If you can say anything about Lee Daniels, it’s that he’s got a distinct voice. Whether it always works is another topic entirely, but over the course of the three films now — “Shadowboxer” (which got a great Commentary Of The Damned feature at the AV Club), awards horse “Precious” and the pulpy, divisive “The Paperboy” — he has made pictures that are completely his own. But it seems that his next effort, “The Butler,” which boasts yet another star-studded ensemble, will see the director dialing it back a bit.
With “The Paperboy” opening this weekend, Daniels has been doing the press rounds and recently stopped by to chat with Film School Rejects. Talk turned to commerce vs. art, and Daniels candidly revealed that “The Butler” finds him being held back by its rating, and the simple fact that it’s not a movie he developed from scratch. “I think this last film I finished, ‘The Butler,’ is the closest I will come to as a work-for-hire. That was a big compromise, because it’s PG-13 and there were producers attached to it before I came on-board. It wasn’t something that I developed, but I did help rewrite the script with Danny Strong,” he explained. “You know, it’s a different medium. As an artist, it challenges you, because you are hired. You are a director for hire…”
But it wasn’t just being brought onto a movie that was already moving that posed a challenge. Based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served through eight presidencies, Daniels also had to make sure he didn’t veer from the facts. “History is hard, though. I had to follow history. I could only take so much creative liberty, whereas with ‘The Paperboy’ and ‘Precious,’ they were wild rides. Even ‘Monster’s Ball‘ and ‘The Woodsman‘ [produced by Daniels] were wild rides. ‘The Butler’ is more sedate. It’s a sedate world,” he said adding: “You have to be more clever…You can’t just lay it out there. You’re only allowed one ‘fuck,’ which you can get about 20 from me in one scene [Laughs]”
But is having Daniels reined in necessarily a bad thing? Of the many criticisms lobbed at “The Paperboy,” the editing and narrative choices in particular stuck out, the director playing wildly with style and form (not always to the advantage of the picture). Boxing Daniels in a little bit may not be the worst thing in the world. Anyhow, we’ll find out soon enough. The Weinstein Company have snapped up the rights and a release next year is probably in the cards.