Lee Daniels, the free-spirited and enigmatic writer/director/producer of such films as “Precious” and “The Paperboy,” has conquered the television landscape with his wildly successful “Empire.” Now, Daniels is looking to get back into film with the upcoming biopic “Richard Pryor: Was it Something I Said?” and his musical feature “Star.”
In the midst of pre-production madness, Lee Daniels sat down at the Middleburg Film Festival to talk with moderator John Horn about his rough and tumble film education, his personal heroes and how “Dreamgirls” changed his life. Here are the highlights:
1. Daniels never went to film school.
Though somewhat a jack of all trades when it comes to film, Daniels has no formal training.
“My experience as a filmmaker started on the sets when I was managing actors. Because I hadn’t gone to film school, I had to hustle. I managed actors in theater,” Daniels explained. “I studied ADs and I studied costumers and production designers, so I wasn’t technical with the camera, that seemed like Saturn to me, but I understood the human condition and I understood people. So that was a key. I also understood writing. So I think I learned on the way. My film school was really on the ground, with managing actors, studying great directors and then hiring directors who I was able to tell exactly what I wanted.”
2. Richard Pryor is his hero.
One of Daniels’ newest projects is his biopic on the late comedian Richard Pryor. When asked about the reasons for making the film, he made it clear that Pryor was one of the most important role models he had growing up.
“He was a revolutionary. He didn’t care, and he lived in the truth. I was friends with Whitney Houston, and didn’t get to meet Richard Pryor. But I know what it’s like to be an artist of color, not feeling deserving for whatever reason,” admitted Daniels. “There are so many unsung heroes there are brilliant artists that change the world and don’t know that they did it and he is one of them. So I connect to him on a spiritual level. He was able to change the world and unite us without being aware, he was an innocent and he was told that he was nothing, had terrible atrocities.”
“So if he can do it, then I can do it. He is my hero,” he explained. “I think what he did for race relations through comedy was bold and audacious, and his ability to say, ‘Yeah, I’m straight, but I get my dick sucked by men every now and then,’ just showed him living in his honesty. I get emotional talking about it because I am drawn to him like a moth,” Daniels said. “[Directing this film] is something that I have to do. I think that we haven’t changed. Race relations haven’t changed, I’m still worried about my 19-year-old son that I’m going to get that call. So I have to do it. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
3. The musical “Dreamgirls” changed his life.
“I was with Denzel Washington recently, and we were like, ‘What is it that changed your life? When did you know that you wanted to do this?’ When I was directing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ on the projects steps when I was eight, I didn’t know because I didn’t have my heroes and there was nobody I could identify with. But I knew what I had to do when I saw ‘Dreamgirls,'” Daniels said.
“It changed my life, I was 19 and I was like, ‘Woo! I’m gay!’ and it was black girls and sequins and music and holy shit! It was just, wow! Same thing for Denzel, ‘Dreamgirls,’ except he’s straight,” he remembered.
4. “Star” is going to be a little “Valley of the Dolls,” a little TLC.
Though up until “Empire,” music played a small part in Daniels’ productions, he now finds himself drawn to the musical genre more than ever.
“I just wanted to do a musical. I did ‘Empire,’ but then wanted to not repeat myself, so I got this girl, the lead girl who plays Star and she’s white trash and she looks like Anna Nicole Smith and she has a voice like Amy Winehouse,” Daniels explained. “She’s that chick that you can really trust, she’s that bitch.”
“So it’s her and her half-sister who is black and they’re in foster care homes, they were ripped apart from their mother. But they sing and they have a dream,” he continued. “They reunite with another black girl who’s this daughter of a billionaire, but she doesn’t want any of his money. Her dad is like Lenny Kravitz had Oprah’s money. But she wants to do it on her own. So these three girls go on a road trip.”
“We examine race, the foster care system which is really screwed up, we’ve got a transgender character, we examine church and stardom. It’s different. It’s a little ‘Valley of the Dolls,’ a little ‘Dreamgirls,’ a little Supremes, a little bit of TLC and a little bit of me,” Daniels said.
5. His work is all personal.
Daniels often shares personal stories in his scripts, putting a bit of himself in every production he makes.
“I go to my kids because they enjoy telling me it’s shit. They told me I could never do ‘Empire,’ that I was stuck in Whitney Houston land and couldn’t do hip hop. I do things for my kids. They know me and I live for them, everything I do is for them. I also listen to my friends, whoever is around me that I trust, I ask them if they think things are good! But I always go with my instinct,” said Daniels. “My instinct has led me to where I’m at today, so I can’t distrust it.”
“My artistry is the same as my personhood, I still am growing. After I’ve left the premiere, I leave it, I don’t want to see the film again. I won’t see any of my stuff again. It’s too painful, I don’t want to relive it again. I’m a better man, but I’m not a perfect man,” Daniels he explained. “But I think as an artist, I’m very insecure about my work because I don’t understand what perfection is. I can only do my best. And somewhere in the back of my head, it’s still never good enough.
“So I’m really hard on my actors, I have a terrible reputation for demanding the best from them. Because I’m hard on myself.”
6. Daniels is no stranger to the darker parts of life.
Daniels got intimate when talking about his first experience with fame.
“My first movie was ‘Monster’s Ball’ and Halle Berry won the Academy Award. And because I was still in a darker place, I was at the Chateau Marmont and I was watching her on the TV, I was crying,” Daniels said. “Then she called me and she said, ‘Big daddy, big daddy, are you coming to the Vanity Fair party?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,’ and I picked up my crack pipe, I was there with a prostitute, I think, and I realized I didn’t deserve to be there.”
“When we played ‘Precious’ at the Magic Johnson theater in Harlem, it was 200 black people, and I thought it was a comedy because they were laughing. And then I played it at Sundance with all these white people and it was art! [laughs] And what I found in my research for ‘The Butler’ was that the slaves that survived were the slaves that laughed. So even with all the bad things that happened to me, that I wasn’t killed as a kid by a drive by, that I survived the AIDS crisis and ended up HIV negative is a miracle,” said Daniels.
“I don’t get it, I really don’t get it. So much so that I went out and did drugs to figure out why I didn’t get it. And then had a heart attack and kept going because I didn’t understand.”
7. He sees Broadway in his future.
Even with two musicals already to his name, Daniels isn’t done yet. “My daughter nicknamed me ‘Bob Fosse.’ I’m thinking of doing a play of my life as a musical, maybe like ‘9’ with original music. I started in theater, so it’d be great to go to Broadway.”
“Star” and “Richard Pryor: Was it Something I Said?” are in pre-production.