Lee Daniels' The Butler

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 Paperboy,” a project that had switched hands amongst filmmakers as lauded as Pedro Almodovar. 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?' ”

"I thought the script was PG-13 until I get on the set, and then all hell broke loose. 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.”

Lee Daniels' The Butler

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 Kelly. 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!”