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.
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?
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.