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Interview: Lee Daniels Talks ‘The Butler,’ Wanting Oprah Winfrey For ‘Prisoners,’ His Hip-Hop TV Drama & More

Interview: Lee Daniels Talks 'The Butler,' Wanting Oprah Winfrey For 'Prisoners,' His Hip-Hop TV Drama & More

Named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the top 25 film schools in the country, the Savannah College Of Art & Design grows in stature year by year. The annual Savannah Film Festivalwhich we attended last month—is the rare event that almost seamlessly marries the glitz of the red carpet with the serious aspirations of the student body. Attending filmmakers and actors often provide masterclasses to students, while the intimacy of Savannah’s festivities provide accessibility that larger festivals in bigger cities don’t often provide. It’s against that backdrop that organizers and officials at SCAD once again brought Hollywood flavor to Georgia.


Over the weekend, Lee Daniels delivered the fall commencement address at SCAD (which you can view on page two) where he also received an honorary degree. It was undoubtedly a proud moment for the filmmaker who also took some time out of his busy schedule on the weekend to talk with The Playlist. And he shared his time with us discussing his awards season contender “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the path to getting it made, the various projects he has in the works and much more.

A year ago you had just wrapped “The Butler” and had said the movie was something close to a work-for-hire for you. Since the movie has come out it’s gotten great reviews and been really well received. How have your feelings on the movie changed now that it’s finished and released?
It started out as a work-for-hire because it was a studio film, so I was hired and then the studio decided not to do the film. So then it became more of an independent film. So it switched, it went from being a studio film at Sony to being an independent film we had raised money for. And so I would take those words back now.

It is clear that it’s a personal film for you as opposed to a studio script that you’re just going in and working on.
Yeah, I mean I still would have done [a work-for-hire] with passion but I didn’t have the [the studio] bosses to answer to, the suits that I would’ve had to answer to.

In making “The Butler” you have a huge ensemble playing very famous politicians and people of influence. Is there any one role in particular that you uh, had trouble finding the right person to play that part?
Younger Cecil [played by Aml Ameen] because I had to make sure that they looked like Forest [Whitaker]. And it was really tricky with the age and there was a lot of rewriting that went down so that I could weave them seamlessly together. At one point there were three different Cecil’s but I thought that each Cecil would take us out of the film. 

I saw an interview recently with Chiwetel Ejiofor about making “Twelve Years a Slave” and he said when he was down in Louisiana shooting the film, it dawned on him as he was on location, that his character went through all this stuff and it’s 105 degrees outside. It made that situation more real for him.
For me, we had a similar experience. I loved that movie by the way. When we were in the cotton fields—I was only there for two days, so I don’t know what Steve [McQueen] went through—I was there for two or three days shooting and it was the hardest, the most difficult thing I’d ever done. I don’t even know how my great grandparents were able to do it. I don’t know how they survived.

Was the shoot for “The Butler”…
Gruelling? Yes. And also tear jerking because it was a reminder of what it was that you know my relatives went through. Painful.

It must’ve been powerful taking these moments from the page and recreating them and putting them in front of your eyes.
Yeah, I don’t know that I could do it again. Too painful.

This was a PG-13 film, but when you first submitted it it came back as an R. Will we see some of those scenes that were cut on DVD?
I think that they were really hard on me, the ratings board, because there was no nudity or anything like that but it was just the violence that made it an R, you know? I had to show the splattering of blood less in the beginning scene. The lynching scene, I had to show less of the lynching, the counter scene… Just some of the things that I thought that I had to show that I think that I see on TV, on “C.S.I.” even, I couldn’t show. The ratings board is completely different when it comes to film versus the television arena.

I believe Melissa Leo had a scene that didn’t make the final movie, will we see stuff like that? Any extra material?
Yeah, it was really long, it was a four hour film [and] I had two hours to tell my story. And Harvey Weinstein said that I could have a couple minutes more and the foreign contracts said the same thing so a lot had to get cut, but I’m putting a lot of that back into the DVD.

How was it working with Harvey Weinstein? He has a reputation both good and bad.
At first I thought I was terrified, I didn’t know what to expect and it ended up being an incredible experience. So I heard the worst, I heard the good but for me it was an incredible experience, I’m looking forward to working with him again.

“The Butler” comes out at a pretty interesting time for black stories in cinema. This year alone we’ve seen “Fruitvale Station,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” Spielberg did “Lincoln.” These are all true stories but I find it interesting that among this conversation something like “Django Unchained” gets tossed into the mix as well and that’s kind of a bit more fantastical. Do you see a disconnect there?
I think that Quentin [Tarantino] is entitled to make his film as I’m entitled to make my film, we’re all artists and we all have opinions about it but I don’t like getting misquoted and everything…I want to make sure that I’m clear that he’s entitled to do his thing as I am.

Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination but in 2018 it’s going to be fifty years since MLK passed away. I understand you were working on a film about his assassination and I’m just curious if you still are and what story you would want to tell about that.
I wasn’t doing a film about his assassination [ed. In July 2012, reports surfaced Daniels and Hugh Jackman were teaming on “Orders To Kill“], I was doing a film about the march [“Selma,” now being directed by Ava DuVernay]. My Mom walked in the march and my grandmother walked in the march and I think his life should be celebrated. I think that I’m dying to see the total biopic of King. He is my hero.

At one point you were also looking at “The Scottsboro Boys” film as well, possibly a musical?
Yeah I was I was trying to get that off the ground but it’s hard.

You often find yourself collaborating with some unique people who people that you don’t generally think of as actors, initially. Musicians like Lenny Kravitz or Mariah Carey, or Oprah Winfrey for example. She’s acted before but she doesn’t do it very often. In regards to Ms. Winfrey, I recall you had an exciting idea to do a film where she would play against type. 
It was “Prisoners” that I was hoping I could do and she passed on it and than I lost the job for even suggesting her to the producers. Speaking of Melissa Leo….


Do you still find that when you go a studio meeting for example, and you say “I think this person or this person would be great,” is there still resistance to trusting your instincts?
First of all, I still have to sing for my supper. I’m not Steven Spielberg by any stretch of the imagination, so I still am just an artist looking for a job and trying to do my best when I get it.

How was your collaboration with screenwriter Danny Strong?
Danny and I had the structure, I sort of told him this is how I feel these people should be, this is how Oprah should be, this is how and he went with me and he’s an incredible writer and one of my best friends and he and I are writing something together this time. We’re writing a TV show.

That’s set in the hip-hop world, right?

What are you guys investigating? Is it a chronicle of the history or anything in particular?
It’s a black “Dynasty” meets “The Sopranos” with the backdrop of music.

Wow, that’s awesome.
Isn’t it? I hope it works. He’s so magical, Danny is an incredible writer and he, how he was able to nuance the African American experience is rare and appreciated.

Is there anything about the hip hop world in particular you want to say?
No,it’s just about a family. A family struggling to build an empire. Similar to “Dynasty” and the man’s problems, the darkness that goes down with trying to build an empire. Trying to get out of…trying to leave the ghetto and make it.

Are you still doing the Sammy Davis Jr. thing over at HBO?
I am. I’m looking for writers now.

Is it going to be a straight up biopic?

Well it’s about his music so we’re telling the story through music, it’s a musical.

Wow, that’s fantastic.
I finally get to do my musical.

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