After seeing his sophomore film “Precious” premiere in Sundance’s US Dramatic Competition and go on to become a Academy Award-winning phenomenon, Lee Daniels is set to unveil his latest “The Paperboy” in Competition at Cannes on Thursday.
Although “The Paperboy” only marks his third feature (“Shadowboxer” was his first), this won’t mark Daniels’ first time with a film on La Croisette. In 2004 “The Woodsman,” which he produced, played in Director’s Fortnight, and “Precious” played in Un Certain Regard in 2009 following its Sundance run.
Based on the novel of the same name by Pete Dexter, “The Paperboy” is set in Miami in the 1960s, where a directionless young man Jack James (Zac Efron) is drafted in to help his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the possible wrongful conviction of a man (John Cusack) on death row. Nicole Kidman co-stars as a woman corresponding with the prisoner.
Indiewire caught up with Daniels prior to Cannes in New York to discuss his follow-up to “Precious,” what drew him to the material and why he still listens to his critics.
From world premiering “Precious” at Sundance, to unveiling “The Paperboy” for the first time at Cannes — does this feel like a natural evolution for you as a filmmaker on the rise?
I don’t know. I didn’t think [about that]. Whether it’s “Precious” or whether it’s “Shadowboxer”; you love your films but you don’t know how they’re going to be received. And it was certainly humbling. I was surprised and excited.
Pedro Almodovar has long been involved with this project. Given his history with the festival, it’s fitting the film’s premiering here in many ways.
Yes. I don’t think where to unveil films at. I should be smart enough to think this is a Cannes film or this is a Sundance film. I just do the film and wherever… this could have been not ready for Cannes. So I never think about it like that. I worry about finishing the film to the best of my ability and it ends up wherever it’s supposed to end up if that makes any sense at all.
So when did you actually complete the film?
Three days ago? Four days ago, in totality. You give them your cut, but it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles on it. And they had to kick me out of the editing room.
How do you feel about the finished product?
I love it. I love ‘em all. I don’t leave until I love it. Now will you love it is another question!
On paper, “The Paperboy” seems to be a return to the pulpy nature of “Shadowboxer.” Is that a fair assessment?
No, no, no. I think “Precious” was closer. I don’t know, it’s a hard question. This is different. Completely different. It’s more of a coming-of-age thriller. There’s some sexy stuff going on in there but for the most part it’s really a thriller.
So how did you come on to the project after Pedro had been working with the writer of the book for such a long time to develop this?
Yeah, I had read it at the same time that I had read “Push,” and I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted to do; whether it was going to be “Push” which ended up being “Precious” or whether it was going to be “The Paperboy.” And my lawyer read it and said, “No no, you have to do ‘Push’ first.” And so, I loved them equally. They were incredible books. Pete Dexter’s book is “Wow,” it’s a ride into debauchery. It’s crazy. It’s a psychological study of the human condition. It’s heavy. I decided to do this right after. I had all of these other things I was trying to connect to. I had all of these other films that were twirling around and this one I was able to focus on. I had all of these films I was gonna do. But I think my focus… I wasn’t focused on a specific film, but rather several films. And that’s not how “Precious” got made, or “Monster’s Ball” or “The Woodsman” or any of the other films I’ve been involved with. I had to go back to what it was I had true passion for and this was that.
What was it about this source material that drew you in as a filmmaker and really made you want to make the movie?
I think the characters. As you know, that was the case with “Precious.” The characters were so mind-blowing because we know them all. And we haven’t seen them before. That’s what excited me.
Did you feel this huge amount of pressure going in to “The Paperboy,” or did you feel free as a filmmaker to explore, now that you’d been validated?
No, I’m more cautious, you know? When I wasn’t… I started listening to people. I didn’t know that it would affect people, “Precious.” A lot of people didn’t like it. A lot of people loved it. But I tend to listen to the few voices that didn’t respond to the film more than the adulation that I got for it. So I found myself more cautious in the making of “Paperboy.” And then I said, “Fuck this, I gotta be me.” Three quarters of the way through it, I said, “Fuck it.” I started questioning myself and doubting myself. And I gotta live with this thing at the end of the day. It’s me, it’s my name on it. It’s me.
Why do you even pay heed to your critics? Why not just go with the praise?
It’s important to tell your kids that they can do anything. I tell my kids that every day. That you can be president, that you can be an astronaut. Because my dad told me early on that I would be nothing. That you’re a faggot who will be nothing. So I revert back to that when I get negative criticism for the work that I do. It takes me right back to what my dad told me.
Now it must be asked: Why did the “The Paperboy” appeal to Almodovar and you — two reknown gay filmmakers. Is there something I’m missing?
Well, when you see the movie you’ll know. I can’t answer the question without spoiling it for you. You’ll really appreciate it I think.
From the looks of it, Nicole Kidman looks like she’s attempting something she’s never done before onscreen. What made you think of her following Sofia Vergara dropping out because of scheduling conflicts?
Well, I like casting against the grain. I think everything in the universe works out the way God planned it. And everyone is cast against the grain in this movie. Every character is unexpected. You will see Matthew and you happen to catch Nicole. She’s a girl here. Every character is cast against the grain and when Sofia dropped out, I was told “No” by several people about Nicole, but I remembered her performance in “To Die For.” And I knew that she would bring justice to the character. And people hadn’t seen it before. Very similar to Mo’nique. It was unexpected. And with Mariah. Just unexpected ways of going. Acting is acting. An actor’s doing something that they ain’t comfortable doing. Or not seen to do. And that excites me.
I interviewed John Cusack earlier this year, who you’re set to reteam with for “The Butler.” He praised you to the high heavens, but noted how intense you are with your cast. How do you approach performance?
Well some people say my movies are shit, but my actors are all great. I don’t know what that means. I like looking at it as if it were real life, as if it were most like a documentary. And people… it’s hard to act. It’s hard to be. And so I try to get people to be. And when I’ve captured an honest moment, you can move on. It’s getting actors out of their heads and into a space of truth.
Mariah Carey penned a song for “The Paperboy.” Does she appear in it as an actress?
No. Well that’s a plot spoiler, I can’t tell you.
I’m joking! Mariah wrote something for it. We’re trying to make sure that it makes Cannes, yes.
She received the best critical praise of her career, acting wise, after appearing in “Precious,” but she’s since layed low on the actin front. Are you egging to get her back on set to collaborate again?
Any potential things in the works with her?
Yes. I can’t talk about it, but yes.