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Interview: Lee Daniels Talks 'The Butler,' Wanting Oprah Winfrey For 'Prisoners,' His Hip-Hop TV Drama & More

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist November 26, 2013 at 12:03PM

Named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the top 25 film schools in the country, the Savannah College Of Art & Design grows in stature year by year. The annual Savannah Film Festival—which we attended last month—is the rare event that almost seamlessly marries the glitz of the red carpet with the serious aspirations of the student body. Attending filmmakers and actors often provide masterclasses to students, while the intimacy of Savannah's festivities provide accessibility that larger festivals in bigger cities don't often provide. It's against that backdrop that organizers and officials at SCAD once again brought Hollywood flavor to Georgia.
Lee Daniels' The Butler

"The Butler" comes out at a pretty interesting time for black stories in cinema. This year alone we've seen "Fruitvale Station," "Twelve Years a Slave," Spielberg did "Lincoln." These are all true stories but I find it interesting that among this conversation something like "Django Unchained" gets tossed into the mix as well and that's kind of a bit more fantastical. Do you see a disconnect there?
I think that Quentin [Tarantino] is entitled to make his film as I'm entitled to make my film, we're all artists and we all have opinions about it but I don’t like getting misquoted and everything...I want to make sure that I'm clear that he's entitled to do his thing as I am.

"I still have to sing for my supper. I'm not Steven Spielberg by any stretch of the imagination, so I still am just an artist looking for a job and trying to do my best when I get it."

Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination but in 2018 it's going to be fifty years since MLK passed away. I understand you were working on a film about his assassination and I'm just curious if you still are and what story you would want to tell about that.
I wasn't doing a film about his assassination [ed. In July 2012, reports surfaced Daniels and Hugh Jackman were teaming on "Orders To Kill"], I was doing a film about the march ["Selma," now being directed by Ava DuVernay]. My Mom walked in the march and my grandmother walked in the march and I think his life should be celebrated. I think that I'm dying to see the total biopic of King. He is my hero.

At one point you were also looking at "The Scottsboro Boys" film as well, possibly a musical?
Yeah I was I was trying to get that off the ground but it's hard.

You often find yourself collaborating with some unique people who people that you don't generally think of as actors, initially. Musicians like Lenny Kravitz or Mariah Carey, or Oprah Winfrey for example. She's acted before but she doesn’t do it very often. In regards to Ms. Winfrey, I recall you had an exciting idea to do a film where she would play against type. 
It was "Prisoners" that I was hoping I could do and she passed on it and than I lost the job for even suggesting her to the producers. Speaking of Melissa Leo....


Do you still find that when you go a studio meeting for example, and you say "I think this person or this person would be great," is there still resistance to trusting your instincts?
First of all, I still have to sing for my supper. I'm not Steven Spielberg by any stretch of the imagination, so I still am just an artist looking for a job and trying to do my best when I get it.

How was your collaboration with screenwriter Danny Strong?
Danny and I had the structure, I sort of told him this is how I feel these people should be, this is how Oprah should be, this is how and he went with me and he's an incredible writer and one of my best friends and he and I are writing something together this time. We're writing a TV show.

That's set in the hip-hop world, right?

What are you guys investigating? Is it a chronicle of the history or anything in particular?
It's a black "Dynasty" meets "The Sopranos" with the backdrop of music.

Wow, that's awesome.
Isn't it? I hope it works. He's so magical, Danny is an incredible writer and he, how he was able to nuance the African American experience is rare and appreciated.

The Butler Forest Whitaker Oprah Winfrey

Is there anything about the hip hop world in particular you want to say?
No,it's just about a family. A family struggling to build an empire. Similar to "Dynasty" and the man's problems, the darkness that goes down with trying to build an empire. Trying to get out of...trying to leave the ghetto and make it.

Are you still doing the Sammy Davis Jr. thing over at HBO?
I am. I'm looking for writers now.

Is it going to be a straight up biopic?

Well it's about his music so we're telling the story through music, it's a musical.

Wow, that's fantastic.
I finally get to do my musical.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Savannah Film Festival, Danny Strong, Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Prisoners, Lee Daniels' The Butler

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