Rarely is a first foray into television as successful as Lee Daniels’ “Empire,” a show whose melodramatic sensibilities and compelling storylines consistently send its numbers rocketing into the stratosphere.
It certainly helps that the characters moving the pieces in “Empire’s” are played stars like Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard and Gabourey Sidibe, but it seems as though Daniels has somehow unlocked the secrets of a show that is beloved by fans and advertisers alike.
In the midst of the second season’s run on Fox, Lee Daniels sat down with John Horn at the Middleburg Film Festival to discuss the history of “Empire” and what the show has taught him about himself.
The Wardrobe is Almost As Much Fun As the Characters Themselves.
Before falling into a more serious discussion, the conversation first turned to Daniels’ shoes — a pair of sumptuous leather slides lined with kangaroo fur, a luxurious update on the dad loafer. “Don’t kill me PETA,” he laughed. “This is the really good part of being on ‘Empire,’ is you go shopping for Lucious (Howard) and then you say, ‘No, Lucious they’re mine.'”
In the first episode of “Empire’s” second season, Cookie (Henson) visits Lucious in jail in a predictably elaborate outfit. As he approaches the visiting table, Lucious casually delivers the line, “Why you look like Mr. T?” And though this kind of joke is right at home within the world of “Empire,” Daniels pointed out that there was a little more of him in that scene than you might expect.
“I get sucked right into everything about the magic of Lucious and Cookie. In that scene, I told Taraji, I said, ‘I can’t bear that jewelry, why?’ But she said she really wanted to wear it. So I had to get my dig in. I said, ‘Lucious, when you sit down say, Why you look like Mr. T,’ so when she gave him that look, that’s not her looking at Lucious, that’s her looking at me,” Daniels said. “It’s a trip but it’s a lot of fun.”
The Pressure Can’t Get To You if You Don’t Know About it.
When talking about a show so successful it’s doing numbers nearly unheard of at this juncture of television’s performance, Daniels confided that “I still haven’t had the moment, where I realize what’s all happening. I try not to listen to anything because if I did listen, I’d be under the covers eating pork rinds or something with a bottle of tequila.”
“Everyone thinks that the show is me because I’m the black face of the show and it really isn’t that case,” he added. “I want to take credit for it, but that would be unfair. It’s never mine. I never look at a project as mine, it belongs to the universe. People like to run around and say, ‘I did this or I did that,’ and it’s not really about that it’s about giving credit to people that deserve it. I really have a little bit of an idea of what I want, but with Danny Strong [co-creator of ‘Empire’], I think everything in my life has progressed me to where it is I need to be.”
Though currently a darling both of critics and his viewers, Daniels is no stranger to negative feedback. “Working on ‘Precious’ prepared me. The accolades made me drink the Kool-aid. I started to believe all the good things and then I did something that my heart wanted, ‘The Paperboy’, which wasn’t a black film. I didn’t want to be labeled as a black filmmaker, I just want to be known as a filmmaker. But that film was so polarizing that I became prepared for different responses. At the end of it, you have to be prepared for both.”
Television is an Entirely Different Animal
Since film is a notorious monetary gamble, Daniels turned his attention to TV when “The Butler” left him drained and looking for the next project that might demand a little less. “I had so many friends making money in TV on stupid shows, people who used to be my interns! So I’m high-fallutin’, I like indie films! And Danny [Strong] came to me with this idea to marry hip-hop and ‘The Lion in Winter,’ and I loved the pitch but I wanted to make some money, so I said, ‘Let’s do it as a TV show.'”
“But how can you tell the story of hip-hop without the verbiage, without the cursing? I knew that was going to be a challenge and I wanted my parents and cousins to be able to see it, they can’t afford cable. So it was important to me to bring it to prime time,” said Daniels. “So Danny and I came up with the layout based on the ‘King Lear’ story and I said, ‘Okay, what do I do? My contribution is my life, as it is with all of my work.’ So I just laid out the characters, each of them. I didn’t know if it would get picked up, I was like, ‘I’ll move onto my next movie,’ but then they picked it up!”
Daniels Had to Learn to be a Team Player
Known for having his hands in as many parts of his own films as he can manage, Daniels faced a bit of a learning curve as he dipped his toe into the television field. “All of a sudden I had to answer to a collaborative band of people, which is a very difficult thing for me to do,” Daniels admitted. “You’re dealing with suits and then suits beyond the suits and everybody’s eyes on you.”
“We got swept away, I’m not Shonda Rhimes,” Daniels joked. “I’m not that chick. So I really didn’t know if the show was going to succeed. Everyone is talking about numbers, I’m worried about who we’re going to hire. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing the grunt work. it was supposed to be easy money, ‘Saved by the Bell,’ that kind of shit, but like with anything I do I found myself giving my soul to it. I said, ‘Damn it! I guess I gotta work for this money!'”
“So I hired a showrunner. I knew I had to move on with my life, I wasn’t made for TV. And our showrunner is terrific. A white woman, a lesbian. She did ‘The L-Word.’ What’s great about Ilene [Chaikin] is that she knows what she doesn’t know,” explained Daniels. “As long as the actors know their role and you’ve got a group of writers and a badass showrunner that knows she can refer to me when she needs, the machine runs. I had to learn that. This year I’ve been able to pull up a little bit, oversee it so I’m just putting on the final touches, but not really going into the edit room.”
Even after learning how to delegate, there were still new elements of television that Daniels found himself adjusting to. “There’s an ongoing cult out there that thinks they know exactly what I should be doing. And they are adamant about it! They’re psychos about it. So I’ve learned in that respect that I have to engage, it’s all about learning. You have to engage with your fanbase and what they want. I’m learning to listen to the fans as much as I can without stepping outside of the bubble. I have to be true to the show.”
On Reliving the Tough Moments
One of the most shocking scenes from the first season was one that saw Lucious throwing his son literally into the trash for exhibiting some effeminate tendencies. When asked about the scene, Daniels got unexpectedly personal. “Let me say that I don’t take credit for that scene. I told Danny this story in passing, laughing about it, ‘I was walking down the street in my mother’s high heels, my father got so mad he put me in a trashcan!’ I laughed about it because I thought it was funny.”
“But then it showed up in the script and I told Danny, ‘This isn’t going in the show.’ But he’s a gangster! He’s short, but he’s a gangster, so he pushed for it. I didn’t want this to be like ‘Precious,’ because I felt naked with that film. I felt like I had taken a shit in front of the entire world. I didn’t want to experience that again… But I was like, okay. I thought I knew how to wiggle around that story and not deal with it, but then I realized I had to relive it and it wasn’t funny. It was a question of how I was going to relive it,” confessed Daniels.
“My sister, she’s my good luck charm. She’s in all my movies and TV shows and she was an extra the day we shot that scene. I don’t really remember the day, it was a blur, but I remember not being able to direct that scene. I was able to direct everything else, but the shot of the kid coming towards his father with his hands on his hips, that moment I couldn’t direct. I started crying and my sister came right in, she’d never directed before in her life and she directed the scene. I froze, I never freeze. I wasn’t able to direct it and my sister came in and said, ‘Little boy, this is what you do.’ It was crazy. It was a very bizarre out-of-body experience. It was therapeutic, as much of my work is, because it’s all about me, that’s all my work is.”
The Obligations of “Empire”
“Empire” is credited with bringing traditionally subjugated voices to the forefront in a way that many other shows are not. But Daniels made sure to point out that he doesn’t do it for the accolades. “It’s selfish,” he confessed.
“Any artist or director that tells you that they are not self-serving is a liar. It’s nice that other people are along for the ride, that I’m helping them, great. It makes me feel good, because the awards don’t mean shit. What matters is when people come up to you and thank you for something you did, that’s what you take home and makes you feel good. So it is important that it makes people happy too.”
“I have an obligation to tell stories that I understand because the minute that I don’t understand I’m bullshitting,” he explained. “I get in trouble for it, I take bullets for it, I am ridiculed for it, I’m lauded for it, but I can live with it because I know it’s the truth. So I can only tell stories that matter to me. Stories that I want to see and then I’m able to connect with them. And yes, I’m black, but the stories are so often universal. Everyone is talking about how great and diverse ‘Empire’ is, people ask me if I realize it and does it make me feel good. And the networks and the studios continue to underestimate us. It’s not about being black or white, it’s about finding universal stories that we can all relate to. ‘Empire’ doesn’t just work because it’s black. It’s the story and the people we identify with and that’s great.”