The Weinsteins have taken US rights to Lee Daniels' indie project "The Butler," which is currently in production in New Orleans. The film stars Forest Whitaker in the title role with Oprah Winfrey as his wife and David Oyelowo as their son. Icon International and IM Global handled foreign sales at Cannes, where the response was upbeat around the world' Weinstein Co. landed the film after first-look player Sony passed.
"The Butler" is inspired by the true story of an African-American man (Whitaker) who served under eight presidents as a butler in the White House. The screenplay, by Danny Strong and Daniels, was adapted from a Washington Post article. It maps thirty years of changes in American society, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam. 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.
Harvey Weinstein, clearly sticking a pin in next year's Oscar race, states:“Lee tells stories in a way no one else does. What struck me most about this story is the perspective it comes from, which in this case is the butler- a man who was a fly on the wall for decades in the world’s most powerful home."
In TOH's on-set phone interview with producer Pam Williams. she tells how, back 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 White House Butler Eugene Allen. Ziskin took the film to the starting line before finally succumbing to cancer on June 12, 2011. Williams picked up the producing reins.
First, Ziskin tracked down ex-foreign correspondent Haygood, who had covered Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Based in the nation's 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 visitors. The story ran on Election Tuesday–but the day before Obama won the presidency, Helen died. Allen passed on two years ago.
Sadly, neither Allen nor Ziskin were able to see the movie finished.
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.
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." With him 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."