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Lee Daniels Talks Transition from Film to Fox TV's Hip-Hop Musical 'Empire': "I am so misunderstood"

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 29, 2014 at 2:48PM

In our in-depth interview, Lee Daniels explains why he's misunderstood, has stopped reading reviews, and has adapted King Lear as hip-hop musical "Empire" for network television--while not giving up on movies.
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'Empire'
'Empire'
Lee Daniels on set of 'The Butler'
Anne Marie Fox Lee Daniels on set of 'The Butler'

Offered the chance to meet Lee Daniels, I take it. I've never interviewed the filmmaker before. He's a fascinating enigma, someone who veers in and out of control of his medium as he tries to stay in touch with his inner truth --and demons--for the sake of his art. He is an artist--for better or worse, as his films, which are never boring, attest, from "Shadowboxer" and "The Paperboy" to his mainstream hits "Precious" and "The Butler." Actors revere him. Critics? Not so much. 

We meet at the Chateau Marmont, where New Yorker Daniels was working on his musical Fox TV series "Empire," which begins airing January 7. He knows this move to network television seems surprising (cable seems more likely), but he decided that this high-concept pitch from "The Butler" writer Danny Strong --"King Lear" set in the world of hip-hop-- called for mainstream treatment. Daniels wants to reach people. (Read NYT interview here.)

Besides, he's doing what his mentor Norman Lear told him to do: television.  He took the pitch to vet TV producer, Imagine Brian Grazer, who loved it. And he's also developing a musical biopic of Sammy Davis Jr. at HBO. 

Oprah Winfrey in "Lee Daniels' The Butler"
Oprah Winfrey in "Lee Daniels' The Butler"

Anne Thompson: Why did you not take "Empire" to HBO or Showtime where you could go full R? 

Lee Daniels: What is R?

The language of hip-hop.

The definition of R, beyond hip-hop, is for me what was PG-13 fifteen to twenty years ago. It’s now R in theaters. And so that's where my headspace is, you know. I am old school. I said, 'how do I train myself to work in this,' but "The Butler" was very hard because I couldn't do those Lee Daniels's tricks and stay in that box.

So was it a question of discipline, "The Butler?"

Yeah. I believe in life that you know that everything prepares you for the next thing whether it's a hit whether it's not a hit whether it's a…your failures are your accomplishments because it makes you prepared for whatever it is that you are going to do next. 

Nicole Kidman in 'The Paperboy'
Nicole Kidman in 'The Paperboy'

So what did you learn from "The Paperboy," for example, where you got these amazing performances, but somehow you left out some audiences? There was a narrow band that got that movie. At Cannes the actors were raving about working with you. They trust you. They will put themselves into a place of terrifying risk for you.

Yeah. I am really proud of that movie. I am proudest of them. I don't know, I haven't seen any of my movies after I finish them. I leave the editing room, I don't go back. The experience that I have when I watched it at Cannes-- I am proudest of that film. People that really get me are people that are my peers. People I consider my heroes have sought me out to say this is an incredible film. So I am really proudest of that-- I don't know, I'm proud of all of them I guess, but I was saddened that it wasn't received the way that it could have been received. I don't think that we had the right distributor. I don't think that we had the right director. I just think it was like whatever.

How do people misunderstand you, do you think?

Avi Lerner and Lee Daniels at Cannes
Avi Lerner and Lee Daniels at Cannes

Flamboyant. I've read some things. That's why I stopped reading because I can't bear it. It's too painful. I see the world from a very specific perspective. It is how I grew up. It is what I am proud of and I vocalize it. And for those who have not experienced my experience it is odd and it’s not mainstream. 

What did you learn from "The Paperboy"?

I learned from that experience that you have to have a distributor that believes in your film. Otherwise I've been blessed; I've been pretty good at picking the right--

Lionsgate nailed "Precious." 

And Harvey did too. For "The Butler," broke his back. 

Absolutely. The audiences came. 

You know what's great,  I went to my mom's church in Philadelphia. and I came in and they just gave me this standing round of applause and it was so humbling. Here are these simple churchgoing people that have had some tragedies and they just stood there with a blinding faith in God. It makes me question how much I can believe. And so when I came into the church and they stood up I knew it was pure and that I had made them happy and in doing that I made my mom happy. So that was a pretty good moment and all around the country these people they know the movie and it's crazy. It's crazy.

And you learned a lot of discipline getting that movie made?

Yeah and so that prepared me for the idea of jumping into this medium. I was nervous, but I've had incredible collaborators with Fox. So why didn't I go to Showtime or HBO? I am doing something with HBO now, but, I wanted to make sure that it was accessible; that these stories were accessible to mid-America. Half my family cannot afford cable so I knew that if I told this story I had to tell it for them to see. And so I wanted to make sure that in doing that mainstream it had to push me not to PG-13 but to PG, you know, prime time. Fox, you know.

So you’re playing around with the words without using the F word.

Or the N word. Which is really prevalent in half the material and rap today. It’s in the acting. Extraordinary actors. Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard: extraordinary. Gabourey Sidibe.

Terrence Howard is your youngish King Lear? Why him?

Yeah he has kids that are in their late twenties to eighteen: three kids, three sons. I am so humbled by him. He is an incredible man. He can quote like probably every word in the Bible and this is how complex he is, how smart he is. 

You mean he has a photographic memory?

Yeah. Oh that too. And yet there's this danger, and yet there's this hurt child about him, there's this sexiness, there's this vulnerability, there's this "Oh my God, what is he going to do next"?

How many episodes is it? 

Twelve. Plus the pilot.

Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy Davis, Jr.

You have enough of a budget to work with? To do it right? 

No. Never. I have Timberland, who is incredible, who is a genius doing my music and he came in and really cut his fee. Cause it's a musical.

So it's about the music?

And it's about what happens when people come from nothing. What happens when you are selling drugs just to feed your family because there is no out. You're tired of working at McDonalds. 

So where am I now? I am in TV land. I am trying to figure out what movie I am going to do next. I am really excited about Sammy Davis Jr. and the music of it all-original music. Some of the songs we've created are crazy.

Talk about the music before you leave just quickly because music is so important for "Empire." You've got your music supervisor. Is it expensive?

Honey, it's terribly expensive. It's terribly expensive. 

So is it original or are you creating new music?

All original. And the middle son is gay so he doesn't know who to leave his empire to, he has ALS.

Who plays that part?

A newcomer Jussie Smollett, Jurnee's brother. Anyway, to whom do I leave my empire? Do I leave it to my oldest son who is the CFO of the company who created this, who helped me create it, who made me legit? But he doesn't have that pizazz that I have, he's not that musician that hip-hop guy, that sparkle. Do I leave it to my youngest son who does have that, but he is spoiled, he's entitled, he's got a problem with drugs, booze, and women. 

So it's the gay son?

I can't leave it to the gay son because the gay son can't represent the face of hip-hop. But that's the son that should have it. So what we do is we see Terrence's homophobia because he starts out in a horrible way because of how he treats his son.

You've got a little of your father in there?

Oh yeah. At the end of the first season we see him embrace his son in a way that I hope if my father were alive he would have embraced me.

And where are you setting it? What location? And what period?

Philadelphia and New York. Current.

So you're not talking about the formation of hip-hop, you’re talking about where it is right now?

We go back and forth in time with what it was like. His wife was selling drugs to support the family. He and his wife were selling drugs to support his career. Twenty years ago his wife went down for a drug deal that went bad. That seed money sprouted-- they took that $400 K and turned it into the empire that it is right now. It opens with her coming out of jail wanting revenge. All through music. 

So talk about the process of writing it with Danny Strong. Is he the showrunner?

No. I didn't even know what a showrunner was until a few months ago. I think we have the right person. [They hired "The L Word" showrunner Ilene Chaiken.] Right now we are teaming with writers, which is a fascinating, just a fascinating world. I have a newfound respect for television. 

So the showrunner is in the room making sure you get all of your episodes on time, but what is your role? 

Let me go back to Danny, who brought the idea to me, then I sat with him and gave him my life experience. He submitted something to me and I submitted something to him and he submitted something to me. So it went back and forth, back and forth then, boom, the studio gets it. Then we’re both happy with it. 

Sounds like you had fun directing the pilot.

I haven't been this excited since "Precious." Well, it's hard, it's new. I directed the pilot and I created the pilot.

Do you plan to direct more?

Well that’s it-- I go up to Norman Lear and I go "Wha- What?" And he says, "You can't abandon the baby. Regardless of whether or not this show lasts a season or four seasons or six seasons, it’s going to get canceled so you got to put your blood on it." So I said what the hell does that mean? What does that mean? I have movies I got to do. I want to work. 

Scorsese still supervises "The Boardwalk Empire." But he doesn't direct anymore. They show him things and he approves things and he makes sure it's right. It's like a director from Broadway who's making sure that each road show is right.

Correct. So what I've decided is that I am going to focus on this until I have the right directors, the showrunner understands me completely. Danny and I are going to focus on making sure that the writers are right before stepping away and then I'll oversee. I won't do a movie now for a little bit. I got to focus. I don't watch TV that much.

So what's the next movie going to be? And what's the HBO one?

HBO, I am developing a Sammy Davis Jr. story as a musical. It's very "All That Jazz," very dance and Sammy, "All That Jazz" meets "Cabaret," except it's the Sammy Davis Jr. story.

There are a lot of things we don't know about him that you would be able to tell us. 

Do you know that he was the largest contributor to the civil rights movement and didn't want his name acknowledged for it? Everybody thought he was hanging on Nixon, the white man, wanting to be Jewish and everybody has this impression of who he was- married to the white girl and everything. You know, just not being real and yet, he was supporting the civil rights movement.

Why did he have to keep it a secret?

I don't know. That's a good question. I am going to find out. I know a little of him though. 

Have you cast him? Too early for that? You're still writing and researching it?

No. Yeah. Uh huh. 

The movie world is hard right now.

No.

Not for you?

I'm good. I just got to figure out what--I have a couple of different options. I have to focus on and really make a commitment to; to buckle down. But the movie world is…yeah.

Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Forest Whitaker and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

Studio level? Indie level? Still in business with Harvey?

Studio. Yeah, he's Harvey Weinstein, you got to love him.

Or not. You came through with flying colors, with him.

Depends on the day. He's been really good to me. But I know directors that haven't.

We all do. But when you have a winner and he banks on it, you're good.

Yeah. He left me alone; he had a couple ideas, he said, "Lee take 'em or leave 'em." Some were great.

What about the editing room?

Fantastic. Like I got good Harvey. I hope that if I do another movie with him, which I hope to, that I'll get the same Harvey, but I don't know he's a Pisces, you know what I mean? 

You get it.

Quentin loves him.

Well he's his patron, that's a different matter. Harvey banked on him for a long term. It's a special patron-artist relationship. I've never seen anything like it, really. It's unusual. Rare. It's exclusive. 

In this odd way I feel part of that. I feel loyalty to him. I do. I feel this loyalty to him that… we'll see.

For the sake of argument, who would an alternative patron be? If there's another project you're thinking about going with someone else on.

Universal or Sony.

Jane Fonda and Lee Daniels at the Outfest Legacy Awards
Jane Fonda and Lee Daniels at the Outfest Legacy Awards

James Schamus is gone from Focus. He's writing and producing. 

Oh wow. He understood me. I am so misunderstood. I think people don't know what to make of me.

Where did you start out? 

I started in theater. That was the other thing-- I couldn't afford film school. I had a choice to sell drugs to stay in college or not cause I couldn't afford it. And so I chose to not. And I choose to pursue my dream out here and in New York I was directing off-off-off-off Broadway, like practically Harlem. I miss it. I haven't been home in four months. I am going crazy. From "Butler" to prepping the pilot to shooting the pilot to editing the pilot to now staffing and crewing it- I got to go home. My boyfriend is upset. My kids are upset.

Where is home? New York? 

I live in mid-town. It's a loft, it's a big space for New York. I am really happy to have it and I miss it. Anyways, I didn't come the conventional route. I went from off-off Broadway. I would direct plays in Baldwin Hills. Almost Tyler Perry like, really trying to express myself in that and not really knowing how to, knowing acting in story, but not really knowing how to technically hold a camera. So I started producing, you know, but I had that hustle in me growing up and from my experience in life. Which is a very unconventional back-door way of getting into this business. I was managing actors at one point while I was directing theater at night. Anyway, it lead to me producing which lead to, not that I don't want to produce, I want to find the right thing to do with someone. 

When I did direct, well my first movie was "Monster's Ball" as a producer. I knew that I wanted to direct a film. I just didn’t know how, so I studied and I watched everybody, the camera man and learned about what the AD does, etc. Then I get up the balls after The "Woodsman," the second movie I produced. We made two dollars. But we won Cannes. With "The Woodsman" too I was learning to hire. Like when I hired Marc Forster I had all of these African American and white directors who wanted to do it, but I wanted racism to be seen from a childlike perspective and so I knew that Marc would bring a very unique sort of slant on it. And I loved the cinematographer Roberto Schaefer which is the reason I hired both of them.

And which director did you hire on "The Woodsman?" 

Nicole Kassell. It was really important for me to hire a woman. Brilliant. Everybody was good. Anyways, so then I thought, "okay I got this down. I am ready to direct." I am loving it. I’ve got Wong Kar Wai’s editor, Vivienne Westwood doing design for the first time, and her career doing costumes, and I am having the time of my life. And it's fun. I am still having fun. I am making a movie. I am learning. I was reading the press at that time reading all the good stuff for "Monster’s Ball" reading all the good stuff for "The Woodsman." I just expected to be embraced for "Shadowboxer."

That must have hit you pretty hard. So you weren’t even anxious about it?

I knew it was a fabulous movie. Are you crazy? I thought it was everything.

When have you experienced the most intense anxiety in terms of performance anxiety? In terms of how you are going to be perceived. Or are you always confident?

I love every one of my movies, every one of them equally. Every one that I have produced. You can't let it out into the world unless you can be proud of it, it's your body of work. I have a preference for "The Paperboy" because I don't know that people have seen it, they just don't know it and so that's the child that I am upset about that people don't know and maybe will never know. Depression came from believing the press. If you believe the good then you got to believe the bad. I believe what my dad told me was true. He said, "you're never going to be anything, you're gay, it's hard enough being black." When you see it in print you think of what your dad said. So that's why I can't read anything. But I felt like I put my heart in it and I felt like I got great a performance from everyone and maybe the story is a little kooky.  

Now on "Precious" you were channeling this other world. Like the way Steve McQueen felt with "12 Years a Slave," you were lifting it up for the world. You were in service of a higher power.

I felt the same about "The Butler." I felt that that was that. I think that I knew nothing of the civil rights movement and that my kids didn't. My kids were taught more about Anne Frank than their own people at Dalton. 

How old are your twins now?

Eighteen. 

Are they going to college? 

Yeah. Well my son is staying back a year because he has to get his grades right for college, but my daughter is going to the University of Paris – Yeah I know, right?They are my brother's children and I've raised them since they were three days old and I am so proud of her. She wants to be a filmmaker and I am like, "you're crazy. What are you doing? Don't do it. Don't do it! It won't love you back. It won't love you back."

This article is related to: Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels' The Butler , Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire, TV, TV Interviews, TV Features, Television, Television, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews


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