Lee Daniels In Conversation w/ Sergio On 'The Butler' & More...
Photo Credit: S & A
Interviews

Lee Daniels In Conversation w/ Sergio On 'The Butler' & More...

null

Whatever

you may think of Lee Daniels as a film director, and he’s very well aware that no one is neutral about him, one thing

for sure is that he’s a truly fascinating person.

I’ve

met him a few times before and the great thing about him is that there’s no

“filter” with Daniels. I’ve always found him totally straightforward, honest

and he says exactly what he believes.

So

last week, while on the PR tour for his upcoming film The Butler, I got

together with him for a conversation (which I always try to do anyway, regardless of who I interview) instead of the usual stilted, Q & A

interview.

And

Lee was, as expected, “No Filter Lee,” talking about his new film, the film business, his life and the fact, in turns

out, that we’re both members of an “exclusive club.”

SERGIO:

I once asked you, around the time Precious came out, if you made the film to be

controversial and you told me you made it because you wanted to help people.

I’ve always taken that answer with a grain of salt. I think you love being

controversial don’t you?

DANIELS: No

I don’t.

But

you make films that are.

I’m sorry. But I seem to be doing that.

You can’t

help yourself?

No I can’t. It’s just who I am.

Actually

I think it’s great. I wish more film directors were controversial.

Yeah, but I don’t know what’s so controversial about it.

But this is what I don’t understand. I thought that filmmakers were supposed to

take a strong stand and I think that if you’re not doing that you’re just a hired

gun.

But

you know that there are people who are going to love The Butler and there are those

who will say: “Oh brother, not another

film about a black servant. That’s the last thing we need. Can’t they do

something else?”

Yeah, I’ve heard that already, but let me tell you

something. I made this movie to figure out why it is that as African-American

men we are followed. I go into a store and I’m watching those eyes on me. I can’t

get a taxi in New York City. We forget. We forget from where it came from.

Now there’s going to be the “quote unquote” Lee Daniels’s

factor who are saying: “He’s causing a stir”.  I’m not causing a stir. I’m just telling the

story, I’m telling the history the way my grandmother told me it happened. The

way my great grandmother told me it happened. The way my mama told me it happened

and we’ve been through a lot. And whether we want to admit it or not, we have

relatives, I do, that were maids, who serviced people. And this ain’t The Help.

It’s far from The Help. This is a father and son story.

Which

is the basic core of the film…

It’s a father and son story which chronicles the Civil

Rights Movement. He happens to be a butler, but learns about what’s happening

in the world and that, in turn, effects his decision about how he deals with

his son. So I think that anything I do people will have something to say about

it. My kids, you know, they read these blogs and they get quite upset and they

say: “Dad, people don’t like you sometimes.” And I say to them: “Hey

it is what it is.”

You

know I was telling Forest Whitaker, in those final scenes in the film, when his

character is in his 80s, he reminded me so much of my father at the same age.

He had been a cop for 30 years…

(Jumps up) Your father was cop? Mine too!

Yeah

I know. We’re both members of a very exclusive club – The Organization of Sons

of Black Cops. But I understand guys like that. Old black men who worked hard

all their lives, raising a family and

going through a lifetime of monumental history and experiences and just life in

general. It takes a toll, but you still carry yourself with pride and dignity.

Yeah I understand completely, That’s why I wanted to make

the film.

But

I have to ask you about that whole title fight between Weinstein Co and Warners

over the title The Butler.

Oh God!

And

we know it was really all about The Hobbit percentage money that Harvey and

Bob are getting from the movies, with Warners squeezing them to take less.

But why come down on your film? Weinstein has many other films that Warners

could have gone after.

I don’t know. Who knows? But I’ll tell you this much, the last thing I wanted was “Lee Daniels’ The

Butler.”

Now

I was thinking just the opposite. Wow he must love this!

(Laughing) No, No, No! It’s like “Oh My God!” People

aren’t going to know that. Insiders know what happened. The MPAA knows. But

most people in America are going to say: “Who’s this guy who puts his name on a movie?”

I’m not Scorsese.

But

I have to ask, why this project? You’re attached to several projects like the

film version of the musical Miss Saigon. By the way are you still attached to that?

Oh yes.

But

what was it about this project that screamed out to you and said: “Make Me Now”?

Here’s the thing. I’m attached to several films as you

said, as are many directors nowadays. I don’t know of another director who doesn’t

have three or four projects in development. But for some reason, mine gets

mentioned. It happens that most directors are attached to several movies at the

same time, but why this movie? Again it spoke to my heart. Laura Ziskin, who

produced Pretty Woman, As Good As At Gets and all the Spider Man movies, chose

me to direct the film which was an honor.

And

The Butler was her last project before she died in 2011.

And we worked hard on this movie, man. Hollywood didn’t

want this movie. We couldn’t get the financing for this film. But what else is

new? That’s my life. That’s the way it’s been for me. All of my life from

Monster’s Ball to today I’ve not been able to get a film greenlit by the major

studios. And I’ve continually gotten every film that I got done, financed by

independent money, period. I’ve never worked with a studio – never. Though I mean

my budgets have increased.

But

still, you didn’t have the kind of money you needed to make a film like this?

And it’s hard not to be bitter about it.

You

make with what you have.

As most African-Americans do.

But

with this film, you are challenging yourself as a director. All your previous

films were contemporary films. This is a period piece that spans several decades

with a huge cast of famous name actors, a dramatic epic but on a limited budget.

Oh yeah. This is, no question, the hardest thing I’ve

ever done. You know this budget should have been $60 million.

You

made it for $25 million.

Yeah! How did you know? Sergio, how did you know?

(laughing)

(Laughing)

I know things, I hear things.

But it was budgeted at $60 million dollars so we had to

really get in deals and I had to put my producer’s hat on and figure out who’do how’da who’do how’da Can you work

for me for free? Can you work for me and can I owe you later? Beg here, steal

there. And we managed to skim by the skin of our teeth. It’s been exhausting. It’s

been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m really proud of it. Really proud

of it.

But it’s timely. I think the time is now. I didn’t know

about Trayvon Martin when we made this movie. We didn’t know about Trayvon

martin when we made this movie. And then I was in the editing room when the

whole Trayvon Martin case came up and I said: “This shit ain’t changed.”

When

you look at a film after you’re finished, are you completely happy with it, or do

you say to yourself, maybe I could have done that better, or maybe I

should have done this instead of that?

No. No, wait actually, yes! There are times when I’ve

questioned, I second-guessed a casting choice. But I do the best with what I

have in the editing room, and make it happen, and you know I had such an enormous

cast with this film.

How

do you handle a cast like that? You have everyone in this film from Forest

Whitaker, Alan Rickman, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams,

John Cusack, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can’t allow yourself to

be intimidated.

No I’m not afraid. I’m afraid of losing my kids early

before me. But I’ve been bullied as a gay boy. I’ve been beaten by my dad. Ostracized

in Hollywood. I am on my own doing this stuff .This is $25 million dollars of

money that I’ve walked the streets for, to get to do this story. And so I ain’t

afraid of nothing.

So

what’s the secret to your survival in the business?

Not being afraid. I think that once you get bullied at 4

and 5 because you’re different, you build a wall up and nothing can hurt you.

You can attack my films sure, but I choose not to read it. (laughs) But the

only thing I get afraid of is losing my kids. I don’t know what I’ll do without

them.

Which

leads me to a question I always love to ask people – what you know now that you

wish you had known before you got into the business?

That humility takes you a long way. I had put the ego up

because I was bullied. So you put that bravado on, the tough attitude and that

takes form into something else and so you lose your humility through that process.

And

you have to learn how to regain it.

Yeah, exactly. It’s the hardest thing in the world to be

humble, you know.

In

life or in this business?

Once you have humanity you don’t lose it. Once you have

it, it’s hard to lose. You’re so honored and humbled when you think about your

career and when you think about some of the people who haven’t had the

opportunities that you’ve had. I’m very very blessed.

So that’s

how you keep from going insane in this business, by all the disappointments and

frustrations and b.s. you go through on a daily basis – by being humble? The best

line I’ve ever heard about what being a film producer is like was by producer

Joel Silver. When someone asked him what he does as a producer he said: “Simple. I wake up in the morning and have

people telling me ‘No!’ all day.”

(Laughing) That’s it! But yeah, I mean I’m in a good

place right now. I’m going to take a little break from directing.

Yeah

you’re tired.

(Laughs) Yeah, I literally just finished the movie two

days ago and I need a break. I’m going to spend some time with my kids and then

I’m going to rev up this battery again and hit it again with something that

really excites me.

Which

leads to me to ask – before, you were a talent manager, then a producer, so why move

into directing?

Because I began as a director. People don’t understand I started

out as a director with my partner, that’s how we met. I was directing plays. I even

once directed Cuba [Gooding Jr] in a play.

So

you got kind of sidetracked?

I was always a director. But it wasn’t about getting sidetracked.

It was about survival. And it was easier, at the time, to produce than to work

as a director.  But  I don’t know if I was too afraid to put

myself out there creatively on the front line than to have someone else. Like I

had discovered people like Marc Forster, who directed Monster’s Ball, or Nicole

Kassell who directed The Woodsman, earlier works that I produced. Yeah, but it

was easy then.

You

mentioned Marc Forster who directed Monster’s Ball and we’ve seen where he’s

gone. He’s directed other films like the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, and

this summer’s World War Z. He moved to direct those $150 – $200 million budget

huge studio pictures, while you’re still in the indie film world. Do you want to

direct a huge film like those or not?

I don’t know the answer to that. Too much pressure.

Maybe. If it was the right movie. It’s all about the right material. (Pause) But

I would have to answer to a bunch of people, a bunch of suits. Can you imagine

me talking to a bunch of suits?

Certainly

not you. You’re too independent…

(At

the moment a PR person comes to tell say the time is over)

Just a minute please. You’re the only black person I’ve

talked to today to talk about my movie, and they’re trying to get us to stop. I

mean what the fuck? (Laughs).

I

think we’re talking about things we’re not supposed to be talking about. (laughs)

(Laughs) Yeah, but I don’t think I can answer to a bunch

of suits.

You

are who you are.

Yeah, either you’re going to love me or not like me.

There’s no grey area.

Too

many compromises you have to make.

But then again it depends on who you have coming behind

you. Like, if I had Harvey Weinstein behind me. He’s fantastic! He’s really been

a great supporter. And he really was behind me 100% creatively on this film. If

he was to come in with a project along with Sony or Paramount, that would be a different situation. Who knows? Maybe.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

© 2022 Shadow & Act. All rights reserved.