Saturday night on the Upper West Side, “Precious” came home. After an audience boo-inducing thirty minute delay to accommodate tardy Mariah Carey and an uncharacteristically jammed red carpet (besides the films entire cast – sans, as per usual, Mo’Nique – Robert DeNiro, Jane Fonda, and Harvey Keitel were among the many who came to show their support), it didn’t take much to win over the impatient crowd. Screening as the centerpiece gala of the New York Film Festival, Lee Daniels’ Harlem-set drama got a standing ovation before the screening even began.
“The movie ain’t started and Harlem’s out,” Daniels exclaimed as he took the stage to introduce the film to the cheering audience. Daniels – a resident New Yorker – was quite emotional in front of his community, choking up as he thanked his mother, who was in the audience. He also got a good laugh out of the crowd when he noted that it was only a year ago that he was filming illegally on the street a few blocks away, and when he profusely thanked the film’s distributor, LionsGate, for “putting up with [his] drama.”
“Precious” – coming off a stunning festival run that included audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto (the first time that double-whammy has ever occurred) – follows Clareece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe), an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction. Snapped up at Sundance by Lionsgate (and with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry joining in as executive producers), the film appears to be heading into awards season with absolutely everything going for it. And its enthusiastic screening at the New York Film Festival only seemed to reinforce that.
A few days earlier, Daniels joined New York Film Festival programmer Melissa Anderson and a few dozen members of the press to chat about the film at a press conference at New York’s Walter Reade Theater.
“We didn’t take ourselves seriously at all,” Daniels said of making the film, which dominantly deals with some intense subject matter. “We laughed from beginning to end. Mariah is putting on Precious’s makeup. Lenny Kravitz is helping the girls with costumes. Mo’Nique… I had to keep her away from craft services. It really was like putting on a play. We never looked at it like we were putting on something very serious. And if we did, we would have been lost. So we kept laughing throughout.”
Despite its joyful production, “Precious”‘s origins came from a much darker place. “When I was eleven, there was a girl in my neighbourhood who came to my home,” Daniels recalled. “It was early afternoon and broad daylight. She was naked, and she was bleeding, and she was crying, and she was covering her private area… And she said ‘my Mommy’s gonna kill me.’ And I remember feeling a mix of nausea and anger and fear… I can’t describe the feeling that I had. So when I read Sapphire’s book [in which the film is based on], it evoked those same feelings. And I wanted to heal. So I felt [making the film] was a way of healing myself and hopefully others that had felt those feelings.”
Daniels said that in comparison to previous films he worked on, he wanted to make a film the people around him would respond to.
“You know, I did ‘Monsters Ball’ and I did ‘The Woodsman,'” he said. “But my family and my friends that I grew up with were not fans or even cared to see that work. So I wanted to do something that was very intimate to them, and something that they would connect to. So I brought that world of what I know to be cinema into the world of urban. What that ends up being, I’m not quite sure. But I do know that they are hungry for this. And I’m proud of it, in that we were able to marry the worlds and show black art in a new way.”
Daniels also seemed rightfully proud of his decision to avoid taking the idea to studios first. “At this point, I was savvy enough after some of the films I’d done to know that they would never… ever… ever,” he said to a burst of laughter from the press. “So I raised the money. I called people that really believed in my vision. The Magnesses [the Denver couple who would end up producing the film] really believed in what it was that I wanted to tell. And then… The same studio that started me as a producer with ‘Monster’s Ball,’ LionsGate, ended up being the studio that is distributing this film… And Tyler’s people saw the film at Sundance and they showed it to him. And he was really supportive and called Oprah. I knew I needed some help on this one. I didn’t want it to end up like ‘The Woodsman’ [which was a financial disappointment]. I really wanted the support of two very powerful people. And I felt Tyler and Oprah would secure that for me. And they have been just beyond, beyond, beyond…”
“Precious” continues on the festival circuit over the next month (screening at AFI, London BFI, Chicago, Austin, Denver, among others), and is being released in theaters November 6th, at which point the independent world will begin to discover what exactly happens when Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry jointly go “beyond, beyond, beyond” in their support of a film.
[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]