Lee Daniels Talks The Ratings Struggles Of ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ And A Musical Remake Of ‘Nights of Cabiria’

Lee Daniels Talks The Ratings Struggles Of 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' And A Musical Remake Of 'Nights of Cabiria'
Lee Daniels Talks The Ratings Struggles Of 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' And Musical Remake Of 'Nights of Cabiria'

Lee Daniels is used to a good fight. He had to fight
perceptions of his first film, “Shadowboxer,” in order to make “Precious: Based
On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire
.” He had to fight for the right to direct “The
,” a project that had switched hands amongst filmmakers as lauded as Pedro
. But nothing could have prepared him for the ratings fight that
greeted him in regards to his new film, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

The story of Cecil Gaines, longtime butler to the White
House, was prominent in the news during a highly-publicized fight for the original
title “The Butler,” which Warner Bros. claimed was their property. But the
greater struggle appeared to be with the stringent MPAA. “The script that Danny Strong wrote, I thought was PG-13,” Daniels
admitted. “Until I get on the set, and then, you know, all hell broke loose.
Because I don’t view the world as PG-13. So what I thought was a PG-13 film, at
the end, we submitted it to the MPAA, and they go, ‘No. This is R. Hard R.’ And I’m
thinking, ‘What the eff?’ ”

Daniels laughs as he remembers thinking the problem was with
language. “So I get back and I know I can only use one ‘fuck’ so I immediately clip
out all the fucks, thinking I can do some song-and-pony-dance,” he shrugs. But
he scoffed at the restrictions placed on the material by the voting board. “There
were things I couldn’t do. Like, I could only show a moment of the initial
shooting [of Gaines’ father], which I thought was important, they wanted me to
take the shooting out. And I was like, you can’t take the shooting out, it’s
historic. I can’t take out the lynching. [They said] okay, well, soften it. It
was nasty, because I took it personal, and I realized, how can I tell the story
without telling the story?” Now that “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is going into
theaters as PG-13, he laughs about it, admitting, “I’m used to fighting with
them just to get an R!”

The picture features Forest Whitaker in the lead, an actor with whom
Daniels had not yet collaborated. Coming away from the experience, he admits, “Forest
is badass, but he’s so humble. He taught me so much about being humble and
humility.” Whitaker’s often gentle, moving performance dominates the picture,
though for one brief moment, the role almost belonged to Denzel Washington. “Denzel’s
a very good friend, so he was helping me with ideas for the script,” Daniels
says. “We were in talks, but he was never attached. We were just talking about
it, theorizing about it. At one point we flirted with the idea of it, we wanted
to work together, but this wasn’t it.”

It’s quite a journey not only for Whitaker but the bulk of
the core cast, because they have to play their roles over the course of several
decades, often with the assistance of elaborate makeup and wardrobe decisions.
While some may question decisions like thirty-seven year old David Oyelowo
playing a young teenager at the film’s start, and an elderly man at the close,
Daniels was steadfast on avoiding the “disconnect” of using multiple actors for
the same roles. “I didn’t want the movie to feel like ‘Benjamin Button,’ which
I loved, but the aging process took me out of it,” Daniels says. “And I didn’t
want to be taken out [of the film]. With Cecil, it was written that they were
two different ages. There’s a big part of the film that’s out, because there
was an eight year old Cecil, there was a sixteen year old Cecil, there was a
25-year old Cecil, and then there was Forest, and I thought, I can’t. It’s like
a miniseries.”

This focus on the core family of Whitaker’s Cecil and his
wife and sons played by Oprah Winfrey, Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley respectively,
meant that a lot of the work from the illustrious supporting cast had to hit
the cutting room floor. The picture made waves for securing a murderer’s row of
talent to play the various Presidents and First Ladies that move in and out of
the White House, but in the film they’re only a small part of the tapestry of
Cecil’s life. “All the extra work we did with Jane Fonda [as Nancy Reagan], or
with the Kennedys, and it took away from the family,” Daniels says, noting an
excised bedroom scene with the Kennedys, played by James Marsden and Minka
. Daniels seems pained to admit he deleted several moments with some of
the bigger names in the film. “John Cusack is amazing [as Richard Nixon], but
at the end of the day it’s about the Gaines family,” he admits. “It was a four
hour director’s cut!”

At the very least, Daniels is experiencing press much more
generous than the notices he received for his last film, “The Paperboy,” which
he remains passionate about. “I think the studios screwed me on it,” he says,
noting the dishonesty about press coverage in relation to actual truth. “I’m
really proud of it,” he beams. “I don’t understand what happened, it was a
strange situation. I was at the press screening in Cannes, and we were never
booed, but it was reported that we were booed. We were not booed, we were
applauded. I got a longer standing ovation at the actual event than I did at ‘Precious.’

“My first movie was ‘Shadowboxer,’ and what I learned [from
Cuba Gooding Jr.] was that I should never, ever, ever read reviews,” he decrees.
“But with ‘Precious,’ they seduce you with these things and you find yourself
weakening and then you’re reading. And it happened again with ‘The Paperboy.’ And
you cannot [read the reviews], because it will chip away at your artistry and

Daniels has a lot of potential projects upcoming, though he
sighs and admits, “It’s hard to get a movie greenlit.” Among the list of follow-up
films, it looks like his next will be “Get It While You Can,” the biopic of
Janis Joplin. “That’s the closest to being greenlit,” he says. “We still have
Amy [Adams] onboard.”

He’s also still involved in a remake of “Nights Of Cabiria,”
though he suggests it will be very different than the source material, with a
different title. He also suggests it will be a musical. “I’m developing that
with Universal, I haven’t had time to finish the script,” he admits. He
cautions, “It’s not ‘Nights of Cabiria.’ I took the idea of it, and made it
about three blacks girls. It’s a musical version, and we took the idea from
that.” In regards to musicals, he’s also still developing adaptations of “Scottsboro
” and “Miss Saigon,” of the latter he says, “I’m waiting to hear back from

He backed away from involvement in an incendiary film called
Orders To Kill,” a true story about a lawyer’s quest to prove conspiracy in the
shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. Speaking of the project, which was to team
him with Hugh Jackman, he says, “I will not be doing that. That’s a good one.
Fascinating script, but I won’t be doing that.” No stranger to controversy,
Daniels demurs when he says, “I can’t tell you why. It’s just that the story is
deep, and so are the politics beyond it.” But it’s probably just politics as
usual in Hollywood, particularly as far as struggling to get any project made
that doesn’t involve a superhero. 

“I’m very specific about what it is that I
want, it’s hard for me to get what I want,” he says. Speaking of the project “Selma,”
which he was along attached to but will now be directed by Ana DuVernay, he
claims, “It was hard for me to greenlight the movie because David [Oyelowo]
wasn’t a star.” Though he points to “The Butler” when he freely admits, “I’ve
done my Civil Rights movie, I’m good!”

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens Friday, August 16th.

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