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Lee Daniels Talks Transition from Film to Fox TV's Hip Hop Musical 'Empire' and HBO's Sammy Davis Jr. Biopic

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 29, 2014 at 2:46PM

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.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy Davis, Jr.

The pilot is shot. Listen to me; this is all new to me. I get so nervous because I don't want to jinx anything. I guess if they're flying me out, the actors out, then they are serious. It's good. 

You haven't been a big budget guy so far but do 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 hiring writers-- 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 going to be? 

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. 

And that was the pilot? When is that airing?

Yeah. I don't know. I am so excited about it I can't even talk. I haven't been this excited since "Precious." 

Sounds like you had fun directing the pilot.

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.


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.

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

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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