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Why Lee Daniels Went from Film to TV’s Hit Hip-Hop Musical ‘Empire’

Why Lee Daniels Went from Film to TV's Hit Hip-Hop Musical 'Empire'

“The Butler” director Lee Daniels’ hugely entertaining new Fox series “Empire” debuted to smash ratings Wednesday night, particularly among young adult viewers, who’ve also tuned into ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” starring powerhouse Viola Davis.

Daniels is a fascinating enigma, someone who veers in and out of control of his medium as he tries to stay in touch with his inner truth –and demons–for the sake of his art. He is an artist–for better or worse, as his films, which are never boring, attest, from “Shadowboxer” and “The Paperboy” to his mainstream hits “Precious” and “The Butler.” Actors revere him. Critics? Not so much. 

Daniels knows this move to network television seems surprising (cable would have seemed more likely), but he decided that this high-concept pitch from “The Butler” writer Danny Strong –“King Lear” set in the world of hip-hop– called for mainstream treatment. Daniels wants to reach people. (Read NYT interview here.)

Anne Thompson: Why did you not take “Empire” to HBO or Showtime where you could go full R? 

Lee Daniels: What is R?

The language of hip-hop.

The definition of R, beyond hip-hop, is for me what was PG-13 fifteen to twenty years ago. It’s now R in theaters. And so that’s where my headspace is, you know. I am old school. I said, “how do I train myself to work in this,” but “The Butler” was very hard because I couldn’t do those Lee Daniels’s tricks and stay in that box.

So was it a question of discipline, “The Butler?”

Yeah. I believe in life that you know that everything prepares you for the next thing, whether it’s a hit whether it’s not a hit. Your failures are your accomplishments because it makes you prepared for whatever it is that you are going to do next. 

So what did you learn from “The Paperboy,” for example, where you got these amazing performances, but somehow you left out some audiences? There was a narrow band that got that movie. At Cannes the actors were raving about working with you. They trust you. They will put themselves into a place of terrifying risk for you.

Yeah. I am really proud of that movie. I am proudest of them. I don’t know, I haven’t seen any of my movies after I finish them. I leave the editing room, I don’t go back. The experience that I have when I watched it at Cannes– I am proudest of that film. People that really get me are people that are my peers. People I consider my heroes have sought me out to say, “this is an incredible film.” So I am really proudest of that– I don’t know, I’m proud of all of them I guess, but I was saddened that it wasn’t received the way that it could have been received. I don’t think that we had the right distributor. I don’t think that we had the right director. It was like, “whatever.”

How do people misunderstand you, do you think?

Flamboyant. I’ve read some things. That’s why I stopped reading because I can’t bear it. It’s too painful. I see the world from a very specific perspective. It is how I grew up. It is what I am proud of and I vocalize it. And for those who have not experienced my experience it is odd and it’s not mainstream. 

What did you learn from “The Paperboy”?

I learned from that experience that you have to have a distributor that believes in your film. Otherwise I’ve been blessed; I’ve been pretty good at picking the right–

Lionsgate nailed “Precious.” 

And Harvey did too. For “The Butler,” broke his back. 

Absolutely. The audiences came. 

You know what’s great,  I went to my mom’s church in Philadelphia. and I came in and they just gave me this standing round of applause and it was so humbling. Here are these simple churchgoing people that have had some tragedies and they just stood there with a blinding faith in God. It makes me question how much I can believe. And so when I came into the church and they stood up I knew it was pure and that I had made them happy and in doing that I made my mom happy. So that was a pretty good moment and all around the country these people they know the movie and it’s crazy. It’s crazy.

And you learned a lot of discipline getting that movie made?

Yeah and so that prepared me for the idea of jumping into this medium. I was nervous, but I’ve had incredible collaborators with Fox. So why didn’t I go to Showtime or HBO? I am doing something with HBO now, but, I wanted to make sure that it was accessible; that these stories were accessible to mid-America. Half my family cannot afford cable so I knew that if I told this story I had to tell it for them to see. And so I wanted to make sure that in doing that mainstream it had to push me not to PG-13 but to PG, you know, prime time. Fox, you know.

So you’re playing around with the words without using the F word.

Or the N word. Which is really prevalent in half the material and rap today. It’s in the acting. Extraordinary actors. Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard: extraordinary. Gabourey Sidibe.

Terrence Howard is your youngish King Lear? Why him?

Yeah he has kids that are in their late twenties to eighteen: three kids, three sons. I am so humbled by him. He is an incredible man. He can quote like probably every word in the Bible and this is how complex he is, how smart he is. 

You mean he has a photographic memory?

Yeah. Oh that too. And yet there’s this danger, and yet there’s this hurt child about him, there’s this sexiness, there’s this vulnerability, there’s this “Oh my God, what is he going to do next”?

How many episodes is it? 

Twelve. Plus the pilot.

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