with young actors – Lee picked him right away. "He was having a great time during the whole shoot, but on the last day he was tired because we were running his little ass to death," Lee says with a laugh. "The last day he was like, ugh, exhausted. But he gave it his all."
Capturing a young soccer fan's enthusiasm is not the only reason Lee wanted to make his short in Brazil. He had previously made Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us" video in Rio, which he found inspiring musically, and, for the past year and a half, he has been making a documentary about the history of the country called Go Brasil Go. "Brazil was the last country on the planet to free their slaves," Lee says. "The last." He expects to have the doc finished sometime before the 2016 Olympics, which will be held in Rio. "I still have at least two more trips to do," he says. "I've done four trips already. I'm going to wait until after the World Cup is over and things die down."
Because Lee was working on Pixote's Game in Brazil, he decided he wanted to add some of the country's influence to Kelly Rowland's song, which was written by Sia Furler. Remembering his experience of adding new drum tracks and a sequence featuring the Olodum drum team to "They Don't Care About Us," he decided to do the same with Rowland's track. "Doing a documentary, we shot this great samba school in Rio called Villa de Isabella, great percussionists," Lee says. "So when I heard the [Rowland] song, I said, I'm going to add some drums on there. So we went to the great arranger Tunico Da Vila and recorded the drums while we were there." Although Rowland wasn't present for the filming of the short film ("My directive from Frank Cooper said that this was not supposed to be a music video," Lee says), he says she has told him she loves the addition.
It's moments like the inclusion of local drums that show why Lee wanted to shoot in the favelas in the first place. "That's where the people are," he says. "I don't want to shoot on the high-rise condos facing Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon. I want to get with my peoples."