EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published a part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” has become one of the year’s biggest indie film stories and it hasn’t even been released yet. The tale of “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an obese, illiterate teenager with nothing working in her favor, Daniels has won over critics, festival audiences, Oprah and Tyler Perry alike, and is opening in theaters via Lionsgate this Friday, November 6th. Daniels – who had previously produced films like “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman” and directed “Shadowboxer,” starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr – talked to indieWIRE about the film before its premiere at Sundance set the film off on its whirlwind journey to release.
Please introduce yourself…
I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia. I was the oldest of five children, each about a year apart, and my mother, bless her heart, had her hands full. My father, a police officer, was brutally shot and killed trying to break up a robbery when I was 13. I can not even imagine where my life was headed, when through luck and maybe a little manipulation from my incredible mother, I began to attend a prestigious prep school in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Education changed my life and I am forever grateful for that experience and to my many wonderful teachers. Obviously, education is an important theme in my film and one I personally relate to on every level. In high school, I lobbied hard for the part of Max Detweiler in the “Sound of Music” and convinced my drama teacher that a black student could do this role. That took a lot of fast talking! (And that was also something that left an lasting impression on me; namely that roles should be cast based on talent and not color.) I definitely caught the acting bug, but that lasted for about two seconds when I found my way to LA and found that my talents were better suited behind the cameras.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
In LA, I was a talent manager for many years. I represented many African-American actors. After a while, I became disheartened over the shortage of roles for African Americans. I decided I was going to do something about it by producing my own films that included meaningful and compelling roles for black actors. So, I jumped into producing with my first film “Monster’s Ball.”
While I am not a musician, I love music. I have over 15,000 songs on my ipod. Everything from hard core rap to the soundtrack from the original Cinderella. I believe my love for music has made me partial to working with musicians in my films. I find musicians to be wonderfully talented and soulful. I think you will also find that my broad range of musical interests finds its way into many of my films.
How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?
I did not go to film school. I learned by spending hundreds of hours on sets with the actors I was managing and watching and listening. One of my greatest joys in filmmaking is working with the actors and I use to run lines endlessly with them to perfect their performance prior to their auditions.
How or what prompted the idea for “Precious” and how did it evolve?
After reading “Push” many years ago, I always wanted to make this book into a movie. This is an incredible work by Sapphire and I love every syllable of the book.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I do not believe in over rehearsing. I encourage my actors to take liberties with the script.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
Why would anyone care about a poor, 300-pound, uneducated black girl as dark as night? The answer to this question is what this film is ultimately about. Two of the first people who did care are my incredible producers, Sarah-Siegel Magness and Gary Magness who have contributed immeasurably to bringing this film to light.
What are some of your favorite films?
“The Goddess” with Kim Stanley (a favorite actress), “Pickup on South Street” (way ahead of its time), “The Professional”, “In the Mood for Love”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and “Ladies Sings the Blue” are a few that come to mind. This year has been an incredible year for movies. I particularly liked “Defiance” and even made my kids watch it.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
To make movies that are honest and real and show the full range of human emotions and the human condition. To breakdown color barriers both in front of the screen and behind cameras so that hopefully one day people will not say someone was “unbelievable” in a film simply because of the color of the actor’s skin.
What are your future projects?
I am still searching for this answer. My family and friends want me to direct a big studio action movie; my boyfriend wants me to make a musical; my investors have expressed interest in a childrens’s movie; but I do not know…I still feel drawn to dark movies with endless human carnage…so maybe a drug movie!