Before “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, there wasn’t much anticipation for the film. It was an adaptation of a beloved novel directed by a Lee Daniels, whose first feature, “Shadowboxer,” was just too off-the-wall for many to handle. (In order to understand Daniels as a serious filmmaker, watching “Shadowboxer,” for its boldness alone, is essential.) After the film’s first screening, it was a sensation.
When “Push” debuted, as reviews from Sundance show, the screenwriter was listed as Damien Paul. Geoffrey Fletcher, who would go on to win an Oscar for the script, had decided not to attach his name to the film for whatever reason. It went on to win both the Audience and Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Fletcher attached his name to the film; Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry took a look at it and came on as executive producers as a distribution deal came together. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” would go on to be nominated for six Oscars and won two.
All at once, people came together to validate Lee Daniels’ vision. His next directorial effort, “The Paperboy,” was a love-it-or-hate-it potboiler with Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Zac Efron and Matthew McConnaughey. With “The Butler,” Daniels is ambitiously taking on U.S. history, by telling the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), a black White House butler who worked at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from Eisenhower to Reagan and lived to see Obama get elected. The film, based on the story of the White House butler Eugene Allen (profiled in a Washington Post story) is already getting buzz for its excellent performances, especially those from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, who plays Cecil’s wife.
At the end of Sundance 2009, Daniels and the team involved with “Precious” got together to watch Obama be sworn into office. (Full disclosure: This writer was there, he had a freelance gig assisting with publicity for the film before he joined Indiewire.) The gravity of that moment was stark, and “The Butler” allows Daniels to craft a narrative of Presidential history that shows exactly why that moment was so intense. Indiewire spoke to Daniels about his unique brand of filmmaking and the territory this film allows him to chart.
This is a film that allows you to tell American history. What excited you about that when you decided to make it?
Telling it from a perspective that was — trying to find the hook — not making it preachy. Not making the film feel self-important. I don’t want to say “to tell it in a Lee Daniels way,” but I wanted to tell it in a breath that was real. Trying to keep it real.
Are there things that other people have done that you were just like “By God, I don’t want to do that!”?
Yes! But I can’t mention those filmmakers. [laughs] I can’t do that. You’re not gonna trap me!
But are there any storytelling tactics that you wanted to avoid?
Some people get really self-important with the music. And the pontification. I didn’t want to feel self-important. I don’t want people to feel pity because we [African-Americans] went through what we went through. I didn’t want people to pity us or feel self-righteous or self-important. I wanted to find humor in it, because humor is what’s gonna save us — similarly to what we did with “Precious,” you know? We didn’t want to feel like I was taking myself too seriously. Taking myself too seriously was what was going to sink it. So, I don’t know, I hope I achieved it.
I think you did. The Presidents that you get to depict because Cecil worked with them, you show them in a surprising light. You wouldn’t expect the film to like Reagan [played by Alan Rickman], and it plays with that. How was it for you and the screenwriter, Danny Strong, to play with those expectations?
I think Danny did a great job in sort of making the script what it is with the Presidents. Again, that was a hard thing to do, to make sure we weren’t doing caricatures. It was much harder than I thought it would be. They’re gonna come for me! So what do I do to make sure that they’re just real? We don’t do these stereotypical caricatures that we’ve seen before, with people impersonating Reagan, and impersonating Nixon and Kennedy. We feel the nuance, feel it. That’s something that I worked on with each of the actors who played the Presidents. Part of it is the casting, and then making sure that we just didn’t go over the top with it. With Kennedy, I wanted for me to feel like they were these young kids, that they were experiencing the world as just kids. So I think I achieved that.
The casting was important, but sometimes you recognize Robin Williams or James Marsden or — Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan gets a lot of laughs…
In a good way or a bad way?
In a good way! The moment she appeared, you could hear the lightbulb go off for people — the realization of what was going on onscreen. How were the casting decisions for you? It’s unconventional at once. Is it that you knew you wanted to play JFK in a certain way so you went searching for that… how did you make those decisions?
We had to have names. There were a couple of ways to go about it. Casting was integral to the casting of the film. And sadly, having Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker attached wasn’t enough, which is a testament to where we are in Hollywood today with African-Americans. We still couldn’t finance the film with them at that budget. And so, one name after another, more names, more names. I had to figure out whether or not I wanted to find names or no names for the Presidents and just stick to it.
Then, this is before your time, but I decided this should just be like “The Poseidon Adventure,” if you know that movie, or an early Oliver Stone movie that had all those stars packed, because I felt that the movie needed that attention. For those that have issues with the Civil Rights Movement or blacks in middle America. Maybe having some of these stars will get them into the theaters. I just want them to see the movie! So I figured, I have to bring in celebrities — great actors — to play these roles that are identifiable. I wanted every hook to get Oklahoma, Idaho, people that are not New York and LA to see it. So then I got terrified thinking “Oh my God! So this is going to get people in. But what are people that I respect going to say?” So I had to think about how to kind of make the actors disappear.
When I’ve been describing the film to people, I feel like I need to tell a bit of the story of Cecil’s sons — it was the thing that I was so struck by. I didn’t know that the sons would have such an integral part of the story. The film is being sold with the celebrity names, of course, but at the heart of it, Cecil’s sons tell an incredibly important part of this story. It’s such a thing to see the history of the Civil Rights Movement, to see the Freedom Riders, to see the Black Panther Party, the Black Power movement, next to the story of our Presidents, which is definitely the story told in every history class in America. Why were their stories so important for you to tell?
Well, because I have a son who’s 17. So when I read the script, he was 13 at the time, but the tension between us was starting. I thought the father-son story is a universal story that transcends race. People would identify with the father-son story at the heart of it. It is a father-son story, but with the Civil Rights Movement as a backdrop. At the end of it, it’s a love story, between the son and his father and his mother — Oprah — how much do we love her?
You touched on this when you were talking about casting, but as Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh are being very vocal about their critiques of Hollywood, do you agree with them, that it’s a headache to get anything off the ground with them?
I don’t know if I want to get anything off the ground with the Hollywood system. It’s too much of a headache once you’re in there, with them putting their fingers all over your shit. The concept of that — I don’t know if I could do that. I’d be in jail if someone was touching my shit. Don’t fuck with the baby, you know what I mean? I don’t know that I’d do well.
It was always my dream to make a studio picture, but unless they were going to let me do it (and I don’t think they would let me do it)… So I think I’m here doing what I need to do. Films like “The Butler,” films like “Precious,” films like “The Paperboy.” Films that are me, that I can independently finance and get final cut on. It doesn’t make any sense to do it differently. I keep on thinking about the whole concept of Hollywood, and it’s like “I’m here! I’ve been here! Bitch, I’ve been here! What the fuck!? Where am I going? I’m 54! Where am I going?”
Yeah, it’s creating something to fight against, when you can work completely outside of the system.
Yeah, I continue to do what I do. Let a distributor pick it up.
If you are getting to make the films that you want to make, what defines a film that Lee Daniels wants to make? Why do you make films?
I wonder sometimes when I read some of the reviews. [laughs] Why do I subject myself to this shit? I must be a fucking masochist!
And people have strong opinions about the films that Lee Daniels chooses to make.
I know, and I need to learn to protect myself. But the films I decide to make, they have to inspire me. They have to make people feel differently. If I’m not making people think differently, if they’re not thinking about their lives or the world in some way, then what’s the point of making anything? I can get a job. This is hard work. This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Crazy hard.
Just to get it made?
Yeah, it’s a motherfucker if you’re going to throw your soul into something. You have to have people thinking, “How does it make me think of myself? How does it make me think about the world?” I get so caught up thinking about how I was bullied as a kid because I was gay, and I keep forgetting what my parents went through being called “nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger.” Gays are bullied every day. Blacks are harassed every day. I think that this movie — it makes you take a look at what the fuck is going on in America. People are equal. Sometimes I just think “Are you serious that I’m saying this right now, that I have to talk about what is going on in America today?”