Murder. Lust. Intrigue. Watersports. Lee Daniels‘ “The Paperboy” is not your usual festival fare. Screening at the New York Film Festival, however, director Lee Daniels was able to give context to this schizophrenic mystery, based on the Pete Dexter novel about a possibly innocent murderer on Death Row, the journalists tasked with freeing him, and the young man who falls for the inmate’s fiancée.
Daniels had long been a fan of the book, but it took the director’s chair being vacated by a contemporary legend for him to accept the job. “Pedro Almodóvar was going to direct it,” Daniels claims. “And the book was by my bed, and it stayed with me since ‘Precious.’ ” Though Daniels wouldn’t simply stop at cosmetic changes, making several alterations to Dexter’s prose. “I had to put my voice in Pete Dexter’s book,” Daniels claims, citing the character of Yardley, one of the two reporters (along with Matthew McConaughey) investigating the case. Yardley was white in the original book but played in the movie by David Oyelowo. “Dave and I were going to a movie called ‘Selma‘ [a biopic on the 1965 voting rights marches] and my headspace was very civil rights,” Daniels explains.
This change spoke to Oyelowo, who, with Daniels, compared his character to a sexualized Sidney Poitier. “We had spent a year and a half talking about ‘Selma,’ where I was going to play Martin Luther King. Lee sent me this script, and [at the time] I was so reverent of Martin Luther King-land, the idea of this dark and sexual predator made me think, Lee, why are you sending me this? We we’re about to go out and preach! And Lee said, ‘look at his character, I want to make him black, I want to look at what it means to be black through quite this arrogant man.’ “
While Daniels cites “Cool Hand Luke” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” as inspiration, he claims, “I studied every film that was done in the late ’60s to early ’70s. I wanted you to feel that you’d seen a film that was made in the early ’70s, flaws and all. I thought it was gonna lose it for a second, and I told Nicole, maybe we can get the lips to lip-sync off? And she looked at me like, ‘I don’t think so.’ “
The end result was a tough shoot in the sweaty South, where Daniels claims to have seen a few uncomfortable sights. “We saw several Confederate flags,” Daniels says gingerly, choosing his words carefully. “It was a little scary for me. I often times had to get my AD to talk to [people at] locations because they wouldn’t talk to me. It was… interesting.” Adding to these regional difficulties was a smaller budget and a tight handle on the budget from producers Nu Image. “This was the first film I had no control over it,” Daniels claims. “We were in a box. It’s like putting on a play. I’d tell Nicole [Kidman], you might have to do your own makeup. I expect Zac Efron to help with catering. We’re on the run, we’ve gotta get it right, and we only have two or three takes to get it right.”
Daniels showed interest in changing the way audiences perceived the cast. Efron in particular would no longer be “the Disney boy,” while Kidman reflected that her character was, “A woman who’s obviously very damaged, and terrified of being close to someone.” As Charlotte Bless, a frequent, sensual penpal to inmates in prison, she reflects, “I had a conversation with Lee, and obviously I read it and said, this has to be authentic. Lee said, you should meet with some women I know who are in love with men in prison. So I met with five different women that Lee arranged.” Kidman, who studied Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey‘s “Heat” on request from Daniels, later revealed one of these women to be one of Daniels’ sisters. She also revealed, shyly, “Lee was obsessed with the butt, he wanted my butt to be bigger.”
One of the movie’s standout roles belongs to musician Macy Gray, who plays the maid, and narrator, Anita Chester. Daniels claimed the role was important as far as being a realistic depiction of maids in the ’60s. “For me, I had seen ‘The Help,’ and I have so many relatives, neighbors, aunts, grandmothers, that were actually the help,” he reveals. “And I felt that was not indicative of what it was that I experienced as a kid. And Macy was that.” Gray, however, was not his first choice. “I offered it to Oprah, since she just produced ‘Precious,’ ” he shares. “And she said, absolutely not. And the universe took care of me, because I can’t imagine Oprah lying on a bed [miming] masturbating.”
In the end, Daniels was able to coax daring work from a wide ensemble. As Oyelowo explains, “No matter what your ability is, no matter who you are as an individual, he feels his job is to push you out of your comfort zone. He feels that the truth shall be accessed by you being discombobulated, by you not going to safe places. And we do that as performers. You have tricks, things you know work.”
That didn’t keep Daniels away from a serious issue of creative differences with Kidman, however. “I asked her to use the ‘n’ word to David,” he recalls. “Because I had just seen the Confederate flag, and could feel the racial tension during scouting. So I said, let’s push it. And she said, ‘I won’t do that.’ And this is two days in, three days in. And I talked to my producer, I said, ‘she won’t say the n-word!’ And he says, ‘Lee, day one, she’s bent over a pink washing machine. Day two, she urinates on Zac Efron. Day three, she has telepathic sex. I think you can forgive her.’ ”
“The Paperboy” opens this Friday in limited release.