Lee Daniels, director of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The filmmaker behind the indie period tale about American politics, that has dominated the box office for three weeks running, Lee Daniels makes history with a film about making history.
by Andrew Bloomenthal
Whether producing movies or directing them, filmmaker Lee Daniels isn’t afraid to tackle controversial topics. In The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon plays a child molester freshly-released from prison. In Shadowboxer, Hellen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. are simultaneously stepmom and stepson, contract killers and lovers. And Precious—an unflinching portrayal of an abused, obese inner-city teenage girl, earned Daniels Academy Award nominations for Best Director, and Best Picture, and brought home Oscar gold for star Mo’Nique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher.
Read Creative Screenwriting‘s interview with Danny Strong, the writer of Lee Daniel’s The Butler by clicking HERE.
His latest film: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, explores the life of White House servant Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who stands at odds with his civil rights-activist son, Louis (David Oyelowo). His biggest commercial success to date, The Butler is sure to earn Daniels heaps more trophies, come awards season. I talked to the Philadelphia native and former nursing agency owner, about his anxieties of tackling a period piece, the prospect of helming a studio film, and how the experience of filming The Butler helped him come to terms with his own abuse.
ANDREW BLOOMENTHAL: The Butler is receiving a great reaction. Do you become blasé to all the accolades?
LEE DANIELS: No. No I don’t. I don’t because, here’s the thing about it: I did a movie before called Paperboy, that was polarizing. And so, part of being the filmmaker is taking risks, and shielding yourself up, and really believing in and loving each film individually—regardless of what people say. It’s about understanding that with the next one, they may not like it. So I take it in, but only with caution because the next one may not have the same reception.
BLOOMENTHAL: I also know that every single independent film that gets greenlit is a miracle in its own right.
DANIELS: (Laughs). That in itself…you are absolutely right.
BLOOMENTHAL: The production notes talk about how you had a very good rapport with the late producer Laura Ziskin. Why were you two a good match, to pair up together on this project?
DANIELS: We connected. You know, it was between me and Steven Spielberg, and that’s a pretty big deal for her not to fight for him. And what was great about Laura is that she knew what she knew and she didn’t know what she didn’t know. And she admitted to what she didn’t know. And she said: “Lee, the studio [Sony Pictures Entertainment] ain’t going to do this movie, because black movies have to be made for a certain amount of money. Dramas need to be made for a certain amount of money. And this is double trouble.
BLOOMENTHAL: And there was an anecdote about how, with your guidance, Laura was able to connect with a lottery winner to get some of the financing.
DANIELS: It’s hysterical! I couldn’t write this shit! She left Spider-Man. She left money in her will for the film. But I didn’t think she was going to die. Because she’d go and get chemo, and then she’d be sick for a couple of days, and then she’d hit the trail running again, and then she’d be on the phone at two AM, giving me script notes.
BLOOMENTHAL: I wanted to talk about filming some of the unflinching moments of racial travesty, like a black protester getting ketchup squirted into her face during a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, or police attacking protesters. I’m sure these moments conjured up real life historical pain. How did you prevent this from taking a psychic toll on the cast and crew during the production?
DANIELS: It was simply unpreventable. So I did what my parents did during adversity, what their parents did during adversity, and what their parents’ parents did during adversity, which was, find humor everywhere I could. And I tried to infuse that into the scene and into the production with the crew. Because crew members were crying often. Grown men were crying. White men. Black men. (pause). I don’t look ever at the film, I look at my experience making the film, and it’s about the experience that I go through and the type of person that it made me when it was over with. And I saw so much love between African Americans and white Americans on the set, that there’s enough to fill me up for a couple of movies.
BLOOMENTHAL: Are you ready for the most invasive question that any reporter will ever ask?
BLOOMENTHAL: Okay, good. That will make your response better.
DANIELS: I should brace myself because it sounds like it’s coming!
BLOOMENTHAL: You mentioned that The Butler was important to you because in addition to being just a civil rights saga, it’s also a father-son story. And I noticed that many of your other titles also have thorny parent-child dynamics—whether it’s Billy-Bob Thornton and Peter Boyle in Monster’s Ball, or Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious. These are very strained relationships that went all the way to abuse. And you’ve been very candid about your own abuse at the hands of your Dad. Does delving into these issues in a cinematic context help personally ease those wounds?
DANIELS: (Laughs) Well I did have to brace myself, and this, I’ve got to say, is a first. And let me just say, to answer that, that this movie has made me forgive my Dad. And I understand his anger, on a far deeper level. I know now what he was feeling. I understand his frustration. More importantly, I get that his father beat him. And that his father’s father beat him. And that my great-grandfather, who was a slave, was beaten. And I understand that cycle and from where it cometh. And I forgive him, and I love him. And I understand. (Laughs) And I totally hate you for that question, by the way! Because I got my pat answers, and you had to sucker punch me! What is your name?
BLOOMENTHAL: Andrew Bloomenthal.
DANIELS: (Laughs) What is your name!!?
BLOOMENTHAL: Andrew Bloomenthal.
DANIELS: I’ve got to watch out for you.
BLOOMENTHAL: Lee Daniels just singled me out as an excellent reporter…So, your films invariably take on very grave and heavy subjects and with most of them, you’re involved in hitting the streets trying to get financing. So would you ever take a left turn and sign on to direct a big-budget studio film, say like a Bond film, or something like that, just to cleanse your palate of all the grittier fare? Or are you insatiably hungry for all these deeper movies?
DANIELS: I’d take it on. Oh, in a heartbeat. Yeah! I’d do it because I could still infuse my DNA in that world. [The Butler] to me is pretty big. I’ve never had this kind of money. It’s not big in comparison to tent-pole studio movies and everything, but I would have never thought that I’d be able to direct a film that’s $25 million. Where I come from, we abscond to Cuba with that kind of money (laughs).
BLOOMENTHAL: Stick it in an offshore account?
DANIELS: Yeah, that’s a lot of money. So I think it has opened me up to realize that I think I’m capable, because I didn’t think that I was capable of it. Laura Ziskin convinced me that I was capable of it.
BLOOMENTHAL: Well why did you have hesitation? You’ve got major critically-acclaimed titles to your name.
DANIELS: Because the timeline of most of my movies spanned a week, or a month, at most a year. Maybe a year. So there are moments and flashes of human behavior, where [The Butler] was sweeping many, many, many decades. And it was a first for me. So now I think that I can step out into [a big-budget film]. But if I were to do something like that, it would be great to bring the African American experience in it, and do something that wasn’t like a black Spider-Man, or [Fruitvale Station’s] Michael B. Jordan as Superman or another superhero. Something that I think would be historic. It goes back to The Butler’s Louis and Cecil. It’s all generational, about wanting more. And I thought that we’d made great strides in African American cinema, to do things that have never been done before. I’m so honored to be amongst all these great black films that are coming out this year. It’s a big deal for cinema today. But my son’s like, “Yeah, dad, but they’re all like, independent films and stuff. I want a black superhero.”
BLOOMENTHAL: But do you think you’ll be able to cultivate enough pull to mandate that you can infuse the black element into a big budget film, like a Bond franchise, or something like that?
DANIELS: My son makes me realize that dreams are possible, and that I should dream even bigger. So yeah: I think it’s possible. Sure.
BLOOMENTHAL: I’m going to wind it down and ask you a more thought-provoking question. Who would you say you personally identify with more—Louis, who felt an imperative to take on a more active approach to civil rights change, or Cecil, whose deeper scars led him to take a quieter path, at least initially, in his journey?
DANIELS: Both of them. When I was younger, I clearly was like Louis. But now I find myself more like Cecil. When I was younger, I felt that I was making change with the work that I was doing, with groundbreaking work, with Halle Berry representing the first African American woman to win the Oscar [for Monster’s Ball]. And to me, that felt very much like Louis. But now I’m happy where we are, and my son is pushing me more, into a place, like “It’s not enough, dad”.
BLOOMENTHAL: Well I’m going to let you off the hook and tell you to go have a stiff drink.
DANIELS: I need something, after you!
BLOOMENTHAL: There you go. Lee Daniels, thank you very much. I appreciate your time, and the movie was wonderful.
DANIELS: Thank you!
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