A Father and Son Story Across the Generations
How Danny Strong, screenwriter of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, spun a newspaper article into box office gold
by Andrew Bloomenthal
Danny Strong, the Emmy Award-winning writer of HBO hits Recount and Game Change, knows how to spin a compelling political yarn. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Strong tells the story of African American White House butler Cecil Gaines, played with frosty reserve by Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker, who serves through seven presidential administrations, tracing more than 30 years of civil rights struggle. Creative Screenwriting spoke with Strong to learn more.
Read Creative Screenwriting‘s interview with Lee Daniels, the director of Lee Daniel’s The Butler by clicking HERE.
ANDREW BLOOMENTHAL: When you were originally folded into the project and told to create a fictitious story inspired by Wil Haygood’s Washington Post article, about Eugene Allen, the African American White House butler who served under eight presidential administrations, how much freedom were you given to weave the tale you wanted?
DANNY STRONG: I was just given the article by Laura Ziskin, the great producer, who sadly passed away, and she had optioned this article with Sony Pictures and she said, “We want to make this into a movie. Why don’t you read it and tell me what you think?” And I loved the beautiful profile by Wil Haygood. But it wasn’t exactly a roadmap to a movie. It was a five-page article about Eugene Allen, over 30-odd years of US history. So it was really a wide-open assignment. And they didn’t really know what they wanted to do with it. And
Laura Ziskin was a great producer, and she loved writers, and she said, ‘Just what do you think?’ And it was very overwhelming. It was very daunting. I knew there could be a really special movie in there, but I literally had no clue or idea how to do it, and there are so many different ways you can do it, because you’re dealing with so many different eras of history. And basically, when I came up with the approach, which started to come together after doing some research, I presented it to Laura and I said, “This is how I think we should do it. I think we should create a composite character based upon many different White House butlers,” because I’ve read a few memoirs of people that have worked at the White House, and realized that if I could pull from many different stories, then we could create some sort of a universal truth, for what that experience was like to work at the White House during those incredibly dramatic, tumultuous periods in US history. And [Ziskin] immediately loved that idea, hired me for the job, and I was off to the races.
BLOOMENTHAL: When you’re marching through those different time periods, the vernacular invariably changes over time, and speech patterns and rhythms are evolving. So as a screenwriter, what resources did you rely on to make sure all the linguistic notes hit the mark of each era visited? Was it a conscious shift over time?
STRONG: Absolutely. It was just a lot of research. I probably did more research on this project than I’ve done on all my other projects combined. It was so overwhelming, the amount I had to study because I had to know the civil rights movement backwards and forwards. I had to know each administration very intimately, and that’s a lot of administrations. And then there was just the general culture of the time periods. So part of the shift in not only time, but in the characters’ point of view and mentality, came through language. And one of the key things that I really wanted to chart out through the film, was the progression from the word “colored” to “negro” to “black” to “African American.” I mean, it certainly didn’t happen in one day. It was these ongoing shifts, and how the use of this word would show not only time passing, but the mindset of the culture in general.
BLOOMENTHAL: You talk about all the shifting administrations. When you’re writing imagined dialogue scenes between presidents and their advisors, how do you balance a naturalistic conversation, while also trying to deliver the exposition necessary to move the story along? There are real figures with documented postures on civil rights issues that you have to get across, so was that a struggle to illustrate where they’re coming from writing conversations that could have conceivably occurred?
STRONG: Yeah, well I love that kind of stuff. Writing Recount and Game Change, I was very much in the mentality of politics and how politics is discussed behind closed doors. It seems to be something that I personally really like to do. So a general rule I use is that you’re not doing a word-for-word recreation of history when you’re making a movie. You’re making a movie! You’re creating dialogue. That’s what you’re doing. But what I try to do when I’m in those rooms with historical figures, in deciding and debating true-life historical moments and decisions, is make sure that everything they’re talking about is true. Everything they’re saying is true. The way that they say it is dialogue. It’s written. But you’re trying to do it in a way that feels truthful to them as characters and truthful to the situation that they’re in.
BLOOMENTHAL: And as an actor in your own right, do you feel that you can better project how words on a page will rhythmically feel and sound when spoken aloud? Maybe more than a screenwriter who’s not an actor?
STRONG: Well, I definitely don’t want to say that [my work] is better or worse than any other writer, whether they’re actors or not. I’ve performed as an actor many a fantastic script that was not written by a writer who was an actor. I will say that for myself, I find it advantageous, because I have had so much experience saying the words that are written, so that when I am writing, I’m playing the parts out as I’m writing them. And that’s how I come to write them. I use the same process as when I’m acting them, but kind of in reverse. So it’s been a huge advantage for me. And I don’t know if that’s an advantage over other people, but certainly it has defined my own writing.
BLOOMENTHAL: Well you can probably spot if something is going to be clunky when said aloud, more than someone who doesn’t actually have any experience delivering lines.
STRONG: Yeah, I think a screenwriter or television writer knows when something’s going to be clunky, if they’re professional writers and they’re getting paid. I think for me, as the dialogue comes natural, it’s the fun part of writing, and I think that comes from my background as an actor.
BLOOMENTHAL: There were interesting scenes that involved cross-cutting of events that contrasted Cecil’s story with Louis’s story, like the back-and-forth juxtaposition between the violent, aggressive Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins, versus the civility a White House dinner service. From a logistical standpoint, did you actually dictate the cross-cuts on the page? Or were they the result of editing room experimentation?
STRONG: In the sit-in sequence, it is scripted beat by beat, to do cross-cutting. Now, the way that they ended up cross-cutting was not exactly how it was written in the script. They shot these two sequences and then they ended up cross-cutting in a way that was suitable for what they shot, and they masterfully did it. I think that sit-in sequence is a very very special filmic sequence. But it definitely was in the script to cross-cut Louis at the sit-in not being able to get served, while his father is serving the President of the United States, and that sequence for me, when I wrote it, was when I felt like the script was viable. I thought, “Wow, I think this is going to work.” I think this idea of juxtaposing life in the White House to life in the streets, and doing it between a father and a son who are having very different real-life world experiences, is very interesting. Everything started to come together for me, when I wrote that sequence.
BLOOMENTHAL: And I don’t know if you could have envisioned on the page, how, with all the music cues and the percussive elements, how it almost had a musical crescendo as the cuts got faster and faster. I think the editors played out what you wrote on the page very effectively.
STRONG: They did an amazing job. They just did an amazing job. Not just the editor, Joe Klotz, but Lee Daniels, the director. That’s just masterfully done by him—that sequence and other sequences like that are really special.
BLOOMENTHAL: Were you blown away when you first saw a cut of the movie? Did it exceed what you thought it would have been, in your mind?
STRONG: Well Lee brought me in very early in the post-production process, and I saw the first cut, and I gave notes on it. Not every cut, but almost every cut throughout the entire post-production process. And when I saw that first cut, I was thrilled. I think it was three hours long and the movie is now two hours, so I knew that it had certainly a long way to go, but you could see the whole movie. You could see it was going to work once it got whittled down, and I was really pleased and grateful that he brought me into the process.
BLOOMENTHAL [SPOILER WARNING]: There were also some more meditative, quieter moments, like when the Vietnam-era military messengers come to the door, and then you cut to a funeral, where you’re not actually spelling it out that their son has died, with some dramatic screaming and hysterical action; it’s more of a quiet transition. So how do you decide when to dial it back and suggest something versus actually showing it on the nose? Like Louis and his girlfriend are walking away from a Malcolm X speech that we don’t see, but they’re discussing it, afterwards. So do you have to consciously decide to suggest something versus giving it a literal representation?
STRONG: Every situation has its own way to do it. In the case of the Malcolm X scene, I wrote a Malcolm X scene. And before that scene, there’s an entire scene where Malcolm X, who’s a character in the movie, is giving a speech, and we’re watching Louis and Carol watch that speech, and we begin to see this split that’s going to take place between the two of them, and we couldn’t shoot the speech because it was so expensive, and we were trying to figure out ways to cut budget. And then the scene after—which is in the movie, was the scene after, of them walking away. But it was a silent scene between the two of them, where they were both thinking about what they had just seen, and then you hear the gunshots, and the scene played out as is. So it was Lee’s idea, instead of shooting the Malcolm X scene, let’s just have the two of them talk about what they had just seen, and it was just 100% a budget situation, and I think it was a very good solution to solve the problem of a scene we couldn’t afford to shoot.
BLOOMENTHAL: That’s almost endemic to almost any independent film. There’s always a great story like that, where you have to be more resourceful economically, and this results in a more effective creative decision.
STRONG: There are a lot of examples like that in our movie. And there are a lot of times you had to do that, where there were scenes that were written out as a big scene, but we had to cut the budget down so much, that instead of showing the scene, we had the characters talking about what had happened in the next scene, and it completely works, time and time again.
BLOOMENTHAL: I’m going to ask one more sweeping philosophical question, and I’m going to force you to give me an answer even though I know you’re going to protest. We shadow Cecil as he progresses through a lifetime of formative experiences. And in the end he comes around to concur with Louis’s activist approach to civil rights change, and he admits this have been a more effective way to create change, all along. He ruefully says to Louis, “I came here to protest with you,” and it was a defining moment for him. As the writer, do you thinks Cecil’s story was a cautionary tale of a life of missed opportunity, or is it a lesson of better-late-than-never redemption?
STRONG: (Laughs) What a good question! And one I desperately don’t want to answer. I really don’t want to answer that, because here’s the truth of it: I think you can interpret it either way. And I think for me to lay an answer upon that, is taking something away from an audience member who is going to have a different point of view to the answer to that question. And I think people need to decide for themselves, if it’s a cautionary tale, or if it’s… what was your first?
BLOOMENTHAL: Did Cecil perhaps play it wrong by being so passive all along? Or it is more important where he ends up, and in the end, he saw the light. So was it better-late-than-never redemption or was it a cautionary tale of missed opportunity?
STRONG: Yeah, I’ll answer this. I think it’s not a cautionary tale of missed opportunities. I think it’s a tale of a man overcoming his very, very dark, violent past, that instilled a mindset in him that was incredibly appropriate and reasonable for the world he lived in and the way he grew up. And his son forced him into seeing the world in a different way, that made absolutely no sense to him. To look at the world the way his son looked at it, it just made no sense based on everything he had lived through. And by the end of the story, he finally does come to see the world the way his son sees it, and he has to go on this pretty amazing journey to get there, and I don’t judge him for it at all. I don’t judge Cecil for the decisions he’s made. I couldn’t see him making the decisions any other way. And at the end of the movie, when he says “I’m here to protest with you”—I’m so glad you brought that up; I said to Forest Whitaker this last night, “I’ve seen the move thirty times, and every time Cecil says that line, I tear up.” Because I’m just so happy for Cecil for getting to that point in his life, and I don’t judge him whatsoever for not getting there sooner. I don’t see how he could have.
BLOOMENTHAL: It was a well-earned moment for him.
STRONG: Yes! The fact that he gets there at all, makes it so inspiring. And he has some dialogue earlier, when he’s in the White House, when he says, “I never knew an old man could be so confused and could feel this way.” I’m paraphrasing it slightly, even though I actually wrote that voice-over, literally, like eight weeks ago.
BLOOMENTHAL: Well you have license to paraphrase your own words.
STRONG: Right! I re-wrote the whole voice-over track to match picture, literally eight weeks ago. But it was something along those lines. And so that’s what it took to get him to that point.
BLOOMENTHAL: The Cecil character was very reticent and introverted. And his former life experiences, that you just alluded to, led to that. I was just wondering if this sober, almost somber demeanor was necessary for him to be almost a blank canvas, on which to reflect the shifting presidential administrations and evolving political backdrops. Or could the story have been told if Cecil were more extraverted or even jokey like Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Carter Wilson character? Or would that have thrown the whole balance off?
STRONG: You’re asking this not so much thematically, but more as a screenwriting question?
STRONG: I always pictured Cecil, right from the get-go, as the quiet dignified character, because that seemed to me what a White House butler would be, and it was the sense that I had gotten from Eugene Allen, who the story was initially inspired by. Now it certainly didn’t have to be that. But I think when I came up with the idea that it was going to be a father-son story, you’re sort of locked into that, because it’s the son that is the charismatic figure; the feisty activist. And if the father was a charismatic figure as well, then you’ve got these two charismatic figures, and I think the balance is off.
BLOOMENTHAL: They need to run counter to each other?
STRONG: Yeah, they need to run counter to each other, because that is the spine of the movie. That is the story. This is a father-son story, through the generations. So you can’t have both of them be charismatic. I mean, you could if you wanted, but I think that you need them to be somewhat opposites in their characterization, for you to fully believe and be invested in the generational rifts that exist between them.