In 2008, as Barack Obama was on the cusp of being elected, Sony chairman Amy Pascal sent Sony producer Laura Ziskin ("Pretty Woman," "Spider-Man") Wil Haygood's Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who was a butler in the White House through eight presidents. Ziskin immediately saw "the potential for a personal and epic historic story," says her 11-year producing partner Pam Williams on the phone from the set of "The Butler," shooting in New Orleans with "Precious" director Lee Daniels and a cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
Ziskin took the film to the starting line before finally succumbing to cancer on June 12, 2011. Williams picked up the producing reins, and along with everyone on the movie, feels a responsibility to deliver for Ziskin. "She's such an indefatigable presence in our lives every day," says Williams. "She dreamed so big of this movie, but I daresay it's coming together even bigger than she could have fathomed."
Ziskin started off by tracking down ex-foreign correspondent Haygood, who had covered Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Based in the nation'a capitol, Haygood had decided to find an African American who had worked in the White House and saw the Civil Rights movement from that vantage point. After 57 phone calls, he finally found Allen, 88, in Washington, D.C.
Haygood met with Allen and his wife Helen for eight hours, and saw photos of Allen with many presidents, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other White House vistors. The story ran on Election Tuesday–but the day before Obama won the presidency, Helen died. Allen passed on two years ago.
Haygood chose Ziskin to produce the Allen story over others who vied for the property because she was able to mount "Spider-Man," says Williams. "And he felt that because Laura was so passionate and hunted him down, and spoke so passionately about the movie, he hoped to get it on-screen as quickly as possible."
Sadly, neither Allen nor Ziskin were able to see the movie finished. A year ago, soon before she died, Williams recalled, Ziskin hosted a meeting with potential investors: "Laura was sliding downhill rapidly; she refused not have this meeting at her home, but she went to bed. Midway, there she was, she came in and pitched her heart out. It was one of the last things she was thinking about. Lee and I wondered 'how can we do this without her?' but we agreed: Laura is present, she's still producing. Her hand is in this, most definitely, and she will have a producer title on the movie."
Sony optioned the story and developed the screenplay by Danny Strong; Daniels came on board and worked on it with him. But with a bigger budget ($35 million) than Sony was interested in green-lighting, Ziskin took back the project in turnaround. She was disturbed that there was such a lack of diversity in films being made and recognized at the Oscars, because there are so few roles for the industry's top African-American talent to play, says Williams: "She believed that if black movies aren't big enough, and don't travel, we could overcome that."
Ziskin pushed "The Butler" up the hill independently by approaching a consortium of African American business people who cared about making a difference in the culture, inspired by Karem Abdul Jabar's quote: "If we want to change the culture we need to make the culture." Sheila Johnson, cofounder of BET, led the way among many other investors. Michael Finley came in as executive producer, joined by Buddy Patrick, Cassian Elwes, Hilary Shor and Adam Merims; David Jacobson is co-producer.
The independently-financed film is bankrolled by Follow Through Productions, Windy Hill Pictures, Salamander Media, Salloway Rubenstein Productions/Crystal City Entertainment, Earl W. Stafford, Starstream Films, Yogi Entertainment, and Inner Media Capital.
Daniels, who was hot after "Precious," was attached to "Selma"; Ziskin had worked on an earlier Martin Luther King film with Stephen Frears. When "Selma" never got off the ground, Ziskin wanted Daniels for "The Butler," because of the "authenticity he brings to the characters and the world," says Williams, "raw characters and emotion, he goes for it."
With Daniels on board, Whitaker and Winfrey signed on as the butler and his wife, along with David Oyewolo ("The Paperboy") as their son Louis, Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Vanessa Redgrave. The real Allen worked with eight presidents, from Truman through Reagan. "Our movie takes historical events and keeps them accurate with a fictionalized butler's life," says Williams. "It's inspired by the real butler, but our character is fictional. We have him starting during Eisenhower through Little Rock and through Reagan. We skip over Carter and Ford, we were not able to do a three-hour movie."
The presidents are played by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (JFK), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan), with Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower, and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy.
Admittedly, this is an ambitious project in scope–recreating history in period detail– to achieve on an independent budget. The film is in its third week of production in New Orleans, where they filmed in a Woolworth's counter bar where a famous sit-in actually took place.
For now there is no distributor; Sony will have the domestic first-look opportunity. Icon International and IM Global handled foreign sales at Cannes, where the response was upbeat around the world. "People who were concerned that period American politics and an African-American story would limit interest saw the opposite," says Williams.